OK. Last year I went on an assignment for Esquire Magazine that never ended up running. It was about going to a music festival way the fuck in the middle of Quebec. It happened this time last year, and I thoroughly enjoyed it; I did so many shots of maple syrup whiskey that trip that my liver now speaks fluent Quebecois. The whole story *around* this FME Festival story is even fucking weirder than the festival.
I realized recently that the piece never got published anywhere and that I should just run it. I miss traveling. You should do it any chance you get. I thank FME and Edvinsson Publicity profusely for the opportunity to write this piece and I’m sorry that it’s only getting seen now, a year later. Anyway.
Here is the full piece, all 19 pages of it.
It’s called “The Road To Rouyn.”
The woman in the black hoodie would not let go, and I was starting to worry. I was on the steps of a church in the middle of fucking nowhere in Canada, preparing to meet a legendary metal band in the basement. Their publicist, a few steps ahead of me, continued on, and I could see the back of her head ebb higher and higher as she ascended the stairs. I tried to say something to her, but to no avail.
The woman in the black hoodie kept holding onto the sleeve of my jacket, her grip astounding for someone so small. She had a crazed look in her eyes. I wondered if she assumed that the unlofty and sleep-deprived journalist she was so desperately clinging onto could be an enemy, a threat to the music fans that had gathered there, in a remote mining town in western Quebec.
This entire trip had come down to the tenacity of this woman’s grip and the frailty of my $13 jacket. There was little I could do but pull towards the church, towards the metal gods, and towards the story I was there to tell.
73 hours earlier I’m in Montreal, boarding a plane the size of budget RV, and trying not to think about Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, or for that matter, Richie Valens. Or Aaliyah. Or Rusty Rhodes. Or Patsy Cline. The only thing that was on my mind as I boarded the dual-propellored aircraft was not dying.
The aircraft - roughly the size of a miser’s burrito - was full of a dozen or more other journalists. We flew in near silence save for the rattling of the engine for some five hundred miles northwest, the bored steward handing us drinks from a mini fridge near the front of the plane. Perhaps it was his own personal reconnaissance mission: to assuage our fear by seeming bored out his mind in the face of death.
Even my Canadian friends in New York had little idea where I was going, answering my “where the fuck am I going” question with seemingly more questions: “Is there even internet there?” “Why haven’t I heard of this town before?” and more worryingly, “How is the plane going to land?” I thought of this last question as the plane descended lackadaisically from the clouds, the turbulence sending a few passenger’s leftover drinks wayward as we made our way down, down onto the single runway. The overhead compartment above me kept opening with every big bump. I had to keep it closed with my hand as we landed.
My first thought, as the airplane doors opened and we walked onto the tarmac and into the tiny airport, was that we were basically in Canadian Twin Peaks. We were so far from anything that I wondered what kind of music festival I was even in for, let alone what kind of backwoods dogfucker could consider this place home year round. That was my first impression of the place, and looking back on it, I feel guilty for having that initial reaction. I knew very little at the time. Such is travel.
I meet our driver, named David. He was a big dude, the kind of guy that could grill a steak just by looking at it, in cargo shorts and a green t-shirt, puffing on a cigarette just outside the single terminal.
“Daveed,” he said, extending a hand and smiling the way only habitual smokers can, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, “I tayke yeu to thee press ‘ouse.” A few other journalists, mostly from other parts of Canada, gawked around the tiny airport, reaching into their purses or weekender bags for their cameras or cell phones. David saw this, got into his minivan, and it signified to us that it was time to go.
David was from the area, and as we drove he told me more. Rouyn-Noranda is a copper-mining town of around 40,000 people, he told me, and when the festival is in full-swing the population blossoms to around 60,000.
“When the festival is in town,” he said between intermittent drags of his cigarette, “Ze population prahc-tick-lee doubles. Is big deal for us, you know?”
David has the radio tuned to a French language country music station (91.9FM, my notes say), and I’m immediately enamored by a French cover of “Ring Of Fire”. Everything outside looks like a slightly greener version of central Illinois; we pass homes with jetskis for sale out front, a few shuttered restaurants, and a burned motel. “Burned last month,” says David, nonchalantly. As we pull into town and drive past the university, we passed a big looming structure on a hill, which David says is a windmill. “Didn’t work too well,” he says, “It’s a great tribute to a fail.”
And then, a little further down the road, “Thees place,” he said, “Is like, how do you say, rural America. We do same thing. Drink, have car,” he pointed at the radio, “Listen to country.” He took a long drag and tossed it out the window.
“But we are… how do you say… much more open ‘ere than America.”
A month prior and I’m sitting in my room, gleaming over the myriad of press releases in my inbox. Some band has a new album. Another band has a new EP. I couldn’t give a shit about either of them, when there’s a ding for a new email, and it’s Jonas, and he wants to know if I want to go to the middle of Canada to this music festival. They’ll pay airfare. Surely there’s a hotel involved, too, I imagine.
I forward the email to Esquire. “You don’t even have to pay me, I just want to get the fuck out of New York for a few days. I feel like I’m going crazy here and I need to get out,” I write. “We can’t promise we’ll run it,” an editor writes back a few hours later, “But let’s see what happens.”
I think of this as the trees and French-Canadian-redneck miscellany gives way to the town of Rouyn-Noranda proper. I’d descended from the skies into a copper mining town in the middle of fucking nowhere.
At the press house I grab a glass of white wine and attempt to procure a cigarette from another journalist using my limited knowledge of the French language. Since a trip to Ecuador a year or so prior I’ve had a bad habit of mixing up my limited knowledge of French with my even more limited knowledge of Spanish – and the person looks at me much like a dog being shown a complicated card trick. They hand me a Marlboro out of pity. I smoke it to the butt and look out at the lake. Everyone’s talking in French. It all sounds very, very official. I have absolutely no idea where I am or what I’m doing here other than staring at a lake, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a glass of white wine. I start to think this is probably what Meryl Streep does quite a lot.
I don’t even have a fucking clue who’s playing other than the two bands I had recognized from the original press release: Blonde Redhead and Voivod. I’d pitched Esquire on this idea that I was going to interview Voivod – an aging metal band who counted Kurt Cobain and King Buzzo of The Melvins as fans, but who had failed, really, to capture a wide audience outside of Eastern Canada. I had three full days until their show. Surely enough time to think of some questions for them. Surely enough time to plan out a thought-provoking, interesting interview. Surely.
Someone taps me on the shoulder and I turn around, inadvertently exhaling directly into David’s face.
“Hotel,” he says, “I take you there now,” and we walk to the car, get in, and drive about 100 feet to the princely named Governor’s Hotel.
“I could have walked that,” I say.
“You Americans, man,” says David. I keep expecting him to say something else, but he doesn’t, instead just handing me my bags. He reaches into his pocket, producing a filterless cigarette.
“‘Ave fun at festee-val,” he says, “‘Ere, for later,” and he hands me the cigarette.
He says nothing back, just smiles.
He drives away.
After checking in I find one of the other journalists milling around the lobby. Her name is Lizzy, from CMJ, and she’s here with a similar story. “Kinda nice to get out of Brooklyn,” she says.
We hear music and walk towards it, which is a pattern that would follow the entire festival, cruising on instinct rather than knowledge. The next three days are full of stories of walking down alleys to find a punk band banging away in some corner bar, bands playing impromptu shows in parking lots, and musicians who travel out to the sticks who aren’t even booked to play sets in the middle of a fast food restaurant at 3am. I could write down all these experiences, but it’s hard to translate happenstance to the page.
A band is setting up on a stage in the middle of a square and I spot a face from the plane in the middle of a crowd. Her name is Colette, she works for a company that may or may not rhyme with Snapple™, and she has a near endless supply of the lifeblood of any music festival: cigarettes and drink tickets.
She wants to talk about New York, too, so we do for a while. She talks about New York the same way some might talk about their grandparent’s cooking, with equal parts nostalgia and excitement. An outsider’s perspective on your own home is pretty refreshing.
“What do you think of the band?” she asks, pointing to the stage, where what best can be described as four young men who look like baristas are singing, presumably, about a girl.
“Not a fan?”
I want to say that they sound Coldplay on NyQuil run backwards through Google Translate, but I don’t say that to her.
“You know,” she says, lighting another cigarette with a match, “If they ain’t your thing there’s bound to be more you’ll like.” She waves the match dead. “Do you want to watch from the side of the stage?”
Lizzie and I nod enthusiastically.
Thankfully, the band band finish their set with an enthusiastic “MERCI BEAUCOUP” that immediately makes me think of “THANK YOU CLEVELAND” and they’re off-stage. The next act is Karim Ouellet, a skinny black dude who carries a demeanor onstage somewhere between the kinetic loucheness of Dave Chappelle and the electricity of a caged tiger. He plays a near flawless set, and despite my punk-rock upbringing and thus abhoration of guitar solos I’m won over. The dude is good, damned good. No sooner has he said the apparently prerequisite “MERCI BEAUCOUP” when all of a sudden he’s by my side, drinking a beer, flanked by a manager and a someone important looking on a cell phone. We exchange pleasantries. Suddenly the side of the stage is awash in publicists and people tapping away into Blackberrys. Briefly caught up in the handshakes and card-exchanging networking of the moment, I happen to glance to my right and notice we’re in an otherwise unremarkable parking lot next to a small theater that had happened to be cordoned off to be a makeshift backstage area. We are, I remind myself again in the middle of fucking nowhere.
Karim decides it’s time to go, and his small army of publicists follow.
“There’s a girl I want you to meet,” says Colette, taking my arm and leading me away from the crowd.
But we’ll get to that in a little bit.
I suppose now would be a good time to talk about Godspeed.
Godspeed You Black Emperor! – that’s their full name, or simply just Godspeed for brevity if that’s your thing, man – are a difficult band to describe. Imagine, if you will, a loft in Montreal in the winter of 1994. Then imagine what the Velvet Underground might have sounded like if they’d grown up in Quebec in the 90s and had access to modern production and sampled field recordings, had been weaned heavily on Sonic Youth. Now imagine a series of jam sessions that, by 1996, had formed into a loose collective of musicians playing under the name Godspeed You Black Emperor.
The dark, ominous, and at times ethereal music starts to attract a cult following in Montreal, and soon the band has to move from their 50 person loft, called Hotel2Tango, to their new venue: the now famous performance space Casa Del Popolo, in which the band throws legendary sessions to sellout crowds with little or no promotion.
“You had to know someone to get in, and it was so cold that you had to get along,” I’m told outside a bar by Etienne Roy, a music director for Montreal radio stations, who’s sharing (yet another) cigarette with me. If the accents don’t make you believe you’re in France, the sheer abundance of cigarettes and wine will.
“The thing about the Mile End neighborhood is that it’s a major immigrant population,” he continues, “When Godspeed started it was cheap as shit to live there. You had Greeks, Portugeuse, Jewish, and working class French-Canadian all living in this smaller neighborhood. Now it’s, like, you know, changed. But Casa Del Popolo is still there. And Arcade Fire recorded at Hotel2Tango.”
He ashed his cigarette. “A lot of the reason the whole Montreal scene as it is now exists is because of Godspeed. You could say they’re a big reason why this festival is even here.”
“Why is the festival here?” I ask.
I’m talking to Sandy Boutin, the founder of the festival. He looks like what would happen if someone asked you to “draw Tom Hanks as the owner of a record label in under thirty seconds” – and this morning he looks a little disheveled. Last night’s festivities had gotten the better of him.
“I’m from here,” he says, “I wanted to… well… I wanted to give back to the city, you know?”
He took a long - perhaps too long - sip of the bottle of water.
“There’s bands here now; there weren’t before. I mean, there wasn’t a scene here. Now there is a metal night every month. And a punk scene. It’s small, but now there is that here.”
I, too, was hungover, but I didn’t want to show it. I nodded.
Later that day, I walk out of the hotel only to walk directly into another music journalist. I forget his name, but he was from AUX Magazine, and he hadn’t eaten yet, so we decided to walk to the 24 hour poutine joint - Chez Morasse - just a few blocks from the hotel. We passed an impromptu punk show, with some uninvited (to the festival proper, that is) punk bands playing in the parking lot of mechanics. To a French-language cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” I see that someone is roasting two lambs on spits over what appears to be a metal oil drum cut in half to form a makeshift barbecue.
Two boys - at the most, 14 - were standing near us, one with a skateboard, the other with a BMX, both with long, greasy hair and weathered band t-shirts.
They were young punks. They were punks in the middle of nowhere.
There was something wonderfully statuesque - as if they were posing for a statue to be made of them to commemorate The Spirit Of Keeping The Scene Aliiiiiiiiiive – about the way they stood and watched the band play out there in a the parking lot of an auto shop some eight hours away from any major city. It was as if they had perfected some sort of complex mathematical ratio about the way they stood – defiant, a little disinterested, yet with the gall to dress the part and show up.
I’m supposed to meet Colette’s friend outside of a church not too far from the hotel. She’s nowhere to be seen, but the church is starting to fill up. The church is packed and it’s hot and sweaty, and I across the aisle I see her friend, and eventually, her. Through a jungle of legs and arms and five-years-too-late Nirvana shirts I manage to make it to the other side. We talk. She’s happy to see me. I make a mental note that despite how much I travel I will never quite get used to the customary double-cheek-kiss thing. Especially when she’s the one doing it.
Suuns took to the stage like a reverse coma, awakening the half-drunk poutine-fed crowd into a frenzy of feedback and light. It’s hard to describe Suuns without saying the words “Radiohead circa Kid A” but in the context of the church, and in the context of the (at times) bare-all fuzzed out hypnosis, they were truly something else to behold. I noticed some people leave, unaware, it seems, that they were watching the kind of band that seemed to aggressively care more about the music than how the crowd would take it. When the band held feedback for 10, 20, 30 seconds at a time between songs, a few more (how shall I put it…) bro-ey audience members put their fingers to their ears and left. It remains, for that reason, my favorite performance of the entire festival. It’s good to see a band that doesn’t give a fuck about anything more than pushing their audience.
Outside on the steps, there’s (yet more) cigarettes. Estelle’s friend found some free beer. We agree to meet later. The zipper in my black jacket gets stuck and I try to play it cool, the bottom 1/5th of my cheap $13 thrift-store jacket remains stuck zipped, making me look a little like Lou Reed and a lot like a sexually confused member of The Sopranos. She helps me zip it all the way, and our faces are close. Her friends laugh.
A publicist I had met several hours earlier waves through the crowd, weaving through them like a particularly lithe fire engine.
“Ned! I ‘ave teeckets to Blonde Redhead.”
“I thought they sold out?” I say.
“Not for you,” he says, “Not for Esquire. I talked to promoter.”
There’s a car already waiting already at the curb. The show starts in fifteen minutes. We have to leave immediately.
I tell Estelle I’ll try and get ahold of her after the show.
Blonde Redhead played in a small theater in the center of town. Their woozy yet accessible brand of Ambien-rock made it all the easier for Jesse, one of my fellow music journalists, to get “high as fuck” outside the venue. I read some of his notes over his shoulder. They were misspelled, yet lucid, like if Lewis Carroll had been weaned on a steady diet of My Bloody Valentine albums, marijuana, and poutine.
The stage dynamics of Blonde Redhead were as follows: bassist and vocalist Kazu Makino alternates between breathy sexual mewing and what appears to be – and I’m going from my notes and what I saw here – some sort of red-wine confusion. Twice she stops the show mid-song to announce that “the air is so great up here” and that she’s “had a lot of rest” – she nearly walks off the stage at one point before guitarist and co-vocalist Amedeo Pace puts his hand on her shoulder and drags her back on. There were times during the 90 minute show that hinged on a full-scale meltdown yet somehow the band… against all fucking odds… manages to hold it together. Kazu’s increasingly erratic performance starts to resemble that of the girl from The Ring – hair infront of her eyes – screaming in some artistic sexual agony at times – purring at others. I’m told this is semi-regular behavior from her. I’m told this is stage fright and part of her musical genius. I’m told a few theories as to where her head is during the show, but I’m not sold on any of them.
At one point Kazu sits on the side of the stage and starts laughing. Amedeo walks over to her and points at her bass. She picks it up, starts playing, but midway through the song walks to him, puts her hand on his shoulder to face her, points at her eyes, and then scurries back to her side of the stage.
It was – in all honesty – a really fucking good show. Even with Kazu’s antics, the band managed to pull off an incredibly strong set. As they leave the stage, she lingers for a moment too long in the front, seemingly behest by the applause, her eyes registering the same dreamed and crazed look they had the whole show, yet now they were directed at the crowd. And as if like that, like a Japanese-American Kaiser Soze, she’s gone, and the lights go up, and now it’s 1am in rural Quebec and I’m in a room of 500 semi-drunk and stoned revelers looking for somewhere to be.
Good or bad, the show was definitely something to remember.
After the show, I appear to have left my recording device on in the cab.
“Bar Les Chums?”
“That place is a fuckeen’ dive.”
“Yeah but that place reeks of piss, man.”
“Why do you wanna go there?”
“That is the only reason to go to that bar, man.”
“I dropped people off there before, tonight. There something going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well I hope you get lucky, my friend.”
The cab driver wasn’t joking. Bar Les Chums really does reeks of piss. It’s a dive bar about the size of a NYC coffee shop with various colorful articles of local sports memorabilia on the walls, three dartboards - inexplicably in a row - as if to suggest darts as some kind of luge-esque activity, and a stage roughly the size of a queen sized bed. Make no mistake: I like the place. But it wasn’t so much ‘tasteless’ as much as it had maybe once met ‘taste’ at a party several years ago and had failed to exchange any sort of contact information.
It’s not the kind of place you’d bring a date.
I see the familiar haircut of my supposed paramour bobbing amidst the crowd like a buoy in the calm before a storm. Several steaknecked townies are at the bar doing shot after shot and, for a brief moment, possibly confusing me for a member of his motley crew, an arm is around my shoulder and I’m almost handed a shot myself, before one of them gains enough fleeting sobriety to look at me, shake his head, and quickly rescind the offer. I turn to the bar, and the bartender speaks no english, and I say “be-er” and she hands me a bottle of… something. I thank her and go back to the center of the room, back to Estelle.
An elderly couple take the stage. This might bring to mind perhaps an image of two grandparents, perhaps in cardigan and high-waisted slacks. What actually took the stage was a mustachio’d former lumberjack of a man and his wife, who herself looked like a slightly weathered human incarnation of a Hans Zimmer film score. They were called Duo Express, and had a banner behind the stage that looked as if they’d made it recently at a crafts store. The man picked up a guitar, and she took to a beat-up looking Casio. They started to play covers. The crowd started to move, forming a fist of people around the small stage. They covered Boney M and Credence Clearwater, to, at first, a smattering of applause. But then something happened.
Duo Express got confident.
“ARE YOU HERE,” half-screamed half-cackled the woman, “TO PARDY?”
I could only assume that she had heard the phrase somewhere before and that she’d learned it phonetically. The crowd whooped and hollered.
“I SAY,” she roared, “HOO IS ‘ERE TO PARDY?”
The man started playing the introduction to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” – badly – but close enough to create an palpable sense of excitement in the room. The woman leaned forward, then threw her head back, transformed by the verve of the moment into something entirely different.
“THUN-DER,” she screamed, doing a dead-on impression of Bon Scott.
“NA NA NA NAAAA NANA NAAAAA,” chanted back the crowd, throwing their fists into the air. Estelle looked at me.
“Holy shit,” she said.
“THUN-DER,” screamed the woman.
“NA NA NA NAAA NANANANANA”
“I WAS CAUGHT,” she wailed, clawing at the air like Janis Joplin, “IN THE MIDDLE OF A RAILROAD TRACK.”
Someone threw a bottle. A couple in front of us started to make out.
“AND I KNEWWWW,” the singer screamed, “THAT THERE WAS NO TURNIN’ BACK.”
She was right. Gone were the two elderly rural Quebecois on stage. They suddenly became everything that they wanted to be.
Duo Express – probably the most unassuming bar band you’ll ever meet – for one, brief, shining, beautiful moment – became rock stars to a room of about 70 to 100 people. There are pictures from that night that make Bar Les Chums look like Seattle in the early 90s. People were crowdsurfing. One man hit his head on the roof. A large man with a giant beard went around bear hugging everyone. There were rumors that the bar ran out of alcohol. The crowd lingers in front of the venue for an hour or so afterwards, sharing pilfered beers, a joint, stories, and even more cigarettes.
An elderly local woman clad in what could best be described as what Stevie Wonder thinks strippers wear takes a shining to Jesse, and tries to pull him back to wherever she lives. After he refuses her advances, she walks to the middle of the street and yells something at him, and at the crowd outside. It seems angry. Then she stops, gives us one final looking over with glazed-donut looking eyes, and walks away.
I ask Estelle what she was saying.
“Something about love, and how we’re young, and how we should appreciate it.”
“That probably wouldn’t happen in New York.”
“Nope,” she says.
“I like it here.”
I awaken the next morning to a hangover looming Nagasaki-esque over every movement. Only poutine can satisfy me. I throw sunglasses and jeans on and attempt to navigate the town.
Poutine, if you’ve never tried it, is essentially gravy and cheese curds on fries. But it is so much more. It shouldn’t work. But it does. When you’re hungover, nothing in this world short of black tar heroin eases the pain like poutine.
Pyonyang are four guys and one girl who play music not vastly dissimilar to one of my favorite bands in college, dance-punk The Make Up. Having been impressed with their album, I scheduled an interview.
They all look like they could work in a vegan restaurant, and of all the bands I met at the festival they were easily the most punk. Most of them had met at an apparently infamous call center, “where you could roll a joint at your desk and show up hungover”, a place that several other bands had met at, I came to find. We were sitting underneath a big tent as the festival organizers prepared for some sort of feast. Poutine and several cups of black coffee poured through my veins.
“Why come all the way out here?” I ask, apparently trying my best Regis Philbin impersonation.
“It’s a nice place to be, I guess.”
Crickets. Tumbleweed. Swing and a miss.
Vocalist and band leader Marcos Santos eventually chimed in: “We heard good things. The line up in the last couple of years has been great,” he says, citing Toronto-based artist Feist the year before.
“What about Montreal stays in your music?” I ask, “What makes it special? I mean, you’ve got these loft spaces in Mile End, indie sensation Grimes is from here…”
The whole band lights up.
“OK. Grimes isn’t even from Montreal. She’s from Vancouver. But she moves to Montreal and now everyone associates her with it. And it’s like…” Marcos says, mock-wringing his fist angrily at the sky.
“And Mile End isn’t what it was back then. People have moved the lofts out further and further,” says Émilie Nguyen, the band’s bassist, sole female member ,and perhaps their secret weapon onstage, “It’s still a great place, but you know, gentrified, I think is the word.”
She had a point. I remember instantly recalling several of the Chicago loft spaces I had frequented back in the day. Whereas the lofts there had then been above mom-and-pop bodegas and indie run bookstores, these same party lofts were now million-dollar apartments above Starbucks and shoe stores.
“In the last ten to fifteen years, there’s been a big interest in bands from Montreal. Godspeed, Grimes…”
“The G bands,” says Antonio Pereria. Everyone laughs.
“Yes, all the bands that begin with G,” Émilie continues, “But really, Arcade Fire were the ones that kind of opened it up.”
“They recorded in a famous loft, the first loft that Godspeed used to own, too, Hotel2Tango,” said Marcos.
“People come to Montreal because it’s a very open place, it’s very cool,” says Felix, the drummer “It’s kind of Canada’s Brooklyn.”
Two members of Godspeed are in another band, Esmerene, and they’re supposed to play tonight at the church where I had seen Suuns.
It’s standing room only tonight, and I manage to find a seat in the balcony. They play a haunting, near-wordless hourlong set of Middle Eastern inspired music that wouldn’t sound out of place as the soundtrack to a Warner Herzog documentary on the futility of existence. They leave the lights on the stage the entire time, creating the environment of a spooky living room jam session. For a second, the fact that I’m in a copper mining town a half-day’s drive from the middle of nowhere fades away, and I can imagine what it was like in those lofts in Montreal all those years ago. I rest my ear against one of the church’s wooden beams and I can hear the bass louder, now, and perhaps due to the intensity of the last few days at the festival, I close my eyes and forget where I am for a few songs.
I end up getting dragged to the Indian Handcrafts show down the street. Perhaps it was the fact that I had it on my media pass, but word had gotten out that I was one of two American journalists at the festival. Publicists began to descend like seagulls on a piece of fried chicken.
Not that I minded in any way, because with the exception of my junkie-like daily poutine habit I had also managed to wrangle a near infinite number of free drinks, free albums, and a staggering amount of business cards. One band - Les Hostesses d’Hilaire - treated me to oysters. I end up drinking way too much with the two guys from Indian Handcrafts, a two-piece punk-metal duo from Toronto, who look like what would happen if Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bam Margera started a band, and sound like what would happen if the members of Lightning Bolt and Queen were in a car crash together. They’re good guys. I forget to record anything. The interview descends into questions like “What albums would you shoot with a shotgun” and “where did you get that hat.” This is my third night in Quebec and I think I’m starting to get the hang of it: an IV of Jameson and a Herculean liver, combined with a genuine embrace of honesty. It’s as if someone had given an entire populace some sort of truth serum, and all at once I’m leaving Indian Handcrafts and stashing two more beers in my pockets to take back to the hotel room, and I somehow stumble back there, and I somehow watch the sun start to rise, and I pass out to the television still blaring.
I fall asleep with my jeans still on, and a line of strewn clothes leading back to the door of the room.
Another hangover warded off by the voodoo of poutine. Today was the last day, I thought to myself, as I tried to put my thoughts together over my little styrofoam cup of fries and cheese and gravy.
I knew that I was supposed to be there to see Voivod. I knew that had been the original pitch. I knew I had to do something, had to ask them some sort of question, but the last three days of being carted around this small Canadian-Twin-Peaks town had been an insane fuckaround of a trip, albeit in a positive way. At multiple points did I wish that my eyes were cameras. As with all great trips – it was entirely unexpected and had large sections that seemed unbelievable.
At around 5:45am, I had messaged Estelle and exclaimed that we “should really grab a drink because sacre merde.” Just as I’m throwing away my cup of poutine, she replies back.
There’s a massive storm coming in the next day. At the press house I ask Maude, the publicist who had been largely responsible for me being there, if I could change my flight. “It’ll cost you,” she says, and I don’t care, “There’s no way I’m getting back in that fucking plane,” I say, self-righteously, as she rolls her eyes and dials Air Canada.
She hands the phone to me. Please hold.
“Are you ready to interview Voivod?” she says.
“I think so,” I say, lying.
“Great,” she says, “They’re looking forward to meeting you.”
“Fuck,” I say, quietly, to myself.
I’m supposed to meet Estelle at a bar called Cabaret, but not before I get lost enough to where I’m back in the church basement eating what may have been one of only two non-poutine meals that long weekend.
The chef pours me some wine. We’re sitting in the middle of a circle of death-metal fans and crust punks, a few of whom are in bands opening for Voivod.
“You enjoy your trip?”
“This food, right now.”
“I see you last night. You don’t remember?”
“Dude,” I say, my mouth full of chicken, “There’s a good two or three hours I don’t remember about last night.”
“Sign of a good night, no?”
He points me on my way to Caberet, and I walk the streets of Rouyn-Noranda. It’s eerily quiet. Nobody is around.
When I pass the mechanics where I had seen the impromptu punk show two - three? - days ago, I’m reminded of the two kids that had stood there so defiantly, and I wonder what it must be like to live up here, in this weird, small town in the middle of fucking nowhere. This festival, or whatever you want to call it, injects the town with a much-needed sense of the outside… but what then? What do they do day in and day out? What is punk music? How do you keep the spirit alive? Say they start a band… who is their audience? The reason those kids were there – heck, why the whole festival is there – is simply for the love of it. It wasn’t really about “getting signed” or “huge amounts of publicity” – many of the bands I saw that weekend were reluctant to play outside the bubble of Quebec – but they played because they loved doing it.
Coming from New York, and Los Angeles before that, I had for a number of years been around people who looked at their next show as their “makin’ it” point, that it would somehow elevate them out of self-defined ‘artistic-ghetto’ that loft parties and impromptu punk shows and art gallery shows were.
But this was real. Even if Rouyn-Noranda was one log-lady short of being full-on Twin Peaks. I got a sense that the people playing here were doing so because they genuinely loved what they did, even if they weren’t getting paid to do it.
From the chef who I had just met to the bands I had met down to the organizers of the festival, one thing was clear: Ultimately, fuck the money. Do what you do because you love doing it. Start a band in a small town. Make enough money to drive to the big city. Then play there. Then make enough money to get to the next big city. And the next. And the next. Spread the word. The word doesn’t have to come from New York, Los Angeles, or anywhere specific. It can come from here. It can come from small towns in the middle of nowhere where the locals are drunk and the poutine flows glacierlike across your arteries. This place – this town – means something. Even if it’s just a starting place. Even if those kids don’t do anything else: at least one time they fucking tried.
Big ideas don’t always come from big places.
The sun has officially gone down on my last full day in the festival and we’re in the last few minutes of residual sunlight where everything is cast in a blue-gray glow. Estelle and I are on the back patio of Caberet underneath a rather ridiculous mural of Miles Davis, again, in the middle of nowhere. Estelle is animated, probably in some small part due to the alcohol we had just drank, and she’s talking passionately and earnestly about her days growing up in Montreal. It seemed that I had picked a good person to be drawn to this festival.
She laughs, to herself, about something.
“What?” I say.
“Oh, nothing. It’s hard to explain.”
“You have to explain it,” I say, for no good reason other than I want to hear her talk.
“They used to call me ‘Ms. Jameson’ years ago, when I threw loft parties.”
“Can you tell me more about the loft parties?” I ask.
She looks to her far right to exhale yet another drag of yet another cigarette. We’ve gone through half a pack already between us. The fact that she’s looking at the distance combined with the pensive-slash-wistful expression her face makes me think of “Call Of The Wild,” but I don’t tell her.
“You know,” she says, ashing her Marlboro, “They were really magical. We wanted to create something, to be part of it. Like all generations, I guess. Everything was different. Everything is different when you’re 23. You’re not like your parents at that age and you’re not like, well, how we are now.”
She pauses for me to say something, but I don’t.
“The underground world in Montreal was very different then. It’s still big now, but it was, how do you say, insular then? Maybe because of the cold. We wanted to be Kurt Cobain, all that shit. At least with those lofts, you know, we could really do that. We could create our own thing. It is the same,” she says, exhaling and ashing again in a fluid motion I haven’t seen since a goddam Godard movie, “The same, I guess, as anywhere else. Any other city. Like Chicago. Or New York, I guess. But less expensive, more closer, and the cold if anything kept people indoors and socializing more. That is Montreal – Quebec Rock City! – people love here, you know?”
I initially wonder what she means by “people love here” – I initially think she means “people live here” – but only later am I struck by what she really meant. The simplicity of it. In hindsight, those three words encapsulate my entire experience there.
She looks at me again, only this time her eyes still remain wistful, almost hopeful that she would find that same sense of community again.
“Am I making sense? My English is not perfect.”
“Journaliste,” she says.
“Can we have two more shots? And two more beers,” she says to the bartender, who has just appeared for a cigarette outside.
“Oui,” he grunts, and puts his cigarette out on the door jamb and heads inside.
I lose track of time.
“Yeah?” I say without looking.
“You’re supposed to interview Voivod.”
It’s 11:30. I’ve been drinking with Estelle for four hours now. Maude, the incredibly publicist/journalist-wrangler that she is, has somehow materialized next to me and is telling me I have to go.
“You have to go,” she says, driving home the point that I had just made.
“Can I finish thes-”
Estelle gives Maude the kind of look I had only previously seen from children at toy stores in the weeks before Christmas.
“He can come right back?”
“He can come right back,” says Maude, “After Voivod.”
I solemnly nod. I had completely forgotten the reason I had come here in the first place.
“Ok,” I say, taking Estelle’s leg off of mine. I’m wobbly. Mostly from the multiple shots of Jameson.
“Ned…” says Maude, and she shakes her head and I follow her into the black of night to interview the legendary metal band that I had completely and totally forgotten to write down any sort of questions for.
I’m on the steps of the church and the woman in the black hoodie won’t let go of my arm and I have to interview Voivod and Maude is heading up the steps, into the church, and if I don’t follow her, then there goes the entire reason I’m even on this fucking trip and Esquire is going to kill me, even if they aren’t going to already, I think to myself in some backwash moment of clarity. The woman in the black hoodie has a crazed look in her eye and won’t let go of my cheap black jacket.
“You have to let go,” I say, as calmly as someone can in the situation.
“Lady,” I say, already hearing my voice starting to percolate, “Lady…”
“LET HIM GO,” says Maude. She’s at the top of the stairs, looking down.
There’s something about Maude, standing there in that doorway, that made her the Atticus Finch of the festival: some sort of moral compass in this alcohol and poutine and rock and roll splayed festival. It might have been the shots that I’d had with Estelle but, now, recalling it in my mind, I swear that Maude was backlit by some sort of light.
The woman in the black hoodie lets go of my sleeve, wordlessly.
“I…” she starts to say, but doesn’t finish, as Maude has already pulled me into the doorway and I’m walking down some stairs to meet Voivod.
“Want a beer?” says Maude, handing me another one.
“Ok,” she says, “Here’s Voivod.”
She opens a door. I have no idea what to expect.
Michel Langevin - the drummer - and Denis Bélanger - the singer - are sitting in a room not vastly dissimilar than that of a retirement home’s waiting room. Two small couches face eachother and a rocking chair is in the middle. I choose the rocking chair.
“It’s really cool to meet you,” I say.
“Thanks man,” says Denis.
I start with the only question I had thought of on the way from Caberet to the venue: “So what made you guys want to play all the way out here?”
“We had heard,” says Michel, “That it is a great festival. I had played here a couple of times in other bands, actually.”
I fire up my second question.
“When you guys play in a small town,” I say, “It has to be pretty rad.”
There is a moment in the audio of the interview where you can almost audibly hear them shake their heads.
“Aw fuck,” says Denis, “Can’t get with that one.” He leans back further into the couch.
“Well,” I say, trying to figure out a way out of this minefield of an interview, “I mean, it has to be a lot different than playing in a bigger city. Like Montreal.”
“Oh! Of course!” says Michel. Michel is the more-easy going of the two, with grey locks of hair falling into his face, clad in a red woolen jacket. Denis is wearing the standard uniform of the metal scene here: black shirt, black jeans, and long greasy hair.
“It’s far out. You have to drive, like, seven hours from Montreal,” Michel continues, “But once you’re here… you know… it’s great. Everybody gathers and…”
Denis suddenly sits forward.
“You know we actually came from a similar town? We moved to Montreal in ’85 but it’s very, uh, very reminiscent of where we grew up. Very far out. We grew up in the same kind of environment. For us it’s like being home, actually.”
“We played Europe a couple of weeks ago,” says Michel, “And for us this really is like coming home.”
“Yeah,” says Denis, and he sinks back into the couch once more.
“The part of the article that I’m trying to write,” I hear myself saying, “Is why would anyone want to come up here?”
“Well, for a far-out town,” says Michel, “It’s good business. It’s part of the, uh, the growing, the development of the city. I guess it started, what, ten year ago?”
“It’s slowly and slowly, year after year, more and more journalist started coming from Montreal and Toronto to be here. If you just stay in Montreal you feel like you’re missing something because everybody from Montreal is here right now! Really!”
Michel tries to peel the label off of a beer: “All the artists are coming out here now,” he says, “The whole scene is here for four days.”
“I’m sure we’ll get a really warm welcome here,” continues Michel, “It’s always as good, as good as walking in front of 50,000 people, its…
“It could be 50 people,” says Denis, “But if they’re really into it…”
“Like,” says Michel, “We play in Hamburg, in Germany, in a smaller place every time we play (there) – it’s packed with crazy Voivod fans and we ask our management to play there even though we don’t get a good fee because it’s a smaller club but… we have to play there.”
“You can’t leave the stage,” says Denis. He’s dead serious, “We’ll play forever if you stay!”
Denis and Michel are two of the nicest people you could ever meet, in the metal scene or in real life. Perhaps it’s this, or the amount of shots I had imbibed earlier, or the simple fact that I’m a very long way away from home, or because it’s the last night of the festival, but I feel an Aaron Sorkin monologue coming on, up the tips of my spine, before pouring out of my mouth like a waterfall of alcoholic truth.
“You guys are really down to earth,” I hear myself saying, “Um… coming to a small town… there is a lot of love to be had. And I think that’s why a lot of people come to these kinds of festivals. There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t do it… if it wasn’t directly because of them being very passionate about who or what they are. Hip hop, metal… all that… we’ve seen some really good bands this week… we’ve seen some fucking terrible bands, too… I want to ask you guys,” I say, “What do you genuinely love?”
It’s as if the room had been gatecrashed by a giant pink bunny rabbit and nobody has the nerve to say anything about it.
“What we love? In terms of music?”
“I’m fascinated by anything paranormal,” says Michel, “I’ve always been, like, obsessed by that. UFO, aliens, quantum mechanics. That I love.”
“The music gets me going,” says Denis, finally cracking a very real smile.
Maude is at the doorway with her finger to her neck telling me to stop. I thank Denis and Michel, probably too enthusiastically, for the interview.
On the way out, Voivod ask if I want to watch them play from the side of the stage. I see them warm up, bouncing up and down, the pre-show nerves, the small rituals, the way Denis leans forward for a second, tightening his shoulders before throwing them back, the way they almost seem like kids. I’d been in bands growing up. I see in them what I remember going through, too.
Just then, they head on stage. It’s a wonderful thing to witness; all the kinetic pre-show energy being released on the crowd. It’s an incredible thing to watch from the side of the stage. I think of the two kids in the parking lot in the punk show. Perhaps this would be them in a couple of decades.
I remind myself I have to go back to Cabaret, to see Estelle, and slink out the back door.
I don’t get much sleep.
At around 9am the next morning I somehow manage to check out of the hotel. There’s a storm coming; no fucking way on this planet that I’m getting in the tiny plane to fly through that storm. There’s just enough time to drive back instead of taking the small plane, so I opt instead to drive back to Montreal with Maude.
“How was your night?” she says. I fear that if remove my sunglasses she’ll see that I’m entirely sleep deprived, having spent most of the previous night cavorting around a hotel room with a new ladyfriend and the contents of a bottle of decidedly cheap whiskey from the minibar. I regret nothing, if you’re asking.
She rolls her eyes.
“Take them off, I want to see.”
I take off my Ray Bans.
“Your eyes. They are like road maps,” she says.
I can’t for the life of me think of a clever comeback.
It’s a 7 hour drive back to Montreal. We talk for most of it, about love, life, and music, and there isn’t a hint of pretension the entire way home. No guilt about being into what you’re into – not up here – and when she drops me off at the Montreal airport I’m legitimately sad at having to leave. I wonder how long it will be until I’m there again, not just in Quebec, but in this headspace. On the road to Rouyn.