On any other day of the week, the scene at the newly minted Piknic Électronik grounds might be inconspicuous: a once pearly white shipping container flanked by towers of raw wood pallets interrupts the skyline of Old Montreal just beyond the riverbend on the West end of the île Sainte-Hélène.
But today, it’s a gorgeous, beaming summer Sunday that might be perfect enough to make you forget what a Montreal winter can feel like. People have donned their summer best for a short jaunt on the subway or a quick boat ride across the Saint Lawrence river and straight into the lush forest green that hides the Piknic entrance.
Since 2PM, music has been pumping consistently from the riverside grounds, but the scene, a constant and dynamic rotation. Early on, Piknic goers look more like farmer’s market shoppers; smiling families with their young kids in tow and a satchel of picnic goods slung over their shoulder head straight to the Petit Piknic zone, essentially an entertainment center for dancers of all ages. As the day creeps on, families return home, replaced by groups of friends lounging on wooden chaises while sharing a comical bucket of beer, staking out a spot for a proper view of Seth Troxler, the main act of the evening. Give it just a few hours and they’ll soon be on their feet, buckets consumed and hands up in the air, whistling and flicking their wrists along with Troxler, up on stage.
The transformation Piknic undergoes in the matter of mere hours might be inherent of a city like Montreal. Celebrating its 375th anniversary this year, the city is a living, breathing juxtaposition of the old and the new thriving side by side. Like any international metropolitan, Montreal has its share of sharp and sleek skyscrapers (though none will exceed the height of the treasured Mount Royal), but a 10-minute walk away is Old Montreal. Defined by its impressive historic buildings that range from basilicas to former factories, the landmark district is made up of block after block of architectural treasures that have been adapted to a 2017 pace of life.
Montreal is a city that - surprisingly - could threaten New York’s title as a ‘city that never sleeps’, despite its humble standing against international nightlife provocateurs. In fact, the Québec hotspot’s late night history runs deep. Montreal native Tiga was one of the first to open what would become the city’s premier after hours with the now defunct Sona, which shone light on hip hop, house and techno and local maestros like Misstress Barbara and eventually earned the title as the No. 1 after hours in North America.
Today, Montreal is home to what some consider a humble, but rumbling secret weapon known as Stereo. Truly an after hours (ask around and you’ll learn the recommended arrival time is no earlier than 4 or 5AM) with “aural pleasure” at the top of its priority, the nightclub is a beast all of its own, equipped with a hydraulic floor, meticulously double-layered sound wall and top of the line sound system designed by the prolific Angel Moraes, who brought the inspiration to Montreal from his own personal escapades at Paradise Garage.
Additionally, on the same week that Mixmag has landed at Piknic with Seth Troxler, the city has also welcomed the return of Mutek, which has called Montreal its flagship base since its inception in 2000. Mutek, presented in a five-day show, workshop and panel format, is an event that’ll satisfy those with a curiosity and eagerness to explore the outer, frayed and less traveled paths of electronic music and technology.
Across 15 consecutive years of running as a premier, weekly Montreal event that runs throughout the summer season, Piknic, alongside its peer events like Mutek and venues like Stereo, has remained a staunch leader in the city’s underground bookings. And that might come as a surprise to dance music savants from around the world who are more accustomed to the dark, dank and hedonistic realm of the warehouse or the nightclub.
“They’ve been able to create this incredible art and music culture that is undefined anywhere else in the world,” Seth observes. “What’s different about Montreal compared to other cities is that they’re focused on electronic music as part of art and culture. They’re separating from the idea that electronic music is only about raves with an academic perspective and approach to the music.”
Seth Troxler barrels into the backstage arena of Piknic, fresh off a flight from Europe. He’s nearing the end of his summer festival season, and this week alone, he’s played DC-10 in Ibiza, Elrow in London, Croatia’s Sonus Festival and Creamfields. Final stop? Piknic Électronik. If anyone could be trusted to contribute his two loonies about the defining characteristics of scenes from around the world, it’d be him. But despite what’s guaranteed to have been a tornado of flights, hotels and in-and-out transport from festival grounds and back, there’s no room for anything but relaxation upon his arrival. In fact, after a round of hugs with the Piknic team, he turns around to burrow into his bag, emerging with a breezy, flower-patterned shirt to change into. He explains that he recently acquired it from Belize, and it just felt right for the occasion.
In just 15 years, Piknic has undergone a metamorphosis. What began as a humble gathering of only 217 people, the annual celebration now regularly clocks in an average of 6000 attendees - and that's a number that floods into the Piknic grounds every Sunday. Over 7600 have shown up today, for Seth Troxler.
The Sunday Funday event has already spread its wings internationally, bringing the unique sunshine-driven party in Barcelona and Melbourne to high acclaim... and there are plenty more worldwide hotspots organizers are eyeing for Piknic's next conquests.
And maybe that's exactly what the world needs. Operating in a realm that so often feels tightly-strung, wound-up and sometimes too furiously driven by silver-tongued purists and traditionalists unwilling to move into the future, Piknic Électronik is a light that guides people towards a day that puts all that behind it. It captures the spirit of Montreal - the perfectly balanced dichotomy of the beloved old and the evolving new - in every corner of its grassy knoll. It’s 15 years worth of proof that even in the debate-ridden and headline speckled world of electronic music culture, there’s a peaceful oasis where the music is simply accepted as a ncessary part of the way of life: for the young, old and in between.
Photos courtesy of Ashutosh Gupta, Elise Apap and Peter Ryaux-Larsen for Piknic Électronik
Piknic Électronik takes place every Sunday at Plaine Des Jeux in Montreal until September 24. Find more info here
Valerie Lee is Mixmag's US Digital Editor and she is still working on her French, merci beaucoup. Follow her on Twitter here