Karkwa : Cheque, mate!
When Montreal art-rockers Karkwa became the first francophone act to hoist a massively oversized $20,000 cheque over their heads at the annual Polaris Prize in September, anglophone music critics across the country (including this one) scampered about desperately trying to find out something about these victors. Who were they? Why hadn't we heard much about them before? And why the hell does a "two solitudes" duality persist in the Canuck music world, to a point that even informed critics and journalists could be broadly unaware of established, top-notch acts?
Article from Cormac Rea, Ottawa Xpress, December 23rd, 2010
Keyboardist François Lafontaine wasted little time getting to the heart of the matter in the post-Polaris news conference at the Masonic Temple venue, when he became suddenly confused as to why the band had been so intent on breaking into francophone markets abroad - i.e., Belgium, France - and not touring more in "our own country."
Indeed, after winning "this contest in Toronto" (the band's first success outside of Quebec) for their fourth studio album, Les Chemins de verre (which translates to "The Glass Paths"), Karkwa finally had at least 20,000 good reasons to pay any attention to the pan-national market.
Still, it's a sad indictment of the domestic music industry that it took a two-song performance at the Polaris gala (and that oversized cheque) for this immensely talented, hard-touring, 12-year-old band from Montreal to get even the barest recognition from music circles outside their province.
In an incisive
post-synopsis of the event, a well-known Toronto media source described the situation as "anglo-guilt triumphing over music-guilt" - itself an open criticism of the vagaries of music competitions, and the desire by critics to occasionally prioritize either stylistic or cultural aspects over genuine musical integrity. Not that Karkwa have any difficulty with the latter...
Their work referencing the sensibility of a myriad popular art, indie and post-rock international bands, Lafontaine and his bandmates (vocalist/guitarist Louis-Jean Cormier, bass guitarist Martin Lamontagne, percussionist Julien Sagot and drummer Stéphane Bergeron) craft brilliantly lush, instrumental compositions, framing lyrics "in our own language" - lyrics that are really no harder on the anglicized ear for their potential lack of meaning. For example, an apt point of comparison might be the band Sigur Ros, which became an international sensation while singing entirely in Icelandic, a phonetically exotic language that surely has considerably fewer speakers inhabiting Forest Hill, the Glebe and Kitsilano than French, or at least of those with a passing grade in French comprehension class.
"I think it can be sad because there is a lot of stuff out there," Lafontaine told XPress this week. "We went to Vancouver for the Olympics and heard so many great bands that we have never heard of in Quebec. Also in Quebec, there are many bands that are really good that never cross the Ontario border. I think the [Canadian] music business is like that. It's really sad, but we don't care about politics - it's all about the music.
"But actually winning Polaris was like - if we were in the movies - winning the Cannes festival," Lafontaine says. "We are really proud and honoured by it. We thought that maybe because we were singing in French we couldn't win this prize, but when the name was dropped we were like, 'Shit man, we won!"
As their name is taken from the French word "carquois," meaning a quiver of arrows, perhaps it's unsurprising that Karkwa have aimed more than a few metaphorical arrows from the proverbial quiver at contest success. Formed in 1998, the band's first tour was to Europe after they had made it to the finals of the Cégeps en spectacle, Quebec's province-wide battle of the bands. Their first album, 2003's Le Pensionnat des établis, mixed pop, rock, funk and a political undercurrent that they have since abandoned. Their third production, Le Volume du vent, earned four Felix awards in 2008, a clear sign that they had made it in the Quebec milieu at least. Les Chemins de verre's Polaris laurel in 2010 should open up new territory, a welcome yet daunting opportunity for a band already accustomed to performing over 75 shows a year in Quebec alone.
"Yes, we have received a lot of calls from booking agencies, with offers from the United States and Canadian agencies in the West of Canada," says Lafontaine. "We have a lot of offers but we are not yet sure what we are going to do. We have a March tour in Ontario, which will be our first in Ontario, and we would like to do festivals instead of bar gigs in the States. It's really a big country and hard to get around sometimes. You know, we already did that in Quebec, playing every possible city, no matter how far from Montreal. There were times when I said, 'No, fuck man, it's really too far.' But you got to go to see people. We have done that for 12 years, which is why we would really like to tour outside of Quebec now.
"We've toured in France, but we're not really big there at all," he adds, laughing. "So we might try out Holland, Germany, Serbia in April. I've never been there before!"
Karkwa At La Nouvelle Scène (333 King Edward Ave.), January 6, 2011, at 8 p.m.