We’re sitting on burgundy faux-leather stools watching the house band at a half-lit local joint called Bar Des Chums. It is the event of the festival. The bar’s atmosphere is unalloyed and authentically Lynchian, exactly the sort of local atmosphere that we privileged and angle-having journalists just spent two giddy city-roaming days peering into windows and galleries and generally keeping an inebriated eye out for.
But Bar Des Chums is where it’s at. For one thing, it’s immediately apparent that the bar’s denizens reject all Godly notions of cosmopolitan taste and etiquette. The dancefloor rattles with fist-pumping locals; waylaid festivalgoers mark perimeter with expressions of awe and trepidation. FME 2013 is great because it is unpindownable. It is diabolical French hip-hop shows, it is Quebecois Radioheads in rafter-rammed cafés, it is searing and intimate venues and close proximity to Blonde Redhead singer Kazu Makino, whose tighted gams form angles that make me want to retake maths. Bar Des Chums, however - elaborations on which later - is microcosmic, magnificent, and as good a motivator as any for your emptying piggy banks and hauling out right around this time next year to the good old northern Quebec wilderness.
Held in Rouyn-Noranda, QC, four-day festival FME is a new-music event of massive scope. Take an example of its ambition: the organisers decided it’d be thick to mess around with plane tickets to Impracticlesville rather than charter a direct flight, so departing Toronto airport there grumble nine mid-league indie bloggers cooped in an open-plan eleven-seat aeroplane. If you ever wonder what a short-haul aircraft’s cockpit looks like, it looks impressive and complex and terrifying, its dashboard a confusion of near-identical dials that frown and swerve like cool aviatic pop art.
The plane looks like this:
Survival permitting, our journey will lead straight to Rouyn-Noranda, the destination for the 11th Festivale de Musique Emergent (aka, FME, aka, Emerging Music Festival, aka, EMF... perhaps confusing, but fret not - everyone’s franglophone here). En route from the airport our taxi’s makeshift tour guide, a wise old braeburn from Toronto, points far across a lake and forest you want framed and out to a higgledypiggledy Disneyesque complex of factories sprouting chutes sprouting chimneys that services the copper mines around which Rouyn-Noranda sprung. It’s this kind of pastoral-vs-industrial view that invites a frequent and not inaccurate comparison between R-N and Lynch’s creepy and completely Lynchian town Twin Peaks.
Accordingly, FME is a festival revered as much for setting as lineup, and pivotal to its allure are some diverse and weirdass venues. (We’re frequently reminded that there occurred two years back a surprise acoustic show on the railway tracks, backdropped by aforementioned Rapunzelonian factory complex, though it’s true that this weekend’s closest descendant is a metal half-dayer outside the local garage.) Agora Des Arts, a sullen-rock sauna whose whole ventilation system is a ceiling fan that whirrs lamely in the heavens, is a blue-glowing God house that spiritually and aesthetically cousins St Pancras Old Church. My first Agora experience is limbo-rock sextet Pawa Up First, who sound like existential uncertainty and a dream of being enwombed. Next night Forêt tweak a certain Grizzly Bear’s chamber-pop formula, but come off less smug and restrained, more unhinged and unpracticed - their singer has nuance, a type of sophisticated torment that suggests she has danced with a serial killer.
Better yet are Sunday’s Esmerine, an offshoot of last year’s headliners Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Their octagonal ooze is pre-orgasmic and spine-stiffening, all vibraphones-played-with-bows and monastic Eastern chanting and guests from Istanbul. But it is Suuns who win the Agora venue. A band as good as your imagination, Suuns seem to have a sort of abduction themed set. Their new planet warps cue these huge abrasive jarring chords, which in turn resemble spacecraft sirens, while purple cylinders blast down centre-stage in freaky beams; the singer’s semi-intelligible jabber is a very literal display of alienation. From the row in front there unfolds a performance just as impressive, that of a rhythm-keeping, shoulder-shrugging sexagenarian lady who occasionally looks away from the stage to grin madly at her husband (said husband mostly remains seated, what with his being old and all). They are both fantastic, so I interview them.
Louise et François
Did you already know of Suuns?
François: It’s the first time we, uh, hear this group? But we are very eclectic.
How would you describe their music?
F: It’s rave music! It’s music for a big cliff! There is one piece of Pink Floyd it is like...
Louise: The Wall?
F: No, no, not the Wall. Ah - Meddle!
What real-world experience is listening to Suuns like?
F: It was like something very spiritual, like in some dark place, a special church.
L: I’m not very good at English, but that music was really like much yoga.
Like... [quizzically pulls shape] yoga?
L: [Enthused nodding] Yoga will open all the inner side, and all the vibration in our soul and our body. It’s like the beat of the Earth. It is in harmony.
In the kind of coitally-enveloping heat that characterises FME’s intimate venues, Blonde Redhead play probably the festival’s biggest draw, meaning only certain ticket holders and lottery-winners get access. While the band seem slightly drunk - particularly singer Kazu Makino, who I’m later told had a secret bottle onstage - they are adept and confrontational and rippingly on-form, an agelessly cool trio whose finest work deserves proper canonisation. Makino is all limbs, a ragdoll given desperate life by some modern Frankenstein. Amedeo Pace’s chords foster the kind of desolate melodies you want to rescue and start a life with. To climax they blast out a panning jet engine apocalypse that’s ear-clutchingly noisy and transcendent and is what I hear when people describe My Bloody Valentine’s noise assault section. Minutes later, en route to the then-unpromising Bar Des Chums, my legs are still reaching for the rhythm of stillness.
Some colour on Bar Des Chums: situated way more centrally than it feels by the time you leave, the bar contains: four fruit machines, legion king-bottles of Labatt 50 (a beer made of fermented tires), one virtual dart board (situated between two actual dart boards) and a seven-paged darts league table pinned to the notice board. Adjacent to this is where I meet the first barperson in R-N whose English does not embarrass my French, then stroll down an innocuous corridor near the entrance to scout local colour. In doing so I meet the startled gaze of a ladies’ toilet occupant who is unenclosed and not wearing any underwear. There is a leaflet advertising the local lottery. There is a pool table but nobody is playing. Tonight has dancing and Boney M covers; to play pool would be absurd.
And the house band? They’re called Duo Express. While DE are not listed in the program, clearly we are in the midst of smalltown celebrity. Preparing lift-off, the duo’s Stanna-target-market guitarist grins wildly and loads an AC/DC backing track, expecting massive audience approval and getting it. Curious passers-by amass and it is not long before dancing catches. The turning point is DE’s rendition of ‘Daddy Cool’, upon which the floor becomes like 80:20 festivalgoers to locals. Everyone persists all night in chanting ‘Oi’ on the on-beat, no matter the song. The technique appears rhythmically infallible; it never does not sound good. A stubbled and wobbly alcoholic in an unbuttoned shirt and macintosh and ripped nautical beret hollers to ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, flailing into nearby strangers, seeking large-lunged comrades. When the music finally stops (apparently they played for a total of 5 hours) I grab the Duo Express singer for a very broken-English interview (with questions likewise limited by my meager French vocabulary).
Elegant as Gisele!
Gisele Lahaie, Duo Express singer
This must be a busy time of year.
Gisele: Yeah, I like [the FME crowd]. Last year they come here, and we have all the gang. And it was like tonight! It’s so, er, funny, so, er... energy?
Yeah, people were going crazy in there!
They were excited, but they were okay. They don’t abuse. They don’t fight.
[I try mining for hard journalistic info on how exactly your typical Rouyn-Noranda crowd gets abusive and fighty, but it’s kind of lost in translation, alas.]
Would you say it is the highlight, the best moment of your year?
Ah, oui! Oui oui oui. [Laughs.]
(Side note: I promised her I’d send the finished article, so, Hi Gisele!)
Though it’s true that the organisers’ fanatical commitment to servicing the press ensures journalists are unstressed, overfed and barely ever sober, there’s nothing tastier than good old festival spirit. Our manager and translator, the festival’s seasoned Montréalaise publicist, is named Maude. Maude, permanently hurried, fox-like and alert, toweringly persuasive and a frantic smoker, is our journalistic posse’s saviour. At one point during a press event, whose rationale is munificent and catering Dionysian, I go to make the 10-minute walk for cigarettes. Maude grabs my arm expressing almost maternal horror at this dire prospect and hurriedly stuffs five of her own De Maurriers into an empty packet from her bag, ushering me back towards the gazebo.
Probably what I’m trying to qualify here is the complicated and bias-tempting context behind my ultimately honest conclusion, namely of FME’s being a pretty resplendent and exceptional festival all round. Even without journalistic perks, the beers are cheap, staff friendly, and whole town aesthetically immaculate. The locals and attendees, insofar as I meet them, are wonderful and beautiful and kind. Even the ones clutching brown paper bags at 5am.
Due to necessary scheduling, the journalists’ last night in Rouyn-Noranda is actually the festival’s penultimate one. Needless to say, our crackling spiritual fire is undampened. In an armpit bar Montreal’s Pyongyang play militant post-punk in Korean police uniforms, a stabby march towards Gang of Four via the Minutemen, and it’s only to catch Ontarians Indian Handcrafts that we shuffle out. While theirs (Indian Handcrafts’) is an unpalatable metal - a bombardment of sonic stunt-pilotry and repetitive lyrics about kids getting mutilated or whatever - and therefore not strictly my cup of tea, it doesn’t get on anyone’s tits, least of all mine; notes confirm they “tie my intestines into fives and sevens”. Supplementing this I notice what delightful limb-shakers the metalheads are, impulsive and inventive and silly-looking in ways club-dance and haughtier IDM culture sometimes stifles.
Oysters, and the author
Hey! So, you’re saying we should actually herd up our friends and fork out and fly on over the motherfucking ocean for this thing? Do you realise that’s completely ridiculous.
Well, I’m not so sure - if you liked the sound of the above, I wouldn’t write it off. A return flight to Montreal from London, Manchester or Glasgow generally costs around £400, and from there it’s not hard to arrange via Craigslist for a $40 liftshare to the festival. So it’s not out of the question, if you have holiday funds.
You forgot to mention the whole double-fried Quebec poutine phenomenon.
What was the overarching narrative again? Did you even figure out what you wanted to discover?
Oh, I dunno. To dig up some imperceptible vibe of smalltown North American festivals? No, that’s not it. Well, I suppose something about locating, on behalf of DiS readers everywhere, my latent prejudices as a young anglophone semi-urbanite with regards to a place like Rouyn-Noranda. I think our being surrounded by tremendous natural and cultural offerings and yet invariably winding up sidetracked by the goofy house band in the sweaty little dive bar is metaphorically germane, what with our slightly condescending attitudes and cosmopolitan backgrounds. I also think this is something Lynch very well understands, hence my occasionally mentioning him and (editorial permitting) ramming the coiffed dude’s name up into the headline like that.
There was also the poutine.
So how are you gonna end the article?
No idea, dude - maybe something about the sexagenarian couple at Suuns? Probably those guys. The sexagenarians were just stupendously good sports, weren’t they?