Karkwa – Out of the bleu

By Sabrina Carnevale

If it seems as though Montreal is churning out hipster rock like it’s going out of style, it’s probably because it is. Between Arcade Fire (who recently had the highly coveted musician slot on Saturday Night Live), the Dears, the Unicorns and the Stills, Montreal has taken over as Canada’s indie rock capital. The city can now add a Polaris-prize winning band to its list of accomplished musicians – Francophone quintet Karkwa won Canada’s highest musical honour, along with a cool $20,000, this past September against some major heavyweights including Shad, Broken Social Scene, Radio Radio and The Besnard Lakes.
“Montreal is a great community, there are a lot of dedicated fans and a great group of musicians that we are friends with,” says Karkwa vocalist and guitarist Louis-Jean Cormier. “The music comes very naturally, we’re influenced by many things, the weather, maybe even the winters; there is definitely a ‘Montreal’ sound.”
To make their Polaris win for their fourth album, Les Chemins De Verre, that much sweeter, they also managed to be the first Francophone act to take home the popular prize. “All the newspapers in Quebec and Montreal were talking about it, we were surprised just to make the short list and to be a part of it with many bands that we listen to and are fans of,” says Cormier. “We were so surprised to win, it was unbelievable, we had no expectations. But when we won, we had to speak in English in front of all those artists – that was pretty strange.”
Karkwa may be an unfamiliar name to English Canada, but these guys are anything but new to the industry –  they’ve been making music for over 10 years, have won numerous awards and managed to acquire a large audience base in Quebec and France. In fact, with this win, they’ve noticed music audiences expand and spread out. “There are a lot of good French bands in Montreal, we are not alone,” Cormier explains. “[This win] has certainly helped other Montreal bands, too, because there are many curious people and music lovers in Canada.”
With the announcement of Karkwa’s Polaris win, also came the backlash. In a Globe and Mail article printed on September 21 titled “Pourquoi Karkwa,” the journalist not only called Karkwa an “obscure” band but also pointed to the fact that, perhaps, the Polaris voting was “not only predictable, it was, some might say, nearly pre-determined.”
“It was pretty funny for us when the Globe and Mail said we are an obscure band; that’s true for Western Canada, but we are not obscure at home,” responds Cormier. “After Polaris, it’s become easier for us. It’s a very well respected prize and one of the most prestigious because of its voting process, many music critics are not like the one from the Globe and Mail – in fact, everyone we met at Polaris told us that they want to learn and speak more French!”
For Les Chemins De Verre, the band opted to go headfirst and record 21 songs in 21 days. Of the 21, twelve songs made the cut. “For this album, we changed our process. With previous albums, we practiced and were very ready when we went to the studio,” Cormier says. “This time, we were on tour in Europe and recorded during our breaks; we wanted to try something different.”
The band has toured quite a bit overseas, and has managed to garner quite the fan base in Paris. “When we play in Paris, a lot of people come to see us; they’re curious because we’re from Montreal,” explains Cormier. “Montreal is everywhere I think, it just might be a buzz, like San Francisco or Seattle in the 90s. I don’t know if it will last.”
Touring is still very important to Karkwa, but now that some of the members have children, it’s proven to be a bit more difficult. “Touring was pretty important, but now things are changing, everybody in the band is a dad, we hope to do more isolated tours, not big, long tours,” explains Cormier. “In Quebec, we’re well known so we have the opportunity to work with our schedules. It’s not the same outside of Quebec.” Karkwa hopes to change that with their first Canadian tour, hopefully, planned for February 2011 alongside Montreal indie-rockers, Plants and Animals.