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- Posted on Jul 18th 2009 11:00PM by Jonathan Dekel
To mark the launch of Spinner Canada, we're doing an in-depth series on the Canadian indie music scene that's taken the world by storm in recent years. In Part I, we explored the foundation laid for Canada's music scene in the 1980s and '90s. This week, we examine this decade's explosion, beginning with Toronto and continuing in Montreal. Then Part III will look towards the next wave.
It's difficult to imagine Montreal's modern Anglo music scene sans Arcade Fire. Before them, the bilingual city's English-language musical legacy consisted primarily of '60s legend Leonard Cohen, '80s relics Men Without Hats and Corey Hart, alt-rock bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and, of course, Celine Dion.
Though local indie bands like the Stills and the Dears began seeing some success outside Quebec around 2001, it would take a Texan immigrant, his locally born wife and a collection of musical oddballs to bring la belle ville into the center of the indie music world.
This Fire Is Out of Control
Started by Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, Arcade Fire existed in various incarnations before settling in 2003 on the expansive lineup that recorded their self-titled (and initially self-released) first EP.
The band's adrenaline-fueled live performances quickly built a following in Montreal. With help from like-minded Montreal acts the Unicorns and Wolf Parade (who played their very first show alongside fellow openers Arcade Fire) the gospel began to spread.
"Win, [his brother] Will and Régine were all living at this loft and they used to let Wolf Parade jam there," recalls B.C.-born Arlen Thompson, drummer for Wolf Parade and a sometime Arcade Fire member. "Occasionally they also took us out on the road playing small shows."
"I saw the Arcade Fire at the Rivoli in '03 and there were 50 people there," recalls Sloan's Jay Ferguson. "I remember thinking, 'Holy s---! This band is going to be huge!' You could see that it was starting to move in a certain direction."
Paul Kane/Getty Images
"When 'Funeral' dropped, things started getting kind of crazy," says Thompson, who played drums on the anthemic single 'Wake Up.' "That album really caught people's ears. Shows started getting much bigger and everyone started putting albums out at the same time. Naturally, the press picked up on that."
"Things started changing after Spin magazine called it the new 'It' city -- the next Seattle," recalls the Stills' Dave Hamelin. "It wasn't even necessarily the Spin article that did it; it was that everybody talked about that article."
Soon the New York Times and other publications were sending writers to report on music's newest emerging scene. No longer playing cultural second fiddle to Toronto, Montreal found itself as indie music ground zero.
"People started to make a point of mentioning that we were from Montreal and would ask us about other bands from our city," Hamelin recalls. "Broken Social Scene doing well helped, and Arcade Fire definitely put it out of the park."
Despite the new found attention Arcade Fire brought to the local music scene, a rift developed between those musicians who grew up in the city and those -- like members of Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade -- who had moved to Montreal for cheap rent and academic opportunities.
"There was a time when [being a band from Montreal] permeated every interview, to the point of being a nuisance," says Dears' Murray Lightburn. "I read something recently that said that the Dears were part of the same scene as Wolf Parade. I don't even know Wolf Parade. I think I've only heard one song of theirs. I don't recall Wolf Parade playing Station 10 15 years ago.
"I do remember being at a party and jamming with Sam Roberts. He was wearing a hockey helmet and I was wearing a football helmet. That was about 10 years ago. That's what I would consider the 'scene' that I came out of."
Hamelin agrees, noting, "Both of us have been part of the Montreal music scene for a long time. A lot of people moved because rent was cheap here. [The Dears] have their own scene, and we weren't part of that."
Though Arcade Fire went on to convert a church into a live-in studio where they recorded their chart-topping (albeit less acclaimed) follow-up, 'Neon Bible,' many other "Montreal scene" bands fell off the radar, either breaking up or splintering into side projects (though Wolf Parade have stayed strong both as a unit and as offshoots Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown).
But Arcade Fire's international success perfectly set the stage for a former punk singer from Calgary named Leslie Feist to bring indie music to the pop masses.