Photos by Caroline Hayeur
Boiler Room and Bud Light kick off the explosive Canadian debut of Frontiers – an epic new A/V event showcasing immersive eye-popping audio and visual experience in the world renowned, one-of-a-kind multimedia geodesic dome: the Satosphere. On 5th June, Martyn, Sepalcure, Shigeto and Iron Galaxy perform live as part of MUTEK. Catch the sets here.
Ahead of our broadcast, we discover the influence of MUTEK with a reflective look back at the festival’s history from Alain Mongeau (MUTEK founder and director), The Mole, Project Pablo, Iron Galaxy, and Kara-Lis Coverdale.
When MUTEK was launched in the spring of 2000, Montreal did not have the reputation it does today as a North American hub for quality electronic music. In the pre-MUTEK era, Toronto was the preeminent Canadian city for underground dance music. With its connection and relative proximity to Detroit, Toronto helped cultivate a rave scene that would eventually grow out of control and force the city’s local government to shut it down. As Toronto’s scene began to unravel, seeds were already being planted in Montreal—native son Tiga James Sontag (better known as Tiga) was bringing formidable techno talents to the city. Scott Monteith (aka Deadbeat) had begun booking boundary-pushing electronic artists for his own parties in the city as well. In following years, the tide would turn and Montreal would become the destination for Canadian electronic artists — a city whose relative affordability and strong creative community made it a place where budding electronic artists could take the first steps in pursuing a career.
MUTEK attributed much of the heavy lifting necessary in building Montreal’s reputation within the international electronic music community. Now in its 17th year, the annual five-day festival is an institution. In fact, practically since its conception, MUTEK has been considered as North America’s most respectable gathering for electronic music. It’s also worth noting that since launching in Montreal, MUTEK has gone on to produce annual festivals internationally as well, with its Mexico City edition entering its 13th year, the Barcelona edition its eighth, and with plans to launch a new festival in Japan later in 2016.
Curation has been key to MUTEK’s extended success. With an emphasis on live performance, the festival continually seeks out new works from international artists at the forefront of electronic music and digital art. It regularly hosts the North American premieres of many works that have made up its program, while also seeking to elevate and showcase the cutting-edge work of Canadian artists. “You have to try to imagine how things were back then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” says MUTEK founder and director Alain Mongeau. “We felt that, in relation to what was happening in terms of electronic music and digital art throughout Europe and the rest of the world, North America was lagging as a whole. We were seeing a lot of stuff happening abroad, and it felt like nothing along the same lines existed over here. So, one of the initial goals of the festival was to try and connect – or make bridges – between the North American artists and what was happening elsewhere in the world.”
Despite cities like Chicago and Detroit serving as the home to house and techno’s original pioneers, North America has historically underestimated its own electronic music heritage. The general public mostly saw electronic and dance music as a soundtrack to parties or an extension of various drug scenes. While pursuing his PhD in Montreal, Mongeau discovered techno music in a very profound way — falling deep in with the city’s small but infectious rave scene, and eventually becoming frustrated with North America’s resistance to accepting electronic music as a legitimate contemporary art form. “I felt that the craftsmanship behind the music was not recognized for its true value,” Mongeau explains. “Because back then — and it’s still a bit like this now — people in North America had strong prejudices against electronic music and linked it only to the party, rave and drug scenes. I felt that there were true artists who were pushing boundaries, so I wanted to provide a forum for artists to meet in the same way that festivals for film, dance and literature bring artists together.”
From the onset, MUTEK has imposed upon itself a strict rule of booking 50% international acts and 50% Canadian acts. This is in the hope that, by bringing them together in the same space, creative connections can begin to form. “When we started MUTEK, the people that were producing music here in Montreal were looking elsewhere, and developing this inferiority complex. They would look at producers from other places as idols, and were almost intimidated by them,” explains Mongeau. “For the first few years, we would bring artists like Stefan Betke (aka Pole), Thomas Brinkmann, Uwe Schmidt (aka Atom ™), Richie Hawtin and Ricardo Villalobos. These people were kind of semi-gods to us, and the fact that they would come here and interact with local artists really helped change how we perceived those international artists, and how they perceived the local scene here in Montreal. Over the years, it went from being a quite top-down perspective on things to much more a dialogue of equals.”
Colin de la Plante (aka The Mole) had moved from Victoria, British Columbia to Montreal a few years before MUTEK’s launch, joining the ranks of Montreal producers and DJs that had to balance the duties of their day jobs with their creative pursuits. As de la Plante describes it, there was already an actively burgeoning scene taking hold in the city which MUTEK’s launch helped galvanize. “The thing that was noticeably different about MUTEK was the importing of European artists, and bringing over people who had never been here,” de la Plante recalls. “That first year, I think people like Pole and Vladislav Delay came out. There was just some crazy stuff, and we were all so excited to see that.” Performing solo and in a number of ensembles at the festival over the years, de la Plante saw the festival provide a new kind of platform for Canadian artists that converged with a number of active forces bubbling in Montreal and throughout Canada. “MUTEK just helped link a whole bunch of people together,” says de la Plante. “I guess the biggest turning point was when people from outside of Montreal started to visit Montreal to go to the festival. That’s when it became really important for the city,” he continues. “You only have to look at guys like Akufen, Deadbeat and Mike Shannon — they were already out there and doing their stuff, but it seems like the world really saw them at MUTEK.”
One major relationship that MUTEK helped foster was with Frankfurt-based Force Inc. label. The label’s North American office was originally based in New York, but label representative Jon Berry relocated the imprint to Montreal in 2001 in part because of the excitement and atmosphere the festival had created. Berry would be key in bringing the sound of Canadian electronic artists to listeners across the pond, and prove instrumental in bringing Akufen’s influential My Way album to the label and organizing the Montreal Smoked Meat compilation. That comprehensive collection showcased the crisp, detail-oriented techno productions the city’s most creative emerging talents had to offer – including Jeff Milligan, Deadbeat, Mike Shannon, Akufen, Jetone, and Mitchell Akiyama. “When Jon [Berry] came and set up the North American office for Force Inc. in Montreal, the label was enormous. They were really at their peak around that time,” de la Plante explains. “I don’t think you can underestimate how responsible Jon and that label is for that scene.”
“A lot of people felt that something was happening in Montreal, even from MUTEK’s first year,” says founder Alain Mongeau. “A lot of Canadians moved to Montreal for a while, and it created this hub for electronic music that was inspiring for a few years,” but as the first wave of MUTEK-associated artists expanded their reach, they began to feel the constraint of being an electronic artist in North America. De la Plante was one such artist — after enjoying continued success as a producer and DJ in Montreal and building a reputation across Canada, The Mole saw that he could actually pursue music as a full-time career in Europe. “The only reason I left Canada was to stop working and just be able to make music [full-time],” he recalls.
He wasn’t alone. “A lot of those artists eventually moved to Europe, specifically Berlin, because they felt the next step for them to be able to have a more successful career was to go there. Remaining in North America wasn’t really an option,” Mongeau explains further. “Not just Montrealers either. I think a lot of other Canadians and Americans left to go to Berlin around that time for the same reason. By having those people there though, they kind of became ambassadors for Montreal’s creative scene. Every year, we’ve tried to bring a few of them back to the festival – just to maintain those links and keep them active.”
In 2016, Montreal’s current generation of electronic talent is arguably as strong as it’s ever been. With its standing only further cemented in North America, MUTEK continues playing a vital role in the development of Canada’s boundary-pushing artists. Kara-Lis Coverdale is one musician whose career has been profoundly affected by the festival in recent years. “No one knew who I was when they booked me,” says the Montreal transplant, originally from the Hamilton area of Ontario. “Three or four months before my first MUTEK performance [in 2015], I hadn’t really played out at all.” A classically and academically trained musician, Coverdale is involved with a number of creative endeavors outside her work as a solo composer and sound collagist. She serves as the organist and music director at Montreal’s St. John’s church, and has in the past collaborated with the likes of Tim Hecker and Lee Bannon. Still, her work as an electronic composer was very much in development when MUTEK called. “I really feel like they took a leap of faith on my music in a huge way,” she continues. “Playing MUTEK was a major catalyst in sharing my work and developing my career.”
Since first performing at the festival last year, Coverdale is now somewhat of a MUTEK regular — having been asked to play MUTEK Mexico last October, and the festival’s Barcelona offshoot earlier this year. She will also play at the Montreal edition of the event for a second time next week. Beyond giving the artist a larger platform from which to share her music, Coverdale sees MUTEK as key in her development as a performer. “The people running MUTEK – Alain Mongeau and Patti Schmidt especially – have been very accessible when I have ever needed help or had a thought or an idea [about my performances],” she explains. “They’re willing to develop projects with you as well. They’ll sit down and ask ‘What’s your idea? How do you see this coming together?’. They also helped me develop visuals for my show last year. On a basic level, you can just get in touch with them; it’s not like there are 30 faceless people in an ivory tower you have to go through. They’re always willing to talk with you about any issues.”
Fellow Montreal transplants Adam Hodgins (aka Iron Galaxy) and Patrick Holland (aka Project Pablo) make up part of the city’s current blossoming crop of inventive dance music producers – and both will also both be performing for their second time at the upcoming edition of the festival. Originally from Ontario’s Thunder Bay and following on from a stint in London, Hodgins relocated to Montreal in 2003. “I can’t lie, festivals like MUTEK and Elektra really drove me to consider coming here. I remember when MUTEK first started. I actually lived in British Columbia at the time, but to see the involvement of names like Thomas Jirku and Mitchell Akiyama was exciting,” Hodgins explains. “MUTEK feels like it’s grown since I arrived in Montreal – but even when I first moved here, it felt like MUTEK was an institution already. It was the big thing and it also stuck out because it was a festival that was primarily live.”
Patrick Holland also echoes Hodgins’ sentiments of first admiring MUTEK from afar. “I grew up in Vancouver and lived there until I moved to Montreal about a year and a half ago, but I had known of MUTEK for a long time,” says Holland. “Even though the distance between Vancouver and Montreal is pretty extensive, which is something not a lot of the rest of the world understands, MUTEK still has a huge influence in Vancouver because it’s the only thing of its kind in the country.”
Holland isn’t exactly sure how he ended up on MUTEK’s radar, but after moving to Montreal in 2014 and releasing his I Want To Believe album via 1080p in early 2015, he was tapped to perform on an evening of the festival that featured a number of other artists associated with the Canadian imprint. “In 2015, I played outdoors with Khotin, Ramzi, and the Neu Balance guys as well – kind of like a 1080p showcase,” he recalls. “I had asked to DJ, but they were like, ‘No, you have to do a live set,’ so I had to completely build a set for that,” he continues. “It was a free evening thing, and more of a party vibe. Now this year, I’ll be playing indoors as part of the more A/V-focused set of performances. This time around, the live set will be a bit more free-flowing.” Holland is grateful – surprised, even – to have been asked to play for a second time, in part because he believes MUTEK has a genuine feel for what’s happening in the local scene. “This year’s lineup represents that big time,” says Holland. “There’s a label here called Temple. Adam Feingold and Paul Trafford run it, and they’re all playing this year too. They’re all Montreal locals. Another guy who moved to Montreal, Riohv, is playing this year. They definitely grab the local people that they feel are up-and-coming.”
Adam Hodgins, who actually performed at the 2004 edition of MUTEK as part of vitaminsforyou’s live ensemble, is likely to be one of Montreal’s less visible talents. He has released just a handful of records, and teaches at a private K-11 boys school by day. Three releases under his main Iron Galaxy alias, and a single 12″ as N / Y / X — a collaborative project with the Junior Boys’ Matt Didemus. Still, Hodgins’ moody 2012 “Attention Seeker” single caught the ear of MUTEK programmer Vincent Lemieux, who invited Hodgins to put together a set. The up-and-coming producer saw it as an opportunity to not only reach a new audience, but also develop as a live performer. “I’m the kind of person that never really tries to put myself out there,” Hodgins explains. “But once I put out a record or two, Vincent asked me if I had ever thought about putting something together for MUTEK. I didn’t really want to just sit behind Ableton, so I got together with two friends, Dave Shaw and Francis Latreille, and once we figured out how we could pull off a live set, we got back to him.”
Now approaching his second Iron Galaxy performance at the festival, Hodgins still relishes the opportunity to continue developing. “I’m super grateful and it’s a good opportunity, but it’s also a lot of effort and I’m kind of freaking out about putting something together. But you don’t want to go through all that just to play for twenty people, so it’s great to have an institution like MUTEK that can push you as an artist to do something for a real audience. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to build something up that you can hopefully take somewhere else in the future.”
Most artists – big or small – are likely to tell you they are grateful to be able to play a festival like MUTEK, where performers are given free reign to get weird and push themselves further into uncharted territory. It’s a place where ones participation and contribution to a creative dialogue is more important than how one affects ticket sales. Despite receiving public funding, founder Alain Mongeau confesses that MUTEK has “been in the red” since its conception. But Kara-Lis Coverdale puts into perspective what a chance to perform at MUTEK can mean to an upstart Canadian artist: “Especially for young artists in Montreal, playing at MUTEK can be a huge opportunity, just because the international exposure is really unparalleled in this city or country. It’s really the only experimental, electronic festival that provides a platform for this kind of music on such a large scale.
“MUTEK is always a discussion point, and there’s a common feeling amongst colleagues and friends that playing MUTEK for the first time is a special thing. MUTEK doesn’t owe artists anything, but they are there to be a platform for people who are ready to be lifted up a bit. Whether that’s through performance guidance or professional guidance, they’re an open book. They don’t have to do that, but they go above and beyond. I think this type of festival began as a passion project and that, to me, is very obvious in the way MUTEK has unfolded and grown. It’s a thing of love, fascination and fandom that has grown into an amoebic entity.”
It’s encouraging to hear a young artist’s outlook on MUTEK align so harmoniously with Mongeau’s own original vision for the festival. “Ultimately, our mandate is to help develop the Canadian scene,” he says, “but part of this whole thing has to do with my personal history. I really fell in with the whole electronic movement in the early 1990s; I used to say that electronic music saved my life. I was more of a raver, in a sense, and it really literally saved my life in a way, because it was the first time that I felt connected to a movement. It was very idealistic at first, but then at some point, it felt like it was being hijacked and diluted by commercial forces. There were attempts to bring control back into a scene that was very utopian; bringing the whole thing back into controlled environments, like clubs. For me, all that was jeopardizing the value that I saw in the whole movement. MUTEK was a clear gesture on my part in thinking that I had to give back to that scene what it had given me. MUTEK was a conscious gesture to protect the scene so it could grow again in a more interesting direction.”
With almost 17 years under its belt, and a new crop of creative producers and electronic musicians already emerging from Montreal (as well as across Canada) it appears MUTEK is still fulfilling its mandate. However, Mongeau does not simply think MUTEK is responsible for Montreal’s creative reputation. He says much of that lies in the makeup of the city itself. “Montreal is one of the poorest metropolises in North America, so it has to be creative to make it. Montreal needs to be enriched by its creativity, or else it has nothing for itself. If we at MUTEK contribute to that, it’s great because we also benefit from it. There is a resonance between MUTEK and Montreal. Especially for people who come to the festival from outside the city, I think they come year after year because of the combination of MUTEK and Montreal – and because of what Montreal uniquely represents in North America.”