Interview – Benoit Pioulard

Benoît-Pioulard-In-Los-Angeles

I met Benoit Pioulard, or Thomas Meluch, through my label boss (for Graveyard Tapes) Ryan Keane.  Having been a big fan of Orcas record (though I admit it took time) and also of his work as a solo artist it has been a real pleasure to engage in conversation with him about his work, life and how the two come together to create what he does.  A lovely, gentle soul, I hope you enjoy reading his words as much as I enjoyed chatting with him.  In the meantime, please visit his website and check out his latest record ‘Hymnal’ as well as dipping in to his back catalogue and also the Orcas  record.  Magic stuff.  Enjoy.

TSP: I guess where I’d want to start is with Orcas.  Of all the music I have listened to I saw parallels between yourselves and Graveyard Tapes (me and Matthew Collings) in the sense that the music combines one more traditional song writer with somebody from a very different musical background.  With me and Matt things just seemed to happen after we decided to work together.  How did you and Rafael come to work together, how was the process of recording and how has working on the orcas record changed/developed you as a musician?

BP: Rafael was a curator and catch-all for the annual Decibel Festival here in Seattle for many years (he’s now in more of a hands-off advisory position, as I understand), and he booked my performance there in 2009 as part of a showcase with Mountains and Goldmund/Helios that I truly loved being a part of.. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went that evening – since I had never played in front of an audience that size and he was running around doing a million things – but when we had a chance we seemed to settle on a sort of wavelength that both of us recognized.. Which may have had something to do with the fact that we were already mutual admirers of one another’s records.

Anyway, a couple months and a few emails after that he suggested that I come up to Seattle (I was living in Portland at the time), stay with him & his wife and try out some recording to see where it’d go.  We began amid some torrentially rainy weather in January 2010 with some basic guitar loop kind of stuff, lots of experimenting with pedal chains, bells, voice, and so on.  Jesy Fortino (aka Tiny Vipers and half of Mirrorring) was a part of this phase of things, too, which is why some of her (amazing) voice ended up on a few final drafts for the first record.

After a short while & once we’d constructed a few track ideas I wrote or adapted some lyrics & we wrote ‘Pallor Cedes’ (track one on the LP) and kind of hit a stride from there.  The collaboration contained/contains more interpersonal harmony than I’ve ever had working on music with others or a group, which is kind of amazing considering that we’re both pretty solitary people otherwise – Raf is just a really good director, but also crazy familiar with all the tools at his disposal, on his computer(s) and in his studio.  So the biggest growing pain for me was allowing him to record really raw, single takes of my voice since I normally overdub and use tape and/or a thoroughly mediocre microphone for my Benoit Pioulard songs.

Essentially the collaboration has always worked out to a roughly 50/50 split in ideas, where his half is more execution and production and mine is writing and filling in details, melodies, etc.. But there’s also a fair amount of overlap in other areas, so we get on well.  The newer stuff we’ve been working on since the beginning of 2013 is similar in certain ways, but feels WAY more fleshed out to me, a nice step in a few new directions that is only possible now that we know what to expect from each other.

TSP: Apart from the curating a festival, that sounds similar to my own story with Matt.  He is brilliant with the direction and using the toolkit at his disposal whilst I am just able to focus on the tune, melody, harmony.  He wants to push us as far was we can go in terms of doing something worthwhile and I am totally onboard with that whilst trying to retain the idea that we are doing something accessible.  It’s a pretty great relationship and has influenced me heavily in terms of my own work as The Kays Lavelle and glacis.

You obviously feel that the Orcas follow up record will be perhaps more mature because of your developing relationship but how did working with Raf change you as a solo musician.  Did his approach to recording vocals, for example, make you approach things differently?  Was his influence with technology something you really embraced in the recording of ‘Hymnal’.  Collaborations I suppose are designed to make you grow as an artist but does that seep in to your own work and, if so, how do you keep it from becoming too much like an Orcas record?

Seattle/Portland seem like 2 seriously creative places particularly in musical terms.  I am guessing you now live in Seattle – so what was it that made you want to move there and are there particular artists (other than raf, tiny vipers) who you could recommend that people check out?

BP: What’s part of the ‘magic’ of the experience of working with Raf is that it’s removed enough from what I do on my own that I can kind of preserve Benoît in its own little corner.. That being the case, I think my last solo record (Hymnal) might have been the most stripped-down thing I’ve done so far, part of which was due to being overseas with only a laptop, sound card and a set of instruments that I cobbled together during my first month or two in the UK.  With solo pursuits I still feel as though I’m following a path with lots of bends & a surprise here or there, but it remains a really nice one to be on.

As for Seattle, I’m pretty evenly split in my adoration of it and Portland.. Since Seattle is my wife’s preference (and I’ve already lived in Portland for nearly five years) we decided to settle here since we already have a few friends, it seems like an appropriate ‘step up’ and the scenery & hiking opportunities are arguably a notch up from those around Portland.  We’re both pretty passionate about the outdoors, so that’s a significant factor..

TSP: I have deliberately kept Matt out of The Kays Lavelle recordings for that very reason.  That said, he will be mixing the thing and knowing him will want to add a bit of the Jim O’Rourke approach to the process!  He’s awesome to work with and his input and thoughts are always welcome.

Let’s talk about Hymnal.  It has this kind of under water feel to it which I love.  The vocals feel like a part of the texture and overall soundscape rather than front and centre.  As a vocalist – I am assuming first and foremost – do you share my view that the vocal is more than just a means of delivering words?  I am a firm believer in getting the sound of the vocal right to fit the work and Hymnal feels like that was the approach required.  It kind of feels, to me like the perfect vocal record.

Only reason I asked about Portland/Seattle was I’ve been watching Portlandia a lot recently and it reminds me so much of Edinburgh.  There is an episode where the Mayor of Portland tries to encourage people from Seattle to move to Portland!  Anyways, they both seem like majorly creative centres and so I was just interested I guess.  It’s always nice to be in a place that you feel happy and comfortable.  How does place impact on your work though?  Has your work been obviously shaped by the move and actually, was Hymnal heavily shaped by being in the UK and unfamiliar surroundings?

BP: I would definitely say that I view the voice as at least half-instrument, the other half or so being the verbal delivery part. I tend to mix the vocals on my songs primarily based on the sonic image or profile of the instrumentation, which is why the variation in presence is so broad from song to song & album to album.

I’m never totally sure how much of an influence my surroundings have on the shape or style of a given recording, but I think there’s something to that.. I recorded ‘Précis’ during a cold & dark Michigan winter, and I wouldn’t doubt that that had its effects even though the main inspiration was a pretty bad breakup. Similarly, ‘Lasted’ was made at a very particular moment in which I was really sad but really hopeful, while at the same time locked inside away from the heavy precipitation of the Portland rainy season.  That’s one major boon of the Northwest, actually: the good excuse to stay inside during those seven or eight months out of the year.

‘Hymnal’ was inspired initially and consistently by the religious architecture of the UK, as well as my Catholic upbringing, so in that sense it was a pretty neat collision of various times & places for me.. That being the case, I can say with some conviction that it wouldn’t have been the same record if I hadn’t been living over there.

TSP: Man, it sounds like you have travelled a lot and lived in many different places?  I am fascinated by the relationship between place and music.  I think the environments we surround ourselves with have a profound impact on the music/art that we create – be that consciously or sub-consciously.  It sounds like the UK had that kind of impact on you?  Is it weird leaving the vastness of the USA to visit Europe or does that vastness itself result in a strange country of many, many different landscapes and environments?

You say ‘Hymnal’ was inspired by the religious architecture of the UK.  My day job – sad to say I have to have one – is working with historic buildings.  I am a bit obsessed with religious architecture.  I cannot think of many other buildings that have such an impact on your entire being as churches do.  What in particular interests you in such architecture – is it a UK only thing or just where you happened to be at the time and how has your background impacted on your career?

BP: I liked an adage that I heard while I was in Europe (Portugal specifically, I believe), which went, “100 miles is a long distance in Europe, and 100 years is a long time in the States” – sums up the major differences in scale/perspective pretty well, I’d say. =]  But the shift in culture (as well as everything else) was not a huge shock since I’d already spent 3 months at Oxford as a teenager and some time in France as a student at University.  I took trains primarily, and loved that experience to no end..  Particularly the train from Berlin to Prague and back; those were two of the most profoundly dream-like journeys I think I’ll ever take, and just so beautiful in every way.

As for the architecture, there’s really no analogue in North America (see the above adage) so it is pretty location-specific.. There’s something strange and totally humbling about walking through a tiny town where someone says, “Oh, yeah, that church was built in 1106,” you know.. Just casually.  There’s a sense of continuity in that awareness that we just don’t possess, and in my opinion it’s to our detriment.. And probably why, culturally, we (Americans) are like a bunch of petulant teenagers that think they know everything.

I spent a good amount of time & attended a few services at Canterbury Cathedral – since it was only a 20 minute train ride from one of the places I was living – and those experiences particularly affected the record.  Nothing I’ve heard elsewhere can compare to the emotional resonance of hearing their choir sing in the main chamber, and I mean this in a way that’s totally divorced from religion itself – simply as a human experience.

TSP: Train travel is one of my favourite things.  I am originally from Dundee which is approximately and hour and a half north of Edinburgh and, though not far, I love the train journey back to see my mum.  Sadly due to having a car, and the ease of using that, (because of children) my train journeys have become less frequent but I do love getting on a train and just travelling.  Before my dad died we always talked about how amazing it would be to travel across Canada by train.  Something I’d still love to do one day.  You never know!  Is there anywhere you haven’t visited that you’d really like to visit and how does touring, visiting new places, meeting new people, playing live impact on your work?

I think there is a huge depth to cultural heritage in Europe for sure.  I certainly have never said – I want to visit the United States because of it’s rich cultural heritage or the historic buildings/cities – though that might be naive.  I read that the number one reason people come to Edinburgh is the Castle – which I think says it all.  I work with historic buildings and areas in my day job – I don’t even know if a job like that exists in the USA? – I cannot imagine it but then the landscape, buildings, palette is something entirely different, like you say.   Still, I am fascinated by the United States as a place.  I did my masters thesis on tall buildings and had a look at New York and Chicago but actually possibly more fascinated by the places outwith main cities.  A long story but there is something other worldly about your country.  Once you leave the cities it feels like there is so much nothing.  I like the nothing.  I love images of run down parts of the United States – that could only be the United States – I have a book of polaroids by Pat Sansone of Wilco, which for me captures this beautifully.  Perhaps it’s the unknown, but for me exploring the nowhere places would be an amazing thing.  You just finished a tour of the USA – can you share what it’s like travelling across the vastness from place to place?

‘Hymnal’ being affected by the cathedral choir makes lots of sense.  There is something very ecclesiastical in the sound – if that makes sense?  The vocals have a particular quality to them that is very echoey – as if recorded in a large room such as you find in churches.  Was this a deliberate thing based on that experience?  I remember visiting the Sacre Coeur in Paris as a 12 year old and being in awe of the place.  Notre Dame too.  And I guess from there my love of church/cathedral buildings developed.  The symbolism of those structures is unmatched in any other building type in my opinion.  Power, money, spirituality, God – all wrapped up in a building.  It amazes me every time.

BP: Well fancy that, I’m on a train right now.. Heading to Portland from Seattle for the weekend in order to attend the 30th birthday party of one of my very best friends, before starting a new job next week.  Goodness I feel as though I’m getting old so fast already, saying things like that !  Anyway it’s a beautiful overcast day in the Northwest and my eyes are being drawn away from the screen pretty frequently by the absurdly verdant springtime landscape out the window..

I do think that travel impacts songs and style, yeah.. I mean, it’s the biggest source I have for new experiences and different perspectives than my own, of course, so that’s bound to affect everything in some way.  A few songs I’ve written have even been based largely on specific experiences of travel (e.g. ‘Arrow Drawn’ is about being on a train that ran over a suicidal someone in southern France) so that’s a direct link.  I’ve known a few people who have, just, crazy amounts of travel anxiety, but that’s something that I don’t think I’ve ever felt.. Sitting, watching, observing, etc, are all very peaceful & meditative (for lack of a better synonym) for me, and are obviously huge parts of travel, generally outweighing the amount of time you actually get to spend at a given landmark or cafe.  Broad and informed perspectives are important things, especially in times like these, so I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to travel as much as I have in the past few years.

To that end, I love touring the states and have gotten used to the pace of driving, spending 12-14 hours in the car on some days, but usually more like 4 or 5 hours – which I realize is probably still difficult to process in the European context of scale !  Again it’s totally peaceful, especially just crawling across the expanse of the American southwest and the northern tier (e.g. Montana, Idaho, etc) .. Some of the most beautiful and humbling scenery you could ever hope to see.  To me the shows I play are often an excuse just to have that experience.

TSP: Well isn’t that nice.  How long does that take?  I would love to visit both those places and I imagine the scenery is pretty amazing.  Very jealous!  As for getting older – I turned 34 last week and I sometimes wonder where time has gone.  But then again, I am so excited about what the future holds that I try not to dwell, like others, about getting older.  Each year feels like another little challenge, nugget of happiness (these days).  It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am and I just want to soak it all up.

It’s funny, I was talking to a Canadian girl last night about her driving 4 hours from Toronto to Detroit to watch hockey.  For us, that’s like driving to Liverpool or Manchester – which seem so far away.  But driving in the UK can be really beautiful too.  If you go north for example into Glen Coe and the Scottish Highlands (also great for hiking if you and your wife are keen on that) driving becomes a pleasure but to travel anywhere else in the UK I think I’d be taking the train.  It’s a very different thing in the USA I imagine.  Again, I would love to be a part of an experience like that.

Well, perhaps just a few more questions.  How does playing live influence your recordings.  Do you take new songs on the road and trial/work on them through the live experience or are most things worked up in the studio from scratch?

BP: The train from Portland to Seattle (or vice versa) is about three and a half hours, so not bad at all in the context of the west coast.. For scale, I think the train south from Portland to San Francisco is about twenty hours from end to end (!)

I didn’t start touring until early 2009, by which point I had two records out on kranky.. A proper live show is something I never thought I’d pull together, but my long-time friends Windy & Carl kept insisting that I get over my anxieties and come on tour with them – and certainly as one of my favorite groups I had a hard time turning them down.. Since then I have discovered that touring & playing is (as you suggest) an excellent way to get comfortable with a new song or idea and to develop it from night to night .. As something sits in my head – in between shows especially – I find very often that the act of thinking about a certain passage or chord change at the right moment will bring forth new ideas and help get to a stage where the song might not end up otherwise.

As a weird example, I wrote the bulk of a song called ‘Reliquary’ and a couple others last summer when I was sharing a flat in Berlin with a friend of mine – I was monumentally ill for 4 or 5 days and had nothing with me but a computer, guitar and clothes, so all I could do except sleeping and watching ‘The Tree of Life’ multiple times (don’t do this when you’re kind of sad, trust me) was to fiddle around with structures and lyrics of things I was working on.. Lo and behold it was the perfect – albeit forced – situation in which to do that, because as I felt better about where the songs were going, I felt better physically and it all tied together in an oddly satisfying way.

In other cases the development of songs has largely come from a need to keep myself entertained in the midst of playing 15 or 20 shows in a row, which necessitates changing things up a bit from night to night..  I’m just glad I’ve devised a live setup that allows me to do that, and not to have to stick to a rigid set-list for every venue.

TSP: 20 hours!  Shit, that’s insane.  I cannot even think where we’d end up if we got a train from Edinburgh and went for 20 hours solid.  I’m thinking maybe south of France!  That’s just crazily difficult for us to get our heads around here in the UK!  Even 3 hours and you are out of Scotland so in perspective it’s a bit insane!

I think I feel a little like you did back in 2009 when it comes to glacis.  I’ve been asked to perform live on a number of occasions and I have always said no.  I really feel like I am not at the stage in my career where I have the confidence to go and take glacis out on the road.  Perhaps one day I will feel like I can pull that off but I guess I’m not there yet.  As a pianist yes.  As somebody capable of producing an interesting performance worthy of an audience’s attention…not sure.  I need to work things out in my head a lot more.  But I’d love to do some Graveyard Tapes shows.  I feel there is something there for sure that would develop in the live environment.

Finally, what lies in store for you for the rest of the year.  Can we expect a new Orcas record soon?  Do you plan to get out and tour more/make it across to the UK at any time with either Orcas or solo?

BP: Compared to last year – when I was allowed an unprecedented freedom to record and perform while in the UK/EU – this year is more about proper adult responsibilities, but I’m happy to say that I’m still remaining pretty productive, since I can’t really stay away from the recording desk for long.. As we’ve discussed I had an absolutely wonderful tour in March & April – since then I’ve made all the pieces I owed people from my Indiegogo campaign (for top dollar I offered to ‘record a song for you’ and sold all five!) and been on a recently-successful job hunt, so now I work at the top of the Space Needle.  Tough to complain about the view..

And since you ask, yes, there will be a new Orcas record pretty soon – Rafael and I have been putting focused work into it since January and are aiming to be finished by summer’s end in order for an early 2014 release.  What we’ve got is quite different from the last record, but in a really good way if you ask me.. Y’know after one album in a collaboration one gets much more in tune with the interpersonal dynamic of the working relationship, and in our case I think each of us now has a really good understanding of what the other can bring to the table, which makes the process quite a bit smoother.  I don’t know about touring any time soon given the full-time job thing, but I do love playing out these days so it oughtn’t be too long before I’m out on the road again..
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