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In Pieces: Rockfort Interviews Perrine En Morceaux
David McKenna , March 30th, 2016 08:21

David McKenna speaks to Perrine En Morceax about time, anger and BPMs, and brings you the first in a series of Rockfort mixes featuring recent French releases and reissues. Portrait courtesy of Loic H. Rechi

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Rockfort Quietus Mix 1 – March 2016

When she’s not being Perrine En Morceaux, one of Perrine Bailleux’s projects - aside from writing a book of philosophy for kids and leading sound-art workshops at the Philharmonie de Paris - is delivering what she calls a ‘conférence-concert’, where she sings a disquisition on a late painting by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich. Process and performance, theory and practice intermingle, and sometimes Bailleux likes to tell you what she’s doing while she’s doing it. So when she introduces Rien, her third album and the first on Parisian label Lentonia (EDH, Hypo & EDH, Alex June, Elmapi), with the salutation:

“Hi, welcome to the surface of time."

It’s issued as much as a disclaimer (just so you know, this is an album about time) as it is a challenge to anyone casually dropping in.

There are no breaks during which you can quietly slip out either since it’s a ceaseless noise for circa 50 minutes, each track chained to the next. Ceaseless but not seamless – there are seams everywhere. The opener, ‘Arbitrary Signs’, is made up of at least five distinct sections. “En morceaux” means “in pieces”, which speaks less of an emotional state and more of her habit of de-and-reconstructing fragments of sounds, thoughts, slogans and signs. ‘Private Property’ recalls Stereolab in its welding of Marxism to a mix of sweet melodies and avant-noise.

It does have its tidier moments, like the relatively four-square ’48 Heures Avant La Revolution’, but it’s at its best when it’s just short of breaking apart while still somehow keeping the ‘song’ somewhere in sight, and at its sonic extremities, either when ‘Anguish’ and ‘Contingent Continuity’ are smashed open by blast beats or on ‘Chop Chop’, the closest this album gets to tranquillity.

Above all, Rien , should be celebrated for the fact that, for all its wordiness and conceptual tricksiness, the conjunction of coarse beauty and industrial might taps into forces shifting beneath and beyond language. This might well be the point, for as Perrine also sings in ‘Arbitrary Signs’: “Words… they make us wonder less.”

I wondered if the name has anything to do with the fractured nature of a lot of your songs?

Perrine Bailleux: The name wasn’t premeditated, in fact there isn’t much about this project that is premeditated. In terms of the songs, the way I made this album was to write continually for two to three months, it was all through one summer, and in September I played it live for the first time. And the idea was that instead of saying, “I’m going to write one song, the music will be like this”, I just made use of everything I had, all the little bits and pieces of sound, because I’m always recording little things and saving them on my computer.

On ‘Tu Vois C’Que J’Veux Dire’ you sing, “Yesterday I found this song on the files of my computer”, so you’re singing about the process.

PB: Exactly. I have the beginnings of some songs and snippets of text and music, and instead of wanting to write a song from A to Z that’s well rounded, I just decided to make a song regardless of how long it turned out to be. I put everything in. It’s funny that the album is called,Rien because it could have been called ‘Everything’. It was created as one long song made from all these various motley elements. It was kind of a strategy for progressing faster, to just say, “I’m starting” and there’s no stopping point.

So that you didn’t have the pressure of finishing something?

PB: That’s right, It was a way of not taking six months to write a song. Instead it took me three months to write one song that lasts 50 minutes!

Rien seems to have been a live show before it became an album.

PB: It was a show first, yes. I’ve done things back-to-front with this album in the sense that I toured it first and I continued writing it while touring it. Over time some tracks were added like ‘Anguish’, and in particular ‘Tu Vois C’Que J’Veux Dire’ and ‘48h Avant La Revolution’ were added even later. I toured it first for almost two years, and then after that time I said to myself it was time to make the record.

What are the shows like then?

PB: For years, before the album, the show went with videos that never stopped, it was a really a kind of overload, of meaning and words and images and stuff. There were the videos and then a sort of poly-acoustic set up with a PA in front of the stage, then two more speakers behind the audience at the far end of the room, and two more, sometimes in 5.1, so there was this multi-directional sound which, depending on where you were standing, would change the experience subtly. Even though the main sounds, including the voice, and what I call the principle loop, was via the PA, a whole host of other things could emerge from behind you, or from either side. And there was a something a little overwhelming about it, I heard people say that a number of times. Which is to say that people didn’t have any choice, you didn’t really have the space to ask yourself whether you liked it or not.

Was it an overload then just in a sensory way, or did you see it as a kind of confrontation?

PB: It’s definitely overwhelming in a sensory way and certainly in terms of volume, and because there isn’t a moment of silence. But there was also a kind of… irritation I guess you can call it, that was what I wanted to achieve at that point. Something that would create a reaction. I was very angry as well, and it’s precisely what I’m no longer interested in, I don’t want to slap people round the face because I think the songs and the music are sufficiently complex, there’s no need to add more on top of that. I’m not there with a gun any more, I don’t want to open fire.

The anger you mentioned, did it have a particular target or focus?

PB: It’s true that it wasn’t directed at anything in particular, nothing that well defined. It was more something like a shout, which had more of a context than a target. It was more this feeling of wanting to be done with the world as it was and to kick out at… everything!

You perform what you call a ‘lecture-concert’ about Malevich. Could we use a similar formulation and say that you write ‘theory-songs’?

PB: There is sometimes theoretical poetry in there. There’s a difference for me between these sung conferences on Malevich and Rien. The former is really the analysis of a painting and a speculative thesis on the end of Malevich’s life and his late-period work, whereas the subject of Rien is time. You know when you asked me what I was angry about? Well the previous album was called Contre Le Futur and I think Rien is the explanation of that. It’s an album that is against the future, as it is pre-ordained. It’s anger against the pre-determination of successive events. So it’s theoretical poetry in the sense that it’s abstract in parts and I don’t use “I” very much, I’m not opening up about my personal life. But there’s a poetic approach that means it’s not like being at a conference. I use songs sometimes to understand certain thoughts, or even articulate them.

On your site you say that you want to make songs that “refuse to give in to time”. I don’t take that as simply meaning you want to write something timeless, like a standard.

PB: Well it’s definitely ambiguous, and there is the sense that anyone who creates something artistic would like to it be ageless, whereas pop is like fashion which, at least when you use the word ‘pop’ in a certain way, is music that speaks in the present tense. So for me, it’s a way of saying “What if this present was also something else?” Fashion will always tell you things like – and I remember my grandmother used to tell me every September - “This year it’s purple!”, and that used to make me laugh. I was like, “What do you mean it’s purple?” And in music it’s a bit like that. It can be, “This year, it’s white rappers singing”, which is a fashion in French rap at the moment. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, though, that’s not the point, I just like to think about something other than, “This year it’s purple.” So in that sense it’s resisting time – in terms of production, for example, I use machines that are completely outdated. It’s not because I’m deliberately trying to be different, that’s just how it is, but it does give a sound that isn’t polished, it’s not a sound that you tend to hear around.

And that goes with the idea that a song can work, it can function, without… and we all know this, of course… without a predictable structure, without having the same tempo throughout, a verse of a certain length, all those things. In the end you get something that’s like a body that comes into the world. And then are people going to dare say, “You should have less cellulite” or “You should weigh ten kilos less for your height”? The fact is when you go to the swimming pool you see bodies of all shapes and sizes, and those differences are beautiful.

On your Bandcamp, in the description of the first album, you say you were looking to answer the question, “How do you make a song?”

PB: Actually it’s “How do you do song?” Well that’s a question that still interests me, of course. How is it that at a given moment you have A Song? Because a song is highly exacting. It’s truly this alchemy of meaning and sound, and it’s exacting in the sense that you’re kind of in search of a particular intensity. I’ve always been interested in people like Robert Ashley or Laurie Anderson who were trying to find out what elements you needed for something to be a song without it having most of the classic ingredients.

Trying to find out what can you add to or subtract from a song and still have it be a song?

PB: Yes, in fact subtraction was my first move. Initially I made songs just based on one loop, so incredibly monotone in musical terms. All the intensity came from the melody and the words. And then I made it more complex, I maximised this minimalism… yes I think that’s the best way to put it!

Before when you were saying that you were using everything you had to hand to make this album, I know you didn’t mean in physical terms but what are you actually using? I’ve seen mention of farming machinery.

PB: It’s not so much agricultural machinery but there are recordings of petrol drilling machines, the ones you see in the French countryside that look like little dinosaurs, And there are sounds that I record while I’m working at Cité de la Musique. I discreetly record harpsichords because I’m not really supposed to be using them! Because I don’t really play any instruments so I borrow sounds from the world around me. And sometimes I sample other recordings, it could be from musique concrete or dubstep. But I also have a little Casio SK1 keyboard, the mbira thumb piano I use. And then I think the sound of the next album will be heavily based around a 1975 Yamaha keyboard that belonged to my grandfather. I used to work with just one loop pedal but with Rien I’ve been using three loop machines – two loopstations and [the] Gristleism [box], which is also a loop machine, and a Kaoss Pad. So it’s not a lot, but already going from one to two loop pedals, which aren’t MIDI-linked, allows me to have rhythms that are out of synch with each other, so you can create landscapes that are more jagged than when everything is perfectly in time. Gristleism, for a while, was a real aid to composition, but gradually I’ve used it less and less, partly because it’s Throbbing Gristle’s music, but also because I realised that the songs were starting to hold up without it. But I still use it, and the set starts with Gristleism.

Is your interest to industrial music largely a question of taste?

PB: Yes, that kind of music is part of my great loves, from Coil to Kraftwerk via Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and Neubauten. But also, since I started making music I’ve enjoyed singing over noise, and perhaps simply because the frequencies in what we call ‘noise’ are either piercing or very low, which is great for the voice because there’s always a space where the voice can sit. It’s not like singing in an arrangement with cellos, for example, where it’s harder for the voice to feel separate, they’re very similar in range. So for me it’s always been something that’s very comfortable. And it’s moving actually to see that people can appreciate some of the songs, even my grandmother! Even when the sounds are quite harsh it’s as if the voice gives them the right to exist, and it goes over with people. Having the voice there gives you quite a lot of leeway when it comes to sound.

And then are some quite lovely, folky melodies.

PB: Quite a few people have said that to me, about the folkiness, but it’s music that I discovered as people told me about it. It was fairly intuitive, so it certainly comes from somewhere in my experiences but I’ve never listened to traditional Irish or Breton folk, or even Gregorian chants! This music touches me when I listen to it but it’s not something I’ve grown up with. I haven’t studied these things so it’s just done with a kind of candour at the melodic level – not naive, although people have said that too.

So you’re not thinking about industrial music in relation to work, or of the tradition of work songs in folk?

PB: I didn’t really think in terms of work as a notion in relation to this music, it’s clear that industrial music finds its source in a reaction to human exploitation and the environment of the factory, and the end of an era. And it’s true that mine is a bit of a bastard position because there is something of a homage, an allusion to and a love for these sounds that come from another era – the 80s specifically – but which in my case is purely electronic, I don’t use any actual industrial machinery on stage. And I don’t I feel as though it’s an album that you could listen to while you work!

Well it would certainly disrupt any kind of regular work rhythm.

PB: Yes. But what’s definitely the case on the other hand is that all these changes and ruptures are there to defy the predictability of the future – to say, “It’s not always going to turn out the way you think.” But this is the thing, I have the feeling that it’s not at all subversive. We live in a world of regular financial crisis so the unexpected is exactly what’s expected all the time.

Well we expect permanent novelty but without genuine disruption. The machine is supposed to be well-oiled.

PB: In terms of the record it’s not improvised so in that sense there are no surprises; that also applies to the live show, even if there are moments that might sound a little different each time. So it’s well-oiled, as you say.

Your point is that if we really look at the reality of the world we’re living in, these songs aren’t surprising at all, they correspond very well to it.

PB: Yes, I think they’re pop in the sense that they do reflect the present day. These crises of capitalism aren’t really crises at all because capitalism can’t function without them. And yet most pop songs maintain the illusion, or even assert the fact, that pop has an immutable form. One thing I’ve been really shocked by for a number of years is that 90% of pop songs, in the broader sense, all have one thing in common, which is that they all have the same bpm. And that’s not an accident, it’s down to the software that is bpm based. Nothing obliges us to stick to that. I’m not talking about rhythmic variety, there’s plenty of that, but of the actual pulse. You don’t get something going from 122bpm to 75.9bpm, which is weird. Whereas on Contre Le Futur there’s a song called ‘Story Of Melody’ which features at least three different bpm, between which there’s no algorithmic relationship. And I did it because it didn’t seem at all shocking.

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You also flip between French and English a lot in your songs. What makes you want to sing a particular phrase in a particular language? PB: It’s complicated… well no it isn’t really, it’ll be a thought that exists only in English or only in French. But I’m planning to write the next album almost entirely in French. The further I go on, the more I say to myself, “Come on girl, French is cool too!” I write how I live really, because genuinely in real life it’s 50-50, so it’s really natural. It’s not even a political position – if it was about that I’d have taken up the challenge sooner to write entirely in French. Agnès from La Féline wrote an article recently about this challenge of writing ‘chanson française’ in a way that doesn’t feel fusty, old school, so I like idea of that challenge. But really sometimes it comes out in English, just because, I don’t know, “Zero you’re my hero” just sounds great in English! But if you like risk, there’s something cool about trying to make pop music in French. It’s exotic even for us, that’s the funny thing about it.

Rockfort Quietus Mix 1 – March 2016 Tracklist

Demeure & Jardin ‘New Cloud City Opening’s Theme’ (Hylé Tapes)
The (Hypothetical) Prophets ‘Budapest 45’ (InFiné)
Perrine En Morceaux ‘Anguish’ (Lentonia)
Qoso ‘Peaches N Cream’ (In Paradisum)
Keda ‘Swordfish’ (Parenthèses)
Acid Fountain ‘Ssafari’ (Hylé Tapes)
Rev Galen ‘Irony’ (Okraina)
Chicaloyoh ‘Combien de Rats’ (213/Et Mon Cul C’est Du Tofu?)
Black Zone Myth Chant ‘Pitchblack’ (Gravats)
SIDA ‘Aspirateur de Conscience’ (Mostla)
Don Nino ‘It’s Not A Crime’ (Prohibited)
Frank Rabeyrolles ‘Third Skin’ (Wool)
KillASon ‘Black Crook’ (Fin De Siècle)
NxxxxxS ‘She Needs Water To Live’ (Headcount)

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