From ÎleSoniq to Mutek, Montreal is an electronic music haven
One week after ÎleSoniq attracted 78,000 revellers to Île Ste-Hélène for two days of electro excess, an electronic music festival of a very different kind is set to kick off its 20th edition.
Mutek, Montreal’s festival of digital creativity and electronic music, runs Tuesday to Aug. 25, providing discerning music fans with an innovative array of minimal techno, underground beats and audio-visual exploration.
But wait, there’s more. With Piknic Électronik forging ahead with its summer-long, weekly outdoor dance party on Île Ste-Hélène, and the MEG festival set to team up with the Piknic team for four days of outdoor fun from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, our city has no shortage of options for electronic music fans of all stripes.
“People said electronic music was a fad,” mused Mutek director and founder Alain Mongeau this week, looking back on the early days of his event, which launched way back at the turn of the millennium.
“I think the festival had a lot more depth than people thought,” he continued. “At the time, I said we were the first festival to emerge from digital culture, and that we were here to stay. The festival has been able to surf and adapt to the evolution of that culture. Still today, we’re as pertinent as ever.”
Growing out of its previous incarnation as an avant-garde, audio-visual branch of the Festival du nouveau cinéma, in 2000 Mutek stood in stark contrast to the rave, trip-hop and electronic party scenes of the era — and it still does.
“We were always more focused on content and artistic process and a cross-pollination of ideas than on the more commercial side of things,” said Mongeau. “And we have built on that. If you look at North America, there is not really another festival like Mutek. Between 40-50 per cent of our audience comes from outside of Quebec, so our clientele is quite dedicated, and we have no real competition.”
Mutek director Alain Mongeau says his festival doesn’t adhere to a predominant style. “We try to be as broad as possible, from the more experimental to the beat-friendly.”
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That may explain how Mutek has managed to export itself, creating satellite festivals around the world. Mutek Mexico launched in Mexico City in 2003, while Barcelona adopted its own Mutek in 2010. In the past four years, the festival has added outposts in Buenos Aires, Dubai, San Francisco and Tokyo. In each case, Mutek was approached by partners in those cities who wanted to bring the Mutek concept abroad.
“These people wanted to jump-start a cultural project in what they considered to be an environment where that kind of project was missing,” Mongeau said. “It’s about developing a festival that is much more than a festival. It’s an artistic process that sets itself apart from the perception of electronic music as party music.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with party music.
“There are a lot of clichés about (ÎleSoniq) because it’s mainstream,” said Evelyne Côté, senior manager of concerts and events at promoter Evenko, which produces the festival.
“Some people are more into underground techno and house. I felt like this year we broke the barrier.”
ÎleSoniq’s sixth edition marked a jump in attendance from last year’s 65,000, leading to discussions about the possibility of expanding to three days. Though she doesn’t want to get ahead of herself, Côté remarks that ÎleSoniq has experienced significant growth in a relatively short time, largely due to a gap it is filling in the local market.
“On a scale of 1 to 10 — 10 being the most mainstream, 1 being the most experimental and 3 being underground — Mutek is like a 2,” Côté said. “Piknic would probably be a 5. Igloofest is a 7; Osheaga (another Evenko production) as well, in terms of the electro stage. ÎleSoniq would be a solid 8.5-9, and Beachclub would be a 10.
“And there’s room for everyone in that. It’s called an ecosystem.”
Fans enjoy the music of Marshmello on Day 1 of the ÎleSoniq electronic music festival at Parc Jean-Drapeau on Friday, August 9, 2019.
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Piknic Électronik keeps the party going all summer long. A clubbier, cooler alternative to the tam-tam jam, the weekly Sunday shakedown began as a day-after comedown for the club crowd and has morphed into a Montreal institution that attracts electronic music fans of varying allegiances.
“We’re kind of a microcosm of Montreal,” said Piknic co-founder Nicolas Cournoyer. “We get all kinds of people — hippies, students, hipsters, douchebags, straight, gay, people who bring their kids. It’s very open and tolerant.”
Key to Piknic’s appeal is that it doesn’t cater to just one kind of electronic music fan. Over its 21 weekly instalments, the event mixes it up with a wide range of styles, from techno to house, dubstep and trap.
“So it’s not always the same crowd,” Cournoyer said. “Sometimes it’s younger or clubbier or more old-school. It’s a seasonal event — the sense of ritual is important. People know it’s going all summer. Sometimes they look at the weather, it’s a nice Sunday and they’re in town so they say, ‘OK, let’s go.’ They can have a good time, relax, dance and see people.”
Igloofest, Piknic’s winter counterpart, uses the same scattershot approach to draw snowsuited partiers to Jacques Cartier Pier in the Old Port every January and February, building nights around specific genres of electronic music.
“It’s harder to get people out in winter,” Cournoyer said, “so it has to be a happening.”
Igloofest brings snowsuited partiers to the Old Port every January and February.
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As it enters the home stretch of its 17th season, Piknic’s popularity shows no sign of waning. The event pulls in over 100,000 music fans per year, and that number is on the rise, having reached 112,000 in 2017 and 129,000 in 2018.
After a decade of programming its own stage as part of Osheaga — through the festival’s 2016 edition — Cournoyer’s team is joining forces with Montreal’s MEG festival in the latter’s new time slot on Labour Day weekend.
“It gives a new life to our festival,” said MEG co-founder Mustapha Terki, whose event enters its 21st edition this year, after lurking in the background of the electronic music scene and appearing in diverse incarnations over the past two decades.
Terki hopes the rejuvenated MEG will become the back-to-school dance party of reference in coming years.
“We want to position ourselves as the last event of the summer, before things start up again,” he said.
With a palette that is predominantly electronic but dips regularly into hip-hop, and assisted by a long-standing connection to France, MEG has survived by creating its own niche and playing well with others. (The festival also worked with Osheaga in the early days.)
“We all know each other,” Terki said of the city’s electronic music festivals. “It’s more about balance than competition. Mutek is super interesting, but it’s not exactly our wheelhouse; ÎleSoniq, too.”
“We get all kinds of people,” says Piknic Électronik co-founder Nicolas Cournoyer. “It’s very open and tolerant.”
Charles Prot /
Identity is everything. Mutek stands as a thinking person’s art-house answer to the hedonistic side of the club scene. Which isn’t to say the festival eschews house and techno and the fun that comes with it — but it seeks out creators for whom those terms are springboards to exploration.
“I don’t think we have a predominant style,” Mongeau said. “Au contraire, we try to be as broad as possible, from the more experimental to the beat-friendly. Our concern is always to present artists who have a signature, who have their own identity, as opposed to music that is more generic or preset.
“We try to present artists who push the envelope, who take risks.”
Asked about where Mutek meets up with an event like ÎleSoniq, Mongeau responded: “Honestly, in terms of programming there is zero overlap. It’s not at all the same reality. They’re a lot more about pure entertainment.”
Piknic and Igloofest are destination events, he opined, where people go for the experience.
“There are almost no DJs at Mutek,” Mongeau noted. “We try to highlight the artistic side more than the party. That doesn’t mean there’s not a festive side to Mutek, but it’s on a background level. We don’t want to sound like snobs — it’s not that we don’t like DJs or parties. That’s just not what the festival is. The festival is about highlighting creators, artists and musicians.”
German minimal techno producer Robert Henke, a.k.a. Monolake, opens the Mutek festival Tuesday with a pair of sets at the PY1 pyramid.
Mutek will crash the party, or at least the party site, Tuesday at 7 and 9 p.m. as it takes over Guy Laliberté’s fancy new PY1 pyramid in the Old Port for opening night, with a pair of sets by festival regular Monolake, a.k.a. German techno producer Robert Henke.
“What was presented at the pyramid this summer has been very in-your-face, which is perfect for what it is,” Mongeau said. “We thought we would do something different and offer a minimalist concert focused on sound.”
Mutek’s Nocturne series includes a Wednesday night program at Studios des 7 doigts (formerly Studio du Musée Juste pour rire) headlined by veteran American duo Matmos, who have played Mutek twice before — another of this year’s many nods to the festival’s rich history.
Thursday at 9 p.m., Nocturne 3 presents a six-hour electronic jam session at MTelus overseen by Swedish techno adventurer Sebastien Mullaert, formerly of Minilogue.
“It’s the first time in the history of Mutek we’re giving so much time to one project,” Mongeau said. “For the past year (Mullaert) has been assembling groups of different artists to share their savoir-faire.”
Mullaert’s guest list includes Vancouver house guru and Mutek favourite Mathew Jonson, Sweden’s Dorisburg and Johanna Knutsson and U.K. native Matt Karmil.
Sweden’s Johanna Knutsson takes part in a six-hour jam session at Mutek on Thursday.
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Also Thursday, the audio-visual A/Visions series opens at 7 p.m. at Place des Arts’ Théâtre Maisonneuve with 3D data renderings of ruins by Japanese artist Ryoichi Kurokawa and the haunting, immersive environments of Russia’s 404.zero with the world première of their show JetLag.
Montreal techno legend Akufen anchors Thursday’s Experience 2 lineup at 6:50 p.m. on the free outdoor stage, which will be going from 5 to 11 p.m. on the Place des Arts esplanade.
“He’s the only artist this year who played Mutek’s first edition, in 2000,” Mongeau said.
Other big names dot the free outdoor lineup in addition to playing on ticketed indoor bills, including Ecuadorian electro-cumbia artist Nicola Cruz (in a surprise set Wednesday evening); Oakland minimal techno producer Sutekh (Saturday, Aug. 24 at 8:35 p.m., after a Friday night set as part of Lotus Eater at MTelus); and Austrian-American tech-house producer John Tejada (Sunday, Aug. 25 at 8:50 p.m.).
Mutek’s biggest concession to the dance floor comes Saturday, Aug. 24 with the all-night Nocturne 5, which runs from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. Sunday at MTelus.
“Each year it’s the climax of the festival,” Mongeau said, pointing to the all-killer, no-filler roster for the evening, which includes Cruz; Indiana post-footwork producer Jlin; and Wajatta, a duo comprising Tejada and Brooklyn singer-rapper-comedian Reggie Watts.
“We took a collection of artists who all could have headlined their own night, and we put them all together in one.”
Sounds like a party to me.
AT A GLANCE
Mutek takes place from Tuesday through Aug. 25; mutek.org.
Piknic Électronik’s summer program continues through Sept. 29; piknicelectronik.com.
The MEG festival takes place from Aug. 30 through Sept. 2; megmontreal.com.