For many years, however, Montreal's story was easy to relate: Despite the efforts of Tiga, who brought many of the freshest sounds to the city first, the scene had no underground to speak of. But through the efforts of Alain Mongeau—the bookish program chair of the International Symposium of Electronic Arts with a passion for techno—and a host of DJs/producers/supporters, that all changed around the turn of the century. Mongeau's brainchild—the Mutek festival—helped to foster a scene in the city that still resonates in the world of electronic music today.
In advance of the tenth edition of the festival, we talked to Mongeau and a variety of other people instrumental in shaping the festival to tell us about its origins, its early success and what it has meant to both Montreal and the world at large.
Adam Marshall: Montreal was always the younger brother to Toronto, musically. It was always a little bit cheesier, and a little bit more European—in bad ways. Toronto had much more of a connection with Detroit and hip-hop. Although there weren't a lot of people into house and techno the way that I was, there were a lot of influences colliding which I think was a good thing.
Jean-Patrice Remillard: Toronto was very impressive to us in Montreal back then. They had a huge rave scene and so many people into the music. Montreal was lagging behind, although we had people like Tiga who would always drop things six months before they came out.
Alain Mongeau: One of the first techno events that I went to in Montreal—one of the first held here—was organized by Tiga. I think there were more people from Toronto than from Montreal though. It took many years before the French speaking crowd here picked up on it. At the time that those parties were starting in Montreal, I was writing my PhD and I was really depressed with the whole thing, so I always say that techno saved my life. It gave me a life outside of books and the university.
Jeff Milligan: At a certain point in Toronto, there was a Criminal Justice Bill-like tightening up of the industry, when the fire department and the Mayor decided it was no longer good for society in general that these parties were going on.
Adam Marshall: Toronto in the late '90s had such a large rave scene that it was getting to the point that what happened with the laws was really the only thing that could have happened. Things were getting a little out of hand. I like a good party, but when you have 13 year-olds overdosing every weekend... At that point, I think the bigness of everything drove a lot of my friends out of the scene. It's great to play to 10,000 people, but when the party is horrible and you hate everything there, it's artistically suffocating. [laughs]
Jeremy P. Caulfield: In Toronto, it had to appeal to the lowest common denominator, so the flyers were super cheesy and the line-ups were competing to bring in more people. There was nothing about building any sort of community. At the same time, everybody thanks these huge parties for going on to create a base where people could migrate into smaller clubs and parties that we ended up throwing.
Sheldon Thompson: It was good for us in Toronto—it made us push to look for something else.
Jeff Milligan: When the rave scene crumbled in Toronto, a lot of people went off to run clubs and booking agencies and stuff like that. And there was an agency in the city that viewed people like Mike Shannon, Jeremy P. Caulfield, Adam Marshall and myself as competition for their artists. And because of that there was a short period of time where we were all out of work, so it forced us directly into the studio. And we all developed a lot of studio skill as a result after establishing ourselves as DJs.
Mike Shannon: There definitely wasn't a lot of crossover between Montreal and Toronto, but I started to play in Montreal a little bit more often when Scott Monteith began booking some parties in the city.
Jean-Patrice Remillard: There was a really good core of people in Montreal that were really interested in experimenting and were hungry for music that had nothing to do with clubs that we had in the city.
Alain Mongeau: When we started Mutek, it was really meant to be an alternative to the club or afterhours scene that was happening in Montreal. That scene here, at least, was about making money—and not so much about nurturing an evolution per se.
Jean-Patrice Remillard: We had a lot of clubs, but there was no place to listen to music like we wanted—music that wasn't built for the dance floor, but still had a groove.
Alain Mongeau: In 1997, I became involved with the Montreal film festival. I was in charge of the New Media section of the festival, and that's kind of where I laid the groundwork for what Mutek was to become. At the film festival every year, I came up with a project called the Media Lounge, which would take a space somewhere in the city and transform it into an immersive environment full of technology.
Jean-Patrice Remillard: The Media Lounge was basically like Mutek, except [it was] oriented towards visual experimentation. That was part of the film festival, and Alain wanted to make a festival dedicated to the music side.
Alain Mongeau: Although it was a film festival, I was dealing a lot with music, because it was my job to define new media in relation to image making. Image technology wasn't so advanced back then, so my theory was that if you want to know where all of this is heading, you need to look at sound culture and how advanced it had become. In that context, I presented a lot of the artists that would eventually come back for Mutek. We did a Perlon night, a ~scape night, a Basic Channel thing.
Mutek.cl 2004 - Cassy, Akufen, Ricardo Villalobos and Luciano
I was invited by Stefan Betke to play at WMF night in 2001 or so, and I of course tried to bring some records that wouldn't have been recognized in Berlin. Even so, I did take a few and just as I was thinking how funny it would be that I would be playing a record of someone who might be in the crowd, a guy who was dancing up in front leaned over to me and told me that I was playing his record. It was Martin Schopf (AKA Dandy Jack).
I lived in Chile when I was ten years old, so I became friends with Martin, and he told me that every summer they go over to Chile to spend a month there. I joined them that summer. The person who picked me up from the airport was Luciano. He held a sign with my name on it, and took me to his place where Pier Bucci and Andres Bucci and Argenis Brito were all hanging out. It was an instant immersion into what that scene was, before it became what we all know today.
While I was there it reminded me of what was happening in Montreal in the late '90s, where a lot of artists and talent were in a single area feeling a bit isolated in relation to what was happening in the rest of the world. With that thought—and Martin telling me that I should come down there to do a Mutek—the Chile version of the festival was born.
Scott Monteith: Electronic music has never really comfortably integrated into the cultural fabric of North America. Or, perhaps a more pessimistic way of saying it is: Cultural institutions simply see it as a platform for drug fuck maniacs to go and waste time.
Alain Mongeau: Electronic music back then had so many negative connotations. It's associated with the club scene - with drugs. To do something with a serious angle in this field was tricky back then—and it's still a challenge today.
Adam Marshall: You could tell that the festival had support behind it from the government, and the thought of that happening in Toronto was so foreign. It felt like the city actually wanted it there, while in Toronto you would have to do things under the cover of night.
Jean-Patrice Remillard: Alain was planning the festival and we were chatting one day at Laika—a local caféand he said, "You know, it's really difficult for me to find a name but I think we've decided on Mutek."
Alain Mongeau: In 1999, SoftImage founder Daniel Langlois opened up a sort of cultural center in Montreal called Ex-Centris, and I was hired on to be in charge of developing new media programs. The first project I put on the table was Mutek - it was probably the only way that it could have ever begun. They let me do it, but they had no clue as to what it was.
Mike Shannon: I remember Scott freaking out about the line-up, telling me that I had to come up for the first Mutek. There was a lot of hype about it in our scene in Toronto.
Jean-Patrice Remillard: Looking back, even though there were a lot of people into this music, and Mutek seemed liked it was meant to be, it took a lot of balls for Alain to try to pull this off. It certainly wasn't clear that there were enough people to make this work.
Scott Monteith: For me, the first edition of the festival was enormous. My first record came out a few months before the festival, and Alain asked me to play. And my response was, "How the hell do you play this stuff?"
Alain Mongeau: One of the ways we used to distinguish the festival was to feature only live artists, no DJs. And that's still the case today. The program consists of 98% of live acts.
Colin de la Plante: One of the bones that I always pick with Alain is the live thing. That's why all of my sets have been "live DJ" performances. My first thing was a five-turntable, experimental skipping record set, because I was trying to force the issue between "live" and "DJ" because everyone was playing live with computers.
Scott Monteith: I had just begun working for Applied Acoustics, and they were working on their initial project called Tassman which was a modular environment similar to Max/MSP or Reaktor. So I just hacked something together and tried to make it 40 minutes or so.
Adam Marshall: The mood of the whole festival was different from the party attitude that I was used to in Toronto. It was a very French thing, they were very into the art side of things.
Colin de la Plante: The thing that really impressed me about the first year was that there were so many laptops. I had never seen so many before in one weekend.
Jeff Milligan: The thing about the first Mutek was meeting all of the people that I worshipped. All at once.
Jean-Patrice Remillard: To walk on St. Laurent and come upon Vladislav Delay on the street and to be able to talk to him? It was like meeting someone from the KGB, someone that you never thought you would see in your own city. It felt like Hollywood to have all of these people in our city.
Sheldon Thompson: Mutek was the first festival that I'd been to, and it gave me the feeling that I was on par with these people that I looked up tooor at least that I was headed in the right direction.
Montreal-based creative force behind the Mutek Festival.
AKA Deadbeat. This producer has been to every Mutek and was one of its earliest evangelists among Canadian producers.
Jeremy P. Caulfield
The owner of Dumb Unit was originally based in Toronto, and moved to Berlin before many of his Canadian peers.
One of Toronto's biggest DJs in the early '90s, he moved to Montreal with Mike Shannon shortly after the festival began.
Owner of Cynosure Records, released his first full-length in 2002 on Force Inc.
AKA Pheek. The Montreal-based owner of Archipel Records, and a performer at the debut edition of the festival.
Toronto DJ and resident at Blue, which introduced the city to DJ's like Robert Hood, Richie Hawtin, DJ Hell and more.
Force Inc.'s North American representative, was instrumental in bringing many Canadian artists to the label.
AKA Pan/Tone. Was based in Toronto during Mutek's earliest years, his initial performance at the festival was in 2002.
Colin de la Plante
AKA The Mole. De la Plante was based in Victoria before moving to Montreal in 1998.
Scott Monteith: The first edition was very small potatoes. At the night shows there were maybe 100, 150 people altogether. But it was all about making global connections, finding out that there were a lot of people out there that were into it.
Alain Mongeau: A lot of people came to Montreal through the Media Lounge, and thought it was an amazing city, but they didn't make the move for some reason. What I saw with Mutek, though, was that it helped to crystallize a context that some artists from places in North America related to. It was the little thing that made people move here from Vancouver, Toronto, New York. Not necessarily to be a part of Mutek, but to be a part of what Mutek helped trigger. For maybe three or four years there seemed to be a critical mass of people who were quitting their day jobs to work on music full-time and become poorer and poorer. [laughs]
Mike Shannon: You could really feel the momentum from Montreal at a certain point.
Jeff Milligan: Mike Shannon and I moved to Montreal together a few years after the festival began. Most of the money and most of the arts community headquarters in Canada were based in Quebec. A lot of the reason that Quebec got so much was because of the distinction of being French. It was a disadvantage for the English Canadians in a way, because we had to uproot ourselves and move to Montreal, but I think Canada was trying to centralize the arts so that they could manage it and export it better. That, in the end, was a pretty good thing because it became a hub. It became our Berlin.
Scott Monteith: Jon Berry, also, was in New York at the time of the first festival and moved up to Montreal soon after.
Jon Berry: I was working for Caipirinha in New York City at the time of the first festival. That was my gig during the day, and I was doing publicity for Force Inc. as a night thing. Caipirinha was involved with doing a showcase at the first edition, so I talked a lot to Alain at the time and became really impressed with what he was trying to accomplish.
Mike Shannon: I met Jon when I was in Frankfurt. I had lunch with him, and he introduced me to the rest of the people at the label. A few months later, Jon moved to Montreal up from New York, where they were originally planning to set up a North American office. That connection was a massive part of how the festivalland the musiccprogressed.
Jeff Milligan: It was huge when Jon moved to Montreal. That's how Montreal Smoked Meat happened, how Akufen's My Way got signed. We were exposed via a very successful record label to the rest of the world.
Jon Berry: After I moved there, those relationships led to getting Akufen's My Way and the Montreal Smoked Meat compilation getting released and really bringing an international eye towards what was going on in the city. I'd like to think that I was a part of helping to publicize and persuade people that there was something really phenomenal happening at that time there.
Scott Monteith: Jon has a pretty good nose for the next big thing, and was really passionate about what Akufen was doing. And I think working with Marccand developing what he was doinggwas a big reason why he moved.
Jon Berry: Marc opened so many doors in a way for other artists from that community to shine on their own. And, of course, other labels became very aware of what was happening. He was a pivotal member of that community. My Way for me, was a very inspiring moment in dance music. I remember hearing his first tracks and being completely flabbergasted by his formulaathe radio snippets. He actually helped me get my first apartment in Montreal, and we wereeat firsttcommitted to not working together. We didn't want to not cross that line. But then we ended up spending a lot of time together that fall, listening to his music. The impact that it had with the communityyand with fansswas really amazing.
Jeff Milligan: Canada is a huge country. The distance from Vancouver to Toronto is immense, anddby European standards, at leasttthe distance from Toronto to Montreal is a lot. Having a 35 million person population in the country means that there's actually not so many people to play for. So, having such a huge geography and such a small population meant that we really had no chance in Canada unless we left.
Alain Mongeau: Everybody pushed here as hard as they could, but the market being what it was in Europe, they had to migrate over there to move to the next level. Montreal was a very important hubbit was where a lot of artists convergeddbut we weren't able to grow enough to keep everyone here.
Scott Monteith: As things grew and I realized that this was something that I wanted to do full-time, and I left Applied Acoustics, there just wasn't the infrastructure / financial backing to make it make sense to stay in Montreal. In many ways, Mutek was instrumental for things growing to the point that all of us even had to make that decision.
Colin de la Plante: I don't think I'd be where I am today without Alain's support. The sacrifices that he's made have been huge, and I love him for it.
Alain Mongeau: People sometimes ask me when I'm going to move to Europe, but the network we have been developing here in North America is really good. There's Decibel in Seattle, Communikey in Boulder, New Forms in Vancouver. I'm actually really optimistic about the future.
Jeff Milligan: In Berlin, I live a couple blocks away from Mathew Jonson, Mike Shannon and Richie Hawtin. We're all in much closer proximity than we were when we lived in our home country.
Adam Marshall: I feel way more comfortable out here than I ever did at home. I'll see someone I know on the street and go out to dinner with them. In Toronto, it never felt like that. Here, a lot of the Canadians stick together because of language and shared cultural experience.
Scott Monteith: There's a joke that's been floating around for a while about the Wagon Repair / Cynosure party in Berlin. All of the Wagon Repair guys were there, and then me, Mike Shannon, Adam Marshall and Jeff Milligan were playing as well. Konrad Black looked at me and said, "Man, if a bomb went off in this place, the Canadian electronic music scene would be reduced to Akufen."
Alain Mongeau: It leaves Mutek in a specific situation right now. With everyone moving, we need to focus going forward on a new generation of artists, which I don't think we've done quite yettbut I get the sense that it's growing. The second challenge is to make those previous artists come back. I don't know if we can get them to come back here to live again, but we need to make sure they come back as often as possible. Just to nurture the fact that we didn't lose them: they're like ambassadors.