Like many regions around the globe, Québec (Canada's only officially francophone province) had it's own grassroots progressive rock movement. Many bands saw the light of day in the years between 1971 and 1977, only to disappear quickly after one or two releases. Many of these bands were signed to fledgling labels that vanished almost as quickly as their acts, thus leaving many buried treasures unearthed. Unless one is an avid collector of vinyl, many of Québec's finest groups remain to this day completely overlooked by the general progressive rock community. One label is looking to remedy this situation. ProgQuébec ( an off-shoot of Musique ProgresSon ) was started by a small group of progressive rock enthusiasts who thought it was time to give the Québecois progressive scene the face time it deserves. Their plan was not to issue bootleg releases, but rather to remaster and reissue a selection of the finest from the region and the era and to ensure that the participating musicians got the recognition and financial windfall they deserve. Sean McFee is one of the founding members of this label. I recently sat down with him in order to discuss the label's birth, it's present, and it's future.
Read on for Yves Dube's full interview with Sean McFee.
SoT: Can you please elaborate on what exactly ProgQuébec is and how you differ from other progressive labels out there ?
Sean McFee:ProgQuébec is the label arm of a not-for-profit organization called Musique ProgresSon and is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the musical heritage of Québec, specifically that of the vinyl age of the 1970s.In addition to the label, it includes our web-site, which is mostly an information resource with a web shop attached. We have also helped to promote a couple of concerts in the Montreal area and there is an on-again off-again plan to produce a book.
The music label ProgQuébec is the primary activity at this time. What we do is fairly straightforward: find albums that are not available on CD as legitimate reissues and reissue them ourselves with all rights and royalties taken care of. We work with the artists to make sure their wishes are respected on the releases and aspire to a high quality, both sonically and visually. In these goals, we are not different from any of the fine progressive labels out there.
I am not sure if we are unique in any way that really counts. We are maybe closer to something like how Musea started out, or labels like Basque or Elkar, in that we focus on one part of the world only. Other labels have done this as well, such as Unidisc and Kozak.
SoT: Where did the idea to start promoting and preserving the musical heritage of Québec come from ( in reference to your organization)? Why specifically Québec, and more specifically, the vinyl age of the 1970s ?
Sean McFee: Our president, Stephen Takasy, was trying to collect some progressive rock from Québec and found that most of it was only available on vinyl .He was influenced by the book "The Return Of Italian Pop", which covers the Italian progressive rock renaissance of the 1990s. I think the idea was that if this is possible elsewhere, why not here? (Mr Takacsy resides in Montreal).
Sean McFee, Yves Dube, and Pete Pardo
For me it was a similar story. I became aware of, and started collecting Québec vinyl in earnest around 2000 while Djing at the Ottawa radio station CKCU. The idea of doing a label was always appealing and people like Steve Feigenbaum from Cuneiform and Ken Golden from Laser's Edge were supportive and generous with advice. The time was never really right until last year, which is why Stephen got in touch with me about this thing.
As for why Québec , well, it was necessary because nobody else was doing it, and as far as the 70s, it was the era of music we are interested in. Also it's an era that is important because in a way the music is the soundtrack for the years of Québec's growing national identity and it is important for young people to have an opportunity to hear it because that way they will know where they come from. This doesn't mean we can expect that everyone in Québec will go around wearing prog T-shirts someday, but just that the music is accessible to those who are open-minded to it.
Along the way we have met many artists and in some cases have been able to undo injustices in a sense, where they have possibly had prior bad experiences with labels and we've been able to have a positive relationship, pay them for their work, and help them get overdue recognition. I don't think that was an initial goal because I never really took that into account and I don't know that Stephen didn't either, but we can take pride in it now, at any rate.
SoT:Tell us about your releases so far. Are you following any kind of chronology in respect to the birth and growth of progressive music in Québec?
Ville Emard Blues Band: Complete VEBB 1973-1975
Sean McFee:We are not following any chronology. We release things more or less in the order that we get the rights to them. That is why we released Ville Emard Blues Band (VEBB) followed by Toubabou followed by Contraction; each of them led logically to the next. Then we have L'Orchestre Sympathique and Pollen which are very much separate from that.
VEBB was our first release and an important one in that they were one of the most successful bands in Québec, at least for a brief period. They were runner-up for a Juno award (Canadian Grammy) and they headlined the Montreal Forum (15,000-seat hockey arena). They are also a great microcosm of the greatness of Montreal in the period; close to two dozen musicians mixing all styles together: jazz, folk, hard rock, funk – very progressive. They wrote and sang in Canada's both official languages (French and English). While they were not as well known to our international market, reissuing VEBB gave us credibility in Québec with distributors and retailers and laid the groundwork for our later work.
Toubabou: Attente/ Le Blé et le Mil
Toubabou was kind of an Afro-funk/jazz/prog outfit from the mid 70s involving many musicians from VEBB. They were formed to play the "Superfrancofete" festival in 1974 and performed in front of 55,000 people on the Plains Of Abraham (location of Canada's most celebrated and decisive battle in 1759, this site has become the home of the biggest French cultural events in Québec). This performance was their live album "Le Ble et Le Mil", with many African guest musicians including the great Mamadou N'Diaye Rose. Their studio album from 1975 was called "Attente" and is closer to the Québec prog scene in general. We put both albums out onto a 2-CD set with bonus video footage of mainly historical interest. We helped put together a reunion show when this came out;
An excellent concert at Montreal's Kola Note, which was very well attended including many young people, thanks to drummer Seguin's on-going notoriety through his Tam Tam club in Montreal. (Tam Tam club is a gathering of percussionists on Montreal's Mount Royal. Anybody can join in and play in rhythm together)
We put out both albums by Contraction in April, and these are our best selling international releases to date. They are both beautiful albums and a big part of the reason I personally got interested in this scene, so of course it was great to be involved with their eventual reissue. The second album in particular, "La Bourse Ou La Vie", has always been highly regarded by collectors and I think there was a real anticipation for it, and so far I have heard very positive reviews.
In May we released the first album by the jazz-rock group Orchestre Sympathique, entitled "En Concert A La Grande Passe". It was originally a vinyl press of 350 copies. Nobody would sign bands in that style at that time, so what they did instead was charge people to come into their shows, record them live, and then those people got a copy of the record when it came out. It is very good music, quite sophisticated, energetic and adventurous. It reminds me of Maneige, while Steve at Wayside compared it to Moerlen-era Gong. The instrumentation is vibraphone/marimba, flute/piano, bass and drums; so quite percussive most of the time.
Contraction: La Bourse Ou La Vie
We are just now releasing the only one by Pollen (released in early July 2005), which is one of the best albums of the scene and was out of print for many years. In September is our first project with Maneige, the archive "Live A L'Eveche", which will have some material from the "Montreal 1974/1975" release as well as new material. In November we put out the first new music by Jérome Langlois of Maneige in many years, his album "Molignak". On it are members of Maneige, Conventum, and Octobre, among others.
That will make eight releases in all, two in 2004 and six in 2005. We are planning eight releases for 2006, of which I'm allowed to confirm precisely none. This isn't to be a jerk, but simply that our current policy is only to give hard promises on things we have scheduled for release. There are always many leads, and many of them can end in disappointment at the last minute, so you have to be careful.
SoT:You just recently released Pollen, as you mentioned, yet it's merely a reissue, not a remaster. Did you ever consider releasing the Jacques Tom Rivest solo material as a bonus disc? Will it be released separately at a later date?
Sean McFee: Our Pollen release was remastered from the master tapes. We did not include the Jacques Tom Rivest material because we are still working out the logistics for that one. We would like to put it out but I cannot confirm a date until it's in our schedule.
SoT:Please explain the funding behind this project. I understand you and others have made personal financial contributions and there's, of course, the actual record sales; but what are other ways in which you raise the money required to gain the rights to discs, to remaster and repackage them, and still make sure the artists are suitably financially renumerated ? Does the Canadian Government get involved through a heritage fund, such as in countries like Belgium ?
Sean McFee:Musique ProgresSon got its seed money from seventeen founding members who each contributed to get it off the ground. In addition, Stephen and I both advanced money to the project as the costs of the first two releases had to be met while we had yet to see any revenue for sales. We have been fortunate to receive a grant from the Audio Visual Trust (www.avtrust.ca), a part of the Heritage division of the Canadian federal government, whose mission is to support projects like ours. They supported us both last year and this year. Of course, the sales for one release go a long way towards funding the next one, since the sources of revenue mentioned above are all one-time and not automatically renewable.
SoT: Where can our readers buy your releases ? Are they available solely through your website?
Sean McFee: Our releases are distributed in Canada by DEP and are available in chain stores like HMV and Archambault, as well as better independent stores like Cheap Thrills and Le Free Son in Montreal. In the United States they can be obtained from most progressive rock mail order vendors. Our titles are also available in Japan through Marquee, in Italy through Eventyr, and Sweden through Record Heaven. Of course we operate a web shop reachable from http://www.progquebec.com , where our titles can be purchased directly and includes a subscription service for collectors wishing to get everything at a discount.
SoT: Thank you for your time Mr McFee. We wish you continued success with this project and look forward to hearing many more buried treasures from your label in the future.