Montreal's Mutek Festival Turns 15

We spoke to MUTEK’s founder and director, Alain Mongeau, about its early beginnings and the challenges of organizing an electronic music festival in Canada.

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May 12 2014, 8:25pm

Montreal's MUTEK festival was founded in 2000 and has become one of North America's premiere electronic music festivals. The 15th edition of the festival runs from May 27 to June 1, and features performances from Oneohtrix Point Never, Richie Hawtin, Nicolas Jaar, Tim Hecker, Matthew Dear, Holly Herndon, Ben Frost, and more.

While EDM headliners continue to be cash cows at major summer festivals—look no further than Skrillex's placement on the lineup for this year's Osheaga Festival—MUTEK caters to fans looking for unique (and usually more intimate) performances from established and up-and-coming Canadian and international acts, from drum and bass to house to techno. There are also digital art installations, panels, and workshops, which take place in venues across the city.

We spoke to MUTEK's founder and director, Alain Mongeau, about its early beginnings, their selection process, and the challenges of organizing an electronic music festival in Canada.

THUMP: What made you decide to start MUTEK back in 2000?
Alain: I was involved in the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema prior to doing MUTEK and I was in charge of developing new media in relation to image making. I started in 1997 so I was involved in the film festival for a few years. Then the film festival moved to the Ex-Centris complex in Montreal and I got a mandate to develop new media in the context of this new complex. I decided to come up with an event that focused on new media, but with more of an intersection between music and sound making. With six months apart from each, I was involved in two major events chartering everything that had to do with new media, from image to the sound and the music side of things. That was the pre-history of the festival.

Personally, I was really involved in the '90s electronic music scene, I could say electronic music saved my life. I was following what was happening in Europe and I felt we needed something in North America and especially Montreal, that would allow us to start interacting with whatever was happening in Europe. Our idea was to establish a point from which we could start maybe integrating what was happening here with what was happening in Europe.

How many people does it take to put together the festival?
We're still a very small team and small festival. Someone tagged the term "boutique festival" last year, which kind of illustrates quite a bit what we are, because with the explosion of EDM a few years ago at the major festivals, we're still very low scale in comparison. The core team is about three people year round. When we go into production mode and during the festival itself, we'll have a task force of about 200 people on the ground, half of which I'd say are volunteers.

The lineup is very carefully curated; tell me a little about how you select artists.
A lot of it has to do with where the festival came from. The initial angle was us wanting to have a festival dedicated to the musicians and artists as opposed to a festival that would be for promoting a party. The same way there's film festivals, theatre festivals, dance festivals, and literature festivals, we thought electronic music back then could definitely benefit from something like that. The other thing that we focused on was live artists and live acts. If you look at the program there's hardly any DJs, not that we have anything against DJs, but we feel that craftsmanship needed to be put into perspective and have the musicians doing their own stuff. Even today, out of the 85 artists there are only three or four DJs, it's usually DJs or producers that usually don't perform live so that's why we bring them in as DJs. It's much more about the artist themselves, artists pushing the envelope, and every year trying to give a panorama of the large spectrum of what's happening from the more experimental stuff to more dance-oriented music. It's an intensive process of making lists, talking to people, and seeing what's out there. Every choice that we make has significance so there's no filling up of any form.

For Canadian content, the process is a bit different because we actually have a call for proposals, so we receive close to 200 proposals every year. It's a way to discover new artists and new projects. The Canadian side of the content is provided 25 percent by us and 75 percent by dealing with the proposals that we receive.

There are many electronic artists from Montreal and Quebec who have gone on to international acclaim. How has the festival fostered and honored homegrown talent?
With having a history of 15 years now, I don't know if you can talk about generations of artists, but there have certainly been different waves of artists. The first wave of artists that the festival helped reveal––or that were revealed through the festival were artists like Akufen, Deadbeat, Mike Shannon. There was a whole wave of artists that were actually in Montreal for a while. To be able to move to the next step in their career, a lot of them moved to Berlin, so that was sort of a disappointment because we were deserted by people who became friends and embodied what the festival spirit was about. It forced us to start tapping into the community in a different and larger way and it forced us to question our relevancy and find ways of reconnecting to new waves of emerging artists. The biggest difference today that I'm seeing is this whole process of doing a call for proposals, which we've been doing for about the last six years, I'd say in that the last three years we've witnessed a definite raise in quality and I'm more and more surprised with the general quality of proposals that we receive every year.

There's been a lot of talk recently about Montreal's mayor extending the city's last call for a trial period this summer. What are some of the challenges you've faced organizing the festival?
The North American market, especially the Canadian market is not an easy thing. We don't have the same open-air policies that they have in Europe. There's some support on the federal level, but it's shrinking and we're not seeing much of it on our side. We get more from Quebec than we do from the federal government. In that sense it's kind of a luxury because not all provinces have that funding.

There's been an ongoing discussion about opening hours, it's part of the new mayor's office, so I'm not really sure how it's going to affect anything concretely in the future. We have one night that goes after hours on the Saturday and it's really been a pain to get the permits to do that year after year. We try to get the permission, we process all the paperwork months and months in advance and we usually get the answer a few days before the event––they do everything to discourage us. At 3 AM we have to shut the bar anyway, but just to get the opportunity to present a program that goes deep into the night is a challenge itself.

When did you decide to expand the festival to Barcelona and Mexico City?
The first year we got approached by seven cities in Europe trying to reach out to us saying "Oh, it would be cool if you could do MUTEKs in Europe!" Which was a bit of a surprise because we were influenced by what we felt was happening in Europe. We felt we were doing something okay and quite quickly one of our visions was to connect Montreal to Europe and also South America. The first event we did was in Berlin, I was invited by a festival there to do a night and then we did a festival in Santiago, Chile. So we ended up working with different individuals here and there. We just celebrated the tenth anniversary of the festival in Mexico; the festival there is actually at the same level as what we're doing here. The population and the context is so different, but they have potential to outgrow us. We also just celebrated the fifth anniversary of the festival in Barcelona. The dream of having a landing point in the three continents is happening, although it wasn't exactly those cities that we had in mind.

Besides the music, MUTEK features art installations and show projections. Why was the visual aspect important to you?
One of the ways to distinguish ourselves was the care we were giving to the audio-visual element of everything we were doing. There are two components to the presence of visuals. Part of the program is about presenting performances that are audio-visual performances where there are specific or definite explorations of their relationship between sound and image. So the AV Visions series has always been more or less exclusively dedicated to that. The other strong visual element of the festival is in most venues that we use, we actively involve quite elaborate video cinematography. So we transform the venues that we're using to create a context, a real immersive environment where the artist can perform. That brings a "wow" element to the presentation.

Finally, what would you say to convince electronic music fans that have never been to MUTEK to come?
This year is a special year because it's our 15th and a lot of things are new at the festival, like the fact that we're using the Museum of Contemporary Art as our headquarters. Because it's the 15th, it comes together in a very unique way; I'm not sure what's going to happen next year. It's a happening that shouldn't be missed and there's something for every taste.

Max Mertens is a writer who lives in Toronto. He's on Twitter: @Max_Mertens.