Omnipresent hip-hop collective the Alaclair Ensemble released their fourth official album Les Frères ceuilleurs on Sept. 2, 2016, just a few months after the fun and bouncy album by Rednext Level, Maybe Watson and Robert Nelson’s side-project, and just a few weeks before KNLO’s highly anticipated first album, Long-Jeu. The Alaclair fountain clearly isn’t about to run dry of the suave grooves and captivating rhymes that we all love to consume in great quantities.

Leaning over a table on a sunny patio, Ogden Alaclair, a.k.a. Robert Nelson, enlightens us with a bit of Québec history to explain the new album title.

“Strictly speaking, it is a direct reference to the Frères chasseurs, a society founded by Robert Nelson,” and he doesn’t mean himself, but the real one, whose name he has adopted: A revolutionary patriot who declared the independence of Lower Canada in 1838, and who died in 1873 after returning to his medical practice following his militant (and military) political years.

Les Frères chasseurs? “The idea came from the Masonic lodges,” says the current Nelson. “They used hunting clubs in Québec and the American Northeast [as a disguise] to have meetings to plan the second patriot revolution, which ultimately failed.” Nelson was a Lower Canada guerilla whose goal was to get rid of the colonial power. “As for us, the hunters have become gatherers…”

“A voice, a beat, it’s still something special to us, and despite our apparent minimalist approach, it’s still a very rich way of making music.” — Robert Nelson of Alaclair Ensemble

“Our album title is true to our many references to Lower Canada,” adds KNLO, adding his own, more esoteric, explanation to it all, something that won’t surprise those who know him even a little: “There’s an underlying global concept: gather, bring bread home, put butter on the bread… Or better yet, gathering ideas from the ‘musicosphere.’ This notion becomes apparent, now that I listen to the finished album: keeping an open mind [while creating].”

The album was created as a tribe, in a cabin, under the direction of beat-maker Vlooper, who was the de facto producer, composer and musical director for Frères cueilleurs. “Of all our albums, it’s the one where one person really took control,” says Nelson. “He wanted to take on that responsibility and the idea was well received within the group.”

His productions are delectable, fresh, slightly experimental at the onset, and funkier towards the end of the album, notably on the over seven-minute closing jam, “DWUWWYL.” And it’s all interspersed with grooves that hark back to the classic New York jazz-funk sound of the ‘90s. Above all, though, the overall atmosphere of this effort isn’t as crazy as its predecessors: Les Frères cueilleurs is, almost surprisingly, the most reserved of the band’s albums, as if there was some desire to get back to their roots.

“Yes, but not a return to the roots of rap, a return to our roots,” Nelson explains. “As Alaclair, we’ve done a lot of things, we’ve explored a multitude of musical styles, and it was very liberating. But in the end, what we’ve been doing from the get-go is making beats and rapping over them. We really love making good ol’ rap. A voice, a beat, it’s still something special to us, and despite our apparent minimalist approach, it’s still a very rich way of making music, and there’s still room to be original and creative within that framework. It’s our way of celebrating rap as a medium, this thing we grew up with.”

Here’s another example of how these guys don’t do things like everyone else. Says KNLO: “I think these songs will simply tag onto to the couple of hundreds more in our repertoire, and that’s what we’ll perform on stage. Roughly.” Nelson adds: “It took us a long time to admit to ourselves that it’s not out of laziness that we never prepare set lists. As a matter of fact, when we do, it’s generally not a good show. So we just turn the V-shuffle on.”

The what? The V-shuffle, as in Vlooper shuffle. The album producer is also the DJ in charge of their concerts, a conductor who feels the atmosphere, takes the audience’s temperature, and decides what the next song will be. Each concert is absolutely unique. “We don’t even know what the next song will be,” says KNLO. “We have just a few seconds to recognize the song that’s just started and know what to do next. The idea being that each audience is different; you can’t give the same performance in an après-ski chalet in Sainte-Adèle and in Cap-aux-Meules. As a matter of fact, it’s in Cap-aux-Meules that we learned that lesson…”

“We traumatized a lot of people that night,” remembers Nelson. “We made some people very uncomfortable. That’s when we understood that we’re able to play like a boy-band as much as a punk band. It’s the audience that decides, to a certain extent. The best thing to do is still to start the show and see where it’ll go. And that’s Vlooper’s job!”

Making certain acquaintances can be life-changing, and the casual connections made with them can even turn into professional relationships. It’s thanks to a common friend that Eduardo Noya Schreus met star actor/director/screenwriter Xavier Dolan. Said friend had played a few tracks by NOIA, Schreus’ and Ashley Long’s electronic music project, to the young filmmaker. Less than 24 hours later, Dolan contacted Noya to set up a meeting. “We walked and talked a lot,” says Schreus. “Then we went to his place to listen to some music. Later, Xavier admitted he had no idea what kind of music he wanted for his movie until he heard my stuff. He’d found what he was looking for.” The Peruvian-born Canadian was quickly put in charge of the soundtrack for the movie Laurence Anyways.

The pair only met again a year-and-a-half later in a post-production studio. Still, Noya made sure he had access to Dolan during his creative process, through e-mails where rushes and song drafts were paired. Dolan is a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from giving his opinion on the musical content of his movies. Hence the dialogue between himself and Schreus, the necessity for the creators to meet. Schreus see it as the very basis of his own creative process, even more so since he’s a self-taught musician.

Still from Xavier Dolan Mommy movie“Movies often have ‘guide’ tracks, placeholders that the editor or the director chose that I use as a reference, a general idea of the atmosphere they’re looking for,” says Schreus. “Sometimes I follow their intention. Sometimes I create something based on the images I see. But most times, my creation is inspired by a meeting, an in-depth discussion with the director about his project and how it fits into our lives. I do sometimes read the script, but that’s never inspired me. Images, just as music, imprints on us immediately. And the link between them is essential.”

His work on Dolan’s Laurence Anyways won Schreus the Best Film Score Canadian Screen Award in 2013. But despite this positive experience, his participation in Dolan’s next movie, Mommy, wasn’t set in stone. In fact, he was urgently requested after the disappointing work of another composer. This situation embarrassed Schreus, but he couldn’t help feeling a tinge of pride. “I’m happy I was able to fix things,” he says. “The movie was edited very tightly to its reference music, which made it hard to switch them for new music. The biggest challenge was the final scene where Diane is alone, in tears. It took me quite a while to find the right music for that moment.” His work on Mommy wins Schreus the Achievement in Feature Film Music Award at the 2016 Montréal SOCAN Gala.

Strangely enough, this pinch-hitter situation will happen again a few months later for a France/Canada TV series titled Versailles, with a $33 million production budget. Again, Schreus was tapped after the production chose to change the composer.“The producers didn’t like the initial pairing between the images and the music, which they found too… classic,” he says. “Director Jalil Lespert decided to go in a completely different direction and use electronic music. And it worked. The biggest challenge for this series is its speed. It’s like composing music for several films all at once.” After penning about half the music for the first 10-episode season (the other half was composed by Michel Corriveau), Schreus was asked to do the same for the second season.

Although he works out of a tiny home studio a few doors down from his own apartment, the man still works on music when he gets home: His music. NOIA existed before he became a professional composer, and it still exists and nourishes him. NOIA live performances won the project the “best electronic act” title, according to Montréal magazine CULT. And NOIA is far from over, if you ask Schreus. “My personal music is my main project,” he says. “I’ll release a studio album this year and another next year. We’re getting back on stage as soon as we feel comfortable enough with the new material. My ultimate dream is to make music, non-stop, until my body gives up.”

“Had I known Avec pas d’casque would last more than 13 years, I’d have chosen a different band name…”

On the eve of the release of the band’s fourth full-length album, Effets spéciaux, Stéphane Lafleur reminisces about its beginnings and its evolution. But try as he might to disavow the band’s very name, the guitarist, singer and songwriter can’t change the fact that the expression “avec pas d’casque” has become part of Québec’s vernacular. Thanks to the success of 2012’s Astronomie, the band’s audience has exploded.

“Initially, this band was almost a farce, an accident,” explains the multi-talented artist, who’s also a movie director. “There was a lot more humour in my lyrics. I truly was not expecting this to last so long. Joël Vaudreuil [drums] and I would get on stage to scream our songs as the opening act for punk band La Descente du Coude. To me, humour was a form of protection, because if people in the crowd laugh or don’t like what they hear, you can always hide behind your joke. It was much harder to stand behind my more serious lyrics, because I knew that if people thought it was corny or sucked, I couldn’t hide from it. Luckily for us, the audience jumped right into our more serious stuff. It clicked.”

The opposite would have been quite surprising. Their stunningly beautiful imagery is carried by a refined minimalism, and Avec pas d’casque’s songs express a peaceful strength that’s both modest and disarmingly sincere. “I’ve never been a stories kinda guy,” says Lafleur. “Not in my songs and not in my films, which are renowned for their ambiance. That’s what I’m into. For this record, I wanted to simplify my lyrics even further, in order to make more room for the music. There are still a lot of metaphors in what I write, but I’m really proud to have eliminated the adverb ‘comme’ from the album’s lyrics. Sounds silly, but it was a really helpful exercise. So instead of writing ‘tes yeux sont comme des diamants’ (‘your eyes are like diamonds’), I now write ‘your eyes are diamonds.’ The image is much trippier that way. It almost becomes like a graphic novel, where you actually picture diamonds instead of eyes. The universe expands before you.”

“No matter what stirs your days and mind, seeking calm will always catch up with you.”

Despite the fact that its title is a nod to the world of cinema, Effets spéciaux [Special Effects] isn’t a flashy album. Aside from the increased presence of synths (courtesy of Mathieu Charbonneau), the sound hasn’t changed drastically. “I see the title as referring to personal relationships,” says Lafleur. “There are special effects that occur when people communicate, or when bodies touch. Just before kissing someone for the first time, something happens, there’s something in the air. That idea is the basis for the concept of the album’s cover and the video for “Derviches Tourneurs” (“Whirling Dervishes”). This kind of light trail that connects the characters’ faces.”

And even though Lafleur’s lyrics are cryptic, it still comes across quite clearly that those special effects had a beneficial effect on him. Astromonie’s success (Critic’s Choice Award at the 2012 ADISQ Gala), directing the movie Tu dors Nicole, and a tumultuous love life directed him through an exhausting emotional maelstrom. “This record is about seeking calm and peace,” he says. “The most recurring words in the lyrics are ‘lenteur’ and ‘lumière’ (‘slowness’ and ‘light’). No matter what stirs your days and mind, seeking calm will always catch up with you. Whirling dervishes are dancers that spin and spin until they’re in a trance. That’s how I felt. I felt like I constantly needed to be on the run. Having a ton of exciting projects is good, but it’s easy to forget that one needs to stop and take a step back every now and then, just to understand why we do what we do. I found peace again after meeting certain people. Some people are more reassuring than others.”

And so are certain albums…and Effets spéciaux is definitely one of those.