Made in Montreal

The United Steelworkers of Montreal have come a long way since they started playing at Lucien-L’Allier subway station around six years ago. We met up with Gern f. (vocals/guitar) and Matt Watson (electric guitar) at the Silver Dollar in Toronto a couple of hours before their showcase at Canadian Music Week.

The United Steelworkers of Montreal have come a long way since they
started playing at Lucien-L’Allier metro station around six years ago.
We met up with Gern f. (vocals/guitar) and Matt Watson (electric
guitar) at the Silver Dollar in Toronto a couple of hours before their
showcase at Canadian Music Week.

When did the Steelworkers form?

Matt: We were playing together a little bit with this guy Sean Moore
and then we played in the metro a bit.

Gern: sort of a weekly metro jam session at Lucien-L’Allier metro.I
did it for about four or five months, to greater or lesser degrees of
success. It took us like two years to get to the lineup that we have,
we went through a whole bunch of people at the beginning.

Matt: We went through an average of one every two weeks.

(The bands’ website has a list of 14 of these “dead members”).

How did you make the switch from playing in the metro to playing in bars?

Gern: That’s when we started losing members, as soon as we started
saying ‘well let’s have rehearsals,’ with the end with the end to be
playing live shows. So as soon as we started planning stuff we lost a
lot of guys right there, they were like, ‘oh sounds like that’s going
to be work.’

When was that?

Gern: A little over five years, our first show was Halloween.I wasn’t
even at the first show. A great deal of planning went into it and then
I had to go to the hospital for two months or something like that.

Matt: Derek Skeie, who used to play mandolin with us, stole one of
those gowns from the hospital.

Gern: that set off the tradition of our Grumpy’s Halloween extravaganza.

What is that?

Gern: well we’ve been doing it for about five years and it’s just a
big old costume party and it’s a lot of fun and we all dress up.its
literally been packed every year.

Matt: We tried to do it on a weekday night this year and it didn’t
work out, but still people came out.

Gern: It was still packed, we were nose to nose with the crowd. Six
people on the stage at Grumpy’s is a bit of tight squeeze, we’ve had
more, but it’s still a tight squeeze.

What’s the songwriting process? Do you write individually or as a group?

Gern: We tried writing together and that ended up almost like a cage
match. Everybody brings song to the band and says ‘hey let’s try this
one’ and if it sticks on the wall, then it’s a song.

Matt: Somebody will bring a song to the table and we’ll practice it
for a little while.

Gern: The band has a lot of take on the arrangements, some of my songs
really became real songs, just from introducing them to the band. And
it’s like ‘no the bridge should go here,’ or ‘let’s double up that
chorus up’

Matt: and then you start working on the harmonies and then you start
working on the solos.

Gern: it goes from being lyrics and chords to being a whole song with the band.

What inspires the songs?

Gern: (he pauses for a moment) the biggest one would probably be
alcoholism (Matt laughs) … Certainly the blue-collar aspect of it,
living in Montreal. Most of us live in the South-West; the Point,
Verdun, St. Henri, Little Burgundy. My stuff comes out of the history
of those neighbourhoods, a lot of it has a blue collar theme to it, we
all come out of blue collar neightbourhoods, blue collar families.
There’s certainly a very long line of crappy jobs, you start breaking
down every member of the band and every crappy job they’ve had, it
leads into it a lot. And your standard horrible relationships are real
good, you know, fruit to pick from the tree.

A lot of the songs seem like they’re set in the past . (before I
finish asking Matt answers)

Matt: We have a healthy respect for history, that’s for sure.

Where do those ideas come from?

Matt: Everybody in the band likes old-style music and from that you
can start looking around you and start appreciating the history around

Gern: If you’re from Montreal a lot of people don’t notice it, but the
city is dripping with history. It’s still a city that maintains the
history of its architecture, it’s cityscape from a hundred years ago.
Most of my songs with a historical bent on them, it’s just literally
walk around the point on a sunny afternoon in the middle of summer and
the stuff hits you.

In the new video (Émile Bertrand) there’s a lot of shots of the old
Griffintown what do you think about the re-development?

Gern: (disgusted) oh of the things that makes montreal a
really great city to live in is that it’s a livable city and it’s
livable because it was planned to be medium density housing, and
condos are maximum density. All those towers are maximum density
especially in the northern part of Griffintown. You’re throwing the
whole thing out of whack. It’s what has been cool about living in
Montreal for the last hundred years, was the fact that it had
neighbourhoods. Everybody shopped in their neighbourhood, if you lived
in St. Henri you shopped on Notre Dame, if you lived in the Point you
shopped on Center street, if you lived in the Plateau you shopped on
St. Laurent; that’s how it works. The condos come in as maximum
density and there’s no shopping. Everybody owns a car and they just
start shopping at Price Club and Wal-mart.

Matt: We like our bicycles in Montreal.

Gern: and the reason we do is because the neighbourhoods are
connected. Bicycles don’t work as well in Toronto, because Toronto is
a low-density city, most of the architecture here is low density, you
hop on your bike and it’s an hour ride to where you want to go. In
Montreal it’s an eight-minute ride. And consistently throughout the
entire city, wherever you live there’s shopping, there’s theaters,
there’s bars, there’s life going on. So what’s happening in
Griffintown is just appalling, what they’ve already done there, the
amount of condos they’ve already put in, and what they’re planning on
doing. The reason they can do it is because it’s a vacant part of town
because they got rid of residential building permits back in the
fifties, supposedly to clean up the blight, the ‘urban blight’ of it,
there was too much drugs and too much drinking and prostitution. They
wouldn’t come right out and say it, but there was too many immigrants,
so they decided what they would do is just put a freeze on it. So
that’s why that part of town has been empty and it’s right in the
heart of Montreal proper, and they just emptied the whole god damn
city out for thirty years and now they’re ball parting it up. It’s
Drapeau he’s a fucking maniac, if you need any more examples just look
around the city: Ville Marie expressway, Decarie, the Turcott Yards,
the toilet bowl on the edge of town, got rid of the streetcars. All
the stuff that we’re all learned by now, or should have learned by
now, was all stupid. And this new project is the same thing again,
it’s like ‘well we’ve learned and now we’re going to do it again.’
There’s some decent properties down there, there are actually some
cool buildings. I know the part they’re hoping to develop is probably
not of the nicest stuff, it’s the really industrial stuff. It’s just
crazy, doing something at this density and they’re not putting in
pools and they’re not putting in CLSCs and they’re not putting in
schools, so there’s no community that’s going to be created, it’s just
going to be 5,000 people plunked down in the middle of it, 15 stories
in the air. They’re saying it’s going to be over-top of commercial
stores and stuff like that but it’s not going to work, it’s gonna

Matt: we’re not for it

Gern: thanks for summing that up. (turning back to me) You’re gonna
get me started on it, I’m gonna wear out your tape machine

You sing a lot about Montreal, how do people outside of Montreal
receive the songs?

Gern: I think there’s a lot of romance behind them; everybody likes romance.

Matt: Shawn writes a lot of songs about Ontario as well.

Gern: I think they’re more songs about Montreal if you’re from
Montreal. I think when we play “Place St. Henri” in Saskatchewan, that
could be ethereally anywhere in Quebec as far as they’re concerned. So
I don’t think we shoot ourselves in the foot about it, and that said,
there’s a bunch of stuff in there, I draw a lot from growing up in
southern Ontario and stuff like that. Gus’s are a lot of the time,
more worldly tunes.

Matt (laughing): About three feet away from him.

Gern: we certainly like to write about montreal and we don’t apologize
for it but I don’t think that excludes anybody, although maybe we’ve
cause a whole pile of more people to move to montreal and that’s why
your rent is doubled in price now, you can blame us for that.

Matt: I blame Arcade Fire for that.

Gern: Yes, it’s Arcade Fire’s fault that we all now pay $900 a month
for an apartment that used to go for 250.

Do you tour a lot? Have you been touring a lot?

Gern: A lot this year.

Matt: A lot for us.

Gern: Yeah a lot for us. Nobody’s putting us in a tour bus and working
everything out for us. Everything we do we do on our own, with a fair
amount of help from Weewerk records, our label down here in Toronto,
but for us doing it a lot is probably one-tenth of what people
consider to be a ‘touring band’ sort of thing. But we made it to the
west coast this year, we made it out to the east coast three times
this year; numerous, numerous trips down to southern ontartio, to do
three or four shows at a time and we leave Sunday for Austin Texas for
South by Southwest.

Is that a big step?

Gern: Yeah, South by Southwest is one of those you’re supposed to do.
It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of monetary commitment for us to all
get down there; but you get the invite, you go. We all said that when
it first came up a few months ago, ‘we have to go, it’s South by
Southwest, it’s the big granddaddy of all these festivals.

Matt: and it’s warm

Gern: Yeah, had it been in Salmon Arm, maybe not so much. I don’t know
how big of a step, we’ll all see how big of a step. We know tons of
bands who’ve done it before and they all said, ‘go it’s totally worth
it.’ If nothing happens, you know, professionally it’s still
completely worth it on eight different levels and pretty much
everybody we’ve talked to said professionally it always helped, it’s
certainly a good thing to have on your calendar, like up on the
website and people take you that three per cent more seriously than
they did before they saw that.

Do you like playing festivals like this?

Gern: yeah.

Matt: I guess so.

Gern: They’re a rush.

Matt: It’s really fast, you only get a 40 minute set, then you got to
be up and off and you’ve got to move around other people’s equipment
and stuff like that. I kinda like playing Peterborough, you know when
you’re playing in a bar to the locals, that’s fun for me. But these
festival things, they’re good, I suppose.

Gern: This year CMW was scaled back for us, because we’re heading for
South by Southwest, like last year for CMW, we did four shows in four
days. It was just nuts! Like literally you were just carrying gear for
four days, I think we got drunk maybe once. It was a complete run.

Matt: first Canada music week was big for us, we played at the Rivoli
and after that people started taking us a bit more seriously.

Gern: We got really lucky, we got on the big sort of alt. county show
on the Friday night and we were the opener, and we were like ‘oh I
don’t know, we’re playing the opener.’ But we were on the same show
with Justin Rutlige, Luc Ducet, Great Lake Swimmers. It was really a
nice introduction to Toronto and that’s where our label came out of.
He was actually the one who booked us in to it. Now he didn’t even
actually see us play if I remember correctly, he just came down and
walked around the room and everybody was talking about our opening
set. But he’s a pretty intuitive guy. He’s got a really neat eclectic
taste, a lot of bands ask me, “should we be pitching at the label you
guys are on?”
And I’m like, I don’t know what his criteria is when he signs bands
but as soon as he signs one I go, yup of course that’s a Weewerk band.
I can never really tell what he’s going to put his hooks into, but
after they’re signed you’re always like, of course. He’s got really
good taste. He builds a show like nobody I’ve ever seen.anytime Phil
Kleego has set us up in Toronto it’s always been stellar. And he built
us a pretty decent following here, we do almost as good in Toronto as
we’re doing in Montreal.

Is your following growing?

Yeah, in the last year or two. Even in Montreal, about a year ago it
really started taking off. We went from 100, 150 people depending on
what room we were playing, what day of the week it was, how much we
yelled, screamed, waved flyers and stuff like that and made a really
big jump in the past year or two. Where suddenly a lot of people come
out to see us play and a lot of francophones. We’re finally starting
to make that crossover to the east side of town and that’s cool. You
don’t want there to be that line in the music scene but there is.
Everybody should be trying to break that down and we’re doing what we
can. It’s really neat when you start getting 20 per cent of your
audience or 30 per cent of your audience are all francophones.

You’re still working day jobs, is that something you’re trying to get out of?

Matt: it’d be nice.the more time we spend touring and the less time we
spend working, it’ll come to a point where we’re going to have to
jump.we’re all pretty old too, we’re not in our early twenties so
quitting a day job is pretty difficult, we can’t live on tuna
sandwiches on a coach for three months at a time.

Gern: Right now we could probably all quit and just book [shows],
right now we’re playing as many shows as we possibly can without our
lives falling apart, we did 53 shows last year and I was turning down
two or three opportunities a week. I’m not saying anybody was paying
us like a thousand bucks do a show, just offers, this band wants to
hook up a show in this town sort of thing. We could double, we could
triple what we’re as far as the interest goes but it also would mean
we’d all have to decide we want to live in a 20 year old van, on the
road. So that’s the rub, everybody has to make that jump at some
point, and it’s just a matter of pushing it along until there’s a
comfort level to be able to do that.

Matt: and monetary level as well

Gern: well that’s the comfort level, I wasn’t waiting for there to be
comfortable beds to sleep in.

So what’s next after SXSW?

We’re hoping to shake some European hands down at South by Southwest
because we’re looking at maybe going over to Europe in September,
October. We’re hoping we can find a booking agent, or maybe some
management guys or a record label who’s just interested in supporting
us a little bit, just to make the European thing a little easier.
Europe is interesting. Most of the guys we know who’ve gone over, who
play similar stuff to us they’re saying Europe just eats that stuff

Where are you planning to record the third album?

There’s a possibility of house of miracles out of London, Ontario. The
guy who runs it, Andy, and I’m not even going to try and pronounce his
last name because I always get it wrong. He’s the front-man for Two
Minute Miracles, he’s done all their albums; he’s done the last
Bar-mitzvah [Brothers], the last Jenny Omnichord, he did Cuff the
Duke, he did Constantines. He’s a pretty swift guy. And his band is on
the same label as us, so it’ll be nice to keep it in the family. As
well it’ll be the first album that we’re doing outside of our own
studio and without doing our own self-production. We’re looking at
this one to see what someone else can do with our stuff. We’ve hung on
for the first two albums, trying to get it to sound specifically the
way we want it to. Now we’re hoping with the next one to see if
somebody can not change us at all but just texture us a little bit
differently, that’d be cool. And it would also be cool to just go in,
record and not have to do all the insanity that our first two albums
required, which was taking six months evenings and weekends, doing
this track and then that track and really standing on one leg. The
studio back at my place, it’s project studio, it’s a little bit better
than rudimentary. It would be nice to go in some place that they
actually had good mics that you didn’t have to turn just such a way
and the guy has to stand in just such a way, it would be nice if
somebody else was worrying about that and we weren’t. So we’re going
to see if that actually happens, if that doesn’t happen

Matt: (interrupting) we’ll do it ourselves again.

Gern: we’ll do it ourselves again, probably at Lucien L’allier metro.

The United Steelworkers of Montreal Play their next Montreal show at
Cabaret March 22 with Cuff the Duke.

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