TSURURADIO Special Report… Montreal: Shortcut To Europe Or Highway To Hell???

Photography by Tsuru

Montreal, Quebec, Canada…

Relatively close, but seemingly a million miles away from the collective consciousness of the United States. Where, after years of social evolution, you’ll find a French-speaking Canadian town with a dual-tongue, a dual-attitude, a… dual-identity, if you will. And in the ears & soul of this humble blogger, a duel of a different sort has been raging on, a near-epic battle between Wolf Parade and Islands with no clear winner in sight. With all this in mind, we felt it was time to “get to know” this town a little better, to try to gain some “insight” in to what makes these bands, nay, this city within a nation within a nation, tick. To try to learn whether Montreal was indeed a “shortcut to Europe” or a highway, to hell….

What can one say about Quebec, that hasn’t already been discussed to death by the mainstream media? Well, pretty much anything actually. Outside the occasional blip about the Québécois coming up short again in their quest to secede from Canada, one is hard pressed to find any news about the French-speaking great northern tundra.

Before we began our journey, I had many questions to my Canadian wife… Is it cold in Quebec? Do I need a jacket? Do I need to bring the old wooden tennis rackets out of the basement to be able to walk around? Why don’t we just go to Toronto? Do Montrealian bands hate Of Montreal? Have you ever “been with” any Quebecers? Why would Eskimos speak French in the first place? What sound does a polar bear make in French? Can I walk around saying “Baguette! Haw-haw-haw! Baguette!”? To all of which she immediately kicked me in the balls. While recovering with a bag of frozen peas on my crotch, I realized I had a lot to learn about this oft-forgotten province on the other side of Ontario (my future home) and became very excited to get our trip on, which required another bag of peas…

Two suitcases and flights later, we were in Montreal. The first thing I noticed, besides
the fact that it was pretty freaking warm and I would NOT be needing the snow suit I secretly packed, was the realization that my high school French would not come flooding back to me just like, as they say, “riding a bike”, or as babelfish (because I picked up literally no French in the five days we were there) says, “monte d’un vélo”.

Fortunately, just like in Toronto, all the important signs will be bi-lingual, right? Well, in the airport, you might get that impression, but no, once outside you are on your own, and by on your own, I mean not at all on your own, because eventhough the signs are mostly in French, everyone is uber-bi-lingqual, meaning I immediately felt half as smart and felt a sense of pity for the enochlophobic-xenophobes out there. All this French-ness led me to a my first question, why doesn’t Wolf Parade and Islands sing in French? Or, at the very least, print their records in French regardless of which language they sing their 10 minute epics? Does that count as one question or two? It was clear, I still had a long way to go on this quest for understanding.

After checking in to the Holiday Inn Select (that’s right, Select, no Express for us, bitches! Cuz, when we roll, we roll large) in Chinatown (called such apparently due to it’s immense number of Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese shops and restaurants?). From there a little sight-seeing into Old Montreal was in order, to gain some insight into the history of this clean town. It was there we picked up a sweet Montreal t-shirt (in the style of a retro-adidas ringer t-shirt) at one of the 1,000 t-shirt & souvenir shops. But that wasn’t enough, I needed to feel Montreal inside me, we didn’t see any prostitutes around so I got a heaping helping of poutine instead, much to the satisfaction of the waiter taking care of us. My friends, you haven’t lived until you ate a bowl of poutine, but don’t eat too much! Consisting of a bowl of fries, swimming in brown gravy, and covered with huge chunks of cheese, one wouldn’t expect to live too long on poutine alone.

As I savoured every bite in that back-alley restaurant appropriately named Montreal Poutine (or Poutine Montreal, I can’t remember, too much cheese & gravy put my brain in a lull), I couldn’t help but wonder how many songs were penned by Nick Thorburn or Spencer Krug over a bowl of poutine… I mean, was “Kissing The Beehive” actually about Dan & Spencer’s joint love of this exotic treat? Was “Abominable Snow” actually about Nick’s quest for the perfect bowl of poutine? It was a special moment for me and I felt closer to both bands then ever. With a “merci” and couple Twonies for a tip, we were on our way with a feeling that we were onto something special, that we had dipped one big hairy toe in the proverbial jello-filled pool that was the essence of these formidable competitors for my musical heart.

After a bit more Old Montreal exploring we knew this was the touristy bit and needed to head into the heart of the town, and see what the real Montrealers are like. So, a few blocks down, we started our voyage along Rue Sainte-Catherine, starting off at the contemporary arts museum. Where we left scratching our heads, as one tends to do when leaving a contemporary arts museum, unless you are pretending to “get it”, which in all honesty, would be like you understanding the inner-workings of my noggin with no real description of what the hell is going on… Good luck! Very cool, nonetheless. We moved on and saw plenty of fun chain shops vying for our valuable Canadian dollars, from the rare & exotic “Gap” to the quaint mom & pop store called Maison Simon’s

Once again, my mind drifted to the angst filled days of our young band members… were they ever loiterers? Did they piss off the local establishment leaning & hanging about on the steps of the Church Christ Cathedral much to the chagrin of the clergy? Did they get their 5-pocket corduroys making that classic “zip-zip” noise as they walked along, all artistically angst-filled from a Levi’s store, much like the one I perused? I felt myself becoming connected to their roots, to their sense of belonging & allegiance to this Euro-Canadian town.

But something was missing… the soul, it must be located somewhere else on this island cultural capital? It was a quick hop over to Avenue du Mont Royal via the metro (a god-send, by the way, and worthy of it’s own post… The value of a good metro in a city, man o’ man, priceless) and we knew we found it. Eventhough it is a beaming pro-cycling community, it was first here that we saw our first few fixies & a hipster or two (though, much to my delight, that was about it for “hipsters”, apparently a word and way of life that didn’t translate well into French-Canadian), and low & behold, the American Apparel wasn’t too far off, but baby and I knew that those are just indicators of greater things brimming about.

First stop, the record shops, the two that got the majority of my loonies? Aux 33 Tours & Maison Du Disque. My haul, all at rather decent prices I might (and just did) add, were the following:

As well as Arcade Fire’s Intervention 7″ and an album baby picked up by Jeanette MacDonald called Smilin’ Through. Not too shabby, a quite abit down memory lane for me, plenty to share with you guys… I thumbed through deep and for ages and I wondered… Did Arlen Thompson pick through these records looking for sounds and recording techniques to help flesh out At Mount Zoomer? Did Thorburn meet up with Guthrie to talk about the bands that would influence their Human Highway collaboration?

As I thumbed through the R’s, the Prog section, the modern sections, the V’s, the answer was obviously & glaringly, “YES!”. You could feel it, smell it, and taste it, until we were kicked out for tasting the records (not recommended). You walked along Mont Royal and the cafes and vintage shops and it just jumped out at you! You could see Dan’s tiny little skinny jeans in that shop & cigarette butt on the ground, Krug’s don’t-know-don’t-care fashion-sense in that 2nd-hand store, Nick’s sense of whimsy and genre-shifting tendencies spray-painted in the poster & urine-stained alley. It was, in a word….. MAGICAL!

I’ve openly mocked those Visa commercials where you can win a trip to eat at some restaurant that Eric Clapton ate at, or wipe your ass in some stall that Rod Steward did blow in, or whatever, but that’s all gone now. I’ll gladly eat my words. I understand now. It all makes sense.

As for Montreal, in response to my original, long-forgotten, question, is it a shortcut to Europe or is it a highway to Hell, the answer is a resounding neither. Montreal is a passage to Heaven, to Canuck-Indie Heaven, if you will, rivaled only by their brothers & sisters just somewhat south in Toronto, you could say it’s kinda like Toronto with European seasoning & marinade, and it’s delicious!!! With it’s beautiful kinda French-looking & dressing, yet really more Canadian-looking & acting people, it’s overwhelming sense of Quebec pride combined with genuine niceness and an overall feeling of “welcome” that can only be described as “Canadian”, it is much like myself, many opposing forces all bottled up competing AND working together in a mass of intertwining streets, styles, ways of thinking, modes of transportation, and pure apathy to the general outside world, and it’s divine.

Did my quest settle the battle for best album of the year? No, and that’s okay, that will have to settle itself over the few remaining months in the year, but our travels did endow me so much more… When I listen now, I can feel Montreal, I can see the Parc de Mont Royal, I can hear the thousands of bicycles taking over the streets, the French banter, the smell of the baguettes & cigarettes, and I can see myself on it’s streets, enjoying a little slice of the special kind of Heaven it offers…

So thanks Montreal, thanks Quebec! For a wonderful soul-searching journey through your streets. It will not be forgotten anytime soon. And now…. Some classic good times out of Montreal from The Unicorn’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?

The Unicorns – 01 I Don’t Wanna Die
The Unicorns – 02 Tuff Ghost
The Unicorns – 03 Ghost Mountain
The Unicorns – 04 Sea Ghost
The Unicorns – 05 Jellybones

Checked myself into emergency, urgently.
Drove up in my bone-camarrow, thinking only about you.
The doctor walked her crew of surgeons to the table where I lay
I came to, and my knee-caps were off.
They were soft, I had Jellybones…

Go show Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Islands, Wolf Parade, and, of course, The Unicorns all your love now! And baby, thank you so much for a much, much need r’n’r and vacation from the daily grind. It was much needed, much appreciated, and made absolutely perfect because I went there with you. SMOOCH!

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