Loft Envy: How Montreal’s DIY Pop Scene Outgrew Itself

Montreal has been glorified as a DIY pop utopia in the days since Grimes' Visions exploded, but not all is as it seems.

- Oct 8, 2013

eyond the train tracks, past the artisanal coffee shops and comic book stores, around the vegetarian restaurants and legendary bagel bakeries, you'll find a building. It’s not a conspicuous building, its concrete and red brick skeleton similar to those that surround it: industrial warehouses stained with decades of graffiti. Listen closely and you’ll hear muffled sounds of bands practicing emanating from open windows nearby, but head up the staircase to the second floor and what was once a hive of activity feels empty and unused.

You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but for a fleeting moment this was ground zero for Montreal’s weird pop scene, the spot where you’d find all your friends and all your favourite bands, the two groups an indistinguishable tangle of asymmetrical haircuts and samplers.

If you follow Canadian indie music even peripherally, you’ve probably heard of Lab Synthèse, the now-defunct artistic hub that nurtured some of the biggest indie artists to come out of Montreal in the past few years: GrimesMajical CloudzMac DeMarco, and BRAIDS, to name just a few.

It’s also the birthplace of Arbutus Records, now one of Canada’s most celebrated indie labels. It’s easy to romanticize Lab as a bohemian utopia for creative outcasts and McGill dropouts, a version of Warhol’s Factory in Montreal’s Mile End. But that’s also made it a battleground for competition, jealousy, media hype and bylaw enforcement, a spot where one artist’s success ripples outwards to her friends and peers in both positive and negative ways.

Sebastian Cowan was a familiar face at Lab Synthése. Tall and lanky, wearing a white tank top like it's his uniform, you’d usually find him at working the sound system, tweaking microphones and amps, even repairing that finicky toilet that just won’t flush. Moving from Edmonton to London, England, Cowan famously turned down a job offer from Sony and devised a plan for a warehouse venue in Montreal. After a year of email chains and conference calls, Lab opened in the fall of 2008. By the final day of October 2009, it had closed down.

What was once only privy to those in the know quickly fell prey to a ravenous music press, which codified and glorified Lab as the epicenter Montreal’s red hot weird pop movement – “the new Brooklyn,” as dubbed by The Telegraph. It even spread to Montreal’s official tourism website, which now lauds the Mile End as “Canada’s Cultural Capital.”

To be fair, romanticism wafted through the venue even before it shuttered. Cowan recalls a conversation with Rollie Pemberton (aka rapper Cadence Weapon), where the two friends compared Lab to the iconic photos from Sonic Youth biographies, the snapshots of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon hanging out with Glenn Branca in 1980s New York. “It was all the cool people all in one picture and you didn’t even know they were all friends…we were like, ‘This is exactly like that.’”

Before she was a big-font festival act and a darling of the fashion world, Claire Boucher (a.k.a. Grimes) a neuroscience student who came to Montreal from Vancouver for university, but quickly fell into the music scene, spending as many nights crashing on the couch of the Lab as studying for midterms. That became a common path for artists from all over Canada with big dreams and little money, seeking the refuge of cheap rent and cheaper shows.

Jane Penny of TOPS says she came to Montreal from Edmonton after hearing about all the parties. Andy White from Tonstartssbandht hung off the rafters during gatherings he hosted as Andy Summers. The entire goal of Pop Winds, Devon Welsh’s band before Majical Cloudz, was to play there.

“It was really intense and beautiful,” recalls Emily Kai Bock, the director behind Boucher’s motocross frat boy music video for “Oblivion” in an interview with Dazed Digital. “Living in a public space with a PA next to your bedroom was arduous, but the glow of inspiration that filled the room during the shows, and the rich conversations that lasted late in the night would sometimes leave me with a deep sadness that such an oasis of collaboration couldn’t last forever.”

And so the story goes. It was only a matter of time until the DIY venue shuttered (apparently undercover police were involved), but not before Cowan founded Arbutus, the record label that would launch Boucher’s career.

Grimes’ rise to international stardom has been remarkable, a two-year blast that raised her from obscurity to Best New Music-stamped Vogue model and MTV Video Music Awards red carpet cohost. It’s also set a precedent for other creative types hoping to transcend the Montreal loft scene.

Aaron Levin, a founder of Weird Canada, remembers receiving early demos from locals Sean Nicholas Savage, Makeout Videotape (DeMarco’s previous band) and the Silly Kissers (an earlier incarnation of TOPS) while working as the music director at the local college radio station in his hometown of Edmonton. In 2009, just three months before Grimes’ debut LP Geidi Primes was released, Levin put on a show for her and Pop Winds at Wunderbar in Edmonton. Only 30 people showed up. No big deal. She’d continue her Canadian tour and eventually make her way back to Montreal to her circle of friends and weird pop oasis.

The following year, Grimes released her follow-up, Halfaxa. Eventually the media latched on, and soon enough she signed to British indie juggernaut 4AD, who partnered with Arbutus to release her third album, Visions. It all blew up from there.

“At this point, [Boucher’s] secured a place for herself in a realm that’s above and beyond anything that’s happening here,” Penny aptly puts it. “I feel like she’s kind of grown out of Montreal.”

When Grimes exploded, a competitive air filled the Arbutus community. When Boucher repped the Mile End in interviews, she wasn’t just rallying support for her old ‘hood, but unknowingly sparking rivalry between her friends. Challenged by her success, people started doubting if their projects were worthwhile.

“When one of your friends does really well, you’re smiling on the outside,” says Raphaelle Standell-Preston, front woman for BRAIDS and Blue Hawaii, “but on the inside you’re thinking ‘Am I not doing something right?’”

It’s Pop Montreal 2013 and Arbutus is hosting a party there. It’s supposed to be a “secret” show, but the space is specked with journalists. Unlike the Lab days, the bands aren’t just playing for themselves and their friends; they’re playing for an audience that extends beyond the loft. Electro-garage rocker Calvin Love opens, followed by the whimsical synth melodies of TOPS. By the time they take the floor, the space is packed and the beer has run out. Welsh wanders in, and shortly after Cadence Weapon makes an appearance. Sitting on the couch is Grimes’ close friend, Airick Woodhead from Doldrums. Cowan mans the sound. And hanging on a wall beside the performance area, framed, Grimes’ album art for Visions looks down at the space.

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