Montreal and Toronto

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A few friends of mine have recently announced plans to move from Montreal to Toronto. These friends include the great Miranda Campbell, as passionate an advocate of the Montreal lifestyle as there ever was.

I’m all in favour of people making changes and blazing new trails, but something about these friends moving made me sad. Not just because they won’t be around—there’s something deeper that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Moving from Montreal to Toronto is a thing people do. They get tired of the bureaucracy, the corruption, the endless language wars, and above all, the difficulty of finding work.

I moved from Toronto to Montreal in 2001. When we announced the move, I would say 9 out of 10 Torontonians replied with a version of “Oh, I wish I could move to Montreal—but I can’t because of work.” I thought this was a weird thing to say, particularly when coming from people in their early twenties who had their whole lives ahead of them and were a little young to be shackled to a job.

But there’s no doubt that Montreal is a different economy.

When I lived in Toronto, I would routinely go grocery shopping without even looking at how much items cost.

Now, I’m like “Three limes for a dollar? Fuck that, I can get a better deal at the other place.”

The first time I paid for my groceries with a sock full of nickels and dimes, it was kind of romantic. The last time I did that, which was more recently than I care to admit, it just felt shameful.

In my early days in Montreal, I used to sometimes walk past the cafés of Mile End with a wistful sense of longing. I couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee.

Now, things have changed. My bills are paid, my debts are at a reasonable level, and I have money to spend on the odd indulgence. I’m able to buy a coffee, usually.

But it’s still nothing like the Toronto days, when I would go out for dinner several times a week, drink an entire bottle of wine with dinner every night, and buy new clothes whenever I felt like it. Today, none of those things apply.

A friend of my wife’s once told her, “In Toronto, people brag about how much they have on the go. In Montreal, they brag about how little they’re doing.”

It’s not quite like that anymore, but some of that spirit still remains.

In Montreal, I know several people who pay around $500 a month in rent. People whose rent is in the four digits tend to have really nice places in good neighbourhoods.

In Toronto, $1500 is considered a good deal for a high-rise apartment in the suburbs. In Vancouver, that’ll get you a one-room basement apartment.

That seems crazy to me, but I’ve been in the Montreal reality for over a decade now.

I once spent a few days in Kelowna, in the B.C. Interior. In the less than 36 hours I was there, I heard no fewer than three people say a variation on “Yeah, Kelowna sucks, but where else are you gonna go?”

I thought that was lame and might have even said so. But today, I find myself feeling similarly about Montreal. It’s a trap, a vortex. It sucks, but where else are you gonna go?

I live in a city of lost souls.

People get trapped here, they can’t imagine an alternative—or it’s too late, they couldn’t function anywhere else. They barely function here. But in this town, functioning is overrated. It’s considered bourgeois.

Montreal’s dysfunction is part of its appeal somehow. If it ran more smoothly, it would lose some of its ramshackle charm. Like a lot of its inhabitants, it can barely hold itself together.

The reasons to live in Montreal, especially as an anglophone, are not logical per se. But like romantic love, or religious belief, the attraction to Montreal is irrational at its root. It comes from the heart, not from the brain. My brain is constantly listing reasons why I should leave. My heart won’t budge. I fear it might stay here even if I moved on.

 

 

Sad News, Show News, and a New Song

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I was very saddened recently by the sudden passing of Ange-Aimée Woods. She and I were not close per se, but she was a friend as well as a big supporter of all my projects. I’m still a little shocked, not quite over the fact that she’s gone.

Her family and friends have set up a memorial bursary in her name which will support journalism students at Concordia based on financial need. Now j-school might not seem like the most relevant cause to some, but in my opinion, with the state of the media being the way it is, we need informed and passionate journalists more than ever. I think it’s a great way to pay tribute to her enthusiasm and integrity while supporting the people who still care enough to get into this crazy line of work.

I hate to tie this sad news in with self-promotion, but bear with me here. We are playing the Passovah Festival in Montreal on August 21. The festival has released a compilation featuring many of the artists playing at the fest. It’s available at a pay-what-you-can price, with all proceeds going to the Ange-Aimée Woods Memorial Bursary.

The WP has a song on the comp. “Pam Pam” is a brand new tune that will be “officially” released as our new single this fall. It features Stacey on lead vocals and my man Chilly Gonzales on the piano.

Check it out and if you have a few bucks to donate, you can get the whole comp for a good cause.

Enabler – 10th anniversary edition

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Ten years ago this week, my album Enabler was released on Ta-Da Records. I’d self-released The Elements of Style a few years previous, but this was my “official” debut on a label. Though the label has since gone into a coma, I will always be grateful to Patti Schmidt and Jeff Waye for believing in my music and wanting to share it with the world.

To mark the occasion, I’ve put together a digital reissue on the WP Bandcamp page including a few bonus tracks from the vaults: a couple that were on Deep Inside The World Provider, a mini-CD EP that I put out in 2003, a couple of alternate versions of Enabler tunes, and a remix.

Enabler definitely has a special place in my heart, bringing on a nostalgic feeling for a time when I was definitely more innocent about the music business, the vagaries of trends, and so on.

The album was recorded and mixed by Jace Lasek at the old Breakglass Studio in downtown Montreal. The wood panelling and low lighting of the 70s-era studio, which reminded me of my grandparents’ suburban basement, was like a comforting womb. We recorded on and off for over a year, whenever I could scrape together the funds. A bunch of friends and family dropped by to contribute their talents, including my brother Nick Fraser, Bitch Lap Lap (who still prefers to be credited by that name on this particular collaboration) and Michael Feuerstack.

Press pic from the Enabler era.
Press pic from the Enabler era.

I remember agonizing over whether the “rock” tunes would fit with the “lo-fi electro-pop” tunes, and I actually considered splitting the recordings off into two projects. I still occasionally wonder if that would have been better from a marketing standpoint, since putting them together condemned the WP to a grey area between genres.
I grew up in the 80s, and rock songs with synths have always seemed normal to me. But if I’m honest, then as now I was not a prolific writer, and I knew it would take me ages to come up with enough songs for one album per project. Even as is, Enabler clocks in at just under 20 minutes!

I remember that when I sent the mixes around to some friends to get feedback, Mocky suggested that I re-record any vocals that were less than perfect. I dismissed the suggestion out of hand—I couldn’t bear (or probably afford) to go back into the studio yet again—but today, the occasionally off-key and/or mumble-mouthed vocals definitely stand out as a flaw.

But I love the innocent energy of the album, and it has a number of tunes that are still audience faves to this day.

Finally, I know no one cares about CDs anymore, but I must note that the CD version has some pretty amazing artwork by Lee Towndrow and Philippe Blanchard.

Check it out… hope you enjoy.

And forgive me this bit of wallowing in the past. I just got the mixes of the newest WP material and I’m currently scheming up the best way to get it out to the public as soon as possible… so stay tuned.

 

Top Shows of 2013

It was a slow year for the WP—only three shows all year, what with me being caught up with my book and the Lion Farm EP—but as a spectator, it was a pretty good year for live music in my life. Here are a few highlights…

Baked Goods
L’Escogriffe, January 4

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I organized a benefit for WFMU at the beginning of the year, and this band was recommended by a friend. Through pure luck of the draw they had to play last on the bill, but they totally owned the “headlining” slot. Their recorded music is fun, lo-fi rock n’ roll, but their live show brings it up several notches with the almost Shaggs-like self-taught feel of the all-girl band and frontman Luke Ellington’s latent swagger. Definitely one of my favourite Montreal bands of the moment.

 

Michael Feuerstack
Le Cagibi, March 14

I spent the year writing a book about Mike’s old band the Wooden Stars, which filled me with bittersweet nostalgia, so it was inspiring to see him making music that’s better than ever. At this show he played a bunch of new songs from Tambourine Death Bed, an album that’s been in heavy rotation chez nous this year. I don’t have much to say about the show except that Mike is an amazing songwriter, singer and guitarist, and he had the Cagibi audience spellbound.


Isaiah Ceccarelli

Église St-John the Redeemer, April 13

I knew Isaiah through some friends, and he had played drums for Gordon Thomas at one of the shows we set up in Montreal. So I knew he was a great jazz drummer, I but wasn’t as familiar with his work as a composer. Upon showing up at the Red Roof Church to see him and an ensemble play his piece Toute clarté m’est obscure, I read the composer’s statement in the program and immediately braced myself for an evening of difficult, alienating music. Isaiah’s love of obscure words and flowery French phrases made the text overwhelming, and his rant about how contemporary audiences want superficial entertainment instead of complex art was a bit much (it’s not that I even disagree necessarily, I just find the debate a bit tired). I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

Then when the music began, I was totally swept up. It was a beautifully minimal and subtle piece using drones, drawn-out notes and silence (the church was so quiet that even shifting in my seat caused an uncomfortably loud interruption). I was blown away, and the rest of the audience was too. It’s very rare for “contemporary” music to hit me on a gut level in this way, so it was even more of a pleasant surprise.


Drumheller

Resonance Café, June 25

IMG_1612Yes, it’s true that this band features my brother Nick Fraser. But that’s not why I’m including them on this list. My brother is one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard, if not the best, but he mostly plays free jazz. And a lot of free jazz, for me, is like your parents having sex—it’s great that it happens, but you don’t want to see or hear it.

Anyway, Drumheller is my favourite project of his, and this show, their first in Montreal for a good while, was killer. The venue, sweet new space Résonance Café, has a piano, and the songs where Doug Tielli played it were just beautifuli. Eric Chenaux’s guitar solo on the very last tune had my jaw grazing the floor.

(I would also include my brother’s CD release show at Casa on September 7 with his quartet featuring Tony Malaby… it was amazing too, but there’s only so many fraternal shout-outs I can make on one list.)


Pere Ubu

Cabaret Mile End, September 17

Before this show, I’d seen Pere Ubu three times. In 1992, I saw them in Ottawa opening for the Pixies (and absolutely blowing the headliners off the stage). In ’94, I saw them in Toronto, where David Thomas threw a huge diva fit onstage about not having a straight mic stand (a position I can now identify with)—he responded, counterintuitively, by duct-taping a chair to his mic stand all while singing a song. And a few years back, I caught them at Pop Montreal, where Thomas somewhat alarmingly got wasted onstage with Robert Pollard-like abandon, swigging from a bottle of cognac he kept in the pocket of his Bogart-esque trenchcoat.

This time, I walked into Cabaret Mile End to an audience of less than 100 people. I couldn’t believe such a legendary band would get such a poor turnout. And I was distressed to see that the no-name opener I’d arrived in time to skip was Thomas himself doing a solo electronic performance, which was just wrapping up as I arrived. He looked his age, and none too pleased about the miserable attendance.

When the band hit the stage a little later, with a few more audience members having trickled in, Thomas started the show with a several-minutes-long monologue about how the band is so huge that they play stadiums all over the world but, like the Stones, every once in a while have to return to their roots by playing small club shows. It cut right through the tension and let us all relax a bit.

Then the band tore into a great set spanning their whole career. Thomas sat in a chair the whole time, but was animated and sang passionately. Biting the hand that feeds him, he mocked the audience’s composition of mostly old guys. But a few young kids were in the front. I kept wondering what they thought of this spectacle. Did it just seem like a bunch of old weirdos onstage? Or did they worry, as I sometimes do, that their own best song might not be as good as Pere Ubu’s worst?


Sparks

Le National, November 1

IMG_1798This was another show that demonstrated the turning tide of audience taste. When I showed up at Le National, the room was barely half full for these underground legends, who hadn’t played Montreal since the early 80s. By the time the Mael brothers hit the stage, the room had filled up to a half-decent level. But the crowd quickly showed itself to be one of quality, if not quantity. The Maels’ genuine delight at the crowd’s enthusiasm was one of the best parts of the show.

The show itself was bold: though the light show was arena-worthy, the performance was just the two brothers, keyboard and vocals; no backing tracks, even on the electro-disco bangers from the Number One in Heaven era, which they performed in the encore. Russel Mael’s voice was still in top form, while Ron had the crowd pulling out their phones as if witnessing a miracle when he took the mic during one of their newer numbers, an excerpt from their opera about Ingmar Bergman. That rare sight was followed by a bit of intriguing news: that the Maels will be collaborating with Canadian film weirdo Guy Maddin on a film adaptation of a Bergman opera.

All that aside, it was inspiring to see a band still staying totally original four decades on. How they pull it off financially, I have no idea (I can only imagine that they must be independently wealthy), but it was inspirational all the same.

Other great shows: The Lonesome Organist and Laura Barrett renewing my musical faith at the One Man Band Festival; Nicole Lizée’s Sask Power at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival; Ben Reimer and co., also playing the music of Nicky Lizée, at Sala Rossa; punk nerds Pissed Jeans tearing up Il Motore, Corpusse utterly destroying Brasserie Beaubien with Les momies de Palerme’s Xarah Dion in the Lorenz Peter role, and one of my guiltiest pop pleasures, Sloan, doing their Twice Removed show at the Phoenix in Toronto.

 

Brave Old Waves

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Every Tuesday this April from 3-5 pm, I’ll be guest hosting Montreal Sessions on CKUT, one of Montreal’s fine campus/community radio stations.

I used to do occasional spots on CKCU, the campus station in Ottawa, when I was much younger. I’ve only experienced radio as a guest ever since, but I love the format. Much like print media, physical release forms for music, and so on, it seems to be part of the digital-age conventional wisdom that radio is “dead.” However, like those other formats, it stubbornly continues to exist.

When I went for a training session to relearn my extremely rusty DJ skills, it was fun to be surrounded by young people (as well as a few seasoned veterans) who were passionate about music and the radio format.

Anyway, I’ll be spinning music, interviewing a few special guests and occasionally rambling and ranting about subjects of interest. Montrealers can tune into 90.3 FM, or you can listen from anywhere at ckut.ca. As always, any requests or suggestions are welcome. As for specifically WP-related news, stay tuned for an exciting announcement pretty soon.

 

WFMU Benefit in Montreal

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I’ve been a huge fan of WFMU, the longstanding free-form radio station based in New Jersey, for years.

I first discovered the station when we were researching a documentary on Gordon Thomas, the now 96-year-old singer/songwriter from NYC. Irwin Chusid, a longtime WFMU DJ and fellow GT enthusiast, agreed to be interviewed for our doc, and the station was kind enough to let us film there.

Whenever we were in NYC for the shoot, we’d always listen to the station. Being the technologically challenged person I am, I only realized later that it also broadcasts online, and I could listen to it at home as well.

It’s characterized by a genuinely free-form musical mix, as well as by DJs who really know and care about the music they’re playing. Some of them have been hosting their shows for decades and specialize in rare and obscure music through the ages, although the station also stays current with interesting things going on today across all genres. The Cherry Blossom Clinic with Terre T, Gaylord Fields, Transpacific Sound Paradise and Irwin’s show are some of my favourites. Aside from music, they also have a lot of amazing talk-radio personalities, from Tom Scharpling’s venerable comic extravaganza The Best Show on WFMU to Dave Emory’s weekly hour of conspiracy theorizing. They even play host to Canada’s own beloved Nardwuar.

In the recent Sandy storm, WFMU’s transmittors were knocked out (the station continued to broadcast online, with DJs spinning from their homes, until they were repaired) and their annual record fair, a major source of income, had to be cancelled.

The station has had its own funding drive going on, but I banded together with some sympathetic Montrealers to put on a show to raise a few bucks to pitch in.

It goes down Friday, January 4 – giving you plenty of time to recover from New Year’s Eve shenanigans – at L’Escogriffe (4467 St-Denis, corner Mont-Royal). Confirmed so far are The Pouteens (featuring Bloodshot Bill), Baked Goods, Giselle Numba One, the WP (with secret surprise guest member) and very special guests No Negative (a Montreal noise-punk supergroup featuring members of Holy Cobras, Black Feelings, Thee Nodes, and Total Crush).

If you’re in town, I hope you come out – it’ll be a good show for a good cause, at the unbeatable rockonomic price of $5.

 

WP on the Radio

The WP band is seeing out 2011 with a live performance on Montreal’s CISM this Thursday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. Listen on 89.3 on your radio dial in Montreal or stream it live here from anywhere!

UPDATE: If you missed the show, it’s now archived here. Other than a few vocal warbles, I’m quite happy with the performance. Merci CISM!