le Système Sebastian Cowan interview Montreal

Arbutus Records founder opens new Montreal venue, le Système

An interview with Sebastian Cowan about the Plaza St-Hubert music space, bar and restaurant.

Sebastian Cowan has racked up some air miles in his life, but he always comes back to Montreal. Now, he’s opening a whole new space in Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie to add to the city’s uniquely vibrant nightlife and music scene: le Système.

The Vancouver native moved to Montreal back in 2007 — having also spent seven years living across the pond in London, where he went to university — and became involved in the local music scene soon afterward, promoting DIY shows and opening a venue in a warehouse. Since then, Cowan has been directly involved with putting on shows in alternative spaces for venues. However, years of shutdowns, fines and subsequent court appearances made him not want to do it anymore, so his focus shifted to his label, Arbutus Records.

Having founded Arbutus in 2009, Cowan has overseen the label’s growth since creating it alongside local artists at Lab Synthèse, the Mile End loft space he also co-founded. He’s signed artists like Braids, TOPS, Majical Cloudz, Sean Nicholas Savage, Moon King, Lydia Ainsworth, Blue Hawaii, and most notably, Grimes. In 2016, Cowan founded n10.as, a non-profit online radio station guided entirely by volunteers, helping bring people together in an online space like he would at a venue. Though he’d continue presenting shows while focusing most of his energy on the label, Cowan missed having his own physical space to host them in.

Now, Cowan is dedicating his time to a whole new type of music-related project: an entirely new venue called le Système. Also operating as a bar and restaurant, the space is located at 7119 St-Hubert (in Plaza St-Hubert), in the same four-storey building as Arbutus’s headquarters. Following a soft opening over three nights in late June, with live music from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., Cowan says his ambition was always to create this type of space on the ground floor. 

So how did he get there? The journey of le Système from the concept stage to its opening was a challenging one. Though Cowan secured the necessary permits to open the venue with, many other hoops still had to be jumped through. “I’ve done a number of projects, but with this one, there’s just so many components involved,” he says. 

“Even now, there are things that aren’t finished. We had our first event on June 23, and we didn’t have air conditioning. It was very hot in there. But we ran out of money. We needed to open, and we bought all the stock on credit card, opened the doors and hoped to make some sales to pay that off and be able to wrap up the project.”

Admitting that he’s new to this business and “learning all the time,” Cowan has worked alongside a business partner with experience in bars, clubs and restaurants to help move the project forward and open le Système’s doors. Various other challenges came up, too, such as installing sprinklers and a water main — the latter of which involved blocking and excavating the street. 

“Things just spiralled out of control pretty fast,” he admits. “But we really wanted to make that investment and space, and be able to provide that outlet for the scene. There’s not too much in the area (around Villeray, Little Italy and Petite-Patrie) that’s doing something quite like this. This is where I live, and where a lot of people I know live. It felt like we were solving a need. A scene can never have too many creative outlets.”

Though he doesn’t know wther Arbutus will be hosting events at le Système, Cowan says we can “definitely expect” artists from the label to be booked there. “We have a group called Das Beat, which is one of the members of Blue Hawaii and a German actress. They’re going to perform here in August,” he adds. Cowan also says n10.as will be operating out of a glass walled-off mezzanine within le Système, and the station will also occasionally be curating music there.

Earlier in the pandemic, Cowan, a trained audio engineer, developed an “unhealthy” hobby of collecting sound systems, as they were inexpensive to purchase. Some will even be used at le Système, and they’re ones he put together himself from parts he collected from karaoke bars and discos that had shut down permanently due to COVID. 

“I have a 1997 Ford Escort station wagon that I bought for $1,000,” he adds. “I drive out there, strap the subwoofer to the roof of my car — it has a roof rack — and bring it back, one or two at a time. I sort of spent the pandemic building this enormous sound system.” 

le Système Sebastian Cowan interview Montreal
The sound system at le Système. Photos by Sarah O’Driscoll

Though he admits it was a challenge taking speakers built in the ‘70s and making them produce a modern-day club sound, Cowan thinks the end result sounds “very smooth and pleasant,” even though it doesn’t match the robust, high-quality sound systems used in venues like the famed Ste-Catherine afterhours club Stereo. 

“I think that’s probably a good thing,” he says. “It helps differentiate it, and people know that. The environment I’m trying to foster here is one that’s very low-pressure, inviting, and one in which creative people can feel the flexibility and environment to experiment and try new things. Rather than pulling off something that’s super precise, they can just focus on playing great songs or trying something new.” 

At a capacity of only 160, le Système is a small-scale space for live music. Cowan attributes this to a change in regulations, as he wasn’t able to fit as many people per metre as he otherwise would’ve. Had those regulations not changed, Cowan thinks he could’ve possibly fit up to 250 people in the venue. 

Either way, his goal has been to design the space in a way that feels good, and allows him to do “a lot with very little.” Even with its current lack of A/C, he says those who’ve come to le Système already have had a great time, and are impressed with what they’ve been able to do thus far.

“I watched the Studio 54 documentary at some point, and it was super inspiring,” Cowan adds. “I noticed that they had these huge light columns that were hanging, because it was a former theatre that had super high ceilings. About two-thirds of our space are these double height ceilings. I wanted to accentuate that somehow.

“I was like, ‘I should just rip off the Studio 54 lights.’ But obviously, if you go to a lighting company, it’s going to set you back at least $10,000, probably more — which we just don’t have. Then I remembered one of the artists I work with wrote and starred in a musical just before the pandemic. Our mutual friend, Ted Stafford, is a lighting engineer who works at the Concordia theatre. I was like, ‘Theatre people build the craziest sets all the time, really quickly, with no budget. I should get a theatre person to do this.’ I said, ‘Ted, this is what I want to do.’ And he figured it out.”

Le Système’s interior design is one Cowan and co were “thoughtful” and “considerate” with, transforming the space into a venue from the café that had previously operated there. After finishing their branding, they stuccoed the walls, redid the tiles and installed Formica counters to help make the space feel “inviting and warm,” rather than elite or exclusive. “It uses very few, very simple materials, but in a thoughtful way that gives it a unifying home design aesthetic,” Cowan adds. 

The space will also be serving food and drinks, and le Système has already hired a cook, Josh Lauridsen, who’s designed the menu. Though he’s more involved with the music side of things (his business partner handles food and drink), Cowan jokes that the plan for the food’s aesthetic was initially “European diner” — of course, Europe doesn’t really have diners. Regardless, you can count on the food there as being mostly casual fare, while staying environmentally friendly.

le Système

“One of the things we’re working on is a steamed burger,” Cowan says. “The burger is grilled, like you would normally. You put it all together, and then you steam it, like you would a steamie (hot dog). They have this in America, with White Castle. It brings all the flavours together in a nice, warm way. The meat version of it will be carbon-neutral beef from a farm that has only very few cattle, and they graze over quite a bit of land.

“Usually, when cows graze, they eat all the grass, and then they move them to a different area. Here, they don’t do that—they move them around more regularly over a wider area. None of the vegetation is ever totally consumed. The carbon capture of the vegetation is great enough to offset that which the cattle produces. There’ll be vegan and gluten-free options, because we also tried to make space accessible in all aspects with the menu. We have non-alcoholic options, as well.”

With venues such as la Vitrola, le Cagibi and Café Resonance all closing up shop during the pandemic, one might think this would create a greater sense of urgency for new venues and cultural spaces like le Système to emerge in their absence. For Cowan, this has been a factor, but he also sees a lot of inspiration among Montrealers during COVID to create things and start new ventures with all their spare time. As such, he feels like le Système was a product of that environment, while also noting the relative lack of options in that area for bars hosting live music.

“This was something I had wanted to do for a while. Whenever I have something I want to do, it kicks around in my brain for years before it ends up actually coming out,” he continues. “When the pandemic happened, I started playing with floor plans to design what it would look like, and what it would be. After two years of having this extra time to tinker with it, it got a bit more real.”

Le Système’s soft opening in June came after a failed attempt at a proper, fully-fledged opening with food and music — the bar had not yet started serving food during the soft opening, though food items were being tested by the chef. Instead, they operated as a bar only featuring live music going from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. with no cover charge. The opening night event on Thursday was headlined by Ouri, a night Cowan describes as “wild” and “utter mayhem.” On Saturday July 2, le Système hosted a DJ set from none other than last year’s Polaris Prize winner (and former Montreal resident) Cadence Weapon, who was in town to perform at the Jazz Fest.

“I have a very wide taste in music. I’d like to see three different artists performing in one night,” he says when asked what kinds of shows we can expect le Système to book in the foreseeable future. “I might have a punk band, but then I’ll also book a soft rock band, and then a DJ. By having that diversity of programming, these people are pulling from three very distinct scenes.

“Your room is full, because it’s not just the same peer group coming out — it’s three different groups of people. More importantly, these people are now meeting each other, so you have new connections being made. Maybe two people that have never met fall in love, or start a band, or start some other sort of enterprise. That, to me, is what’s really exciting and inspiring about these kinds of physical spaces.”

Beyond this, the space hosting le Système is still technically under construction — an A/C unit still needs to be installed, and a terrasse needs to be built outdoors. But Cowan is looking forward to food service opening, as well as the chance to sit earlier in the day in a much quieter and more relaxed environment. His other big hope for le Système? That’s decidedly more music-related.

“One of my dreams is that someone who has a studio here (in Arbutus’s building) makes a track and then performs it. They write a song upstairs when they’re already booked that night downstairs, they perform it and test it out. They see what works and what doesn’t. To me, that seems like a really cool situation, to have the whole place working as one.” ■

For more about le Système (7119 St-Hubert), please visit the venue’s Instagram page.

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