A Week in Canada – a travelogue

Theres something about peeing at 30 thousand feet that makes a man feel liberated. The toilet, no doubt witness to countless fumbled mile high club attempts was spacious and well kept. I literally had more room there than in my seat. The old lady sat next to me kept putting her elbows on my arm rest and stealing a few precious centimetres. It irritated me a little, so I had decided to decompress in the toilet, but not even that could remove the stupid grin plastered all over my face; I was on a plane to Canada to catch up with my new buddies Amber and Robert, with whom I had formed a strong friendship at ADE in October. I was also playing my first international gig at Bar Passeport in Montreal.

My flight over was at 10.55am, I’d woken early, maybe 6.30 and got ready, impatiently waiting for my pre-ordered cab. I was filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I love to travel, but there’s always that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach that something might go wrong, or that they would be different away from the energy generated by us all at ADE. As it turned out, my fears were short lived. Rob met me from Pearson International Airport around 30 minutes after my plane touched down, he was full of enthusiasm and we chatted like old friends on the back of the TTC bus we caught back into the city. I hadn’t really prepared myself for the size of Toronto. Situated amongst the great lakes of North America, its 630 square kilometres is flanked by Lake Ontario on the Eastside and Lake  Huron far over on the west. Detroit is merely a 3 hour car journey away and New York City 9 hours by car or an hour and a half by plane (it takes 40 minutes to fly to Amsterdam from my home in Manchester by comparison). Once a collection of smaller towns, Toronto is now one giant conurbation thanks to the aptly named ‘Megacity’ project and regeneration programmes are transforming down trodden districts into vibrant upscaled livings spaces.

The bus ride seemed never ending as we weaved around the streets of Etobicoke headed for the up and coming trendy area of Little Portugal where Rob and Amber lived. Somewhat of an artisan zip code, my other Torontonian friends Dustin Nantais, Tim Penner and their delightful partners, Mandy and Patricia live nearby also. I had frantically been arranging meet ups with all of them over the course of the week, but schedules being what they are, it was proving to be pretty tough. We did finally all meet up at a wonderful dinner at Ambers house, but more on that later… Back to the bus. So when I had got on, Rob had paid the driver with some loose change. I was totally expecting to have to pay for the train (kinda like the London Underground tubes) that would take us to Robs, but apparently the TTC (Toronto Transport Company) is a linked service, so once you pay, you can travel on other forms of transport to get to your destination.

Robs place – which I christened ‘The Bat Cave’ – is a music geeks wet dream. Hardware litters every available surface. Keyboards, mixing boards, musical instruments , all sorts. Each has its place. The possibilities are endless and the track we made, or at least got the guts of  down is testament to a life spent pursuing audio art. His place situated on Bloor Street west bustles with big city energy, fire engines roared along it with unnerving regularity, and  given it was  averaging -5 degrees centigrade most of the week, I guess off to car crashes rather than fires. Under his apartment was a comedy club, across the street, coffee shops, rotisserie chicken shops and pizzerias. I was in hog heaven! I didn’t really see much of the city until we got back from Montreal. Wednesday was a blur of music making, eating pizza and drinking many beers. Thursday was upon us before we knew it.

Amber, who I hadn’t seen at all since arriving due to her insanely busy and stressful filming schedule was making us all dinner. I met up with her in a bar across the street from her house off St Clair Avenue west, conveniently only 20 minutes walk from Robs. She was listening to a live stream of her recent Tech Support show with guest Paul Hazendonk (Manual Music) and taking part in the forum running alongside the show. We chatted over coffee for a while as the show played out and then headed back to her house to meet her daughter, Merinah, and also work out which ingredients we still needed for the feast we were to have later that evening. Joining us for the meal were Paul Hazendonk, who had flown in earlier that day for a gig the following evening with our other guests Dustin Nantais and Tim ‘Phat Beets’ Penner (sorry Tim!) along with their wonderful partners Mandy and Patricia. Having flown in a mere 30something hours earlier myself, I completely identified with how tired Paul was – up for close to 24 hours straight. Jet lag is a mistress many of us fail to tame…first world DJ problems huh?!! The meal was lovely. A home cooked cottage pie (which they call shepherds pie) with green bean salad and Pecan pie for afters. The drinks flowed and we were all instantly transported back to ADE, where we had all first met. In fact I hadn’t seen Dustin since before ADE; in Manchester, where I warmed up for him in early October. We chatted about music, life and the universe, there was a lotta love in that room, and the conversations moved naturally between subjects never getting awkward, or heated. As Amber, Rob and I were travelling to Montreal early in the morning for our birthday and EP release party, everyone went home around midnight with full bellies and happy hearts.

The journey to Montreal was loooong. 6 hours driving, not helped by the fact I didn’t have the correct license to drive in Canada, so poor Amber had to do the whole trip there and back on her own. On the morning of travel we got up bright and early to find Merinah, who woke before us, had made us all french toast and sausages. A welcomed breakfast, and my first experience of maple syrup. Thats some good eating there! The Enterprise guy picked us up at 08.30 sharp and took us to the office to collect our car. The Chevy we were in was roomy and luxurious,. I was pretty impressed, and I normally don’t really like American built cars. Amber was keen to keep costs down, no harm there, but when she asked the rental guy about a more economical car, my heart sank as he uttered the words “..we do have a Fiat 500!” For those that don’t know Fiat cars, and I totally realise I sound a like a snob here when I say it, but they are not cars conducive to long road trips. Not at all. It was like ‘driving a bubble’, said Amber afterwards. The car, glistened in the early morning winter sun fresh from a wash. I folded myself in to the back seat and prayed the hardened faux leather interior was kind to my back side! Rob sat up front as navigator and with his phones’ GPS set, we headed off towards the frozen northern tundra of Quebec.

Canada is an enormous, beautiful and barren country. The MacDonald/Cartier freeway (Highway 401) covers the whole of Ontario, starting way down by the US Border in Windsor, and extending north-easterly all the way up to Bainsville on the Quebec border, some 817 kilometres – roughly 500 miles – thats one side of one province. The portion of the highway that runs through Toronto is apparently the widest and busiest stretch of motorway in the world. On arrival in Montreal we quickly found our hotel, a Travelodge on Boulevard René-Lévesque Ouest, and dumped our bags. We had a few hours to kill before the gig, Rob an I were ravenously hungry and had planned to meet up with local DJ/producer Alex Decker at his bachelor pad around the corner from us . Three large pizzas and a few beers later, we headed off in a two cars to the gig at Bar Passeport on Rue Saint-Denis. I was with some of the other DJs playing that night, Circus resident Pascal B and his friends Ghislain and Julie. On the short (and bitterly cold) walk to the bar Julie told me about the local bar scene, and how they changed names frequently, but always seemed to stay as bars. She was engaging and informative, and as I knew nothing of Montreal or its dance scene, it was useful in many respects to aid me in what I was going to play.

Montreal is cold. Really cold. A bitting northerly wind blew aggressively dropping the temperature noticeably, well, noticeably to me, the local inhabitance seemed perfectly happy. There is a multicultural mixture of people around too, from French Canadian locals to young Americans taking full advantage of the lower drinking age to have their fill of beer. The bar was delightful, vaguely European in decor with a decent sound system and great acoustics. Normally a goth/rock venue, for one night a week promoter, Hugo Gringas, hosts a dance party with a marvellous mixture of deep progressive house and techno. This weeks event marking the release of my friends, Amber, Rob and Alex’s’ Apologies EP on Norman Hines’ incredible Stripped Digital imprint. A few weeks earlier they had told me Hernan Cattaneo had played the remix by Cid Inc. at Red in Toronto and a day later at Stereo in Montreal. And as I was here, I should definitely go to Stereo. Which I did.

I was originally playing first and had prepared my set a few days earlier. Ghislain however had other plans, and offered to play first to allow a crowd to grow so I wasn’t playing to an empty room, which I thought was very sweet of him. Im always pretty nervous at gigs, I guess that is a good thing, and that night I had more to worry about as I was for the first time ever in a club setting playing completely digital. As a CDJ dinosaur, I had resolutely resisted the wave of ” you gotta get Traktor and a X1 controller bro, its awesome bro” brigade, instead opting to burn CDs or play from USB, but having been informed of the bars equipment, a broken Pioneer mixer and CDJ 1000s I opted to cart all my gear over the pond and play Serato using my Novation Twitch as a pseudo MIDI controller. It worked brilliantly and the set I played was a great success. I was really pleased, the crowd were super motivated and hungry to hear new music. They danced with a freedom reserved only for the most passionate Gaelic nations; smiles and positive energy filled the room and we all had a great time. Ambers set also proved to be very popular. Moving deftly between progressive and bass driven techno, highlights included a few of her vocal tracks and a solo project of hers; OPL – Everyones a Skeptic. Rob took to the decks next and spent the next 65 minutes tearing Montreal a new a-hole with a blistering display of groove heavy techno bangers. Ever the visual performer, Rob bounced and gyrated boundlessly for the whole time, smiling from ear to ear. I was exhausted just watching! The penultimate DJ was Alex Decker, Ubisoft head designer by day, devilishly good DJ by night. He blew through his set with the control and patience of a performer much older than his years. The floor staying packed for the whole time. Joking afterwards he quipped he found it hard to stay single when he DJs, and given the female attention he garnered that night, Im not sure if he was actually being serious! Finishing up the night was local talent Pascal B. his mix of deep sensual prog was just the tonic to finish proceedings and the crowd lapped it up. The whole experience for me felt very innocent, as if Montreal were in a time vortex of sorts and we were transported back to the early 90s, but with up to date music. I’ll definitely be back to play there…if they’ll have me!

After a few hours of frankly drunken sleep at Alex’s pad, I headed back to our hotel for a freshen up. I wanted to spend some of the day sightseeing, and as it turned out, I’d only need a few hours. Now don’t mis understand, Montreal is a beautiful city, it really is, but that wind had continued into the daylight hours and with it rain which fell as ice crystals. I braved the weather to get a few shots of the Old Port and some of the landmarks like The Jacques-Cartier Bridge which spans the majestic St Lawrence river, The Biosphere from Expo 67, Habitat 67 – built for the worlds fair as well, and Old Montreal with its European feel, churches and cobblestone roads, but the intense cold chilled me to my bones and I hightailed it to a Starbucks to warm up before exploring Rue St Catherine and its shops. You’d be forgiven when walking along this street if you suddenly felt like you were in New York or London or really any large city with a shopping district. Armani and Louis Vitton shops stood arm in arm with dollar stores and fast food places, gone were the class constraints of many cities, replaced by a fairness of commerce which was as refreshing as it was exhausting. HMV’s lights then came into view and I felt compelled to go in. I used to work for the music giant many years ago and have always held a candle for the first business to really give me a chance to succeed, so it was a mixture of curiosity and remorse that I felt as I walked around. I was really happy to see so much vinyl, something which in the UK had been phased out almost completely back in 2003 when I was a floor manager. Most of it was rock bands, it was still nice to see. After about 20 minutes of looking, I stumbled upon a rare live recording of Nirvana at Reading festival, I have every other CD, tape and recording I could find so this was a no brainer buy. Content, I head back to the hotel.

Dinner that evening was to be a Montreal institution – smoked meat sandwiches. The restaurant was just a short walk away, joining Amber, Rob and I was Alex. We had a good chat about Montreal food and the history of the smoked meat sandwich before it arrived accompanied by poutine – a local delicacy of french fries, cheese curd and gravy all topped off with a local version of cherry cola, which was excellent. Full and happy, we headed back to the hotel for a few drinks. Alex and I were going to Stereo that night and wanted to get in the mood, but unfortunately I was so tired from the day I managed about 2 beers and fell asleep. I woke about an hour later, arranged to meet Alex later after a nap and went back to sleep.
3am, and I’m rudely woken by my alarm. I didn’t remember setting it but suddenly remembered I had arranged to meet Alex, so quickly got ready and headed down stairs. Stereo is one of Montreal’s oldest and most well known clubs. Spanning an impressive 15 year history, original owners Angel Moraes and Nyan Narine have hosted some of the best parties in Canada, tonight was a personal treat for me in the shape of Yoshtoshi mainstay Behrouz and Israeli supremo Guy Gerber. As we walked in the door the sounds of New York filled me with joy. An old Fathers of Sound track, Kama Sutra – Storm in my Soul was playing, a mid 90s italo house masterpiece, this was going to be a GREAT night! And for the next 2 hours, Behrouz pounded us with tribal rhythms I haven’t seen outside of London, I genuinely thought when I closed my eyes I was front and centre at Twilo or the Sound Factory, it was marvellous. I tweet as much to the club afterward. Guy Gerber is not a DJ Ive had much chance to see, but his performance was breath taking, too many highlights to mention, but as we left at 7.30 am, the party was still very much getting going. I was a little sad to leave, but we had to, I was off home a few hours later, and we still had Saint Hubert to visit for my final Montreal delicacy.

Back in Toronto and its pretty late. We hung out and drank some wine reminiscing about the trip and checking our social media networks. Rob plays our tune to Amber as she’s not heard it yet and we while away a few hours noodling and adding effects and one shots. Rob’s going to be mixing down over the next few days but we head to bed because tomorrow will be my last day, and I desperately want to sightsee Toronto. Amber leaves pretty early the next morning to deliver the car and make ready for a big project at University, so I take to the streets with Rob and we walk into downtown via Bloor St through Korea town around the CN Tower and to the docks. Rob is a wealth of knowledge, and tells me story upon story of old Toronto. We grab a beer from the local store and plan to sit by the water and drink, but its way too cold and windy and the we feel rain starting to fall so we head off up Spidina towards home. As we walk home again a massive cloudburst soaks us both and we opt for the streetcar instead! Dry and warm Rob points out more Toronto landmarks and a few stories and we arrive at the tube station pretty quickly. It seems in Toronto, the street cars only cover above ground in the down town area and to get any further into the suburbs you need to take a bus or the tube, no matter, its all paid for on the same ticket anyway, so we get on the tube and travel the 5 or so stops along to Robs street.

On that final ride to the airport, Im filled with genuine sadness. Toronto is a beautiful, vibrant, colourful, friendly city and Ill miss it terribly. Pearson International Airport is enormous, bigger than Heathrow or Schipol, but remarkably easy to navigate. Im quickly through Check In and its a short walk to Security and the departure lounge. What surprised me (and Paul Hazendonk it seems from a tweet he made) is that all the tables in the departure lounges have plug sockets and USB ports to recharge phones etc and all the tables also have iPads with free WiFi. This kinda made up for paying 12 dollars for a sandwich and a further 5 dollars or a bottle of drink, but hay ho. As the time of my flight drew closer I could see the air hostesses franticly working. The lead hostess made an announcement amid the groans of the anglo British passengers that the plane was broken and we had to wait for a replacement to be flown in from Montreal (of all places!) The flight would be delayed some 4 hours. To while away the hours I decided to start a new tune – how very superstar DJ of me I thought, but to be fair, I got some solid work done before tiredness took hold and I rested my head on the table for a few minutes.

Eventually we boarded. It was chaos, the staff very clearly called groups of people forward to fill the plane from the back forward, but as most of the passengers were middle class and middle aged, they ignored them and just piled on. Consequently, I took ages to get to my seat – 33d; at the very back of the plane. An young Indian lady sat next to me, very pleasant and I expect great fun, but I was so tired I flashed her a smile and promptly fell asleep for pretty much the whole journey back. Landing in the UK was surprisingly uplifting, I’ve travelled a fair bit this year, but landing in Blighty this time was a welcomed relief. I’ll most defiantly go back to Toronto, but for now, I was happy to be home.