Pizza, Poutine and Punk: Meet the Founder of Montreal's Infamous Pouzza Fest

Montreal's epic three-day punk rock party begins May 20-22.

by Tom Beedham
May 4 2016, 2:00pm

Photo Photo Photo By Martin Blondeau

After years playing Fest with his band the Sainte Catherines, Hugo Mudie co-founded Pouzza Fest as Montreal’s answer to the longstanding Gainesville, Florida punk summit. Since emerging in 2010, it’s spent the last six years evolving into a sprawling three-day affair that takes hold of the metropolis’ entertainment district with events in venues and public spaces all throughout. Pushing the punk party mandate, on top of headlining gigs from Less Than Jake, Sick Of It All, the Fleshtones, and classic album performances from Suicide Machines, Big D and the Kids Table, Planet Smashers, and the Sainte Catherines, that means a collection of more than 150 emerging punk, hardcore, ska, indie, and other tangentially related acts will all be within walking distance May 20-22. And that’s not even mentioning the art exhibits, booze gardens, punk rock yoga, baseball tournaments, barbecues, and brunches.

Like Riot Fest and Pouzza sponsor Amnesia Rockfest, it’s yet another festival bringing overground sensibilities to underground culture, but together with festival co-founder Hélène McKoy, Hugo Mudie insists the work’s been done to prevent the former from watering down the experience. In years past, that’s meant keeping Pouzza a couple’s operation, but after five years piling up debt and stress, this year the festival teetered on the brink of cancellation before it could return even larger than before. After selling off shares of the festival to new partners, McKoy and Mudie are bringing Pouzza back to the Quartier des Spectacles with the help of some extra hands (including some of the minds behind Stomp Records), and they’ve also eliminated any corporate presence from the experience, this year working solely with independent sponsors and better molding Pouzza to the grassroots vision originally imagined for the festival. We had Hugo Mudie catch us up to speed.

Photo By Martin Blondeau

Noisey: What was the impetus behind the original Pouzza Fest?
Hugo Mudie: It was definitely based on Fest in Gainesville, Florida, which I used to go to with my band, the Sainte Catherines. We played Fest 2, Fest 3, and then we went a bunch of other times. I always thought that it was a fantastic festival and that it was great to be in Florida, which I like, but I always imagined it being in Montreal or in a city that’s more of a… a real city—how cool it would be to have all these punks hanging out in a downtown area going from show to show and hanging out in the real downtown of a real city. That was my idea, but at the time I didn’t really work, I just did the bands. Then I started working and doing my own company [Le Curie], and me and my partner [Hélène McKoy] then decided to give it a go and six years ago we did the first edition, and it seems like people were really thankful about it. Everyone was like, “Wow, finally something great like that in Canada. We don’t have to travel down to the states.” And it was really overwhelming, and that’s why we ended up doing this full time instead of everything else we were doing.

Where would you say the festival is at compared to when it started?
When Pouzza Fest began it was just a four-venue thing with 100 or so bands, and it was all indoor, it was really a smaller version of Fest, but now after a bunch of years, we’ve learned from mistakes and from good stuff we did. Now it has more of a Montreal flavour to it. We use the outdoor stages that are in Montreal. The Parterre du Quartier des Spectacles is a permanent set up for outdoor shows, and we use that to do three days of outdoor shows including extra music stuff like yoga for punks, food trucks, kid activities with inflatable games, Ninja Turtles and skateboard and shit like that. It has more of a festival feel to it instead of just having indoor shows. Also with the sponsors which we now work with—mainly Beau’s and Le Trou du Diable microbreweries and Sailor Jerry—we bring more of an indie feel to the way festivalgoers consume. It used to be Pabst Blue Ribbon, and it’s a totally different feel to work with a microbrewery from here with products that are more related to the stuff we try to push forward, and also with people that are involved in that kind of environment and that care about the indie music and the punk scene—independent music and companies. We want to be more of a niche thing than a big rock festival.

You guys almost went bankrupt. What happened there and how did you bounce back?
It’s from the first five years. We always end up having debts and borrowing from people and all that, and it was only me and Hélène. It was a two-person operation, so it was a lot of weight on our shoulders when we lost money, which happened once in a while. The stress was too much, so this year it was “either let’s find a solution or let’s not do it anymore because it’s too much stress and too much struggle for the potential profits from it.” People tend to forget that when you do something in punk—anything like a label or a festival or a show—it’s still a business. You still have to at least break even. But for us, it’s our job, so we need to make profit from doing operations like that. People tend to forget stuff like that and they’re like, “Yeah, but you raised the price.” If we raise the price, it’s because we try to find a solution to make it work. If you like the festival and you want to come back, you should understand that it’s a business and we have to make it work.

After realizing what we did good and what we did wrong, we decided that the best way to do it was to create some kind of a group. Instead of just me and Hélène, we sold shares of the festival to different people that have different qualities and different backgrounds and can bring new stuff and experience to the table. That’s how we got the people from Stomp Records involved and some of our friends and someone from the UK. It’s a bunch of different people, and we’re now a team of eight or seven running the festival, which is a lot easier on me and Hélène and it’s a lot easier for the festival—to not be overwhelmed with everything that there is to do.

Photo By Martin Blondeau

There’ve been a lot of these “(blank) plays the album” sets filling out the headlining slots at punk festivals like this, and your band is playing one at Pouzza Fest this year, too. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on what this moment says about the current state of punk rock and its future?
Punk is definitely not trendy music right now, and it’s not something popular that brings a lot of new stuff to the table I guess. Nothing against the movement, of course, but I don’t think it’s right now the most innovative style of music, but I think there’s a lot of nostalgia in punk rock. I mean, without nostalgia, Pouzza wouldn’t work and Rockfest wouldn’t work and all those festivals wouldn’t work, because it’s mostly people in their late 20s, 30s—even 40s—that used to go to a lot of shows that now have families and jobs and kind of pick what they want to check out. They’re not gonna go out for a new band that they don’t know, but they’re gonna come out for Lagwagon playing Hoss, you know? So I have absolutely nothing against it.

I mean, if I wanna go see Weezer, I’d rather see them play Pinkerton than all the whiney shit that I don’t know, so it’s the same thing for the Sainte Catherines. I mean, we don’t exist anymore, we wouldn’t be very interested in playing a regular show, and it was the 10-year anniversary of our most well known album [Dancing for Decadence] I guess so it was like, let’s do it, let’s have some fun and remember how cool it was 10 years ago. I’m not one to judge bands reforming or whatever, I think people do whatever they want with their careers. The only thing I’m not a super fan of are bands using the name of their old band without the main members or the lead singer—that’s kind of shitty, but everything else, I don’t care. That’s another thing that I find funny in punk rock, when people say, “Yeah they came back for the money”—it’s like, you make more money doing a regular job working for Petro-Canada than playing music, however big you are. I dunno, I think it’s just for the fun of it.

There’s a growing awareness of the space women have been able to occupy in music, and punk has a specific history with an antagonism towards women. Is Pouzza Fest doing anything proactive to make sure this festival is a positive space for women?
It was always in the back of our minds. I started the festival with my friend Hélène [McKoy] and she is a woman, and we consider ourselves to be a pro-feminist organization. I did bookings in the beginning, and now we have a booking team, and one of the aspects of the booking is that we always do—I don’t know how to say it in English—“inverse profiling” I guess? We accept all the bands with women in them. When we get requests, when we listen to the bands, whether we like it or not, when there’s girls in the bands, we accept them because we think there’s not enough of them and we try to get as much as possible. And I think it would be great if one day it'd be 50/50 musicians playing in any type of band.

Punk rock is supposed to be progressive, but it’s proven many, many times that it is not, really. For us, it’s very, very important. The only employee we had for years is a girl, Hélène is a girl, we have new partners that are girls, some of our favourite bands have girls in them—it’s very important for us. This year we had a message from someone that was a festivalgoer that said she felt threatened to come back to Pouzza because of drunk dudes in the pit touching her and all that shit. We were not aware of anything like that happening here and we told her that we were going to make sure this year it was going to be very, very looked upon and that we won’t accept anything like that. People will be kicked out.

Photo By Martin Blondeau

Are you having those conversations with the security teams that you’re working with?
Definitely. We’ve already started. We never did before this year. Out of the five years that we’ve been doing Pouzza, I had no idea that anything like that happened, and when we got that email from that girl, me and Hélène talked about it, and she said, “I had no idea either.” We never heard of anything like that from any of the stage managers or security or staff. Never. So for us we think that our crowd is intelligent and stuff like that doesn’t happen—I’ve been to punk shows for 20 years, and personally I’ve never experienced anything remotely like that. I’ve heard sexist comments or homophobic comments from people, but I’ve never seen acts of violence like that. So it was kind of taken for granted that it was not happening at Pouzza, but I guess we were wrong. So now it’s gonna be something we really look for and be careful about because it’s very important for us that everyone that comes feels safe and not threatened in any way.

What do you hope people take away from this year’s festival?
I think music is just about making life cooler than it is if you don’t have music, so it’s the same thing for the festival. I just want people to come here and have a good time for three days and come back home and remember how cool it was and what bands they saw and the new people they met; discovering Montreal and that whole feeling of spring and summer coming. I like that feeling. I’m a bit old for that now, but there’s a lot of people that come to Pouzza in their early 20s and they’ve got everything in front of them, and I like them to realize that everything is possible. You can do a punk festival and make a living out of it and you can play in a band and make a living out of it, and you can be different and be crazy and be happy, you know? That’s kind of the whole motto of the festival and also me as a person and musician.

Tom Beedham is an arts and culture journalist living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.