It's one of those so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas: Toss a festival outdoors in Canada, in the middle of winter, on a pier jutting out into the frigid St. Lawrence River. And it certainly has worked—Montreal's annual Igloofest has become one of the most anticipated North American electronic-music events of the winter. Over the course of a decade, the event has grown from a single-weekend, single-stage affair featuring local spinners into a sprawling beast of a party, with 12 nights of action spread out over four consecutive weekends on two full-scale stages. This year's Igloofest—boasting a wholly resdesigned site on the Jacques Cartier Quay—kicks off on this Thursday, January 14 and runs through Saturday, February 6, in the process hosting a wide-ranging swathe of artists that includes Bonobo, Carl Craig, Kim Ann Foxman, Michael Mayer, a tag-teaming Scuba and Jimmy Edgar, Shed and Tale of Us, along with Montreal stalwarts like DJ Maus, Nymra & Sofisticated, DJ Mini and Shaydakiss. And that's just to name just a few—peep the full lineup here.
Igloofest's history actually begins a few years prior to its first installment in 2007; originally conceived as an offshoot to the already-established summer series Piknic Electronik held in the city's Parc Jean-Drapeau, the Igloofest template began to take shape in 2005 as the decidedly more humble Piknic Electronik des Neiges. From here, we'll let a pair of Igloofest's (and Piknic Electronik's) main men tell the rest of the story.
Where did the idea behind Igloofest come from?
Michel Quintal (cofounder, programming director): It is crazy idea. I would also say it was a drunk idea. We had finished the second season of Piknic Electronik, and we were in a country house, snowboarding and stuff like that. One night while we were there, we were drinking and just came up with the idea: “Oh, we should do Piknic during the winter!” And, since we were drunk, we were all like, “Yeah, we should do that!” It was really just a funny joke that we made, a joke that became Piknic Electronik des Neiges.
Nicolas Cournoyer (cofounder, general director):
Yes, it’s a silly idea—but I guess that’s why no one had thought of it before! When we first got the idea, it was a bit of a joke. But after a while, we were thinking, why not? The idea was to try and transpose that outdoor spirit of Piknic Electronik in a different way—and the wintertime was pretty much virgin land. This would be a way to get people to stop complaining about winter. There’s a carnival ambiance to the event, and it makes people really happy.
You probably didn’t think you’d be doing it so many years later.
Cournoyer: Nope, not at all. When we started doing this, we were all working full-time at other jobs, and we just wanted to do something cool—just a way to let people have fun, really. To have it grow as it has, to four full weekends of three days each…that was not expected at all. And between Igloofest and Piknic, now this is our full-time job. And it’s a job that is growing all the time.
Was Igloofest a success from the start?
Quintal: The first couple of years, when it was still Piknic Electronik des Neiges, we got maybe a thousand people. When we moved it to the current Igloofest site, we just considered it to be a test. If it didn’t work, that that would be it—we wouldn’t do it anymore. It originally just one weekend, and we got 2,200 people the first night and 2,000 the second night. We were like, “Wow that’s cool—let’s do it another year!” The second year we got 14,000 people—and that’s when we knew we had to keep doing it. The year before last was our biggest year yet; we got 86,000 people. Like I said, last year was really, really cold, but even then, we got 76,000. I’d never seen anything like that—so many people outdoors having fun when it was -30 degrees outside.
Have you ever had to cancel due to the weather?
Quintal: We have never had to cancel. But I can remember the opening day, three years ago; it started snowing at 4pm, and we ended up with two feet of snow. We opened 30 or 40 minutes late, but that was it; not a big deal. There was one day that it was raining, though, and that was a lot worse!
Cournoyer: No matter how cold it gets, we’ll still get a lot of people, and they’ll still have a great experience.
Have there ever been any equipment malfunctions due to the cold?
Quintal: Not really. We learned early that you need to keep the sound system on, 24/7, for the whole time. The whole month! If you turn it off, it’s not going to start up again.
Is there a philosophy behind your artist bookings?
Quintal: At Piknic Electronik, we try to go in every direction within the underground scene—house, techno, even funk. With Igloofest, at first we were doing the same, but at some point we learned that you need music that will really make people move—fast! Otherwise people get really cold.
Have you ever had the temptation to go mega-size, and book commercial, EDM-style acts?
Cournoyer: We couldn't afford to, even if we wanted to. [laughs] And we want to keep our events accessible, anyway. Events that get that kind of artist have to charge, fifty, a hundred, maybe even two hundred bucks, and at Igloofest we charge $20, and $25 at the door. It’s affordable. We do have a broad range of artists, and sometimes we do flirt with the mainstream; we’ve had Major Lazer, for instance, or Flosstradamus. But that’s about as far as we will do. And we don’t want to go commercial, anyway; that music isn’t us.
Have their been any artists or DJs that have particularly stood out over the years?
Quintal: There have been tons, but KiNK was really amazing. I was like wow, and the crowd thought the same thing. James Holden in 2009 was an historical set, at least for me. He said that he tried to choose tracks that reminded him of winter. He told me before that he was a little nervous! But it was a great set. And last year, Detroit Swindle was great.
Are there any there any artists that you're particularly looking forward to seeing and hearing this year?
Cournoyer: For me personally, it might be Modeselektor. We had them early on—I think it was our third year—and they played the very first night that we ever sold out. People got crazy; those guys know how to start a party, and I’m looking forward to seeing that kind of energy on the dancefloor. And then there is Sébastien Léger, Paul Kalkbrenner, Swindle, Dave Clarke for some good old techno…I could keep going.
Quintal: This year we have so many great people, like Carl Craig, Bonobo, Maceo Plex, the Martinez Brothers, and a lot more. I’m always fighting for a bigger budget so we can get everyone we want! But there are a lot of people who maybe aren’t that well known who I am really excited about, too, like Rone, La Fleur and Benjamin Damage.
Both Piknic Electronik and Igloofest have always supported the local scene by hosting a lot of Montreal DJs. Is that by design?
Quintal: At first, that was necessary—in the early years, we couldn’t afford to have any international DJs. But we still like to focus on the local scene. There are a lot of DJs in Montreal—if one out of 20 people are DJs in a normal city, in Montreal it’s one out of ten. And not only there are a lot, but there are a lot of good ones, both DJs and producers. And we’re really proud of that! They are the ones who keep the city’s scene alive; they make us dance, and they make us dream. So it’s only natural that we would feature a lot of local DJs.
Cournoyer: That’s our roots. In the beginning, they were the people who were there for us; they totally went for the idea when we started doing this. If it weren’t for them, we would not be here. We have a lot of gratitude and respect for what they’ve allowed us to do. Yes, we have grown and can now get bigger DJs, but we will always have local acts. And anyway, we have so many good ones in Montreal, so why not showcase them?
It’s sort of a feedback loop, too—by supporting the local scene, you perhaps help to keep it strong.
Quintal: Yes, I think that is true. Once somebody said to me, “You know why there are so many DJs in Montreal? Because of you—it’s your fault! People see something like Igloofest, and they see Montreal DJs playing, and they want to become a DJ. They see what a nice vibe it is, and they see all the love.” I don’t know if we really can take the credit, but that was a nice thing to hear.
You seem to be doing this for all the right reasons.
Cournoyer: I don’t think we’ve never really lost the spirit we had ten years ago.
What do you foresee for the next ten years? Any plans to take Igloofest international, as you have with Piknic Electronik?
Cournoyer: We would love to do that. But it’s not quite as portable as Piknic; the production costs are higher and the whole thing is more difficult when you do it in the cold weather, so we’d need a really strong producer to do it with. You need to build up a whole site. But that is our dream. Until then, next year is Montreal’s 375th anniversary, and we have some special projects to go along with that. Other than that, we’re just planning to keep it going and keep it growing!
Igloofest runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from January 14 through February 6; tickets are available here.
Top photo: Miguel Legault