The Post-Punk Sound of Montreal – An Interview with The City Gates
by Bret Miller
I’d seen The City Gates’ name pop up on four covers compilations from The Blog That Celebrates Itself Records (TBTCI) over the past two years. The band has covered Nirvana’s “About A Girl”, “Salt” by Catherine Wheel, and Lush’s “For Love” as well as Slowdive’s “Catch The Breeze” featuring Krissy Vanderwoude. So when I saw they had an album coming out I knew the time was right to find out more about Montreal, Canada’s The City Gates.
On the seven song Forever Orbiter, The City Gates present a gorgeous mix of melancholy and euphoria as heard on the Joy Division-inspired “Echo Radio”, complete with Max Wingender’s throaty Ian Curtis-like delivery, “Checkpoint Charlie”’s impending storm of distant vocals and textured guitars, and the upbeat tempo of “Sad Sad Surf” that builds slowly, drawing you in until the shimmering guitars blast away the grey clouds to reveal a warm sunny day.
On the eve of their trip to the UK for a few shows this May I spoke to vocalist and guitarist Max Wingender.
The City Gates is full of textures and atmosphere. You also have a Joy Division vibe on a few songs on the new album like on Echo Radio. What are some of the bands and sounds you grew up with and how do you make them your own?
Indeed! The late 80’s & 90’s were our teenage years and we all grew up with the Alternative/New Wave/Post-Punk/Darkwave/Shoegaze music scene of that era. I remember listening, back in the day, to the amazing TV shows called Nu Musik and Rage that got me into so many good bands including The Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Slowdive, Lush, Clan of Xymox, My Bloody Valentine, The Sisters of Mercy, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, and Handful of Snowdrops. I should thank VJ Claude Rajotte for that. He definitely had something to do with our musical sound.
Without doubt, we like to play with guitar textures and atmosphere. We’ve always been into that kind of obscure, raw and noisy approach, while we don’t want to recreate what has been done in the 80’s and 90’s. Our songs are usually built on intense improvisations based on guitar textures and the musical chemistry between TCG band members. We don’t think about how we should sound. We just go with the mood we are into. I think that it will always be our spirit on how we create new songs.
Tell us about your fellow TCG members and what they bring to the band with their talent and personality.
I’m the lead singer and play the guitar. I guess I am the one that brings the guitar pedals. I also teach history as my day job. Actually, we are all history lovers. That can definitely be seen if you check our lyrics.
Frank also plays the guitar and keyboards. He is the guy that knows everything about musical gear since he owned an instrument store for a decade. He is also the main guy that is behind the mixing console while we record our stuff.
John plays the bass. He is the one that brings most of the lyrics to the songs. I truly believe that he is such a talented writer. He brings life to our music.
Justin plays drums. He is the man with the rehearsal place where we practice. Most of our songs have been created in that place. He also travels a lot and has seen the world and their cultures.
How have you and the band changed for the better since your beginnings?
Well, I hope so! You know, we have surely evolved through the years as a band… for the best or for the worse haha! I think that is something important for us. Of course we play music for our fans, but we also play music for ourselves first. Creating and experimenting with new sounds is therapy, you know. We also love experimenting with new sounds. I think that the chemistry between each member of our band is the key for the evolution of our sound.
What are some of the guitar tunings and pedals used in a particular song or part of a song that you’re especially happy with? This is your chance to get technical.
Thinking about the recording of “Checkpoint Charlie” still gives me goosebumps. First, we tried to capture the live experience in the studio. To get the most of the live feeling, producer Gautier Marinof did not want us to use a metronome as a guide for the recording. We recorded most of the whole thing in one take. I believe that helped us to feel free and to let us get deeper into the movements of the song. Resulting in a more “human” feeling. The end of the song has been totally made over by playing the song live with the knobs of our pedals.
We also used a couple of interesting instruments. Our drummer Justin, used for the first time his brand new Sakae snare that he just brought back from Japan. Frank used his old 1955 GIbson ES-225 for the guitar backing tracks. You can also hear my Gretsch Tennessee Rose hollow body and MIJ Jaguar guitars screaming in a wall of amps, including a VoxAC30, a Jazz Chorus 120 and a Fender Tonemaster. We also really like that fuzzy low tone bass line. Blame it on a vintage 1970’s AMPEG bass amp and on a Fender Bender pedal. We also use an amazing DIY compressor made by Gautier Marinof. We had a blast doing “Checkpoint Charlie”.
Where are you from and what is the music scene like there?
We are from Montreal, Canada, which is a great place for underground/alternative music. Well, despite the fact that a lot of great venues sadly began to close their doors a few years and the draw in shows is on the decline (like it sadly happens in many countries now). Montreal is the birthplace of cool great post-punk/indie band such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Besnard Lakes, The Stills, and Wolf Parade. Doughboys is also an amazing 80’s-90’s Montreal band that had a huge influence on us back in the 90’s. John Kastner from the band now takes part in the Swervedriver’s management. To the list, you definitely need to add the great Handful of Snowdrops (they are actually from Quebec City) which was an 80’s-90’s post-punk/new wave band. You need to check them out if you are into that musical genre. During those same years, there was also this “kind of This Mortal Coil/Dead Can Dance 4AD” band called Courage of Lassie.
There is also an interesting shoegaze/post-punk/new wave/darkwave/noise rock revival music scene in Montreal. Take the excellent band No Joy for instance. You should also give a listen to Traces, Destroyalldreamers, Automelodi, Videoville, Silver Dapple, Femme Accident, PONY, Vanille, Room Control, Security, Jesuslesfilles, Karkwa, Bodywash, Heat, Palissade, Parallelines and Below the Sea.
What clubs and venues do you go to see bands and perform?
There are some cool venues in Montreal. L’Escogriffe, La Sala Rossa, La Casa Del Popolo, The Rialto, The Ritz, The Theatre Fairmount and The Brasserie Beaubien, are great venues to play and to go see shows. We also love to play the Geist House, where GBS records do some DIY underground shows. For bigger shows, The National and the MTelus venues are great though.
If I were to visit Montreal, where should I go to see the real city, not the touristy stuff?
The Mile End has great restaurants and for sure the best venues to go see shows. Casa del Popolo , The Rialto, The Ritz, and La Sala Rossa are actually in that area. You can also find good food and pubs close to the Atwater Market and Notre-Dame Street. St-Laurent and Mont-Royal streets are still a must if you have never been to Montreal. If you like music and vinyl, you definitely need to go to the 33 Tours and to L’Oblique. They are cool local record stores. They also offer some great intimate shows sometimes.
What is a favorite dish, beer, restaurant or place to eat and hang out?
Well, if you are a part time punk, I would try the Foufs, but it’s really not like it was back in the 90’s. Now, I can truly say it kind of sucks. The Vinyle Chope offers the better of the two worlds: a vinyl shop and beers in the same place. How can you find a better place to be? The Chinese district offers some great Chinese food if you can find the good ones. The Kazu or the Big in Japan offer great Japanese food. Moreover, each Friday, The Old Montreal Port offers food trucks. For beers, Canada and the Province of Quebec has plenty of microbreweries. One of my favorite beers would be the Flacatoune from the Charlevoix Brewery. But you can’t be a real citizen of Montreal if you never taste the classic Labatt 50 beer.
You’ve done a few covers for TBTCI. Are you happy to have that outlet and what bands would you like to cover in the future? Has your involvement with Renato helped bring attention to your band?
Renato is just amazing! We always like to work with Renato. He does quite a great job and we love to get involved with the other great bands that you can find on TBTCI’s compilations. Furthermore, those compilations offer great exposure. That was the first time that we got to work with Krissy Vanderwoude from Whimsical on our Slowdive cover (“Catch The Breeze” from Just for a Life, A Homage to Slowdive). That is how I thought it would be great to also have Krissy, and her mesmerizing vocals, on our song “Echo Radio” that features on Forever Orbiter.
Personally, I always wanted to turn an old Bad Religion song into a dreamscape/shoegazey sound.
You’re going to England for a few shows. How did you get involved with the Focus Wales Festival and can you tell us a little about the fest? Also, Shauna from Ummagma seems to be involved in getting you a gig at a venue in the UK too.
We are huge fans of the British alternative music. Most of the bands that we are listening to are from the U.K. That’s why we’ve submitted our band to play at the Focus Wales Festival 2018. We are really stoked to play there!
Yeah! Shauna is a really great person! She helped us to get a gig in Manchester. Can’t wait to play there too! So many amazing bands are from Manchester: Joy Division, The Smiths and The Stone Roses!! We are also big fans of the “Madchester” music scene.
I am also into Ummagma and Sounds of Sputnik which I think are two amazing bands. Shauna and I have been in touch for a few years now, since meeting her husband Alex Kretov from Ummagma.
There was five years between your debut album Collapse and Forever Orbiter. Can we hope for less time until the next one?
Nope haha! Actually, we are already writing some new materials. Stay tuned for more new songs soon!
The City Gates’ Forever Orbiter is available now from Northern Lights on CD, cassette and digital formats.
Rewind (Focus Wales Festival)
L’Escogriffe Bar Spectacle (L’Esco)
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