No one had yet coined the term “pandemic-proof” when Adam Kershen decided to renovate the basement of his new house into a professional studio. After almost a decade on the road as internationally-acclaimed DJ Adam K – writing, mixing, and performing his own music – Kershen simply “got sick of it,” he says.

“When I stopped touring, my income went from midnight to 6:00 p.m.,” he explains. “When I bought this house, I had to make a decision whether I was going to go into a commercial unit [to work] or not. Financially it just made more sense for me to convert the basement into studios.” That decision would pay off in spades a decade later.

The basement in North York became Hotbox Digital Music, and in the ensuing years it’s grown into one of the go-to production houses in Toronto, not just for dance music (though that is its specialty), but also pop, hip-hop, rock, and advertising, and is signed to a global deal with SOCAN member Ultra Music Publishing.

Alongside partner Drew North (who was known as Andrew Polychronopoulos and was part of the EDM-makers Paranoid, recording at Hotbox when the two met), Kershen has found wide-ranging success. The duo has collaborated with a vast array of club stars, from Tiesto, Steve Aoki, and deadmau5, to more mainstream artists like U2 and even veteran basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. Their most recent hits have included two gold records in Canada (Famba’s “Swear to God” and Frank Walker’s “Heartbreak Back”), and a diamond record in Brazil (Vintage Culture & Adam K’s “Pour Over”).

Kershen decided to team up with renowned audio engineers from Pilchner Schoustal International to create his ideal space. “When they built the studio, I explained that we were making very modern music and bass is very important to us,” he says. “We custom-designed this room to support tons of bass, because that’s what everyone was listening to.”

“All I care about is a good melody and good lyrics” – Adam Kershen of Hotbox Digital Music

Songwriting is the key to everything that comes out of Hotbox. Both Kershen and North identify as songwriters, first and foremost. The former went on to triumphing on the club circuit as a DJ as well, but the latter didn’t take that route, focusing on building tracks rather than performing them. “I never had the DJ-forward mindset,” says North, “and didn’t want to be a performer in that scene as much I was fascinated with how the music sounded, and how to create it. My dream isn’t to be a superstar DJ, it’s to make superstar music.”

Fortunately for them, the dance music upon which they built their careers is often sold on the reputation of the producer, “whereas you get into pop and hip-hop and it’s more about the artist,” says Kershen. “From a production end, things were kind of already on lockdown for producers.” But the song itself is everything. “The money is in the melody,” Kershen says, repeatedly. “Production is replaceable. All I care about is a good melody and good lyrics. The rest of it doesn’t matter. You can do it over again – it’s very easy to re-skin a song.”

North recalls how, “One of the first things [Kershen] said to me was, ‘Your music sounds like shit, but you can write. I can’t teach you how to write great things, but I can tell you how to make it sound better.’”

In spite of all the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 environment, Hotbox is thriving. Just as Kershen saw the ingredients for a brilliant producer in North, the duo have begun mentoring a third producer, Greg Giannopolis (aka Trappy Gilmore) to help them take on the burgeoning workload. Not that they’re taking on too many projects, it’s more that, because of the time they take to get things “right,” they were turning some attractive projects down.

“We’re a boutique production house, so we’re not about having tons of content,” Kershen explains. “That’s never been our way. We take extra time with our projects, even if it costs us. Our reputations and our numbers are very important to us – our metrics. We’re committed to, and focused on, maintaining a higher standard per release.”

It was four or five years ago. “I was trying to write a song,” Alex Burger remembers, “but it just wasn’t working. I was looking for weird chords, and at some point, I just gave up. I played a G and a C and I awakened a ton of stuff in me. It made me realize that the simpler the music, the better my writing.”

Alex BurgerAmong the things that were stirred up by this epiphany were a few precious childhood memories, chief among them remembering Paul-Émile, his grandfather, who played country music almost all the time, “morning and noon, but not at night, because that’s when my grandma was watching The Young and the Restless.”

The song inspired by this revelation was “Pays chauds,” which figured on Alex Burger’s first EP À’ment donné (2018), and he’s still continuing his journey under the auspicious skies of country simplicity on Sweet Montérégie, his first full-length album – where the eternally melancholy ghost of Gram Parsons is omnipresent. Records made by the late Parsons – a young martyr of American country-rock, and spiritual father of alternative country – were played a lot in the tour truck of Prix Staff (Burger’s band), as were those of country outlaws Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard.

And although Sweet Montérégie can proudly claim its country label, it’s much less attributable to a strict obedience to a sonic palette than to the fact that Alex Burger reminds us, on many occasions, of a pillar of truth: a good country song is often on the borderline between drama and comedy, farce and tragedy.

“It’s serendipitous that you would say that, because I don’t like humorous music, but I don’t like overly dramatic music either,” says the Saint-Césaire-based cowboy, laughing. To this scholar of country music, the genre certainly isn’t the object of ridicule that so many Québec artists have made it out to be.

Playing for the Right Reasons

As the self-portrait of a road warrior for whom touring both provides an escape and reveals the truth, Sweet Montérégie is, for Burger, the culmination of several years of wandering the secondary roads of the wonderful yet grueling world of music. During the first half of his twenties, Alexandre Beauregard worked tirelessly within the math-folk band Caltâr-Bateau, then, disillusioned that his rock dream didn’t materialize quickly enough, left the ship to take refuge in the darkness of blues bars. At 30, the guitarist became, for a while, the accompanist of harmonica player Billy Craig and “other old, mangled guys who looked like a few trucks ran over them.”

This stint would, however, teach him to make music for the proverbial good reasons again. “I was fascinated to see these guys who don’t play for pay or exposure on a Sunday afternoon in a dive bar where there were no opportunities for networking or development,” he says.

But before going completely over to the dark side and remaining glued to the top of the bar, Burger finally got back to writing, and created a handful of new songs that he performed on the contest circuit (he notably won the SOCAN Paroles & Musique award at the 2019 Francouvertes). “I spent a lot of time in meetings at record companies, but in the end, everyone was afraid I’d make an album that was too country, or too metal,” says the man who ended up co-producing Sweet Montérégie with Alexandre Martel (Mauves, Anatole). “Everyone thought I was ambivalent.”

Yet it’s this very ambivalence, or rather, this richness, that gradually transforms Sweet Montérégie into an addictive drug, from the dance-rock of “C’est pas le pérou,” to the ethylic pastoral folk of “Chanson pour Simon,” not to mention the very Stephen Faulkner-ish honky tonk of “J’prends pas ça pour du cash,” the (vaguely stoner) southern rock of “Hiking,” and the Americana of the sublime “Dormir sur ton couch” – which offers us a stellar pedal-steel guitar played by David Marchand, with a direct lineage to the aforementioned Gram Parsons.

“Labels are often looking for something new, the next big thing, they want to take a risk on something people don’t know much about, but they think is going to be cool,” says the musician, who also plays with Mon Doux Saigneur and Bon Enfant. “I’d sometimes get the feeling that what labels were looking for was the Montréal sound. But I want to play outside of Montréal, I don’t want to be just a singer from Montréal. I want to touch people everywhere in Québec.”

Despite the spleen that permeates the verses on Sweet Montérégie, it remains one of those rare albums apparently created with the intention that no one will be able to remain seated when it’s played live onstage. It’s festive music, you could say, were it not for the fact that the adjective is so frayed. It’s festive in the noblest sense: unifying, communal, cathartic.

“When I finish a tune, after finding the chords and writing the lyrics, the third step is always to play it by visualizing myself at Quai des Brumes, or a venue like that. That’s when I’ll fine-tune it by changing a line, or removing a pause, so that the song isn’t just about me and becomes universal.” Well… Job done.

This is the story of a band that shouldn’t have lasted beyond its first concert. Created for a tribute concert in honour of Japanese surf rock guitarist Takeshi Terauchi during the psychedelic festival Distorsion in 2018, TEKE::TEKE rapidly went from ephemeral trip to one of the most unique bands on the Montréal music scene… and they are on the verge of releasing their first album.

TEKE::TEKEThe originator of the project is Serge Nakauchi Pelletier, an alumnus of Pawa Up First and a prolific screen composer, who had no idea that he’d stumbled upon his new band. “No kidding, I never thought this would go anywhere beyond that one show, but we felt such chemistry and the audience reacted so positively that we decided to carry on and see where it would take us,” he says. Rapidly, TEKE::TEKE – guitarist Hidetaka Yoneyama, bassist Mishka Stein, drummer Ian Lettre, trombonist Étienne Lebel, and flautist Yuki Isami – got in gear and added the incandescent singer Maya Kuroki, who comes from the worlds of theatre and performance art.

The band worked on its own compositions, but still integrates Takeshi Terauchi songs to its repertoire. Figurehead of the Eleki movement (“electric,” in Japanese), a local variant of surf rock strongly influenced by the mythical Ventures, Terauchi remains an influence. But the band breaks down genres, mixing psychedelic jams, punk riffs, and traditional Japanese melodies, while drawing from other pop experimentalists, like Brazil’s Os Mutantes.

Raised in a home where Beatles records alternated with those of popular singer Miyuki Nakajima (whose vinyls he still owns), Nakauchi Pelletier was the man to pilot this amazing musical hybrid. “Japanese music has always been a part of my life,” he explains. “I truly am the result of a mix of cultures, and I’ve never felt entirely Japanese or entirely Québécois. When I was growing up, it was an internal struggle to find my identity, but I now understand it’s what makes me unique.”

His multi-ethnic band is the reflection of this mix of cultures. “What’s really great are the different approaches everyone brings to the table: Étienne is crazy about Bulgarian music, Mishka composes by playing chords on his bass as if it was a guitar, and Yuki is classically trained… The mere fact of playing together opens new musical dimensions for all of us.”

During the summer of 2019, the band convened at Machines With Magnets studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to record what would become, two years later, their debut album (slated for release next summer). “We’re very prepared when we go into a studio and we work really fast, sometimes in a single take,” says Nakauchi Pelletier. “But we give ourselves space to experiment. This band has completely transformed the way I compose: I was quite rigid before, but now I let everyone in and add their own touch. Sometimes, we blow up the structure on purpose, in order to re-build it together, and it becomes something I could never have imagined. In fact, it’s the album’s central theme: positive destruction.”

The pandemic has considerably slowed down their plans, but the members of TEKE::TEKE have had time to approach different labels, which explains why they’ve just released a song for the Singles Club of Seattle’s mythical Sub Pop label – although the album, which will be released in a few months, will be on the Kill Rock Stars imprint.

“Our friends from Vancouver’s math-rock combo Mi’ens told them about us and introduced us and we really hit it off,” says Nakauchi Pelletier. “It’s a small, human-scale label, and I feel a personal attachment to them because they launched the career of one of my favourite bands, Unwound. And they’ve also been the home of Elliott Smith and Sleater-Kinney. That’s quite something! I admit that when I saw their logo’s little star on our album cover, I got goosebumps.”