Goodbye Montreal


Three months has gone by quickly, quick enough to remind me how quickly time passes even when you’re not having fun, and actually doing really mundane things.

Just walking around this city makes me realise how much I like it, even while realising how little I’ve scratched the surface of Montreal, or the huge expanse of Quebec – Canada’s largest state – outside the city limits. The broad streets lined with bare-branched winter trees, improbably wide North American cars, and the brick triplexes that are unique to this city (a housebuilding split into three flats with a presumably lethal-when-iced stairway to each); the alleyways between streets one can look down that keep going for miles through block after block; the cafes and bars whose names I don’t know and never visited, and all those I did; the 1960s metro, filled with modern art and stained glass, with trains running inexplicably on rubber tyres instead of rails; the easy beauty of your womenfolk, and they way they can veer from restrained European chic to dancing drunkenly on tables and bars in the blink of an eye, the tip of a cocktail.

Histoire de la Musqiue à Montréal, by Frédèric Back, 1967
Downtown Montréal as seen from the mountain.

I’ve loved the view from your mountain, la montagne, paths of crunchy russet leaves opening onto views of the steel towers of Montreal’s once important but now eclipsed business district, and behind it Buckminster Fuller’s dome for Expo ’67, the Habitat 67 housing blocks beyond the port, like a jumble of Lego blocks fallen mismatched, overlapping each other, and beyond that the vast expanse of the St Lawrence valley.

Habitat 67, designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the Montréal's Expo '67.

I was startled by the Olympic Stadium from 1976 – a year before I was born, it’s scandalous sweeping concrete curves and towers still conjuring the optimism of a future that was imagined decades before, still hoped for despite wars in Vietnam, the oil crisis, hyperinflation, economic and environmental decay.

Le stade olympique never got its opening roof to work properly, and took the city 30 years to pay back the $1.47bn it cost lending "the Big O" the new nickname "The Big Owe".

I loved your powdery snow, snow so fine it clung to everything yet still failed to infiltrate my shoddy footwear, and I loved your crisp, wintry days – such a change from overcast Britain – where a cold winter’s day could still bring sun and blue skies and send the ladies who lunch from Outrement scuttling out to bask around coffee at café tables. I loved speaking your names in your language, like “Mo’rey’el” and “Aray-anne”, and just speaking your language in general, or hearing it percolated through a slew of different dialects and regions; Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire.

He wasn't busking. He just comes to impersonate Hendrix for fun.

I met local lunatics dressed as Jimmy Hendrix, dancing jerkily like they were plugged into the mains; Frenchmen by the score looking for work; Anglophone students from Alberta exhausted from defending themselves just because they hailed from the oil-rich west; and endless folk espousing the excellence of the Montréal bagel over the New York bagel, or viande fumée over pastrami.

But in the final analysis you wouldn’t give me a job, you bastards, and if I can’t work I can’t stay. I feel I can blame the government in part – Canada is the world’s second largest country, but has a population of 30 million. There are more people in London than in Quebec and all the Maritime provinces put together, so it seems to me there’s room to spare. Schoolboy French, a glass ceiling and a culture of jobs-through-contacts didn’t help either.

(The “working holiday” visa that would have made this process much easier is only available up until age 30 – unless you’re French or, curiously, Irish. Perhaps it’s because they’re Catholic.)

Montréal bagels: more bready, less cakey and dense as those from NYC

And so I shall see in 2012 in New York City, returning only to Toronto for a couple of weeks before heading west to Detroit and Chicago. I won’t “see the real winter” as Montrealais keep reminding me, although I’m sure that continental Illinois and Michigan are not going to be exactly tropical by comparison.

Now that's some snow.

My French has improved, for sure, but not enough, and not well enough to cope with the local dialect spoken at speed and against the backdrop of pub noise. I bought some dresses for my niece and chatted to the shopkeeper for some minutes before the question of where I was from came up, and she explained she’d only been in Montreal for about as long as I – she was Parisienne. This made perfect sense as I could actually understand her, instead of just looking increasingly baffled until the inevitable switch to English, as with the locals.

I never found my groove, my niche, my social security number nor job to get up for in the morning. Which made for a funny sort of visit, neither touristy nor living and working. The most I had to show was a morning spent doing psychological clinical trials for $100 and three days of painting and decorating.

So I leave not a penny, nary a sous, richer. But richer for the experience.

Vitalic: fat beats and tall stories

Vitalic, photo by Lisa Carletta -
Vitalic, photo by Lisa Carletta

When electronic musician Vitalic, aka 33-year-old Frenchman Pascal Arbez, released his Poney EP in 2001, its thrashy guitar-tinged electrohouse sound set the tone for years afterwards. At the same time, Arbez indulged in a touch of Gallic mischief by creating outlandish fictional biographies in his interviews. The Big Issue caught up with him as he began a new European tour.

What bands have you’ve encountered recently that you like?

Last week I was in Leeds and Reading festivals and saw Deadmau5, he’s not popular in France but here in front of a really busy crowd it was spectacular. An album I’m listening to a lot is La Roux. I really love the Lifelike remixes, I prefer them to the original. It’s like French disco. And I love Major Lazer’s dancehall reggae.

When you started recording as Vitalic you made these stories, claiming to be Ukrainian and a former prostitute. Why the man-of-mystery routine? It was not planned, really. Before the release of the first album the label asked me to provide them with a biography. I thought, maybe I could fake something for fun and see what happens. I had a contract with another record company so I thought I’d try and be someone else to not upset anyone. At the beginning it was really cool, but they discovered me eventually.

Do people still ask you whether it’s all true? Yeah, people still ask me. I don’t regret it at all, it was funny.

The new album’s called Flashmob. What do you think of flashmobs? I think they’re a bit weird, a bit fun. In the UK they’ve become a bit commercial which is not the case elsewhere. I like the process – people who don’t know each other meet to do something crazy together just for a few minutes and than then go home.

I suppose once you see it in mobile phone adverts it loses something. Yeah, it’s not about performing any more, it’s about selling things

In France there’s a big underground techno scene. Did you go to raves when you were growing up? I was never really into that super hardcore sound, I liked music festivals with bands. We did used to have small free parties with 1,000 or 2,000 people which were great fun, a good size so you feel you know everybody.

Flashmob seems a bit mellower than the first album, you’ve dropped that thrashy, rock sound. Is that a conscious decision? Well, when everybody’s doing the same thing, you have to move to something different, refresh your ears.

You were quoted as saying techno is boring. What are referring to? At the time, around 2000, everybody was copying [legendary Detroit techno producer] Jeff Mills, everyone was a fake Jeff Mills. I have the same feeling now, now that electroclash, minimal sound is everywhere – it’s very boring.

Being devil’s advocate, the techno purist would say that 90s style of minimal techno influenced by Detroit and Tresor Records, it works by building up many layers of percussion into an irresistible, hard, funky groove. The electrohouse style is just a house beat with a big bassline, or a big keyboard stab. Do you think it’s too simplistic? No depth to it? I think it’s a question of taste, it’s difficult to say what’s simple or not. I think the most difficult thing is to find is a good bassline. The more you put in layers of drums and things then the more you lose the melody.

How do you play live? The bass and drums are pre-programmed, I have blocks of drum loops and bass leads. I vocode the vocals and play with the loops and use synthesisers, but I don’t play the melodies by hand.

We have the Kanye West album in the office… it’s too much. Is this the end of the vocoder? I think it’s more the end of autotune rather than vocoder. Vocoder keeps some of the voice’s frequencies, it’s different. I am a bit fed of up autotune. It’s very easy but it’s effective, that’s why it’s everywhere.

I blame Cher. Oh yes – Life after Love. Ha, I remember when I was living in Guilford…

I’m sorry. I was a student, it was great. That song was massive here, it was everywhere.

What were you studying? Economics.

So you’ve managed to avoid having an economics day job? So far. It’s more fun being a musician.

Both albums work as albums, not just a collection of singles – there are dancefloor and mellow tracks. Is there a difference in how you write them? Do they come from a different part of you? I think it’s a question of mood. It would be very difficult to write a dance track if I’m not feeling it. It’s not an exercise. I don’t sit down and say: today I will write a sad track.

The track Alain Delon particularly sounds very Jean Michel Jarre, it has that atmospheric, analogue keyboard sound. Is he a big influence? In France it’s bad taste to say you like Jarre. Many musicians admire him but will never tell. I don’t like his new stuff, it’s too cheesy, but his early work, Oxygene and Rendevous… He has a talent for programming and melody.

You track Still has a strange, Romanian gypsy, almost tribal sound to the vocal. Who is that singing? It’s just my voice, through lots of effects (laughs).

Really? Just your voice? The marvels of technology. I don’t have sessions with Romanian singers.

Someone called you the Wagner of techno. Do you think that’s a compliment? You think it’s not a compliment?

I don’t know, what do you think? Well… I’m no friend of Hitler. I don’t know if it’s a compliment, but it’s a good description at least.

Have you played any festivals this summer? Leeds and Reading, Lowlands and Pinkpop in Holland.

I keep meaning to go to I love Techno in Belgium. I’m playing there this year. I’ve been three times – if you like techno, it’s the place to go.

The thing about British festivals is you just know it’s going to rain. I saw a t-shirt at Reading, it said ‘It’s not the same without the rain’. I think you English like it really.

Vitalic plays live at Matter in the 02 Dome on November 28. Flashmob is out now on Play It Again Sam.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2009]