Not your granddad’s one man band

Montreal’s One Man Band Festival refreshes an old idea, and raises the profile of innovative solo artists from Montreal, the R.O.C. and beyond.

Clara Venice, playing Saturday, May 25 at Playhouse

The term one man band typically conjures the image of a gypsy-looking busker strapped to the nines with cymbals, harmonicas, an acoustic guitar and a bass drum as a backpack. But look at Grimes. Or Owen Pallett. That image is quickly fading as more and more one-man/-woman bands use new technology and old fashioned musicianship to redefine what it means to be a solo multi-instrumentalist.

When onetime Dears guitarist Jon Cohen launched his solo project, the Jon Cohen Experimental, he not only found himself unfettered by other bandmates and able to tour freely, but he actually started making money. I spoke with him to find out more about the broadening definition of the one-man band as the second year of the One Man Band Festival he founded is set to begin tomorrow.

The Jon Cohen Experimental, playing Sunday, May 26 at l’Hémisphère Gauche

Gregory Pike: So tell me a little bit about the festival coming up this week.

Jon Cohen: The One Man Band festival exclusively features solo artists and multi-instrumentalists from all over the world — mostly from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., France, Portugal, and Colombia. It takes place at several venues across Montreal, with about four or five shows per night. We also have things like workshops, movie screenings, artist panels, barbecues, parties and so on. It is affordable. And it is unmissable.

GP: Where did you get the idea to start this festival?

JC: Last year I kind of started it on a whim, just to see what it would be like to have a One Man Band night. That night very quickly turned into a three-night one-man band event, which was really amazing actually. The results from those three nights were tremendous. And the whole thing was whipped together in less than a month. So that’s why I decided to do it again this year.

GP: Are there any other festivals of its kind?

JC: There are a couple. There’s one in Barcelona and one in Switzerland, that I know of. The one in Switzerland is more of a traditional busker festival. You know, your traditional guy with the drum on his back. But there’s all kinds of stuff going on there. What we’re trying to do though is really expand the concept of the one-man band and show that there are more contemporary styles going on. You can find any kind of genre and all kinds of tools and electronics and looping and triggering in one-man bands today.

The stereotype is the one-man band that entertains crowds outdoors. And we have an element of that in our festival. But I think it’s much more about new music and emerging artists.

Montag, playing Friday, May 24 at Divan Orange

GP: How would you distinguish between a one-man band and, say, someone with an acoustic guitar singing songs solo?

JC: I don’t think there’s any hard and fast category. I think the term one-man band now is a bit more of a buzz word. And yeah, you can get a looping pedal and go around telling everyone you’re a one-man band. And that’s fine. A lot of people do that, and I think that’s great. I think it’s empowering to be able to do that. But I think at the end of the day, for us, speaking for the festival, we’re looking for artists who are doing something different and engaging, by themselves. And sometimes we do have just solo singer songwriters. But they’re not just simply playing folk music or whatever. Like last year, we had Mike O’Brien, and he’s able to make his guitar sound like three guitars. He’s just that skilled that it’s impressive to watch. To me, that is kind of like a one-man band. Anybody who uses that skill with that ingenuity on just a simple instrument and who can bring something new to the table, that’s what we’re looking for.

GP: It seems like being in a one-man band has its advantages in terms of things like being able to tour without having to coordinate travelling schedules with bandmates.

JC: Well, that’s kind of how I got started. I was playing in a band for five years, and it didn’t work out. Logistically, it was a nightmare, and on tour we’d end up losing money. Then I followed my instinct and hit the road alone, and the next I knew, I was touring across North America, Europe and the U.K., by Greyhound bus or on trains or any way I could. And I was actually making money for the first time. I was like, wow, there’s nobody to pay and I still get paid as a full band. I didn’t necessarily have to get a hotel room. I could stay with couchsurfers or friends or whoever. There was a different ethic about it.

Financially, it’s much more feasible. And technology allows for it. Nowadays, you can literally fit your band in a box. But then again, it puts a lot more of a demand on how creative you are. The musician is not there to highlight the tools, it’s the other way around. So then there’s definitely much more of a challenge for the one-man band to put on a great show. To engage an audience as one person on stage, that can be much more challenging. ■
The festival takes place in venues across Montreal from Thursday, May 23 to Sunday, May 26. For more information, please visit One Man Band Festival.

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