Navigating electronic music in
a strange city
By my second day at Mutek, I had enough of a grasp of the city’s logistics to feel ready to explore a little more (read about my first day here). I woke up late, wolfed down a crepe and booked it over to the Monument-National building to catch a live Q&A that Robert Hood was doing with the Wire magazine. To my surprise, following the boozy delirium of the party he’d headlined last night, the fresh-faced, 54-year-old elderstatesmen spent the greater part of the hour talking about god. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d expect to hear in the techno-progressive, academic environment of Mutek’s daytime programming, but when the born-again man and former Underground Resistance explained his conviction in the inherent compatibility of God and minimal techno (“it’s about exalting what’s essential”), it was hard to not feel strangely moved, if not a bit confused, by how inseparable music can be from our spiritual impulses.
After the talk, still wrapping my mind around the experience, I decided to put in my earbuds and try to find my way over to the Arbutus Records office while listening to Julia Holter’s delicately cosmic new single, “World,” on repeat. It was hot and muggy as hell outside, and I was worried about how many incidental data roaming charges I would wrack up on my cellphone bill by trying to Google map my way out to Montreal’s industrial Outremont neighborhood. As someone who once spent a good two weeks mapping out a family tree of pretty much every Canadian artist affiliated with Grimes and Montreal’s flagship, Anglophone weird music label, it felt like a pretty necessary pilgrimage to make—especially because SFV Acid was playing a pop-up show there, probably because it was Mutek weekend. I got on the wrong bus, located the right one and whizzed past a landmark Kosher delicatessen called Schwartz’s on my way up Saint Laurent. I walked what felt like a pretty long way under the needling gaze of the sun, and paused to snap a few photos of the strange, glob-like piles of fuzzy white plant seeds that seemed to be accumulating everywhere on the street.
Inside the large loft building where Arbutus Records is located, the scene was everything I expected, just about 60 degrees hotter (for some reason, probably because they’re from Canada, I’d always imagined the label’s roster to live in a perpetual state of cold). A door in a concrete stairwell opened up into a room full of faces that I’d mostly only seen on the Internet. Arbutus employee Marillis Cardinal was standing at a makeshift bar, doling out bottles of Kronenbourg 1664 to a crowd that included D’eon, Tops’ Jane Penny and a handful of bohemian-looking youths in colorful fabrics, vibing out to a Blue Hawaii DJ set with some of the most extravagant bodily contortions I’d seen all weekend. One of these vibey dancers was none other than Magical Cloudz’ Devon Welsh, but when SFV Acid’s Zane Reynolds finally sat down to play—slanting to one side and looking bored out of his skull as he extracted a few snappy house productions out of some hardware on a table—Woodhead retired to a solitary seat on the ground, suddenly and inexplicably lost in thought.
The experience almost felt like it could have been constructed for a scene piece on the Arbutus family, but I had to get back to Mutek. I went outside and found a cab driver in mid-negotiation with a hipsterish young man who seemed to belong to the building. From what I could glean from the conversation, which occurred entirely French, the cab driver was there to see if the young man could teach his son how to play the drums. During a lag in the discussion, I asked him if he could take me downtown to the festival, and he told me he would if I waited for him to drive home and fetch his son. He returned about 15 minutes later, escorted a grade-school-age boy into the loft and, as promised, drove me to the festival, explaining that he wanted his son to play in his church’s gospel choir. I paid my fare and wandered into the ultra-modern Vitrine cultural center, thinking that it was strange how god and music had become a recurring theme that day at Mutek.
Inside la Vitrine, the walls were flickering with delicate, geometrical veins of multi-colored light. I bought a ticket for another audiovisual event called “Dromos,” and wandered my way into a large, planetarium-like dome where festival-goers were splayed out across an assortment of low-lying cushions. I shut off my cellphone and took in a presentation by a French duo called Maotick and Fraction, genuinely confused by its unfolding series of optical illusions, which occasionally made the rounded ceiling of theater look like it was reaching in an infinite hallway up to the sky.
By the time I arrived at the Metropolis to catch the fest’s penultimate evening of headlining dance music acts, both Mutek and the strip-club-ridden Saint Laurent were gearing up for Saturday night. A crowd of French-speaking punk kids were chatting and smoking butts outside a theater advertising an appearance by Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death, and inside the Metropolis, the electronic kids were getting equally turned up before a spiritedly dancing Laurel Halo, who somehow managed to put on what was simultaneously the most sonically disjointed and rhythmically driving show I heard at Mutek this year. (full disclosure: Laurel is a friend and former roommate.) It was also one of the most challenging sets I heard at the Metropolis, and it made Barcelona house producer John Talabot, who arrived onstage with traveling partner and Fin collaborator Pional, sound comparatively like straight pop. Seeing Pional sing on some of the tracks made me realize me that I hadn’t seen anyone sing the whole weekend, and hearing both of the Barcelona musicians beat syncopated rhythms onto their drum pads and cymbals reminded me that I also hadn’t seen anyone play anything remotely resembling a conventional instrument.
As New York-based producer John Roberts set up on stage, I thought about how I had come to Mutek thinking that I was entering a world that was very niche, only to find that it was populated by dozens of niches, even niches within niches. Between the electro-acoustic people, the experimental techno people and the more pop-oriented people who happened to find themselves there, it was hard to tell if there was any single experience that everybody present had come to Mutek looking for—and whether it was more an experience for the head, an experience for the body, or something more elusive entirely. But I knew what mine was after John Roberts riled up the late-night crowd with a warming set of delicately unfolding techno. Down in the lobby, a friend of mine asked why I had liked it so much, and I realized that the rush it gave me felt so new and different that I didn’t have the words to explain why yet.
1. Scan of receipts from Mutek weekend.
2. Instagram @emiliefriedlander
3. Mautik & Fraction; photography Caroline Hayeur.
4. Laurel Halo, photography Miguel Legault.