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The Eyes Have It: Circuit Des Yeux Interviewed
John Doran , November 2nd, 2016 12:10

Circuit Des Yeux are currently one of the best live acts in the world - no matter what form they appear in. John Doran talks to Haley Fohr ahead of European live dates

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Portrait by Garrett Duncan

Haley Fohr sounds knackered. She is speaking from the back of a van crawling towards the final three nights of a North American tour which has been going on since the start of August. A big chunk of these dates have seen her appearing as Jackie Lynn - her “cocaine-fried country” alter-ego which she invented for a bit of fun earlier this year with the design to give her a bit of breathing space between recording albums as Circuit Des Yeux, which has been her main musical project since 2011.

As Jackie Lynn is a conceptual project, the story goes that she is a former Chicago narcotics kingpin who is now on the run from former business associates. The idea took shape quickly earlier this year and ended up inspiring an enjoyable self-titled album which came out this summer on Thrill Jockey. It is all very much removed from the deadly serious but unabashedly beautiful music of Circuit Des Yeux, the project which makes up all the other dates of the seemingly never-ending tour. It seems that possibly, the two projects are starting to rub up against each other in an uncomfortable manner; to create some kind of cognitive dissonance. But she wouldn’t be the first musician to learn the hard way, that once the act of creation is out of the way and the music is out in the world, control no longer fully resides with the artist.

So it’s fair to guess that any fatigue probably isn’t down to the length of the tour - she has been touring hard for about a decade since she was a teenager - but down to the unexpected success of Jackie Lynn and how much effort it takes to keep both projects completely separate from one another. She says: “To be quite honest, I had this Jackie Lynn idea and I thought it would be a nice fun thing to do in between Circuit Des Yeux albums because it takes me quite a while to do them. But what I did was essentially invent a second band which has become quite popular, so now I’m in charge of fielding festival offers and booking tours for two bands and it is quite tiring… but it’s also fun.

“I have to keep them completely separate and it’s been a challenge to keep them that way. It’s a different live set up and different both musically and visually. I don’t overlap any songs. Circuit Des Yeux cannot play any Jackie songs and vice versa. I see them as completely different entities.

“They come from such a different place. Circuit Des Yeux is so spiritual and really personal to me. Jackie was an experiment to have music come from a place in my brain I’m completely detached from, it feels like musical theatre to me. What I’m learning from it is… well, I’m not sure what I’m learning from it to be honest and I’m not sure the audience give a shit either way where it comes from. But I guess for me it’s art versus entertainment and for me Circuit Des Yeux is 100% art.”

When asked if two distinct musical projects is enough to cope with in parallel or if she’ll adopt this strategy again in the future with new personas she replies: “Who knows what will happen. Maybe in the future I’ll have multiple characters who will all run into the same river. But I did this for the sake of my sanity. Jackie Lynn was just a project I wanted to try. To be honest, I wanted to self-release it and I didn’t want to push it. I told my label [Thrill Jockey] I didn’t want to do interviews. It was just an idea I had. I’m not saying I changed the course of modern music or anything like that but it has got a little bit out of hand.”

Certainly, if it was just a little experiment, she probably wasn’t expecting to land on the front cover of The Wire for starters. She laughs: “It just shows you that you have no control over what people are going to gravitate towards.”

She brightens momentarily at the idea of going back home in late November at the end of the tour because of the person who will be waiting for her there: “I fell in love this year. It has rocked my world. It was the most psychedelic thing that ever happened to me.”

But that is still several weeks away because first she’s heading to Europe as Circuit Des Yeux once more. The European tour is going to be just her (and her new guitar) playing solo. It will be her first ever bus tour, opening every night for Julian Holter and playing all new songs, using the opportunity to “grow” these tracks before she goes into the studio when she gets home. Despite this she says that she can’t really say if there will be a new CDY album next year though: “I’m working towards something but it’s really so slow. It’s hard to say if it will be next year or 2018.”

I would like to take this opportunity to encourage everyone to try and catch Circuit Des Yeux live. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege three times now and each time has been completely unique and - literally - stunning. Fohr’s main instrument is her incredible baritone, a powerful and unique voice which will occasionally be wielded in a manner that runs in parallel to that that of Anhohni, Scott Walker or Robbie Basho but is for all intents and purposes, without any useful comparison to another singer. Whether playing solo, or with full rock band or with flute and viola, the sets always build inexorably to a violent climax - an analogue of the traditional end of set rock band freak out. But instead of a drum kit getting knocked over or a guitar getting smashed to pieces in a hail of feedback, it it Fohr’s voice that is cathartically broken apart in a melismatic torrent of vocal noise, like a pentecostal glossolalist speaking in tongues, fervently convinced of the presence of the divine. She judders as if being electrocuted, waves of energy just pouring off her. It’s an incredible thing to witness.

If anything she suggests that she has toned down this part of the live set: “Back in 2009, 2010, my sets were all climax! They were pretty noisy and aggressive. But as I’ve grown up as an artist, I’ve discovered other dynamics that I enjoy, so I think it’s more about keeping the climax but integrating the build, as well. For me it’s not so much all about the way I’m feeling any more but how I want other people to feel…

“Most people work day jobs from nine to five - now I’m either fortunate enough not to be doing that, or it might be a conscious decision on my part to avoid that lifestyle - but I’m left with a lot of empty time to read and think about things in life that other people might not always have time to. So when someone goes to a show I hope that they are reminded of the full spectrum of experience and not just these emails, phone calls, going to dinner, watching TV, going to sleep… There’s a whole range of emotions as human beings we can feel and express and it takes a lot of effort to tap into those so I would hope that someone who comes to a Circuit Des Yeux concert is confronted with all of those feelings. And some people don’t even want to feel those things because it can be quite challenging sometimes.”

Haley Fohr was born in Lafayette, Indiana just over a quarter of a century ago. She says she has always had a voice with a lower register: “I’ve been in choirs and entering competitions since I was maybe nine or ten. I was always an alto two when I was a child, then once I reached high school I was actually a tenor one, which meant me singing male parts.

“But recently I just heard a track from Portrait which I recorded in 2010 and my voice has changed dramatically since then even. It’s a bit scary but also very interesting. The voice is just part of your body, so everything that you drink, breathe or eat affects it. I think for the last four or five years just because of the way that I’ve lived and my vocal practice, my voice has dropped dramatically.

“At one point a few years ago I was really concerned because my voice was getting lower and lower and lower. I was like, ‘It can’t get much lower man! My voice is going to drop out… What’s going to happen?!’ But it’s pretty much out of my control. It has its own life. Who knows, in five years time I could be singing like Tom Waits or I could be singing like Celine fucking Dion. Who knows?”

Despite singing in school choirs, her desire to do what she does now is specifically an adult thing and has effloresced gradually. She doesn’t remember having any particular rock star or pop star fantasies when she was a kid. She laughs: “My mom used to watch soap operas a lot and I remember wanting to be an actress. I figured that the way to get on TV was to have really nice teeth. I could see that they all had such beautiful teeth. So I’ve been obsessed with my teeth ever since. When I was young I loved singing just because of the way it feels - it feels really good when your body resonates. But it wasn’t until I was 21 that I tried to pursue it full time.”

Before this age there was an alternate future in store: “I did intend being a nuclear engineer for about a split second! I scored really high on the maths portion of the SATs. And I had this uncle who was an engineer, so my family were like, ‘It’s in the blood! You should be an engineer!’ I was interested in some parts of it but there’s this language called MATLAB and it’s this cryptic language in computer programming for engineers and I didn’t apply myself… I was too busy living a musician’s life and I eventually dropped out.”

It was after dropping out in 2008 that she had a “lost year” while she threw herself seriously into investigating the possibilities offered by home recording and adopted the Circuit Des Yeux name, releasing the albums Symphone and Sirenum on De Stijl. Reinvigorated she went back to university - this time in Indiana - and studied ethnomusicology and sound recording, then recording her last Circuit Des Yeux album for De Stijl in 2011 Portrait.

After graduating she moved to Chicago which was advantageous for several respects. She worked part time as an audio archivist at the Numero Group and met Bitchin Bajas, members of the group would go on to record with her on both Circuit Des Yeux and Jackie Lynn releases. She self-released the harrowing Circuit Des Yeux album Overdue and finally she ended up signed to Thrill Jockey who released In Plain Speech in 2014.

'Do The Dishes' video is NSFW

This album, her last as Circuit Des Yeux to date and a thoroughly startling affair, began gestating when Haley was touring Overdue: “After years of DIY touring I had a booking agent for the first time so I was doing a lot of opening slots. Which was great as I was playing in front of a lot of people. But the traveling was really tough, the pay was terrible and I was on my own.

“I played this festival called Hopscotch, which remains one of the best experiences I’ve had at an American festival. The curation is incredible and they treat the artists really well. So I was playing at this Irish pub where everyone was just hanging out and drinking. There were maybe 300 people there but only about 20 actually listening to what I was doing.

“So I had a breakthrough in a kind of way. For this whole set I had this existential crisis. You know… ‘Why am I doing this?’ I realised that the festival wasn’t just about me and that people need to have fun but I had just taken three planes to get there. After that, I decided that it was important to bring other people into my experience. So that started this process of turning the Circuit Des Yeux live experience into being an ensemble.”

This group was constructed of Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin Bajas), Whitney Johnson (Verma), Rob Frye (Bitchin Bajas), Adam Luksetich (Little Scream), and Kathleen Baird (Spires That In The Sunset Rise) and it forced her into thinking about music in different ways: “Usually when I record, I just lay down tracks and then delete them and then try something else and then delete that. It can be a little more nerve wracking to bring other people in and to not waste their time. If they’re coming in to work on a song, I have to have it completed. I have to have ideas, so it extended my creative process a bit.”

The sound of domestic clatter was woven into the fabric of In Plain Speech - as much as she now had a band of sorts, the recording was still “a homespun affair”. But her everyday life impinged on the recording in other ways - an exercise bike makes up a drone on the LP and a guitar has been prepared with butter knives from the kitchen drawer: “In Chicago the winters are pretty brutal and [three years ago] it was a case of not really leaving the house that much and using the exercise bike to work out on. It’s from the 1940s. It is so loud. It is the most ridiculous looking thing. So this sound was just part of my everyday life. I was in the middle of mixing a song and I had one of those lightbulb moments. That sort of thing happens all the time, my domestic life impacts into my art.

“And with the butter knife guitar thing, I had just hit a block… I was trying to write these very straightforward, singer songwriter, verse chorus verse chorus style songs and they were complete shit. It just wasn’t working out. So I decided to do these kind of minimal improvisational exercises to break out of this box I had put myself in. And one of them was Guitar Knife and it was interesting. It was really loud! So people around me hated it but it those kinds of things are important to me. You see something for what it is and then try and change it. ‘How can I completely disregard what this instrument is? How can I get something new out of it?’”

Since recording this album she has branched out into improvisation in a more formal way, performing with Bill Orcutt in front of a large audience in New York (the results of which were released on a cassette by Palilalia in 2015). She is also now a regular fixture on the Chicagoan vocal improv scene appearing alongside the likes of Carol Genetti and Olivia Block. This busy-ness extended into laying down guest vocal appearances on albums due next year for Six Organs Of Admittance and Mind Over Mirrors.

She’s retreating from collaboration for the time being though, presumably concentrating on sculpting material for the next Circuit Des Yeux album, which will no doubt be both unique and worth waiting for. Talking about the disconnect between what she does and the underlying musical conservatism of 2016 and the increasingly codified live scene, she agrees her sound is something of a double edged sword: “It’s been tough especially when it comes to pairing me with other bands. I often find I’m too noisy to play next to singer songwriter style bands but too composed for the true noise heads. I grew up in a really small town and had a lot of freedom when I was young. And I think where I come from and what I’m doing now is unique and I have to follow my muse. But it is difficult not having a paved road in front of you or a system in place to help you along your way.”

Circuit Des Yeux are on tour in Europe this month and reach the UK on November 14, supporting Julia Holter at Shepherds Bush Empire

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