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

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The Independent Culture

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

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