I can’t say I was expecting to find beauty in as much abundance as I end up discovering in and around the small, fairly remote city of Rouyn-Noranda (population 40,000) in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Québec.
With printed travel guides scarcely found at airport book shops these days, my pre-emptive impression was left sculpted by Google images of the industrial park, home to the world’s largest smelter, a machine used to process metals from electronic scrap. It’s the Runcorn of Canada, perhaps? But who cares? Who needs scenery when you have it on good authority that the best emerging talent from Québec - from everywhere, really; and a few select cult classic acts - gather here in Rouyn-Noranda for FME? It's a landmark festival in the Québecois music calendar, thought of in the same breath as Pop Montreal and M For Montreal.
Additionally, FME (Festival de Musique Emergente) is an annual pilgrimage of sorts, so the sense of camaraderie that comes with that is a main attraction. To get to FME, most people don’t fly but endure an 8-hour drive from Montreal - or a similar distance from another big city - to this fairly isolated north-western part of this French speaking region. The psych heads, hipsters, and lanyard-wielding industry sorts all gather at this part showcase, part straight up music fest - proudly representing their scenes. It’s a sort of Magaluf for the denim jackets; at least that’s the shade of this diverse festival, with its multi-genre approach, that I find myself in.
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But contrary to my ill-founded, derogatory assumptions, it becomes soon apparent that FME has it all: After flying in to Rouyn on a rickety domestic small plane from Montreal - one used for provincial towns where you feel the elements unnervingly more clearly - and landing at an airport with a pea-sized waiting room, the stunning natural beauty of the region begins to unfurl.
The most immediately striking scene is the lake, Osisko. Rouyn-Noranda downtown is neatly situated by the pretty, yet contaminated body of water. Contaminated because of past mining activities. Campervans line it. People walk their dogs along the trails. With dense forest all around, it's a nice preamble before visiting the nearby national park terrain where it's more unspoiled.
And the industrial view - the employer of 800 jobs in the city - is, at risk of crass fetishisation, spectacular. The area characterised by its towering chimneys are an appealing backdrop for a music festival.
Walking to my first gig of FME, the saturation of entertainment is another good thwack to the senses. There’s no corner within a certain radius of this city left unturned by the fest. Clubs, pubs, a church, car parks for tailgate parties - a sort of car boot boozing; someone’s got an ironing board as a bar and handing out free beers as music blasts from their stereo - are all over-flowing. And - like many places that aren’t tired, jaded of tourism - it’s friendly everywhere you go. You could go alone to this festival and make a lot of friends very easily.
First, I head to Cabaret de la dernière chance (address: 8e Rue). It’s a pub with a generously sized beer garden, kitted out with a live stage, and a crisp, punchy sounding PA. There’s enough room for 100 or so to stand watching bands.
The band on stage, Ellemetue, are a new two-piece from Montreal and sounding great. Formed by multi-instrumentalist Mingo L'Indien (best known for his band Les George Leningrads) and synth player and singer Nunu Métal, they’ve stacks of classic analog gear on stage. In fact, it looks like they brought their entire studio with them and the music feels uncompromising sonically and it is confidently delivered. It’s at its most memorable when there’s a stark contrast between 60’s rock guitar patterns and kitsch, lo-fi drum machine-driven French language synth pop, with plenty of melodic, psych-tinged ornamentation.
Walking a few metres across town, I try my luck with Swiss industrial electro act The Young Gods, over at Petit Théâtre du Vieux-Noranda, but fall flat. Young Gods are legends but incredibly lacklustre for me on this occasion. The best thing about going there is perhaps realising the organisers have made a rock grotto out of this theatre, they have gone and hung myriad shoes from the cladded ceiling.
For those who like day concerts in unconventional spaces, there’s plenty going on. And the next day, the L’Abstracto cafe (144 Rue Perreault Est) is packed thanks to the hype surrounding laid back Brazilian guitarist and singer Sessa. Backed by angelic, white-robed vocalists, the light is on the singer, who has the minimalist appeal of Rodriguez and wide-ranging taste, drawing on as he does on tropicala and free jazz.
Wanting to crank it up a notch, I head back to the so-far reliable Cabaraet de la dernière chance for a double bill: Quebec City post-punks Victime; and Atlanta glam, goth and no wave band Material Girls.
Victime are a powerful trio that immediately are a hit with everyone in the venue. Choppy Primus/Gang Of Four-esque guitars, pounding drums and manic, shouty vocals from powerhouse frontwoman Laurence Gauthier-Brown; what’s not to like? Though from Québec City, the Montreal alternative scene has been a big influence on them. A booking agent I meet at the gig named Philippe Larocque tells me the band have strong links with a great emerging punk band called CRABE, and that early 21st Century Montreal punk scene trailblazers Les Georges Leningrads and Duchess Says helped pave the way for them.
Material Girls, meanwhile, are as electrifying as live bands get. Shadowy singer Ben Presley is a truly compelling rock n’ roll frontman, born to be in the spotlight since there's shades of Nick Cave and Fat Whites' Lias Saoudi about him. But the show does not lean too heavily on one person; it does not become the Presley show. They rotate singers throughout so nearly everyone in the band appears to get the mic at some point. The best is kept to last: unassuming bassist Meghan Dowlen - who doggedly sticks to her position, keeping time and not facing the crowd at all all set until she’s given the mic - is up there with the greats of punk rock history. The Siouxsie Sioux-inspired frontwoman sparks the crowd into an even more violent mess of flailing limbs and sprayed beer reaction than it already is. A triumph from a band, who may have already toured a lot, but are more than likely going to become a lot bigger than they are. Hats off to FME for booking in these.
With Friday behind us, Saturday is all about Austin, Texas' And You Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.
I watch other bands, too, but no one comes close.
Playing in the Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda (the one with the shoes on the ceiling) their tight sound is so thrilling it makes it worth risking injury in the thinly attended pit.
Centred around sole constant members and childhood friends Jason Reece and Conrad Keely - friends who grew up in Hawaii before moving to the mainland United States for music - the set sees the pair alternate between being frontman and drummer. As someone who's watching them for the first time, I appreciate how Reece and Keely are equally adept and enthralling in whatever position they’re thrown in. They each perform evocative, melodic parts against an often brutal wall of sound.
Not ones to stick to the same backing band their whole career, on bass and guitar are newcomers Alex Padron and Aaron Blount respectively. But this relatively new line-up is hugely powerful and if they never change again, they’d be in good stead. They have powerful stack amps and each of their signals alone presumably send the decibel meter beyond legal limits. The four-piece are a reminder of the transcendent power of rock n’ roll and not a compromise in any way. Perhaps the best moment of the set list, which is largely made up of songs from their album Source Tags and Codes, is the barnstorming set closer 'A Perfect Teenhood’, from their seminal 1999 album Madonna. Triumphant stuff.
On Sunday, it’s one last swing of the dice to find a great new band and it ends up being a secret show by a Chilean indie sorts LA Julia Smith, who have connections to the mighty Föllakzoid, in the basement of a mainstream bar that stands out. And it’s packed out thanks to their victorious performance at L'Agora Des Arts (a church converted into a theatre) earlier during the festival. Holding the complete attention in everyone in the room, they veer between melodic synth-laden pop and more gritty psych-tinged rock soloing.
Later on Sunday, it’s metal night. Of the three playing, I see Rouyn-Noranda’s own black metal titans Archons. They bring the whole local metal community together for a packed out show with brutal, crushing sound reflected by the pace and intensity of the circle pits. This is arena quality metal in a modest surrounding, and bludgeonoing in the best kind of way.
It’s Toronto's own rock and roll / country and western band The Sadies - formed in 1994 - that is the last big concert of the weekend. Held over in the L'Agora Des Arts (church), seeing the Trail Of Dead’s Jason Reece nodding along is a massive compliment to them and to FME; it's a festival artists want to hang out in. Soncially, The Sadies appear faultless, but, weary of a lengthy bus ride to Montreal airport at the crack of dawn, I duck out early.
I may leave early but am wholly satisfied. In terms of new musical discovery, it surpasses every expectation. Perhaps it's down to it being a relatively small festival in a small city that it has been this rewarding. It’s the easiest place I’ve been to get close to the heart of the Québec music scene. Land in Montreal, it’s so big it can take time to work out where the decent clubs, promoters, labels and bands are. With a few exceptions, they’re all at FME, exposed. And, of course, it's a lot more expansive than just a local, domestic spotlight: The musicians from Brazil and Chile I watch from are really strong; Trail Of Dead, who flew in especially for their show and aren't on any sort of Canadian tour at the time, kill it. And, of course, Material Girls... It’s not often I go to a showcase and come back feeling like I’ve seen a band who have as much potential to be massive as them. I play them at pretty much anyone I meet since seeing them. Huge respect to FME on all counts.
I missed most of this set to see Trail Of Dead but there was a lot of hype surrounding this experimental band's set as they’ve just been nominated for the Polaris Prize for their second LP Le Mal. The Quebec DIY scene is buzzing about them.
As the expontential growth in the number of wellbeing sections at camping festivals indicates, there is a demand for a bit of r&r at music festivals. FME has some alternative versions of that.
Aiguebelle National Park: There's nothing more healing after a heavy night watching music than seeing some of the most unspoiled views on earth. This would work best if you have your own transport and a good map as it’s pretty remote despite being only an hour or so from the downtown. You can go canoeing and walking in the afternoon and be back in time for most of the concerts.
Reguge Pageau: A 90 minute drive, the refuge gives you the chance to see all the superstar Canadian wildlife: wolf, black ear, moose, skunk, bald eagle, owls, and more. Don’t miss the characterful porcupine.
FME 2020: Make It Happen
Fly: Air Canada offers flights from direct to Montreal from London. From there you get a domestic flight to Rouyn-Noranda. You will need an ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) to enter the country.
Bus: Approximately 8 hours from Montreal and the main operator is Autobus Maheux.
Car: Avis offer Car and van hire at the Montreal airport.
Motorcycle: It would be epic because there’s hardly any traffic once you get a couple of hours outside the city. Try rentaride.ca.
Stay: Best Western (84 Avenue Principale) in the centre is conveniently located offers massive rooms. It’s recommended to book an Airbnb or hotel well in advance to avoid long taxi journeys to the venues.
Tickets: Tickets will go on sale here. There is also a pro pass option recommended for music industry folks.