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Escape Velocity

'Satire Through Excessive Earnestness': Autre Ne Veut Interviewed
Adam Bychawski , February 28th, 2013 06:55

Brooklyn's Autre Ne Veut pieces together devastatingly catchy synthetic pop songs using fragments of 80s and 90s R&B. With second album Anxiety he's emerged from his former anonymity, and speaks to Adam Bychawski about why that's a mixed blessing

"Someday I'm gonna die / I feel it more acutely now than I have for a while." An existential crisis the perfect length for a pop single, Autre Ne Veut's 'Gonna Die', taken from his second full-length Anxiety, is a very literal representation of the psychological condition the album's title refers to. Its lyrics narrate a panic attack stimulated by looking in the mirror and having a very sudden and overwhelming fear of one's own mortality. As the attack reaches its falsetto pitch climax, the terror subsides and the song ends with a note of self-assurance and acceptance that, at least, "I'll be okay for a while".

A sense of impending death is a common symptom of a panic attack, something Arthur Ashin, previously known only as Autre Ne Veut, has himself experienced. "'Gonna Die' was actually like a cathartic exercise," he recalls. "Writing that song, I was literally standing in the bathroom having a weird onset of panic and hyperventilating. I needed to do something to mitigate it, so I ran to my practice room and banged it out almost note for note."

Speaking to The Quietus from Brooklyn, Ashin drily remarks that the high notes of songs like 'Gonna Die' are more difficult to perform now than when he started he Autre Ne Veut back in 2005, having unsuccessfully attempted to stop smoking for some years. But bad habits aside, Anxiety is a vocally demanding album, more so than his self-titled debut on Olde English Spelling Bee, with Ashin's voice never fixed to one register for long. Released back in 2010, Autre Ne Veut's debut appropriated 80s and 90s R&B but refined its gestures to their internet abbreviations and purest sentiment (care of track titles like 'OMG' and 'Emotional'). Seemingly constructed from stock effects, Ashin's interpretation of synth-pop sounded uncanny and queer – "failure pop", as he himself described it then. That label doesn't seem applicable to Anxiety, a follow-up too well realised to be considered anything other than a success. Although no less idiosyncratic, its production is of chart quality, with added contributions from Joel Ford and Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin (on drums and keys respectively) alongside sound engineer Al Carlson (on saxophone and keys) and backing vocals from the Zambri sisters.

While writing material for his second album, Ashin was also working on his master's degree in psychology. "I don't think if I hadn't been studying or in analysis that it would have necessarily occurred to me to call [the album] that," he says. From his studies, Ashin realised that the subject of many of the songs he'd been working on – as well as the bouts of depression he'd previously suffered from – were in fact characteristic of an anxiety disorder. "All these songs, that were dealing with different relationships in my life, had the recurring theme of this underlying tension".

As part of his course, Ashin was also required to undergo psychoanalysis himself, which he has – perhaps a bad word to use in this context – ambivalent feelings about. "My relationship with psychoanalysis is kind of a mixed bag. Being in analysis was almost an intellectual exercise in and of itself."

Perhaps, then, songwriting has a more therapeutic effect on him? "Yeah, there's catharsis for sure. This whole project is built around an idea of cathartic release for me." Its effects, he admits, offer temporary relief rather than a long-term solution. "It's not permanent, it's like an act in that it's helpful and then the actual songs themselves are curated examples of detritus. It is like the leftovers after puking my brains. I then clean it up, make patterns and send it off."

With the context surrounding the album, is he wary of being subjected to analysis by pseuds like myself and other listeners reading too much into the music? "I'm sure that will happen," he replies. "If you sing it, then somebody is going to think it's 100% about you." That said, Ashin is willing to concede that some of the songs are indeed about him, though not as many as you might have expected. 'Counting', the second single to be released from the album - and featuring a guest verse from Mykki Blanco - is not about a relationship break-up, but rather about avoiding phoning his grandmother for fear it will be the last time he speaks to her. The artwork of Ashin's Body EP, released last year, provoked similar misconceptions. Easily mistaken for a close-up of female genitalia, it was, in fact, and quite innocuously, a lubricated palm. Although, as Ashin quite rightly points out, "it's not like everything is one way or the other".

"I relate to Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream, I'm a mischievous person so I definitely like playing games like that," he admits. Which makes songs like the melodramatic 'Emotional', from Ashin's self-titled debut released in 2010 on Olde English Spelling Bee, and its companion piece, the almost hysterical 'Gonna Die' from Anxiety, all the more difficult to read. Are they heartfelt outpourings of emotion or grotesque parodies? "In a weird way I kind of imagined it being slightly tongue in cheek and slightly earnest or maybe completely earnest or too earnest," answers Ashin, pausing for a moment before settling on "satire through excessive earnestness".

'Emotional' was in fact the first Autre Ne Veut song Ashin wrote, and he considers it to be "a business card for what I was, at that juncture, trying to do". "I was surprised when people responded immediately too it. To me, if I were to see a song titled 'Emotional', about somebody claiming that they were emotional, it would be hard for me to connect to that notion. But then there are some people who are like 'This is such an emotional jam' [laughs] and I'm like 'Okay…' – which is not to detract from that response. Whenever people ask if I'm being tongue in cheek, I want to say no, but I'm 100% earnest and 100% self-aware and satirical at the same time, all the time. Unfortunately, it's how I have to live my life."

Failure pop, the phrase coined by Ashin to describe Autre Ne Veut, seems to be another statement as serious as it is satirical. Does it merely express a level of discomfort with the genre he's most often categorised as, or is it a joke at his own expense? "It's more to try and capture the aspirational qualities to the music. To me it's a failure in that sense that I'm reaching outside of the purview of what's comfortable for me as a producer and what's comfortable for me as a performer. All my songs are my inability to successfully make songs the way I want."

'Emotional', taken from Autre Ne Veut's self-titled debut

Ashin explains that there is a precedent to his own brand of failure pop. "I think this notion of failure pop is a homage to a period, in my mind, of the 80s when a lot of the big names from the 70s were getting their hands on synthesisers because their legend was established, but maybe they should have just been done with making music. Like Marvin Gaye's Midnight Love or Stevie Wonder's In Square Circle. Those records are a little off or a little weird, because they're playing around with new technologies and trying to force certain technologies to fit a pre-existing sound, or they're just experimenting." Both the examples cited went on to be huge commercial hits, but does the term failure pop imply a defeatist attitude to his own success? "For my wallet's sake, I hope not," he replies. "I'd rather not say any more, in case I jinx it."

Whether Ashin would feel comfortable with that level of attention is another issue. Until relatively recently Autre Ne Veut was an anonymous project. Although he has always performed live without any disguise, Ashin withheld from using his real name partly due to wanting the option of a career outside of music. Since forgoing his anonymity, he's experienced some of the trappings of fame. He quips about not being safe in his own flat, after being recognised yesterday by a delivery man. There is certain irony to Ashin's timing, revealing his identity just as he's about to release Anxiety. If it was up to him, he admits he would prefer to "spend my time behind the scenes and not be the person fielding interviews."

When Anxiety was first announced, the original cover was a photo of Edvard Munch's masterpiece 'The Scream' carefully being held up for display at auction by two white-gloved assistants. Unfortunately, the iconic painting had to be removed from the photo – friend and Software label-owner Dan Lopatin joked that it had been digitally "stolen". As Ashin stated at the time, what interested him about that image was its framing of an artwork synonymous with anxiety within the capitalist space of Sotheby's auction house. As a complete statement Autre Ne Veut's second album offers a similarly ironic juxtaposition: a series of songs relating to anxiety with enough pop nous to propel its maker in the direction of wider fame.