How Tiga Helped Turn Montreal Into a Nightlife Hub
Plus an exclusive, beatless live mix from the Montreal legend, to help you recover from the after party.
Photo by Femme de $arkozy
It was one of those cold, harsh days that even seasoned locals can only describe as being ‘’cold as fuck’’ when I met Tiga at a café in the affluent enclave town of Westmount, adjacent to Montreal’s city center. Despite the fact that he’s essentially been on tour nonstop and out-of-town for the past two decades, he seems effortlessly comfortable walking in the flurry that rages outside.
Though I had been to a number of his DJ sets, this was my very first time meeting Tiga. I knew a lot about him, through the internet, friends who work with him, and older DJs in the city who recall with misty eyes the days of Sona, the nearly mythical after hours club he ran until the mid-noughties. I knew about the record shop he ran with friends, and, of course, about Turbo Records, the label he’s been at the helm of for coming up on 20 years, which has consistently put out some of the greatest and most recognizable works of dance music (and beyond) of our time.
If you were to ask anyone involved in nightlife in Montreal who we had to thank for the current state of nightlife, most would answer Tiga. Because while Montreal was the second biggest city in the world for disco (after New York) in the 70s and 80s, Tiga was able to broaden the horizons through Sona, through his former record shop, through Turbo or even his own music. Every phase of Tiga has resulted in creating a different faction or scene in the city, making the two inextricably linked. And, though he claims to be somewhat out of the loop, he’s contributed in making Montreal’s brightest talents shine, whether it be by signing Chromeo to Turbo, or going for a legendary 3 hour back-to-back with locals like Jacques Greene.
In short, Tiga Sonntag helped turn Montreal into one of the world’s most legendary party hub. He quite literally kickstarted an entire movement by tapping into tactics of DIY punk by not waiting for the party to happen and just making it happen himself. It would be hard to imagine mythical venues like Stereo or relative newcomer Newspeak happen without the shockwave Sona sent; or to foresee the magnitude of festivals like Igloofest or Piknic Electronik without the raves he threw throughout the 90s (or even the music he put out through Turbo).
When I was assigned this interview, I thought about all the questions I wanted to ask, because surely a man with that many accomplishments under his belt would have a thing or two to teach someone whose livelihood as a DJ and music writer is, for the most part, a result of his legacy. So I decided to keep it simple and ask what I, like most people, have been wondering for years: how the hell did he manage to help turn a city where it can get colder than the North Pole into one of the world’s biggest party destinations? One can only suspect the warm, beatless tracks selected in the mix for his set at Stella Polaris in Copenhagen last summer surely help.
Noisey: You’re back home in Montreal for a few months right now. Do you still take the time to go and see your friends DJ when they’re in town and you’re off tour, or do you just kinda have dinner with them and go home?
TIGA: Yeah, I pretty much go say hi and go home. Although I do enjoy going to see other people play, because it gives you ideas. I don’t think it’s healthy to only listen to yourself, and the person before and after you play. Hearing other DJs play is often times how you hear new records, or old records played in a new way.
I’m sort of a casualty of touring, so I don’t get out much. When I have a weekend off, I’m looking for peace. But I’ll go see my friends play, especially if they’re playing that 8 to 10am slot.
You’re going on nearly 30 years of your career as a DJ. How did it start?
It started in the early 90s, with the raves we threw, and that felt great. Because I was really young and it was super exciting, and I kind of just skipped from being a kid at school to having a career very quickly, and that was really nice. It was all the excitement of youth, with a bit of revolution.
I was about 17 or 18, and I was a bit immature for my age; I was still like a kid in a lot of ways, so it felt good. The most exciting thing from that time—and this is something amazing if you get to feel it—but there’s this feeling when you’re 100% positive that you’re on the cusp of something important. You feel it in your heart that you’re at the right place, at the right time. Feeling like you’re doing something cool, or you’re making money, those things aren’t even close. When you know something revolutionary is happening, and you’re there. That’s what the early 90s felt like.
This sounds a bit arrogant, but at that time, I knew I was king of the world and everybody else wanted what we had. Even if we were kids, and we didn’t have fancy cars, it didn’t matter.
And then Sona happened?
Sona was the beginning of what was not, for me, a particularly positive experience. It conflicted my adult view of things, it was the start of some of these things that creep in your life, like business vs art, or politics. It was the beginning of a less fun period. It marked the end of my adolescence.
The rave period was still kind of wild, you didn’t know when the next thing was going to happen, and it was all project based. Then all of a sudden, Sona was an institution. It felt a bit like a job; owning a club is a pain in the ass! Of all the things I’ve done, that’s the one I recommend the least. There’s very minimal upside, you’re better off just being a promoter or a DJ. I’m not sure what it’s like now, but back then owning and operating a big nightclub in the middle of Montreal was a lot to deal with.
Do you still feel like you got to enjoy the importance Sona had, though?
No. I think I enjoyed Sona much less than people that just came once a week, or a month. For me, some projects you do are sometimes a really great fit, and sometimes from the outside it seems amazing, and some things look better or worse than they actually are. For me, Sona wasn’t a great fit.
It’s hard for me to be totally objective about Sona as a party experience, because I was always working. But I think that it’s just that it was a first entry to nightlife in Montreal. Because there were already a lot of raves and warehouse parties happening earlier that I wasn’t part of. When Sona opened in February of ‘96, by that point a lot of people had been to one or two parties, but for most people in the city, it was their first exposure to club culture, and it was fun. It was a good club, with a great space. And everyone falls in love with their first party.
Sometimes I think of the parties that in my mind I’ve romanticized and remember as something really special, but then I see a picture of the party and I realize that the room was half-empty! And that’s because it’s all about who you’re with, your vibe, and how it fits into your life.
Is that part of why you started your label, Turbo?
Turbo was two years after we opened, and it was a bit of reaction, because I was getting kind of fed up with the club business. I don’t think Turbo would have been the same way without Sona. Because I was looking for what I wasn’t getting creatively out of a nightclub business. So it taught me a lot of lessons about politics, and managing different types and groups of people, a bit like Game of Thrones! I learned to navigate a pretty cutthroat business, because I had to deal with police, with Hell’s Angels, so there was a bit of a learning curve.
It taught me a lot lessons, like how business is separate from what you think a business is like. It’s one of those things where people looking from outside are like ‘’wow, what is this, this is so cool!’’. So you learn to separate the romance from the numbers.
And how did Turbo actually start?
The first release on there was one of my own, Montreal Mix Session Vol.1. But the first vinyl release was by Alexi Delano, a guy from New York.
Before that, I started a record store called DNA Records, which in hindsight is a super 90s name, it’d be kind of back in fashion now. I did that till 99 or 2000, and that was a lot of work. That was kind of my day-to-day job, and there were 2 or 3 years where that overlapped with Sona, so I was working all the time. But it was fun, and it’s something I’m really happy I did. Because there’s nothing like it, it’s a different era now, those times are gone. That’s a pre-internet existence that’s never coming back. It was a real clubhouse, everybody was there every day, talking about things, sharing records, buying tickets to events. It was a centre. A shitload of work and no money, but it was fun.
And so between the record shop, the label and the club, do you feel that you were in a good position to tackle the internet revolution that was coming?
I think a lot of the people in electronic music were cutting edge, in a sense. If you owned a record store in the 90s, you were the first to feel some of the big changes. Basically, it started off when people stopped buying CDs, and then eventually they stopped buying everything. So we were kind of the canary in the coal mine, for that.
But I think that had I been more tech savvy, or more of a visionary in that department, I would’ve really cleaned it up. Because I was there to see some of those changes as they were happening. For me, that period kind of coincided with becoming an artist, so I was a little bit blind to some of the big changes that were happening. For example, I got asked to invest in Beatport, right at the beginning, and I was like: "Not interested," or something.
I mean, look, this is a very simple, obvious idea now, that all physical media was going to shift to digital and be available 24 hours a day, and the sale would be streamlined and everything, but that wasn’t that obvious to me at the time, and it should have been. It definitely was to some people.
Tell me the story behind the mix you’re releasing with us.
It’s an ambient mix. It was the first time in a million years I had been asked to do a beatless set at a festival, in Copenhagen last summer. I fucking loved it, it was my favorite show of the entire summer. 25 000 people in a park in Copenhagen sitting down; no dancing. I felt so liberated, it was so much fun to escape dance music for a few hours. I played music I love so much, and it came at a particular moment in my life where it was kind of a ‘grass is greener.’ It’s all over the place; there’s some Bob Marley, Kate Bush, some Zomby stuff, some Aphex. I confess, and this is something you realize when you DJ a lot: sometimes you play boring. There’s times you play and you’re thinking too much, or you’ve lost touch with your spirit and it’s not that fun. This is cool because I was temporarily in a state I guess I should always be in where every song I’ve played was something I loved. It was emotional, and I can’t tell why.
1. Zomby- Trapdoor2. Jai Paul - All Night (track 15)
3. Zarate Fix & DJ Sotofett - Solar Mix
4. Kraftwerk - Neon Lights
5. The XX - Shelter (Tiga unreleased DUB)
6. Invisible Conga People - Cable Dazed
7. The Pool - Jamaica Running
8. Kindness - Swingin Party
9. Osborne - Hold Up (Joe’s Dub feat Joe Goddard)
10. The KLF- Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard
11. Burial - Dog Shelter
12. James Blake - Take A Fall For Me
13. Invisible Conga People - In A Hole
14. Sano - La Grua (The Interview Rmx Toulouse Low Trax)
15. Bob Marley & The Wailers - Selassie Is The Chapel
15. This Mortal Coil - Song To The Siren
16. The Smiths V Lana Del Rey - This Charming Video Game (bootleg)
17. Harold Budd & Brian Eno - Against The Sky
18. Daft Punk - Make Love
19. The Knife - Silent Shout
20. Mathew Jonson - Marionette (the begining)
21. Refracted - Depth Charge
22. Zomby - A Devil Lay Here
23. AFX - Every Day
24. Kate Bush - Under The Ivy