Chosen One: Benoît Pioulard
Interview with Thomas Meluch.
“I’d spend 3 or 4 mornings a week at some park or other in the midst of a long bike ride, taping the sounds of anything I could find that was loud enough. The trains and beach-combers at Golden Gardens, the dozens of bird species along the Sammamish River, the weird corners of the so-called ‘Factoria’ industrial area.”
Words: Mark Carry
‘Sonnet’ is the fifth Kranky album by Thomas Meluch under his musical alias Benoît Pioulard, following the 2006 debut full-length ‘Précis’, ‘Temper’ (2008), ‘Lasted’ (2010) and 2013’s ‘Hymnal’. The American sound sculptor – in a similar fashion to his label-mates Loscil, Grouper and Pan American – has amassed a rich body of empowering work, seamlessly creating some of the most affecting and captivating ambient-based compositions of the past decade.
The latest record ‘Sonnet’ represents quite a significant departure for the Seattle-based musician (in contrast to previous records that consisted of more song-oriented structures with the core instrumentation of guitar and voice) but ‘Sonnet’’s divine world of swirling ambient sounds and luminous guitar tones – awash with a myriad of field recordings and found sounds – feels like an awakening; steeped in raw emotion and feeling. In many ways, ‘Sonnet’ feels very closely related to Meluch’s previous recording output: capturing the infinite array of transcendent moments that are dotted across the multi-instrumentalist’s sacred songbook.
The album was recorded in the summer and fall of 2013; some harmony loops originated from some vivid dreams experienced by Meluch. Furthermore, no digital/software alterations can be found on the album, which further heightens the experience and sense of emotional journey that sublime ambient compositions such as ‘The Gilded Fear That Guides The Flow’, ‘Of Everything That Rhymes’ and ‘An Image Apart From Ourselves’ guide you on. A seamless array of guitar loops are masterfully crafted by Meluch – many of which were mimicked from found sounds such as bird songs, locust drones and so on – which in turn creates a ceaselessly radiant light of sacred tones soaked in true transcendence.
‘Sonnet’ is out now on Kranky.
Interview with Thomas Meluch.
Congratulations on the sublime new record, ‘Sonnet’. It’s a real pleasure to speak with you again about this new record. First of all, it’s wonderful to see how ‘Sonnet’ represents quite a significant departure for you (in contrast to previous records) but after many re-visits, in many ways the record feels very closely related: capturing the infinite array of transcendent moments that are dotted across the Benoit Pioulard songbook. Please take me back to the summer and fall of 2013 – the space and time this record was created – and how the songs evolved into their final entities? Was there a moment during this time that you felt these songs would be primarily-based on field recordings?
Thomas Meluch: After recording ‘Hymnal’ I felt no drive to write songs with structure and vocals the way that I have for a long time, so after leaving the UK and taking six months to finally settle down in Seattle I satisfied my creative needs by focusing on field recordings — initially this was an excuse to get out & about and re-familiarize myself with the city, but it became a pretty obsessive project by the summertime. I’d spend 3 or 4 mornings a week at some park or other in the midst of a long bike ride, taping the sounds of anything I could find that was loud enough. The trains and beach-combers at Golden Gardens, the dozens of bird species along the Sammamish River, the weird corners of the so-called ‘Factoria’ industrial area. I began to notice that a lot of these things contained subtle harmonies and repetitions, so when I was more in the mood to pick up the guitar I used those recordings as a primary motivation and things evolved from there.
I was very interested to read how you described ‘Sonnet’ as “an exercise in restraint”, a sentiment which echoes powerfully throughout these divine ambient explorations. In my mind, the record inhabits this other-worldly dimension of your label-mate, Loscil and feels certainly like a distant companion to your previous LP, ‘Hymnal’ (and actually more specifically, the ‘Hymnal’ remix record). I would love to gain an insight into your mind-set and indeed this exercise of creating musical compositions that were centred on field recordings from a plethora of found sounds that you were surrounded by?
TM: This is what I was talking about before, but the bit about restraint, well that came from the realization that if I were trying to interpret these sounds that occur in their pristine, unadorned form, I ought to follow that same guideline shouldn’t I? I remember recording ‘Précis‘ ten years ago, thinking how lucky I’d gotten to pair with a label as amazing as kranky and figuring I’d release one record and be dropped — so I wanted to put every musical idea I’d ever had into it, which is why it’s a pretty dense record by my own measure. Now that I’m significantly older and have found a sort of niche with what I do, it’s wonderful to be feel so comfortable doing whatever I please compositionally without any similar worries.
The record works as one large cohesive whole as opposed to a collection of individual tracks (which of course it is as well!) One of the defining moments arrives half-way through with the arrival of your voice on ‘A Shade Of Celadon’, forming ‘Sonnet’s shimmering centrepiece. What I love is how when certain elements arrive into the forefront of the mix (for example, your voice on ‘A Shade Of Celadon’), it immediately makes a profound impact. Can you talk me through the sequencing of the record, Tom and indeed how you wanted the record to only contain what you felt was absolutely essential?
TM: It required months, really — the track titles alone took several weeks of obsessive revision in order to work the way I wanted them to, to the point that it kept me up some nights. I realize that’s ridiculous, but this is what happens when I feel on the cusp of attaining a particular result. Once I was about halfway finished recording the album and had a general structure in mind, I kind of let that idea guide the subsequent compositions in certain ways to create the flow I heard in my head. As a former film student I put a great emphasis on pacing, which is something that results more from gut feeling than anything else. Each piece is loop-based but as a whole I didn’t relish the thought of repeating anything across the span of the record.
My current favourite is ‘Of Everything That Rhymes’; a pristine ambient cut where an ethereal feel permeates throughout. Please discuss the instrumentation utilized here and your memories of creating this particular piece? The beautiful harmonies could trace the moonlit skies or waves of vast blue seas such is its stunning beauty.
TM: This is one that’s mostly the result of a lucky accident — the song begins with a loop of bowed bells on tape, which I originally played in an arbitrary succession. When the loop was constructed it had this very distinct progression that I built on with voice and bowed bass, which are the main parts of the rest of the song. The bubbling guitar parts in the left and right channels are also constructed with random engagement of the loop pedal with different loop lengths, so they interact with each other uniquely on each cycle.
The song-titles chosen for each of these fourteen songs feel very important and considered. The words themselves (without the accompanying music) feel like chapters to a novel – or indeed form a sonnet, so to speak – as a striking narrative is forged. I wonder was there certain inspiration drawn from the choice of these song-titles?
TM: Like I said it took an awfully long time to reach the final sequence of song titles. Some are alliterative twins (‘As would a weaver’ and ‘That wounded weathered’) whose sounds are mirror images to me and there are some other common threads running through them that people can take to mean what they like. But the first title I had in mind was ‘The gilded fear that guides the flow’, which for me is the fear of death I experienced acutely for the first time after the passing in short succession of all my grandparents a few years ago. It was even going to be the title of the album for a while. The ‘break arch’ is part of certain kinds of clocks, which relates to my wife’s profession in horology. ‘Shut-ins on Sunday see’ refers to my grandmother watching church sermons on TV on Sunday mornings at 6am after she was no longer physically able to attend mass in-person. And so on.
No digital/software manipulation was carried out on ‘Sonnet’. Please discuss the studio set-up and indeed your love and fascination with analog tape? I can imagine the recording process felt quite a liberating experience when you found yourself creating music from strictly organic means?
TM: My love of tape began with my first cassette deck at the age of 6 or 7, and my realization that you could transform any tape into a recordable one and document any sound you want. I’ve never gotten tired of the way that analog tape softens the edges of whatever you put on it, makes it warmer and friendlier to the ear. Simplifying things as I did with this record, I did feel a different part of my brain activated — a less mathematical and more emotional one, I think. I primarily used the instruments listed on the sleeve (guitar, bass, voice, bells, dulcimer, piano, and others) as well as the radio interference that occurs in my neighbourhood in the middle of the day and the four or five guitar pedals that I’ve had for about a decade now.
Lawrence English mastered the new record. I wonder in what way did ‘Sonnet’ change or transform after this process?
TM: It wasn’t a huge leap sonically but he tied everything together and created a fuller picture from the individual parts, made it a little warmer and dynamically cohesive. His ear is of course very well-tuned to organic sounds and to this type of work, so it was certainly a natural fit.
Another glorious track is ‘An Image Apart From Ourselves’. I must ask what exactly is the song’s rhythmic pulse? It feels like a series of voices which takes on quite a magical quality. Again, the record is full of so many happy accidents where this spark of creativity lies at the heart of ‘Sonnet’.
TM: Yes, that was the result of the aforementioned radio interference that occurs with my tube amplifier — one afternoon it was particularly intense when I was trying to record something, so I let go of my impatience and incorporated the voices into the piece after turning up the tremolo mix all the way.
The handmade edition of ‘Sonnet’ is a truly wonderful work of art in itself, Tom. Please talk me through the assembling of this special work? Also, the polaroids are sublime. Can you please discuss the correlation between photography – and the act of taking pictures – and creating music?
TM: Thanks! The handmade packages have become a kind of ‘reward’ for me once I finish a record, like I get to put my hands to something physical to accompany the music, which is an important connection for me. This time around I thought it’d be appropriate to make something subdued to balance out the vibrant colours of the record sleeve, hence the craft-paper zine with all the liner notes and xeroxed photos.. The second disc of music (‘Stanza’) is meant to be a kind of foil to the album, in that each piece was recorded with the same instrumentation and at a temporal remove of almost a year. By the time I recorded those pieces I had moved house, turned 30 and experienced a few other significant life changes, so packaging those two recordings together was meaningful for me as a way to reconcile my current and former lives, so to speak.
What is next for you, Tom?
TM: I never know — I’ve got half of another record written, but my passion currently lies with extended guitar improvisatons in my living room since I’ve moved to a bigger place in the last few months. It’s a productive form of healing whatever might be getting me down, and it’s the most selfish use of music that I can think of, but that’s not a crime is it?
‘Sonnet’ is out now on Kranky.