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Les Gauchistes Authentiques: Rockfort Interviews EDH & Hypo
David McKenna , September 27th, 2013 04:47

In our latest French music column, David McKenna interviews the musical pairing who juxtapose ironic detachment with deadly seriousness to thrilling effect


Photo by Benedicte Jacqueline

I've interviewed EDH - Emmanuelle de Héricourt – before, but since we're a little better acquainted this time, I'm more comfortable gushing about the fact that I find the music she makes with Hypo (Anthony Keyeux) almost uniquely addictive. I mean, I've come across plenty of stuff that's warranted repeat plays recently but, as with their 2006 debut The Correct Use Of Pets, there's nothing that I've come back to with such regularity as its belated follow-up Xin. Once again, I've been trying to figure out why their (on one level humbly produced and unassuming) music makes such demands on my time.

One broad explanation might be that Hypo & EDH's music corresponds to a personal ideal of electronic pop music. The blueprint isn't something I can quite get a fix on, because it's constantly morphing and happens to be buried inside my own head. But perhaps it would simultaneously share affinities with French cold wave and Neue Deutsche Welle, The Cure at their most exotically synthy, ESG, Add N to (X), Hype Williams, footwork for the pitchshifted vocals...

"Anthony is more up on his references than me," says de Héricourt. "He's worked a lot in record shops. While we were making this album, he would sometimes send me tracks and say, 'Could you do a bassline more like on this one, or make the vocal sound more like that?' I never listened to a single one of them. The influences are in me. I've certainly absorbed a fair few but I never discuss them. It doesn't interest me. In our duo, there are perhaps some references from Hypo, but from me it's more accidental."

Obviously those names and styles I've blithely listed above mark out a very rough aesthetic terrain, so that the idea of something even remotely in that zone would probably have to appeal to you in the first place. Beyond that, though, the keys to unlocking the particular pleasures of any track on Xin usually lie in the song itself, or its relationship to other Hypo & EDH songs – what's new and what's stayed the same. What really interests me are the peculiar dynamics of their songs, and the way that these colourful sonic artefacts generate emotion over time, gradually becoming objects of deep affection.

"We get the feeling that we're not totally accessible. We're always a little surprised by that, in fact. I suppose it requires some sort of minimum effort, as far as pop music goes, from the listener. But I think you get over that quite quickly. That's probably why we have a small but devoted core of fans."

It's not as though Xin is hellishly noisy or features ten-minute-plus dronescapes, it's not difficult in that sense. And yet, even as a fan... I was considering likening listening to Xin for the first time as being like a child pestering your mum for sweets for ages then suddenly being told you can have a whole damn pick 'n' mix. But actually it's more like pleading for sweets and instead being handed your first wasabi pea. Then salty liquorice. Then a tempura seaweed crisp. Followed maybe by one of those durian sweets from Thailand that taste of sulphur. There's some tentative nibbling at the outset while the palate adjusts.

It was clearly a conscious decision for Keyeux and de Héricourt to refresh their own palettes as well. "We tried to go outside our own comfort zones a bit," she agrees. "Partly to avoid repeating ourselves but also to engage a bit more with the spirit of the times. Not to do something necessarily zeitgeisty but to perhaps draw some things from it. Choosing different methods from those we'd used on our previous albums helped us to be more receptive and return to being more instinctive and spontaneous. We didn't think so much about what the album would sound like. What was more important was figuring out what it meant to be making music at the present time. Equally, it was important to give ourselves the energy to act in the midst of an over-abundance of sounds, images and information. Why pile sound upon sound when silence might seem like a more appropriate response?"

Keyeux's speciality, treatment of samples - including some of chickens and peacocks, I think - that made The Correct Use Of Pets so distinctive, and cartoonish at times ("I think the humour is situated elsewhere this time, it's still there on Xin but it's not as light"), has largely vanished, in favour of a more analogue approach. He has a new toy, created for him by a friend Steven Le Bolloc’h. "It's a pretty wonderful instrument that comes from circuit bending – salvaging and customising a real instrument or a toy," says de Héricourt. "It was made to measure for Anthony. Inside this mini-guitar there are ten or so more or less sophisticated electronic instruments that are activated either by potentiometers or light or by touch. It's very enjoyable to play with and quite surprising."

A couple of tracks, 'Deprox 70' and 'Party Ruiner', initially come over as dry and unyielding, while the garish synth and guitar fanfares of opener 'Oshiri 24' or the pinball machine pop-house of 'Zarabia' are eye-wateringly fruity. In these instances there's frequently a lot going on at the same time, which can't have been easy to balance out. The majority of the mixing was done by EDH. "One of the things Anthony and I have in common is the piling up of sounds and melodies. We both find pleasure in melodies and counter-melodies that are unexpected. I'm happy with the sound we got and I hope I've done in it such a way that listeners can always find their bearings." Perhaps this is one of the responses the duo have found to the issue of "over-abundance", factoring in the expectation that the patient listener can acclimatise and pick up the threads that have been left for them.

The thought that has gone into this is evident in that way that there's usually a moment of transfiguration or alchemy, sometimes in the course of the first sitting, sometimes after several times round. We're all probably overly-familiar with and accepting of the notion of the potency of "cheap music" (cf Noël Coward) – lo-fi, disco-punk, trash-pop aesthetics - but that doesn't prevent Xin from impressing with its consistent coaxing of beauty from base materials. That touch is evident in some of the dream-logic details, like the breakdown in 'Verynice' where a very 'wet' snare is accompanied by the sound of trickling water, or their knack for delivering that bit near the end of the song that you always wait for – the gorgeous, burbling synth chords that suddenly cast 'Party Ruiner' in a new light, or the moment 2m 17s into 'Pensum Bis' where it finds its groove as fractal patterns bloom (I'm still trying to figure out whether it's a shift in the bassline that does it). Of course, that 'waiting' is something you're only pulled into after repeated listens, a reward for the extra attention.

Another fairly obvious feature of a Hypo & EDH song is that it never outstays its welcome. 'Deprox 70', which turns out to be the melancholy centrepiece of the album, and probably one of their 'straightest' songs, is also a veritable epic at four and a half minutes. In spite of how busy some tracks are, they generally leave you wanting more.

Emmanuelle de Héricourt's most easily identifiable contributions – vocals and bass - are the emotional threads that pull you through. In a French interview for Bandes SonoresKeyeux talks about how he "cultivates irony" while Emmanuelle "is sincere, she's intrinsically new wave".

She has gradually been taking over the reigns of her and now the duo's label, Lentonia, originally founded by Elisa Pierre. "Her [Pierre's] original intention was to support electronic music created by women. I wasn't entirely convinced by this direction when I joined the label in 2009. I was about the music above all. I've since revised my position. I don't think that things are equal in the treatment of men and women in music. Men remain the guarantors of technical mastery and reliability whereas woman tend to fill the role of muse [I seem to recall this has happened in the case of Hypo & EDH, with EDH being considered Hypo's "singer" rather than an equal musical partner.] It's a problem of education and the existing models. So with Lentonia, we'd like to redress the balance a bit."

It has occurred to me to ask whether a surname like hers had to come from French nobility. "The family had a title, viscount I think. My father still has this ring with the family signet engraved on it. But the links with 'on high' were broken in my grandfather's generation. He married a 'commoner' and was cut off by his family. He died in poverty, ravaged by alcohol. I didn't know him, I was born shortly after his death."

EDH - slight, elfin - has a "small" but malleable voice, pitched up or down, reversed, delayed, and sits in the mix like an inscrutable, flickering sprite. On 'Pensum Bis' she also sounds a bit like Inga Copeland; the latter's grounding in UK bass music aside, something of a kindred spirit I hadn't considered before. Definite song interpretations are virtually impossible since, with the exception of a couple of tracks where some lyrics correspond to the title, as on 'Verynice' (the most immediately affecting thing on the album), it's rarely possible to make out what the words are, even thought they're ostensibly in English. Meanwhile, song titles can be portmanteau words ('Pianissimoon'), concocted product names ('Deprox 70' – which de Héricourt accepts "sounds like an imaginary antidepressant. Undoubtedly Anthony's brand!") or a reference to a Japanese railway ('Chuo Line'). Any 'meaning' isn't overly determined by the lyrics, and hence not easily exhausted.

Meanwhile, à la Peter Hook, EDH's lead bass playing sometimes helps to drive the track forward, but just as often heads higher for the melody. I'm not sure if it's just me, but that approach sometimes seem to generate drag, making tracks appear to slow down – it's noticeable on 'Oshiri 24' for example, but goes equally for many from the Hooky school of playing, including the man himself. Technically that might be considered a flaw, but it also creates a despondent undertow while it's down low, and then when it's high it feels vulnerable, painfully exposed.

It could ultimately be the killer pairing of that understated but palpable angst, stemming from EDH's "sincerity" - what the French call "premier degré" – with Hypo's "deuxième degré" (distance, ironic detachment), the playfulness and levity he brings, that keeps pulling me back. I guess I just love a great double act.

P.S.

Regarding Keyeux, that's not to suggest he's some kind of principle-free gadabout. I haven't met him but it seems to me that he and de Héricourt are genuine gauchistes. Knowing that they sometimes do commercial work for various brands (Keyeux has done work for Uniqlo, Swatch), I wonder whether this ever places them in any quandries.

"Accepting work from a large corporations is more about survival. It's not really a question of politics in these cases and more about finding money to pay the rent. Even if companies sometimes call on Anthony and sometimes the duo to get a sound that is particular to us, we make a distinction between personal work and commissions. It's a very different kind of activity we're involved in.

"With companies it's obviously sound that we're selling, and not our artistic identities. Once, Anthony did turn down a job for a poultry abattoir. Given that he's a vegetarian, he obviously made the right choice."

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