ALCEST 2014: SHELTER FROM THE RAIN.
The day I interviewed Neige for the first time will always remain in my most cherished memories: I did not know what/who to expect but, as ever, I went to meet him in Madrid with an open mind. Coincidentally, as I approached my hotel on foot, I saw him stolling with his girlfriend a few steps ahead of me, and I immediately understood. Even without seeing his face, I perceived his aura: an aura out of the ordinary that was making space-time between us warp. Just to make it 100% clear, I proudly describe myself as a “spiritual atheist”, therefore (just like Neige) I do not believe in mumbo-jumbo esoterics. I believe in what our senses recognize, consciously AND subconsciously; I believe that we can decipher the vibrations of light/energy if we are in tune with our primordial instinct. This should also clarify why Alcest is special to me: it represents those intangible, mysterious dimensions we sometimes faintly perceive in spite of our limitations. It reminds me of vivid experiences lived during my childhood, a time when our enhanced, powerful bio-chemistry echoes very profoundly in a mind that is still relatively clean from the clogging piles of information we soon receive from the outside world. Unlike Neige, I do not feel any nostalgia towards those experiences because they never really left me: in time, I learnt their simple and beautiful meaning, and that made me happier and freer than I could have ever imagined...
Talking of happiness, please indulge in this joyous conversation!
Before commenting on your choice to record the new album at Sigur Rós’ studio in Iceland, I am eager to hear your impressions on Iceland as a country. How long where you there for and what kind of weather did you encounter? I believe the studio itself is in a rural area. The savage, dramatic aspect of the Icelandic landscape must be hugely inspirational…
The overall Icelandic trip was memorable, and I think I can also speak in the name of my drummer. It was one of the best moments of our lifes. In total I stayed there almost two months and Winterhalter stayed something like three weeks. He recorded the drums parts for a few days and then he travelled all around the country with a car and took a lot of pictures. It was quite an adventure I would say. You know being in Iceland feels like you are away from Earth, everything about this country is so special, the landscapes, people, mentalities, etc... In this way the atmosphere of Iceland completely fit in with the otherworldly aspects of Alcest music, it was such a great decision to go there to record this album... When our plane landed we immediately understood this was going to be something extra ordinary since the ground under us was made of black stone and volcanic rocks everywhere. The landscapes are so vast, lunar and epic, and since there are almost no trees at all growing on the Icelandic ground the valleys are immense and there you can get a strong feeling of freedom and euphoria. We were sleeping just outside of Reykjavik, in a flat in front of the studio in a small village near huge montains; far from the other continents, far from everything. And Icelandic people are so nice, warm and enthusiastic, absolutely not cold or distant, as opposed as what we would imagine from northern people. I am sure all this had an impact on the recording of the album since we were feeling so good overt here. During the recording Iceland really was our shelter, a perfect place to give birth to our album.
Did you visit Reykjavik? You have traveled extensively in the last few years, but I am guessing that it must have still made a bigimpression on you: both its traditional and modern architecture arestunning! Did it feel strange to return to Paris afterwards?
Yes we visited Reykjavik many times since it was only 15min away by car from the studio. Sometimes we used to go in the evening after a long recording session to drink a few beers and relax. This city is amazing, so small for being a capital but at the same time very lively. There is basically one “main” street with a lot of bars, restaurants, some cool shops and record stores. A cool story: at the end of the recording we all went to a restaurant to celebrate and guess what, Björk was eating with her friends at the next table haha. The city is so small that you can see a lot of Icelandic artists hanging out. There is definitely a great feeling about this city, because even if the country is away from everything, they do their best to stay in touch: that's why people there are so enthusiastic and creative, they don't want to live in their own bubble. Yes, it was so strange to come back to Paris afterwards, I really felt like being at home in Iceland. I kinda had a post-Iceland depression syndrome haha...
A few years ago Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke moved to Iceland to study the esoteric art of black magic as he felt that the island was the best place to do so since it was slightly less influenced by themurderous witch-hunting culture of the Middle Ages: did the strange (often unforgiving) beauty of the land transmit an otherworldly feeling to you?
Yes, being in Iceland is like being on another planet. You know we had the chance to travel a lot around the world thanks to our music but Iceland remains something very sentimental in our heart and more special than all the places we could see and visit. People are also still very close to their folklore and traditions; they have a lot of respect for nature as well. You know, we almost thought about moving to Iceland, we loved this place SO much, it felt so unreal but familiar at the same time. And I could definitely relate to the otherworldly feelings you can get when you are overthere. Well, maybe one day I will move there, at least for some time. Who knows...
I know you have been eager to shift your music onto something different for a while: the chance to record with Birgir Jón Birgisson must have come as a great personal achievement. How elated were you when he booked you in, were you nervous when you arrived at the studio, and did you find Biggi was already attuned to the dreamy world of Alcest?
I don't think I could say we were nervous when we arrived in the studio, what we felt was excitement. We felt so happy with the idea of recording an album in Iceland with this producer; we just couldn't wait to start the work haha! Biggi was the perfect guy for this job, as nice as talented and experienced. We are very grateful towards him because you know sometimes it's not very easy to work with me in the studio. I am a true perfectionist, doubting a lot, and I feel pressure at times during the process. But he would comfort us and make us feeling confident in every circumstance. Biggi totally got the kind of sound we were looking for; he produced Sigur Ros you know so he is kind of used to dreamy music. And he simply is just a great guy, so that makes the things way easier in general.
Did you have a clear idea of what you wished to achieve with this album? Les Voyages De L'Âme was a transition that hinted at the new Alcest minus the metal but I feel that Shelter captures thesofter, dreamier elements with much more depth. Is this finally the album that you always wanted to make in the first place?
I love the shape of this album, the way it sounds, its flow and the overall feeling of it. I feel proud about “Shelter” and I can say that's the first time I really take pleasure in listening to my own music, which I guess is a really good sign concerning the quality of this album. I like all the Alcest albums of course but I am not a huge fan of the kind of sound we had before (apart from the one of “Souvenirs” which was very special). Perhaps it was a bit too metal and polished. “Shelter” sounds way more organic, “indie” and spontaneous in a way. It is a stand out album in the discography of Alcest, in the sense that it doesn't deal as much as the other albums with the esoteric concept of the band. This concept is still here but the album is more focusing on experiences of my own life and emotions than portraying the Alcestian “otherworld” just like I did in the other releases. With “Shelter” I thought about making an album that can heal the soul, help the listener feeling light and serene. I wanted to make an album I would enjoy myself, like any other listener, which was not a priority before, as weird as it may sound. Alcest before was more something I felt I “had” to do, not necessarly the music I wanted to hear. Now I take things a bit easier, with less pressure and make this sound for my own listening experience.
The album has a nice flow, a wonderful depth of sound and a plethora of shades throughout, yet it feels as if you wanted to keep it as simple and possible.
Oh thank you, I am glad that you noticed this! The music on this album is very rich, full of layers and density but I always try to keep the melodies as simple and as fluid as possible. You know when I compose a song I often have just a guitar and my voice. I try to compose in a minimalistic setting in order to get something essential. The song should be able to work in a stripped down version as well, without tons of effects, layers. That's how we can recognize a good song in my opinion. We also could have the possibility to play it on other instruments and keeping the potential of the song, just in another style.
Is there a track that means more to you on Shelter (my favorite is Délivrance)?
My two favourite tracks are Opale and Délivrance. I love Opale because this song feels very fresh to me compared to what we have done before. It sounds very “indie” and I like the extremely uplifting feeling it has. Délivrance might be my favourite Alcest song at this point, I feel so proud of the main melody that grows and grows and ends as strings and vocals only. This song summs up a lot of things for me related to the Alcest's concept, the deep nostalgia I have, this feeling of “not belonging to here”.
I must confess that the first time I played Shelter I missed your blast beats, since they had a unique feel and fit perfectly to the ambience, but it did not take me long to get used to a full-immersion in what was always the core side of Alcest. I imagine that live youwill carry on mixing in some of the good old stuff: what can we expect during the European dates in February 2014?
Most of the stuff we will play on stage will be from “Shelter” but of course we will always play old classics like “Souvenirs d'un autre monde” or “Percées De Lumière”, even if they are different from our new material. We always try to play songs from all our albums because we know that the fans like that. When I compose music I do it for myself but when we decide to go on stage we do it for the fans mostly.
Do you still feel the urge to listen to black metal?
I don't listen to a lot of black metal anymore, maybe once in a while at some friends of mine's who still listen to black metal and play some.
You have travelled extensively during the last few years, taking Alcest’s music as far as Asia and Australia. I was wondering if you are starting to feel less nostalgic towards your childhood perceptions, perhaps in perceiving the uniqueness and amazing beauty of our planet as less alien and hostile compared to the benign ethereal world you are evoking through your music?
The travels we did opened a lot of new different perspectives for me, and for all of us I am sure. I think that was the most positive aspect of the touring life with Alcest, the fact we met so many incredible people, discovered new continents, new cultures, behaviours, food, etc... In Alcest we are all very open minded and curious people so we love to travel all around the world. Now with all these travels I see the world from a much less European point of view if I may say so. I opened myself up, learnt a lot and now realized that the world is not that big, people not that far from each other...
Equally, has being away from home maybe made you (paradoxically) more grounded as a human being, on the back of the new mind-opening experiences you enjoyed during your travels?
In a way yes, totally. I think these travels helped me in having my feet firmer on the ground, while my mind still goes everywhere, but at least I know that I am not going too far out in that dreamy side of my personality. I think both of these aspects are important, you mind can travel wherever you want but your feet have to be on the ground all that time. I always try to stay humble, concerned about the things around me, curious about everything, open to others and I try to offer the best of myself. Everybody in the band learnt so much from these tours. Travelling helped us being better persons.
You have achieved a lot in the last few years. Having met some of your close friends, such as Fursy Teyssier and Andy Julia, I know you collaborate and share ideas quite a lot amongst yourselves: do you feel that having the backup of such good friends and artists to discuss your projects with had a role in the success that all of you are enjoying in your respective (and varied) fields?
Yes I think people appreciate it when there is a real meaning in collaborations between artists. I often tried to work out my priorities with close friends of mine, such as Andy Julia and Metastazis regarding pictures, cover art and layout of “Shelter”. It's true that when we meet we are discussing a lot about our respective projects, and we share the same passion for music. When Fursy or Andy work on some songs they like to show them to me, and vice versa. Friends’ views and opinions are interesting because they know you well. But well, as a consequence maybe they are not very objective haha...
Finally, now that the writing and recording of the album have been fully processed in your mind, what experiences will you takewith you as building material towards the future of Alcest?
For sure we won't come back to the style we had before. “Shelter” was the first step in a more rock, and also “soundtrack-like” direction and we will definitely continue that in the future, in fact I am already working on some new songs. We learnt a lot from this studio experience, trying to make a really organic and diverse sound, as opposed to the usual metal record that has the same guitar or drums sound for the whole album. On “Shelter”, we used a lot of different amps, percussions, effects and instruments in order to bring a lot of life and diversity to the album. This album has tons of tracks, especially guitar tracks, and maybe sometimes they are swallowing the rest a bit in the mix balance. In the future I think I will try to be more essential, to record less tracks in order to have something maybe a bit more rhythmical. Something tells me that Winterhalter and I will work a lot on the drums sound for the next album. I feel so satisfied with the result of “Shelter” that it gave me a lot of inspiration and motivation for the future, and I am so happy that we finally decided to take this musical direction. And my ultimate dream is to make a movie sountrack one day, so if a film director reads this interview... you know that I am totally up for this :)