Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Alcest
This is the 31st installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Album: Écailles de Lune
Label: Prophecy Productions
Favorite Song: "Percées De Lumière"
The Bare Bones: Écailles de Lune is the second full-length album by French shoegaze/black metal band Alcest, formed in 2000 as the solo project of Neige, the nom de plume of musician Stéphane Paut.
The Beating Heart: Alcest can claim what very few other musical acts can claim, which is the establishment of an entire musical genre. While other bands, such as Ulver and Agalloch, explored the twilight area between the somber tremolo soundscapes of both Godspeed You! Black Emperor-style post-rock/shoegaze and the vitriol of black metal, Alcest approached that fuzzy realm armed with a hefty load of sweet melancholy. Birthed and governed by Neige's artistic mind, Alcest has miraculously straddled a line of bittersweet aggression and an almost teenage-like emotional fragility and honesty. As if that feat in itself was not rare enough Alcest has also been that band instantly celebrated – and derided – for its innovation, birthing a wave of bands, now flying the banner of "blackgaze," with its influence penetrating both the most extreme, far-flung regions of metal as well as pop, indie rock, post-dock, and many more. More personally, Alcest, along with a few other bands, such as ISIS and Cobalt, also featured in this series, served an important gateway between my metal-listening time as a youth and my ability to appreciate metal as an adult.
As always, before proceeding to my conversation with Neige I would like to encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, with a few more exciting conversations yet to come. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local metal, hardcore, and noise. Thank you all for being here. On to Neige and Écailles de Lune.
I'll start where I usually start, which is to ask you whether you remember a time, perhaps when you were younger, when you heard a song or an album, or saw album art, that really blew your mind and changed the way you thought about music? It might have scared you a bit, but something like a moment you heard a song and you were like: “What the fuck is this?” and also, maybe, “I love this”?
I guess this happens every time I discover a new musical genre, when you discover new music or find these bands that you really, really like and it kind of opens up like a new dimension in your taste. And you're “How have I lived all this time without discovering this sooner?” So yeah, for example, when I was a kid I discovered Michael Jackson and I was really into that. Then when I was 10 I discovered Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and then when I was 13 I found Cradle of Filth and metal. And then from that point I discovered Darkthrone and The Cure, and Joy Division, and Depeche Mode. Then it was Slowdive, and that was a very big shock for me as well, and Smashing Pumpkins too. All these bands and styles that I had never known before.
Why was Slowdive shocking to you?
Because it felt like the music that I always wanted to hear, and I found it so beautiful that I wished I had made it myself [laughs]. It was like: “Wow, this is so good,” and it made me want to surprise someone myself, but it also made me want to stop music forever, you know? Because you feel like you will never make something as good that.
This is clearly a list of very different bands, and also the progression is quite abrupt because you have Michael Jackson, which is like what you listen to when you’re a kid, and then Kurt Cobain is kind of like a rock version of a basic pop instinct. And then Cradle of Filth is quite poppy too, but that's a leap.
Yeah, I absolutely listened to every possible genre of music, I’m not a metalhead of anything. I listen to hip hop, I listen to pop, I listen to ambient, I listen to electronic music. I'm a huge electronic music fan. I don't mind the style, I'm just looking for fresh sounds all the time.
Obviously there's a certain kind of pop sensibility to a lot of this music, but there's also a dark side to a lot of it too. So, is that the combination you find appealing the bittersweet aspect of it?
Yeah. I love songwriting, I like melodies, that's why I like a band like Abba, for example, because they have such beautiful melodies, and I don't like dissonant stuff, so all that dissonant black metal, I really hate it. I like hooks, I like to be able to sing a melody when I'm working, and it can be Slayer or it can be Michael Jackson, I don't care.
So, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but it seems that in a lot of the interviews you've given over time that the trigger or impetus for a lot of your music writing, at first or at least, is a childhood experience you had, almost like a daydream.
Yeah, like a spiritual experience, something that I know as very nice, not like a dream or a fantasy. Like a glimpse into another dimension that I gained access to.
How old were you when this happened?
Four or five.
Oh, wow. And you remember where you were when you saw this?
Yeah, I mean, it happened several times. I was in the car with my parents, or at school, or anywhere. It’s like a memory that comes back to you. A memory, but not of anything that exists on this planet or that you could see.
And was it an enjoyable experience?
Oh, yeah, yeah, it was the most beautiful thing that you can ever imagine. Even dreams can’t be so beautiful.
So, I have a question about that. Because as wonderful as that experience may have been…. So we were talking up until this point about the combination of something that's sweet and something that's a little darker, perhaps melancholy is a better word for that.
And, I'm just thinking about myself, all the experiences I had in life that I thought were amazing or changed my life, whether they were good or bad, they had the potential to become very frustrating. Because no one was there with me to experience that as well.
Yeah, of course.
And so I guess my first question is: Did you ever feel frustration towards the attempt to describe those experiences or trying to express them?
Of course, of course. Every day, all the time. Because I feel like I'm some kind of outsider. I didn't hear about anyone having a similar experience, and I feel like I have one foot down here in this reality and another foot in something else. So I'm always stretched between two different worlds, and it creates a lot of tension and frustration. I am a very anxious person too. I mean, I have a dark side, definitely, and I try to find a harmony between my more spiritual side and a more down-to-earth and anxious side. That’s the whole point, I guess, trying to find harmony, you know?
When I was a kid in high school, say, and I loved Cradle of Filth, mostly the first two albums, and Dusk and Her Embrace is one of my all-time favorite albums. And one of the things that I noticed in experiencing that album is that sometimes it feels like Dani's shrieking voice is torn between his very deep growling voice and the very kind of ethereal female voice. It’s like he’s trapped and he can't take it anymore. It’s as if his “black voice” is going: “Stop it! Get the fuck out of my head!” So, do you feel like the darker sides or the more aggressive sides of Alcest’s music originate in the frustration of you being torn between these two worlds?
Yeah, absolutely. And that's why Alcest’s music isn't only about this beautiful, perfect place. I mean, that was the case for the first album, that was really about describing the beauty and serenity of this other world. But then from Écailles de Lune it started to get a bit darker, because I was missing that place, and I felt like an outsider and I felt alone. So that's how Alcest became darker on Écailles de Lune and then bright on Les Voyages de l'Âme, then very bright on Shelter, a bit darker on Kodama, and much darker on Spiritual Instinct. There is always this battle between my own emotions as a human being and my more spiritual and uplifting side. There's something you find in the balance of the screaming vocals and the clean vocals, for example.
It’s interesting because the experience you describe obviously is a beautiful experience. But, being the person I am and thinking of my own interest, there are certain parallels between that experience and and experiences that are very negative. Those parallels being that once you experience something only you can understand that puts a lot of pressure on your ability to communicate that thing.
And that can fester, almost like an open wound that gets worse if you don't treat it. Because you can't talk about it, you don't express it, you don’t communicate it, and it becomes a problem. This beautiful thing becomes a problem.
Yeah, this is very true.
And I think a lot of people, even without a very radical experience like the one you're describing, I think that basic sense of melancholy is something that a lot of people have, maybe toward their childhood, or toward their family, or when a loved one is gone. So even though it's a very beautiful experience, it's almost structurally built to create this very painful tension.
Yeah, that's true. Not everything in life is as beautiful and as peaceful, and you’re going to encounter difficulties and shitty things because life is not all pink and nice. It’s like what Buddhists say, that you have to take your distance from everything because nothing ever lasts, happiness doesn't’ last, you're going to die. And so that's why you need to distance yourself from both the good experiences and bad experiences.
But that sounds like it's a lesson you learned very early, right? I mean, a lot of people have this kind of crisis when they were 30. It seems like you got that “seed” quite early.
Yes, because of this experience. Since that I've always been attracted to spiritual questions like the afterlife and the essence of what we are, are we the soul, what is the soul, if we are just humans or if the nature of the soul is actually much more than just being human. That’s what I did. The existence of God, the meaning of life, what are we doing here? And these are questions that I've been asking them myself since forever, and at the same time not being religious, because I’m not a religious person, I don't follow any fucking book and I don't listen to anyone. No one is going to tell me what to believe in. I had a chance to experience something, and that's worth all the books in the world.
And so Souvenirs d'un autre monde was a pretty album or a kind of a “bright” album that was almost like a celebration of this beautiful gift you’ve been given as a child then Écailles de Lune, there’s something else there. So was a turn toward the dark, is that what it’s like to grow up with that gift?
Yeah, exactly. And becoming an adult with this thing too. Because, when I wrote Souvenirs I was still very young, some of the songs were written when I was maybe 17 or 18, I was really, really young. And then Écailles was written in my early 20s. I moved away from the South of France and went to Paris, and I started to have like a real adult life, with adult problems and everything. And it’s difficult to have this side that is so disconnected from everything and so beautiful and pure and having to live a life, with everything that it implies, all the suffering. And because I think also I am a natural nostalgic and melancholic and anxious person, that's a part of who I am. And yet, that's where it started to appear, at least in Alcest. I was involved in darker music before that, but Écailles is the first dark Alcest album. It still has a lot of beauty, it’s still very, very dreamy, but it’s an album of longing and melancholia.
I mean, just as a personal tidbit, I stopped listening to metal for most of the first decade of the 21st century, because I was sick of it. And one of the albums that brought me back into metal was that album. And I heard it many times through the years, but now as I listened to it again in preparation for our conversation and the first thing that struck me as a difference between Écailles and Souvenirs is how similar it is to the difference between Gish and Siamese Dream.
Oh, nice [laughs].
And I think it's not only similar in the kind of shift into more complex and darker music, and also a shift into a kind of more rich production in both, Siamese Dream is just perfect rock production right, And it's pretty, right? And Écailles is pretty as well, but it's also very melancholic and, in terms of both Siamese and Écailles almost oppressively melancholic and beautiful at the same time. Anyway, just a weird thought I had.
Yeah, I don't think our music is really depressing, just perhaps more melancholic, that’s the word. It’s not supposed to bring you down, it’s supposed to make you feel. I mean, Écailles, even if it’s kind of dark, it's also very comforting. Just like on the cover, you are on the bottom of the ocean and there are ocean creatures and mermaids taking care of you, so you are safe. It's a place where you are safe, but it's a place of longing and melancholy. And it's a place where you are alone and missing something and wanting to be away from a very down-to-earth reality. And that’s the metaphor of Écailles de Lune, this guy that lives in the real world that goes to the bottom of the ocean to swim with the mermaids, just wants to escape. And that's the metaphor for my own story.
Do you feel there's anger on Écailles de Lune? Or frustration, or is it just melancholy?
A little bit, but not as much as, for example, on Spiritual Instinct, where it’s the first time where there’s real anger on an Alcest record.
Why was the anger there? Not that we're talking about Spiritual Instinct, per se but, why was that the first time?
Because I think I suppressed a lot of anger for some time. Since Alcest is my only band now I don't have any other outlet for these types of feelings. So maybe I was suppressing it a little bit to the point that it had to come out on Spiritual Instinct. I didn't try to remove the angry stuff, I thought it was a good thing to let it be expressed.
Perhaps mistakenly, because of bands you used to play in and maybe the way Alcest sounded way back in at the beginning, but often Alcest is discussed in terms of black metal. And black metal, a lot of it is quite angry, and the people who play it sometimes are also quite angry. And it seems to me that you're describing yourself not necessarily as an angry person, more anxious and melancholy. So when you play festivals, 9 times out of 10 I would guess these are metal festivals….
Not necessarily. We play a lot of indie rock festivals, we have a very wide audience. But, yeah, there are a lot of metal festivals, and that's why I always insisted that Alcest is not black metal, because there is no hate in our system. You won't find any hate in this music or a wish of someone else’s suffering or death. Making people feel bad or suffer is the last thing that I want, I love people. So, for example, a band like Shining, where he says that he wants people to kill themselves, It's horrifying. Seriously, it's horrible, what kind of person are you to wish that? And I love black metal, I love the early Darkthrone records, and Bathory, and Emperor, I grew up on that, so I really like it. But for me, what I do is not black metal.
So, the way you're describing in which the melancholy and darker themes came into the music is because of a personal need to kind of address your past and your experiences. And sometimes in metal circles, and not even necessarily metal circles, even just in music in general, the aggressive side of the music comes from aggressive personalities. And so I guess I thought about what may be like for you as social experience, to go to these festivals or to get emails from metal heads…. I would imagine that if you're already feeling like a stranger in the world then something like that could make you even feel even more isolated and strange.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when we play metal festivals sometimes I really can't relate at all to the spirit. Because I’m really not an aggressive person, I'm really not. And as you say, it's more like frustration and anxiety than real anger. If I want to fight it will be like a fight with myself, to fight against my own darkness, but I don't want to fight with anyone.
This may be a boring discussion for you, but there's a kind of select group of European bands that seemed to have a very big influence on American metal, Alcest being one, Ulver being another. And obviously Alcest is a very influential band, you've done very well for yourself, and so a lot of European bands love Alcest and you have a big audience in Europe. But it seems like a lot of American bands that straddle that borderline between pop music and metal openly admit to loving your music and being inspired by you. And so I guess I'm asking whether or not you’ve noticed that?
Are you speaking about Deafheaven?
That’s one example, yeah.
They are an amazing band, we’re very good friends. And they have always said that Alcest was one of their biggest inspirations. And of course that makes me very happy, it’s incredible. I know where I came from, I came from a shithole in the south of France. I was 14 years old, and I was living at my friend's place and I was recording in a garage, that's where I come from. And I didn't have anyone to help me. No parents in the music industry, no big brother to show me music. I was alone. So I know where I came from, and knowing that there are bands on the other side of the globe, being influenced by what I do, it's a dream, man. It's incredible.
But, to me, in my mind, because most of the music I listen to is American.
Yeah, me too.
Okay, so maybe you can empathize. But most of the music I listen to is American and most of the metal I listen to is American. And I’ve been asking myself all my life: “Why is that?” Because it's a very uncool thing to do in Israel, since Israel is a very Eurocentric, at least in metal terms, very old school European death and black metal, and I always wondered what it was that attracted me to the American bands. And I think that Deafheaven is just one band that very visibly, and very vocally said: “Alcest is a band that influenced us.” But it seems to me that the American bands, at least the newer American bands, there's no sense of tradition that they feel obligated to align themselves with, or at least less of a sense of tradition than, say, some European black metal fans, for whom you know, a melodic line is blasphemy. So it seems like maybe some of the appeal Alcest has for American bands, and maybe some of the appeal American bands have for you, is the sense of “everything is possible.” If you want to mix something, mix it, if it works, it works, and don't get hung up on what you're supposed to do?
Yeah, yeah. But that's something that is very, very brave, especially when it has never been done before. When I released Souvenirs, I didn't know…. I mean, I guess I was politically unaware, because it was a very provocative record in the end. Some people felt offended by that record because it was so uplifting and so fragile. Metal is all about being a real man who wears leather and spikes and fights warriors in the north, you know? And then I came with my springtime, happy, fragile, otherworldly stuff, using the same instruments, using blast beats, using tremolo-picked riffs. But I guess I was a little bit crazy, because now I wouldn't dare do it again.
I don't think so. Because it was really controversial back then. And the funny thing is that it’s more like Deafheaven, who got all that hate from the metal scene, and we started almost ten years before that.
I don’t know who got more hate but I think part of why Deafheaven was so hated was because they were obviously so uninterested in even appearing to care whether they were metal or not.
Yeah, and that's great. Cheers to them for that, because metal started as a very, very rebellious type of music and controversial and and then it ended up being this very lame, codified music, where everybody sounds the same. So they are just doing the same as with the metal perennials did when they started.
I guess one question I want to ask about, and I don't know if it's a question you can answer or feel like answering, but knowing what you know or what you think about metal as a very conservative, very macho, very masculine and very confident, why is it that you still use – in Ecailles but also Kodama – these kind of metal tropes, the tremolo picking the blast beat? What about them make them effective for you as a musician? Why do you go there?
It could be anything, but that’s just the stuff that I grew up with, that's what I know. If I had been playing violin or if I had been listening to country music when I was a teenager instead of metal I would still be playing country music. It’s just what I know to do. It’s a bit lame [laughs], but that’s my culture. I grew up listening to black metal, and then I discovered
indie rock, and before black metal I was listening to pop. And the funny thing is I've never been into hard rock or classic bands like Led Zeppelin or AC/DC, and I hate that type of stuff. So that’s a very big clash between my culture and metal culture, because, I mean, my bandmates introduce me to the rock classics every time we see each other, because I have a really bad heavy metal and hard rock background. As I said before, I came from grunge to black metal and then I discovered New Wave, Depeche Mode and Joy Division.
I have something of an issue with the fact that I listen to a lot of metal, and the issue isn't like a moral issue it's more a philosophical issue. Because I myself am not a violent person, but I do identify a lot of violence in metal. And so what I keep asking myself is, yes, like you, I grew up with metal, but why did I gravitate to Emperor or Darkthrone?
Yeah, why this and not something else?
Yeah. You could have listened to anything, but you chose toAnthems to the Welkin at Dusk and you said: “Yes, that's that's exactly that.”
It’s because I had this fire in me when I was a teenager, this frustration and this need to escape reality. And the black metal I like, it’s not so much satanic or evil stuff, it's more about an escape from reality. When you look at the cover art, it’s all these fantasy landscapes, all the names coming from Tolkien, and there is an obvious link between fantasy worlds and black metal. Even if some “trv” black metal guy will say: “Oh, this is so cheesy and this is bullshit,” that's black metal. Look at the discography of an Norwegian black metal band and you will always find the fantasy worlds, and for me that was the most mystical and otherworldly music that I could find back then, and that’s why I liked it, because I could connect with that, you know?
Yeah, no for sure. I mean, I understand completely. I would imagine Écailles is a pivotal moment in your career. Because it's not just a musical moment of growing up, it's also the moment Alcest becomes more well known. But a lot of time has passed since that album, and quite a few albums have come since. And I wonder whether or not when you look back at it, if there was something you were especially proud of?
Yeah. I like a lot of our albums. I mean, not all of them, I'm very critical with what I write, but with Écailles I know that it was really the best I could do. It's full of small things that I don't like, but I recognize that it's an album that is important for us. And that is maybe it has that little spark that could make it into a classic of our discography. So, yeah, I am very proud of it. And the thing is, what I am proud about is that I didn't calculate it. I didn't plan to make an album like that, I didn't wake up in the morning and say: “Oh, I'm going to make a classic Alcest album.” It just happened. And these moments are really nice, when you actually don't plan but it just happens. And regarding the songs, I like most of the songs, especially the the two Écailles songs in the beginning, and the the very last one, "Sur l'océan couleur de fer."
What I like the most, actually, about this album is the fact that it’s a bit like In the Nightside Eclipse by Emperor in that the cover represents exactly what the music is about.
That's actually that I never thought of that. But that's absolutely true.
If you would look at the cover you could imagine how the music would be.
Yeah, it makes you wonder whether or not there were and hybrid shoegaze-black metal bands in Art Nouveau France because the two seem to fit very well.
Yeah, that's true [laughs].