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Cycles Of Orbit: Rockfort Interviews Velour Modular
David McKenna , May 2nd, 2014 08:10

In our latest French music column, David McKenna meets London-based techno-mystic Velour Modular to discuss William Blake, a childhood spent in many cities, and the mysteries of scale

Before meeting Annabelle Guilhem, I spent a while puzzling over the lyrics of her debut EP, Capsule, as Velour Modular (or as the constant half of Velour Modular, anyway). "Darkness is the universe, we will be the light, one torch of fire and we will march on the night…" "Here we are, chaos, nuclear." I'm apparently not the first interviewer to have done this.

"It's quite surprising that people ask me a lot about the meaning of the lyrics," Guilhem remarks.

Ok, well I'm going to do it anyway. The production on the EP (from London-based Spanish producer Hektagon) bridges dubstep, drum and bass, post-rock guitars and electro pop, and has arrived with a press release where sci-fi, numerology and mythology all get a look-in. Turning it over for a while, I decided that 'techno mysticism' might be a useful term, an entry point into Guilhem's Capsule if nothing else. So, Annabelle, what do you reckon?

"I think that fits well," she reflects, "but there's something that's a little beyond me, if I'm honest, which is that a lot of people have mentioned this 'mystical' aspect, paganism as well, but it wasn't really my intention. When people ask me about numerology they say that you've gone for something really mystical, abstract and so on. But for me it's very logical, it's a structure, because when I said to myself that I wanted to make an EP, I thought that I have to make four or five tracks, [and] I asked myself what the songs would be about - would I write about love, the basic things that everyone writes about... But it's a bit like training in drawing, the visual arts, even philosophy, it works like that - you're given a theme and you have your constraints, you explore them and try to develop something out of that. So I thought about, that: I have four songs, what does four mean, I went looking for the particular symbolism."

So numerology wasn't something you were too aware of before?

Annabelle Guilhem: Oh well yes, actually [laughs]. I grew up with a mother who was a real hippy, in ashrams, even places that are considered sects in France, centres of meditation. So naturally these are things that I have some kind of affinity for, but at the same time I didn't say that as a musician. For example, I hate people – no, I don't hate them, that's pretty strong - but I don't like musicians that try to act as if they're shamen of some kind, I find it irritating.

You want to appear normal.

AG: Often people do the opposite – they develop an outlandish image and then talk about everyday experiences: I met this guy, I met this girl. For me it was more about a challenge – I'll take the number one, the number four - that's the four seasons and so on.

Velour Modular - Forward from Cristian Straub on Vimeo.

So what's this evolution over four phases, is it of humanity, of a particular being?

AG: No it's not the evolution of humanity, it's – how can I put it – it's a cycle that repeats every time, like the four seasons: birth, youth, maturity and death, or like the Lagrangian points where, when a satellite orbits the earth, there are four or five points where it's really stable, where it will stay fixed. So it's this idea that these are the only things we can be sure of, the stages of life. So I said "Ok, I'll run with it". The tracks are in the order they were made too, so the first track is tentative, trying to figure out with Hector [Hektagon] how we were going to work together. I'd given myself this rigid constraint with the numbers, but then I found more and more elements that I started layering over the others so that eventually every song had this hybrid identity. It's stupid but I kept putting up these barriers for myself to overcome, for example at one point I said to myself – and it's absurd – in alexandrines [12-syllable lines]. But in English too!

Did you actually do that?

AG: Yes! But it's crazy. It's because I did theatre for six years, I've directed – I don't know, I was looking for structures for writing. But after I'd decided on that it did my head in.

But obviously it pushes you in unexpected directions...

AG: Exactly, and the thing is with all these elements, which don't have... which are more about my obsession at a particular moment rather than having a coherent meaning. So when you ask if this is an expression of my beliefs then no, it's not something I'm entirely invested in either. I'm not in any way political, it's not in any way about faith... it's still personal, of course. But I've also hidden myself a fair bit as well. All these structures and references are a way of holding something back, being discreet, and at the same time there's a complete lack of discretion because I put in almost everything I'd learned.

Is the pop form a constraint for you as well?

AG: Well I can say that it won't be like that for the second EP. Because it's not with the same person. But it was a constraint, because I'd never thought about making pop music before.

How did it work between you and Hector then? Who did what?

AG: I contacted him as I also contacted a lot of other producers two and a half years ago, to offer my services as a singer. That's how we worked for a track on an album where it worked pretty well, I was very happy with the result, with the lyrics and everything. It's very trip hop, I was studying jazz at that point so there's this jazzy feel, and he came up with something pretty poppy – I didn't intervene at all in the sound of things, but it's very trip hop, very 90s. And the EP came from there. But what happened is that he was struggling to finish his album, but this was something that had worked and I was really looking for a producer. So I suggested it and he said ok.

From that moment, the relationship was reversed as the idea came from me, he didn't really know how to approach it, he hadn't really worked with singers before so he was a bit lost. I came with the concept and the reference points, and it lasted pretty much eight months with us talking every day by phone, text, a really intense situation. I gave him songs as reference points, ideas for instruments like that sort of Japanese drum in 'Forward' – I suggested that because I wanted it be a sort of battle hymn, because in the cycle of four, 'Forward' is about duality and conflict, the other – otherness basically. So that's why it starts "darkness is the universe, we will be the light."

It's a broad "we."

AG: Yes, incredibly broad! It's a bit mental saying that, yes, "here we are" is humanity. [laughs] I realise how that sounds! The girl's off on one... But it's supposed to be poetic, I was really into William Blake at that point.

French pop star Etienne Daho reference William Blake on his new album too. What's the relationship the French have with William Blake?

AG: I don't know, because here I realised that in England being into Blake is a bit... cheesy, adolescent.

Do the French see him like that?

AG: No, not at all. But here it's teenagers who get into William Blake. I saw that in some films and it was like a joke, and I wondered "what's the joke?" But maybe it's that when we encounter his language, the themes he writes about, the French don't have that kind of lyricism at all. For us it's Rimbaud, for example, who is linked to teenage unease. But even Carla Bruni, you know, she did some things based on William Blake.

Oh yes that's right, she did an album where she adapted some poems.

AG: Yes but it's a different sensibility for us, so it's stimulating. But anyway, with Hector, I had some pretty precise ideas of where I wanted things to go, I was obsessed and he was equally so. It's like a romantic couple, except that you're focusing on something that's external to you both instead of looking each other directly in the eyes. But at a certain point... he was making instrumental tracks that were very busy, I didn't really know where to place myself in that, where to put my voice, so there was a bit of conflict between the voice and the music.

Was the idea always to change producers?

AG: I'm not really a 'group' person. I've got nothing against working with someone over a long period of time, but I think there's one type of relationship when you're two individuals working together, and there's another when you say "we're in a group." I'm always keen to try working with new people because from that point of view I'm always interested in new discoveries.

So the next EP is with Phon.o, who is on 50 Weapons and who is the best friend of Sascha Ring of Apparat, so he's part of that whole Berlin crowd. I sent him the EP, I hadn't even thought about working with him, I just wanted to meet him. We met at a festival and chatted – as I said there was no real plan, I just told him I liked his album. I didn't really know whether I was continuing with Hektor, musically it worked well. But in February I told him directly that I wanted to work with him, I went to Berlin, explained how I saw the project, what I wanted to do. He was into it, and for me that was like hitting the jackpot! So I'm restarting the process, but here it's completely different because he has a long career behind him, he's never worked with a female singer before, he's never really been the producer for someone else. And he's not some kind of hyper-fashionable producer, that Berlin crew have a purer philosophy.

But it's carrying on the idea of what I wanted to do with Hektor, which was to make electronic music with vocals that is for people who are really into electronic stuff and who sometimes struggle when the tracks have vocals. With Capsule, yes it's pop but it's in a strange format, it's still about putting the music first. Singing is how I'm able to make music, but I'm more interested in the overall picture than putting forward my image. But the first EP is all about structure and I'm going to go completely against that, even vocally. I'm keen to do something that's really intimate. There's still this idea of scale that I'm really interested in, of proportion.

What do you mean by that?

AG: I mean the things that have an impact on you emotionally can appear insignificant but inside you they take on gigantic proportions.

Like pop music?

AG: Yes, but I'm talking about life, the relationships between people and the little details than can change everything, but also huge things that we don't even see. I don't know if this happens just to me but sometimes when I look at something with just one eye open like... say, this salt shaker, I can't really tell with it's immense or tiny. Maybe I have a problem with my eyesight, I should go to see an optician! [laughs] So on Capsule it's all about mythology, these huge bodies, the planets, that are also minuscule when seen from here.

A capsule can be a very small thing, it's quite modest in a way.

AG. Yes that's right. And now I want to go for something really physical, sensual. You know, like when you look at skin under the microscope it looks like a desert.

You're from Cannes.

AG: I was six when I went to India but I remember being in Cannes. My parents are painters, so it was really a big studio, oil paintings and all that. It was a house surrounded by hectares of olive trees. My mother decided to leave for India – my parents separated – so she took me off under her arm. We spent two years in Pondicherry first, with retreats to Madras, then to Auroville, which is a sort of ideal city with its own very particular architecture, it's all mystical things - pyramids, sphinxes, it's a complete trip. It's a bit like my EP but in architectural form! Then Bangalore, Madras - so I had an international education, in English, for several years, and had no contact with France. And then I came back aged around ten to Cannes.

What's Cannes like out of season and when the festival isn't on?

AG: It's catastrophic! It's small, you can get round it in twenty minutes. It's all a show, it's fake. It's a bit of a joke in our family because coming from India to that – it's difficult to find two realities that are more different. So when I came back I had a bit of an identity crisis. When I was in India I was the French girl and when I came back to France I was the Indian – I dressed strangely, I talked strangely, I spoke French badly. I was really disoriented. It took me many years to accept the difference in the way people treat each other, between India and France. When I first went to Paris I stopped a lady in the road to ask for directions and she said "No, sorry I haven't got the time". I didn't understand that, why there would be this hostility, this distance. It's like a lack of faith in existence.

And eventually you came to London – for the music?

AG: Yes, I'm not really into the French scene. I mean I respect the Ed Banger guys and people like Para One, who does great music for films as well. But when you're in that small Paris scene, I met the guys from Justice, it's all this little fashionable scene of people who work in TV and music. Brodinski, Gesaffelstein, they're a bit too pleased with themselves, there's a lack of humility and curiosity.

You seem to find a way to meet the people you're interested in.

AG: Because I don't really think about it too hard when there's someone whose work I like. For example, Cristian Straub, who made the video, I've followed what he does for a long time and for me he was completely out of my league, as you say! But I thought 'I've got nothing to lose' and he replied immediately, he asked me if I was signed, I said no, he said he'd do it for free! And that was the most fulfilling collaboration I've had, because everything was improvised. I busted my ankle – the crutches are for real, it wasn't in the script. After a day of running around the rocks in Iceland, my foot went into a hole and I collapsed. The crew of ten people were wondering how we would continue and I was in total denial - "Of course I haven't broken my foot" - and we went back to the apartment where we were staying and decided that we weren't going to try to hide it, that we'd use it.

As a painter, my father always said that when you make a mistake you shouldn't try to hide it, you should use it. But yes, you just have to go for it. I always say to people to aim for the thing where you think the answer will be no, or where you'll be turned down. Then if the answer is no then that's fine, you justify that to yourself easily but if it works then you'll feel an immense joy.

Rockfort also recommends this month:

Arlt and Thomas Bonvalet – S/T

Bonvalet is a semi-regular of this column thanks to his work as L'Ocelle Mare and with Powerdove. Now he's teamed up with already fairly whacked-out alt-chanson-folk duo Arlt to bring to bring extra layers of twitchy percussion and sonic disturbance to the mix. Arlt's male-female vocals and cobweb guitars can be sing-songy or dissonant and sour and they take pleasure in needling the listener with nagging phrases. But it's a satisfyingly strange, vaudevillian world to work your way into. And I love the title of 'Tu m'as encore crevé un cheval' - roughly: 'You've Knackered Another One of My Horses'.

Antoine – Élucubrations Antoine On 45 1965-1966

Antoine Muraccioli was a radical, long-haired singer-songwriter who managed to royally piss off yé-yé royalty – Johnny Hallyday's Cheveux Long Et Idées Courtes (long hair but short on ideas) was apparently a response to 'Les Élucubrations d'Antoine', a tirade in which it was suggested Johnny Hallyday should be put in a cage in the circus. He also inspired Jacques Dutronc's 'Et Moi, Et Moi Et Moi', for which we should be thankful, but his own Dylan and Stones-inspired fuzzy stomps are also pretty arresting in their own right, especially given the highly developed sense of the absurd in evidence on 'Un Élephant Me Regarde' and 'Ma Fête Foraine's psychedelic fairground.

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