Arcade Fire: Why all musical roads lead to Montreal

It's the Canadian city where the sounds never stop – a scene that produced Arcade Fire and countless other acts. How does it happen? Elisa Bray went to find out

As Arcade Fire prepare to release their eagerly awaited fourth album, Reflektor, later this month, attention is focused back on the band's base of Montreal and its ever-fertile music scene. The festival Pop Montreal, now in its 12th year, just saw 600 acts – including Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The-Dream and Mozart's Sister among the many rising local acts – take over 50 venues across the city, where other festivals taking place include Jazz Fest , HeavyMTL, Osheaga and M For Montreal.

Arcade Fire may be Montreal's most famous musical residents, but the city is also home to Patrick Watson, Grimes, Stars and The Dears – and that number has been steadily rising over the past 15 years as musicians move to the city from other parts of the country and the world, lured by an infrastructure that supports and encourages music. Various government initiatives allow artists to apply for grants, funding and tax credits, while rent is low. It costs as little as £6 ($9.50) an hour to hire a music practice room, far less than elsewhere in Canada and certainly cheaper than in London.

The affordability allows musicians to hone their craft for longer. And the experimentation afforded by the time to develop ideas is influential on the rock and pop scene at large. When Arcade Fire first emerged with their debut album Funeral in 2004, resplendent with soaring strings and vocal harmonies, they inspired bands around the world to expand their sound with orchestral arrangements. That orchestral sound still colours so many of the acts hailing from the city, including Patrick Watson, who won Canada's version of the Mercury Prize, the Polaris, back in 2007 for his album Close to Paradise. More recently, Montreal-based Grimes's minimal electronic pop has been influential.

Steve Jordan, who launched the Polaris Music Prize back in 2006, agrees: “Artists [in Montreal] break new musical ground and are closely watched around the world. What most of them seem to share is a willingness to experiment and an unwillingness to compromise for the sake of commercial success. Arcade Fire's large band with orchestral backing had a profound impact around the world and inspired a lot of bands.”

Half Moon Run, whose melodic alt-rock debut album combines rhythmic layers and vocal harmonies, are just one band to have moved and never looked back. They came from west Canada in 2008 and are now fast rising beyond their base, their popularity extending to London where they have sold out their November show at Shepherds Bush Empire.

Jordan says that 30 to 40 per cent of this year's nominees live in Montreal, and many of those have moved from other parts of Canada. Alongside this year's winners, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, originally from and based in Montreal, Purity Ring, Sara from Tegan and Sara and Young Galaxy – all on this year's short list – moved from other parts of the country, while Colin Stetson, who has performed with Arcade Fire, moved from the US.

“That is a true testament to the quality of the artistic soil there in Montreal,” Jordan says. “Montreal has two distinct and major cultures, French and English, that feed each other. Also, culture is very important in Quebec; being an artist there it not considered a frivolous pursuit. This is evidenced just by the number of festivals in Montreal which seems to have something going on every weekend.”

It's also a city where DIY venues spring up all over as musicians launch loft spaces to host their own nights showcasing their own music and that of their friends, and that constantly evolving stock of new spaces provides fresh inspiration.

It's what brought Graham Van Pelt, the creative mastermind of electro-indie act Miracle Fortress, to Montreal in 2004. The abundance of alternative spaces available for studios and venues and the low cost of living makes the city appealing, but it's also the sense of community. “The main thing has always been a great group of talented people providing infrastructure for each-others' projects,” says Van Pelt. “Artists here tend to prize individuality and imagination over commercial viability, though many acts have done well for themselves commercially anyway. It's a city whose artists are all trying to do their own thing and not sound alike. Trendy stuff from the broader culture outside the city tends not to be taken too seriously as musicians here try to develop their own narratives. People here are really encouraging of new directions and unfashionable ideas, and really supportive at their friends' shows.”

Patrick Watson claims it's Montreal's independence from the commercial side of the music industry which appeals to musicians, and leads to more creative output that stands out from the slick rock and pop which typically dominates the charts. When I meet Watson, he is rehearsing for tonight's show with a host of local musician friends with whom he has collaborated at numerous gigs and on recordings. “We're completely sheltered from the whole music industry here,” says Watson. “There's nobody from the music industry here, so you take your time, you make what you want to make, then you bring it outside the city. If you're in London or New York or Toronto, it's so competitive that you're immediately in that game. [Here], you have a real sense of developing an idea. It took me five or six years to build the project we have and then we brought it outside. I never could have done that in a big city – I would have been bankrupt.”

Some are more cynical. Murray Lightburn, whose band The Dears kickstarted the Montreal scene back in 2000, says, “In the last 10 years we've had an onslaught of people thinking they should come [here] to make it and then brand themselves as a band from Montreal... Go out on the internet, put a little #ArcadeFire on there, you're good to go.” But even if they do, it's a culture that feeds itself. For while Montreal attracts musicians, it will long continue to be a place music fans around the world look to for new music.

'Reflektor' by Arcade Fire is out on 28 October

The top cities to be a musician

Nashville

Known as Music City, the home of country (right) boasts more than 120 live music venues. The thriving record labels and studios have drawn British stars including Ed Sheeran and Jamie Lidell to live there, joining Taylor Swift, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys and Jack White (whose Third Man Records is based there).

Reykjavik

Iceland's capital is home to Björk, Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, Emiliana Torrini and Múm. Several have benefited from the music fund Kraumur, which sponsors Icelandic bands. Perhaps it's the winter's constant darkness and dramatic landscape that makes for inspiration. Damon Albarn co-owns a pub in the centre.

Gothenburg

Renowned for its style of hard rock/heavy metal, the city is also home toThe Knife, Little Dragon and Jose Gonzalez. There are more record shops in Gothenburg per capita than anywhere else in the world, and festivals include the three-day, star-studded Way Out West, which is financially supported by the Swedish Tourist Board.

Austin

With a thriving live music scene, the Texas city is home to South By South West festival every March, drawing music fans and industry folk from around the world.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing