Embracing Contingency: An Interview with Benoît Pioulard

Posted by on May 12, 2015


It’s easy to introduce Thomas Meluch and his music as Benoît Pioulard by talking about dreams — for example, by mentioning how parts of his new album Sonnet (and even his moniker) came to him while he was asleep. But I really want to begin by emphasizing how beautiful Sonnet is. It’s beautiful to the point that its enchantingly imperfect drones and loops saturate daily life with an inexplicable kind of healing power. I’m not the only one who thinks this. Since Kranky released Sonnet in March, listeners have posted comments and written articles about how the album opens a mental space for calm.

And it’s just as exciting how Sonnet manages to maintain the captivating, fractured dreaminess of the pop songs on Meluch’s previous albums for Kranky, despite the fact that nothing on Sonnet actually looks like a pop song. The album, created entirely with analog effects, is almost entirely instrumental. And yet like so many amazing albums that get tagged as “dream-pop” (or something like that), it’s rich and intense but not cloying, both endlessly fascinating and deceptively simple.

The idea of dream-pop gets so much mileage because it hints at possibilities in pop music — fragments of rich, unforgettable sweetness and mystery — that seem to disappear when pop songs get brash and loud. But although the term dream-pop (like so many genre names) has become so diffusely used and overdetermined that it sometimes feels empty of meaning, Meluch’s music sounds unique and potent because it follows its own path and eases its way into the core of dream experiences. It’s in the way his more traditional songs fade into cascades of granulated humming, or the way his more droning pieces assume forms that work almost like oblique pop hooks. The music builds a world ruled by dreamlike logic, a place where even moments of adrift yearning can be shot through with flashes of startling clarity.

For Meluch, what look like alternating tendencies toward pop and experimental music are actually two sides of the same coin: a search for the nectar hidden underneath all sounds. So in a way, Sonnet isn’t a radical shift from the work Meluch has done before. It’s simply a refinement of what he’s been doing all along. It opens a fresh, exhilarating world for listeners to explore at whatever pace they wish. Over email, Thomas Meluch talked to me about the experiences that made Sonnet what it is –everything from hearing The Breeders in a dream to growing up around cicadas.

Emmerich: What was the very first inspiration for ‘Sonnet?’ Did any specific experience kickstart your work on the album?
Thomas: If we’re talking about the very, very beginning, that would probably be the first time I messed around with a set of guitar pedals, which was in my friend Ryan Bliton’s basement around the age of 14 or 15… I remember hitting a chord while plugged into his reverb/delay rig, and tweaking the dials to alter the delay length, and just feeling euphoric. Like, forget Lego and Matchbox cars, this is the coolest toy I’ve ever played with.. And amazingly that joy has never subsided, at least not yet — so I’ve always loved improvising with pedals and loops, and feel most meditative when playing music in that mode… The process of songwriting with voice and acoustic guitar that I’ve developed over the years is much more math and logic, whereas the other thing is all about getting into a zone and embracing contingency.

Next to your previous albums on Kranky, this heavier focus on looping, vocal-less work seems like a left turn. But factoring in your non-Kranky works like Roanoke or Plays Thelma, it feels more like a continuation. For you, what was the biggest artistic leap you took in making Sonnet?
For these pieces I put a little more consideration into layering and structure, so that there’s more of an arc to each song and in the album altogether.. I also made a conscious effort to branch out with instrumentation, and to use some devices (particularly my reel-to-reel) in ways that I haven’t done before. Unlike other previous instrumental efforts I had a lot of drafts of things, from which I took the better ideas and developed them further or twisted them around into something more fitting to the atmosphere I was hearing in my head.

What prompted you to move away from using digital effects?
Even before commencing recording I’d been wanting to pare back and make something as simple as possible, and to reflect the sorts of things I make on an almost daily basis in my living room… So, apart from the layering of certain things like the bass guitar or bells on some tracks, it’s essentially a document of things arising from very little premeditation. Also with less voice on the songs I didn’t have a need for the usual post-production effects like reverb that I use, so I relied more on my pedals and tapes to create the overall sound.

As you made ‘Sonnet’ “an exercise in restraint,” did you run up against any especially imposing challenges? How different is the album from what you might have expected to make when you started?
I didn’t expect some things to obsess me as much as they did, since I’m used to recording in the improvisational mode and just leaving things be, in an effort to be ‘of the moment’… But in structuring things as I did there was a lot of room for alteration and construction, so I found myself going back to certain pieces months later to add or remove something in order to work better into the flow. “Shut-ins on Sunday see” was something I worked on intermittently for about 8 months, for example, which is super unusual for me.

When did you first hear music in your dreams?
To some extent it’s been happening since I was a kid, the first thing I remember wanting to capture being some kind of alternate version of ‘Cannonball’ by The Breeders that I heard in a dream when I was 9 or 10… Who knows what that was about. As for more recent dream compositions they’re pretty infrequent but I discovered that, when I take a double-dose of Valerian capsules before bed I dream more vividly, there’s music more often, and I can remember things a lot more easily upon waking. Don’t do that if you don’t have an extra few hours to deal with the grogginess, though.

What first drew you to ambient music? What about drones and loops appeals to you versus the typical elements of pop songs?
It’s always been something innate — I grew up in a pretty quiet, forested area and I remember the drone of cicadas in the trees during the summers of 1990 and 1996… I lay out in the grass, just absorbing the flow of their calls for long stretches of time. If you’ve never heard this sound check out this delightfully lo-fi site and just imagine thousands of these at once..

As far as recorded music my love of ambient work probably began when I discovered Aphex Twin around 1997 — I never knew anyone made music like that but it was exactly what I wanted to hear, so at that I went from listening to nothing but guitar based bands to almost exclusively slow, instrumental music. So my understanding of texture is based equally on bands like Hum and sound sculptors like Eno or Fennesz.

Considering that songs built on loops can stretch to almost any length, the pacing of this album comes across as very tight and deliberate. What led you to decide that something like “As would a weaver” is best as a ninety-second piece while “The very edge of its flame” really works when it’s seven minutes long?
Call it a gut feeling .. though the latter of those two was originally about twice as long as the version on the album, so the shortening in that case was by necessity in order to fit on a single LP. Some ideas seem to arrive fully formed, and others require a bit of teasing out, or building, etc… I tend to adhere to the ‘first thought best thought’ ethos, and if something just isn’t working, let it go.

I’m curious why you chose to call your album Sonnet and make the tracklist a fourteen line poem. Sonnets mostly seem to be a topic of discussion in English classes these days, but their form has such profound connections in literary history with expressions of desire and uncertainty.
Because the bulk of the album was recorded in a short time (5 months compared to a year for most of my other records) it felt more cohesive to me, and the arrangement of pieces seemed to necessitate a full listen from front to back, so it was natural to construct the track list as a short poem from which you could still reasonably extract each line. I thought about each one of those words a lot during the month or six weeks I was composing the titles, so I think there are at least four or five pages in my notebook filled with revisions and variations.

The album cover is stunning. Were there any other photos you considered using? Any images, yours or not, that colored your work on this music?
Before I took that photo — which came after the recordings were all finished — I had been planning to use a picture of our bedroom that I found quite striking.. At our old place, where I recorded everything, we had a huge Elm branch hanging over the bed and this faded Birch tree wallpaper on most of the wall, so those two things together made for a striking image, but that shot still made it into the limited edition books I sold through Bandcamp, at least.

If you were directing a film with Sonnet as a soundtrack, what would that film look like? Do you have a narrative—even a loose one—that you set this music to in your head?
I think my dear friend Sean did a pretty dang good job with this one: — seems fitting to me, to start in the far reaches, draw into the grainy muck, and pull back. For me the process of creation is a balance between having infinite options but still pursuing the very specific things I hear in my head.

Now that you’ve been recording as Benoît Pioulard for more than a decade, is there any music advice you wish you could give to your younger self?
To my surprise there’s not really anything in my discography that I would change or that I regret… Certainly my recording process and lyric writing have evolved since I was 19, but in that regard Précis (which I recorded at age 20-21) is very much of its time, and very meaningful to posterity in that way. I feel quite lucky to say the least, that I’ve been afforded total artistic license by Kranky and have been able to follow such a natural-feeling path with all this nonsense.

[Header photo is by Sean Curtis Patrick.]