How the Godspeed Generation Made Montréal the Center of the Indie Rock Universe

September 28, 2016

The year 1995 was an important one in Montréal’s history. It was a moment that found the city in post-industrial decline and facing a second referendum over Quebec’s independence. In 1980, the city’s economy had been decimated by the first referendum – people and corporations fled, concerned about the political instability. The threat of a second referendum ensured that, as other cities had recovered, Montréal remained a town full of empty storefronts and industrial spaces.

The referendum in ’95 saw Quebec vote to remain in Canada (barely) and, with the new millennium creeping closely with apocalyptic portent, the past and future circled each other uncertainly. “It was a very melancholy time. Instead of angst, a rage and desire to change things, we became more reflective about the decline of society as a whole,” says Norsola Johnson, who played cello with Molasses, Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GY!BE) and Ratchet Orchestra. Nonetheless, many Montréal artists found inspiration in the dread. In the neighborhood of Mile End, with its mix of abandoned industrial spaces, rich cultural influences and blend of the orthodox and innovative, a new wave of artists began to add to the area’s already fecund mythology.

We never even questioned it. You want to make something happen, you have to do it yourself.

Norsola Johnson, GY!BE

Pre-gentrification, post-industrial spaces in various states of disuse were cheap in the liminal area near the train tracks in Mile End. In 1995, the year that Quebec almost left Canada, printmaker and chef Kiva Stimac and her partner, GY!BE basssist Mauro Pezzente, moved into one of these spaces on Van Horne. “When you have the space, people will come,” says Stimac, who moved to Montréal as a student. “My family is from Detroit. Detroit is a great example of when you have nothing, you still build something from the ashes.”

Those principles would give rise to venues such as Hotel2Tango, Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa, which would in turn help fuel the creative charge that would transform the Mile End from depressed district to, just over two decades later, one of the most internationally heralded, culturally vibrant neighborhoods in the world. The great irony is that today’s gentrification has been built upon yesterday’s DIY community principles. As a result, many of the people who built everything that’s great about the Mile End are now being pushed by rising rents, the repurposing of industrial and loft spaces into condo developments, and transplanted suburbanites who object to noise after sundown.

Molasses - You Can't Win

Concrete Is Post-Rock Material

“I can only speak really for our little world, but I think a lot of that just came from punk rock backgrounds,” says GY!BE’s Johnson about Montréal’s DIY ethos. “We never even questioned it. You want to make something happen, you have to do it yourself, that’s the only way to do it.”

Within the year, GY!BE and Thee Silver Mount Zion co-founder Efrim Menuck had assumed the lease for Stimac and Pezzente’s space on Van Horne, and Hotel2Tango was christened. A practice space for bands like GY!BE, Fly Pan Am and Molasses, the underground venue became ground zero for performances that ranged from punk to experimental, an intersectional space where different genres rubbed shoulders. “Hotel2Tango was a very cool venue. It was amazing to see how many people they could get out to a neighborhood that really wasn’t quite as popular as it is now,” says Gary Worsley, who founded the Montréal label Alien8 Recordings in 1996 with Sean O’Hara to release music by the Japanese noise artists they loved like Merzbow and Keiji Haino.

“Maybe it became more fashionable, what was being referred to as Musiques Actuelles,” says Worsley. “It had a lot to do with Constellation as well as our label, to be honest, changing the rules of that genre a little bit. Because of the very large francophone population, we had a very keen interest in a lot of European music that maybe we wouldn’t be as fond of if we didn’t have that. Young people like Alexandre St-Onge, Fly Pan Am, Roger Tellier-Craig, Jonathan Parant, they were really important with helping to make that kind of thing hip and bringing that influence into a lot of post-rock.”

Fly Pan Am - Nice est en feu!

Sound engineer and producer Radwan Ghazi Moumneh got involved in the local punk scene, as a vocalist for The Black Hand and IRE, after his family moved to Montréal in 1993 from the Persian Gulf, where they’d lived in exile after fleeing the war in Lebanon. “What’s funny is that as the years go by I realized that a lot of stuff was a lot more avant-garde than people gave it credit it for,” says Moumneh, speaking about the noisy, experimental side of punk that persists in the shadows away from the commercial glare. “The bassist from Fly Pan Am was one of the first people I met when I moved to Canada. His old punk band and my old punk band played some shows together. A couple years later he invited me to this show at the Hotel2Tango. I had no idea what it was. I went up there with a bunch of friends, and we said ‘this is insane.’ It was Fly Pan Am and Godspeed actually.”

We went out and placed pennies down on the train tracks because we wanted to have smooshed pennies in the sleeves of F#A#∞.

Norsola Johnson, GY!BE

It’s easy to mythologize the early days of Hotel2Tango, but its influence on Montréal’s musical development and aesthetic is undeniable. “There’s the obvious stuff, like the place itself geographically,” says Johnson. “There was a train track right behind, which we all loved. We had this passion for the trains. We went out and placed pennies down because we wanted to have smooshed pennies in the sleeves.” F#A#∞, GY!BE’s first album, was released in 1997 on Constellation Records, the Mile End-based label founded by Ian Ilavsky and Don Wilkie earlier that year. The 500 numbered copies were handmade objects, with original photographs and squished pennies giving them mass. In an increasingly digital and ephemeral culture, the album serves as a memento to noise and place in an increasingly post-object world.

The era’s creative output was by no means limited to the music scene. Louis Rastelli, who started publishing the Fish Piss zine in 1996, founded ARCMTL in 1998 (which archives and preserves as much of the city’s alternative rock and arts scenes as Rastelli can get his hands on). He recalls the post-referendum years as being a vibrant time for experimentation of all kinds. “Not just music, it was really great to mix in experimental poetry and writing. [Bestselling author] Heather O’Neil was in the first Fish Pisses and [multimedia performance artist] Catherine Kidd was playing around with different layouts. Alexis O’Hara at the time was also a part of our scene trying to merge types of things, spoken word with sonic art and performance art.” Mile End was also home to Monastriki, an exhibition space and curiosity shop opened in 1998 by Emilie O’Brien and Billy Mavreas that continues to be a touchstone of the local print and zine scene. (Comic publishers Drawn & Quarterly, begun in 1989 by Chris Oliveros, opened a store on St Viateur in 2008.)

Thee Silver Mt. Zion - 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons

Slow Riots in Y2K

The turn of the millennium brought a burst of new activity to Montréal’s diverse experimental music community. At Hotel2Tango, Menuck and GY!BE bassist Thierry Amar joined forces (and recording gear) with producer Howard Bilerman, put up walls and built a studio. Moumneh joined on as a co-owner in 2006 when Hotel2Tango relocated a few blocks away to become a hub that included Constellation’s offices and Grey Market Mastering. “Thierry had asked me if I would be free to come and engineer and mix a Black Ox Orkestar album, and we just really clicked,” says Moumneh. “I started doing sound for some of his bands, Silver Mount Zion notably, and we had a lot of music and ideas in common.”

Meanwhile, Stimac and Pezzente opened Casa Del Popolo, and founded the Suoni Per Il Popolo festival, continuing the early Hotel2Tango tradition of making space for odd music, arts and crafts, and community. “We had the space [for Suoni] and we realized instead of having people call us, why didn’t we just try calling some people,” says Stimac. “Mauro was a touring musician at that point, so he knew what it was like to play a venue. Even though it was very DIY, just a stage and a storefront, we tried to have good sound and lights, and respected musicians.”

When the Casa proved too small for an Arab Strap show Pezzente booked, they rented out the Spanish social club across the street. The Sala Rosa, which has become a hub of the local scene, continues to also serve as a social club for Montréal’s Spanish population. “I have a vested interest in this community too, not just the community that comes and goes,” explains Kiva about their ethos. “Like how we work with the Spanish community across the street. It’s very important to me. It’s not just that we took over this building and made a hip venue.”

Les Georges Leningrad - Sponsorships

“Almost as soon as Casa opened, I had this idea to do a vending machine because we started the archives in 98 with a mission to promote, add and preserve,” says Rastelli, who repurposed obsolete cigarette vending machines into art dispensers to create Distroboto in 2001. “In the machine, we had really innovative, experimental visual art, objects, little things. The music was all over. We ended up calling most of it sound art. In hindsight, it was neat that Les Georges Leningrad and Wolf Parade, again a side project with weirder stuff, did some of the first stuff in the machines. A lot of the artists seemed to appreciate having this direct line to send out a trial balloon.”

While Hotel2Tango studios, Constellation and the many musical tentacles of GY!BE shaped a certain “post-rock” aesthetic that has taken hold of the popular imagination outside of Montréal, Casa also provided a stage, and Alien8 a label, for bands like Molasses, Les Georges Leningrad and the Unicorns, as well as artists like Sam Shalabi and Tim Hecker. At Casa, post-rock mixed with avant-punk and jazz, noise, electronic, performance art and spoken word. “I have a certain amount of pride,” says Stimac, “that people always tell us is that, even though we’re Anglophones running this place, that there is really a crossover through these weird music communities of the Francophones and Anglophones.”

There were so many misconstrued notions about Godspeed, but one of them was we were a bunch of anarchists and we lived like Crass. Not even close.

Norsola Johnson, GY!BE

“Arcade Fire is the same ingredients, but a totally different type of music,” says Rastelli about how the Montréal penchant for violins and big bands was evolving in another direction in 2001 when Arcade Fire was formed. “I went to one of their first shows in somebody’s apartment upstairs from Barfly, but the first club show was at Casa. There’s the same fertile ground and mindset of openness. A lot of people credit the originality of Arcade Fire to having a couple of linguistic influences.” Other projects orchestral in size, such as Nicolas Caloia’s avant-jazz ensemble Ratchet Orchestra, also found themselves at home at Casa and Sala.

Moumneh, who was doing sound at Casa, contributed to the ever-widening ripples of experimentation and performance when he started his experimental A/V project Jerusalem In My Heart in 2005 with filmmaker Charles-André Coderre. “I still don’t see it as a music project. It’s very much an installation,” explains Moumneh. “I wanted to have this project that was going against the trend of being so focused on the capturing and archiving, and being able to relive a certain moment at any given with the advent of YouTube, cell phones, video cameras, etc. – everything being so accessible and easy to archive. People are so obsessed with being able to videotape something far more than actually experiencing in the now.”

Looking back, history seems linear and heroic, but it’s not. While many of the myths about Mile End are rooted in truth, the present is always colonized by the past. The ultimate danger of myths is that they occupy the territory of the present and we forget the everyday tenacious human effort that accumulates into meaningful action. “There were so many misconstrued notions about Godspeed, but one of them was we were a bunch of anarchists and we lived like Crass did. Not even close,” says Johnson. “It was more about just doing our little thing in our little way, in a way that it made it such that we could look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning.”

That’s what true resistance is, the persistence that inspires us to create and nurture space for the things and people we love. Even though, in the Mile End, that world is slipping further and further away as gentrification takes out venues and rents skyrocket, it’s worth remembering that the ethos that made the neighborhood into a mecca for developers and a tourist destination was once as hungry and uncompromised as a skinny fist lifted like an antenna to the heavens.

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Header image © Yannick Grandmont

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