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Something Like A Question Mark: Rockfort Interviews Colder
David McKenna , November 27th, 2015 10:56

David McKenna talks to Marc Nguyen Tan about the return of Colder after ten years’ absence, the social value of work and the power of hidden meanings

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This interview took place before the Paris terror attacks on November 13

I hadn’t expected so much of my time with Marc Nguyen Tan to be spent discussing lyrics. In a pub just a short walk from Ladbroke Grove station, we chew over the return of his Colder project with with Many Colours following a decade-long hiatus. Initially he says he’s already been having to talk too much about “gossipy” stuff, meaning what he’s been up to in the intervening years (so we dispatch that early on), and that he’s keen to expand more on the more technical side of the process. But it transpires that now, more than ever, those nuts and bolts also include words, the ripples they create individually and the new meanings arising from their proximity to each other and the sounds they’re wedded to.

Since ‘Crazy Love’ and 2003’s debut album Again were launched like sleek probes by Trevor Jackson’s Output Recordings – finding the prevailing climate of electroclash and disco-punk to be eminently habitable - Nguyen Tan has been adept at fabricating a seductive ambiance out of bare essentials (even before making music for himself, Nguyen Tan wrote jingles for a TV channel), couching picturesque urban angst in a rubbery-dub setting. A snapping death disco groove, submarine drones and that listless voice were sufficient to conjure night-time reflections swimming in chrome and glass. But you weren’t looking to the words of ‘Silicone Sexy’ for meaning when the real draw was in another one of Again’s basslines, their sound mid-way between purr and growl.

Out of the deeper, clammier cavern of Many Colours’s sound, though, emerges a more apparent thoughtfulness and even a surprising, if discreet, militancy. Also unprecedented in Colder-world is the presence of a female voice, that of synth pop chanteuse Owlle (signed to Sony in France and indie label Aztec in the UK). She appears on ‘Midnight Fever’, one of the tracks along with ‘Turn Your Back’ that have been excised from the album as singles, and which really sounds stronger in the flow of the complete work. It’s over the distance that Nguyen Tan’s flair for establishing, maintaining and modulating an insidious mood is most apparent. And there’s quite a distance between his previous album, Heat, and here. So, what has he been up to?

Marc Nguyen Tan: When I stopped working on Colder, the third album was already underway but after the closure of Output, there was a contractual problem that took a long time to sort out. In the meantime I’ve done lots of different things but the main point is that I’ve never stopped recording. I’ve spent more time recording other people and styles of music that have nothing in common with Colder. I moved to the south of Spain and I recorded jazz musicians for two or three years. I carried on doing music myself, but more geared towards improvisation – it’s an area I didn’t necessarily feel particularly at ease in but it’s something I did on the side. But during that time I didn’t feel a particular desire to return to Colder. Then, three years ago a German DJ called Patrice Baumel got in touch and asked me to do some vocals for him. At first I didn’t want to do it and then I thought, "Why not, let’s try." Having enjoyed the experience I started thinking about whether I might go back to what I was doing with Colder.

Can you tell me more about the jazz musicians you worked with in Spain, were they just people you met locally?

MNT: When I arrived in Spain I must say that jazz wasn’t a style of music I was particularly interested in, so it was something I really discovered there. So there was a period that lasted for several years where I developed a kind of obsession and listened purely to jazz. So I recorded soloists or duos, trios, because of my interest in that music.

It was also a more old-fashioned style of recording than you were used to I suppose?

MNT: Where I was living there was a kind of small jazz scene, and they didn’t necessarily have the means to record and I had a small set-up. So I learned a lot about recording too, some basic things that I didn’t really know how to do before.

Did that feed into how you recorded Many Colours ?

MNT: As far as jazz goes, musically or in terms of arrangements, there isn’t really a connection. But on the recording level, it taught me things that I use now, indirectly. But I think if jazz taught me anything it’s on the level of improvisation. I used to be someone who prepared everything beforehand, on a laptop and using some very linear software. The difference today, what freed me up, is that now I can go and see friends and jam a bit with them with a drum machine or synths without having thought everything through beforehand. I’m not apprehensive about that in the way I used to be. It renders collaborations with people a lot easier. At the moment I’m planning a collaboration with Kasper Bjørke for Red Bull Paris in 2016, three or four days in the studio, and I’m very happy to do it, it’s not a prospect that makes me anxious.

The sound of Many Colours is more rounded, warmer than before. Did you set out with that in mind?

MNT: Yes, I wanted something quite round, not so defined in the high frequencies, but the thing is that for the first two albums the concept of production was something quite nebulous for me. For this the idea was to have something quite austere but with that warmth to be able to get that austerity across.

How did you achieve that, practically speaking?

MNT: I started writing the album when I already had quite a few lyrics written, as I’m always writing, and I had several that seemed to be to make sense together. At the same time I had a collection of sounds and machines that I’d been playing with a lot in the weeks before. There were Roland-style percussive sounds that you hear everywhere at the moment, but mixed with some older equipment from the late 80s, early 90s, more like what are called workstations but not how they are today.

They’re 12-bit workstations with a particular grain, with features like FM synthesis, or old Ensoniq synths from that period, or romplers - these kind-of samplers but where you can’t load in new sounds. They have very warm sounds, they’re very digital but not aggressive, with this kind of smooth definition. So I played a lot with those sounds, and they have this kind of austerity, they’re not massive sounds that dominate the whole spectrum. I’m not a Boards of Canada specialist but when I hear them I think about that kind of hardware – although I don’t know, I’ve never read interviews with them about the equipment they use. But there’s a nostalgic tone, a kind of melancholy. So the album was born out of a combination of those elements. And there’s the piano that’s found its way in there.

I wanted to ask about the piano actually – it’s a musical thread that runs through the whole album. Is it an actual piano, synth piano?

MNT: It’s a piano sound, a very well-defined one. In the end, I don’t really know if Many Colours is a good or bad album, but something I’m very happy with is that from the beginning I wanted to express some kind of contrast but always in the midst of some kind of darkness. And for me the electronic side is all that is sombre, in the depths, while the piano is pulling up, and the voice is there in the middle trying to find a path between the two. The piano is lighter, even a little cheesy.

So you thought of ‘cheese’ as an element you wanted to use, as part of the picture?

MNT: Yes, it was intentional. On ‘Turn Your Back’ I would say the piano is clearly quite cheesy, but set against this electronic arrangement that is a lot harder. If I’d just left that electronic part it would have been like one of 15,000 other hard electronic tracks, but adding the piano that’s a little incongruous and maybe even Elton John-esque it gives it strangeness and a notion of contrast.

It’s a kind of paradox, these positive piano chords but with lyrics seemingly expressing the opposite.

MNT: Well there’s a sort of dynamic that’s put in place – because the words are relatively abstract, the music gives the words their meaning, the two feed each other. It’s not necessarily clear what I’m talking about, so it opens up different interpretations. The arrangements can even be a little incongruous as well, so it leaves you with something that’s like a question mark. In fact the thing that’s interesting that I’d like to develop further is that whole idea you have in cinema of unconscious intentions, the hidden meanings of things, like you have a lot in Kubrick for example, with all his subliminal images, all the things you don’t really notice but that condition you somehow. I’d like to be able to use similar techniques in music.

Can you see how you would achieve that?

MNT: Well simply through the association of certain words and sounds, and arrangements that can impact at an unconscious level. It’s something I’d like to develop on future albums.

Speaking of cinema, I could imagine those piano chords in ‘Turn Your Back’ appearing at the end of a film, a climactic moment, but that’s matched to an apparently negative sentiment.

MNT: Well you know there’s always that idea that an end is a beginning. All you know is that there are changes and new stages. How do you really know if a victory isn’t ultimately a defeat?

Many Colours feels like a serious of variations on a particular mood.

MNT: It’s something I’ve had in mind since the beginning of Colder, I think it’s very much my preference, an album that isn’t just a compilation of tracks, and where for 45 or 50 minutes you move into that world - an almost classical approach, a bit like a concerto. You define the form, is it going to be with a trio or a quartet, and once you’ve defined the sound you’re more into a series of movements. The tracks were also written pretty much in the sequence they are on the final album. Last night I was listening to Dean Blunt for example, even if there’s a patchwork aspect, he works his way into a particular sound.

This may be a completely banal observation, but this album and the first both feature nine tracks. I like that, the sense of incompleteness.

MNT: It’s true that I’ve starting racking up releases that feature only nine tracks! Actually, this album format isn’t my favourite, I’d prefer something that’s 20 minutes long. 40 minutes, 43 minutes – it’s not so much the nine tracks, it’s more that that’s about my limit.

How did you come to work with Owlle?

MNT: It was fortuitous really, her manager works in the same space as Fred Schindler [who runs Colder’s label Bataille] in Paris, and there would usually be a record or something by her lying around, so one day I asked to listen to it. What’s particular about her that intrigued me a bit is that her music has a big, commercial sound, but it’s elegantly done and I find there’s something in her voice – firstly, she’s a really good singer, and there’s a touch of tragedy in her voice, so that even on something quite throwaway like ‘Ticky Ticky’ she gives it this nostalgic tint. You could spend two months trying out different female singers but you’d struggle to find that. Many Colours was originally planned as an entirely solo album, I wasn’t looking to have loads of people featuring on it or anything like that, but at a certain point when we were mixing it I realised ‘Midnight Fever’ was missing something, and I walked out of the studio and someone was playing an Owlle song. I thought ‘perhaps we should try with her’. She was great and really happy to do it, it was all done really quickly, and it was exactly what was needed. The track is right in the middle of the album, and brings a moment of light, of hope. Before it there’s ‘Stationary Remote Anger’, which is the most downbeat track, so to follow it with this track that’s a bit lighter, and with her coming in it works in the movement of the record.

Speaking of ‘Stationary Remote Anger’, a lot the album seems to be about emotions turned inwards, repressed.

MNT: I like that sense of isolation, but I think the fact of making a solo record like that, doing vocal takes alone and working out the arrangements yourself, those drum machine rhythms, and then adding words that are visually more meditative or contemplative, imagining spaces that are in fact empty of people, it adds to that sense of isolation, of a breaking off from the energy of the world. But it’s intentional too. I had recently moved to Barcelona, the recording actually happened on either side of the move. Before that I had lived in a mountain village with a thousand inhabitants, quite isolated, but even though I’d lived in Paris before so living in a city wasn’t new to me it was still a shock. Barcelona’s not even particularly hectic.

Do you attach any romanticism to the solitary figure?

MNT: What surprised me was that I didn’t feel so isolated in the village, I felt it mostly on moving back to the city. You can’t just be a geek, a freak hiding in a corner in a place that size, just working quietly on your own thing. You’re obliged to integrate yourself in some way into the community. Whereas in a big city, like London, Paris, New York or Tokyo, if you want to be asocial you can, if you want to change your personality completely you can. When you come back to a big city you realise to what extent people are atomised, the social fabric has been destroyed, the degree of social neurosis. I’d lost the habit of walking down a street and seeing people on their phones, taking selfies, all that kind of thing.

That’s what links this with the first album I think, that sense of being isolated in a big city.

MNT: Yes, for me anyway this kind of neurotic individualism is something that’s particular to living in big cities. The bigger the city, the more you feel it. Barcelona’s like a village compared to London, and when I come to London, I like coming here but when you see the poverty and stress linked to living in this large, tentacular city. Life is hard as well, you feel it.

But when you translate that into music, it ends up giving it a kind of allure.

MNT: Well yes it’s always the same thing, someone who creates a painting of the end of the world, like Bosch, and you can stand and look at it for five hours thinking ‘It’s magnificent’ and also ‘I wouldn’t want to be there.’ Once you’re dealing with aesthetics, it’s perverse. You can turn anything into an aesthetic experience, even the worst things. If we’re talking about subjective experiences of beauty, there can be a beauty in anything. And we shouldn’t necessarily go towards the most beautiful things.

Does knowing what your voice is like, its limits, push you into writing a certain way?

MNT: I certainly don’t have a voice that carries much, so in an arrangement there needs to be a certain amount of space – I couldn’t sing in a heavy metal or noise band. What’s important for me is the meaning of the words, if they have a meaning for me I think I can find the right way to convey them. Rehearsing for live shows, I’ve found it’s been going quite quickly – I didn’t spend years writing the words for Many Colours, they came quite quickly, but they’re still something I concentrated on in some depth, and as a result I’m finding it easier to place my voice where it should be. That wasn’t the case with previous albums, I’d written words without thinking about them too much and that worked ok on the albums but I realised afterwards that they didn’t have much meaning for me, and it made it difficult to perform them live.

I was interested in the passivity of the phrase “You let it happen” on ‘Another Year’.

MNT: It’s actually "You work every day, you let it happen." There was a period where I was thinking about work a lot in general, and specifically the social value or cost of work. In general, it’s the idea that a trader in the city can earn millions in a year, but the impact of his work socially is quite destructive, it contributes to an unbalanced economy and a shitty society, whereas someone cleaning the streets is paid a pittance, whereas the value of his work is underestimated – cleaning the streets prevents the spread of disease and so on, he’s worth much more socially than the salary he’s paid. People are obliged to work every day for a salary but the social cost even of working in a shop is disastrous. If you look at the crisis, and the pressure put on people for work that is completely pointless, that has a negative social impact. And people have no choice but to do it.

That’s a much more concrete explanation than I expected.

MNT: What’s funny is that people can try to write an overtly political song on the same theme, really directly address the issue, and it can be really annoying, sometimes it’s enough to juxtapose two phrases like that. I think they’re questions that lots of people ask themselves as they work, more or less consciously.

Are you ready to go out on tour again after such a long break?

MNT: Yes, actually it’s a lifestyle I didn’t like initially but that I’ve learned to love. Initially I found it very strange, a distortion of what I imagined, but I like the fact of meeting lots of different people. It has its unpleasant sides but what work doesn’t?

England was the country where you had by far the biggest audience.

MNT: Well that was largely down to Output, it was the right moment when the label had already managed to build a strong fan base. Trevor Jackson is a great communicator. But I really learned on the job while I was touring, I was really a graphic designer before so I had no experience of playing live. If you want to do it well and seriously, if you want to work with other musicians, you need to also have criteria for choosing them, you can work with people who you click with initially but who might not be the best musicians but are more flexible. It’s a different lifestyle, or way of being. You can’t just go into it lightly. I talk to lots of younger musicians, they’re good musicians but their project hasn’t quite taken off yet, and when I hear them talking about their plans or how the envisage a tour I don’t lecture them, but I realise how unrealistic their ideas are. It can be quite a difficult life. But it has its exciting aspects.

Whether deliberately or not, you anticipated the return of an interest in certain sounds, in and around what now gets referred to as synthwave, darkwave or minimal wave.

MNT: Well all that is part of the promotional game, the dynamic that’s proper to the media and so on, it encourages those kind of knee-jerk associations. But in terms of certain sounds coming back, you could almost do a sociological study. With new wave, and 80s Manchester for example, that corresponds to the Thatcher years and the demolition of the working class in the UK, and all that darkness around the end of the 70s and early 80s, and that music which is not necessarily ‘fun’. We’ve moved beyond the 60s and the more hopeful period, to a loss of hope. And I think politically we’re back in that period. But I remember being an artistic director in the 90s, all that time before 9/11, where there was a kind of optimism that the internet was going to change the world and that technology would resolve our problems, we’d be in contact with all kinds of people from around the world, eat every kind of cuisine etcetera. But after 9/11 and the crisis we’re in an era where there’s a lot more tension and all the historical, economic optimism has disappeared. But all these sounds that have returned since 2006, in all kinds of music, there’s something rather dark, and I think the times are like that.

Colder’s album Many Colours is out now on Bataille