Clay and Friends interview

Clay and Friends are doing their own stunts

An interview with the Montreal band ahead of the launch of their new eight-song EP, Stunt, at MTelus on April 27.

The word “stunt” can mean a whole lot of different things depending on context. It can literally mean performing stunts (e.g. the Jackie Chan kind), or “stunting,” as in to flex on someone. Conversely, it can mean a stunt in one’s growth, or a cheap publicity stunt. For Montreal’s Clay and Friends, the word is the title of their newest EP, and each of those disparate meanings were kept in mind as they christened their latest work.

Bandleader Mike Clay — who is half-anglo and half-franco — or “pure Montreal,” as he calls it — says he’s “hella stoked” to be talking to us, thanks in part to the fact that he doesn’t do many English-language interviews to begin with. “I rarely even get to speak English during the shows,” he adds.

Speaking to us via Zoom from Brussels, Clay and guitarist Clément Langlois-Légaré (the latter a native of NDG) were in the midst of a series of European shows, including a packed gig in Paris earlier in the tour.

Clay even tells us how near and dear Cult MTL is to his heart and that we have an “iconic” spot in his life — at least, until we both realize he may actually be referring to our dearly departed predecessor, the Montreal Mirror.

“I have this framed picture that I caught on the street of this decrepit-looking old man, and he’s enjoying the last printed edition of the Mirror,” he explains. “I have that framed in my dresser. Every time I go and grab clothes, I see him reading the Mirror.”

Released independently on March 15, Stunt is a vibrant eight-track, 20-minute project by the progenitors of the music they call “La Musica Popular de Verdun” (also the name of their 2019 EP).

The project bounces brazenly between genres, treating listeners to elements of electro-funk (“About It”), U.K. garage (“Me Myself and I”), Afrobeats (“Good Problem”, assisted by Pierre Kwenders), ‘70s funk and soul (“Moneyman”), and even pop-punk (“Who’s to Blame”).

“It would be safer for us to just keep making [our 2018 breakthrough song] ‘Going Up the Coast’,” Clay says. “And yet, we have the privilege of having these fans who are like, ‘No.’ That comes from us building an organic fanbase. 

“We’re an indie group, we’re (independently) touring Europe right now. We have that freedom. The connection we have with our fans — and I’m not shooting a shot at anybody — is bigger than a 15-second snippet that loops. People love the records and tell their friends about them. There’s no IG or Facebook ad or billboard that can buy that.”

The release of Stunt — whose working title was Loonie — comes ahead of several sold-out gigs across Quebec, as well as a European tour. Clay and Friends also have high-profile festival appearances lined up this summer, including Osheaga and FEQ.

Clearly, their strategy is paying off in a musical landscape that feels and looks like a decaying shell of its former self. The band’s success has allowed its members to become homeowners — no small feat in this climate, and especially for independent artists in Quebec.

“That within itself is a stunt,” he adds. “It’s not a humble brag, but I’m trying to make it sound as humble as possible… We’re in Europe right now, we’re playing shows in front of people who love our songs. We ARE stunting. We took a leap of faith 10 years ago, and we’re nowhere near landing. Our whole ethos goes through that word, and the last thing we want to have is stunted growth.”

The group’s songs are often born from freestyling them live in front of a crowd, typically with a word an audience member feeds them mid-show. For instance, this was how Stunt’s sixth track, “Moneyman”, came together.

“I’ll be like, ‘Hey, what’s your name? What do you do for a living? Alright, we’re making a song about you live, on the fly,’” says Clay. 

“That’s how ‘Going Up the Coast’ was born. That’s how ‘OMG’ was born. That’s how ‘Cheese’ was born. These are songs that have millions of plays that are borne out of an improv bit.”

Specifically, “Moneyman” came about when the group played a show in Rouyn-Noranda, right after listening to a lot of old-school funk — think James Brown and songs from Motown and Daptone Records — during the drive. 

“We get to this venue, we’re setting up, and everybody’s plugging in and playing,” Clay continues. “It was kind of an ‘American Woman’ Guess Who-type of scenario, where everyone just started adding their piece to the loop. Our sound guy took out his phone and filmed it. 

“We’re just looping this for five to seven minutes, and I hit that [sings in falsetto] ‘Cause I’m a money man!’ The similarity between what you hear on the tape and that five-minute video is astounding. The song pretty much wrote itself in those five to seven minutes.”

Other tracks, like “About It” and “Who’s to Blame”, come from vastly different creative circumstances. Both songs’ origin stories begin in 2020, right as the group was being kicked out of France as shit had begun hitting the fan with COVID. But as the years went by, those song skeletons stayed with them.

“When we revisited all the ideas we had, those ones stuck out,” says Langlois-Légaré. “We decided to go play them live a little bit, and they came together. That’s why I always say, ‘Keep all the ideas you have, because you never know when they’re going to be useful.’”

Clay and Friends have essentially built a career on developing new material on the fly during live performances. Part of what has strengthened their connection to their fanbase is how the crowds they debut those songs for react to them.

“A lot of these songs are born live, so the crowd kind of gets to decide what ends up making the cut,” Clay says, later telling us that “About It” features an actual sample of one of their crowds chanting the word “stunt”. 

“For us to trust them, and them to trust us, and get to play them live, it’s always a special time.”

Another sign their tour’s going well: the suitcase full of merch they brought with them to sell was empty after the first two shows. Clay, Langlois-Légaré and their friends have clearly struck a chord with audiences across the pond, as they come to Europe three or four times a year.

“Yesterday was crazy,” says Langlois-Légaré, who later adds that some fans drove from Germany to watch them perform in Liège, Belgium. “I think there were maybe a little less than 100 people, but it felt like there were 3,000. Everybody sang the lyrics. They all knew the songs.”

Belgium, France and Germany aren’t the only parts of the world their tunes have reached: Clay tells us their Spotify stats have shown they’ve gained listeners in places like Portugal, the U.K., Japan and South Korea. 

Fittingly, their music has proved particularly popular in coastal areas like Vancouver and California, while Kwenders’ feature on “Good Problem” has helped it gain traction in his native country of the Congo (with lyrics in Lingala).

Though the band and their music are quite well-travelled, they still proudly rep Verdun, a neighbourhood Clay lightheartedly refers to as “the place where dreams come true.” The group recorded “Going Up the Coast” at a makeshift studio in bandmate Poolboy’s apartment, and a mural of the artwork for one of their albums can even be seen in the neighbourhood.

Verdun has also evolved significantly as a neighbourhood in recent years, for better or worse thanks to gentrification. Local businesses in recent years have increasingly been popping up on or around rue Wellington (a street named the coolest in the world by TimeOut in 2022). 

There’s also the Montreal Alliance basketball team — and Montreal’s PWHL hockey team, at least part-time — currently playing at the Verdun Auditorium. Clay and Friends have even performed at Alliance games, and still rehearse in the neighbourhood.

So what exactly is in the water in Verdun? “Well, my dad’s a hydrogeologist, so I could get the real answer,” Clay says with a laugh. 

“There’s just something in the air in that area. We’ve all lived in other neighbourhoods, and the fact that we were able to blossom in (Verdun), play music very late, and have a group of young and gifted people around us was very contagious, and motivated us… It became the space where everything was possible. It was our vessel.”

Despite its steady urban and commercial growth, Verdun is also full of nature, something Langlois-Légaré considers an important factor in the band’s connection to Verdun. “With the river right next to it, I think people breathe better,” he says. “You don’t feel caved in.”

Since forming in 2014, Clay and Friends have accomplished a great deal given how nothing has been handed to them on a platter. The past decade of the band going “all-in, headfirst, no plan B, all gas, no brakes” is embodied in Stunt, and Clay wouldn’t have the results of that balls-to-the-wall plan any other way. 

“We learned by trial and error,” he continues. “It was baptism by fire.”

Langlois-Légaré feels a similar sense of pride in the band’s journey thus far, and especially in the 10-year process that helped set them on their path. 

“Through all the obstacles, all the challenges, and the effort we put in that, it’s bigger than the group right now. It’s like a business,” he says. 

“It was one step at a time, really. The slower you get up here, the more time it takes to go down. It’s not a quick up and down — we really built it one brick at a time.” 

The rest of the year will see Clay and Friends will see them getting “not much sleep,” as Langlois-Légaré describes it. They’ve wrapped up a tour in Europe before returning home to do pre-production for their next run of Quebec shows. 

Most importantly, the band intends on turning Stunt into a full-length LP. Though they’re keeping details to a minimum for now, they’ve already been performing new material at recent shows. Their next Montreal gig is at MTELUS, on April 27.

“We’re actively cooking up those songs in between the shows and testing them out,” says Clay. “If you come to the show, you might be part of the next recording!” ■

For more on Clay and Friends, please visit their website.

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