Sean Michaels Listens to Music in Montreal
From time to time, from his home in Canada’s second-largest city, writer Sean Michaels will share with us his thoughts on songs, singing, and music in general.
Following the Luyas.
On Friday, March 12, the rock band called the Luyas suggested that we come meet them outside Cagibi. They said to come at 10:30 pm. They made this announcement over Twitter and Facebook. When it was almost 10:30 the band’s frontwoman, Jessie Stein, sent out a message by SMS, postponing the rendezvous to 11:30 pm. Some people did not get the message. They got there early. In the cold wind, they waited.
Years ago, the Luyas would have had to print fliers, write letters, tag walls, make phone calls. Secrets used to be passed by word of mouth and not by glint of light. Today, you broadcast to hundreds with a single click. It’s a game-changer, a marvel, but arriving outside the café Cagibi, I was sad that we had been summoned by an electronic alert. The experience seemed cheapened, made tacky. We waited, bundled, bored, and nobody uttered the name of the thing that had brought us here. By my count, Stein had twice deleted her Facebook account. She was a member again now.
But my melancholy was illegitimate. I realized this suddenly, checking the time on my phone. It was nostalgia for an era I had never actually known. I sent my first e-mail before I had my first kiss. I have been writing an mp3 blog for more than seven years. No matter the beacons that had brought us, meeting at the corner of St-Laurent and St-Viateur streets, close to midnight, we were in the realm of the real. The Luyas passed out blindfolds. We could not see.
They led us by rope. Stein was garrulous, silly, cracking thinly wise. Her band mates, Pietro Amato, Stefan Schneider and Mathieu Charbonneau, were more serious. They kept us from stumbling over curbs, from falling on our faces. Through the cloth blindfolds, you could sense each shift of light and shadow. The most terrifying moments were these shifts. I imagined a tractor-trailer barreling out of the night and into my chest. I imagined thrown concrete. We hesitated. We quipped and giggled. There was the faint feeling we were doing this ironically. Ironically, we were headed to a secret destination. Ironically, we were crossing St-Laurent in a shambolic queue. Ironically, we were almost walking into telephone poles.
On these familiar streets, we could not be lost, not even blindfolded. We read the street corners with the soles our shoes. Before long we were on rue de Gaspé, wide and gusty, walled by warehouses. Behind the buildings’ facades lay mazes of offices, studios, secret sweatshops. The Luyas led us up some steps and through a narrow doorway. They led us across a marble floor, into elevators. Pressed together, we waited. We waited. We waited and waited. There was a ding, a groan. We stepped out into the song of a banjo.
A man was singing. Don’t know where I’m goin’, he called. He had a voice like a bend in a river. He was at once earnest and very wry. This twinning felt right. My self-consciousness, my remove, all that free-floating irony—it started to smudge. I didn’t know what was about to happen. The banjo-player led us through the halls. Our stewards guided us with their hands. We passed through a doorway, still blind. They pressed bottles of beers into our palms. Behind my cotton kerchief, I imagined a cavernous chamber and curved canals of light. Without looking, we twisted off the bottle-caps.
Then Stein said we could take off our blindfolds. We did, nervously, beginning to giggle, but we had scarcely begun this giggling when we saw the Luyas right before us, standing so close, looking us in the eyes, wires strung from instruments to amps, fingers touching strings. The band was poised. Suddenly, within arms’ reach, they sounded.
Their first song knocked me like a season. It shook all my leaves loose. This was a tiny place, a jam space crowded with old lamps, instrument cases, shabby sheets nailed to drywall. We were an audience of 20, squeezed into the rear half of a room the size of a garage. A cord of Christmas lights braided around chairs, boxes, microphones, organ. The Luyas were playing a song. We held our breaths and smiled.
Formed here four years ago, the Luyas have self-released one album, 2007’s Faker Death, and are on the verge of releasing their second. They make an art-pop that’s supple, gold and silver, with messy choruses wedged between swells of scattered sound. Stein sings and plays guitar, including a custom-made 12-string zither called the Moodswinger. Schneider plays drums. Amato plays an effects-laden French horn. Charbonneau, newest to the group, generally plays organ. They are one of those bands that sound like more people than they are, due mostly to Amato’s looper pedal and Schneider’s daring, very melodic, percussion.
Stein has a curled, girlish voice, sounding vaguely of mischief. Her flick of syllables has a little Stephen Malkmus in it, but unlike the swagger of her earlier project SS Cardiacs, the Luyas’ music is suffused with longing; her singing here owes more to Will Oldham and Julie Doiron. With help from Charbonneau, Amato fills the songs’ spaces with warm crescendo, blushes of horn, unexpected prettiness. None of this becomes diffuse: the Luyas are not hazy, ethereal. Their compositions are precise. Schneider’s work is intricate but direct; his sticks, brushes, bells and glockenspiel act as lines on a map—borders, valleys, mountain ranges.
Watching the band, pushed close, our eyes went to Stein’s. She seemed to be gazing back at us. She is smallish, pretty, a little crooked somehow, with a thicket of black hair that falls into her face. Until recently, she was cultivating a Bob Dylan look, wearing scarves, sunglasses, her curls stacked tall. Off of the stage, Stein can be nervous, slightly manic; her laugh will bounce around a conversation and her eyes rarely rest with her interlocutors. She shows a similar nerviness between songs—making self-deprecating jokes, needling her band-mates, telling short stories without punch lines. This habit drives some of my friends crazy. But the rest of the Luyas mostly keep their heads down. They cede these spaces to Stein. For all her awkwardness, she seems utterly comfortable. No, more than that: she seemed thrilled to be before us. She asked us questions. She gulped from a bottle of whiskey, passed it into the crowd. We gave only sardonic answers. Amato finally raised his head, flashed one of his boyish grins. He lifted the horn’s mouthpiece to his lips.
In the end, I don’t know what happened to our over-excited senses of irony. We simply listened. Stein’s gaze was calm. It was transparent. She looked us in our faces and told her truths without fear. We felt our closeness. We listened to songs like “Canary” and “Dumb Blood”, hands in pockets, blindfolds like garlands around our necks. We felt our chipped hearts gleam.
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