Frozen Piss Sculptures, Lemon Coffee, and Yogurt Language: An Interview with Èlg

Posted by on August 8, 2013

Following his 2008 release, Tout Ploie (Kraak/S-S Records), which featured a highly psychedelicized update on the French pop stylings of Serge Gainsbourg and Bridgette Fontaine & Areski, Èlg (a.k.a. Laurent Gerard) set off in a new direction. Informed by his work in Reines d’Angleterre and Opéra Mort with Ghedalia Tazartes and Jo Tanz, Gerard forged a unique sound built upon minimal electronic throbs, displaced field recordings, and mutant free-associative vocals. This new direction culminated in last year’s superb Mil Pluton (Alter and Hundebiss), while his recent album La Chimie (SDZ), which brings together a collection of tracks from mostly limited-run releases recorded between Tout Ploie and Mil Pluton, provides further evidence of Gerard’s strengths as a songwriter and creator of captivating, albeit somewhat unsettling, sound environments. We caught up with Gerard following a month-long tour of France to get a sense of where he is heading next.

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David Perron: In an interview for The Quietus earlier this year you mentioned having “entered a hibernation period … taking a step back from music and everything that goes with it.” You were on tour for the past month, so does this signal your readiness to get back to making music again?

[Editor’s Note: Laurent offers a disclaimer on his English, “I’m gonna try to reply to all the questions in English. Sorry, in advance, to the readers if my baby English sounds wrong sometimes.“]

Laurent Gerard: About music, I’m still there of course. Last winter, I went through tough times for personal reasons; I needed to have some distance with different things in my life. I questioned music and its environment a lot, including the parallel world of the Internet. Silence and meditation were my main “hobbies.” I had to find a more peaceful relationship with record making and concerts and, in general, between daily life and work. I think now it’s better balanced: I can accept when things don’t go well, or just days when I have nothing to say. I don’t consider them as “empty days;” it’s life. It doesn’t mean that the content of the future recordings will be less adventurous, just the feeling about playing or recording is a bit more healthy. I guess that’s what happened during the last one month tour.

Have you found there to be a bit of a disconnect between what plays out over the internet and what things are actually like in a real ‘live’ setting?
As the internet is (apparently) a mirror of life, people who don’t read literature, listen to classical music, or cook Hungarian food from the 18th century in real life won’t start to do that with the internet if nobody shows them a path to reach that kind of knowledge. The Internet provides you the possibility to meet people enjoying the same kinds of things you like. You can really create and join tribes. It’s true for any domains, from Austrian Eurodance to Chinese Musique Concrète or anything else. Gay people living in very deserted areas can find each other, same for fans of frozen piss sculptures from all over the world. That’s very nice and exciting. But when you’re a musician, for example, you can be trapped in your own bubble. If you’re not aware enough, you can start to think that this bubble is actually the whole world. All the Google, Facebook, SoundCloud things are really conceived for designing a private space for yourself: YOUR music world, YOUR blog, YOUR belly button. It’s a very powerful tool that can make connections between people and projects that were not possible before, but it can also become a very lazy and comfortable situation.

It’s midnight; you’re in front of your computer, wearing slippers. Between two porn picture gallery explorations you check out if some people are liking the new recordings, articles, diagrams you just posted online…

So touring, playing live shows, especially in front of inexperienced audiences, brings you to a wider circle than your cozy niche. You have to put yourself in danger and confront real situations. It can be tough sometimes: the venue is crappy, the PA is half-broken, it’s cold. The organizer is depressive, hanging onto his phone all evening and crying for his ex-wife. The audience can sometimes be only one person who will yell at you after the show: “Hey man, I don’t like electronic sounds. It reminds me of Björk and I hate that bitch!” or “Hey man, I just don’t understand what you played. Why do you use all those gears to make weird sounds? Why don’t you just play normal sounds?” In these lovely situations you start to think, “OK, I’m really not on the Internet now; I’m not wearing slippers; I don’t have any other choice than starting a discussion with the one-person audience.” Slowly, the guy talks about his life: his fears, the (rock) music he likes, his job, the economic crisis, the general frustration in his small city (and the occasional joys). Of course, you don’t forget to remind him that the electronic gear is not only applicable to Björk or Moby, they’re just tools you can use in a thousand different ways to express particular moods.

And other times it’s a brighter kind of intensity that happens. The venue is crowded; people come to see you play; you can feel the expectation in their eyes; you have stage fright. You breathe deeply and then you try to use all the best energy you have in your body and mind to play the best show you can and make the situation a special musical moment. When people really enjoyed the experience, it’s very magical, especially when people who never heard about your music were present in the audience just because they heard a murmur from the street and came into the venue just to have a look. I remember this woman in France who told me that the music I played was worth two years of psychoanalysis for her(!?).

On the Internet, you can meet new people and do billions of things, for sure, but you can’t experience situations like that: eyes in the eyes. Between very tough times and magical times, I think touring brings a touch of modesty. Internet-only habits can make you feel very self-centered in a synthetic world. Musically speaking, live shows push you to find a simpler way to express things than in a studio: you have to be more concise, you can’t cheat, you have to be present. For me, there’s a constant dialog between studio and live experiences that is very constructive.

After your release Tout Ploie, you sort of abandoned using “standard” instrumentation and moved towards purely electronic-based music making. Is this a path you wish to continue or do you have a desire to at some point, say, pick up a guitar again?
Ha guitar, guitar, guitar, guitar, guiiiiitareeeeee. I guess there are more guitars than ants on this planet. Sometimes it makes me feel a bit dizzy, all these guitars. I have a difficult relationship with that object. Just the fact that you have to tune the strings makes me crazy — almost crying! Even if I passed hours, months, years, listening and playing guitar songs, one day, I needed to move elsewhere. After a while, I had the impression that the guitar and I were hurting each other. My fingers, especially the left hand thumb, and my back were always twisted in painful positions. Because of that, I had a limited approach and that’s why I was obsessed with the only notes and variations I could play in a row. I was only looking for complex arrangements through a very tiny technical range, helped a lot by studio production. It just made me frustrated; I wasn’t able to play some songs live. And tuning a guitar in front of 60 people, it’s just a nightmare. You smile while you have your fingers stuck in a door! So, I had to find a way of making music with instruments that I could use as much in the studio as [I could] live.

As a child, I used to take organ lessons. I had very few skills for playing and reading scores. I always had terrible records; I felt frustrated. My dad, at this time, was an electronics engineer and had a job repairing synthesizers. We had some bent Roland Synthesizers at home. He was also making his own drum machines in shoes boxes, effects in knitting machine pedals, etc., etc. I had some nice toys to play with. I used to play just one note on the synth, with or without the arpeggiator, sometimes with a rhythm through an effect, and I used to sing on it for hours: “Je vais boire un café, un bon café citron, oh mon café citron!” (“I’m gonna drink a coffee, a good lemon coffee, oh my lemon coffee!”). A kind of Stereolab trance for children.

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And during the last guitar period, I was often thinking about this coffee lemon stuff. Orbital sonic objects floating around a one-tone nucleus, which is the base of all the ancestral musics. These last three years of doing my solo work and playing live, I mostly used a B tune to play and sing around. It’s the coffee lemon experience in a wider and really more complex world, but it’s still the same point of departure.

All these musical changes over the past few years were also possible because of Opéra Mort and Reines d’Angleterre; that was very instructive. Although we had already used stuff like this before, Jo and I together dove more deeply into electronic devices like drum machines, four dimensional loops, broken keyboards and synth modules. I feel better with these lovely little velvet knobs and keyboard keys; they’re very precise. You have a wide range of possibilities. It’s the same with using the voice in “yogurt” language. It came very naturally after playing with Ghédalia. From the brain to the mouth, it’s mechanical; I can do anything I want. I don’t have to use words, the sound and energy themselves express anything. You can use more theatrical, even cartoonish sounds. It’s very liberating. And I don’t have to tune it!

I’m gonna make a new song-based album; I’m constantly composing little fragments in my head. It will include guitar, but I have to reinvent all the physical gestures around it. Same for lyrics, it needs a new angle. It’s a work in progress, as always…

Your latest album, La Chimie, is a collection of both previously released and unreleased material from the past few years. Did you go about re-sequencing this material in a way that felt like a new piece of work to you or did the label handle this?
At the beginning, I was a bit reluctant to be releasing these tracks on LP. I thought it should stay in a rough form on small-run formats. But as I was not very happy with the cassette sound (I’m not very cassette-friendly, sorry), I thought it needed a proper release. I realized that all the tracks that I selected were part of the same global trip. I re-sequenced everything to arrange a narrative journey from A to B. It was very simple and enjoyable to do that. SDZ and I worked quickly together. Some people see that record as a compilation, I actually think that La Chimie is a proper album. Oh yeah, baby.

In terms of your collaborative work in Opéra Mort and Reines d’Angleterre, do you maintain regular interaction, or “practice sessions” if you will, in order to keep the creative juices flowing in those units?
Although the second album was released last year, Reines d’Angleterre was sleeping for almost four years. We were talking recently (drunk) about playing shows again, we’ll see…

About Opéra Mort, we haven’t played live or even recorded for one year. We don’t live in the same city and we’re both busy with our respective musical adventures, but we are gonna finish our next record and play shows soon. Opéra Mort is coming back from the grave.

These last two years I’ve done things mainly solo; a little sonic cross on my shoulder. Of course, without the Opéra Mort or Reines d’Angleterre connection I wouldn’t have opened my mind like it is now. But the creative juice is still everywhere. I try to keep my attention on every detail of life, in every microscopic corner.

When we spoke a few years ago, you mentioned that you were inspired by comedy, and you would do your own comedy/variety shows of sorts: “French stand-up cosmical comedy” as you called it. Is this something you still have interest in?
That’s true. I’ve done some things in that domain, especially through the Capitaine Présent and Amiral Prose recordings. It’s an approach I like a lot. It draws a sonic map of the wild movements of thoughts of a human being trapped into our present, a sort of hundred-floors-cake Musique Concrète promenade. At certain extreme moments in life you can’t use anything but the talking voice in front of a mic; it’s the last emergency plan, just like in hip-hop. You must approach different subjects frontally: politics, economics, different levels of social injustice, drugs, nostalgia addictions, asshole artists, sexuality, fetishisms, any obsessions. With a spicy pinch of good old schoolboy pranks, it’s like purification. I did that kind of stuff on stage in French before, but it has been like two years since I have done anything like that. The last time was actually in Providence, USA, in English. I was “trapped” in a comedy night with real “pro” comedians and I had to improvise for 30 minutes. That was a delicious and scary experience. I based all of the show on the absolute supremacy of the incredibly subtle and divine French spirit versus the total stupidity and ugliness of Americans. At the beginning, people were suspicious in front of me (“that unbearable pretentious bastard”) and then they started to laugh. It was a really good exorcism moment on both sides.I’d like to first record a sixth episode of Capitaine Présent this winter. I feel I need it; it’s growing in my belly like an alien ready to explode.

Hmmm David, answering these questions makes me realize that it’s gonna be a fucking busy as hell winter! In the next Quietus interview, I’ll surely talk about my hatred of silence and meditation!