Chosen One: Benoît Pioulard
Interview with Thomas Meluch, Benoît Pioulard.
“I still love the ways that magnetic tape creates a veil between sound and its origins”.
—Thomas Meluch (AKA Benoît Pioulard)
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
“Sky’s in the puddles and sun’s in the window pane
Rise from the rudders adrift in the baleful rain”
—‘Ext. Leslie Park’, 2006 (taken from the album ‘Précis’)
The songbook of Benoît Pioulard is one of uniqueness, beauty and originality. Benoît Pioulard is the pseudonym for Seattle-based artist Thomas Meluch, whose gorgeous blend of ambient and folk casts light and inspiration on all us fortunate music collectors. I have always felt that with each and every Benoît Pioulard album, a tremendous sense of solace is embedded at the heart’s core. The songs quietly dissolve into your bloodstream and soon circulate your consciousness long after the music has faded into the dusk of night. The works of Thomas Meluch belong to the realms of drone and song-writing, inhabiting a past we have not yet to arrive at.
I think belonging to the Kranky label is a symbol and testament to a musician’s songcraft in itself. ‘Hymnal’ will be the fourth full-length album under the Benoît Pioulard guise, released March 4th 2013 on Chicago’s Kranky label. The ethos and inspiration floating around the Kranky roster of talents is simply overwhelming. The likes of Grouper, Stars Of The Lid, Loscil, and Tim Hecker, alongside Benoît Pioulard, represent some of the most affecting and inspiring music in the modern age. Meluch’s Kranky debut was ‘Précis’ and this was my first introduction to the ethereal, lo-fi soundscapes of Benoît Pioulard.
To say ‘Précis’ is a cornerstone to my record collection is a slight understatement. I remember the first moment coming into contact with this divine music. My local recordstore, Plugd (during this time located on Washington St) provided my path to Mr Thomas Meluch. ‘Triggering Back’ (the fourth track on the album) poured from the speakers, providing warmth and solace from the Autumn’s cold outside. An album I immediately fell in love with, that soon became a part of me. I feel this album (as well as all the proceeding releases) possesses an otherworldly realm and an honesty that is rare to find in music. Treated acoustic guitars, bells, bass, dulcimer, old tape, samples, field recordings and a myriad of other sources provides the ebb and flow of Benoît Pioulard’s sonic canvas. At its heart, I love just how you hear a musician’s love and fascination with sound, where as a child, armed with tapes and 8-tracks, and “falling in love with that soft fidelity.” Each album represents its own document in space and time, where the endless possibilities of music are successfully sought.
The newest album ‘Hymnal’ represents the latest chapter for Thomas Meluch. Europe served the inspiration and more specifically, the omnipresence of cathedrals and statues. The song ‘Margin’ is the first taste of this new record, and what a special song it is. Beautiful reverb is drenched in the mix of acoustic guitar and warm electronics, percussion and found sounds that encapsulates life, death and the human condition. Limited editions of ‘Hymnal’ are available now that come with a bonus instrumental cd entitled ‘Roanoke’. A work of art awaits us.
“Oh beneath the throne of God
Subtle sighs singe a silent sky
Through which drifts a post-full hazen moon
Into clouds of our own creation”
—’RTO’, 2010 (taken from the album ‘Lasted’)
The new album ‘Hymnal’ is your fourth full-length album for Kranky. Please tell me about this new sonic venture and how you see this record in the Benoît Pioulard songbook?
It’s a funny thing – every time that I’ve finished a record in the past ten years, I have some nagging feeling that it could well be my last… This began when I was still using a 4-track as a teenager, before I’d even endeavored to send songs or a demo around to anyone. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when, after a while, a new wellspring of inspiration appears. In the case of Hymnal it was a move to the UK that spurred things on, as I found myself surrounded by an entirely different kind of religious presence than one finds in the states and, since I was raised in the Catholic church up to a certain age, this brought about a lot of long-dormant thoughts and recollections.
Every record that I’ve made – especially those for kranky – has become a diary of the time period in which it was recorded, since I do everything at home whenever I have time and energy and inspiration to make something… It all seems to arise and pass pretty naturally, and this is something that I have always valued, and will value as long as it persists. This is to say, the new album fits in to my catalogue nicely as a document of my time overseas in the same way Précis is a document of the first serious (and ultimately disastrous) relationship I was ever in.
I was very interested to read how you wrote ‘Hymnal’ while you lived in Europe, and churches across the countries in particular. Can you please discuss how living in Europe sparked your creativity and how it led to the becoming of ‘Hymnal’?
As mentioned above, it had a lot to do with the omnipresence of cathedrals and statues… From my American perspective it’s abundantly clear that Europeans are imbued with a much greater sense of continuity and impermanence based on the history that surrounds them, whereas we in the states are still quite young as a country, born from a spirit of rebellion and youth that seems to create a certain stubbornness and some bizarre certainty in some people’s minds that we’re the “greatest” country on earth, which is a status that’s just not possible.
At the same time I began my tenure in Holland and England, my paternal grandmother passed away – she was essentially my family’s religious core, so when she passed I found myself writing a lot in my notebooks about this fact. The song ‘Litiya’ is about her and the descent that all my grandparents experienced last year. Each of them entered hospice care within a short window of time, and as of a few weeks ago they’ve all passed on.
‘Roanoke’ is a special bonus cd of instrumental music that comes with ‘Hymnal’. What is the relationship between these instrumentals and the songs on ‘Roanoke’? Were they written during the same time?
The two pieces that make up Roanoke were made during my last trip to Portland in October of 2012, which included a huge number of rainy days and afternoons spent creating guitar loops in the living room while my friends were at work or sleeping. I’d been reading a book about the lost colony of Roanoke & felt it was a perfect kind of inspiration for something that sounded as decayed and distant as what I was making… The songs are intended to sound like remnants of something left behind, or maybe something mysterious coming over the horizon, possibly disappearing over the same.
I immediately fell in love with your Kranky debut ‘Précis’ back in 2006. The album has been a cornerstone in my record collection; an album I come back to all the time. Your unique blend of ambient and folk, etched on a hazy lo-fi canvas of sound. I hear pop sensibilities throughout interwoven with field recordings and beautifully layered acoustic guitar and vocals. I can’t begin to explain my love for this music!
Can you please discuss this unique sound of yours and the creative process by which you make your music?
Wow, that’s incredibly flattering, thank you… A lot of the ‘sound’ that I end up with is accidental, since it’s an amalgam of lots of discrete ideas that I kind of pile into a given song… Sometimes it’s more structured and I’ll have a definite idea of what I want something to sound like, but most of the time I approach the recording desk with only the guitar and vocal parts written, and the rest arises through messing about and experimenting with the instruments and devices that I have to hand. The sad thing is, a few people have approached me over the years with requests to produce their albums, but I don’t know the first thing about something like that. I just use GarageBand and play with things until they sound good.
Songs like ‘Ash Into The Sky’, Palimend’ and ‘Sous La Plage’ are my favourites. The use of instrumentation is something that is a precise and delicate art you have mastered over the years. Can you discuss please the instruments and analog devices you have collected over these past years?
I took piano lessons from the age of five, but when I got a second-hand acoustic guitar at the age of 10 I finally began to develop what I think is a personal sensibility about music. I sold that particular guitar long ago, but at the moment I have a pretty basic setup involving a Japanese Stratocaster, Fender Jazz Bass, some off-brand classical guitar that barely stays in tune, and a beautiful steel-string parlour guitar that a friend made custom for me a few years ago.
For sound processing I heavily rely on a pair of microcassette recorders that I’ve had for ages – one of which recently self-destructed and now sits on the shelf of my friend Kyle Bobby Dunn – as well as a reel-to-reel that my wife gave me for our first anniversary and an old Sony carry-cot tape player that creates some weird and lovely grain artifacts, no matter what you put in it. I suppose this all comes from growing up with tapes and 8-tracks, and falling in love with that soft fidelity. I still love the ways that magnetic tape creates a veil between sound and its origins.
You are a self-taught musician. Take me back please to your beginnings with your fascination in sound and what instruments you first played with? What ways did you experiment with sound?
I used to buy packages of 3 or 4 off-brand cassettes from Target for $1 when I was 8 or 9 years old, after I noticed that my radio/cassette boombox had a little opening labeled ‘MIC’ through which you could record your own voice, or the TV, or anything you like. I would spend hours wandering the forest behind our house, whapping trees with sticks, crunching leaves and talking to myself while the tapes recorded everything… I kept them all in a little box so I could listen to them later or on headphones if I was having trouble sleeping, which I often did. I think some of these may have resulted in a set of dreams I once had that still recur quite vividly from time to time.
You have a fascination with natural sounds and the textures of decay. Listening to your music I can feel this; the embers of flames, drifting memories and fleeting emotion embedded in old tape samples, field recordings and layered sounds, in what makes for a divine sonic tapestry.
What triggered this fascination for you and how it filters into your music?
I reckon my response to the last question suits this one pretty well !
You are based in Portland, Oregon. How does this place influence your music?
I was in Portland for almost five years, but now I’ve moved a couple hundred miles north to Seattle… The two cities are similar in certain ways, the most striking of which (for me) involve the natural scenery, which is just mind-bending. In Seattle – even from the city center – you’re not more than 20 minutes by car from the ocean or the mountains, and it’s a glorious landscape of trees, mist, dynamic topography and overwhelming calm, despite having most of the trappings of a normal city. I don’t suppose I could specify the ways in which the Pacific Northwest has guided my music, but I do feel that there’s something about it that has imbued all the recordings I’ve made here with a certain dewy, overcast environment.
I love your approach to promoting the new album ‘Hymnal’, where pre-ordering the album will enable music fans to get a host of exclusives (instrumental album, signed editions.) I have pre-ordered mine and can’t wait for its arrival. You have released your albums on the prestigious Kranky label. What is it like being on this label, alongside many like-minded artists and where your art is appreciated?
Yeah, thanks for that! Such support means the world to me, really and truly… and as for being with kranky, I still sometimes can’t believe it. Along with Warp Records, kranky was one of the first labels I really ‘trusted’ in terms of their catalogue. Once I discovered Labradford and Windy & Carl in my early teens, I recognized the kind of consistency that some labels could offer, and I became a collector. Once they responded to the 7” demo that I sent in 2005 and we agreed to a release deal, I felt someone must have been pulling a joke on me. But here we are at LP number four.
What are you currently listening to?
This very moment I’m listening to some drafts of a record that I’m making with the aforementioned Kyle Bobby Dunn, which will hopefully be released before we both leave this mortal coil. When I started answering these questions I was listening to his album “A Young Person’s Guide”, but that ended & my playlist transitioned into some of the pieces he sent me last year. That guy’s a genius, as far as I’m concerned.
Do you have a European tour planned for 2013, Tom? (I sincerely hope so.)
I would love to organize to have you perform here in Cork, Ireland at whatever time suits you in terms of touring schedules. In fact, I have the venue in mind! The cafe that is on the same floor has a series of vinyl covers adorning the walls. One of those vinyls is ‘Précis’ by Benoît Pioulard:)
Not yet, although I was very pleased to have gotten to play so many shows while I was in the UK and Europe in 2012… For now I’ve got a US tour to attend to, and some vague hopes of cobbling something together for the autumn of this year across the ocean. Thank you again for the amazing support & well wishes – I’ve never been to Ireland but would love to make something like that happen !
The highly limited edition of ‘Hymnal’ (along with signed copies of the standard cd/lp versions) is available for pre-order through an indiegogo campaign