Ensemble is the platform created by electronica musician Oliver Alary to explore ‘the meeting point between melodic noise and disjointed pop’. On his eponymous debut for Fat Cat records Alary has collaborated with a number of talented vocalists, bringing in Bjork, Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Lou Barlow to augment his own lusciously sparse productions.
Trebuchet catches up with him to discuss how he manipulates sound and the difficulty in moving from the bedroom to the stage.
Is the name 'Ensemble' a deliberate nod towards collaborative projects?
Well, when I decided to use this name, the project was a duo. The idea behind the name was to have something that would work in both English and French. Also, in French, ensemble means ‘together’, it’s distant and personal at the same time.
How do you think your musical style/competence has progressed up to this album?
I learned a lot about sound production and music in general, but I also learned a lot about my limits and what I shouldn’t do. This album represents a transition period in my music. Where I’m moving from a solitary sound to a grander collaborative feel.
How has Ensemble changed as a result of the break-up with Chanelle Kimber? Have you found it liberating, or a struggle to adjust?
Ensemble was created in 1998, Chanelle left during the recording of the first album in 1999, the project was not completely formed but she added a nice spontaneity to the music, which I liked.
Since we split, I had to redefine the entire project, moving from a duo to multiple collaborators. At times I really felt that I was trapped, but when I look at it now, it was a blessing, it allowed me to push my limits and rethink the music I wanted to achieve.
Your music strikes me as ideal film-score material. Any interest in collaborating with movie-makers?
Absolutely, I am composing and doing the music supervision for a full length documentary this fall. I am a very visual person, I often find myself trying to “auditize” the images I see in my mind.
How did you find these artists were to work with? How did they react to you as an artist?
I contacted them directly or through their label. It was extremely straight forward. They were surprised by the music I sent them but liked the songs.
They really trusted me, which I find admiring. Each of the artists I worked with taught me something new. Lou was so welcoming and open to working together, it was very easy. With Chan, I went down to Atlanta to record at her friend’s studio (a converted 40 foot container) and it was pure magic, she is such a professional and has such a palpable aura in person, she nailed it in two takes.
I read that often your music comes from pushing digital media beyond recognised boundaries/usage. Can you provide some examples of how you have used/abused digital media to produce your sound? (Example: DJ Krust sampling live wire feedback for the bassline in 'Warhead').
I used to send too much Midi data to overdrive the buffer of old synthesizers to give a fragmented effect (check the end of proposal 3, and proposal 5 on my first album) but I tend not to do that anymore, nowadays I use chance operations or improvisation on acoustic/electric instrument. For example, I tune an electro-acoustic guitar to the harmony of a certain part of a song, then I make its body resonate by sending an audio signal to the hole and it gives these beautiful shimmery, resonant tones. I also use natural phenomenon like wind as a trigger for some of my music, sometimes the randomness of nature is more perfect than any sequence you could program.
What kind of themes are you trying to explore on this album? Is there an overriding message you'd like people to take away?
“Soon it’ll hit us like a Summerstorm.” I’ll leave it at that.
The PR for this LP states that Ensemble was created by you as 'a platform to explore the meeting point between melodic noise and experimental pop'. Did you consciously try to make this record more accessible to first time listeners?
Yes, I really wanted to depart from any clique or contrived style, music is a language and I wanted to give people emotion. A sort of shelter where they can cry, make love or think. I think there is a lot of room for pop music to become more adventurous and for experimental music to become more accessible. Somewhere between the two is a balance where you can reach many people and still challenge them and make them think about what they’re listening to.
Were the artists that you approached for this record chosen purely for their vocal abilities or were you influenced by what you knew of them as artists and people, esp. those you had worked with before?
I love Lou’s work since I was a kid, especially "the Freed weed" which is still very close to my heart. I did not know Chan’s work so much when I contacted her, I loved her voice though and I thought that she would sound great on "disown, delete".
There seems to have been a lot of travelling involved with the making of this record. Did you find that conducive to the creative process or was it a complete nightmare? Contrast with some artists who lock themselves away for months. Can you give us some idea of how you like to work? How close did you get to that on this record?
Like many electronic musicians I grew up with, I locked myself in for a long long time to do this album, but it was only by travelling that it finally unfolded and made sense. By travelling, I tried to make it as easy as possible for the collaborators I worked with, but also for me the music took on a piece of everywhere I went, Berlin, Atlanta, New York, all of those cities occupy a sonic space in the album.
Half-way through 'One kind, two minds', there is a stab of feedback and then a rush of static that rises in the mix throughout the second half. How did that come about (happy accident or planned choice) and how were those sounds created? Use of static is prevalent throughout most of the record. Is it something that you enjoy using in your music?
It was totally planned and it’s the last time I used the « pushing digital media » technique. I fed too much midi data to a synth that brokeout into this screaming sound, I changed the eq. a bit and used it layering with a bassline. I enjoy the jarring effect of noise in the midst of a gentle melody, it adds a bit of a break and it also has its own beauty that contrasts as well.
Tracks 'Still', 'Unrest' and especially 'For Good' are particularly minimalist; the music that is there being mostly overshadowed by white noise/wind in the foreground. Do you consider these to be primarily connecting tracks, much as skits are often used on hip-hop records, or do you consider them to be important songs in their own right?
I think that they are important, they provide balance and structure to the album, and it’s the same idea of using silence in music.
For me, the best points on this album come from the layering of Spanish guitar and husky vocals over various stabs and ambient sounds. Do you consider yourself an accomplished guitarist, what other instruments do you play; and do you enjoy the symbiosis of live instruments with digital programming?
I also play piano and percussions sometimes but I don’t see myself as an accomplished musician at all, I still have a lot to learn.
I love how electronic and acoustic sounds compliment each other, how much depth and physicality they give to the music.
Do you feel that you fit snugly into the stable at FatCat records? They seem to be a label unafraid to support those musicians working at the boundaries of their field/genre. Has the relationship been a positive one?
I’m proud to be working with Fat Cat, I’ve known them since 1997, and they were always very supportive of my music, it feels very natural to be with them.
What do you consider are your strengths and failings as an artist? Continuing from the question on your progression so far, how would you like to follow on from this record and in what way(s) do u think you still need to grow as an artist?
My biggest problem is that I’m a perfectionist, I work for hours on minute sonic details that probably in the end no one will really notice, unless they listen very closely. But for me it’s those details that make the difference.
On the downside, this album took waaaaay too long to make, and as a result my roommates became crazy hearing the same thing over and over. For the next album, I’d like to strip it back a lot and concentrate on really exploring a few instruments and vocal melodies.
You are on tour at the moment. It would be interesting to know how you present this music on stage. How many people do you need, what parts do you keep for yourself, and what kind of stage-show do you put on to accompany the music?
Translating the music live with a limited number of members is very difficult. Right now, I’ve got a super hot drummer and a great wonderful female singer, while I play guitar. Ideally I’d like to have more members on stage, like a juggler and mime having sex on the front stage. Or maybe not.
You have said before that this is a very 'constructed' record; do you feel any of that intricate construction is lost in the live format; if so do you feel the live show compensates for that?
We tend to focus more on the energy than on the intricacy of the music, most of the P.A system sound like shit anyway and are not able to do justice to the sound.
Who are your major influences? Who/what are you listening to at the moment, whether influential or not? Who would you like to work with in the future, if anyone? Would you consider making a record completely solo?
Kraftwerk, Neil Young (Harvest), the Velvet Underground, Pharoah Sanders, Sebadoh (the Freed Weed), Mulatu Astatke, Arvo Pärt. Dominique A (la fossette), Dinosaur Jr (you’re living all over me), Music from Bali/Java, Thomas Tallis, White Storm (an electric storm), Bernard Parmegiani (De natura sonorum), the residents (commercial album), Gainsbourg, early Françoise Hardy, Can, Bollywood music John Barry, the Zombies, Moondog, etc.
I recently worked with Tamar Amir, a young and talented vocalist from Montreal who features on the “disown, delete” e.p.
I want to do new work with her and set up new collaborations with artists from Montreal, it will be certainly easier to work that way.
Hmm, never thought of that…maybe one day.
The high point on this album for me is Track 7: 'Loose', featuring Camille Claverie. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, it's the longest, and to my mind most complete song on the record. Others, notably 'Disown, Delete', which you have mentioned is your proudest accomplishment, have a fairly unrestrictive use of structure. Do you consider that fair comment? Is that something you were aiming for?
It’s weird, I only realize after I composed the songs that the structures are so complex…i was never a fan of the chorus/verse/chorus verse structure anyway…
Finally, what next for Ensemble? After the US tour, are plans afoot for a European jaunt? Is the next record on the horizon, and if so can you hint as to the possible directions you hope to take Ensemble?
Yes, probably some European dates in December and May… I already have a couple of new songs. I feel that the new album will be more spontaneous, intimate and violent, more stripped down and focused.
The concept for the album cover is very striking. Was it an idea you came up with yourself or was it a collaborative process with Marc?
It’s a vision that I had for a while, we talked with Marc of how we could do it and the best way of doing it.
During 4 freezing days, we gathered 300 kg of trash from the streets of NYC, we brought it to Brooklyn to the 8th floor of an industrial building and threw it in the air, Marc did a whole assemblage of the 300+ pictures we took. The 10 pages CD booklet is magnificent; Marc did such an amazing job, definitely worth buying, and not downloading. The album as an artistic object is important to me. It’s nice to have something beautiful to hold. Maybe if more record labels cared about the package, people would be more proud to own albums.
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