ALCEST The French connection

alcestpromoimageIt’s not an overstatement to call Alcest pioneers. Long before Deafheaven’s Sunbather topped critics’ charts and the word “blackgaze” was flung around message boards with an equal mix of derision and admiration, the French band’s founding member and primary instrumentalist Niege was marrying the sun-drenched nostalgia of My Bloody Valentine and Lush and the ferocity of Burzum in a series of ambitious but largely underappreciated records in the mid-2000s. Before they return to Perth to play Badlands on April 29, MATTHEW TOMICH spoke with Niege about the inspirations behind latest record Kodama, the current world tour and what the future holds for Alcest.

Last year’s Kodama is an intense and at times punishing seven-track collection that harkens back to the atmospheric majesty of their early catalogue. Drawing thematic inspiration from the Studio Ghibli-produced epic fantasy Princess Mononoke, it’s the band’s most conceptually and sonically rich release to date.

You’ve just finished a series of shows in Japan, and Japanese culture has been a big influence on your latest record, Kodama. What was it like playing those songs in the country that inspired them?

It felt amazing obviously, like a sort of accomplishment. Japan inspired me a lot in the writing of Kodama and the fact to be back there to play these songs was a confirmation that Japanese culture has always been a part of me, and that Kodama will be an important album within our discography.

When you made the last Alcest record, 2014’s Shelter, you mentioned you’d developed an obsession with Slowdive during the writing stage. Who were you listening to during the writing of Kodama?

That’s right, I was really into Slowdive for years before making Shelter. I listened to them all the time and you can definitely hear their influence on the record. For Kodama I was listening to a lot of different things, which didn’t necessarily had a direct impact on the record but that all inspired me in a certain way. Bands like Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure, Grimes, Dinosaur Jr, Explosions in the Sky. I always try to transform and digest the outside influences, so that in the end it still sounds like an Alcest record. I do believe that we have our own, recognizable sound and I want to keep that.

Alcest’s studio setup is just yourself and percussionist Winterhalter, whereas you bring in another guitarist and bassist for the live shows. How does that affect your approach to writing music and performance when you operate as two different units?

The studio and live approaches are two very different things and I don’t think that the fact that we are 4 on stage affects our creativity as 2 individuals on the records. However, I often try to figure out how a song is going to sound live. I think it’s a good way to know if something is going to work out or not on the record. I don’t really believe in great songs that doesn’t translate well live. In my opinion a great song has necessarily the ability to sound good live (if the interpretation is right). If it’s not the case, maybe that means that the song isn’t that great.

This album is heavily influenced by Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke – what drew you to the movie so much that you wanted to make a record about it?

The record isn’t really about the movie. It’s just one out of many different topics that the album has. I always loved Miyazaki’s work and I think that the themes of Princess Mononoke are really close to the ones we have in Alcest so it felt natural to me to get some inspiration from it and pay a homage to it.

The story of that movie is centred around a war – is conflict the key theme that runs through this album for you?

If not war I would say that the album is about opposites. Wild world/human world (just like in the movie), ethereal/earthly, sadness/hope (this opposition is the main ingredient of the feeling that is in our music), feminine/animal, youth/death, etc… The songs on this album are very contrasted too and we wanted them to be really dynamic.

Kodama’s closing track, Onyx, feels different to the rest of the album – it’s shorter, subdued and minimal, in stark contrast to the maximalist thread running throughout the other tracks. Where does that fit into the overall story of the record?

It’s a kind of tradition for Alcest to have a standout track at the end of the album. Onyx is the one of Kodama. It was supposed to evoke a hypnotic post-apocalyptic feeling. It also has a kind of volcanic/earthly sound, just like if you were at the center of the Earth.

You’ve been extremely active and prolific with Alcest over the last decade, releasing a new album every two years since 2010, followed by an intense touring schedule. Do you see yourself maintaining that pace and releasing another album by 2018, or will you take some more time away to work on other projects after finishing the tours for Kodama?

I don’t think we will be able to maintain that pace for the next record as we didn’t stop touring since the release of Kodama. I think we’ve never worked and played live as much as we are doing right now. The next album will be the sixth and I want to take my time for this one, including some well-deserved rest in the meantime.

This tour will see you travel to China and Australia for the second time – did you ever think when you started recording under the Alcest name at age 14 that you’d end up making a living playing music?

Of course I never thought that I would have this kind of life 15 years after I created the project. It’s incredible that Alcest still exists when you know where it came from. I grew up in a very small town in the south of France, with nobody around playing music or even listening to music the way I did. For many years my family wasn’t really approving my choices but now that they see how far we’ve been, they’ve got a lot of respect for my career. By growing up in such a context I always had a lot of things to prove; to the others and to myself.

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