Interview by Angela MacKenzie
Portrait by Allison Staton
POP Montreal’s publicist, Sarah Shoucri, is one of the many incredible and hardworking women behind the scenes of the festival. We chat about the changes that Montreal has gone through since she was a kid, why she thinks Montreal is a haven for artists and how POP has evolved over the years. With three more days of festival fun left, Sarah also gives us a heads up on the shows she’s really excited for. This was originally published September 2013.
What area of Montreal did you grow up in?
I grew up in Côte-des-Neiges, which is sort of the University of Montreal ghetto, but wasn’t at the time. I think it was probably the best area to grow up in, in the city. It was close to downtown and there was a strong community life. My older sister and our three neighbours had this gang of girls and we used to go up on Côte-des-Neiges street and buy candy and run around on top of the mountain. It feels like this little town. It was very safe, small-town ethnic, a really dynamic neighbourhood. And just like in Mile End, people in Côte-des-Neiges don’t really ‘leave the hill’. Whenever I go back to my parents’ house (they live just 10 minutes away) it’s funny, it’s just this completely different scene now. There are all of these bars and restaurants, Arabic food and terraces. The terraces are always full but I don’t know anyone there. It’s almost like visiting another town. Much love for Côte-des-Neiges. I remember when the blue line opened… I was very proud of that as a six-year-old.
So things have changed a lot?
Just Montreal in general has changed a lot since the 80s and 90s. There used to be gang wars on St. Laurent and St. Denis. Cars would blow up, but we don’t talk about that anymore, we barely remember it. It was a really nasty gang war between the Hells Angels and the Rock Machine. When I was a teenager I couldn’t tell my parents I was going out on St. Denis. I would get grounded because it was dangerous. But it has always been a very loving and open city and I think it has become one of the safest cities in North America.
Côte-des-Neiges has changed but it’s nice to see that it hasn’t really been gentrified. The ethnic culture has such a strong and omnipresent existence in the community, it can never fully get gentrified by western culture. You find a nice marriage of both worlds.
Why do you think Montreal has such a strong culture of independent arts and music?
People talk a lot about the fact that rents are cheap, there’s a lot of grants, blah, blah, blah. Obviously it’s true that a lot of people end up moving here because of those things. When creative people get together and decide to collaborate then lots of beautiful things can happen but I think that from the start what we often forget is that Quebec is a very open-minded place, at least the Quebec that I know and that I grew up in. Being here, I have a strong Egyptian heritage, although it’s not the culture I associate myself with but it’s the culture I’d always go home to. Growing up here and going to school here, I never felt like I didn’t belong or whatnot. I always just felt that the people I met who were very different from me had the attitude of I don’t care about your things, don’t bother with my things, you’re a good person, I’m a good person, we’ll get along. And that’s it. There’s this nonchalance that we
have that you can express what you want to express and create what you want to create. That’s why we have people on the mountain dressing up in medieval clothes and sword fighting! No one raises an eyebrow. We have people dressed as clowns juggling on the street and that’s ok too! I think that attitude set the stage for a lot of what’s going on now. I think Montreal has always had a great creative scene but over the last 10 years it’s been noted and underlined internationally. I always knew that I lived in the best city in the world.
When did you get involved with POP and how did that come to be?
It’s actually a really funny story. I got involved with them at the end of 2009. I used to work as a fashion designer and I’d been laid off my job. I’m probably the only person whose ‘day job’ was to be a designer. What I was always doing on the side was organizing shows. I did the first show at Café Depanneur on Bernard. I worked with people who were just Concordia students at the time but who are now in more established bands. So when I got laid-off I decided I needed a change of scenery and I told myself I should move to London. However I was getting good EI so I decided to use that time to do what I really wanted to do. So I got in touch with Dounia Mikou, who was the publicist for POP at the time, as well Blue Skies Turn Black and a ton of bands. She was someone I wanted to shadow in life. It was late November and I thought, Ugh. POP is over, she’s not going to want my help. A friend told me to just email her and she got back to me right away. It turned out that she had all kinds of things she was doing outside of POP and Blue Skies and was really, really busy. She asked me to come meet her for coffee at Social the next day. I spent a couple of months helping her with administrative tasks and eventually she asked me if I wanted to assist her for the summer at POP. Because I wanted a change
and really wanted to go to London, doing that specific job for that festival was the only thing that could have kept me here. I gladly accepted but when I showed up for work the first day she wasn’t there. The next day I got an email from her that she’d just got a job working for Arcade Fire and was not longer with POP. I ended up just lucking out. It fell from the sky onto my lap.
How has POP changed or evolved since you started?
That’s a tough question. We’re so big and yet still very grassroots. I was just talking to our general manager about this last week. We now have a general manager, for instance! I started working right at the end of it being chaotic. I don’t remember how I got anything done that first year. Before my time it wasn’t so much that people had defined roles. Whatever needed to be done, people would just do it. Now we operate really as an organization. When I started I was the publicist but I also would help in other areas with whatever needed to get done. Then the year after that we got a person to be the general manager in the office [Jen Brown]. God bless her, she has put so many structures into the organization. It’s going to be our third festival with her and we’re really rolling smoothly. It’s interesting for me because no one really showed me anything when I started. I did a degree in PR but no one really mentored me on how to work in this industry. It’s great now because with POP I have a department that I’m directing. Every year I’m stepping my game up and POP is stepping its game up. It’s breathtaking every year. The programming is so relevant. Every year we have more bands, it’s becoming a bigger monster. There are more activities and events. It’s more than a music festival— it’s an experience.
Do any of the previous POP shows stand out in your mind as favourites?
I tend to forget everything that happened during POP, it’s really all a blur. My fondest memory is of the 2011 closing show. It was our tenth anniversary and was just a crazy year but it went really smoothly. We put so much of ourselves into that edition. The closing show was with Think About Life in the basement of the church on Beaubien. Everyone had completely lost their minds! It was the first year of POP vs. Jock, and Matt Bonner (the NBA star) was there and he was crowd surfing right above me. I had my hands on his lower back buttocks area. That’s a core area! You have this 285-pound man on top of you and I thought this might not end well. Is this how I’m going to go? (laughs) Everyone took over the stage and we were dancing. I could have watched that band play all night. The atmosphere that was there that night was
Are there any artists playing the fest that you think people should watch out for?
There are a lot. I’ve made some really cool discoveries this year. One band is called Foxtrot. She plays electro music, with the same darkness as the XX a little bit. It also reminds me of the Knife at times. I was just listening to while I was getting ready to meet you. She played some of our showcases at NXNE. She will be playing one of the afternoon shows in the park on Saturday.
There’s also this other band that I learned about while writing the band bios. It’s a band called Seoul. I went on their Soundcloud and they had one song that had been up for a month and a half and had 92,000 plays. They’re playing twice. They play with Local Natives at Metropolis on Friday and also at Rodos with Miracle Fortress on Saturday. I don’t know if they’re doing a band setup or a DJ setup but I’m really looking forward to checking them out.
Really looking forward to seeing Dishwasher because he doesn’t perform very much. It’s a solo project by Martin Cesar from Think About Life.
It’d be a terrible publicist if I didn’t mention the Club Roll showcase on Friday night at Case del Popolo. I also have my own showcase this year on Friday at Club Lambi. It’s with Jessy Lanza, a solo female artist from Hamilton. Her entire album was coproduced and co-written by one of the guys from Junior Boys who’s also her manager. There’s a lot of hype around her. UN will be headlining that show, with Kara (Keith) performing by herself. I love Kara so much, she has such a unique energy!