Andrew Ryce profiles an artist who's bringing a new breed of house music to Montreal.
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When I met up with him this past spring during MUTEK festival, Patrick Holland lived on an odd little street in Montreal called Beaubien Ouest, between busy Little Italy and gentrifying Mile Extension. With a Home Depot on one end and train tracks on the other, the street only runs a few blocks, and it's not much to look at, but this unassuming neighbourhood is home to Montreal's best music. Up and down Boulevard Saint-Laurent, just off Beaubien, there are venues, lofts and afterhours spots. Just down the street, on Durocher, there's the Arbutus Records office and studio, a hub for Montreal's up-and-comers. And above a dépanneur on Beaubien itself was Holland's home studio. (He now lives a few blocks away.)
The artist otherwise known as Project Pablo has been making this little street his own. Earlier this year he launched a record label called Sounds Of Beaubien Ouest, co-founded with Seb Cowan of Arbutus Records. So far, SOBO has released a stellar EP from Holland himself, Beaubien Dream, which outlines a leisurely house sound that feels like the culmination of what he's been building on for two years—a warm and homespun take on a style that originated in Canada's West Coast hotspot, Vancouver.
The similarity isn't coincidental. Though Holland has put down roots in Montreal since moving there in 2014, he was born and raised in Vancouver. (I first met him when he worked at a coffee shop just down the street from my apartment.) He got his musical start in Vancouver, too, and like most of the city's current crop of DJs and producers, his tracks have a musical quality that reflects a background away from dance music.
"I listened to so much Dave Matthews Band," he told me over coffee in the kitchen of his outrageously cheap two-bedroom apartment. He's quiet and a little shy, more of a music nerd than a party-starter. That music knowledge comes through in his rich melodies, a result of being raised on a diet of rock music.
"My dad listened to tons of different types of music, my mom not so much. Because of the whole disco thing—you know, white people in North America—they were basically shut off from that type of music after the '70s."
By college Holland was a big fan of moody bands like Radiohead. He discovered dance music relatively late, exploring Vancouver's growing party scene while he pursued a sciences degree at the University Of British Columbia. There, he met a fellow student named Chester, who introduced him to the idea of making electronic music. Bored with his education, Holland dropped out of UBC and moved to the hippie haven Tofino on Vancouver Island, just across the Salish Sea. He worked at a campground, surfed and toyed with electronic music in his spare time.
After a period of "fooling around," Holland moved back to Vancouver to pursue music full time—this time at Simon Fraser University in nearby suburb Burnaby. Future Montreal transplant and accomplished drone artist Sarah Davachi was one of his teaching assistants. He took classes that taught him about music theory and composition—how to write duets for cello and viola, for example. He eventually dropped out of that program, too, but not without learning skills that would help him tease out the musicality that became his trademark.
Holland started his first real musical project, 8prn, in 2012, when he was just 19. 8prn was a product of Vancouver's once-bustling bass music scene, which was going through an uneasy transitional stage at the time, torn between the dubstep heyday and an uncertain next phase that was splintered into different camps—drum & bass, house, trap, EDM and so forth. Though it has almost nothing in common with Project Pablo on the surface, the music of 8prn still carried Holland's keen melodic sense, if wrapped in a more downcast aesthetic.
The name 8prn came from the call sign of the ship where Holland spent part of his high school days. It was also where he first encountered house music, from his South African and German classmates, even if he didn't really get it then.
"It was a tall ship, like 50 metres," he says. "I sailed across the Atlantic four times. And that ship was 8prn. Two weeks after I got off, the ship sunk—with all my friends on it, too. Nobody died, but the ship is at the bottom of the ocean. It was like 500 miles off the coast of Brazil."
Holland fell in with Chapel Sound, a Vancouver crew of producers around his age who orbited around trap and bass music. With guidance from this community and scene veteran Michael Red—who kick-started Vancouver's dubstep scene and has since remained the region's guru for all things bass—Holland got a handful of gigs at venues like The Keefer (a swanky cocktail lounge), the Astoria (a notorious dive bar turned hipster hangout) and The Waldorf, a once-beloved venue that incubated much of Vancouver's modern dance music scene.
As the post-dubstep scene crystallized into trap, however, Holland found himself feeling out of place. He was playing at trendier venues like Fortune Sound Club, where he didn't quite understand the crowd or his fellow DJs. He would play nights focused on trap and hip-hop, and he was billed alongside artists like Kaytranada, none of whom represented where he was at musically.
"I just realized that I was in this scene, and I was like, how did I get here?" he says. "How did I move so far away from the stuff I did with people like Michael Red? They helped me out, and then I moved out of that."
Around the same time, Holland was getting a taste for house and disco through Vancouver's nascent afterhours scene. These were a loose network of events thrown at makeshift venues and studios by the likes of Mood Hut and Derek Duncan. Duncan, before starting the Pacific Rhythm record store and label, ran a blog called Leisure Collective that was another formative influence, both on Vancouver and Holland specifically. These events had a loose music policy that encompassed house, disco, techno, yacht rock, boogie, soul and jazz. More importantly for Holland, they were laid-back and non-judgmental, especially compared to the more fashion-conscious, trend-driven bass music scene.
In 2013, Holland attended New Forms, the city's premiere experimental electronic festival, which he'd already played once and that would eventually alter the course of his career. It was Delroy Edwards' set in particular—which memorably started with a brutal Jeff Mills record before switching gears every few tracks—that made the biggest impression on him. Though Holland's music and approach are nowhere near as abrasive as Edwards', he still had a simple epiphany.
"I would enjoy being a part of this," he thought. "But I've gotta do it my way."
Project Pablo—a nickname he'd been given in Spanish class back in high school—was a blank slate for Holland. The first two releases, which landed on the New Forms-affiliated Hybridity label in 2014, were promising but meek, the product of someone learning about house music from the people and sounds around him. But the Vancouver scene was starting to rub off on him in a big way.
"Everyone was in bands before, or is musically inclined," he says. "They all studied instruments. Taking that into dance music made it a different approach, especially because a lot of other people go into making dance music right off the bat. It's super melodic, everything is super in tune."
Though Holland felt the city and its scene were welcoming enough, at 22, he was younger than most of his peers, and he didn't quite feel like he fit in. So he did what many young artists do when they want to get serious about their careers: packed up and moved to the cheapest city he could think of.
Montreal has a long been a haven for artists. It's Canada's cultural capital, and thanks to strict language laws that drove business out of Montreal and into Toronto in the late '70s, it's also inexpensive to live in. Holland made the five-day drive with his only friend from high school and moved to the Parc Extension, an out-of-the-way neighbourhood that, for better or worse, was just far-flung enough to feel completely isolated from the busy scene just a mile or two away.
"I totally thought we were moving into a neighbourhood that everyone else lived in," Holland says, "and we got there, and it was like, families everywhere. Nobody really speaks English or French up there. It's a multicultural neighbourhood, it's a beautiful place. But when you don't know anyone and you're looking to meet people, it's tough. And our living situation was difficult. We just didn't make friends for a long time. I just sat in my room, and that's when I wrote basically the whole 1080p album."
That album, I Want To Believe, though mostly written in Montreal, bears the unmistakable mark of the so-called Canadian Riviera, full of bright keyboard riffs and thick basslines, some of which were played live by Jeremy Dabrowski of Montreal band Noni Wo. There were jaunty tunes like "Why, Though" and "Follow It Up," tracks that captured an almost mischievous sense of melody written into firm, funky grooves.
The tape's signature track was actually the one written before the move to Montreal, appropriately called "Movin' Out." With its wistful chords and dance floor melancholy, it bears resemblance to the music of Mood Hut, but Pablo's signature was in the bassline—a clue towards what would become the defining dimension of Holland's work.
The new sound was a mixture of what Holland absorbed from Vancouver as well as a bout of second-hand record collecting that started after he moved to Montreal, particularly at a store called La Fin Du Vinyle, where he delved deep into the city's dance music history, finding records with old names and addresses scrawled on the labels.
Holland is part of a long lineage of Canadian DJs and producers who specialize in a welcoming, vintage and sometimes even kitschy brand of disco-influenced dance music. See Holland play and you'll hear new jams alongside obvious hits and obscure oldies, the same kind you'd get from Koosh in Victoria, Dane in Edmonton or DJ D.DEE in Vancouver.
But as much as his music feeds off the energy he first found in Western Canada, Holland is tapping into something that he feels is distinctly Montreal. His label, Sounds Of Beaubien Ouest, embodies his neighbourhood the same way Mood Hut does theirs, and Holland's live-feeling approach takes some inspiration from the Arbutus Records axis that sits just a few buildings over. At that label and its events, indie rock and dance music collide. In addition to Grimes' breakout album Visions, Arbutus has released records from the likes of Blue Hawaii, Doldrums and Lydia Ainsworth.
Though it's only one release in, SOBO is promising primarily because it's released Holland's best material yet, including the wistful guitar jam of "Beaubien Dream" and the lazy summer anthem "Closer," a track that was drawing cheers of recognition months before it came out on wax. SOBO was also meant as a way to reach out to the Francophone community in Montreal, coming from an Anglophone who turns sheepish when he admits that he can't speak French. "Seb and I talked about the idea of doing a name that was half English, half French," he says. "Because that's a big thing in this scene—connecting those two. It's happening more and more. I think they're welcoming us in, more than the other way around."
Montreal, as the sole bilingual city in Québec (where French is the only official language), has a bit of a divide. Anglophone crews skew experimental and crossover, while traditional techno and house events (like Piknic Électronik, or more recently, La Bacchanale) lean more Francophone. SOBO, with its own crossover inclinations, seems like a natural bridge.
"When you're an Anglophone and you don't speak French, it all depends on your attitude towards it, how you get treated," Holland says. "I would feel totally comfortable at any Francophone party—me and Hashman [Deejay] actually played one about a month ago, I didn't know many people and it was really fun, I was treated so positively."
SOBO is proof that Holland is settling in just fine. Calling the label "fully vibe-based," not all its releases will come from Montreal artists—the next one is from Udacha affiliate Untitled Gear, who lives in Russia—but the music he picks is in line with the sights and sounds of his home, and what he's come across with there.
Recently landing releases on Rotterdam's Clone Royal Oak and London-based Magicwire, Holland is also starting to make waves internationally. It's not hard to see why. His leisurely music is easy to like, and the more of it he makes, the more his idiosyncrasies shine through—jangly melodies, wandering basslines, and thick textures that nod to disco and classic dance music without directly copying it.
I saw Holland play live at MUTEK a few days after our interview. It was Sunday, the last night of the festival, when things are usually a little more subdued, but not this time. Holland played a set with only one previously released song ("Closer," of course, which he reprised with a breakbeat coda). People whooped and hollered with every new zig-zagging bassline. I got the sense that everyone in that room, from friends to strangers seeing him for the first time, was as excited about his music as I was. After he played, Holland all but disappeared. I found him later sipping a beer by himself in the back of the room, as quiet and humble as ever.