Psykick Lyrikah: Drum Machines, Synths & Shakespeare
, August 26th, 2011 07:04
In the latest edition of our column on French music, David McKenna interviews Arm from Rennes rap group Psykick Lyrikah
At Les Francofolies de la Rochelle last month, I witnessed a performance by Rennes rap group Psykick Lyrikah, based around rapper Arm, that had a somewhat divisive impact on the audience. A number of people left the auditorium and the reaction of those who stayed was either muted or fervently appreciative. I think audiences at Les Francofolies are used to being treated a certain way, to being warmly acknowledged and pandered to by performers. What they got was a no frills, no fuss, call and response-free show, which I suppose was interpreted as disdainful. Afterwards I put it to Arm that not treating the audience like children is also a way of showing them respect.
'There's no law in music that says you have to get an audience to participate in a performance to keep their attention,' he says. 'A lot of that is about making up for something else that's lacking. We've got a different kind of energy and obviously there are people who go with it and others who are left cold by it. It's also a question of what you're used to as well. When you're used to being served the same dish every day and then someone gives you something different, you're going to make a face.'
The most recent Psykick Lyrikah album, Derrière moi, is also a sober affair, self-produced by the rapper for the first time. Arm gives himself an entirely and deliberately minimal (and at times bracingly crude) synthetic backing ('just synths, programming and drum machines') for his reflections on personal and collective agency and responsibility. These are questions which at the time of writing feel particularly pressing, but aren't necessarily going to light everyone's fire...
As far as the sound of Derrière moi goes, the press release mentions John Carpenter but Arm is more keen to talk about other inspirations.
'While I was writing the album I was listening to a lot of American rap, particularly the Dirty South stuff, which was really quite different from the sample-heavy New York style or the West Coast G-Funk,' he says. 'It's really stripped down, like the blues actually. Very minimalist, a few notes on a synthesiser and then a huge energy, it's all down to the tension. Things like The Clipse... The Neptunes did some things like that, and I was also listening to Three 6 Mafia as well, Young Jeezy.'
'Personne' is the closest thing on the album to an outright homage, with its post-rave/crunk-like vamps. Arm is keen to stress he was keen to make something that didn't 'swing' - 'I'm not interested in that, and it's something that annoys me with some rap records where they're going for a live sound, something more acoustic, the whole thing that rappers didn't have for a long time which was having your own band. I'm not into that at all, apart from The Roots in the US because they're the best at doing that, but I much preferred Oxmo Puccino's rap records to the things he does with a group' - but that also didn't rely on sampling. The latter move doesn't in itself set him apart from some mainstream rap in France, which is based on what his long-term ally and collaborator Olivier Mellano calls 'heroic-sounding synth chords', although Arm is markedly less bombastic in his approach.
'Yes, we've been through quite a few phases – like when you'd get a loop of Vivaldi or something like that, those slightly 'sad'-sounding loops, with introspective lyrics about the fact that 'we've made mistakes' and so on. It's good we've left that behind to certain extent as well!'
On stage at Les Francofolies, Arm was flanked by Robert le Magnifique (bass, decks, sampler) and Olivier Mellano (one of the hardest working, and nicest, musicians in France), who has accompanied the rapper almost from the beginning.
'I'm not from Rennes originally but I've been there for 13 years now,' says Arm. 'When I arrived in '98 I didn't know anyone, and I started writing lyrics and rapping a bit and I got to know people in the local rap scene, but over the years I've completely lost touch with them, and they're not necessarily interested in what I'm doing now. Meeting Olivier also opened me up to a different scene, more the pop-rock, 'alternative' thing. That's partly why on the new album I wanted to come back to something that was more like a rap album, I felt as though I'd drifted away from something and I missed it.'
The 'pop-rock thing' has seen Psyckick Lyrikah, with Mellano in the line-up, collaborating with singer-songwriters like Dominique A and Laetitia Shériff alongside more hip-hop based producers like Tepr (who emerged from experimental electro/hip-hop group Abstrakt Keal Agram, but who is now most often seen alongside GrandMarnier backing Julie Budet in the ultra-poppy Yelle). Together, Arm and Mellano have also worked on adaptations of two Shakespeare plays.
'It was with a director called David Gauchard and a company called L'unijambiste based in Limoges,' says Arm. 'We'd worked on a production of Hamlet where Robert le Magnifique and Abstrakt Keal Agram wrote the music and I was a kind of narrator, a chorus, and delivered some texts, either rapped or spoken. You weren't really sure who I was as a character, sometimes it seemed as though I was voicing Hamlet's thoughts... some of it was the original text from Shakespeare and there were other things the director asked me to rewrite myself. But it worked and we toured it for four years, in the Ukraine, in Tunisia, it was great.
'Then for Richard III, all the music was written by Olivier who played guitar on stage and, as before, I delivered some words from Shakespeare and some of my own, and did a little bit of acting this time. And we toured with that for two years. When we started Hamlet it was just after my first album and I didn't even have much experience of being on stage as a rapper. Before that I was someone who went to the theatre, it wasn't something alien to me, but to find myself on stage doing something quite precise and rigid was another matter, so that was a great to learn. It did help with the concerts. But now, after four years of Hamlet and two years of Richard III it's very exciting to be playing music, to be doing my music and my lyrics again, to be a bit freer and not be playing a role.'
Does he feel like he has a stage persona?
'Obviously in my daily life I'm not constantly the way I am on stage, I think that would make me a pretty strange person. But on stage you sort of condense all the energy and tension in the music, and focus on that. You forget everything else. It's like that story of a person who passes a sculptor in the morning who has a block of stone, and then passes him again in the evening and sees that he's created superb sculpture. He says 'It's fantastic, how did you manage to do it?', and the sculptor just says 'I just removed everything that wasn't the sculpture'. I really see it like that.'