FME Brings Ambitious Rock Music to the French-Canadian Wilderness

First off, let’s get one thing straight—I’m not really a festival guy. Hell, I’m barely even a show guy! My relationship with music mostly involves staying in my bedroom and sifting through obscure ambient artists on Bandcamp while I write my little articles, so it often takes work to drag me out of the house to indulge in the Rock Concert Experience. But when the offer of an elusive travel assignment arises, and you have the chance to get flown out from Brooklyn, New York, to rural French Canada for a festival extravaganza, by God, you say yes. And so I found myself in Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, at Festival de Musique Émergente (frequently abbreviated as FME), seven hours north of Montreal and 35 minutes east of the Ontario border, deep in the heart of the Canadian wilderness.

FME was founded in 2002, so this year marks the 20th anniversary of the festival. In the spirit of South by Southwest, it transforms spaces around Rouyn-Noranda into a series of makeshift venues and DIY spaces. Over the course of four days, small local bars, deps (that’s what they call a bodega up there), docks, alleyways and other nontraditional spots become venues for cutting-edge sets from up-and-coming bands from around the world. Rouyn-Noranda is best known as a copper mining mecca, and its houses and gorgeous Osisko Lake are framed by the brutalist towers of the metal smelters that dot the town’s hillsides. As someone who’s spent the last few years bouncing between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, it’s unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in a very long time.

Although a town with a population of around 43,000 people is an unlikely setting for such an eclectic event, there’s a strong turnout from locals, who largely seem to be stoked to have touring acts stopping in a place that presumably does not get a ton of big bands rolling through. There were also a number of music industry professionals in attendance, who mostly came from Europe to scout talent. A general essence of community sprung from the unavoidable “stranded” feeling that underlined FME for international visitors like myself.

I arrived at the festival late in the afternoon on Thursday. After chowing down on a barbecue pork poutine and spending some time decompressing after an admittedly very long bus ride through a seemingly endless swathe of stunning forest, it seemed like it was time to start hitting some shows. My first stop was at the space Scène Hydro-Québec to see a band called Avalanche Kaito. Hailing from Brussels, Belgium, the trio touted a meaningfully unique sound that paired traditional Burkinabe vocals with hectic noise rock. The end result was like Lightning Bolt with a predilection towards West African music. After a few tracks, I walked over to Scène Fonderie Horne to see the rising Montreal rapper Naya Ali, who delivered a set of melodic, pop-leaning hip-hop. From there, I returned to Hydro-Québec to catch the Swans-adjacent band Medicine Singers. Fronted by two Eastern Algonquin vocalists and supported by a backing band of seasoned avant-garde musicians, they flawlessly merged the disparate stylings of no-wave and Native American powwow music. For a nightcap, I decided to go to the dive bar-turned-venue Cabaret de la Dernière Chance to catch a set from New York City post-punks Grim Streaker. With a sound that called to mind Dry Cleaning and Lydia Lunch in equal measure, they flaunted a palpable authenticity that could easily cut through the static in their oversaturated and increasingly tragically hip niche. Based on the strong turnout for their set, it’s not hard to imagine them rising to the top of their scene in the near future.

Friday found the festival in peak form. People had gotten a taste of what things were all about, but no one was experiencing burnout yet. After spending some downtime exploring the town and working on this very article, I rallied in the evening for a set from Israeli rocker Tamar Aphek. She brought a ton of energy to Hydro-Québec’s packed room, and was carried by the impressive chops of her talented drummer. From there, I went to Le Paramount to catch the Montreal DJ Nouvelle Lune. As someone who knows next to nothing about that city’s underground rave scene, I imagine she has to be one of the best artists active there. Her set was built around ice-cold techno tracks, which got the small crowd grooving. In all honesty, I ended up making use of the tables in the back and sitting down for a bit, but if I saw her spin within the context of a less jam-packed weekend of shows, I’m sure I’d be dancing until the sun came up. Once I was done chilling out to some groundbreaking electronic music, it seemed like it was time to switch things up and get in the punk zone, so I went to catch the band Gloin at Cabaret de la Dernière Chance. Since they have an outdoor speaker system there, I decided to stand out in the fresh air (coming from New York City, Rouyn-Noranda naturally smelled great). While I can’t speak for the Toronto band’s stage presence, they definitely had a gripping sound that called to mind artists like Dummy and Yoo Doo Right. I was starting to feel pretty sleepy at this point, so I caught a few songs from a band called The Retail Simps, then went back to the comfort of my hotel room and slept for many, many hours.

The festivities started early on Saturday, with a boozy brunch for media folks like myself. We were served duck, waffles and bagels with lox while a band called Ponteix from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, performed a dreamy and subdued indie-rock concert. When they were done playing, there was another surprise set from Nouvelle Lune, who mostly dropped ambient-adjacent downtempo cuts this time around. She delivered yet again, with a super solid mix that reminded me of something one might hear at a West Mineral Ltd. showcase. There weren’t a ton of club artists booked at FME, but Nouvelle Lune was a great selection—even after seeing her spin twice in 15 hours, I was blown away by how engaging she was.

After that, it was time to spend an afternoon chilling out and not listening to live music for a little bit. I decided to take a stroll around the lake, which was an extremely pleasant experience. Hardly anyone was there, so I walked down to the water and laid on the mossy rocks for a while. I was surprised by how calm I felt out in nature. In the U.S., I notice an air of anxiety that floats over most public places. I didn’t feel that way at all up in remote Canada, and being able to zone out by a placid body of water for a few hours was quite possibly the most special part of my entire trip. Obviously, that time out in the woods was mostly unrelated to the festival, but Rouyn-Noranda is such a cool location for an event like FME because of how genuinely uncommercial and organic it is.

If you know one thing about me, you know that I love Animal Collective more than almost any other band. They put me onto psychedelic music when I discovered them in the eighth grade, and their albums have been there for me at a ton of high and low points throughout my life. Their Saturday main-stage set was the initial selling point that convinced me to haul my way up to FME, so I was extremely stoked to see them play. This is the first tour in years to feature all four members, so they’ve been playing a fair amount of old material alongside cuts from their solid new album Time Skiffs. Panda Bear usually plays a stripped-down drum setup, but on this tour he’s been shredding on a standard jazz kit. It was incredible to hear tracks like “In The Flowers,” “The Purple Bottle,” “Bluish” and “Chores” carried by more straightforward, cymbal-driven grooves. The turnout wasn’t the strongest, and a lot of people left halfway through the set to catch other bands, which I could tell AnCo were a little pissed about, because they didn’t encore. But it fulfilled a teenage dream of seeing my all-time-favorite band play for an audience of around 30 people. Between the hit-laden setlist and the sheer strange energy of the place we were in, it will probably go down as one of my favorite shows I’ve ever seen.

Sunday is known around the festival as the much-needed hangover recovery period (it turns out people go pretty hard up north), so it makes sense that it’s also billed as the festival’s designated metal day. After all, nothing screams zen like a Dying Fetus concert, and the Maryland death-metal legends headlined the Hydro-Québec stage that night. While I missed their set to catch the boisterous main-stage performance from rising weirdo-pop artist Hubert Lenoir, I did swing by for their opener First Fragment. As someone who gravitates towards gentle soundscapes, I don’t go to a ton of metal shows. The fiery performance from the Longueuil, Quebec, quintet convinced me that I should be embracing heavier music, and was genuinely mind-blowing. For my last show of the weekend, I exhaustedly went down to the basement of Hydro-Québec to see Montreal surf punks No Waves. I didn’t get a beachy vibe from the band’s hometown based on the afternoon I spent there, but they still served up some fuzzy songs that were equally psychedelic and sweaty. From there, I tapped out for the night and prayed to God that I didn’t sleep through my 5 a.m. alarm, since it would have been an interesting turn of events if I missed my pre-dawn bus back to the Montreal airport (spoiler alert: I did not).

By the time we drove out in the morning, I found myself missing New York, yearning to lie in bed for a week straight, and being totally fine with the idea of never drinking a beer again. But if you’ve ever found yourself hoping for a rowdy time in the woods that also allows you to stumble upon some of the hottest low-key acts in a place where pretty much everything is spoken in a different language, I can’t recommend FME enough. It’s one of the trippiest and most friendly musical experiences I’ve ever had. To top it all off, I found a ton of great music through my time spent there. Growing up, I always wanted to throw a festival like SXSW in a small town, so FME was the actualization of that youthful fantasy. Before I embarked on my trip, I joked that if things went awry, this piece might end up being my own personal version of David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out”—an essay about lying around in a state of abject depression on a solitary, all-expenses-paid cruise. But, in actuality, a more apt title for this article might be “Fear and Loathing in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec.” FME proved to be a thoughtfully curated showcase with an extremely welcoming and hospitable vibe, making it the perfect end-of-summer getaway.

Ted Davis is a culture writer, editor and musician from Northern Virginia, currently based in Los Angeles. He is the Music Editor for Merry-Go-Round Magazine. On top of Paste, his work has appeared in Pitchfork, FLOOD Magazine, Aquarium Drunkard, The Alternative, Post-Trash, and a slew of other podcasts, local blogs and zines. You can find Ted on Twitter at @tddvsss.

Watch Hubert Lenoir’s Paste Studio on the Road session at FME below, and find the rest of our sessions from the festival right here.