On improvisation, sonic exploration and Holger Czukay
Just recently, Grönland Records reissued two collaborative albums by David Sylvian and Holger Czukay – Plight & Premonition and Flux & Mutability. Touchstones in the evolution of ambient music, they rank among the very best of Sylvian’s output. I was fortunate to interview Sylvian – via email only, sadly – for the latest issue of Uncut. Alas, there wasn’t room in the magazine to print the interview with David in full – so here’s the full transcript. Enjoy!
Secrets Of The Beehive was released in 1987: did you have any specific idea where you wanted to head next, creatively?
Plight and Premonition was recorded prior to Secrets Of The Beehive. It’s not indicative of a planned personal or musical evolution, instead it was born out of my friendship with Holger which had to have been reliant upon love, shared interests, goals, ambitions, and mutual respect. We got an immense amount of pleasure sharing in one another’s company so I’m inclined to place the emphasis on the ease of our relationship and where that happened to collectively lead us.
Holger was evidently impressed with you; but what impressed you about him?
With Movies he’d created a genre defying classic album that continues to impress even when listened to today. It’s an incredibly innovative piece of work. We spent a good deal of time together in the ‘80s, prior to my moving to the States. He was an incredible raconteur with an endearing sense of humour. It’s virtually impossible to think of Holger without a smile on his face. In his earlier incarnation as a member of the band Can, he tends to appear quite intense in group photographs, but he went through a radical change on leaving the band. He claimed he suffered a minor nervous breakdown and the story of his recovery is a rather remarkable one in which it’s impossible to discriminate between fact and fiction, reality and altered states. When he emerged from this experience he claimed to have discovered his sense of humour, which is very much to the fore in albums such as ‘Movies’. One of the very few musicians who could incorporate humour into the fabric of an album without diminishing the powerfully groundbreaking quality of the work (Hassell claimed humour in music was comparable to the same in sex, which may possibly say more about Jon than anything else, but you can see what he was getting at). In his role as composer, producer, musician, and engineer he was a genuine innovator. To work with him, or to witness him at work, was to see an entirely different methodology utilized than the kind you’d likely find as standard in professional recording facilities of the time. Now that a good deal of recording takes place outside of such institutions it’s possible there’s more room for personal innovation than there once appeared. But judging by the limitations of the technology touted by the recording industry, harping on about authentic recreations of technology of the past, I can’t be certain. Holger’s was a uniquely inventive mindset, beyond replication.
How did the collaborative process work in the studio?
On this particular project: At Holger’s request, we’d convened at Can Studios with the intention of my recording a vocal for a track on what was to become Holger’s album Rome remains Rome. It was late in the evening and we were just talking, prepping for the work which was to be started the following day. Along the left and right sides of the studio, a variety of instruments were lined up. Towards the back was a grand piano and behind that, at the very back of the room, Jaki’s set up. I’d always loved the sound of pump organs but had never had the opportunity to play one. Here one sat towards the back of the room. I quietly seated myself and started up a drone of sorts, letting the bellows breathe, an asthmatic wheezing of tones which appealed to my ear. After a short while I heard various orchestral samples being pumped through a fold back system I hadn’t taken stock of, dotted around the open central space of the studio. I fell into a trance-like state as I played along with the etherial sounds which looped over and over, resounding around the room. After awhile I got up and moved to the piano. I dabbled, looking for a pattern to complement the loops, I played for 10-15mins or so before I found what I was looking for when Holger announced “That’s enough David, move onto something else.” It was then I realised that the analogue multitrack was in record. Until that moment I’d no idea this impromptu performance being documented. Holger had cut me short the moment he’d heard me begin to ‘compose’ a line. He’d only wanted the process, the uncertainty, the ambiguity of the searching out of ideas. And so the night went on. I’d pick up an instrument and play until a figure began to emerge and then the machines would be taken out of record mode. The basis for P&P was created in this manner. With Flux And Mutability a different approach was taken. It’s not possible, nor desirable, to repeat a particular process in the hope of achieving similar results so there was never a method of working together than we adhered to.
Flux & Mutability featured contributions from Jaki Liebezeit and Michael Karoli. Tell us a little about witnessing first hand (most of) Can at work in their natural habitat, Can Studios?
If I were to answer this as I imagine Robert Fripp might, I’d say the experience was a mixture of exhilaration, frustration, dedication, and hard work. In other words, a typical day in the life of a musician.
The titles of both albums are complimentary to one another. Did you and Holger always envisage there being two parts to this project?
We’d not even planned the first. P&P came about spontaneously while we were hanging out at Can Studios.
You’re evidently very proud of these records. What qualities most stand out to you now?
Proud isn’t a word I’d ever use to describe my feelings about any of the work I’ve produced. It either does its job or it falls short, if very fortunate, by a small margin, at others, by a long mile. Plight And Premonition doesn’t fall too short. We’d happened upon a form of composition that gave the impression that the sounds had been created while we were absent by instruments abandoned to the earth and the woods, sounded by the coarse winter elements. Or, the unanticipated impression on listening back to the work was that there was no one person dictating the direction of the pieces, as if the sounds on tape were created by the ghosts of the instruments themselves.
Was there anything you learned or developed with Holger – different working practices, fresh perspectives – that you took with you into your next project, Rain Tree Crow?
Simply put, improvisation became part of my compositional toolkit and it’s played and increasingly important part in my work as time’s gone on particularly, but not exclusively so, on projects such as Blemish and Manafon.
How much did your work with Holger go on to influence your own solo career?
Difficult to say. I’d already begun to embrace improvisation, prior to fully collaborating with Holger, on a project entitled Steel Cathedrals. As we move through life we absorb all manner of ‘influences’ from a variety of people, unexpected sources. Sometimes it’s easier for those standing on the outside to discern what influences might’ve been drawn upon and from where. For the individual creating the material all has been well digested to the point that, whatever the impetus for a project might’ve been, the innumerable influences have been so thoroughly absorbed as to become part of one’s own vocabulary.
Is there a thread that links your collaborators like Holger, your brother, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Robert Fripp and many more?
Not that I can think of. At best it’s a question of personal chemistry, shared goals, and suitably compatible aesthetics. Frequently, I simply have something I need to put down or explore in some form or another and I seek out the most appropriate ‘voices’ for the job. Putting together a unique constellation of ‘voices’ for any given session or project is part of the creative freedom, the thrill of what it is I’ve been able to do in my work.
Dead Bees On A Cake enjoyed a welcome Record Store Day vinyl edition. But what other projects – new or archival, musical or otherwise – are you currently working on?
I’m not currently thinking about a future in the arts. To quote Sarah Kendzior from her book The View From Flyover Country, “In an article for Slate, Jessica Olien debunks the myth that originality and inventiveness are valued in U.S. society: “‘This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don’t actually like it.’”
Our latest addition to the Uncut family focusses on Bob and his legendary cohorts
50 years ago, The Band released their debut album, Music From Big Pink. To celebrate this momentous anniversary, we’re delighted to unveil our latest Ultimate Music Guide – dedicated to the The Band and their storied some-time collaborator, Bob Dylan. As John Robinson, our one-shots editor, says, “From the speedy and controversial thrills of their 1966 UK tour to the tranquil idylls of Woodstock, into the 1970s and beyond, this is the definitive story of one of music’s greatest partnerships.”
The issue – on sale from Thursday, though you can pre-order it here – is full of classic archive interviews from the Melody Maker and NME as well as brand new reviews of The Band’s catalogue and the collaborative albums recorded with Dylan. It begins with Allan Jones on Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volume 4 – the Royal Albert Hall concert of “Judas!” fame – and includes splendid reviews from Stephen Troussé on Music From Big Pink, Jon Dale on The Basement Tapes and plenty more.
Critically, this special issue also includes an all-new introduction from Robbie Robertson. “I really enjoy the fact that whatever we did together – the guys and myself – has this lasting quality to it,” he says. “So many younger artists comment on how much The Band has meant to them, and how it inspired them. That’s good medicine, knowing that the music lives on.”
The best sounds from the Uncut stereo to ease you through the heat and the football...
Splendid start to the day with the arrival of Boz Scaggs’ cover of “On The Beach”, complete with Jim Keltner on drums. There’s a lot else besides we’ve enjoyed this week in the office – The Other Years, Szun Waves and Thousand Foot Whale Claw. A couple of other things on the horizon I can’t quite share yet, but suffice to say there’s some excellent new music to come in the next few months.
The latest sounds direct from the Uncut office stereo
A lot to dig into for this playlist. Standouts for me are Beak> at their Motorik best, Elkhorn’s expressive folk/psych-rock – the best 18 minutes and 22 seconds you’ll have this week, I promise – while the first fruits of Brocker Way’s stand-alone Wild Wild Country’s soundtrack finally emerge. Anyway, I’ll let you decide. Meanwhile, before you get stuck in, here’s a gentle reminder that our latest issue is on sale, with Prince on the cover and a lot more besides to enjoy inside. You can read all about it here.
To Robert Smith, The Cure’s 40th anniversary presents a number of opportunities. Does he, for instance, choose to mark this momentous occasion with band’s first album of new material for a decade? Or does he prefer instead to dig deep into The Cure’s capacious catalogue for a new compilation album? This being Smith, of course, the answer lies somewhere left of centre.
For this latest project, Smith has decided to revisit Mixed Up – the band’s beloved remix album from 1990. For good measure, he has also worked in some brand new mixes of his own, a personal apercu of The Cure, if you like.
The 16 new mixes are the key sell here, especially to hungry fans who’ve been dutifully awaiting new Cure music since 2008’s 4:13 Dream. Although not entirely ‘new’, nevertheless this latest iteration of Mixed Up is part of a tightly-focussed spate of activity for Smith and his cohorts, along with this year’s Meltdown festival and a full band show at Hyde Park. If it’s not exactly a new album, at least it’s a new something – which, under the circumstances, will do.
Over the last decade or so, Smith has taken on an increasingly curatorial role. The Cure’s mammoth, three-hour live sets have now become extended celebrations of a singular legacy. What Mixed Up 2018 underscores is the depth and breadth of that creative vision. It’s not all cannibal spiders at the end of the bed. There are heartfelt songs about love and sadness, too, amid the dread tales from the world’s end.
These tracks run chronologically and feature one song from each of the band’s studio albums to date along with a couple of non-album singles. From the band’s 1979 debut, “Three Imaginary Boys” takes us back to the band’s ramshackle baby steps. Here, Smith replaces the original’s ominous guitar curlicues with a low-key electronic burbling – a bit Speak & Spell-era Depeche Mode, truth be told. Considering Smith’s subdued playing was a critical asset in defining the early sound of The Cure, it’s quite a radical take – and one he repeats in the first handful of songs here.
For Seventeen Seconds’ “M”, he speeds up the backing track, turning the original’s spectral, tenebrous guitar lines into chunky Chuck Berry riffs, carried along on bouncy electronic beats. The hissing, snake-like guitars of Faith’s “The Drowning Man” are removed entirely, replaced by polite synth washes and piano lines. Although “A Strange Day” retains the hot-house juju of Pornography, it’s too cluttered – Smith’s fervid guitar lines butt against a barrage of processed beats. Alas, the very qualities that made the songs so otherworldly and special in the first place – space, atmosphere, texture – gets mislaid along the way.
Far more successful are “A Night Like This” and “Plainsong”, which both operate in an old school style. From the former, Smith replaces Boris Williams’ drums with a beat strongly reminiscent of Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Push It”. For the latter, meanwhile, he strips back the grand and glacial synth lines to reveal the song’s softer, intimate core. Listening to these two in particular, you might (correctly) recall the best moments of Mixed Up – parsing a Soul II Soul drum beat onto “Close To Me”, perhaps, or morphing the wistful “Pictures Of You” into a slow-motion dub epic. In a similar vein, the 2018 mix of “Never Enough” retains some of the original’s baggy DNA. Wish’s “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea” also cleaves closely to its 1992 version. In its new form, “The Last Day Of Summer”, from 2000’s Bloodflowers, is dreamy and delicate, cushioned by soft pillows of rippling noise – a welcome reminder that as intense and metallic as their records increasingly have become since the Nineties, Smith and his cohorts are still capable of moments of great beauty.
Mixed Up 2018 scatters in a lot of directions: something the band always did well on albums like 1987’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. In comparison, although franchised out to several remixers, Mixed Up operates at a more cohesive level. Released in 1990 – a week apart from Happy Mondays’ Pills Thrills & Bellyaches – sits somewhere somewhere between the extended 12” mix culture of the 1980s and the indie-dance explosion of the early Nineties: François Kevorkian (“Hot! Hot! Hot!”) rubs shoulders with William Orbit (“Inbetween Days”) and Paul Oakenfold (“Close To Me”). Still standing tall is “A Forest”, mixed by Bomb The Bass affiliate Mark Saunders, that manages to both remain respectful to the source material while also having something interesting to say about it.
A further set gathers up extended mixes from the original singles, along with a previously unreleased mix of “The Lovecats” – commissioned in 1990 for Mixed Up but nixed at the time because Smith thought it made them sound like “fucking UB40”. It’s not quite that bad, but instead think of it as a cautionary reminder of the need for self-regulation. Arguably, only now equalled by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – similarly, one man’s unshakeable vision supported by a sympathetic cast of revolving players – Smith and The Cure continue to follow their own distinctive muse. At its best, Mixed Up 2018 is reminder of the fun to be had during those long, strange trips into the interior of one man’s fertile imagination.
A personal Top 68 of the year's best albums so far...
First off, a gentle reminder that our excellent new issue of Uncut is in the shops now, featuring a look at Prince‘s greatest albums, the return of the Cowboy Junkies, Graham Nash, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, John Coltrane, Hawkwind, Teenage Fanclub and Jennifer Warnes. Full details about the issue are here, in case you missed them.
Conscious that we’re about to hit the halfway mark through 2018, I tried to round up my favourite albums of the year so far; specifically releases from January until the end of June. They’re listed in alphabetical order, in case you’re interested. Reassuringly, there’s already a lot to look forward to in the second half of this year – including strong new album from Glenn Jones, Nathan Salsburg, One Eleven Heavy, Alexander Tucker and Thee Oh Sees among others.
1 Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino (Domino)
2 Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (Marathon Artists)
3 Beach House – 7 (Bella Union)
4 Belly – Dove (self-released)
5 Kadhja Bonet – Childqueen (Fat Possum)
6 Breeders – All Nerve (4AD)
7 David Byrne – American Utopia (Nonesuch)
8 Dylan Carson – Conquistador (Cargo)
9 Chris Carter – Chemistry Lessons Volume 1 (Mute)
10 Neko Case – Hell-On (Anti-)
11 Jennifer Castle – Angels Of Death (Paradise of Bachelors)
12 Cavern Of Anti-Matter – Hormone Lemonade (Duophonic)
13 Graham Coxon – The End Of The F***ing World OST (Warner Music Group)
14 Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son (Fantasy Records)
15 Lucy Dacus – Historian (Matador)
16 Juliana Daugherty – Light (Western Vinyl)
17 Dead Meadow – The Nothing They Need (Xemu Records)
18 Father John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer (Bella Union)
19 Eleanor Friedberger – Rebound (French Kiss)
20 Shinya Fukumori Trio – For 2 Akis (Deutsche Grammophon)
21 Gang Gang Dance – Kazuashita (4AD)
22 Gnod – Chapel Perilous (Rocket Recordings)
23 Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread OST (Nonesuch)
23 Gwenno – Le Kov (Heavenly Recordings)
25 Jon Hassell – Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One) (Ndeya)
26 Haley Heynderickx – I Need To Start A Garden (Mama Bird Recording Co.)
27 Jon Hopkins – Singularity (Domino)
28 Steve Jansen – Corridor (self-released)
29 Andy Jenkins – Sweet Bunch (Spacebomb)
30 Kaada – Closing Statements (Mirakel Recordings)
31 Khruangbin – Con Todo El Mundo (Dead Oceans)
32 Mary Lattimore – Hundreds Of Days (Ghostly International)
33 Mélissa Laveaux – Radyo Siwèl (No Format!)
34 Sarah Louise – Deeper Woods (Thrill Jockey)
35 Luluc – Sculptor (Sub Pop)
36 Francis MacDonald – Hamilton Mausoleum Suite (TR7/Shoeshine Records)
37 Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Sparkle Hard (Domino)
38 Johnny Marr – Call The Comet (Warner Bros.)
39 Melody’s Echo Chamber – Bon Voyage (Domino)
40 Mien – Mien (Rocket Recordings)
41 Mind Over Mirrors – Bellowing Sun (Paradise of Bachelors)
42 Modern Studies – Welcome Strangers (Fire Records)
43 Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbard – Here Lies The Body (Rock Action Records)
44 Mouse On Mars – Dimensional People (Thrill Jockey)
45 Ought – Room Inside The World (Merge)
46 Josh T. Pearson – The Straight Hits (Mute)
47 Natalie Prass – The Future And The Past (Fire Records)
48 Mark Pritchard – The Four Worlds (Warp)
49 Gwenifer Raymond – You Were Never Much Of A Dancer (Tompkins Square)
50 Red River Dialect – Broken Stay Open Sky (Paradise of Bachelors)
51 Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs (Sub Pop)
52 The Sea And Cake – Any Day (Thrill Jockey)
53 Ty Segall – Freedom’s Goblin (Drag City)
54 Snail Mail – Lush (Matador)
55 Sons Of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile (Impulse! Records)
56 Stuart A. Staples – Arrhythmia (City Slang)
57 Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Sex & Food (Jagjaguwar)
58 U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited (4AD)
59 Laura Veirs – The Lookout (Bella Union)
60 The Wave Pictures – Brushed With Happiness (Moshi Moshi)
61 Leon Vynehall – Nothing Is Still (Ninja Tune)
62 Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance (Dead Oceans)
63 Wand – Perfume (Drag City)
64 Kamasi Washington – Heaven And Earth (Young Turks)
65 Jess Williamson – Cosmic Wink (Mexican Summer)
66 Jonathan Wilson – Rare Birds (Bella Union)
67 Virginia Wing – Ecstatic Arrow (Fire Records)
68 Yo La Tengo – There’s A Riot Going On (Matador)
UMO discuss meltdowns, "thought police" and Sex & Food
Photo by Neil Krug
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From the Korean Demilitarized Zone to earthquake-hit Mexico City, Unknown Mortal Orchestra recorded their ambitious new album Sex & Food in some perilous locations – and lived to tell the tale. Tom Pinnock joins creative mastermind Ruban Nielson in the genteel confines of Madrid’s finest art galleries to hear about meltdowns, “thought police” and unorthodox recording experiments. “When it feels a bit perverse and wrong, I like that.”
Originally published in Uncut’s May 2018 issue
When Ruban Nielson comes to Madrid, he usually pays a visit to his favourite painting, hanging in the grand Museo Nacional Del Prado.
“Last time I made the tour manager wait for us,” he whispers, gazing at the canvas of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. “Probably every time I come to Madrid nooiw I’ll get some strange obsessive-compulsive need to check in with the painting.” The Spanish artist’s work depicts the deity Saturn, in the form of a crazed old man, tearing apart a child with his teeth; it’s a disturbing image, but it’s one that’s haunted the guitarist since he saw it in a book decades ago in his native New Zealand. “It’s just really extreme,” he says.
Nielson is in Madrid on a sunny winter’s day to discuss Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new album, Sex & Food. It is perhaps Nielson’s best album to date, something of a culmination of his work so far – from the garage psych of his 2011 debut and the post-punk of 2013’s II, to the disco-infused Multi-Love, released in 2015. All these elements appear on Sex & Food, while lyrically it moves from troubled impressions of America (“American Guilt”) to tributes to his daughter (the Chic funk of “Hunnybee”); one song, “Chronos Feasts On His Children”, even channels his interest in Goya’s artwork.
“I think ‘Chronos…’ is better because it refers more to the idea of time,” he explains, using the alternative name for the god Saturn, “and it sounded better to sing. I make a lot of those decisions randomfully. It’s nice not to feel completely in control of something.”
The bulk of the words on this acoustic track document Nielson’s impressions of the time he spent in Vietnam, just one of the places where he recorded Sex & Food. All previous UMO sessions had taken place in Nielson’s basement in Portland, Oregon, with the songwriter working mainly alone. This time around, however, he recruited longtime bassist Jacob Portrait and their occasional drummer, brother Kody Nielson, to travel with him, tracking live takes as a trio. On the itinerary were Hanoi, Mexico City, South Korea, Iceland and Auckland; yet this was far from some luxurious, AIR Montserrat-style sojourn. “Recording in Hanoi is not a convenient thing to do,” Nielson laughs. “But it worked.”
“Ruban was wanting to put a fresh pair of socks on,” explains Jacob Portrait, when we talk on the phone a few days later. “He’s been shedding in the basement, with the weight of the group on his shoulders, and I know that he just wanted to get out of the basement.”
“I figured that the environment that would inspire me to play like Jimi Hendrix would be Vietnam,” Nielson says, “because that’s probably the first place I heard him, on a movie about Vietnam.”
While dodging the perils of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, crumbling South East Asian buildings and Mexican earthquakes, Nielson and his cohorts tracked a wealth of music, from the narcotic funk of “Ministry Of Alienation” and the Hendrixy swirl of “Major League Chemicals”, to the robust grooves of “American Guilt”. “I thought, ‘What happens when you make heavy funk so heavy it’s like a ’70s metal thing?’” Ruban explains of the latter. “I think this album’s my favourite. I wanted more guitar on this one – it’s so uncool now to play guitar. When it feels a bit perverse and wrong, I like that.”
The French songwriter's expansive, captivating second LP
Photo by Diane Sagnier
For as long as people have told stories, there have been tales of imaginary journeys: from the Odyssey in antiquity, and Samuel Butler’s 1872 depiction of Erewhon, to the myriad Invisible Cities described by Italo Calvino.
But how about an imaginary journey sculpted in sound? Melody Prochet’s second album as Melody’s Echo Chamber is ever-changing, dynamic and brave enough to perhaps classify as such. From its title right down to the atlas of global influences mixed into its sonic broth, it’s also one of the strangest and most evocative albums of recent years.
Prochet embarked on Bon Voyage in the hope of healing herself, “entering my heart’s wound to explore and maybe find what was broken and how to heal it from the inside,” as she tells Uncut. “Creating this record felt like being the mad captain of a vessel.” Her self-titled dreampop debut – produced by her then partner, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, and released in 2012 – was strong, if slightly modest in its ambitions. It was when she embarked on a follow-up with Parker that the couple split, and Prochet was unable, emotionally, to complete the record. All material was scrapped, and the songwriter began to hone her drumming skills at a Parisian music school.
After meeting the group Dungen, though, Prochet figured that Scandinavia might be the nourishing environment she needed to create her second album, so she moved to Sweden for 18 months to work with Dungen guitarist Reine Fiske and Fredrik Swahn, both also in indie rockers The Amazing. The trio swapped instruments and influences during rambling sessions in Solna, near Stockholm, with the confines of Prochet’s debut swapped for a world of inspiration: there are threads from early-’70s Paris, Istanbul, São Paulo and Birmingham, from ’90s Atlanta and New York, and from the deserts and forests of Mali and Sweden today.
One prominent influence, the chanson funk of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson, is mauled into brave new shapes by Prochet: the lush 12-string and violins that open the first two minutes of “Cross My Heart” are suddenly decimated by an extended breakdown that incorporates Logic samples, scratching and old-school beats, before the track detours into a flute-led lounge haze reminiscent of Air’s Moon Safari. On first listen, it’s dizzying and disorientating, but after some immersion it begins to seem remiss of most of history’s other songs not to include an unexpected hip-hop section.
The bilingual “Quand Les Larmes D’un Ange Font Danser La Neige” (‘When The Tears Of An Angel Make The Snow Dance’) demonstrates the emotional tension at the heart of Bon Voyage, between beauty and pain; halfway through its seven minutes of bleary, lush psych, the music dissolves and the song’s bucolic atmosphere is disrupted by a cut-up poem from Pond’s Nicholas Allbrook: “The memory of making love… shit all over myself when I die… be declared braindead or heart-dead in the Vatican…” It kills the mood the musicians have built, but that’s the point, as are the disturbing screams that appear without warning on most of these tracks.
“Desert Horse” is the most extreme of Bon Voyage’s chapters; beginning as Arabic funk, it appears to quote Black Sabbath’s “A National Acrobat” with a Tuareg twist, before descending into a hushed reverie dominated by malfunctioning Auto-Tune and extended silences. One ambient section is interrupted by a few seconds of piercing shouts and screams, before the whole song launches into a climax of Atlanta trap beats.
At this point in the album, Prochet is in a painful place. “So much blood on my hands/And not much, much to destroy/I know I am better alone,” she repeats, while on the motorik of “Breathe In, Breathe Out” she admits, “I can’t eat, I can’t grow/I can’t heal my soul.” As the record progresses, she appears to reach some point of acceptance, and recovery ensues. “I found somewhere to hide…
a safe place to cry,” she repeats on “Quand Les Larmes…”.
The finest track here, and the one that finds Prochet most at peace, is the penultimate “Visions Of Someone Special, On A Wall Of Reflections”, which begins with a nod to Gainsbourg’s “Ford Mustang” and then moves through calico synths and Turkish funk-rock, complete with saz and zither. The song, like many on Bon Voyage, progresses organically, the frequent changes tied together by Prochet’s keening voice; the result is like a Greek patchwork rug, tiny snippets of fabric stitched together to create a bold, psychedelic whole.
The closing “Shirim” is the most ecstatic thing here, its lysergic disco built over what sounds like an ancient North African folk sample, the kind captured by Paul Bowles, but chopped and looped into minute sections. It’s an accessible end to a strange, rich and global journey in sound – lasting just 37 minutes, Bon Voyage begs to be put on again, each listen revealing more of the myriad ideas that make up its weird majesty.
If Prochet thought her recovery was done after making this album, though, she was mistaken: just after completing it in 2017, she suffered a brain aneurysm and broken vertebrae. Let’s hope the healing powers discovered while making this unique record also speed her next upturn.
Q&A: Melody Prochet’s search for a place of grace
What impact did Sweden have on the album?
I had been on a sort of pilgrimage for a few years, trying to find a place of grace and gentleness to release my creativity, and simply breathe. When I met and heard Dungen’s music, I guessed Sweden might have nourished their music from the root. I felt this aura of kindness and purity of the heart; I sensed roughness and cold, too. I was attracted by the northern seasons’ contrast and their modern civilisation living at peace and needing nature.
How did the breakdown in “Cross My Heart” develop? I remember starting with this Brazilian flow inspired by Marcos Valle, then it turned into listening to Todd Rundgren, Todd Terje, Stereolab, and watching Disney Fantasia clips. I created this very long space for Reine and Swahn to have fun and explore – they jammed for a couple of hours. Then I sculpted my way into it and had a lot of fun with samples. I’m very proud of this song.
A few years ago you said you were keen to work on string arrangements – I assume they are yours on Bon Voyage? I went back to Stockholm to mix, and Reine and I ended up picking Swahn’s mother’s three-string old folk violin, and recording our own arrangements spontaneously without writing anything down. Only intuition and emotion. It was a very old wish of mine to play violin to my music and be satisfied with it.
We hope your recovery is going well – have you thought about beginning to make music again?
Thank you. Right now I’m focusing on keeping things as simple as they can be in my life, making music is not so simple for me. I think I’ll travel life differently for a while until… INTERVIEW: TOM PINNOCK
As we gear up for this year’s British Summer Time concerts at Hyde Park, I suspect some of you will cast your minds back to June 7, 1969 – when Blind Faith made their auspicious debut there in front of an expectant crowd of around 120,000. Of course, two members of Blind Faith are sharing a bill at BST this year – Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood (no word, alas, as to whether Ginger Baker will make a cameo).
The run of BST shows this year also includes Roger Waters and Paul Simon – and by strange coincidence, both of those men, along with Clapton and Winwood, appear in the newest of our family of magazines. Welcome, then, to NME Gold: The Best Of NME 1965 – 1969. It goes on sale this Thursday, but you can also buy it now from our online shop.
Here’s John Robinson, Editor of the Ultimate Music Guides, to tell you all about it.
“Fantastic things were happening,” So says Steve Winwood, writing for us here. And happening is undoubtedly the word for NME Gold: The Best Of NME 1965 – 1969.
This is a trip through rock’s golden age. Through a selection of archive reports, here you’ll observe The Beatles become world superstars, feel the grandeur of imperial phase Rolling Stones, and marvel at the psychedelic wonder of Jimi Hendrix.
You’ll also feel the pulse of the decade through the music of our cover star Eric Clapton who in his work with the Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith helped lead the charge from beat music to psychedelic pop, to rootsy rock.
It’s said that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. Our chorus of expert eyewitnesses – eagle-eyed reporters and members of the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, Beach Boys, Byrds, The Who and more – beg to differ, as they look back to bring us fresh perspectives on this magnificent time for music.
Andrew Loog Oldham drops by to offer a word on the mystery of musical greatness. “God taps you on the shoulder,” he says.
To Paris, then, for a rare meeting with FRANÇOISE HARDY. There is a splendid new album to discuss, of course – her first for six years. But the pioneering chanteuse also reflects on her remarkable career, recounts run-ins with The Beatles, Dylan and Nick Drake, and shares her own hard-won philosophies. “The truth?” she tells Tom Pinnock. “We will discover it after we die.”
Tucked away on the back cover of 1964’s Another Side Of Bob Dylan is a poem. “For Françoise Hardy,” writes Dylan. “At the Seine’s edge/A giant shadow/Of Notre Dame/Seeks t’ grab my foot…”
Hardy has known about Dylan’s untitled poem for the past 54 years, but it was only a few months ago that she really began to understand it.
“Earlier this year, two Americans got in touch with me,” she says. “They had inherited some drafts of the poem that Dylan had left in a café. They sent me these drafts, and I was very moved. This was a young man, a very romantic artist, who had a fixation on somebody only from a picture. You know how very young people are… I realised it had been very important for him.”
It is early spring when Uncut meets Hardy at the chic Hotel De Sers, not far from the Arc De Triomphe. She prefers not to venture out of central Paris if she can help it, so our rendezvous is near Hardy’s home, and just two miles from the ninth arrondissement where the singer grew up. Just turned 74, Hardy is still slim and bright-eyed, quick to laugh and as stylish as ever – today she’s wearing dark skinny jeans, a black top and a fitted blazer, with a bright-red scarf and gold necklace her only accessories.
Bob Dylan’s not the only artist to have been captivated by Hardy and her work, of course – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Nick Drake, David Bowie, Richard Thompson and Graham Coxon have all paid tribute to her considerable musical gifts.
“My sister had a Françoise Hardy single,” remembers Richard Thompson. “I think it was ‘Tous Les Garçons Et Les Filles’. My sister had other French records of the period – Richard Anthony, Hugues Aufray – so I was used to the intimacy of style. [But] this was sexier! If you put it together with the pictures of Françoise, it was a powerful package.”
Yet Hardy is not just a muse, but a compelling artist in her own right. She first came to prominence in 1962, aged just 18, with a mostly self-penned debut of infectious yé-yé – Europe’s pop take on rock’n’roll – and swiftly scored a massive hit with “Tous Les Garçons…”, which even cracked the UK Top 40.
“It was my first and most important hit,” Hardy says. “Unfortunately, as it’s not my best song!”
The tune was sprightly, but the lyrics were better suited to one of Émile Zola’s more miserable heroines than a young purveyor of Gallic pop: “I go alone through the streets,” Hardy sang. “The soul in pain… I go alone, because nobody loves me.”
“She was the opposite of all the French new artists trying to look and sound American,” explains renowned photographer Jean-Marie Périer, Hardy’s partner for much of the ’60s. “And her melodies were sad, she didn’t try to make them dance the twist.”
Hardy continued mining this seam of melancholy through a run of albums that quietly and tastefully explore styles from Brazilian jazz to English folk-rock. We’re in Paris to discuss these records, along with Hardy’s unexpected new album, Personne D’autre, in which she examines mortality and spirituality; in many ways, the record’s closest cousin may be Leonard Cohen’s final album, You Want It Darker.
“At my age the lyrics you are singing cannot be the same as the ones you were singing when you were 30 or 40 or even 50,” explains Hardy. “They have much to do with your past, but also with the idea of another life, in another universe.”