How Concordia and McGill helped foster Montreal's indie rock scene

They came to study. They formed bands. And they helped make Montreal a music hub.

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Amy Millan doesn’t have much time for all those people who have been grumbling about students from the rest of Canada coming to Montreal to study at McGill or Concordia and somehow ripping off the province, then hightailing it back to brighter anglo pastures outside Quebec.

Millan, the co-lead singer of internationally acclaimed indie Montreal band Stars, moved from Toronto to Montreal in 1994 to study theatre at Concordia University. One of the reasons she chose Montreal was because she was already bilingual — she went to school in French immersion in Toronto and spent some time in France.

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Millan came to study and stayed, like so many other musicians in the indie scene ici.

Warren Spicer and Matthew (Woody) Woodley came from Nova Scotia to study music at Concordia in the mid-’90s, which is where they met Quebecer Nic Basque and formed the band Plants and Animals.

Conner Molander and Dylan Phillips of the band Half Moon Run both came to Montreal from B.C. to study at McGill. Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, also made the move from B.C. to study at McGill; it was here that she began making waves as an alt artist, before heading to L.A. to pursue her career.

Natalia Yanchak, who plays keyboards in the Dears, came to Montreal to study creative writing at Concordia in the mid-’90s, and she, too, is still here a quarter-century later. Several members of Arcade Fire were also musicians from elsewhere who came to study here.

The complaining about students from outside Quebec at McGill and Concordia hit the media last fall when the Coalition Avenir Québec government said it was going to raise tuition for out-of-province students, most of whom attend English universities. Many here said the tuition increase was justified because Quebec was subsidizing students from elsewhere who come here to study, then leave the province.

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Two people sing on a stage at Osheaga
Torquil Campbell, left, and Amy Millan of the band Stars. Millan moved from Toronto to Montreal in 1994 to study theatre at Concordia University. Photo by Dario Ayala /Montreal Gazette

Stars formed in the late ’90s and were initially based in Toronto and New York City, but they settled in Montreal in 2001 — in Mile End, which at the time was the epicentre of a very hot alt-rock scene that would catch the attention of the global media.

Millan returned to Toronto briefly after graduating from Concordia, but she was soon back in the 514 and hasn’t looked back since.

“We built a whole business here, we pay lots of taxes, and have built a family,” Millan said.

The father of fellow Stars lead singer Torquil Campbell, the late actor Douglas Campbell, lived for years in Montreal. Torquil Campbell now lives in Vancouver, but the other members of Stars are based in Montreal, as is the band’s company. Millan and husband Evan Cranley, who is also in Stars, have two young children.

“What I find interesting is that I moved here as a kid to go to university, stayed, worked with my band, it’s a wonderful place to be creative, and it was much less expensive for rent than it was in Toronto,” Millan said. “But now I have two children who were born in Montreal and are Québécois. They’re both bilingual.”

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Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government says the tuition hike is designed to curb the decline of French. It is an attempt to have fewer students from the rest of Canada come to English universities.

A man tunes a guitar while sitting on wooden outdoor stairs.
Plants and Animals singer and guitarist Warren Spicer came from Nova Scotia to study music at Concordia in the mid-’90s. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

“It’s a strange way to divide people,” Millan said. “I think it’s an attempt to take the spotlight away from things that are really happening in this province, which is (the lack of) doctors, (problems at) hospitals, schools on strike, nurses not getting paid, roads not getting paved. These are the things that matter. So this is just a way to distract us … and there are so many local businesses that are going to be very negatively affected. Think of the (area around) McGill and parts of downtown and in N.D.G. around the Loyola campus. There’s so much money these kids put into these small family-run businesses.”

Spicer and Woodley from Plants and Animals were friends in high school in Halifax and arrived together to study music at Concordia.

“I felt like it was a real city, whereas Halifax was very conservative,” Spicer said.

You could also get an inexpensive apartment, in their case at the corner of Parc Ave. and Bernard St., that could fit four people and “the rent would be at most 700 bucks. Everything was cheap. There was no pressure financially.”

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Like Millan, Spicer and Woodley had gone to school in French immersion and wanted to be in a city where people spoke the language of Charlebois. Then they met francophone Montrealer Basque and formed the band.

“I think of it as an ideal scenario,” Spicer said. “It was an ideal sharing of cultural upbringings. When we started touring the rest of Canada, it was eye-opening to Nic.”

Basque was afraid there would be a negative reaction elsewhere to him as a francophone, which was not the case. At the same time, the two musicians from Halifax were brought into francophone culture via Basque and loved that opportunity.

A man plays guitar on a stage at Osheaga
Conner Molander of Half Moon Run came to Montreal from B.C. to study at McGill. Photo by John Kenney /Montreal Gazette

“It’s a good example of ‘foreigners’ coming to Montreal” and making the most of it, Spicer said. He now works with both anglo and francophone artists. He has produced both albums by the acclaimed Montreal band Comment Debord.

“I made my family here, my kids speak better French than I do, and I’m more Québécois than I am a Halifax guy,” said Spicer. “I don’t even like Halifax. I could be a poster boy for (someone coming here from the rest of Canada). I’m honoured to be living here in both languages.”

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Yanchak from the Dears says the tuition hike and raising French proficiency requirements for out-of-province Concordia and McGill students has nothing to do with helping students, but is all about scoring political points.

“It’s not about what’s best for the students who come here or what’s best for the cultural community,” Yanchak said. “I think it’s something other than that and the students who were planning to move here and suddenly their tuition is gonna be through the roof — they’re just the casualties of political moves.”

Dan Seligman, creative director and co-founder of the indie music festival POP Montreal, arrived in Montreal from Toronto in 1996 to study comparative religion at McGill and was soon deeply involved behind the scenes in the local alternative music scene. His brother Chris Seligman, who is in Stars, then moved here. Next was the third Seligman brother, Aaron, who now runs a music merchandise company here. Finally their parents, seeing their three kids living in Montreal, also made the move, buying a condo in the Plateau.

“The main reason I went to McGill was to live in Montreal,” Seligman said. “I’d visited as a teenager. You could go to bars at 16 and they didn’t card you.”

Seligman said students come here on a budget and he feels the tuition raise “is vindictive and counter-intuitive.”

“All these kids are going out, they’re paying taxes on what they buy, and if we reduce (the amount of students) by 20 per cent, (the city) is losing money,” he said. “And a lot of people end up coming to Montreal and embracing the culture.”

This move by the government will have a significant impact on the culture of Montreal, said Seligman, noting that indie rock shows here invariably include fans who are out-of-province students.

“It’s like throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” he said.

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