Malajube Transliteration

Malajube Transliteration
Photo: John Londono
On a freezing cold Canadian winter’s day, Montreal’s Malajube have interrupted a practice to pass around a cell phone and answer questions about why they might be this country’s most unexpected buzz band. "There are like 50 black metal bands jamming around our practice space,” laughs keyboardist and vocalist Thomas Augustin, "So I have to walk further away to understand you.” As a Francophone indie-rock quintet that have captured the attention of English-speaking music lovers all over the world, the members of Malajube are getting used to the odd communication breakdown. Much to their collective surprise and elation, however, it appears that there is no language barrier their energetic art-pop songs cannot overcome.

When Malajube released their second album Trompe L’oeil on Dare to Care records last February, they did so with no grand vision of the future. Their debut record, 2004’s Le Compte Complet, entered a world still reeling from the impact of the Arcade Fire, who drew writers from the likes of the The New York Times and Spin to Montreal’s English-speaking music community. To a man, Malajube’s members express admiration for the Arcade Fire, but recall the hype about a "Montreal music scene” with traces of scorn.

"Personally, I really think it’s something created by the media,” bassist Mathieu Cournoyer says. "Bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, okay maybe they’re in Montreal, but most of them don’t come from Quebec. It kind of happened so fast, like Seattle, because the Arcade Fire came out so big. It’s probably helped us a lot, even though it’s all created bullshit, I think.”

"There are more French-speaking people here than Anglo people but, if I was an American who read those articles, I would never think that Montreal was a bilingual town,” adds drummer Francis Mineau. "That was a big thing that they swept away and to me it was bad, but what can you do? Journalists eh; they’re strange people!”

While few journalists had much to say about Malajube, Le Compte Complet was well-received by Francophones in their hometown and they gained a following for their spirited shows throughout Quebec. While the band of 20-somethings were excited by what they’d musically accomplished with Trompe L’oeil — a boisterous blast of sophisticated pop that barely masks its punk edges — they had no reason to think it would enable them to travel the world as critic’s darlings. "When we did the record, we had no expectations or goals,” Mineau explains. "Now we’re touring all of the time, meeting girls, and losing some health points. There’s lots of van also — smoking cigarettes and making crossword puzzles.”

"Before Trompe L’oeil we were just a little Francophone band playing in Quebec,” Augustin explains. "Then we went to France and Scandinavia and then the States and western Canada, and it became a serious job; we realised that we were going to continue to do this for a couple of years.”

Things got even more serious this past June, when Malajube showed up on the shortlist of nominees for Canada’s greatly hyped new award, the Polaris Music Prize. Selected by a panel of music journalists and broadcasters striving to name the best Canadian album of the year "irrespective of genre or sales,” Malajube’s name stuck out amongst more established nominees like Sarah Harmer and Broken Social Scene. The group was thrilled to perform at a gala event in Toronto last September to celebrate the Polaris Prize winner and, though the $20,000 honour went to Final Fantasy, it was arguably Malajube who gained the most from the experience.

"The Polaris nomination was really gratifying,” Augustin recalls. "It was really the first time that we felt we had recognition from English Canada and an English crowd in general. I liked it because it was an award based only on the appreciation of the album from critics; we didn’t submit anything and there wasn’t any voting process from the public or record industry. So, we were really flattered to go there and sit beside some really big names who tour all over the world. That night we realised that we too could tour the world; it seemed possible for us.”

Malajube’s achievements are particularly inspiring because, aside from the 1970s ascension of Harmonium, few Francophone artists have gained crossover success in English-speaking regions, with the elusive U.S. market still the hardest nut to crack. With their Polaris recognition and three recent Juno nominations, plus attention from American mags like Spin and Fader, Malajube’s accomplishments are unprecedented for a French band from Montreal. "Here, they talk about how Malajube is like the leader of all the Francophone bands,” keyboardist, guitarist, and newest member Renaud Bastien explains. "I don’t know how to think about that but there aren’t many Francophone bands who’ve inspired us. It’s more Anglophones like the Unicorns, so yeah, maybe there are other bands starting because of us.” Malajube’s lead singer, guitarist, and primary lyricist, Julien Mineau echoes Bastien’s sentiments about the pervasiveness of English music. The most nervous interviewee of the group, Mineau relates to Anglophones who appreciate his songs without necessarily knowing what they’re about exactly. "Yeah, it’s kind of strange but Francophones almost always get into music with English lyrics because that’s the way good music is done,” he says. "Before I learned English, I was listening to English music and it was even better than now, when I can understand their lyrics. It was more of a feeling for sure.”

Malajube have found that their arrangements and performances convey enough emotion to connect with unsuspecting audiences, and they’re aware of how rare a feat they’ve accomplished. "Even if we have bad English accents between songs, it can be an advantage and, even if they don’t understand, people are curious,” Augustin adds. "A lot of the time, I translate the lyrics for people after shows. They’re very receptive to the music and, it’s strange to say, but it’s reached a vast audience all over the world.”