When I asked the current team behind the Midnight Poutine podcast why they do what they do, they all had the same answer: Jeremy Morris.
Morris started the podcast in 2006 with John MacFarlane, a former Gazette writer and editor who I worked with briefly (and was one of the key figures in the early days of what was then Habs Inside/Out).
After MacFarlane moved to the other side of the world, Morris continued the podcast every week, a lot of times by himself. Eventually he brought along some other Midnight Poutine contributors to join the podcast — Greg Bouchard during Pop Montreal in 2009, Amie Watson in 2010, Gabrielle Lefort soon after that, and Theo Mathien in 2011, and when Morris left himself for Madison, Wis., last summer, he left the podcast in their hands.
“We all feel like we owe it to Jer to continue,” said Mathien. “We were infected by Jeremy’s enthusiasm,” added LeFort. “It’s partially his level of devotion that causes us to keep this thing going,” said Bouchard. “If we stopped doing this, I would be annoyed that there isn’t another podcast like this to listen to.”
I wanted to write about Morris and the podcast when Morris left, but never found the time. Now, as the show hits its 300th episode, I made the time to head out to Pointe St-Charles and profile it for The Gazette.
You can read the Gazette story here. I’ll add some detail below.
I’ve been subscribed to this podcast for quite some time. In case you didn’t bother reading the Gazette story, I’ll briefly explain that the Midnight Poutine Weekend Playlist (as it’s been officially known since the beginning, though it’s only referred to as the “Midnight Poutine Podcast” in the podcast itself) is a weekly, hour-or-so-long podcast featuring music from artists that will be playing at small venues in the city over the coming week. Between the songs, the hosts talk about the artists and mention where they’ll be playing.
Not only is it a good way to discover the kind of music you’ll never hear on commercial radio stations, but if you like what you hear, you’ll have a chance to watch the artists in person. It’s always sounded to me like such a brilliant idea, and I’d wondered whether it was stolen from somewhere or just came about naturally.
Morris explained to me that he had been doing roundups of coming shows for Midnight Poutine, when one week he decided that a great way to introduce people to artists is to play one of their songs. So one day he posted an MP3 file that just strings a bunch of those songs together. You don’t hear his voice, you don’t get any context, it’s just a concatenation of MP3 files. “This was really just a way to bring audio to our (written) listings,” he said.
The next week, he added recordings of his own voice and the podcast as we know it now (though that first episode starts “Hello Montreal and beyond” instead of the now catchphrasey “Hello Internet, salut cyberspace”). Morris asks that you not listen to those early episodes because he finds he sounds too awkward.
“I started it out of mostly personal reasons,” Morris told me over the phone last week, me much more familiar with the sound of his voice than he was with mine. “I was new to the city at the time. I wanted to know what was happing in the music scene.”
Morris, now 36, was originally from Fredericton and did his undergrad in Ontario. He was working on a PhD in communications studies at McGill, but wanted something to occupy his time that wasn’t “work”.
“It was kind of a hobby, a way to be involved in that world that wasn’t purely academic.”
He kept at it mostly because of a sense that it had developed into something people were expecting. “When you’ve done it for a little bit of time it starts to feel like even though you don’t get a sense of who your audience is, they’re sort of there and you feel an obligation,” he said.
“It was pretty intimidating at first. I remember the first comments on the site, saying we weren’t playing enough heavy music, didn’t know enough about the bands.”
Nowadays, there’s research that goes into each podcast, not just listing the shows that an artist will perform at but giving some information about the artists, where they come from, what style of music they play, where the song comes from. But there’s a limit to that information.
“Because the format is the way it is, nobody who’s hosting is ever going to know everything about all the bands that come through,” Morris said.
I’d been thinking of writing about this podcast for a long time. And a few nagging questions had been in the back of my mind for a while. Finally I got a chance to get them answered:
Is the podcast recorded in real-time? No. It takes about an hour to record it, but the hosts listen to the songs on their own and record the breaks one at a time when they get into studio. It’s all stitched together afterward.
Why do this for Midnight Poutine? “I knew two people in the city, and one of them was John MacFarlane, who was one of the people who setup Midnight Poutine,” Morris said. Eventually, “some of the folks that I started writing for Midnight Poutine with left. I thought: does this belong elsewhere? But it fit with the site.”
How many people listen to the podcast? They don’t actually know. They were given a figure of about 7,000 at one point, but it wasn’t clear whether this was actual downloads or just page views. But “thousands” is a good idea of order of magnitude. Still, often the podcasts on the website get few or no comments from listeners, so it’s hard to gauge feedback.
Has any artist ever asked for their song to be removed? If you listen to the podcast regularly, you know that each episode ends with a disclaimer that if the artist isn’t happy about the song being there, they can just send an email and it will be removed. When I asked the crew about this, they said they had heard that it happened once to Morris. He confirmed this, though he stressed that it wasn’t a case of an angry artist demanding a stop to piracy à la Lars Ulrich.
“It was a miscommunication. The label had sent me the song and they weren’t sure if they were allowed to play it. It wasn’t like a malicious ‘we don’t want this in this place.’”
Midnight Poutine lives in a kind of copyright no man’s land. All the music it uses is either downloaded for free from artists’ websites or given to them specifically by the artists, their labels or promoters, so there isn’t much of an argument for piracy. Nevertheless, SOCAN could probably start demanding licensing fees if it decided to crack down. And since the podcast has no budget, that would probably put an end to it if it ever happened.
Theo Mathien, 34, is from Toronto. He’s finishing a PhD in music composition at Université de Montréal. He knew Morris from undergrad, and is the only member with a pre-existing relationship with Morris unconnected to the podcast. It’s at his home in Pointe St-Charles that the podcast is recorded, using two microphones and a computer, in a tiny room that I guessed was about 10 feet by 12 feet. (His first name is pronounced Téo, but his last name has an anglicized pronunciation. It’s kind of the opposite of how you’d expect it to be pronounced.)
Gregory Bouchard, 29, is from Baltimore, and has been in Montreal for about 10 years. He’s doing a PhD in history at McGill and teaching. He’s been on the podcast the longest, starting with Jeremy in 2009. “I’m really into music. I’m also doing a PhD and I find aI need some nonacademic outlet in my life,” he said, mirroring what Morris told me later that week.
Amie Watson, 26, is from Newfoundland via Toronto. She’s a freelancer, with stories that have appeared in magazines like En Route, but also in The Gazette and Cult MTL. She works part-time on the show Bitchin’ Kitchen and runs cooking classes out of her house. She was working on a masters in music at McGill and listened to the podcast. “On my walk to school it was my favourite thing to listen to,” she said. “And then I started writing food articles for the site. I eventually met Jer at a meet up and he said they needed more people, and I thought ‘hey I get to be on my favourite podcast!’”
Gabrielle Lefort, 24, is a Montrealer, Concordia grad and has worked at, among other places, Indie Montreal. She’s “on the lookout for a permanent job,” and doing freelance copy writing and graphic design. But “the music industry is really my first love.” “I had the chance to meet the interim editor in my first week of Concordia journalism,” she said, and that person asked her if she wanted to write for this blog. Now she’s one of its editors.
Picking the music
“I’ve become a member of a lot of promoter groups on Facebook,” Bouchard said. “90% of finding the music is just going through my Facebook events.”
As the podcast has gotten older, more artists have sent their songs to the podcast hoping for the exposure. But rather than there being a solid line between songs sent to the podcast and songs the podcasters seek out, it’s a bit more fluid than that.
“The Montreal music scene is so small that we’ll know the bands and just say ‘can you give us a track for the podcast?’” Mathien explained. “We have a pretty good reputation based on our connection to local labels and shows,” said Lefort. “We have good relationships with Osheaga, Blue Skies Turn Black, Fringe.”
The site gets “tons and tons of music PR emails,” Bouchard said. A reply asking for a track to play on the podcast usually gets an enthusiastic response. “Any time we’d reach out, everyone was very friendly,” Morris said.
But there’s still so much out there, even just among bands playing in the coming week. How to choose?
“We’re not going to play something we hate,” Bouchard said, though that doesn’t mean the podcast will stick with the hosts’ favourite styles. Often they’ll play something whose genre isn’t quite up their alley but that they can appreciate or that they know will have fans out there.
The only constant is that they don’t promote major artists. No Bell Centre concerts being promoted here. Even Metropolis is a big venue. This podcast’s events are more along the lines of Divan Orange, Le Cagibi, Casa del Popolo and places like that. (To this day, it’s hard to think of Divan Orange without hearing it in Jeremy Morris’s voice.)
And even then, it’s not just the headliner. “Sometimes I’ll go to the second band or the third band on a bill,” Watson said. “We’re looking for stuff no one else is playing.”
I asked Morris about how he felt leaving the show. He had put so much work into it that you’d think it would collapse without him. But it was his dedication to it that has inspired the others to stick with it. And there are enough of them that one or two can be gone during one week (and often are) and the show can still go on.
“I was super happy to have left the show at the time that I did,” Morris said. “There were four people equipped to do this thing, there was an actual team of people. There was a time that I was hosting it by myself and sort of (saying to myself) ‘yeah, I guess this thing will sort of end when it ends.’”
“I think what they do with the show is great. It’s fun to hear. I’m glad that they stuck with the format. That’s the thing that makes it really interesting and great.”
Morris took a couple of breaks from the podcast, both times when he had children (a boy in 2007, and twin girls in 2010). With children at home, his free time diminished considerably, but the podcast was a way to stay connected with the local music scene.
“I never felt it was that big a thing,” he said. “I always felt it was a bigger thing for me than for anyone listening to it. It was a way to experience Montreal for me. A way to experience musicians.”
It may not have been his intention, but Morris created something bigger than himself. With enough effort, he made it self-sustaining, allowing it to flourish even without him by inspiring others to take up the microphone.
And for that, as his creation reaches its 300th episode, Montreal music lovers owe Jeremy Morris their gratitude.
The Midnight Poutine Weekend Playlist Episode 300 is available here. You can also subscribe via RSS or iTunes if you haven’t already. The anniversary episode features some of the hosts’ favourites, live performances from Ohara and Sea Oleena, and a special message from Morris.
The crew is also hosting a special barbecue Saturday starting at 3 p.m. at Jeanne-Mance Park, near the corner of Esplanade and Duluth Aves.