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Backstage in Montreal With Karkwa 2.0

The celebrated post rockers invite us to witness a new era of sonic collaboration first-hand at their sold-out reunion shows. 

by Glenn Alderson

Photos by Marc-Étienne Mongrain

With public schools in Quebec having been on strike for two weeks and the holidays just around the corner, it made sense that there was a lot of youthful energy and commotion radiating from Montreal’s MTELUS (fka Métropolis) on the evening that francophone post rock outfit Karkwa was set to take the stage for the fourth and final evening of their sold-out string of hometown reunion shows.

When I enter through a backstage entrance, there are so many kids running around the green room area that, if you didn’t know any better, you might think you stepped onto the set of a French re-make of Home Alone. But alas, this is not Seul à la Maison; the children in fact belong to the various members of Karkwa and, with school out for the foreseeable future, they’ve simply got nowhere else to go. 

“When you put your kids at the merch table, you’d be surprised how many more shirts you sell,” drummer Stéphane Bergeron jokes, sitting next to his bandmates for a pre-show chat with RANGE before Karkwa takes the stage. 

The truth of the matter, though, is that Karkwa doesn’t need any gimmicks to sell their merchandise. Through some kind of unexplained alchemy, the band — who gained the attention of music fans outside of Quebec most prominently in 2011 after winning the Polaris Music Prize and a Juno Award — are back after a 13-year hiatus and they’re sounding better than ever. 

(Photo: Marc-Étienne Mongrain)

“When we first stopped, we realized that we had to catch our breath, if only for a little bit to discover who we were outside of the band,” says keyboard maestro François Lafontaine. 

Over the course of the last decade, however, something magical happened that brought Karkwa back together. Between the side gigs, exploring other career paths, and the welcoming of new members to their respective families, life found a way to reunite the five musicians with a fresh perspective. 

“Within the band we were all one-fifth of something,” vocalist and guitarist Louis-Jean Cormier continues. “But now, after 12 years apart, everybody has had their own experiences. And to bring that back into the band after 12 years, that’s the great thing.” 

Once the idea was set for the group to reconvene, Karkwa started privately meeting for writing sessions that would eventually lead to the release of their new album, Dans la seconde, which came out in September 2023 via Simone Records. The album, like the band’s core members, emits an attractive element of maturity; something that can’t be fabricated, but rather learned and earned over time. While the youthful and electric art rock anthems that helped them gain their footing in the early 2000s might not be front and centre, their fervour is still on full display as the album pulses with poetic narratives, orchestral textures, and untethered post rock fury.

Just as the band intended, Dans la seconde could not be more of a collaborative effort – and as Cormier suggests, the band is more than the sum of its parts. “Throughout the writing process, we would all come into the studio fresh each morning,” Cormier says. “It was important that we try to empty our minds, so that there was room for collaboration.”

Whether in the studio or on the stage, it’s clear that collaboration is the backbone of what has made Karkwa the beloved group they’ve become for multiple generations. Having broken down barriers overseas while painstakingly winning over fickle anglo fans across Canada one club gig at a time, all of the work they’ve put in over the course of their time together has made Karkwa a strong and resilient unit.

(Photo: Marc-Étienne Mongrain)

But at home in Montreal, on this snowy winter evening in particular, these efforts and all their dedication is amplified even more so when Karkwa 2.0 takes the stage and the first chords of “Ouverture,” the synth-heavy inaugural track from their new album, wash over the sold-out audience. Having set the tone, without pause, they bleed into the album’s next song, “Parfaite à l’écran.” As they play, the cinematic narrative adventure concocted on their album comes to life and the audience is hanging on to every word, singing the lyrics right back to the band.

Consistently epic throughout their entire two-hour set, the newly reunited bandmates take an opportunity at the end to share a new piece of themselves with their audience, a rare glimpse into their personal lives, when they invite all their children — remember the ones from earlier? — who were now watching politely and singing from the sidelines to join them on stage. Singing one last song for the evening in unison; when the strike is over and the kids inevitably return to the classroom, they, along with everyone else in the audience, will have a story to tell their friends and remember for years to come.