FME 2019 in Rouyn-Noranda, Canada | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, December 15th, 2019  

Victime

FME

FME 2019 in Rouyn-Noranda, Canada, August 29th, 2019

Sep 17, 2019 Photography by Thomas Dufresne, Christian Leduc, and Louis Jalbert
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"We like to create souvenirs." These are not my words but those of Jenny Thibault, one of the founders and festival directors of FME, Quebec's largest musical showcase event.

Le Festival De Musique Emergent (to give it its full title) started back in 2003. "We had this crazy idea back in 2002 because we were tired of having to travel to Montreal and Toronto just to see some good shows," admits Thibault. "Also, we were stuck with whatever music was being played on the radio or MTV, so it was a way to bring good music to our own place instead of travelling. We did the first edition in 2003 with 22 bands and a budget of $60k! We had one of our friends cook for the artists and we ran a summer camp in the woods for the musicians."

This year's event marked its 17th edition and arguably FME's biggest yet in terms of attendees from outside the region (40% of its total). Attracting music industry delegates from around the world, some as far afield as Belgium, Chile, France, and of course the UK, its become a truly international affair whilst arguably putting both the town where its hosted and Quebec's diverse music scenes on the map.

Held in Rouyn-Noranda-a place that isn't so much off the beaten track, but literally at the end of it-over four days from Thursday August 29 to Sunday September 1. FME brings together not only the best musical talent from Quebec and its surrounding regions, but also a sprinkling of international acts with a wealth of experience (noise rock experimentalists The Young Gods from Switzerland and Texan sonic annihilators ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Dead to name but two).

The town is situated approximately 10 hours away from Montreal, a journey yours truly undertakes by coach. On the way we pass large areas of forestry land, ravines, and mountainsides. It's about as picturesque a road trip as one is likely to experience and definitely not your average stretch of the M6 motorway back home in England. On entering Rouyn-Noranda it looks like any other town. With a population of around 40,000 its smaller than most other cities hosting similar kinds of multi-venued events, yet what it lacks in size is immediately boosted by the sense of community and camaraderie within.

"We have 400 volunteers working on the festival. Many of them have been there since the beginning," Thibault tells us. "It's a very collaborative community project. The people from this region are used to helping each other and sharing. We are isolated in a small city so people need to be very cooperative with their neighbors and build good relationships with other communities. The people here own the festival. It's the biggest event of the year for all the local businesses. It's their busiest weekend of the year. They love the festival because it brings tourism and money into the town."

Indeed, when checking out the venues-most of which are cafes, restaurants, bars and even a music school, which doubles up as a hub for press and delegates over the course of the weekend-it's clear to see this is no ordinary showcase festival. While the industry presence is there for all to see, "buzz bands" aren't forced down people's throats by unscrupulous bookers and agents. Here, their ethos is more about creating a friendly vibe; to create multinational networks between various segments of the industry, as well as simply watching bands.

Pop up bars selling beer out the boots of cars appear in parking lots, as do stages made out of crates and amplifiers powered by portable generators. A local punk band  Scrapyard set up and play on the Saturday evening, mainly because-as the vocalist says-"the festival wouldn't book us." Their music might be a throwback to 1980s UK street punk but for the residents of Rouyn-Noranda, this is their rebellion and the burgeoning, frenzied moshpit out front tells its own story even though the temperature has dropped considerably as we near midnight. 

FME and Quebec's biggest success story is undoubtedly its local hip-hop scene. "We have 3,000 people attending the outdoor stages every night," insists Thibault. "For the hip hop shows we sell a lot of tickets to local people." With an age demographic that mostly ranges from 13 years of age to 30, the outdoor stage is clearly where it's at. Showcasing the best in hip-hop from Quebec and its surrounding areas, it's difficult to compare this kind of devotion to any other scene in the world except maybe grime when it started to emerge from the UK underground in the early part of the decade. While Quebec rapper Loud is the main attraction here, having already broken FME attendance records for pulling the festival's biggest live audience 12 months earlier, it's Sarahmee who steals the show. Her fusion of trap and R&B combined with Afro and Latin influences making for an intriguing yet ultimately rewarding collage of sounds and ideas.

Walking around the town's venues, there are similarities with more established events like SXSW and The Great Escape (although thankfully, minus the never ending queues). "We went to SXSW a couple of times," admits Thibault. "Rouyn-Noranda is a much smaller city than Austin. When we started there were no outdoor stages, just small ones in restaurants and bars. Sandy Boutin, who co-founded FME has travelled to a lot of festivals around Europe as well so we've been inspired by a lot of smaller events, particularly in France. We exchange ideas with other festivals, so for example, a lot of French festivals decorate their streets, which is something we consider to be very important. It's become part of this festival's DNA."

Nevertheless, it's the broad church of musical genres that's a particular highlight of FME. No matter what your musical bag may be, there really is something here for everyone, as Jenny Thibault is quick to point out.

"We pride ourselves in showcasing a broad range of very different kinds of music. We have electro shows; punk shows and hip-hop because it's very popular here. Sometimes we have exchange shows with other European festivals. This year we have a partnership with Switzerland, which is why we have four Swiss bands on the line up. It's really cultured."

It's difficult to argue with those sentiments. In the first 24 hours alone that Under the Radar spends in Rouyn-Noranda, we're treated to a master class in electro pop from Montreal duo Ellemetue, who feature Mingo L'Indien from early 2000s noise makers Les Georges Leningrad in their line-up. Then there was art punk weirdness courtesy of Montreal outfit Red Mass and pastoral folk from Brazilian musician Sessa and choir, whose gorgeous take on Jacco Gardner-esque psychedelic hymns makes for an interesting soundtrack for the early evening diners who've packed out tiny street side café L'Abstracto. Then of course there's The Young Gods, a band who've inspired David Bowie and Trent Reznor among a host of others throughout their 34 years of existence. Uncompromising as ever, they use the first half of their set to showcase material from Data Mirage Tangram, the trio's recently released first new album in nine years before delving into the realms of their extensive back catalogue in the latter stages. In any other setting they'd probably be dismissed as awkward but here in the intimate confines of Petit Theatre Du Vieux Noranda their repertoire makes for an exquisite finale of the first night's proceedings.

Sunday is traditionally metal night at FME, which provides an opportunity for three of Quebec's heaviest outfits to flaunt their wares to a near capacity Petit Theatre Du Vieux Noranda. "For metal night we work with some local industry people who program shows throughout the year as the metal scene is very popular here," Thibault tells us. Openers Archons are greeted like returning prodigal sons, having initially formed in Rouyn-Noranda back in 2006. Their melodic death metal goes down a storm, particularly with one four-year-old who spends the entire set on his dad's shoulders screaming along to every word while making obligatory devil horn signals towards the stage. Even better from a theatrical perspective are Necrotic Mutation, a seven-piece death metal outfit from Quebec whose origins can be traced back to the early '90s. Meanwhile, headliners Despised Icon fully justify their status as arguably the most reputable death metal act to emerge from the region, their hour and a quarter long set celebrating 2009's fourth album Day of Mourning which is played in full, alongside newer material written since their return in 2016 after a four year hiatus.

(Photo: Necrotic Mutation)

(Photo: Despised Icon)

Psychedelia and all things post-punk also have a place here and the acts associated with those scenes also draw healthy crowds. "We are working with Marilyne Lacombe who works on Distorsion, which is a Quebec psych fest," adds Thibault. "She is the newest member of the team, has a lot of contacts and knows a lot of bands from the U.S."

Chilean trio LA Julia Smith stand out, not least because their musical direction changes dramatically at various intervals over the two shows they play. Hailing from the same scene as (and occasionally sharing members with) Follakzoid, their heady mix of instrumental psych rock, visceral garage punk, and progressive blues produces an array of outstanding highs that only veers off course when they go for the more traditional song structure of verse-chorus-verse. Quebec trio Victime also impress, singing entirely in French throughout and playing a variety of angular post-punk that harks back to the halcyon era of Delta 5, The Au Pairs, and Kleenex. They're one of the region's hidden musical gems we implore you to check out, particularly last year's excellent La Femme Taupe long player which we track down in the town's excellent Joubec store, which actually specializes in Playmobil children's toys as well as vinyl records. 

(Photo: LA Julia Smith)

Another band that catches our eye are Material Girls, a five-piece art punk collective from Atlanta. Instruments and vocalists are swapped throughout a set that's equal parts Fat White Family style debauchery and Lydia Lunch affronted agit-pop. The biggest name the bill undoubtedly belongs to ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, and their decision to play 2002's critically acclaimed Source Tags & Codes album in full proves a wise one, culminating in a 15 minute version of fan favorite "A Perfect Teenhood" off that album's predecessor Madonna. The four-piece-founders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece joined by recent additions Aaron Blount on guitar and bass player Alec Padron-seem a revitalised force, which bodes well for their next album.

(Photo: ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead)

Suitably impressed by everything we've seen over the course of its four days, Under the Radar asks Jenny Thibault if she can pick out a favorite or most memorable edition over the course of the festival's 17 years.

"I remember the first one because it was crazy! We were a little team back then. For the 10th and 15th editions we did a stage on the lake and two years ago we had Jean Dujardin play, who's a very well known singer from Rouyn-Noranda. We did a tribute show for him, but he was there sitting on the lake and at the end he just ran on the stage and started playing with the other musicians! It was a very touching moment for us as he was part of our first edition of the festival. We've tried many different things over the years. We had A Silver Mt Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor playing in the Russian Orthodox Church, which was amazing."

Also struggling to pick out any one particular performance as an overall highlight, although both La Force, the left field chamber pop project of Broken Social Scene member Ariel Engle, and Adam Naas, a French soul singer whose crystalline vocal performance captures the spirit of Prince and David McAlmont, deserve a mention at this point. It goes without saying FME stands out as one of the most refreshing, industry led showcase events we've ever experienced and even though it's not the easiest to navigate logistically, is well worth the time and patience as the rewards are unerring.

(Photo: Adam Naas)

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