Arcade Fire Hearts on Fire Montreal music scene Michael Barclay

Arcade Fire. Photo by Anton Corbijn

A new book documents the indie music scene eruption in Montreal & the ROC

We spoke with Michael Barclay, the author of Hearts on Fire: Six Years that Changed Canadian Music, ahead of the book’s Montreal launch.

Some people like to say about the halcyon days of whatever music era they identify with that “you just had to be there.” Montreal’s indie heyday is one of those times.

Thanks to music journalist Michael Barclay’s latest book — Hearts on Fire: Six Years that Changed Canadian Music — there’s now an incredibly thorough account of the tunes, the boozing, the brawls, the breakups and many success stories that marked 2000–2005, a whirlwind time for music across the country. 

It’s a nostalgia trip for those who lived it, and the next best thing for those who didn’t.

Although Montreal’s own Arcade Fire serve as a looming presence in this mammoth book (and on the cover), with the breakthrough of their 2004 debut Funeral representing the high water mark, Barclay was careful to not make this a book exclusively about Montreal (or Toronto), or a book just about the indie rock boom.

“This was about so many people and so many genres of music,” said Barclay, who interviewed about 70 artists and dug into the vast archives of Canadian music journalism, including his own.

“I really wanted it to be about Canada, as someone with a strange attachment to the concept of Canada. This is a cross-Canadian story. Wolf Parade were from Vancouver Island. So are Unicorns. Only one member of Arcade Fire is born and raised in Montreal. There are so many threads that do bind the various scenes in this country together. I would find it harder to disentangle them.”

After having written about the ’80s, ’90s and Tragically Hip, Barclay’s covered a lot of ground musically, but after reading Hearts on Fire and remembering so many fantastic bands, it’s hard to come away with any other sense than this six-year stretch was the most fruitful in Canadian history.

“Of course it is,” Barclay said with a laugh. “There’s so much from the late ’60s and ’70s, but boomers have shoved those down our throats our entire lives, right? I’m born in 1971. My first book was about my teenage and university years, and that had so much great music. That book (Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985–1995) came out in 2001, and at that time something game changing was clearly happening in the moment.”

While it perhaps wasn’t obvious at the time, Canada’s music scene rose in a post 9/11 world where American jingoism was at its height. The time was right for starved music fans the world over to look north.

“Absolutely I think it made people realize there was another country in North America,” said Barclay. “Canada is generally not on people’s radars, and the music wasn’t political, but people were bored with America, so Canada benefitted. It was also a time for big bands, with 10 people on stage. People responded to that earnestness and sense of community.”

Pretty much every massive Montreal band from the good old days when music mags the world over were pegging us as the next big thing get their moment in the sun on Hearts on Fire. It starts with the scene setting of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, then the rise of the Dears, the short-lived hype of the Unicorns and so many more, from Kid Koala turning the scratching world upside down to Sam Roberts breaking into the Canadian mainstream when few others did. Old haunts and loft parties of yore come back to life in Barclay’s words and from the acts themselves. At times you can almost smell the stale beer and cigarettes (for those who remember being able to smoke in venues).

But while Montreal was coming up as a cheap rent haven for artists, scenes were popping up in Toronto, British Columbia and elsewhere. And many of the problems these future stars of indie rock encountered, so too did their rap, electronic and country counterparts. 

In the end, MuchMusic favourite rap group and DIY entrepreneurs Swollen Members share a lot more in common with pivotal experimental music outfit Constellation Records than you think, even if they’re coasts and genres apart. It’s a lot of stories of Canadians coming from nothing to create the indelible music of the times.

And although a little after his time, Barclay also came away with a newfound appreciation for Canadian hard rockers Alexisonfire and their lasting influence.

The commonality between all these pockets of music? There’s power in creating a scene with your pals. Even though rent has risen and record sales have diminished, scenes remain a source of strength. Barclay considered what artists might be able to glean from the rock-n-roll lore of 20 years ago.

“Obviously the music industry has changed so much,” said Barclay. “Whereas downloading was once viewed as a way to sidestep the usual gatekeepers, it led to the wholesale devaluation of music. Something that can be learned is fearlessness. A lot of what happened in the late 90s and early 2000s that put the events in motion was that you’re on your own, and no one is going to help you except your community. If you try and make a career appealing to record company suits and booking agents, there’s a chance you can do well, but is it worth it?” ■

Michael Barclay will launch his book Hearts on Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music in Montreal at Librairie Résonance (40 Beaubien E.) on Thursday, July 28, 7 p.m., with Li’l Andy hosting.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.