People, I think, often say that traveling is surreal. It is, to some extent, if you view surreality as something alternative to your usual reality. It is also if you’re going to a place where bar signs are written in permanent marker and the planes are practically toy-sized. “It’s like an RV in the sky,” an uneasy passenger remarked as our plane bounced and skidded through the clouds.
Festival De Musique Émergente (Emerging Music Festival) or FME, is a yearly festival—now in its eleventh year—that takes place in a small town you’ve probably never heard of. Even if you’re Canadian. I wouldn’t say it’s an insider secret exactly, but many attendees are town locals and the fest organizers said they had no plans to further publicize or grow the event in the future. This isn’t your high school’s Battle of the Bands though: Blonde Redhead were the big-name act this year, and though I didn’t make it to the ticketed show, I did eat next to them in a church-basement-turned-cafeteria one night.
On Friday, after a thunderstorm barbecue hosted by Quebec label Bonsound, at which I ate only corn (paired with a gin and tonic) for breakfast, we were told that Random Recipe (a Montreal-based act soaking up much of the festival buzz) was playing a secret show somewhere. Around thirty damp people were herded onto a sizeable yellow school bus, where we were give a tour (en francais) of the town’s mining history. The secret show, we were told, was originally going to take place on a boat, but given the weather, this would have to do.
Our destination was a very small Orthodox church, littered with burning candles and ornate, densely colored paintings of saints. At the front of the room (the altar?) stood the four members of Random Recipe, with no mics and no electricity. Using only a bass and snare drum, a melodica and a synth, the band began to play its unique style of world-influenced, rock-driven hip-hop. Kitschy at times, but fun. After the first song, a case of beer found its way to the middle of the floor and those nearest the case passed the chilled bottles around. Though the potential for that sunny boat ride stayed in the back of my mind, the lightly incensed, dimly lit shelter made me feel cozy and the beer made the language barrier irrelevant.
One of the festival’s main venues was a towering white church (tall on the outside, tiny on the inside) unfortunately free from windows or air flow of any kind. Besnard Lakes and Suuns played there, while looking like shadows in the subdued blue lighting, practically creating smoke with their aggravated guitar work. Groenland was another Montreal act whose name seemed to be on everyone’s tongue. Catchy, sultry, females vocals, melodica (again!) and hundreds of endlessly clapping Quebecois. Last year, Godspeed! You Black Emperor played in this church—apparently things got very sweaty.
The rest of the shows took place at an outdoor stage and at bars around the city. One night, an elderly local couple (dubbed Duo Express), in front of a glowing backdrop of cosmic stars (the kind preteens plaster their ceilings with) sang guitar-accompanied karaoke for hours. Creedence Clearwater Revival, AC/DC, Joan Jett—this is where the real party was. Patrons gobbled free popcorn and guzzled beer; a tribunal of locals sat at a table, arms crossed; a dude in a chicken hat fell over while attempting to skank.
So what did I take away from FME other than the Twitter handles of some cool-ass Toronto kids? It’s good to keep things small, the less lighting the better, and always make sure there’s beer.