“Party in the snow.” That’s the subject of an email I received earlier this month, inviting me to attend this year’s Igloofest in Montreal. In most cases, any email that begins with the word “party” prompts a strong “yes” as a response. But for a moment, I get hung up on that last word. Just how much snow are we talkin’?
Sure, my instincts say “music good, snow bad,” but maybe the appeal of electronic music can be heightened with a contrary element. That’s thousands of years of neural coding at work, right? You know, pleasure vs. pain, sweet vs. salty, Hall vs. Oates, etc. My only semi-valid concern was whether or not I’d be able to pull of the same slick dance moves in a parka. I guess I’ll have to to go to find out. Oh, and just kidding about that last part. I love both Daryl Hall and John Oates like I will love all of my future children—equally and unconditionally.
As it turns out, Igloofest is a bit of an anomaly. You’ll be hard pressed to find another music festival that gives the best and brightest DJs from around the world a stage in the dead of a Canadian winter, and you’ll be even harder pressed to find one where the stages are outside. Every year, on the piers of the picturesque Old Port Of Montreal, thousands of people dance the night away, braving sub-zero temperatures that drop below -20°C. Now, I get to be one of them. Igloofest celebrates their 10th anniversary over 12 nights and 4 weekends this year, and with the likes of Mr. Oizo, Carl Craig & Al Ester, and Poirier performing during the festival’s penultimate weekend, I think I landed on a good opportunity to see if the frostbite lives up to the hype.
Though I’m told that Thursday night’s attendance is typically soft compared to weekend numbers, my introduction to Igloofest is an ice-cold revelation. Flanked by towering steel structures, the festival grounds are transformed into a kind of futuristic ski-resort, with ice sculptures, neon projections, and a steady stream of fun-seekers, buzzing along to pulsating beats, adorned in their finest winterwear. Though the prophesized “party in the snow” seemed tough to wrap my brain around at first, I quickly understand why it’s one of Montreal’s premiere winter attractions as soon as I walk in—there’s literally nothing else like it anywhere, real or imagined.
Before long, I’m greeted by a trio of DJs wearing illuminated cat masks on the main stage, dealing out face-melting waves of post-dubstep excess for a sizable crowd of devotees losing their collective mind. I eventually learn that this is a Montreal-based outfit called Black Tiger Sex Machine, and imagine myself apologizing to them for thinking their very cool, very high-tech digital jungle beast helmets were merely “cat masks.” As I look around, taking it all in, I take note of a few things: a 50-foot super slide people are taking turns on; a marshmallow roasting station; several bars that are made of ice; an astronaut, accompanied by a unicorn. Nah, I didn’t take the brown acid. Another element of the fest is the “Iglooswag” competition, wherein attendees try to outdo one another in an outlandish costume competition. Black Tiger Sex Machine could win this contest by a mile, but something tells me they’re ineligible.
With the tone firmly set as equal parts absurd and wonderful, I wander the grounds in search of the secondary stage. Making my way through the crowd, dodging the festival’s mascot (which looks to be a Raving Yeti, or something), eventually stumbling upon Vakkum, a DJ/producer from Vermont. He’s treating a smaller, but dedicated crowd to a set of minimal techno in a space I’d lovingly refer to as “the gauntlet.” It’s a narrow area that holds maybe a thousand people, and by design, will bring dancers closer together when it gets packed. Between the open air environment of the main stage, and a more intimate setting the gauntlet provided, Igloofest has all the vibes covered.
People continue to filter in during Vakkum’s hypnotic set, but I have one more DJ to cross off my list tonight. I head out, and do my best Flat Eric impression while France’s Mr. Oizo closes out the night for a now filled-out crowd of revelers, bobbing along to his bright beats and off-kilter oscillations. Oizo performs with visual accompaniment courtesy of motion graphics artist Hugues Clement, who whips up a backdrop of colourful, delightfully bizarre imagery that looks like it was culled from a selection of the dankest deep web memes. If I’ve learned one thing from day one, it’s that Igloofest isn’t just about the music, or the visuals. The aim is to create a surreal environment comprised of audio, visual, and snow, with the goal of celebrating and embracing the frigid temperature, rather than fearing it. As I head back to the hotel, I realize I haven’t felt cold all night. So far, so good.
Day two doesn’t break the mold, but I certainly see what organizers were saying when they told me Thursdays were soft compared to Fridays and Saturdays. I arrive shortly after 9:00PM to catch some of Heidi’s set. Heidi is a DJ whose renowned Jackathon parties helped her thrive in the UK house and techno scene after relocating from Windsor, Ontario back in 2000. Her hometown, just across the border from the motor city, makes her well-suited to precede tonight’s headliners, Detroit techno legends Carl Craig & Al Ester on the main stage. The crowd has already eclipsed Thursday night’s showing, and Heidi’s bass-heavy mixes are only getting stronger.
I still can’t get over the sensory overload that is Igloofest. I see a guy in a skin-tight Santa Suit. Do frozen toes give you the ability to two-step harder and longer? I manage to track down one of the festival’s founders, Nicolas Cournoyer, and we have a little chat about what makes this frozen spectacle so special. “When we started Igloofest, we realized that there’s a demand for electronic music in a different context,” he says. “We were joking at first, saying ‘Hey, let’s do it in the winter,’ but after a few laughs, we thought ‘why not?’ There weren’t a lot of events in the winter, and people are always complaining that it’s too cold. Let’s give them a good reason to tame the winter.” I mention to Nicolas that after spending a bit of time here, one of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is that the necessity for winter clothes almost unifies the crowd. Cournoyer agrees. “In winter, you can wear beanies, and it’s almost like you’re going undercover. In some bars and clubs, the social interaction is limited, based on your age, or how you dress. Here, social interaction is amplified because there are fewer barriers.” Cournoyer’s theory would be proven correct time and time again on this trip—I think I might have even convinced a stranger that they should move to Toronto.
I close out my night to the sounds of La Fleur in the gauntlet. This Swedish techno producer counts DJ, fashion designer, label head, mother, and even pharmacist among her many talents. The first thing I notice is that she’s definitely able to control a crowd, with groovy basslines sweeping the late night throngs into synchronized head-nodding and hip-swaying choreo. Carl Craig & Al Aster play me out, as I wonder what tomorrow might have in store. I know that one of Schwartz’s famous smoked meat sandwiches is in my immediate future, and that’s all that seems to matter at this point.
My last day at Igloofest is bittersweet. I’ll be sad to leave this Wintery Oasis behind, but I’ve been looking forward to tonight’s lineup all weekend. I’m going all in on tonight’s electropical one-two punch of Mr. Touré! and Poirier. There’s a sweet spot between wavy electro, hip-hop bravado, and Caribbean rhythms that I’ve been missing all weekend, and it feels like Quebec’s own Mr. Touré! is spinning just for me. He chops up Rihanna’s “BBHMM” and Drake’s “Know Yourself” acapellas on top of soca beats, and runnin’ through Igloofest in the snow never felt so right. Poirier is a hometown favourite, and as he takes over, the gauntlet is as full as I’ve seen it all weekend. Packed like sardines, the crowd bounces along to his joyful set of electro fused with Afro-Cuban intensity, and it’s all smiles.
With the full Igloofest experience in the rearview, I think back to that “Party in the snow” email, and scold myself for my initial hesitation. If you want to tame winter, you might as well dance.
Igloofest continues for one more weekend February 4th to 6th. You can buy tickets here.
The same crew of maniacs behind Igloofest helm a companion summer festival called Piknic Électronik, which takes place in Montreal’s Parc Jean-Drapeau, every Sunday from mid-May until the end of September.