Montreal's musical masala

From Oscar Peterson to Leonard Cohen, Montreal has always had a vibrant musical life. Now, bands like Arcade Fire show that the independent music scene is stronger than ever.

The poll-topping Arcade Fire, one of the world’s most influential rock bands, are regarded a little cautiously by some of their contemporaries in Montreal.
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On first listen, you could easily mistake Elephant Stone for a traditional indie-rock band. Jangly, catchy and heavily influenced by British guitar groups such as Teenage Fanclub and the Stone Roses, they even took their name from a track by the latter outfit.

But Elephant Stone aren't British. Elephant Stone are from Montreal, where you just don't fit in unless you do things a little differently. During gigs, the bandleader Rishi Dhir will drop his Rickenbacker, take a barefoot walk to a fabric-covered table and give his colleagues' rock rhythms an authentic eastern accompaniment. Elephant Stone aren't a regular guitar band, it transpires - they're also a sitar band.

Dhir is a devotee of British guitar music but was brought up on Bollywood soundtracks, and is now combining his twin passions: indie rock and Indian instrumentation. And yet, on the alternative rock scene in Montreal, his band are actually considered fairly conservative.

Look at 2010's more interesting rock records and Canada's coolest city looms large, led by the monstrously successful Arcade Fire and their poll-topping third album The Suburbs. Also critically lauded were records by Plants and Animals, The Besnard Lakes, Wolf Parade, Land of Talk and, stretching the "rock" criteria slightly, Rufus Wainwright. This year has brought global recognition for the bands Braids and Suuns, and the same is predicted for the singer-songwriter Little Scream, all of whom push the envelope.

"It's like all my favourite bands are from Montreal, and none of those bands sound the same," smiles an enthusiastic Dhir, from a trendy café near his home in the bohemian Mile End district. "There's so many more bands coming out of Montreal now. Everything's changed..."

The city boasts a rich and varied musical heritage, having spawned the likes of Oscar Peterson, Leonard Cohen and the McGarrigle Sisters in previous decades. The roots of its current creative spurt can be traced back to 1995, however, according to Gillian Nycum, a well-known local industry figure who manages both Plants and Animals and Little Scream. Montreal is the largest city in Quebec and in 1995 this predominantly French-speaking province looked set to declare independence, a proposal only narrowly defeated by the voters in a provincial referendum. It still resulted a huge crash in the local property market, which then gave an unforeseen boost to the arts scene.

"The referendum caused a lot of fear amongst the anglophone / business population in Montreal: a lot of company's head offices that were based in Montreal moved to Toronto, a lot of people moved out of the province," explains Nycum. "I think a lot of artists just sort of came to Montreal and stayed because they could live here so cheaply. At a certain point I'm sure the draw became the community of artists that had started to congregate here."

Migration is a major factor in the city's musical landscape. Arcade Fire's distinctive anthems are built upon the talents of the Texan brothers Win and William Butler and Win's Montreal-born wife Régine Chassagne, whose parents moved to the city from Haiti. The experimental dance-rock quartet Suuns are drawn from various Canadian cities, Braids developed their intricate, synthesiser-heavy sound after relocating from Calgary, and Little Scream's Arcade Fire-approved songs emerged only when she decamped from the American Midwest.

"Even though it's more expensive than it used to be, you can still afford to be an artist in Montreal," says Little Scream, aka Laurel Sprengelmeyer. "Cheap rent is the key to a flourishing artistic community. It's the only way you can afford the time to create and the luxury of not worrying about commercial success. And that's where real interesting stuff starts being born, when you don't have to care about being successful."

Montreal was already more cosmopolitan than most North American cities, due in part to its large French-speaking community, and there are in effect two rock scenes operating separately. This is a "touchy subject", according to Carola Duran, a second-generation Chilean who helps run the M for Montreal showcase festival, which promotes the city's music abroad. Tracks sung in French may find an audience in France and Belgium, but are unlikely to interest the lucrative US and UK markets, "not only because of the language, but because of the music style itself perhaps," suggests Duran. Generally speaking, rock from the French side tends to be more traditional.

Crossovers do occasionally occur. Duran highlights the US success of the energetic French-Canadian outfit Malajube, while the Montreal-based record label Semprini happily signs artists from both sides of the Anglo-French divide. Semprini is the brainchild of Ramachandra Borcar, who has an Indian father, a Danish mother and was brought up in the city's Italian district: breaking down musical borders is his raison d'être.

"This kind of multicultural backdrop helps in creating a more diverse and open-minded music scene," says Borcar. "It just seems more likely and natural for it to happen in a place where so many cultures come together and where they all bring something from their own backgrounds with them."

The Indian community in Montreal is relatively small compared with Canada's largest city, Toronto, hence those interested in pursuing their Eastern roots often combine those influences with the sounds more prevalent around them. Borcar makes his own music under the moniker Ramasutra, mixing the Arabic oud with Japanese percussion, electronic beats and a western film-score feel. "There's lots of common threads between different genres of music but most people see them superficially as non-related music. I was always interested in these common threads," he says.

Elephant Stone's Dhir - whose parents moved to Montreal from the Punjab in 1969 - made his name locally as the bassist in a successful post-rock band called the High Dials, but decided to dedicate himself to the sitar after visiting Indonesia in 2006. Back in Canada, he located a typically cosmopolitan guru. "My teacher's German," he laughs. "He looks like Charles Manson. Great sitar player. He met his wife in India and then they moved to Montreal."

Dhir's plan to focus solely on traditional Indian music eventually subsided as he became re-immersed in indie-rock, but one ongoing ambition is to "break" the band in India. A tour has been discussed, although Dhir is oddly pessimistic about how Elephant Stone's songs might be received. "I don't think we'd go over well," he sighs. "It's a weird scene there. They wanna be shocked. There's a big thrash metal scene."

But then, making it big anywhere seems to be a slightly troublesome concept for much of Montreal's creative community. As Little Scream, originally from Iowa, observes, "one of this city's only pitfalls artistically [is] that people seem to also have an aversion to success".

Do they also frown upon the success of others? Arcade Fire have been one of the world's most influential rock bands in recent years, but it's noticeable that they rarely warrant a mention among their fellow musical citizens. Rather than jealousy, this is more about Montreal modesty, reckons Nycum. "Sure their success is inspiring. It's also a little intimidating for some, I think. I find that bands from elsewhere borrow from the Arcade Fire sound more than Montreal bands do."

And long may that continue. As Rishi Dhir, the sitar rocker, maintained, with a certain measured pride, none of the best Montreal bands sound the same.