Montreal’s Visage Musique, have been a fixture in the city’s burgeoning synth underground since 2010. Six years on, the label sounds as vital as ever. Thanks to creative incubators such as Visage Musique, Montreal’s former title as the “Synth City” has decisively returned, with the successes and acclaim earned by local underground acts such as Essaie Pas, now too big to be ignored by Canada’s mainstream press. In anticipation of the label’s upcoming Brusque Twins release, the excellent new techno-infused EP “Trashbag” (released Apr. 22nd), I had the opportunity to sit down with Jean Francois Morin aka Dino Secondino: the elusive international playboy and unofficial spokesperson of the label. I spoke to Jean about the beginnings of the label, the importance of balancing aesthetic unity with musical innovation, and the challenges of running an independent label in Quebec.
DB: In hindsight, do you remember a formative moment that you became interested in ‘80s synth music?
JF: “It all started with new wave, I was hit with it when I was 16. It was watching television at 4 in the morning and the video for the The Smiths’ “How soon is now?” came on. I was completely changed from that moment, I had no idea about ‘80s music. From there Siouxsie and the Banshees gave way to Pet Shop Boys, which gave way to more synth heavy music, and disco”
DB: How did your alias Dino Secondino come about?
JF: “It was a made up name that I thought was interesting because of the repetition. At the time when I discovered disco and Italo, it made sense to use it as a name when I started DJing in Sherbrooke 14 years ago. I didn’t DJ in Sherbrooke for very long, there wasn’t much interest for this kind of music. I was doing it more for myself at the time. It was only later that I discovered that there was an Italian politician with the name Dino Secondino, a case of fiction meets reality. Dino, it’s nice to have a name that could represent the label, it’s not 100% me – he’s from Italy. I suppose he’s the mascot of Visage Musique, a spokesperson”
DB: What were the circumstances that prompted the idea to start a label?
JF: “I moved to Montreal 12 years ago, and got inspired by all the music, it’s tough to be here and not be inspired by all the great music. But it all started from lucky encounters. We had all been aware of one another through the blogs, Brusque Twins were featured on Disco Dust, and that’s how I heard about them about seven years ago. We naturally started gravitating around the same circles, I was doing a launch for a band that I was managing called Onomatops, JP and Julie from Gold Zebra were there. We just discovered that we had a lot of the same musical interests, and they had known about Brusque Twins as well. Here we had this idea to collaborate and unite under a common banner to release this music in the world. It’s all lucky encounters I guess”
Album art for Visage Musique’s first compilation album
DB: It’s always fascinating to hear how long-standing creative alliances are formed out of chance encounters among like-minded individuals. How does your DJing influence your role in the label?
JF: “When I met Gold Zebra and Brusque Twins it was primarily as a fan of music. That was more my take. My position in the label is more like a curator. I do mixes between sets during shows and launches, it goes hand in hand the performances. It may sound a bit cliché but we always talk about Visage Musique in terms of a family. There are the core members, but there are also extended family members, Xavier Paradis from Automelodi and Femminielli who was on our first compilation”
DB: Femminielli’s work is a great example of the permeability of genres and influences today with Italo disco, electro, minimal synth, and industrial being all mixed together.
JF: “Completely, I think this meeting between Italo and in our case coldwave, the mixture of hot and cold is a great melange. These sounds co-exist on the label. We have Tony Cops, he’s very close in aesthetic to Dino Secondino. There’s something very Montreal about these two extremes that give a specific character to the music. There is the DIY aesthetic, and the minimalism that brings space into the music. We are very far from the mainstream where there’s no space, everything is calculated and busy. When I say DIY I mean there’s something a little bit naïve. There is a sense of discovery through the music that you can hear on our releases”
DB: How important is aesthetic unity for Visage Musique?
JF: “In synth music there are so many different genres and ways of doing music that it is easy to get lost. We all have tastes and influences but at the core we try to keep a certain logic to the music on the label. We worked hard to have cultivate this Visage Musique sound. Even if our bands are different from another it’s important that they go well together. We work on a spectrum and want to stay on it, but we allow for our music tastes to evolve too. When you listen to the catalogue from the early years to now, it has evolved, the sounds change, that keeps it exciting for us and I hope for the listeners as well. Brusque Twins’ upcoming EP is a bit techno, which was a direct consequence of the music that was around and inspired them. Ambrose’s new single “All through the night” was a bit more tropical, some described it as synth reggae. We are always inspired by our surroundings, and try to explore as much as possible and expand on what Visage is in terms of sounds and aesthetic”
DB: There seems to be this distinct sound coming from Montreal, which may have something to do with the collaborative impulse in the Visage Musique family and beyond.
JF: “I think it also has to do with our history here, we like our history. We had such great music in the ‘70s and ‘80s; Gino Soccio, Kebekelektrik even new wave with Trans-X and Rational Youth, we had a definite sound back then. I think this has a repercussion on the sound and personality of the music now”
DB: What are the defining characteristics of Visage Musique?
JF: “What we have that was kind of new at the beginning, is the use of both French & English. It’s funny, Derrick from Brusque Twins who is Anglophone came up with the name Visage Musique. Much of our music is bilingual, it is not uncommon to have both languages in a single song, that’s something that defines us. Our environment has always been Francophones and Anglophones doing music together. Also there is a minimalism to our aesthetic. We try to give as much space as possible to the music and the artwork. There will always be some coldwave running through our music”
DB: Was there a particular mandate you had in mind when you launched Visage Musique, for instance a focus on exclusively Montreal artists and synth duos?
JF: “We are always thinking about the stance we took. We’re not necessarily closed to signing a band from elsewhere in the world. We’ve done collaborations with split series with artists like Frank (just Frank) from France, Golden Filter from New York. I don’t think it was conscious at the time, we were purely motivated to release music into the world. This developed into a sound, we are open to signing international artists in the future if the work speaks to us and it made sense in the catalogue, in the meantime there is plenty of great music in Montreal. The synth duos just sort of happened, it wasn’t a conscious choice. We might have groups but the duo is a format that works really well with the music. There’s something very personal about two people, often couples doing music together. I think people are curious about that, I’m curious to hear about their universe, to peek into their lives through the lyrics to see if I can understand something about them”
DB: What are some of the challenges you encountered running a label?
JF: “From a local perspective when venues close it may be difficult to book shows, it’s tough to get press here. It’s much easier for us to get talked about around the world, we’ve had many profiles on Visage done abroad in Mexico, France it’s much harder to get press domestically. Maybe we are naturally more curious about things from elsewhere. I think Essaie Pas is a great example, they’ve been doing great music for many years not just as the band, but through many other projects and there wasn’t a lot of press. That’s a shame in Quebec, now that they’ve signed to DFA, La Presse and Le Devoir are starting to talk about them. That’s great, I just wish the mainstream media would embrace the labels and artists before and realise that this stuff is happening in their backyard”
DB: Can ordering records be an issue?
JF: “It’s a problem but now there’s a new one opening in Canada which is great. All the plants are pressing reissues for major labels, so the underground releases need to wait. The turnaround time can be really long, we’re talking 3 months. Unfortunately we have to deal with these things, such as the shipping fees and waiting times. We used to wait for test pressings, and when it arrives you hear a defect and have to return it then wait for it to return again. It can be a long process, but you over time you find partners you trust. Now we are comfortable with a pressing company, which allows the discs to arrive a lot faster. But now there’s the Canadian dollar to deal with and all that fun stuff. It’s not always easy, but it is always very rewarding despite all the obstacles in our market in Quebec”
D: Could you tell us about some of Visage Musique’s upcoming releases?
JF: “There is a lot of excitement for the Trashbag EP, the video for “Stick the knife” that will be released shortly. For the summer Gold Zebra will release the soundtrack for the movie they scored called “Un Amour d’été”. We are also preparing for Ambrose’s release of their first LP “Fog on Blue”, and our new act Francoise will release their EP in the summer. I think we can announce it, we will be finishing our split with invited artists and it’s going to be with people from the families. Xavier from Automelodi and Xarah Dion agreed to collaborate and record a track on each side, a beautiful conclusion to our split series. A lot more surprises coming in the fall”
– Danilo Bulatovic
Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM