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Chosen One: Benoît Pioulard

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Interview with Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard).

“…making music has always been a selfish thing that’s rooted in examination of the self, of questioning of the universe and reconciling the two.”

—Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard).

Words: Mark Carry

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This year marks the tenth anniversary of Benoît Pioulard’s prized debut ‘Précis’. Released on the awe-inspiring Chicago label Kranky, the album won the hearts of many with its fragile beauty, heartfelt vocals, shimmering guitar textures, lo-fi production and sincere, beating heart. In truth, Seattle-based sound sculptor Thomas Meluch has continually pushed the sonic envelop and illuminate inner-most feelings through his poignant folk explorations and drone-infused ambient soundscapes over the intervening years. Across records such as ‘Lasted’, ‘Hymnal’ and ‘Sonnet’, the master producer and songwriter has further developed his trademark style: field recordings and ambient bliss become interwoven and buried deep in one’s mind, awash with life’s fleeting moments and faded dreams.

In many ways, this year’s eagerly-awaited ‘The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter’ moves closer to the sonic trajectory of ‘Précis’, which sees Meluch return to the core foundation of voice and guitar. Furthermore, what reveals after many revisits is a distillation of the treasured Benoît Pioulard songbook thus far, where cathartic ballads such as ‘I Walked Into The Blackness And Built A Fire’ (one of the record’s defining moments), endearing pop laments (‘Layette’ with its heavenly harmonies and pristine production), utterly transcendent drone soundscapes (as captured on the cinematic album closer ‘Ruth’) and empowering torch-lit ballads (‘A Mantle For Charon’). Immediately, the rich tapestry and gorgeous melody of ‘A Mantle For Charon’ triggers back to the rich poignancy of ‘Sous La Plage’ or ‘Ash Into The Sky’ (taken from the closing section of ‘Précis’). ‘The Listening Matter’ unfolds like a tapestry of illusions and dreams that awaken a resonance of related feelings and moods: a veil to comfort and protect.

Nietzsche’s writings from 1878’s ‘Human, All Too Human’ I feel shares a fitting parallel with the themes explored on the sound sculptor’s latest masterwork. “Resonance. All intense moods bring with them a resonance of related feelings and moods; they seem to stir up memory. Something in us remembers and becomes aware of similar states and their origin. Thus habitual, rapid associations of feelings and thoughts are formed, which, when they follow with lightning speed upon one another, are eventually no longer felt as complexes, but rather as unities”. The glittering thirteen tracks beautifully captured on ‘The Listening Matter’ are similarly felt as “unities”, with which a river of intense emotion become engrained deep in the rich embers of Meluch’s sonic tapestry. An image that perfectly depicts this illuminating record is also one of the album’s song-titles: “I Walked Into The Blackness And Built A Fire’. The radiant light of hope and strength lifts from the embers of the flames.

‘The Benoît  Pioulard Listening Matter’ is available now on Kranky.

https://www.facebook.com/pioulard/

https://www.facebook.com/Kranky-279206347288/

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Interview with Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard).

 

Congratulations on the stunningly beautiful new full-length, ‘Listening Matter’. I love how on one hand, it’s a full-circle back to the debut record ‘Precis’ with its introspective lo-fi folk-infused ambient soundscapes and beautifully realized (& vocal-based) pop structures. But on so many other levels, there’s very much a continuation of the luminous guitar-based loops of found sounds and field recordings explored on the previous ‘Sonnet’ LP for instance, so ‘Listening Matter’ really does feel like a crystallization of the many elements that have been captured in the Benoît Pioulard songbook thus far. Please talk me through the making of ‘Listening Matter’, which has been two years in the making?

Thomas Meluch: A few of the songs were written & recorded in 2014 with a view to making a 7” that would have come out with ‘Sonnet’ as a kind of pop-antidote to the instrumental nature of that album… But that plan was abandoned for various reasons outside my control, and after a while I drafted songs until I had a half-dozen more, which were recorded in a dedicated stretch back in February of this year – some of the instrumental pieces came from other phases in between, but most of the record was done in one very brief stretch after the reservoir couldn’t hold any more…

Your set-up of voice, guitar, loops and some effect pedals has been a trusted constant for you this past decade and on the latest record, it feels as if the results have never been so exceptional and rewarding. The pacing of the record with the carefully interspersed instrumental ambient voyages, makes for such a fulfilling journey. Can you talk me through your studio set-up and layers of sonic detail that seeps into these new tracks of yours and how the minimal framework from which you work from informs this singular, unique sound you have developed?

TM: The website Headphone Commute kindly posted a thing about my ‘studio’ last year, which covers a lot of that. It’s fairly basic but very familiar, and I still use GarageBand and tape recorders for everything, which creates a lot of the lo-fi qualities I enjoy weaving in. I’ve been very glad to maintain, over the years, an ability to listen back to a basic recording and hear what’s missing, so that allows me to get creative in filling in those gaps and attaining the little specific sounds and melodies that buttress the main parts of a given tune.

One of the hallmarks of Listening Matter is indeed the healing quality of the music, and a spirit of defiance resides throughout. I was saddened to learn of your brother’s passing during the late stages of the album itself, and the deeply heartfelt laments such as ‘A Mantle For Charon’ (which I feel is one of your most beautiful songs recorded to tape) feel like an incredible tribute to someone so close and special to you. As a listener, there is a real sense of catharsis throughout these songs, a release if you will, and I can imagine that this sort of effect was occurring for you during the writing and recording stages (as it must always do for the music-making process)? 

TM: Most definitely, and I often wonder how anyone can get along without some kind of creative outlet, as making music has always been a selfish thing that’s rooted in examination of the self, of questioning of the universe and reconciling the two; especially when there’s discord or melancholy in my day-to-day. Most of the lyrics here have to do with self-medication, epiphanies, and all my attempts to smirk at the infinite.

There is a beautiful simplicity to the gorgeous ‘Layette’ with the warm percussion and heavenly harmonies. Was is it a case that some of these songs were conceived and put to tape in quite an effortless and quick fashion? Please recount your memories of the writing of ‘Layette’ and the inspiration in which is draws from?

TM: Yeah, that song in particular was recorded front-to-back in about 2 hours, including dubbing and re-dubbing to mono cassette over old IDM tracks. I wrote it back in 2014, though, and the first version only had one verse so the whole song was about 45 seconds long. This one by comparison is an epic.

I recall you describing several bicycle journeys each week during the making of ‘Sonnet’, which formed the backdrop to many of the resultant tracks and sonic make-up. I wonder did you have such rituals or habits during the making of ‘Listening Matter’ and how soon did you realize that this album would see you return to the more vocal-based song structures?

TM: As mentioned before, a lot of this album was written over a long time and recorded in a very short span, so when I surveyed all the songs I wanted to include I found a way to prioritize and order them – I can never work on more than one song at one time – and worked during every free minute for about three and a half weeks… Before and after work, often late into the night, etc. I just had to clear out the attic, you know. At this point I haven’t written a song with lyrics in over a year, so I wonder if I ever will again. It’s completely possible that I won’t, but I get a lot of peace from that thought as I remain satisfied with everything I’ve made up to this point. What a trip to think that it’s been 10 years since the first one!

Outside of the six Kranky full-lengths, you have been releasing a plethora of equally enthralling musical explorations via your bandcamp page. I always love the DIY aesthetic and handmade feel to all the releases you put out. Looking over your impressive output to date, so many tributaries and streams flow from the many varied projects and indeed each feels connected to one on another also, on a very deep level. The gradual bliss of ‘Seize/Marre’ from last year is a wonderful document in its own right but which also pointed to the musical trajectory of what would come next. Can you discuss the space in time in which this sublime 7″ was brought to life? Also, where do you feel the sonic terrain is heading towards? The possibilities as ever feel (in a word) endless.

TM: A fair number of people have asked me over the years if I would ever widely release any of the things I made on my 4-track as a teenager; given that I’m reticent to do that for various reasons, I thought it’d be nice to revisit those recordings myself, skim off the ideas I like best and use them for something more concise. Hence the lyrics for ‘Seize’ (French for ‘sixteen’, my age at the time) are taken from a few different early songs, as are most of the background elements. ‘Marre’ is a processed collage of a few early ambient experiments from around the same period.

I get the impression that a lot of your work – not least on ‘Listening Matter’ – are based on ideas and sketches of songs from many years previously, where remnants of past memories are re-collected and relinquished on the particular recording. I’d love for you to shed some light on this (if possible!) and maybe the library of sounds you have amassed from a young age? I can imagine there is a close symmetry between music and memory, and how your life in music – and musical life is synonymous with life’s memory.

TM: Yeah, I consider everything in my possession to be fair game, as far as my bin of notebooks and tapes, old photos and all of that. Many of these things work themselves into newer works as they earn new context in my life or illuminate something that I’m drawing on for current inspiration, if that makes sense. Maybe the best example of that on the new album is the second half of “Like there’s nothing under you”, which rips off a 40-second song I wrote for bass guitar and voice back in 2007, during one of the two times I was ever high on cocaine. Never really thought I’d find a place to use that, come to think of it, but here we are. The main vocal melody of “A mantle for Charon” is based on a little melody that I’ve found myself singing idly from time to time for probably 15 years, and I never found a way to use it before writing that song. Things just have to gestate sometimes, I suppose.

I wonder were there any happy accidents that occurred that wound up on ‘Listening Matter’? Another hallmark of this record too I feel is just how vast the sound-world formed is, in just under 26 minutes. For that reason, was the editing and final sequencing stages a difficult part to the overall process?

TM: I really love the way the bird chirps unintentionally respond to my vocals on the song “Defect”, especially as I just blindly dropped that field recording in when I was arranging it. Also, the cassette deck I bought shortly before recording this album wasn’t originally intended as a production tool but I loved its compression so much when I started toying with it that I ended up finding lots of ways to incorporate it, particularly on “Layette” and “Blackness”. As far as sequencing it didn’t really take a whole lot of effort as I found a sort of narrative across the songs as I was recording them and considering final lyric revisions, so for me it tells its own story from start to finish, and there are a few places where one needs to pause and take a drink of water.

Please discuss any records, books, films you have enjoyed the past few weeks and months, Tom?

TM: I’m currently listening to the new Casino Versus Japan double-cassette Frozen Geometry, which is utterly fantastic… But no surprise there. I’ve also been quite enamoured of my friend Dustin’s work as Skin Lies, as well as the drumming of Elvin Jones and guitar of Grant Green over the last few months. Oh and the new Herzog documentary Lo and Behold was wonderful in its ability to make me feel like an incredibly tiny blip on a very long technological timeline. I often wonder which things I use, learn and say every day will be viewed as quaint in the future.

‘The Benoît  Pioulard Listening Matter’ is available now on Kranky.

https://www.facebook.com/pioulard/

https://www.facebook.com/Kranky-279206347288/

 

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November 1, 2016 at 8:54 pm