Terra Incognita is a radio show, a magazine and a progfest – the most enduring of its kind in Québec and Canada, of which the 12th edition will take place in 2016. The leading figure behind all those achievements is Michel Bilodeau. Jerry and I felt that he deserves an acknowledgement proportionate to his tireless devotion to the cause of progressive rock.
Jean Roby – First things first. Do you remember the first prog album you listened to ?
Michel Bilodeau – How could I forget such a lightning strike. It was Touch, the first and only LP of the American band of the same name. Afterwards, I listened to King Crimson’s classic In the Court of the Crimson King and Yes’ very first album, a band of which I would become a devoted fan for many years to come. Then later on, Nursery Cryme by Genesis, and many others.
JR – After that, what led you to focus so much on that musical genre ?
M.B. – At that time, I was listening to a lot of psychedelic rock, such as Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation, a record that fuses folk et psychedelia ; Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets, Quicksilver Messenger Service’s first album, or Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention’sWe're Only in It For the Money. Progressive rock just seemed the next logical step after the « musical expeditions » of these bands. I started looking for new bands and found an amazing emerging scene. Starting with Nursery Cryme, I rummaged through record stores, buying albums by Gentle Giant, the Strawbs, the Moody Blues, etc. Then I came upon Caravan’s first LPs, and then those of lesser known British bands such as Cressida, Jonesy, Gracious, Spring, Julian's Treatment, and so on. I realised there was a whole lot of bands to discover, but not only in England. Italy and Germany were also hot beds with bands such as Le Orme, Banco , PFM, Acqua Fragile, Il Baricentro, or Perigeo, and Amon Duul II, Eloy, Os Mundi, Grobschnitt – many beautiful years of endless discoveries !...
JR – When and how did you organize your first prog concert ? Who were the bands and why did you choose them ?
MB – After listening to prog rock for many years, I moved to other musical styles that weren’t related to prog. I listened to bands such as Television, Magazine, The Stranglers, Doctors of Madness, The Cure, The Sound, etc. In the early ‘90s, a new prog wave emerged and, in no time, I was wired again. At the time, I liked American bands Echolyn and Discipline, and what Sweden was spawning – the Flower Kings, Anekdoten, Landberk and Anglagärd… I had regular contacts with Discipline’s Matthew Parmenter. One day, he told me they were to give a series of concerts in the US with Anekdoten ! I asked him to give some thought about a possible gig in Québec city. To see both these bands live was a dream of mine ! He said : Great ! And so I started to work on that special event, which materialized in a now defunct hall in Old Québec in 1994.
JR – The next question is somewhat delicate : Of all the bands that have been part of the Terra Incognita Convention since 2005, which ones have you liked most ?
MB – Some question ! Many bands have impressed me or filled me with enthusiasm, for various reasons. I can mention Kaipa Da Capo’s gig, arguably one of the best of Roine Stolt I’ve attended to. But there were so many great ones! RPWL, Pineapple Thief, Unreal City, Fabio Zuffanti , Sonus Umbra , Phideaux , Il Castello di Atlante – and most probably I’m forgetting some…
JR – Last May, you presented the 11th edition of the Convention, a two-day prog fest held in Québec city. What are the pros and cons of devoting so much effort for a market, that is otherwise limited by the 200-seat capacity of the actual hall ?
MB – Each edition is a small miracle in itself and I’m not exaggerating. The organisation – as well as the bands – has to make do on very tight budgets. Such an intimate venue as the Centre d'art La Chapelle naturally implies a limit on the budget, so it’s not always easy to set the program. The limit is reached quite fast. On the other hand, this intimate aspect is sort of the Convention trademark. Musicians mix with the public in the hall or outside, and the atmosphere is very warm and friendly. That’s what fans like. It’s always the first thing they talk to me about.
JR – As time went by, have you noticed changes among the audience ? Are there only people from the Québec city area ? Do people from various age groups attend to the event ?
MB – Since the beginning, the audience has changed slowly. In the early years, it was mostly fans from the area. Later on, there were people from everywhere in the province. Today, we also have progheads from Ontario and many American states. Four or five years ago, a couple from London, UK, was here two years in a row, and for some years now we have a loyal fan from Vancouver. He comes to see me at the beginning of the Convention, then just before the last concert to thank me and say : See you next year ! So, where people come from is much more diverse, on the other hand the age group hasn’t changed much. Most of them are progfans from the ‘70s. There are exceptions – people in their 20s or 30s –, but they are definitely a minority.
JR – When you select bands for the progfest, do you try to be as international as possible ? What importance do local bands have ? Or emerging bands ? Do you consider the audience’s tastes, or do you rely more on instinct and choose from the heart ?
MB – My favorites are often my starting point ! I rely a lot on instinct and what I listen to all year round. From that, bands pop-up that I’d like to see live, but also I do talk with several fans during the Convention. The last five or six years, its reputation has been spreading because of participating bands, and invariably in the months following the event new bands get in touch with me, talking about their friends who were on stage and strongly recommended them to give it a try. Sometimes, it takes two or three years before everything falls into place ! I always try to give a chance to local and/or emerging bands – because they’re the ones who will carry the torch. Over the years, we’ve signed many young bands, such as Sky Architect, The Tea Club, Unreal City, Elephants of Scotland, and so on. Some have been tremendous and have been absolutely stunned by the warm welcome from the audience. Unreal City was a case in point. The musicians were literally overwhelmed by the public’s enthusiastic reception.
JR – You’re planning the 12th edition of the Convention, so your balance sheet must be on the positive side, in spite of the many challenges along the way. What’s the main reason that keeps you on board ?
MB – As I said earlier, each edition is a genuine miracle. Plenty of challenges and sometimes quite complex. But when the event opens, all the hassle fades away. The festival is two (or three) very intense days, but also magical. And that’s not counting the days preceding or following the event, during which I spend a lot of time with the musicians. For instance, last May, Nicklas [Barker] and Peter [Nordins] from Anekdoten arrived two days prior to the Convention. We ate together, shopped for LPs, and talked about music. Also we toured Québec and went down the Old part of the city – they wanted to see the building that had hosted their first concert here. It was all very pleasant. I’ve had a lot of delightful meetings during the progfest – with musicians and fans. I have tons of good memories ! Each time an edition closes down, I tell myself it’s the last one. Then as weeks go by, I talk with fans, I fall for this or that album, and eventually I start making contacts… and I’m surprised to find myself planning… and here we go again !
JR –Terra Incognita is also the name of a magazine devoted to prog, with four issues per year. What started that project that has been going on since 2003 ?
MB – It was a means to further the radio show of the same name that I’ve been co-hosting every Saturday night on CKRL-FM 89,1 (www.ckrl.qc.ca) for the last 14 years. The initial basis was to broadcast only new material – no Genesis, Yes or other bands from the ‘70s, only new bands and musicians. The magazine provides the means to range farther and deeper with CD reviews and interviews, while the Convention is the ultimate step of sort. After discovering bands through the radio show and the magazine, fans may see some of them on stage. Figure them as interlocking pieces, all aimed at keeping the prog scene alive.
JR – Is it hard or rather easy to find helping hands for the Convention or the magazine ?
MB – Whether it’s for the progfest or the magazine, they all do it for free. It’s not easy, there aren’t many of us. But we do have a lot of fun doing it. They’re great teams. People bonded by their passion for the music.
JR – The magazine is sold through subscription. What’s the major benefit of distributing it this way ? On the otherhand, does it limit its influence ?
MB –In the ‘90s and early ‘00s, I also took care of Ipso Facto, a record label and a distribution company. It used to be that the magazine was sold in some record stores, along with CDs from independent prog bands. It fueled the interest for the magazine and vice versa. Then the whole network crumbled with the decline in CD sales and the rise of Internet. Stores began to streamline their available space, and prog was first in line prog to bear the brunt of these measures. Now, Internet is the main source of publicity for the magazine, along with word of mouth by fans. It is limiting, but then the readership is also limited.
JR – I borrow my last question from Jerry :If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only have 5 discs with you – what would they be and why those ones ?
MB – The question ! 5 discs ! It would depend on the day. My answer might be very different next week. Are we talking only about prog here ? If we are, then I’d go for albums from the Founding Bands of the genre, such as KC’s In the Court of the Crimson King, GG’s Acquiring the Taste or Three Friends, Yes’ Fragile or Close to the Edge, Genesis’ Nursery Cryme or Selling England by the Pound, or PF’s Wish You Were Here. But really, there are so many great prog albums ! I’ll settle for those, even though I have hundreds of titles in mind…
JR – I thank you very much. Knowing how much you’re busy, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure to spend that time together.
MB : Thank you Jean !