There’s no place like home, especially when you’re too young to go to any music venues. This is often the case with punk and its associated DIY scene, where many of their musicians and fans are teenagers and young adults. In places with bustling DIY scenes like Boston or Philadelphia, most music venues are 21-plus, for liquor licencing reasons. Therefore, the house show is the MacGyvered way for young musicians to share their music. For those under-21, the house show monopolizes their music scene because it is the only place to enjoy music in a collective space. But, what makes Montreal’s DIY scene unique is that established venues are relatively relaxed when it comes to fostering the youth subcultures of the city. Furthermore, the young are less isolated from its older and more established counterparts, allowing for a closer connection between the generations within the scene. David Mitchell, the vocalist and bassist of local band Gulfer, recalls how he started out in the DIY spaces nearly 15 years ago.
“I’ve been booking shows in bars [in Montreal] since I was 17 and I’ve been playing shows [there] since I was 15,” Mitchell said. “I never had a problem such as getting kicked out or ID'd. [Playing venues] like La Sotterenea in the basement of La Sala Rossa, which is all ages and free to book, is [legally the same as] doing a house party.”
Math rock, a type of indie rock characterized by ever-changing rhythms using different time signatures, has a clear influence on Gulfer’s emo-revival sound. In 2011, Mitchell and his fellow math-rock enthusiast Vincent Ford formed the band as part of a resurgence of the emo genre, drawing more inspiration from the older math rock-leaning sound of the 1990s than the pop-tinged era of the mid-2000s. In Gulfer’s case, other revival-era bands, like Algernon Cadwallader, Empire! Empire! (I was a Lonely Estate), and Prawn were big influences on their sound.
“We came up from the math rock scene,” Mitchell said. “At the [start], we were way more into math rock than emo [or] pop-punk [....] Around 2009, [the math rock and emo scenes] started to coalesce into each other. I started getting into a lot of early Topshelf [Records] and Count Your Lucky Stars Records stuff, [...] there was an interesting crossover of [...] bands [...] with sick, wild riffs and crazy instrumentation [and] bands that were doing a good job mixing that with emo and pop-punk. Sort of overnight, we became obsessed with the emo revival scene.”
Mitchell notes that the interest in the genre, which tapered off in the mid–2010s, has started to re-emerge in recent years.
“In the last couple years, there [have been] a couple new local bands [emerging] such as [...] Fer Sher that has been bringing new life and momentum into it and [...] Avec Plaisir, doing similar things,” Mitchell said. “There’s a new generation of listeners who were too young to be involved in 2016, people are calling it [...] sparklepunk; [bands such as] Mom Jeans. and Prince Daddy & The Hyena, that’s a generation after us; becoming the new 2014 scene.”
While emo revival in its current form has existed for only a decade, another influential sub-genre ska punk, or ‘third wave ska,’ has been around since the late 1980s. As the name suggests, it is a mixture of ska, a woodwind-heavy Jamaican dance music genre that is a predecessor to reggae, with the sensibilities of punk. Ska punk even borrowed the distinctive fashion of the 2Tone movement, which was the wave of ska that occurred in the 1970s. Known as the ‘rude boy’ look, its aesthetic of pork-pie hats, suspenders, and monochrome palettes has become emblematic of the genre. The music and accompanying look has a rich background in promoting anti-racist sentiment, given its Jamaican roots, particularly its dominant black-and-white motif, but the playful and circus-like nature of the genre led many critics to overlook these themes and regard them as cliche and absurd. One staple of the Montreal music scene is The Planet Smashers, who have been creating ‘ska punk party mayhem’ for over 25 years. According to Matt Collyer, M.Eng ‘98, lead vocalist and guitarist for the band, the scene for ska punk in Montreal is far from dead.
“We still have the Smashers doing stuff, and [also] KMan & The 45s is the most active band besides us,” Collyer said “There [are] still a lot of young ska bands [in Montreal] kicking around [....] I’d say right now, [ska] is in transition between a down and an up [....] All it takes is a band to write great music.”
In addition to his role in The Planet Smashers, Collyer holds two important positions in the local punk scene. He is the label manager for Stomp Records, an influential record label and the unofficial ‘Chief Financial Guy’ for Pouzza Fest. The weekend festival, which is hosted annually in May at venues throughout downtown, plays a role in fostering a community for the punk scene, not only in Montreal but around the world.
“We bring together a community that wants to be brought together,” Collyer said. “We book 175 bands, and 100 of them are in the development phase [....] Other festivals won’t even [let upcoming bands play] because that’s not what they’re about, [that is], getting a community together. If you’re in a band and play at [Pouzza], you’ll probably make friends with ten new bands you hadn’t met before [....] That’s how this sort of community works; the underground punk rock, ska or hardcore [scene] [....] The community spirit is a big thing with Pouzza that we’re proud of.”
Collyer believes that Montreal has many factors that allow for a thriving music and arts scene and for Pouzza to succeed.
“Things are changing, as it’s getting more expensive to live here, but it’s still cheaper [...] than any [other] major North American city.” Collyer said. “You can effectively live on welfare or do two or three days of bar service and be in a band, or an artist, or comedian.”
On top of the comparatively low cost of living, which effectively allows artists to pursue their non-commercial endeavours, Montreal’s unique culture further establishes the city as a hub for all forms of creativity.
“Another thing is the francophone culture, which dominates our scene here,” Collyer said. “LA still has an effect [...], but they don’t [dominate here] like they do in Toronto and other anglophone communities. So, we are sheltered to a certain extent. When you’re starting as a musician, you’re not thinking that you have to write a song that fits a certain formula to fit the radio.”
While the sphere of influence from commercial music is less prominent in the city, Mitchell, states that the province’s relatively low drinking age means that music typically associated with more mature audiences, such as house and EDM, are more prominent in the city than punk, which is a genre typically associated with adolescence.
“The reason why there is an all ages scene in the [United] States, and that [punk bands] last longer there is because they’re the only game in town,” Mitchell said. “[Since] anything is accessible to you as an 18 year old [here], it’s a [much] quicker path to things that are trendier. That’s an important point, [math rock and emo revival] has never been trendy here, unlike in Philly and Boston, where it was a big deal for a long while [....] A lot of people involved in music scenes here, if they’re not Francophone, they’re from elsewhere where [...] they come here as a chance to go clubbing and get into electronic music. It’s a way to develop an identity not restricted to youth subcultures.”
While the music is open for all ages to enjoy, Mitchell finds that the scene is usually dictated by its younger players.
“I’m almost 30 years old [...] it’s kind of weird to get socially involved in a scene that’s 10 years younger than me,” Mitchell said. “Also, a lot of my involvement is booking shows and as I recalibrate my booking career [...], it’s harder for me to do DIY shows. It’s a whole new crop of people who are booking these bands, which is awesome.”
Mitchell points to D.I.T. and Worst Dad Ever as examples of promoters who are showcasing the new generation of the scene. Worst Dad Ever is a moniker for local promoter Palden Khe-Changsoo, a second-year Political Science major from Concordia University. He started out by helping his friends’ high school band in 2013 but eventually moved on to help other local and out-of-town bands with booking shows in Montreal. The name, a take on the internet trope of the ‘mom friend’, since he was usually the person who ensured everyone in his friend group stays hydrated when they are intoxicated.This often annoyed his friends which earned him the moniker ‘Paldad’, and developed into his current alias. While Khe-Changsoo has strong ties with the punk scene, he has found himself venturing onto other equally niche scenes that embrace that same DIY ethos.
“The majority of the music that I listened to, and even booked early on was [...] punk bands,” Khe-Changsoo said. “But now, I got to meet so many different people on tour [within] the Montreal music scene, so I started booking more [...] alternative indie rock bands, bedroom pop bands, weird psychedelic experimental rock. [Genres] with different names that don’t make sense.”
Worst Dad Ever promotes bands with non-commercial ‘band next door’ approach, utilizing antiquated methods such as pasting posters throughout town.
“So, a lot of people told me that flyering is dead [but] I have this romantic notion that [it] is one of the sickest things you can do for promotion,” Khe-Changsoo said.“I always try to promote with flyers as much as I can [...] and I always get a local artist to try to do design [for the poster]. I think people will always look up at a cool design.”
As the new era of punk and DIY develops, Collyer, and Pouzza Fest, seeks to be more cognizant of the scene’s diversity.
“[Gender parity] has been a goal for the fest and we hit it last year,” Collyer said. “It was hard to find 185 bands that want to play in your festival, half of which have [women] in prominent positions. But it’s becoming easier [....] There [are] so many good punk rock bands that have women playing in it. That’s where the scene is evolving now. We’re trying to push that diversity and being aware that there are minorities that are not getting [recognition]. It’s no longer just four dudes in a punk band anymore.”
Pouzza isn’t alone in trying to integrate more female-fronted bands into the scene. Not Your Babe Fest is another prominent festival in the city that seeks to highlight the often underrepresented feminist side of the subculture. Hosting workshops discussing issues within the scene as well as bringing upcoming punk musicians into the spotlight, the festival, hosted every year on the week of International Women’s Day, which is March 8, has recently concluded its fourth edition. As the scene evolves, it has developed further into a group that advocates for each others’ aspirations.
“The anarchy thing is no longer the focus of punk rock anymore,” Collyer said. “It’s really the DIY ethic that stuck. The idea of ‘do it because you love [...] and care about it [....] The community that comes out of it is tight-knit because [of] years being in the underground [....] There’s a bit of a lifestyle created, not really the punk rock lifestyle of 1977, [...] It’s more of going to the punk rock festivals and [...] shows. It’s all about picking each other up in the mosh pit.”
This self-determined attitude has allowed those who are either in the punk scene or are influenced by its DIY ethos to create events such as Tiny Fest, which was a huge undertaking by a whimsical idea from Worst Dad Ever.
“I thought, if everyone’s doing a festival, why can’t I do a festival?” Khe-Changsoo said. “So, I booked 13 bands over the course of two days and [called] it a fest. It was a fun experience, when it was over.”
Gulfer used the same ‘Why can’t I?’ mindset to achieve goals that felt like dreams only 10 years ago.
“We managed to sign to Topshelf [Records],” Mitchell said. “We literally started the band as a goal to get signed there. Just to be involved in that label, and [their] history [...] It’s kind of the stuff that I lived for. My purpose in life is to be involved in this community as much as I can [....] It’s realizing the dreams we had in our early 20s and see how much we can push them.”
As long as the D.I.Y. community of today continues to inspire the next generation of promoters, musicians, and artists, the Montreal scene will live on. The influential players, like The Planet Smashers, led to Khe-Changsoo finding his passion in high school.
“[I loved The] Planet Smashers in high school!” Khe-Changsoo said. “They’re a really fucking sick band [....] They’re very influential in terms of why I love Montreal because they’re like a homegrown group of really wholesome folks.”