Some places just feel familiar, even when entirely foreign. Montreal is one of those places.
I’d never been to Canada, didn’t speak a lick of French beyond “bonjour,” and I’m typically averse to polar conditions - being an LA-native who appreciates a February bronzing. But to my surprise, I discovered Montreal holds an endearing warmth even in the dead of winter. It’s quite a friendly place, with its youthful, international diversity holding quite a fondness of getting frisky on the floor.
The purpose of my northern venture was to witness the final night of Igloofest 2020, where presiding techno conquerer Charlotte De Witte closed out its month-long masterclass in global dance music. She followed the likes of ANNA and Robert Hood, who performed during previous weekends - making their 14th annual a distinctly techno-centric affair.
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It was -24 degrees celsius when Charlotte took the stage, and a storm the day prior had blanketed the city in a half-meter of lofty, dry powder - through which Danny Daze performed a set with snow-covered decks. This is a commendable feat, considering the obvious logistical nightmare of a mid-winter party on the bayshore of a massive, Canadian sound channel.
Somehow, the event producers are not only equipped but largely unphased by the weather. The DJ booths are equipped with a full range of heat lamps surrounding the artist, glowing devilishly bright. The decks have modified sneeze-guards over them, like what you’d see covering your grade school cafeteria’s salad bar. Given such conditions, and the ready anticipation of them each year, Igloofest is an honest testament of the old cliche... the show must go on - and they pull it off with style.
Hosted from the heart of Montreal, Igloofest consumes a gargantuan pier in the Old Port, which extends off one of the main thoroughfares of the city. The pier dips into the frosty St. Lawrence River, which runs all the way from the coast of Newfoundland, bringing frigid currents and airstreams along with it. Two impressively knocking stages lead the Igloofest offering on the water’s edge, while the event site also features carnival rides, quirky game booths, beer gardens, local poutine trucks, a retro arcade, and nightly “Iglooswag” costume contests.
Rather than truss, their main infrastructure revolves around white shipping containers, which resemble the blocks used to assemble actual igloos. It’s very on brand. They’re positioned around all of the stages and various activities, with projectors illuminating a full range of visual accoutrements onto their sides. While these containers are also used for storage in the summer months, they serve as a fantastic sound barrier as well. A textbook example of working smarter, not harder. Fourteen years in, it makes sense to have things so dialed and efficient.
Many attendees came decked out in their funkiest onesies or homemade ornamentations, making radical statements with their prerequisite layers. Winners of the coveted Iglooswag title receive lift tickets, accommodations, and VIP-passes to future events. One hopeful maniac wore nothing but a skinned bear pelt as a cape, with a Canadian flag speedo and ruby-red Doc Martens, getting his kicks growling at passers-by and spitting beer all over himself. It wrapped fully around his torso, which he opened to expose his bare chest and thighs at unsuspecting glances. I didn’t catch his name, or if he even bothered to enter the contest, but he would have earned my vote happily.
And while these are pleasant embellishments to (most) any party, the uniqueness of Igloofest is actually the environment. Igloofest is an outdoor function, and the moniker of this affair is far from an understatement.
Before night fully kicked into gear, I met up with Nicolas Cournoyer, one of the four Igloofest founders. He speaks with ecstatic, animated hand gestures and has an easy smile, while peering through a pair of carbon fiber spectacles. It was immediately clear that he loves his job.
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“We wanted to take electronic music out of the club, and to challenge the prevailing prejudice over drugs,” Cournoyer explained. For the first few years they didn’t even sell alcohol on-site, to really drive this point home. They’ve since become a full service establishment. “But we also wanted to tame the weather, you know? And how better to do so, than to throw a party!” He said this with a particular glee, considering the conditions of the night. “Especially this weekend… (*slaps his knuckles*) you have to be a warrior!”
Despite the evergreen allure of Charlotte’s onslaught, I eventually found myself at the side stage - where Chaos in the CBD played a full throttle set of future-discotech fury with a tall order of naughty-house on the side. It’s true, genres are for journalists, and their performance held a distinctive air of debauchery that earned a fresh look. It was quite a detachment from their original productions, given the tempo and caliber of heaters they’d brought with them, but I didn’t mind in the slightest. They were clearly there to party, and so were we.
Shortly after making this observation, a overly-enthused patron jumped over the barricade and attempted to climb into the DJ booth - before slipping on an icy surface with a comically exaggerated flail as they slammed into the stage frontage. Louis, one of the brothers in Chaos in the CBD donning a highlighter pink hair-do, gave the gaff a good laugh, took a mighty swig from a miscellaneous fifth, and feigned railing a massive line of snow that had been left on the sneeze guard over the decks. The crowd roared with delightful solidarity at this gesture, and also at the expense of the overly enthused attendee taking a slap-stick esque spill.
In the middle of this spectacle, a young couple, Michael and Sarah, were underneath some heat lamps on the side of the stage. These were apparently new additions this year, and much appreciated. Sarah bounded merrily to the music, spliff in hand, while Michael sat comfortably with his legs crossed real fancy-like. They were both wearing Igloofest beanies, which led me to inquire about their identification and experience with the event.
“It’s pretty relaxing,” Michael said plainly. This was not what I expected to hear, given the sub-zero temperature and thumping tenacity of Chaos in the CBD’s selections. It was his first year at Igloofest, whereas Sarah had attended for a few years prior. “The winter brings us! If you don’t go out and embrace the weather, it gets to you. We should love our Nordic city the way it is,” she exclaimed with pride. “I’ve been here when it was -40 degrees celsius. But tonight is definitely one of the coldest nights ever. It’s a very Montreal thing, we come here to eat poutine and dance!” Michael chimed back in, “At the same time, too!”
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I meandered back into the crowd, lifted from their enthusiasm and feeling rather chipper, just as a couple hammered bros undressed and began breakdancing on the snow-covered dance floor. It was a sight to behold, the spinning and twirling in a battle-style format, watching their skin turn an immediate blood red as it grinded into the packed ice. They didn’t care about bodily injury or personal embarrassment, this was their moment to say “Fuck You!” to winter. What’s more, is that they were actually rather talented dancers, despite how patently wasted they were.
At this immediate moment, I realized that not a single person in sight was on their phone. None. No videos being taken, social media profiles being updated, text messages being typed with the fury of someone who’d just lost their crew. The crowd was present and listening, eyes and hearts open. The necessity for gloves made touch-screens practically inoperable, and it seemed everyone thought to heck with it. This came to my attention as I felt compelled to film this half-naked, gyrating display, but I couldn’t be bothered to take out my phone either.
The crowd vibrated radiant frequencies on all cylinders, dancing like a pack of wild loons high on jailbreak. No concern for ratios. Tune in, drop out, and leave the digitization in your pocket was the prevailing sentiment; another refreshing peculiarity of the Igloofest scene.
Funneling off the Igloofest pier for the last time this winter, a few groans could be heard as the stages shut down, but spirits were high. There wasn’t much fuss or screams for an encore, just a collective “Well that was a hoot, off to the club?” A large facade swoops over the exit path that reads “ok bye!” I read this as an overwhelmingly cute display of Canadian politeness. A sweet farewell to their faithful attendees.
The swell of bodies leaving the event effectively overtook the city for nearly an hour, with everyone walking in the middle of the street, blocking traffic, smuggling beers past the security guards. There were no police waiting at the exit, no crossing guards, nor Ubers or food trucks. Just a sleepy city covered in white and rambunctious bodies on the prowl.
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I wandered aimlessly with the crowd, simply enjoying how casual everyone felt, walking one another home or to the nearest watering hole. Just ahead of me, a group of friends locked arm-in-arm sang every verse to Oasis’s classic ‘Wonderwall’ in perfect harmony. I couldn’t help but join in.
After several blocks, the march of festival-goers approached a stairwell that was entirely frozen over. Next to the stairs, two icy sled shoots went down the hill. Rather than risking the stairs, and being taken out by a misplaced step, entire mobs of friends began hurling themselves down the shoots with complete disregard for bodily injury; their own or for those already at the bottom.
There was a common underestimation of how slick the shoots actually were, and a uniform miscalculation of how long to wait for someone to get out of the way before sliding down themselves. I found great pleasure in watching group after group slip out of control and slam into a pillow of powder, or one another. I got the impression that most of these colliding bodies didn’t actually know each other, but they took no offense at the roughness. It was the perfect representation of Montreal. Most any other city, any other event, there would have been a panic to find the next set, the after party, calling the rig, who’s going where and what’s the hippest place to be.
This crowd was happy to be exactly where they were. Playing with their friends, new and old, drunk in the snow, not a care in the world.
Montreal keeps only those that really want to stay and that choice breeds a peculiar kinship, a common appreciation for play. I found myself continually awestruck by the sincerity of those I met, and their ease of excitement to celebrate life with a stranger. Over the course of the night, several people said complaining about the weather is “the Canadian national sport” (it’s actually lacrosse, go figure), but thanks to a praise-worthy helping of Canadian grit, plentiful down-feather puffies, and a healthy consumption of booze, nobody seemed to mind the conditions all that much. Myself included, and it’s worth noting that I don’t own a proper winter coat.
It’s unlike anything I’ve sensed in another North American metropolis, this relatively controlled chaos on the streets, with San Francisco placing a near second. I didn’t notice any drug busts, medical emergencies, or fights. In fact, there was nothing but shared smiles, spliffs, and wiggles galore.
Igloofest isn’t for everyone. You have to want it, and be willing to push your body far beyond the usual confines of a dance floor. In the extreme arduousness of the climate, you’re able to accurately sense the boundaries of things, to clearly illuminate the center of your truth in that moment. It’s a unique gift. But it’s really Montreal, and the diversity of people that live there, that make this event as special as it is.
The friendly, open-hearted nature of Montreal is the real winner here. Igloofest is just a perfect, winter-time encapsulation of what the city is about, day-in and day-out. Anything worth having is worth sharing, and Igloofest is a living representation of this ethos.
Ryan Baesemann is a freelance journalist and Editorial Contributor to Mixmag. Follow him on Twitter.
Photos provided by Ulysse Lemerise and Villedepluie.