Finding Community Through Electronic Music in Montreal

This time last year I was staring across Lake Champlain through the window of a cafe car on an Amtrak train northbound from New York City to Montreal. In between jobs, I decided to take a jaunt somewhere new, and Montreal struck the right balance between exciting and inexpensive to reach. Plus, the city had a thriving electronic music scene that I wanted a taste of. So new sounds, as well as new sites, were on my agenda as I gazed at Vermont for the first time across the lake, sandwiched between grey sky and grey-blue water.

For five years, I’d been part of the broken-beat electronic scene in the states (dubstep, glitch-hop, drum-and-bass, idm, etc.) Based in New York City and traveling to festivals across the country, I covered music and events for blogs, put on events, and dabbled in artist management. Fire for the music still burned within me, but by April 2019 it had weakened. Use a knife often and it becomes dull. So I was excited to escape to another country where I knew no one and steady-beat house and techno reigned.

The last time I traveled abroad, absent-mindedness and laissez-faire planning found me missing a flight, losing my phone and debit card, and bartering my jewelry in exchange for safe transportation. That’s another story, but the point is I learned my lesson. Before leaving for Canada I read about the neighborhoods, the transit system, the clubs to visit, and so on. I was on a mission to find the vein in Montreal’s electronic scene and prepared accordingly.

On a tip from a bartender on my first night in town, I ended up at a weekly bass music event off Boulevard Saint Laurent sipping Labatts and listening to the worst dubstep I’d ever heard. At 25, I was definitely the oldest dude in the club. No disrespect, because these kids were out there doing the thing, and I’m glad I saw it if only as a cultural reference point. Moving on….

The next evening I made off for Velvet Speakeasy in Old Montreal, a cobblestoned quarter of the city with high-end shops and restaurants. According to Resident Advisor or some other website, one must be “on trend” or “just wearing black” to get into this place. All the to-do about appearances bugged me a bit. Usually in New York, the posh clubs don’t play cutting edge music. I didn’t know who was performing but I pulled up early on Thursday and was the first one in the club.

A dark, stone-walled corridor beneath an unassuming hotel lobby led me down into Velvet, a stone-walled room with one bar, one bathroom, a small dancefloor, a bit of seating, minimal red lighting, medieval-ish decor, and very low ceilings.

Entry to Velvet Speakeasy in Old Montreal

I ordered a strong whiskey ginger and chatted with the second guy in the club, a freshman at McGill University named Sam. Originally from Belgium, he was a DJ himself and we bonded over shared knowledge of jazz and hip-hop. I probed him about Montreal’s DJ culture and he gave me some insight. It felt like a semi-legit insider take from someone not yet immersed in the city, but on his way. Our subterranean setting gave the sensation of being underground in multiple senses of that word, but the music at Velvet often falls into the top-100 EDM bucket, Sam said.

I got lucky because Kris Guilty was headlining this evening. Apparently a popular house and techno DJ and a local luminary of sorts, Guilty lives in Montreal and owns two record shops there, Sam said. The next evening, a DJ named The Fitness would tell me, “He’s your favorite DJ’s favorite DJ in Montreal,” when I told him I’d seen Guilty the night before.

Guilty was putting it down, spinning consistently groovy four-on-the-floor music incorporating funk, jazz, and disco and mixing seamlessly from song to song. The young crowd ate it up and kept the dance floor full all night, although Sam dipped around 1:00am because he had a final the next morning. Guilty once told Thump that for him, DJing was about, “the right moment to cut or drop a song, the right moment to mix a song, the right moment to just give up when the mix isn’t good. Not just, drop, drop, drop. Not like that ‘shoes-in-the-dryer’ type shit.”

With my back to the bar around 2:30am, I spoke to a guy in a black ball cap and bomber jacket who turned out to be Guilty’s college roommate from Toronto. “I used to come here a decade ago,” he told me. “This is one of the coolest clubs in Montreal, but he never plays here. Usually, it’s more mainstream. To see him spin here and to see this young crowd digging it, it’s amazing.” I left before the set ended because I needed some sleep for the long Friday ahead.

That night around 8:00pm I headed to Brasserie Diue de Ciel to down a pair of delicious pints before a basement party somewhere between Mile End and the Outremont thrown by promoter Raw Feelings featuring Gene on Earth, Desyn, Jalil and Allesandroid. It was Resident Advisor’s “RA Pick” for the night in Montreal. At the bar, I was quick with my chapstick when I overheard the girl next to me saying she couldn’t find hers. The man she was with got a kick out of it and invited me for a drink at Datcha down the street where he tended bar. I learned that he lived in Harlem in New York City as a youth, where I was living at the time. That sealed the deal and we were off to Datcha.

A velvet curtain entryway, dim lighting, colorful cocktails, Russian decor, and good-looking guests gave Datcha a heady air of sophistication. DJ decks and soft green lighting panels opened onto a small dance floor in the corner of the room. There I met the DJ The Fitness who was about to play. I danced to his tunes until about 11:00pm when I drifted back to the bar to save energy and slug a few of Datcha’s signature Moscow Mules. After meeting a few more Anglophone locals, I set off cigarette lit to find this Raw Feelings party.

After some searching, I located the unmarked door on the side of a warehouse and was ushered inside quickly and quietly. The thumping bass grew louder as I descended two flights of stairs and ducked into a small room where a few light bulbs dangled from low ceilings and threw a glow onto black walls covered in white graffiti tags.

A pretty woman marked my hand with a stamp and I left the foyer for the main room — black, rectangular, full of people, and bumping. A band of red drop lights ran horizontally along the DJ booth throwing light on the selector’s face. Strings of red and yellow lights dressed the sidewalls and a pair of law enforcement sirens atop the speaker stacks would twirl now and again with the beat. A four-point sound system enclosed the dance floor, a janitor sink in the corner provided free water, and in the back, a renegade bartender was serving cocktails, energy drinks, and canned beer out of a small refrigerator behind a plastic folding table. “Now I’m underground,” I thought.

After pacing around for half an hour I somehow finagled myself into a green room of sorts for a peaceful smoke. I had absolutely no business being there, but the event was getting mighty crowded. Before I was kicked out by the venue’s owner, I took in my surroundings: two more turntables and a mixer beneath overflowing shelves of vinyl, tapes and CDs, at least two and a half drum kits, several guitars and bicycles, a full security camera set up, a desk, and a sea of nondescript junk. Organized chaos.

Back out on the dance floor the Berlin-based headliner Gene on Earth was performing. Like Kris Guilty the night before, he was spinning vinyl. His groove was thunderous and the room began to electrify by 2:00am. Deep, irresistible baselines flowed over rollicking drums with ethereal, arpeggiated notes filling the high registers. He was throwing pounding baseline after pounding baseline, nugget after nugget, and the crowd was keeping pace.

Captivated, I drifted towards the front of the crowd like a bee to honey. That red light strip illuminating Gene’s face danced off the fire in his eyes. After finishing a mix and dropping a new track he’d swing his gaze upward and shoot feverish looks into the crowd, reading the energy in the room off faces in the audience. Everybody was bobbing and shuffling and some were peering into the booth to observe his technique. When he lit a cigarette, it didn’t look like he was satisfying a craving but rather using a tool to negotiate his adrenaline rush. He looked like he believed the world would turn upside down on its axis if the needle on his record skipped.

His intensity was matched only by the fellow in the shadows behind him, one of the promoters, leaning against the wall and also smoking for nerves. His body looked calm but his eyes betrayed the anxiety of knowing your un-permitted party and carefully curated vibe could be shut down at any moment. The address for the party wasn’t online, you had to contact the promoters for it.

Gene’s kept laying down this killer combination of thumping, trance-inducing bass with high register, ethereal sounds, he continued holding onto the DJ mixer to keep from falling off the earth, and the hours rolled on until the sun was up, although you wouldn’t know it inside that cavernous venue.

The crowd continued to follow the DJ move for move, perhaps to his surprise. Now and again he’d look up and smirk, perhaps thinking, “more?” I thought back to a comment from Sam the night before. He said many DJs say they spin some of their craziest sets in Montreal. Now I understood why.

I’d lost track of time and space and the plastic water I’d been refilling, but a tall fellow behind me lent me some water. This was Diego, a man about my age with a soft voice, white shirt, buzz-cut hair, black painted fingernails, and a face that radiated kindness.

W began speaking and he described his crew, a tight-knit community of electronic enthusiasts called Inner Circle. I told him I was part of a music collective in New York City. “This is what culture is,” he said, gesturing at the sweat, bass and vaporous energy in front of us. “Culture is people expressing themselves in a shared space where everyone can feel safe.” After we exchanged information he said, “I’m going to dance over there with a few friends, wanna come?” I joined and met them, too.

I’d found the vein I was searching for — real culture and real music. Surprisingly, I’d also found community. It’s one thing to find fire music in a new city. That’s already a big win by itself. It’s another to feel a sense of community.

When the show finally ended around 7:00am, I spilled outside with the crowd into still, cool early morning air. Walking down side streets with some of my new acquaintances chatting about the set, I felt I could have been at home with some New York homies. Here in a city where I knew not even one friend of a friend, my search for music brought me into a space where I felt comfortable, understood, and virtually at home.

These thoughts and my tired feet carried me back across town, along the northeastern edge of a silent Mount Royal Park side-stepping McGill University, to my hostel near Shaugnessy Village. After quietly packing my things, I headed out to catch my morning train home, tired but with fire roaring inside me.

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Shifting the paradigm

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Mark H. McNulty

Mark H. McNulty

Shifting the paradigm

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