Keyboards Exposed

Super Synth Montreal Celebrates Today’s Fastest Evolving Instrument

Montreal’s indie music scene is flying high with the international acclaim of bands like Arcade Fire, Islands, Plants and Animals, and a legion of groups whose names either begin with an article or make reference to wolves. But what about its resident gear-heads and technophiles? Montreal’s synth artists are definitely a more marginal bunch.

Pascal Desjardins set out to showcase the range of Anglo and Francophone synth bands with Super Synth Montreal, a new festival celebrating the musical possibilities that synthesizers open up.

“[The festival provides] a total discovery of the keyboard scene in Montreal,” said Desjardins, who also co-founded independent label Les Disques Rodrigol .

Working in collaboration with the Suoni per il Popolo festival hosted by La Sala Rossa and Casa del Popolo, Desjardins and co-founder Pascal Fioramore aim to unite Montreal’s underground synth community, exposing the pervasive and often unseen presence of synthesizers in contemporary music.

“It’s easier to do something with guitar, bass, and drums,” said Desjardins. “But these bands chose the synthesizer, to do something special with it. It’s really about discovering that work, and [bringing] all the bands to that interested public.”

Desjardins emphasized that SSM will only feature bands that make keyboards the focal point of their art.

“It’s really a synth fest. I think we’ll see all kinds of keyboards, from old Moogs [to] Yamas from the 80s with presets, to Nord Leads from [the] last [few] years. Using only keyboards [in a band] is making a different statement, I think, than using keyboards in pop music,” said Desjardins.

Synth bands draw attention to technology as an aesthetic presence, adding a what Desjardins described as a “tactile” element to their performance.

Since the first commercial Moog synthesizers of the 1960s, the music industry has unequivocally embraced this evolving technology. Employed by seminal rock bands like The Rolling Stones, to being the driving force behind New Wave and 80s trends like A Flock of Seagulls, the airwaves would be paralyzed without the synthesizer’s extensive sonic palette and range of creative applications. But are synthesizers the unsung heroes of pop music?

Devon Welsh of Pop Winds sheds some light on this view of the synthesizer as a somewhat marginal presence, despite its ubiquity.

“Within a certain style of music and within a certain conception of what a band is, [the synthesizer is] definitely [a background instrument],” said Welsh. “The guy playing the synthesizer is never going to be the frontman.

“On the other hand, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a marginalized instrument, because it’s everywhere,” he said. “There’s a whole market of bands that are completely focused around the synthesizer, and anything that you hear in a club is made on a synthesizer… I’m sure Lady Gaga uses synthesizers, [but] you wouldn’t ever say that her music is synth music.”

Pop Winds will be playing at SSM’s closing gala on May 7th, using synths and related equipment to sculpt sounds and modulate their live instruments, a guitar and saxophone. Their technological arsenal includes an 80s-style Akai synthesizer, two Roland SP-404 samplers, and a Kaos pad – a multi-effects console used for looping samples.

“The textural palette of the synthesizer is so much more broad,” said Welsh. “When I’m writing music, instead of thinking in terms of what a song sounds like on an acoustic guitar I can think of it in terms of anything.

“I can make a song with strings, I can make a song with a timpani… It really gives anybody a chance to make music that sounds unfamiliar, and it [leaves] room for experimentation.”

Super Synth Montreal will feature a range of styles including experimental, electro-pop, clash music and ambient tones. Desjardins describes the juxtaposition of genres as “a little risky,” but well worth it.

Whether unsung hero or darling of the mainstream, at SSM the synthesizer will find an engaged audience of techno junkies, electro enthusiasts, and solid supporters of Montreal ever-growing synth scene.