Published Sep 21, 2010It's a blustery day in Rouyn Noranda in northern Quebec, but Karkwa's frontman Louis-Jean Cormier is feeling pretty warm. His band is three weeks away from unexpectedly winning the 2010 Polaris Music Prize, but the predominantly French language media covering the town's Festival Of Emerging Music are wishing him well at every turn. Later that night, Karkwa plays to a rapt audience (outdrawing the Melvins, the Festival's purported headliner) whom he leads in sing-along after sing-along. Though they've been compared to Coldplay and Sigur Rós, Karkwa have succeeded in striking a specifically Quebecois nerve with their poetic lyrics combined with dynamic, cinematic and hooky arrangements. Post-win, they're being labelled as "obscure" by some, but such a perception ignores this undeniably rising tide of esteem in which they are currently held in Quebec, France, and according to Cormier, iTunes. In rural Quebec, Cormier is on home turf, but, post-Polaris, his band is on the verge of their biggest foreign adventure yet.
This must be great for you right now, riding the wave, things must be getting bigger for you all the time. Do you feel you're starting to expand your audience this year?
We are expanding around the west, west coast of Canada. Everything around the Polaris list we have to go to Toronto four [times] in a month. We do a lot of interviews; we are practicing our English speaking. We actually are really bad, but we'll become betterâ¦
So Polaris has made a big difference?
Yeah it was a real surprise, it was so an honour for us to be in the same list with Owen Pallett and Broken Social Scene. I think everybody on the list we have listened to and we are great fans. It's like unbelievable, I think the good thing of the Polaris Prize is to let enter some kind of Francophone projects. I think they do it for the best reasons, everybody on the jury "sans consideration pour la vente des disques" [without regard for record sales].
A lot of people talked about Montreal at the turn of the last decade, with Constellation Records and the rise of the Montreal scene. Do you think that that whole of Montreal is becoming better known now, not just the English bands?
I think that we changed something when we played in Paris and England. Everybody in the audience was curious because we are from Montreal. I don't know if the language part is completely erased. It's a good thing from Polaris to have a little exposure maybe it will change some Anglophone critics, they will be a little more curious with projects like us and Malajube.
Do you think that because of iPod shuffles and so forth that people are more open to different types of music, just "good music," never mind English, French or Arabic?
I think so. We are really curious and we listen to projects from Sweden, Germany and we don't understand every song, but it doesn't matter. Like Sigur Rós. We are souvent comparé to Sigur Rós. If you have a great musical language then the lyrics don't matter. I don't want to say that we abadonnez l'écriture. Our goal is to make the best poésie [poetry] ever. But if you have a musical language divertissant you could play everywhere. I think the internet joue un plus grand role everywhere in the world, Québec too. We were actually the best selling ITunes in our first week of release across Canada, so maybe that tells something.
Definitely, and that's long before Polaris happened, so that's an amazing thing. I guess it comes down to touring?
We have to tour more. We did Vancouver many times, we played the Olympics. Maybe we could find a way to play more in the States too.
Critics have compared you to Sigur Rós, I'm not sure if I agree. For starters, there's got to be at least 20 BPM difference between you and them on any given song?
We do maybe ambient rock, maybe influenced a little bit by the weather of Quebec. Many people have made a relation between Scandinavian music and music from Montréal. I don't know what to think about it but it's a great honour to be compared to them!
Do you find it frustrating that people don't understand what you're talking about lyrically?
Not really. We translated some texts we did for CBC Radio's Bande A Part in Québec. Jim Cocoran, a French singer who's an Anglophone, adapted some texts in English and we did it with Land Of Talk's lead singer Elizabeth Powell and it was very great. So maybe in the artwork of la prochaine album we could translate, like Bruce Cockburn did with every album he released. But it's the same thing for Sigur Rós. It's not frustrating.
How is your new album different than your last? It seems bigger and lusher to me.
I think it's more international. We recorded in Paris and we were a little isolated from our families and friends. We were in a big ball of music we did it without the Québec artists community. So I think we made an album without frontier. It sounds to me like you could play those songs in every country. Maybe our musical language is bigger than ever.
What are the songs you're most proud of on this record?
"Moi Leger," that's the first thing Frank played at the piano in the studio in Paris. We recorded that song the next day, and I wrote lyrics that same day. I did a ghost vocal, and we kept everything, and that's what you hear on the record.
Just like Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On"! They kept the guide vocal and orchestrated everything around it. Do you think that people respond to that kind of spontaneity more than ever?
Yeah. That's the difference between our old albums and this one. This one sounds very spontanée and genuine. We were creating in the studio. We didn't prepare, there was no preproduction we didn't rehearse, we just entered in the studio and played. It wasn't a live session it was more like bricolage.
You've been together for 12 years, an unchanged line-up, so you've learned to trust each other's instincts and feed off ideas.
It's pretty unconscious but of course there's a chemistry around the band. Many years playing together, sharing hotel rooms and planes, it's like an old couple where you have to trust each other. It's like couple's therapy.
After 12 years, do people fall into certain roles or do you mix it up?
That hasn't changed a lot, I compose a lot of songs and write most of the lyrics, Frank composes a lot to and Julien Sagot wrote some lyrics and composes too. The funny part is when we arrange those songs. That's the particularité de Karkwa. We have fun to rearrange and rearrange the songs again and make u-turns. We have great discussions about the directions of songs. The music comes first, and after we listen to it and discuss it, we talk about how the music speaks to us and which subjects we could write about. I think that the most difficult part of writing a song is the subject I'm going to talk about.
What happens after Polaris?
We go on the road most of the time in Quebec, but we'll be in Europe for most of October. There's a gala in Québec called L'Adisq and that's at the beginning of November.