The weird and wonderful progeny of Montreal’s Arbutus Records community were all finally physically transported to international audiences this year. On stage in front of you, the unifying vein invigorating their individual interpretations of loose pop music forms grip you harder and reach into you deeper than most live acts manage. Arbutus’ releases by Grimes, Doldrums, Tops, Blue Hawaii, Braids, Sean Nicholas Savage, Tonstartssbandht and alumnus Majical Cloudz have increasingly marked this label from a "pay close mind to" to one of today's most vital and radical pop culture institutions.
Sebastian Cowan, aided closely by Marilis Cardinal and Taylor Smith, initially founded Arbutus upon ideals that stem directly from the ethos of Constellation Records. As Woodhead declared, “The Arbutus label is about curating everyone’s individuality as opposed to making everybody sound the same and sellable. It’s about making sure everyone’s doing what they want to do more... contrary to the current trend which is to gentrify everything and make everything into one sound.” From the luminous lullaby techno of Blue Hawaii to Sean Nicholas Savage’s provocative cabaret confessionals, from Doldrums frenetic sample-feasts to Tops’ hazy dream pop – the music created by the acts is still enchantingly disparate. Quite a few of these acts were actually initially drawn into exploration of pop terrain by Sean Nicholas Savage and Tops’ David Carriere’s former band, Silly Kissers, which cleared the last of the hangover of the nineties’ heavily anti-populist attitude. This inherent outsider population’s ethos and community spirit also remains firmly rooted in DIY and strongly influenced by Montreal’s noise scene, as Sebastian explained, “The noise scene is super important. I value it as music, but I think at least with my experience of Montreal it’s about doing something, making something happen, pushing things forward. It’s a lot about the community that surrounds it, so we kind of took that sentiment and worked it into our pop music thing.”
I was lured to Montreal for the Pop Montreal festival late last year and watching Tops play at Arbutus’ current home, La Brique – a studio, office and event space- surrounded by label family, it was clear how much everyone in this group still genuinely roots for each other’s success. As Tops’ Jane Penny told me, “It’s more like people pop up for a little bit so it’s their turn. Not like they’re up there forever and you’re down here forever... The fact that we’ve stayed together as a community – that’s been really valuable.” As Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, said, “It’s everyone all working all the time. When everyone’s doing it you start doing it too. It’s always like, there’s this show on Friday. Everyone wants to play this show. You have to get your shit together. It’s this motivating factor of everyone else being really motivated.” Residents can also live on a few day’s salary a month freeing up invaluable time to create. The Quebecois language laws chased big business away from Montreal in the 1980s, shortly after the city’s progressive, liberal ideals of the 60s and 70s had begun to crumble. Subsequently, living costs were steeply lowered and industrial buildings emptied, ripe for conversion into a multitude of the DIY arts spaces which were so intrinsic to Arbutus' foundation.
People feel secure where they are here. They’re not looking to get anything out of playing the show except to play the show
The Arbutus label was borne in 2008 of an arts collective formed around the DIY, live-work, Lab Synthese space. It was brought into being by Sebastian Cowan, Alexander Cowan, Ezra Gray, Jeff Boyd and fast-rising video director, Emily Kai Bock amongst others. As Kai Bock summarised their time there: “It was really intense and beautiful. Living in a public space with a PA next to your bedroom was arduous, but the glow of inspiration that filled the room during the shows, and the rich conversations that lasted late into the night would sometimes leave me with a deep sadness that such an oasis of collaboration couldn't last forever. That's why it's been so beautiful to witness the harvest of musical success that has been reaped by Lab's cultivation of talent. I can credit my own time at lab for housing my first performance works, documentaries, and music videos which all happened within those 2000 square feet.”
A large portion of international fans were initially drawn to Arbutus’ output by Grimes’ 2012-dominating ‘Visions’ LP – released through 4AD, after the label put out three LPs by Claire Boucher, practically printed by hand. Lab Synthese was a vital testing space, and though now industry eyes are pointed towards its current incarnation as La Brique, it’s still way off the beaten track. An enclave nestled geographically just beyond, but still a vital part of, the tight-knit Anglophone community of Montreal’s Mile End. This hugely creative domain was made for artists by artists, with DIY heritage rooted deep within its very fibre. This has naturally lead its inhabitants to somewhat spurn the attentions of those whose sole will is to spin profit from their works. As I was told by Caila Thomson-Hannant, Mozart’s Sister, a stalwart of the Arbutus community, “Montreal’s a really great gestation place. It gracefully straddles the line of being a very happening city for the arts, but still industry doesn’t really come here. There is a level of disdain for it I guess.”
The Lab Synthese days were also vital to the honing of live shows that are so forcefully human, and, in many instances, overtly theatrical. The artists incubated playing parties there, and in other DIY loft spaces, from the super intimate to those of three hundred guests. These were mostly friends, who would engage directly. This saved the acts from the usual cowing round of first shows in other cities, where artists play to wholly new audiences of distracted strangers, flecked with some who will immediately pass career-determining judgement. As native Montrealer, electronic artist, Mike Silver, CFCF put it: “People feel secure where they are here. They’re not looking to get anything out of playing the show except to play the show.
"It’s all these weird egos who feel like it’s cool to be themselves... It’s cool to see this freedom of expression. People just do whatever they want.” Playing in real gig venues on proper tours has subsequently turned out to be a little jarring for some. As Airick Woodhead of Doldrums said recently, “I guess for some people (in the audience) it’s like going to a movie, like it’s the same thing, but it’s not. There’s more to it then that. It can be a really, really good experience for people.” The retention of the will to create an experience or an event akin to their first loft party shows, as opposed to just playing a set, is a key part of what has kept these artists so magnetic. As Devon Welsh, Majical Cloudz describes it, “It feels better for me and I respect any artist that attempts to get to that point where the audience and the performer are together in this performance, they’re sharing something beyond a set list and a cover charge.”
Cover Image By Emily Kai Bock