Synth Punks and Super Freaks
Published Jul 01, 2003From sci-fi fromage master William Shatner to the glam-bam thank-you ma'am of Plastik Patrik, Montreal has contributed more than its share of characters to the sleazy, the cheesy, the wigged and whacked-out fringes of pop culture. But oddity isn't exclusive to mammoth institutions like TV and rock'n'roll. In fact, all the city's artistic avenues have their eccentric enclaves, those alleys or ruelles that roll prancing off the main streets, and often into each other. Over the past two years, Montreal's schizo synth scene has sprung from those alleys and onto stages, a reaction to the city's more respectable minimal techno and to New York's shallow electroclash. When so much art merely feeds off the shit from last century's supper, shockingly fresh sights and electronic sounds have flourished here, its creators mixing media, twisting sonics and very possibly fucking with your mind.
"We are a paranormal phenomenon resulting from very high electric activities," claims Poney P (vocals, guitar, keys), one quarter of Montreal's most bombastic synth heads, Les Georges Leningrad. If Cabaret Voltaire, the Residents and Lene Lovich had formed a super-group in 1982, died in a car crash and kept the band going anyway, they'd be a lot like Les Georges. In theory, the band consists of two married cannibal couples whose muse is a horny ghost named George.
"The ghost is a pain in the heart," says drummer Bobo. "He can fuck us all when we are asleep. We use our suffering for the holy creation of desperate hymns."
Back on planet Earth, Les Georges are four young Quebecers, former schoolyard rejects weaned on Syd Barrett, Luis Buñuel, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, Jem and Passe-partout, an infamous '80s kids' show hosted by the most baked man in the province. "And we are the first video game generation," professes Poney P. "Reality is in a lightning screen."
Above and beyond their influences musical, televisual or pharmaceutical ("proudly on dope," says bassist Toundra Lalouve, "mmmmmm, dope"), uncouth urban art has given birth to this deformed band. Its members are silkscreeners and craftsmen first and musicians second, which helps explain their make-up caked, mutated rag doll act and that beautiful mess of trilingual, "petrochemical" rock. Poney P explains: "We are four pirates, polyglots, and we do anything, anyhow. It is un-understandable, like soap slipping away from your hands."
Yes, Les Georges have dropped the soap and something strange is coming up from behind. No, it's not George it's an international, underground buzz over their whole bizarro act, which leans toward both pretentious "high" art and "outsider art" (meaning art by freaks and retards).
"We are professional musicians," insists Mingo L'Indien (bass, guitar, keys), "but we need to play like primitive people." And they do, banging, creeping, squealing and seducing their way through headlining sets and support spots for the likes of Add N to (X) and Erase Errata, gaining a rep that's made Les Georges Leningrad a trendy name to drop from New York to London. Word of mouth has yapped so widely that their handler has to contend with tempting tour offers and record deals on a weekly basis, and their music isn't even available outside Montreal. Until now, that is. On July 8, Fusion III will release both their debut album, Deux Hot Dogs Moutarde Chou, and the Rough Trade/Mute compilation Post Punk, featuring the band's "Georges Five." A seven-inch-sized collaboration with Godspeed You! Black Emperor follows later this month on their Coco-cognac label, and their sophomore disc will be upon us next winter. Best of all, this month's tour with the Locust will take them across the U.S. and to Toronto, exposing the uninitiated to their cabaret of caveman beats, subterranean synths and diatribes in French, English and German.
"I, Poney P, consider German the sexiest language in the world. I wish I was a German actress smoking a cigarette in a movie but, unfortunately, I look like a small circus monkey." According to Lalouve, the band's grasp of German is little more than cosmetic and the origins of their kraut-con is, like everything else about Les Georges, mysterious.
"Where the hell is it coming from?" she wonders. "Hey, Miss Lucil, please teach us about your country! Let's hose!"
"Les Georges Leningrad? Oh my God, I love those guys," gushes Krista Muir, known to most as the bouncing, braided Casio starlet Lederhosen Lucil. On stage, she's a charming fake fraülein who cheers audiences with her quasi-German quips, sugary vocals and skilled strokes of the keys. As on her debut album Hosemusik, Muir dips lightly into new wave, ska, hip-hop and garage with enough presence and pop prowess to make it all gel.
"It's like making mix tapes for myself," she says, hinting that her new material is equally varied. "It's not only because I love so many styles of music, but I love the contrast."
Pairing Lucil with Les Georges is, of course, its own study in contrasts. If Montreal's keyboard toting entertainers were metro drivers, Lucil would offer organic fruit bars to all her passengers, while folks travelling with Les Georges might be blasted with intercom shrieking or feel a ghostly finger up the ass. But despite their converse comfort levels, the two acts have been chasing each other's tails for years, trying in vain to book a show together. Last year, Lucil sought Les Georges for her Soiro Bizarro, a sold-out event that saw La Sala Rossa transformed into an enchanted cabaret full of gleefully eclectic performers. The second Soiro happens July 26, and Muir hopes to create an atmosphere akin to her childhood TV faves, from the hallucinatory British cartoon Doctor Snuggles to post-Andy Kaufman, interactive kids' shows like Pee-Wee's Playhouse.
"Scream real loud!' AAHHH!!!,'" Muir enthuses. "That playfulness was so different from most shows, which you're supposed to watch passively, and a lot of new bands have adopted that fantasy approach. It's like psychedelic childhoods manifesting in a weird adult world."
Muir's own fantasy began to bloom in her hometown of Kingston, Ontario, and those blossoms formed the foundation of her career in Montreal, where she's lived for much of the past decade. She played dress-up from the age of three and wrote music and musical theatre as a teen, finally launching her alter ego as an elaborate joke at a Toronto house party.
Around the same time, Vancouver's Canned Hamm also tapped into skewed kids' culture, a scene that's long been budding down south, from early Ween and Beck through Mr. Quintron & Miss Pussycat and the Aquabats, whom Lucil recently supported in L.A. in front of a thousand screaming kids. It was her biggest show ever, a thrilling and relatively easy gig coming a week after her most stressful show ever in Germany.
"I was standing backstage thinking, I could just run out the back door right now,'" she recalls, but she stayed, playing Heidelberg's literary festival along with a pack of sombre poets. Worse still, the venue's flat lighting made every face and every gesture crystal clear. But with all this and the pure pressure of dishing her faux-Bavarianisms to "the real thing," Muir charmed the crowd, drawing laughter, applause and many kind words.
"The best moment was when this little nine-year-old girl asked for my autograph," she says. "This character is like a fairy tale, even for me, but she was so happy, she was obviously in fantasy land."
Back in Montreal, Muir is working hard at her fantasy, recording another album (out this fall in time for a tour with Kid Koala), preparing Soiro Bizarro, and pondering Gelée ("stoned"), her project with Kingpins singer Lorraine Muller. They've yet to release any music outside the city, but the Cure and New Order-inspired duo might emerge one of these days to join the fray of local new wave and glam obsessives like Echo Kitty.
"Those Echo Kitty boys are so cute," Muir beams. "They're almost like sprites from another world."
"Look at Lederhosen Lucil," says Echo Kitty's steely, fey front-man Xavier Paradis. "I think the public can discern that there's effort put into her music and it's sincere even though the concept might seem absurd."
"Don't miss out," advises guitarist Serge Mustang. "She's so much fun, even without the wig!"
That's the test for indie musical theatre the quality of the work on record, off the stage. Echo Kitty has transformed through a series of incarnations (including an original Quebec City based line-up that included members of Chernobyl Cha-Cha) but Paradis's alter-ego Arnaud Lazlaud remained the band's spiritual inspiration. Named after an obscure line of make-up and conceived as a cross between the Pink Panther and Salvador Dali, Paradis used Lazlaud as a theatrical interlude during Echo Kitty sets.
But after relocating to Montreal, Paradis kept the Echo Kitty name now joined by Mustang and keyboardist Sabio Parmarella but dropped the Lazlaud persona, at least on stage. But the trio have adopted a few of Lazlaud's songs for old time's sake, and Paradis still projects some of his alter ego's haughty personality.
"Echo Kitty is very theatrical, but Arnaud Lazlaud was even more so, even more chanson française," says Paradis, theorising that highly conceptual, highly intensive art is best kept brief. "David Bowie was a genius for killing Ziggy Stardust, just like Arthur Rimbaud decided to stop writing poetry one day. Maybe it was a good idea."
Lazlaud's ghost may still haunt their tunes and stalk their stages, but your only fear at an Echo Kitty gig is hyperventilation. After performing sporadically since the band's inception in '96 when their debut traumatised a few folks at a hippie poetry reading Paradis and his new team burst onto the Montreal scene in October 2002, sharing a bill with Ladytron's Reuben Wu. At that show, and every performance since, the trio went taut with energy, their synth-pop party revved up by rock'n'roll fervour (not narcotics).
"If you want people to get up and dance, you've at least got to be into it yourself," says Mustang. "When you're interacting with the crowd, it's infectious."
"Some things might appear choreographed," says Paradis, denying any boy band behaviour, "but I like dancing and I won't restrain myself."
Likewise, abandon reigns on Echo Kitty's "Suzi," a bright slice of new wave on Neon Magazine's new Lux Catalogue compilation. Although a few tunes can be had on their website (www.alterflow.com/neon), this is Echo Kitty's first stab at national distribution, and they wonder how they'll be received.
"We're a Francophone band," says Mustang, "but I'd say over half the people at our shows are Anglophone, and that's something I never expected."
"Since I moved to Montreal, I've noticed that the best nights, the best events always have a 50/50, Anglo/Franco mix," says Paradis, suggesting that creative hotspots lie just beyond language barriers and musical ones. In the mid-'90s, Paradis tried to coax Quebec's electronic scene by co-founding Alterflow, the umbrella over Neon and its experimental sister label Deluge. Apart from the ravers, electronic tinkerers were scarce back then, but the city and the province have sprouted plenty in recent years.
"There's a unique vision here, and it's not limited to one specific style," says Paradis, hopeful for a healthy electro-pop future in both his hometowns. "Now we get to see bands like We Are Molecules, who are great. Actually, they're gods."
"Well, we're all just molecules, deep down," says guitarist Adam Gollner, one of three units that form the spectacular party experience that is We Are Molecules. They're mighty giddy about being associated with the boys of Echo Kitty, but this trio takes its '80s influences and its spin a little less seriously. Their slick indie single, "Silk N Venim" which, Gollner claims, "sparked a bidding war between several multinational music conglomerates" features a blatant Cure rip, some twanging keytar and the electro-cool vocals of Liane Balaban.
The band's keyboardist and player of toys, Raf Katigbak, explains just why he and his fellow units were joined in song and on stage just over a year ago.
"We thought Montreal needed a party band that wasn't afraid of getting hurt by love," he says, situating their sound at the intersection of "the visceral pelvic thrust of rock'n'roll and the hands-in-the-air abandon of dance music."
Well, lucky us, there's another EP in the works, possibly timed to coincide with the trio's next thrilling spot of musical theatre in September. The Molecules are mum on the details, but Gollner dropped some hints about their works in progress.
"One word: centaurs. We're thinking of a Dungeons and Dragons disco meets rock'n'roll kind of thing, or maybe a lesbian bowling and roller-skating party. Or a paint-ball hoedown."
As dis-informative as that is, the Molecules' past shows set the precedent for some serious party potential. Tellingly, they've opened for Mr. Quintron & Miss Pussycat, the Rapture and Plastik Patrik's One976, wearing police, skeleton and "smoke" costumes with geometric images projected on their bodies and beams of light shooting out of their heads. Somehow. But the big payoff was their Valentine's Day headlining gig at a quaint Chinatown tearoom. After a striptease by the World Provider and a pre-taped poetry reading by FUBAR's Paul Spence, our heroes rocked and buzzed and pouted through a set while teaching their Max Headroom-style screen buddy about love. Yet more screens showed hysterical montages and original film segments (by their co-conspirator Mark Slutsky) of each broken-hearted band member's pathetic coping techniques.
"We want to keep theatre alive," says Gollner. "We try to put on the sort of show we wish we could see: funny, manic, dance-inducing, over-the-top, one-of-a-kind."
And a glance at the Molecules' CV points to the source of all that skill and drive Gollner is a glossy mag journalist and veteran of punk bands like the Spaceshits and the Maury Povich Three ("MP3 owes us $"), Katigbak works with records and newsprint, and Balaban is a pro actress who's sung with the likes of Momus. Essentially, they're just a few of your regular, irregular Montreal synth rockers doing something a little screwed up and special in the local scene.
Leave it to Gollner to put it all in perspective: "All of these bands are similar in that we're trying to free our imaginations and we all have our distinct identities that have nothing in common with trends in the record industry. Also, we're all party bands who are fun to go see, and there are so many hot girls and boys at these shows, it finally gives them all a chance to hang out together and kiss and fondle each other in corners. It's bacchanalian music."
Synth Force Five
A fistful of Quebec's other electro stylists
Flamboyant sci-fi fanatics Hans Gauthier and Jef Hell describe themselves as "two friendly freaks, out of time and out of space." Their album, Neutron Babylon (2001), is available through Neon Magazine (www.alterflow.com/neon), the label they run out of Quebec City (where they play on July 2 at Bar l'Arlequin). LOCAL distributes Neon's new Lux Catalogue compilation, featuring the duo's "Durango 95," a big, bold electrobilly meltdown in the spirit of Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Suicide.
Geneviève et Mathieu
Twirling fire sticks, flying oven mitts, bouts of breakdancing and kitsch costume changes are some of the sights you might see when Geneviève Crépeau and Matthieu Dumont take the stage. Based in the northwest Quebec town of Rouyn-Noranda, these art school graduates mix absurd poetry and simple synth melodies with laff-riotous performance art. Those who can't catch their next Montreal show Lederhosen Lucil's Soiro Bizarro on July 26 at La Sala Rossa can consume their albums Mélodies (2001) and Crions notre joi (2003) via LOCAL distribution.
Montreal-based BC natives Nicholas "Neil" Diamonds and Alden Ginger make minimal "crackle pop (that assholes can enjoy)" with keyboards, guitar and a touch of drums, as heard on their charmingly goofy and geeky indie album Unicorns Are People Too. The duo is already recording a "hotttt" follow-up for local label Alien8, as well as preparing coy jokes, rock poses and his n' his costumes for a slew of shows in the coming months.
This psychedelic Moog music quartet is a staple in Montreal's indie art rock scene, evoking space age live vibes with "post-retro-futurist" sounds and visual effects. On their Plays the Music CDR series (on Total Zero/Scratch), the band covers and converts songs by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hawkwind, Iron Butterfly, the Beatles, Sun Ra and more. The prolific four release a three-inch disc called Orion's Belt next month, followed by the Unireversed "I Feel Love" on a split 12-inch with electro act Lesbians on Ecstasy. Next stop, studio album. (www.unireverse.com)
The World Provider
This Quebec City-born crooner started providing the world with gritty Casio anthems over in Toronto in 1999, when Peaches co-produced his debut CDR. A higher-fi sophomore album cometh later this year and an EP called Peep Inside the World Provider is out this month in Montreal, where the ambitious entertainer has charmed crowds with his inspirational tunes and jackass stripteases since 2001. Tragically, he's lost his miniature track suit but promises more peeling once another cool costume comes along.