Alcest Sea Change
Published Jan 29, 2014In 2013, while the metal genre offshoot "blackgaze" reached a critical peak with Deafheaven's Sunbather, the man who helped popularize the sound was working on leaving it behind. For many, Alcest's EP, Le Secret (2005), was the blueprint for a genre that drew a thick line between the tremolo-heavy guitar style of black metal and the lush, dreamy atmospheric guitars favoured in shoegaze. Though the popularization of blackgaze coincided with a renewed interest in black metal, Alcest were slowly withdrawing from that side of their aesthetic with each successive album.
With Shelter, Alcest have finally tipped the scales toward a more direct, shoegaze-inspired sound, with no remnant of anything remotely metal. Though the doses of blackened abrasion helped give Alcest's previous work some great texture, there are still textures that characterize the music — instead of being defined by shadows, light now fills every crevice, exposing new shapes and sounds.
As Exclaim! spoke with Neige before the band embarked on their European tour, it was clear that he has no misgivings about the band's direction. He was perplexed by some of the reactions fans have had to the newer material, but remained confident that the record's uplifting concept and melodies fit within the comfortable place Alcest have carved out for themselves.
So you're currently in rehearsals for your upcoming European tour. How is that going?
It's a lot of work. We all live in different places so we only meet for rehearsing before each tour. We haven't practiced together in six months or something like that. We have about four or five days to set up everything, which involves a lot of stuff like preparing set lists, recording samples — because now we use a computer. There are so many layers to the new songs that we're forced to use a few samples in our set. Practice, yeah, it's shitloads of work, but that's normal, part of the job.
Will your live shows be weighted toward this newer material? Will you be juxtaposing those songs with older ones?
It's a tour for Shelter, so 5 songs will be from that record and the rest are songs from the older records.
Shelter has a lot going on in terms of arrangements than previous records. Is that presenting itself as a challenge for the live show?
Some of the new songs have 60 to 80 guitar tracks. Ambient guitars, not necessarily things that you purely hear, but there are a lot of things going on. So it's a bit more difficult to play live. We don't want to play the exact same version of what you hear on the record. I think live is not supposed to sound like the record, it has to be more spontaneous. It's always good when a band has two sides — the record side and live side. We are not supposed to sound the same, but if you sound too different, it's also a problem, I think. It's a fine balance that you have to find. It's also very difficult to mix the old songs with the new ones because they don't have the same mood or textures or feelings. So that's also something we need to be careful about. Everything has to be coherent, has to make sense.
There has been some mention about what the concept of Shelter meant to you personally. I was wondering if you could go into more detail about escaping to the sea and how that influenced the music on the record.
This concept is something that could speak to anyone. Shelter can be precious things we all have, that you can turn to when you feel lost. They are things you keep that remind you of what you deep down are and prevent you from being lost. Shelter can be a place, movie, person, anything. Just something that makes you feeling secure. For me it was this connection I had with the sea. I was used to spending lots of time by the sea. When I don't feel right, it's good to just sit in front of the waves and let time pass and let the atmosphere clear your thoughts. Lots of things change in life, you grow up, you might not necessarily make the right choices always, but there are things that are constant and that you know will be there for you. Shelter is all of these very precious, safe places that we have.
With Shelter, some fans may mourn the loss of any obvious metal signifiers in your music. Do you see those types of metal conventions as still bearing an influence over Alcest, or does this record signify a clean break from the genre?
I've think I've always had a very melodic style. This has never changed. I am really into traditional songwriting. I very often compose with an unplugged guitar and nothing else, just recording my ideas on my cellphone. I don't have any computer to make music. I don't use Pro Tools or know how any of that stuff works. I am really bad for that. I am very old school because for me a good song must have a good melody. It's as simple as that. There is a balance that you need to find that between something that is simplistic and something that is catchy. Simple doesn't mean catchy, but complicated is not really the best idea. Songwriting is always question of balance. This melodic style in Alcest's music will not change. But I don't think it is part of this metal sound. Some people are more into the arrangements and the sound itself; some are more into traditional songwriting. This is definitely a break from what we've done before, but only in terms of the shape of the record. The core of it, for me, is the songwriting, the melodic stuff which has stayed the same. Instead of using heavy guitars and drums I wanted to do something light and airy. I know a lot of people dislike it; I've read a few things I shouldn't have because it makes me feel really depressed. Once you are metal, you have to stay metal forever. It's crazy. I didn't sign any contract. It's so strange. People are expecting something from the band, and when it's not what they wanted to get, they are mad.
You've always been honest about what your intent is. No one should be really surprised by this record. Alcest have been slowing moving away from metal and toward melody for some time.
I don't know if I'm different from others. For me the style doesn't hold that much importance. I am really into the essence of music. So the melodies and feelings are what's important, not whether or not you use more or less gain on the guitars, or are more or less heavy on the snare, you know it doesn't make a big difference to me. It's so strange, because to some people it really does. For me I see the Alcest discography as one whole, so I don't consider things to be that different. In the future I don't think we are going to come back to the metal-sounding songs. I've been doing it for so many years and I've evolved as a person, so the music changes as well because it's personal. People have said I've gone mainstream. If I wanted to be mainstream, I'd just make the same album again and again.
In many interviews you've referred to Alcest as a "progressive" project. I was wondering if you could elaborate on what the word progressive means to you, and how it informs your songwriting.
It's possible I said progressive, but it's not in the '70s kind of way. Maybe I didn't use the right word. I should have said that for me, Alcest songs are like soundtracks. They're very cinematic to me. Cinematic and epic. That cinematic quality that you're speaking of — is that what led you to work with Sigur Rós' producer, Birgir Jón Birgisson, on the new record?
We wanted to work with this person because he and Sigur Rós have a very interesting sound, something very different from the usual, clinical metal sound. In the past we didn't experiment too much with the sound and production on the records, so this time we wanted to try a few new things like having different guitar tones. We wanted to have a more experimental approach. [Birgisson] really likes these kind of soundtrack kind of songs.
Could you talk about guests and other contributors on the record? How did they get involved?
We tried to contact Neil [Halstead] because Slowdive is my favourite band. We really wanted this guy to do a few things. We tried to contact him for quite a long time, and he finally replied. He told me he liked the music, and would be interested — you can imagine how happy I was. I was crazy happy. We wanted to work with Billie Lindahl from Promise and the Monster because she has a very specific kind of voice, very cold and Scandinavian. Like the voice of the North, very airy. I thought it would fit very well with Alcest's music. The strings section from Sigur Rós is on it too — the girls from Amiina — there were a lot of guest musicians, actually.
Previous Alcest records weren't as guest-heavy. What made you want to include so many people on this one?
Before, Alcest was just my thing. I didn't want anyone to touch Alcest, or approach it from afar even. The more I grow, the cooler I am with sharing it. It's not that it isn't as personal, but this time I wanted for once to make a record with a lot of fun and a lot of pleasure. I think that's something that people really don't like, that it's a lighter album that feels good. I think people are really looking for deep and sad things in Alcest. I think when they listen to Alcest they want to get their dose of melancholy.
What do you think it is that makes people gravitate toward sad sounding music?
When you feel sad you feel alive — you feel more alive than ever. I listen to a lot of melancholy music myself, but the difference is that I take as much pleasure out of listening to melancholic music as I do from very happy songs. I really like composing very happy songs because they're never completely happy — there's always something nostalgic about them. I always use this example — I love Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins. It has a very happy feel, but at the same time it's quite nostalgic and bittersweet. I think Shelter is a lighter record, something to chill out and feel good to. Everything about it is in the name: it's supposed to make you feel good and comfortable. It's not supposed to make you feel down. Maybe that's also something that changed a bit from what we've done before. Like I said before, I wanted to do something very simple, honest, and humble. Something that is light and simple. The simplest things can be something that touches you so profoundly, these precious moments, like the ones I had sitting on the beach, looking at the sea for hours. It's very simple.