In the heart of an intense North American tour, DJ and producer Frédérik Durand (a.k.a. Snails) is making waves internationally thanks to “vomitstep,” a musical anti-genre he developed after trying to reproduce the metallic sounds of his biggest influence, Skrillex.

SnailsWhen we reach him on the phone in Albuquerque, the Montréaler (by way of Sainte-Émélie-de-l’Énergie, a small town 90 minutes north of the metropolis) is about to embark on a stretch of 20 gigs in 21 nights, and he’s especially enthusiastic. Who wouldn’t be? Ever since the release of his debut album The Shell, last October, the musician – who’s used to playing festivals and opening shows – is now headlining a tour with a budget of almost a million dollars.

“The challenge was to convince people who came to see me over the last three years to come see a real Snails show,” he says. “So far, it’s been way beyond my wildest expectations: 6,500 people in Seattle, 3,000 in L.A., 2,300 in Vegas… Seeing that many people, night after night, is energizing. That’s where I get a boost from when I’m feeling tired.”

But beyond their very presence, it’s the kindness and loyalty of his fans that motivates the man born Frédérik Durand. He’s received an impressive amount of “kandys” – hand-crafted bracelets and pendants that are an emblem of the rave culture and its “PLUR” (peace, love, unity, respect) leitmotif. “[Being offered those] truly is a huge display of respect,” says Snails. “It’s not very common in Montréal, but in the States, it’s a real craze. I’d brought a small jewelry case to store them, but it’s almost full and we’re not even halfway through the tour! It goes to show how passionate my audience is.”

Far from taking that audience for granted, the 29-year-old musician and graphic designer went all-out for this tour, developing a unique stage concept around his alter ego, Slugz. The hero of a planet inhabited by snails, under threat by a regiment of frogs that have acquired the salt spear, a special weapon that could wipe them out, Slugz embarks on a cosmic journey to reach planet Sluggtopia, where there’s an armour (“The Shell”) that will protect his people.

“The show is divided into six chapters, and I’ve created the visuals and sound collages that flesh out the story,” says Snails. “It starts with war sounds, a light show, a spaceship lights up,” explains the man who worked with two Montréal companies, Solotech and 4U2C, for this production. “I absolutely wanted to take my concept as far as I could, to give the audience all I could give. It’s partly in reaction to a lot of EDM shows I’ve seen over the last few years. More often than not, their stage show is nothing but smoke and a few visuals. I sometimes wonder if I’m too weird, or if it’s them who are too laid-back.”

The Skrillex Influence

One thing’s for sure, Snails shares neither their approach nor musical background. As a teen, he started out as a guitarist who was crazy about Led Zeppelin and The Doors, before moving on to “heavier and more intense bands” like Metallica and Slayer. Towards the end of his teens, he had an epiphany when he discovered the bold electro sounds of Boys Noize, The Bloody Beetroots, Justice and MSTRKRFT, to name but a few, as well Skrillex’s dubstep a few years later.

“When I saw his Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites project entering the Billboard 200, it really piqued my interest,” says Snails. “He burst onto the underground scene intent on smashing and revolutionizing everything. The sound he had was unheard of, and it obsessed me… so much so that I tried to reproduce his sounds! I never managed to pull it off [laughs], but it was a blessing in disguise, because that’s how I developed my own sound.”

Such was, after many trials and errors, the genesis of “vomitstep” – a musical anti-genre that he created for himself in order to stand out among other electronic genres he finds too restrictive. Using his “throat” synthesizer, this genre is akin to dubstep, yet different, with its even more guttural basslines, the influence of trap, and less metallic sounds. “There’s something more organic and grainy in vomitstep,” he says. “You can hear the substance, as if you were in someone’s throat. It’s kinda hard to explain,” the artist admits, laughing.

Increasingly recognized as its own, this musical signature made its way to Skrillex’s ear a few years ago. Having been invited to collaborate with his idol when he was in Los Angeles, Snails still remembers the stress he felt when they first met. The result was the song “Holla Out,” which was featured on the first and only Jack Ü album, the collaborative project between Skrillex and Diplo.

“I stood by the door for, like, 30 minutes after saying ‘Hi,” says Snails. “I was speechless. The man who changed electronic music was right there, in front of me. After awhile, Diplo and him played a few demos on which we could work and, unsurprisingly, I chose the weirdest. I sat on the couch and, totally by mistake, I created a sound that ended up becoming the main sound of the song. I wrote that in, like, 20 minutes, but for the next three hours, I was too scared to play it for them. Skrillex made me feel at ease, and we ended up jamming until 10:30 the next morning.”

Emboldened by the experience – which earned him thanks from both artists during their acceptance speeches for two Grammy awards last year – Frédérik Durand feels privileged to have had the opportunity to make a name for himself on the international electro circuit. Still, he admits being slightly disappointed by the lack of media attention in Québec. “No man is a prophet in his own land, but I was expecting that, because I think my music has a more Anglophone audience,” says the artist, whose tour will enter its home stretch on December 28 at Montréal’s MTELUS. “I’d obviously like to have more exposure in Montréal, have people here recognize the value of my work, but I’m not gonna let that get me down. It just motivates me to work harder.”

It’s been more than a decade since country-punk trio WD-40 has offered us new material. The release of La nuit juste après le déluge, their fifth album – fully rowd-funded in less than 72 hours (!) – signals the return of one of the last still-active, ferociously independent cult bands to come out of Québec’s early-‘90s alternative rock scene. We meet Alex Jones, his inseparable brother Jean-Lou, and drummer/archivist/communications person/chief bottle-washer Hugo Lachance, as they step off the stage after a memorable (as always) launch party at Montréal’s Lion d’Or.

WD-40 are celebrating 25 years of existence, or survival; of rockin’, of underground-classic songs, of excess, of not-always-controlled wipeouts, of aborted near-successes, and of often mythical and sometimes pathetic gigs. But always true to a reputation for authenticity that’s guided this Saguenay-born band since its inception.

Upon listening to La nuit après le deluge…, it’s clear that the band’s unexpected return wasn’t motivated by profit, or any desire to surf a wave of nostalgia for a bygone era. The vast majority of their 10 new songs mirror recent events, painful ones, yet expressed with more poetry and subtlety than on their previous efforts – with none of songwriter, singer, and bassist Alex Jones hurt feelings spared. The man can’t help singing the truth, to whoever cares to listen.

The genesis of the album dates two years back, a time during which Jones was going through a painful breakup. “Three-quarters of those songs were written during the year of my separation,” says Jones in the lobby of the Lion d’Or, where die-hard fans say hi to him, one by one, as they leave the venue – after buying a T-shirt at the merch table. “We’ve gotten back together since, she and I… But it still is the album where I bared my soul the most, it tells the story of what I went through, the story of my life. That’s what I’ve always done, but nowadays, the consequences are much more dire.

“It’s one thing to be 20, to go on a bender and to cheat on your girlfriend. But when you’re 40 and you cheat on your girlfriend, and there are kids involved, a mortgage to pay… That’s heavy, trying to find a balance, to make everything work again, that’s what inspired the lyrics on La nuit juste après le deluge…  I didn’t write it verbatim as I used to do; instead, I tried to capture the essence of the feelings I had. I ended up with nothing, I hit rock bottom, just like when I was a junkie… I create in pain and withdrawal.”

“The only reason I’m interesting is because I create music. Otherwise, I’m a complete nobody. It’s what gives my life meaning, and what makes my daughters proud of me.”

Pain and withdrawal, for all their creative impetus, have also been Jones’ worst enemies. The man has fallen off the addiction wagon more than once, using various substances to fill the void and numb the pain. So much so that he couldn’t keep up. “I didn’t have anything left, I’d even sold my clothes!” he admits. “But I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, I quit music, had kids, bought a bungalow in the ‘burbs, dove headfirst into [Québec] TV series [most notably Au secours de Béatrice], climbing the ladder from set technician to artistic director. And it helped me tremendously, it was how I earned a living for four years.”

As far as the music goes, La nuit juste après le deluge… is a bona fide WD-40 album, but with a greater rockabilly and psycho-billy influence. This new stylistic direction perfectly integrates into the band’s musical personality, yet gives this album a clearly defined edge. “That’s where I wanted to go, and I asked Yann Perreau if he would care to be involved in the production of the album,” says Jones. “I met with him in a café one morning, and he invited me back to his place. We drank rum and listened to the demos in his kitchen, and he’s the one who said I should explore the rockabilly side of things more. In the end, he was too busy to help with the production, but I did heed his advice! It’s his contribution to the album. I love Yann!”

In the end, it’s Mingo L’Indien, keyboardist and guitarslinger of the “petrochemical rock” outfit Les Georges Leningrad who was in charge of the recording, production and mix for La nuit juste après le deluge… It’s a choice Jones doesn’t regret for a second, despite the man’s peculiar personality. “Mingo’s a very elusive man, a truly strange man,” says Jones. “The songwriting and recording sessions were spread out over three years, and we needed somebody to corral all of that in, so that it could end being somewhat cohesive. He did a great job.”

As this impromptu interview draws to a close, Jones won’t let go. WD-40 is his whole life. Nowadays, his desire for recognition is more aligned with the actual chances of achieving popular success. (His goal, now, is to get invited to play the music variety TV show Belle et Bum.) He’s as convinced as ever that his place is onstage, no matter which one, as long as he and his partners-in-crime are welcome – in order to celebrate and share the cathartic effect of rock.

“The only reason I’m interesting is because I create music, otherwise, I’m a complete nobody,” he says. “It’s what gives my life meaning, and what makes my daughters proud of me. That means that as long as people call me to play somewhere, I’ll go. I’m not going to wait 11 years to release another album. It’s what I like the most in life and it’s not going to stop. Life is way too short. Now is the time to do things. If you do nothing now, nothing’s going to happen later.”

WD-40 will be back on the Lion d’Or stage on March 2, 2018, during Montréal en Lumière.

The news hit us like a bomb. On May 24, 2016, we learned that Gord Downie, lead singer and lyricist for the Tragically Hip, had incurable brain cancer. When he passed away on October 17, 2017 at the age of 53, a nation came together to mourn our loss. Enough tears fell to create a sixth Great Lake, immense and deep.

The impact of the Tragically Hip’s music on Canadians is also, like that Great Lake of Tears, immense and deep: Nine No. 1 albums, seven No. 1 singles, 13 Top 10 singles and 16 JUNO Awards. The CBC broadcast of the band’s final hometown Kingston concert on their Man Machine Poem tour, on August 20, 2016, what many felt certain to be their farewell tour, was viewed by more than 11 million Canadians – about one-third of the population.

On that night, I was among the capacity crowd at the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, watching the swan song concert on the bar’s TV screens. After the band played their last note and the members took their bows, Gord Downie remained alone on stage, saying goodbye. A few feet to my right there was a woman with her hands to her mouth, her eyes brimming. She was not alone. All across the country, we were all floating in that Great Lake of Tears.

The Tragically Hip, with Downie as their poet, wrote songs that tapped into the soul of a nation. How? By following the old adage: write what you know, write who you are. By doing that, many of the Hip’s songs achieved cultural iconic status in Canada; the campfire song seal of approval. “Bobcaygeon,” “Wheat Kings,” “38 Years Old,” “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Ahead by a Century,” “Fifty-Mission Cap,” “New Orleans is Sinking,” to name a few.

The best songwriting connects us to something. It lets us know we’re not alone in experiencing life’s ups and downs. The music of Gord Downie and the Hip connects us to ourselves, not only as human beings, but also more specifically to ourselves as Canadians. While eschewing easy jingoism or flag-draped nationalism, they told stories about us and the places we live – joyous and painful, epic and esoteric, mountainous-magnificent and small-town weird.

Though Downie’s lyrics were often oblique and cryptic, there’s something to be said about the places he took us. We’re locked in the trunk of a car. We’re plunging over the falls in a barrel. We’re in a club watching a stripper collapse in a coughing fit. We’re privy to a confession from the survivor of a nautical disaster. Tragically Hip songs introduce us to some fascinating and extraordinary viewpoints.

Downie’s lyrics often plumbed certain kinds of experiences – visceral and furtive – and re-cast them with poetic aplomb. Spitting from a bridge just to see how far down it really is (“Cordelia”) or the “dangerous tug” we feel when looking over the edge from on high (“Gift Shop”). But they could also be shrewdly poignant (“Well, she was nineteen seventy / Burning like a cigarette long season”). And consider one of the band’s most beloved songs, “Ahead by a Century,” where Downie’s lyrics play with time and tense in an almost cubist way; past, present and future overlapping like images emerging through thin veils of wax paper.

Poetry is a way of seeing. It’s clear from his writing, and even from the way he spoke, that Downie saw the world through a poet’s eyes. (In addition to penning literate song lyrics, Downie was, of course, a published poet – having released a best-selling collection of verse, Coke Machine Glow, in 2001).

He said in a 2012 appearance on CBC’s Q, “I’m interested in how the words make me feel, and trying to capture them in a certain way, and not screw with them too much; not let my intellect diminish the creative power.” So even if his lyrics could be enigmatic, there was a feeling that came through. The language, the imagery – whatever it means – speaks to us.

“Music brings people together. So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in.”– Gord Downie, to The Winnipeg Free Press, May 31, 2016

In the final year of his life, when he knew his time in this world was coming to a close, Gord Downie chose to keep making music. It’s the kind of music projects he chose that speaks to the measure of the man.

When the sun rose on the day after that final Hip concert in Kingston, he began working on Secret Path, a project that encompassed an album, a graphic novel (with Jeff Lemire) and a film, all about the true story of a 12-year old Ojibwe boy named Chanie Wenjack, who died of exposure while trying to walk back to his home after fleeing his mistreatment at a residential school in northern Ontario in 1966. Downie created music that told a story of the pain our Indigenous brothers and sisters suffered in the residential school system; the work, the music, in the service of reconciliation.

His final project, completed before his passing and released posthumously this past October, was a solo album called Introduce Yerself, a collection of songs, each addressing a specific person that has meant something to him. Here was Downie once again honouring the connections and the love in his life.

“Music is…a popular rallying point – at its central core, it’s a way for people to get in touch with the best parts of themselves and to voice the love in their hearts.” – Gord Downie, to Bullfrog Power

At its best, this is what music does – it connects, re-calibrates and reconciles. It moves us – quite literally. It shifts us from one place, one thought, one feeling, one perspective – to another. It moves us closer to our better selves, towards our most human and feeling selves, even if just for the duration of the song. The work then becomes ours, to take in that feeling and hold it, to carry it forward. It’s another kind of reconciliation: to reconcile our everyday selves with that better self we find in song and art – to cultivate the best parts of ourselves and incorporate them more and more into our daily living.

Gord, your music is part of us. You are part of us. Your songs help us celebrate our best times and face our hardest paths. We will continue to sing your words and dance that crazy dance with you, through the mysteries of what we mean to each other – and we’ll do it together, because your music brings us closer in, helping us to reconcile who we want to be and who we are.