Once a year at the end of the summer, Quebec’s Emerging Music Festival (aka Festival de Musique Émergente, or FME) transforms the small mining town of Rouyn-Noranda into a four-day showcase of live music from all over North America. The streets start to overflow with music; a whole city block becomes a venue over the course of the fest; and bands work their way into every possible performance space. Pop-up shows happen everywhere, from parking lots to train stations, like an ad-free SXSW where everyone speaks French.
With a range of music that spanned hip-hop to nu-metal to Owen Pallett, this year’s FME never catered to a particular niche. Instead, I saw a celebration of the way music fits into and enhances life. Each year of the festival takes on its own mascot, and this year’s was a robot, an easy image to splash across a town but also potentially a symbol for technology and how it affects people and the art they make. It got me thinking about musicians as cyborgs hijacking machinery toward emotional ends, even those musicians who shun computers, dress up like cowboys, and play the harmonica.
I thought about how we’re all cyborgs, even in a place where technology seems to be an afterthought (no Apple store anywhere near Rouyn), and we might as well embrace it. With its seamless integration of arts spectacles into a town that makes art a priority year-round, FME made that easy.
Rich Aucoin is the first person I’ve seen crowd surf with an actual board. He surfs real water when he’s not onstage, which seems to be rarely, but he brings a board to his shows, too. About halfway through his set on the first night of FME, Aucoin laid the surfboard over a sea of hands and jumped on.
The Halifax-based songwriter called his live shows a “bombast of sensory experience” when I spoke with him after the show in the basement of one of FME’s central venues. It’s a good way to put it. Aucoin sings and manipulates a deck of synths, but he also floats projections of viral YouTube videos on a screen behind him (his set included a remix of the early viral hit Powerthirst). One of the many props he brings out is a battery-powered lightbulb that he wields like a baton. At one point, he spread an enormous multicolored parachute over the crowd, inviting everyone to grab hold and swell it up like you do as a kid in preschool.
Leading the audience in a series of explosive calls and responses, Aucoin played new cuts from his forthcoming record, Ephemeral, due out September 9th. The record was inspired by the singer’s favorite book, Le Petit Prince, whose cover he wore on a bright blue sweater during the set, and it syncs up Dark Side of Oz-style to the 1979 claymation adaptation of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s classic children’s book. “Le Petit Prince is just one of those stories that says a great deal about life in very simple and digestible analogies,” he told me. “I really like things that can say a lot succinctly. Le Petit Prince is all about how short and fragile life is, and thinking about what is the most important thing to do while you’re here.”
Aucoin’s own music takes on a similar succinctness. He condenses his optimism into short phrases that he can easily teach a crowd of hundreds, even when that crowd is made up almost entirely of Francophones. “We are not dead yet,” he called out from FME’s main stage. “We are undead.” Later, he led the audience in a chant of “we won’t leave it all in our heads” while brightly colored animations played beside him on the projection screen. Sitting in the basement green room after the show, he explained the joyful catchphrase: “It’s the best way I could think of to say something like ‘follow your dreams.'”
Blood & Glass
The last time I saw Blood & Glass perform, Lisa Iwanycki barely stepped out from behind her synth rig. The band, usually a trio, were playing a small club in their home city of Montreal, and though I fell hard for their otherworldly synthpop, their physical presence felt mostly ambient. Playing FME’s Agora Des Arts (a church converted into a theater repurposed into a music venue), Blood & Glass took on a brave new theatricality. They’ve filled out their live lineup in the past year, dropping a guitar and adding a new batch of electronics. The new arrangement freed Iwanycki to wander out from behind her keys and sing across the whole length of the stage. Wearing a bowler hat and a military-style jacket, she danced through the band’s electro-noir set, using her physicality as much as her incredible vocal range to build presence. Beneath smoky red lights, the band tunneled to an alternate timeline’s cabaret. The risks Blood & Glass engineered for themselves paid off.
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Onstage at the Paramount, a 20th century movie theater converted into a performance stage, Efrim Manuck stood in the shadows. Compared to the two women on violin who flanked him (one of whom, Jessica Moss, is also his partner), the core songwriter of the notorious Godspeed You! Black Emperor offshoot played shyly. But Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra’s songs don’t need a lot of movement on the part of their players. The space shuddered with the band’s drones as they played through a collection of recent songs, like “Austerity Blues” from this year’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything. Manuck politely introduced songs before playing them, glancing at the audience before breaking his gaze to bury himself in the music. But one song in particular, the closer to 2010’s Kollaps Tradixionales, seemed to deserve a little more context. “This next song’s called ‘Piphany Rambler’,” said Manuck. “It’s for anyone who’s ever had a situation where they couldn’t leave bed for a few days in a row.” Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra keep a reputation for being political, and they are. But the 15 minutes that followed his quick, revealing prologue confirmed that the band deal more strongly in intimacy than in problems of the public sphere.
It’s strange to see such a faithful rendition of classic Americana performed so far north of the states. It’s even stranger to see a largely French-speaking audience eat it up, cheering and stomping and even square-dancing along. But Saturday night at the Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda, Montreal rock ‘n’ roll group the Ding-Dongs set the mood for vintage debauchery.
Featuring two veterans of Montreal’s garage rock scene, Mark Sultan and Bloodshot Bill, the Ding-Dongs enjoyed a warm camaraderie that only happens between musicians who have been jamming together in various states of consciousness for a long time. It didn’t hurt that New York blues rockers Daddy Long Legs had won the crowd over earlier in the evening, though the Ding-Dongs had a little more rough charm than their harmonica-playing American counterparts. With Bloodshot Bill at center stage taking lead vocals for most songs, the band cut deep into their raunchy, unfiltered catalog. It turns out American country just gets weirder and more fun the further you drag it up the continent.
I tend to be wary of the word “supergroup,” especially when I’m in Canada. The word brings up images of an army of musicians playing gentle mood rock Broken Social Scene-style. So when a few of my fellow Anglophones billed PyPy as not just a group but a supergroup from Montreal, I expected something enormous and mellow. I was wrong on both counts. Collaged together from a smattering of Montreal’s underground noise groups, PyPy hone in on garage rock so deranged it only felt natural when their guitarist pulled on a papier-mâché orca whale mask and started playing the trumpet. Annie-Claude Deschênes commanded an even stranger presence completely unmasked, hurling screams and chants and bellows all in French into the crowd that gathered at Scène Évolu-Son for the band’s midnight set. Her wide eyes ringed in black, she glared out at the venue as if possessed or in the throes of an exorcism. She reached out to invite the front row onto the theater’s tiny stage, then sat at everyone else’s feet, encouraging her stage mates to run their hands across her hair. Even seated, silent, staring off into some imperceptible distance, Deschênes wielded more charisma than just about anyone I’ve seen at the front of a band. She was completely without self-consciousness and, bolstered by the sharp, toothy riffs of her bandmates, completely ferocious.
Owen Pallett finished his last night as a Reflektor less than 24 hours before he was due to take the stage at Agora Des Artes. “All of the band thought I was crazy for trying to do a show today,” he told me in the venue’s basement right before the show. “They might be right. We were up until 4 a.m., and I have a hangover.” He had some jitters before his first solo show since he set off on tour with Arcade Fire and not just because of the hangover. “Weirdly, I started skipping rope. It’s changed the musculature of my legs, and I’m having a hard time keeping my loops in time because my calves are now so meaty,” he said. Reunited with his bandmates Rob Gordon and Matt Smith (whom he called “the best possible band”), Pallett looked tired but alert, excited. It was his first time in Rouyn-Noranda, though one of his friends grew up in Ontario nearby. “It could be a complete disaster,” he said of the show he was minutes from playing.
It wasn’t, of course, though at one point early in the set, before the band came on, he had to stop playing to reset his loops (possibly because of a calf malfunction). “I’m sorry. I’m tired,” he said in a mock-whining tone to the crowd. But rather than break the mood of the room, the pause elevated the drama; as soon as Pallett resumed the song after a few seconds, his audience cheered along. Sometimes it’s more exciting to watch someone battle exhaustion than it is to see them play a flawless set.
Backed by Gordon’s live drums and Smith’s guitar, Pallett and his violin rendered songs from his new record, In Conflict, beautifully. “Song for Five & Six” cruised its high stakes in the air of the former church, while “Soldiers Rock” carefully unfolded its string/synth dialogue. Before playing Heartland‘s “The Great Elsewhere”, Pallett quipped, “This next song is very difficult, but humiliation is entertainment.” But he and the band pulled it off expertly, manufacturing a different kind of entertainment.
After closing with the high-fantasy anthem “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt”, Pallett prompted the last of multiple standing ovations from his otherwise seated audience. The imperfect set might have endeared the songwriter even more to a place where he was clearly already beloved. “It’s one kind of stress replaced with another kind of stress,” he had said to me earlier about playing his own show right after Arcade Fire’s last tour date. “But stress is good.”
It’s a good record, but Ought’s debut, More Than Any Other Day, doesn’t do the band justice. The songs from the record, which was released last April, are wiry, tense mechanisms that pit acerbic lyrics against sour guitar tones and incongruous synth washes. Playing the festival’s last official set at Cabaret de la dernière chance, Ought fused its discrete textures with more verve than they’ve done so far on record. It’s one thing to jam “Habit” through a set of earbuds. It’s another experience entirely to howl the song’s title over and over again along with singer Tim Beeler.
Ought repeat their lyrics to create odd semantic drones that they cut into with hard, winding riffs, a strategy that worked even better when they tried it live on one of FME’s smaller stages. I don’t think it’s easy to take music that’s all about stunted desire and turn it into something that actually resolves itself, but Ought are one of those bands that can scream their way to relief. Their lyrics spooled out like sick mantras; their music rose and crashed like post-punk scattered across rough waves. They even treated us to a new song, “Beautiful Blue Sky”, a sprawling treatise on suburban malaise. “I am no longer afraid to die because that is all that I have left,” sang Beeler. He went on: “I am no longer afraid to dance tonight because that is all that I have left.” Existential dread isn’t the only way to end a fest, but it worked. It was the dread you could dance to.