Unedited thoughts on recent Montreal shows…
A couple of (possibly) obvious questions: how do the sizes of venues and crowds affect the nature of performances? How are certain ways of conceptualizing performance related to the spaces in which the performers work?
We played two of our last shows of the year in Montreal recently, for the M for Montreal festival. Each offered a distinct and archetypal show environment, and my contrasting experiences made me think about some things that I feel are worth writing about.
A word on the festival: M for Montreal invites music industry people of all types to come to the city and pays their expenses so they can see, write about, or work with musicians from Montreal and (ideally) spread the gospel about the city’s culture. On one weekend a year shows are set up all around the city in venues ranging from the biggest legitimate venues to the smallest illegitimate after-hours clubs.
The first show was on a Wednesday night at a roughly 100-capacity venue called Casa del Popolo. Matt and I played our 4th ever show there as well as the release party of an EP we released in December 2012. Casa is a fixture for local shows in Montreal. The space is intimate: the stage is low, the lights are dim, and local artwork hangs on the walls.
The show at Casa was reserved for festival delegates only. I imagined it was booked as an opportunity for these music industry people to see Montreal bands in a more intimate setting than they may have had the opportunity to if it was a show open to the public.
As I watched the earlier acts perform to a room of loud conversations I assumed we would be playing over the sounds of networking delegates. When we went on and performed the room was very quiet and involved despite it being at capacity. It felt nothing like I had expected based on the nature of the attendees. I had gone into the experience somewhat cynically but quickly dropped the idea that I was playing solely for the detached scrutiny of professionals. The people in attendance just felt like any other receptive audience. If anything the context contributed to the respectful silence, as they were there to listen.
I think that part of the success of the show had to do with how the assumptions about performance that are embedded in our music match with the show environment that a place like Casa del Popolo has to offer. Our music commands attention in small spaces. When foregrounded vocals are combined with a close proximity to the presence of a human body onstage, it promotes attention. Someone is speaking and they are right there. When the music accompanying the vocals is minimal and (at times) quiet, there is little room for distraction. You can talk over it, but everyone, including the performer, will hear you. The music does not create a general atmosphere so much as it looks out at you.
The fact that our approach to performance fits in a space like Casa del Popolo is no accident. The music we performed that night, mostly from “Impersonator”, was in many ways written and arranged for rooms of that size and feeling. At small shows and house parties the louder the music is the more it can easily be perceived as a soundtrack to socializing and drinking. A wall of sound does not speak to individuals; it provides a certain type of energy and leaves the audience to do with it what they will. When music in these contexts is quiet and looks outward (musically and physically) it can feel like a conversation.
I remember playing a show in my friend Matthew Duffy’s tiny living room to 10 or 12 people. One person on the couch was talking to their friend. The couch was no more than 10 feet away from me so I simply walked over and knelt down in front of them while singing. We looked at each other for a moment and then they stopped talking and watched the rest of the performance. This is the feeling Matt Otto and I sought to create from the beginning: not only is the singer singing to you, you are within his reach. You are not apart from what is going on, watching from the sidelines. You are emotionally and physically implicated in the performance.
The second M for Montreal show took place a few days later on a Saturday night at a roughly 900-capacity venue called Club Soda. This was the first show Matt and I had played there. Club Soda is one of the bigger downtown venues that host shows by big acts. The last time I was there was for a sold out Grimes and Elite Gymnastics show in September 2012.
Our Club Soda show was a co-billing with Mac DeMarco, a musician I’ve known for a long time now and have great respect for. Unlike the Casa show this one was open to the public via the purchase of tickets, and it sold out in advance (a significant number of ‘spaces’ in the venue were reserved for delegates and those with artist badges, so something less than 900 tickets were sold).
Just like the Casa show, when we went onstage the venue appeared to be close to or at capacity. The difference between a packed 100-capacity venue and a packed 900-capacity was vividly apparent. The performer becomes a body off in the distance, dwarfed by the size of the stage upon which they stand.
We have played to comparably sized rooms before, most recently in Paris for the Pitchfork Festival. That show took place in a gigantic converted slaughterhouse. We played for a crowd that was roughly equivalent in size to the one at Club Soda. Despite the circumstances we managed to preserve the important aspects of the approach to performance I mentioned earlier. The crowd was quiet for its size; at one point I stopped and said nothing in order to hear the sound of a noiseless crowd of hundreds of people.
For any number of factors not limited to but including the time of night our set started (12:45AM), the demographics (overwhelmingly College-age) and the other act on the bill (the notoriously hard-partying, skin-bearing Mac DeMarco and crew), the Club Soda set felt somewhat scattered.
At large venues people need something physical to unite them with each other and get them moving. Our music rarely uses traditionally ‘percussive’ sounds, and the voice sits at the front of the mix. In the small spaces I have discussed earlier this functions as a focus-orienting device because the human body attached to that voice is very much present and near. When the body becomes disengaged from the voice and is shrunk by the size of the stage, the voice loses its focus-orienting power. The performer can no longer be singing to you, as you are no longer within their grasp.
I felt that parts of the back of the room never really got focused on what was happening onstage, and I think this is because the sheer size of the room does not accommodate affective subtlety or minimal music. The people near the stage were all very committed to the performance and I felt a relationship with them, albeit more impersonal and painted with broad strokes. I felt no possibility of relationship with those at the back of the room, so it did not bother me at all that some were talking. If I was in the audience and a band with our attitude to performance was playing, I would either get to the front or just tune out and wait for the set to finish.
The very same set went over very well at Casa del Popolo and awkwardly at Club Soda. Part of that has to do with the fact that our approach to performance was developed for and influenced by venues of comparable size and atmosphere to Casa. As a band we have only recently begun playing rooms of comparable size to Club Soda, and the success of those shows has been much more dependent on circumstances. If a large crowd is willing to accept the performance on our terms, it will work, but unlike in a small venue, those terms are not automatically set by the space. The larger spaces of big venues offer a different default set of terms with which to engage the performance.
Music that fits best in big venues is not inherently better or worse than music that fits best in small venues. In each case the music is created with a certain set of intentions and functional uses, and to facilitate a certain relationship with the audience. As Matt and I continue to make music and perform live, our relationship with spaces may change. We have spent the last year performing in venues with capacities ranging from 200 to 2000, and this may in some way inform the music we make. Our intended relationship with the audience will remain the same, but we may judge the ‘effectiveness’ of certain sounds or songs based on the experiences we have had in these bigger venues.
This entire train of thought crossed my mind as I watched the Mac DeMarco performance that followed our own. Mac is a magnetic personality who does not seek to draw the audience toward a place of introspection, and instead provides them with the opportunity for extraverted carnal-bacchanalian celebration. A small army of drunk, naked young men partied onstage. The songs themselves had a different feeling than on the record: they seemed slightly slower in tempo, the drum parts were more cymbal-heavy, and there were many guitar solos.
It was one of the more energetic shows I’ve seen this year and the crowd was going wild. I believe it worked so well because Mac DeMarco & Co’s approach to performance was perfectly suited to the venue space. It’s heightened energy reached even the people at the back. It did not demand a personal engagement with the performer, but rather an engagement with the energy of the crowd itself. Such a performance would have been overwhelming and terrorizing in the intimate space of Casa, but Club Soda provided the context necessary to take it in.