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In Extremis

Anti-Musicality: An Interview With Romain Perrot Of VOMIR
Russell Williams , August 20th, 2014 10:12

Russell Williams speaks to Romain Perrot, one of the main practitioners of harsh noise wall, to discuss how creating his monolithic slabs of caustic static offers a way to exorcise his frustration with the world

We live in an age of perpetual crisis. From global wars without end to individual precarity. From seismic geopolitical shifts to the day-to-day tyranny of neoliberalism. From disaster zones to the disappearing high street. How should we respond? Should we mobilise, join forces, take to the streets and seize power? Or, should we focus on individual survival above all? The noise work of French outsider artist, or anti-artist, Romain Perrot points, more controversially, to the latter option.

Over the last ten or so years, harsh noise wall (HNW) has become a significant – if still acutely liminal – genre. Its practitioners take the bludgeoning angular discordancy of harsh noise and extend it ad infinitum to long, unflinchingly monolithic slabs, or 'walls' of static noise, interference, grumbling drones and crackling acoustic growls. In the face of a mainstream culture which fleetingly breezes between fashions, trends and popular celebs, Perrot is refreshingly militant. In his influential VOMIR project, he is on the side of withdrawal, isolation, immersion in indistinct, challenging noise that often pushes the boundaries of listenability.

In many ways, VOMIR produces the opposite of music; what Perrot does is certainly at the antipodes of pop music. In the Noise Wall manifesto he has uploaded to the website of his record label, Decimation Sociale, he boldly asserts that "The individual no longer has any alternative but to completely reject contemporary life as promoted and preached. The only free behaviour that remains resides in noise, withdrawal and a refusal to capitulate to manipulation, socialisation and entertainment'. Such radical challenges to notions of entertainment are, of course, nothing new from avant garde performers, but Perrot's complete, some might say bloody-minded, unwavering commitment to his anti-music project is what makes his work so interesting.

That said, Perrot's oeuvre is not completely without glimpses of humour. When performing live as VOMIR, his distinctive trademark has been to perform with a plastic bag covering his head, standing unmoving over his pedals, or even turned with his back to the crowd or lying on the floor. It's hard not to see an element of humour in this, or at least a darkly ironic celebration of the absurd. Such a commitment to a negation tinged with absurdity means he can, I think, be understood in the playful French tradition: his work has a touch of surrealism, Dada and the Situationists, even Michel Houellebecq echoes his approach to some extent. But Perrot would, no doubt, resist such easy classification. The Quietus caught up with him to find out more about his noise, his new projects and his plastic bags.

What were your first musical discoveries? How did you come to the experimental/extreme side of music?

Romain Perrot: I started with more conventional music. My first major musical discovery was the Pink Floyd in my parents' record collection. I remember really being struck by The Wall and certain aspects of it, such as its focus on withdrawal and isolation, have stayed with me to this day. I kept on listening to Pink Floyd, in fact, throughout my teenage years before discovering metal and hip-hop and eventually getting into hardcore as well as more industrial bands. Black Flag in particular also had a major impact on me, particularly the more proggy parts of their work. I eventually came across noise artists such as Merzbow and Keiji Haino a little later, and my encounter with their work gave me a similar thrill as I had listening to Pink Floyd when I was younger.

You were living and working in Paris at that time, what role did the Parisian 'scene', such as the legendary – and recently closed – record shop Bimbo Tower play on your musical development?

RP: Bimbo Tower played a huge role; in particular the shop was a meeting point that brought me into contact with people with similar interests in noise. Franq De Quengo, musician, DJ and owner of the store, for example, is a vitally important figure in the French experimental and underground music scenes: his knowledge, his experiences and his musical memory are second to none. We met via his Aligre FM radio station show Songs Of Praise, which is still being broadcast on Monday nights, and he introduced me to noise records that I wouldn't have been able to find elsewhere. Bimbo Tower's closure has left a huge hole in the Paris underground.

My noise work has also been informed by my reading and from that perspective, Jacques Noël, who runs the bookshop Un Regard moderne, still based near St Michel, has also been a key influence: he's been my spiritual father in that respect, and his shop is an endless resource, above all if you are interested in the counter culture or have a natural inclination towards cultural deviancy… I've picked up books like Morgue by Jean-Luc Hennig and Pascal Doury and Bruno Richard's 'Elle Sont de Sortie' graphic novels from him.

You got interested in noise and you picked up a guitar. How did you make the transition from noise guitar to the harsh noise wall that VOMIR is known for?

RP: I started experimenting with noise guitar around 1996, scraping the strings rather than playing notes or chords. I wasn't entirely satisfied with the results, though. I had a distinctive and recurrent sound in mind that I wasn't able to recreate on the guitar. So, I put it to one side and I started to use electronic noise generators instead. Little by little, I started to produce a form of static noise that became the focus of my sound.

At this time, Bimbo Tower was selling my CDRs and I discovered the work of [harsh noise wall pioneers] The Cherry Point and The Rita. It was a huge surprise to find out that they were working in the same direction as me: harsh static noise. I got in contact with Sam [McKinlay, The Rita] and his label [Militant Walls], who issued my first HNW release, a 2006 split CDR with Paranoid Time, Adoration Of The Faceless Woman, which got me a little known in noise circles.

How would you describe your harsh noise wall to a newcomer? What makes your work distinctive from the other contemporary HNW artists such as, say, Richard Ramirez or Sam McKinlay?

RP: I'd encourage anyone who is interested in finding out more about noise who hasn't listened to it before just to take a radio, tune it to between two stations and turn up the volume. If you can see the appeal, then perhaps it is time to investigate harsh noise in a little more detail. Of course, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music is also worth a listen.

It's very difficult to explain what makes my walls different from other artists. How do you describe the difference between noisecore or brutal death groups? It's the same challenge. We may be working in a similar way, and all be making recordings based on static walls of noise, but the final results depend on the individual personalities of the individuals concerned. As far as VOMIR goes, my work is based on its lack of development or progression as well as the themes such as withdrawal from society and anomie that I've always highlighted when talking about my work.

I'd like to talk a little about the way you work. You are working with abstract noise, so how do you decide when you have finished or made a successful 'wall'?

RP: As far as I'm concerned, a wall can never be described as a 'success' in the way you mean. A noise wall exists when the static noise is full, continuous and consistent from start to finish without alteration or fluctuations. That is what I'm interested in. When I create a wall, I'm looking to do nothing else but produce harsh, static noise that resonates with me personally. I see the act of creation, on stage or when recording, as time out of the world where I can immerse myself in noise and become completely caught up in it. I get the equipment up and running, and create the noise and leave it there. The range of noise, whether it's more acute or lower-pitched, changes from session to session. My approach hasn't change at all since I started producing walls, for that reason I don't think my later recordings show any evolution at all when compared with my earlier work.

What about the listener's role in all of this? It sounds as if you are achieving some kind of meditative state through your work. What do you intend for your audiences or listeners to experience? You regularly play live and are a prolific releaser of new material, so it can't only be about you…

RP: I don't want to encourage people to experience my work in any particular way. I've heard that some people might use my HNW to help them relax or meditate, and its great if they do. Others just listen to it as pure harsh noise, that's great as well! There is absolutely no message whatsoever in my work; I'm looking to provide no inspiration or encouragement in any direction at all. For me, HNW is a way of releasing something personal in myself in a way that negates the possible 'spiritual' development of music.

I understand that people can hear very different sounds and effects in my work, but that depends on the ear and the brain of each individual listener as to what they get out of it. The human body finds continuous noises difficult to process so repeatedly looks for 'hooks' or familiar noises in noise walls. Also, our own pre-existing ideas also create images that are responsible for such ghost or phantom noises - that's where these things come from, not me....

Given the intensity of your walls, it seems that there is something deeply anti-social or perhaps asocial about your work. How do you reconcile that with your life? I understand you have both a family and gainful employment!

RP: I'm a family man with two children. I currently work in administration. But I'm also a noise artist, and a music fan. All these different levels make up my personality. I also feel it's important to dissolve my personality into noise from time to time. My family understand that and know that it is a real necessity for me to do that.

Noise 'purity' is a preoccupation for some in the HNW scene. In your manifesto, you use the term, saying that "the harsh noise wall is militantly pure in its non-representation". What would you say to people who might find this notion of 'purity' problematic? In focusing on withdrawal and rejection of contemporary society in the way you do, is there not a danger that you could be viewed as a political radical, or reactionary?

RP: The rules in my manifesto were initially designed to apply to me and to my own approach to making noise, and it would be wrong to suggest that there isn't at least some degree of irony at work there, as well. But it is true that I do take a very absolutist or hardcore approach to making noise walls. As far as the 'rejection' of the world is concerned, I'm possibly taking an extreme political position, but one that is neither totalitarian nor aggressive in any way. I'd describe myself as an individualist anarchist, but one for whom action comes through noise, not through criminality or violence.

What about your art as physical product? The physicality of CDs and cassettes is, for some, an important part of the noise scene. Many of your releases have used disturbing, erotic or BDSM images.

RP: I am completely disinterested in my art as a product: it's about the noise first and foremost. Nevertheless, a physical format will always transmit a better sound than digital. I hardly ever concern myself with the recording artworks or designs: I leave it to the labels. If they choose to use BDSM imagery, then that's great, since I've always had an interest in eroticism, pornography and fetishism. My childhood was marked by morbidly sensual artistic images and, when I was a little older, George Bataille's writings allowed me to channel them. These topics are present, naturally, in my everyday experience.

It's time to talk about the plastic bag you place over your head during VOMIR live sets. Can you explain your thinking? Is it not a danger that it becomes a marketing gimmick, at odds with your project?

RP: I came up with the idea of performing with a rubbish bag on my head as a symbol, well, of rubbish, of waste, but it also works on a number of different levels, I think. Initially, I used a huge gravel bag, then moved onto smaller, more manageable bags. I also hand them round the audience personally, so they too can do likewise, if they want: isolate themselves in the noise. It's true that I am a little associated with the plastic bags, and people expect them at my concerts, but I'm not convinced it's a successful marketing gimmick! It's rather something different for the harsh noise community, but I'm certainly not the first to perform with his face covered up.

What else do you listen to?

RP: I'm a music fan, so I listen to a huge amount of music from a variety of different genres. I'm really keen on discovering new music, but I would be useless in a blind test, since I don't know all of my records in depth. I listen to everything, but for it to really speak to me, it needs to have a good dose of dirt, hate, disgust, filth, improvisation, anger or the occult.

You are mostly known for your HNW work as VOMIR, but how does this relate to your other projects, FALOT, Romprai Etron and Roro Perrot? The darkly absurd nature of your work seems most evident in these projects, perhaps.

RP: FALOT is my newest project which mixes dissonant guitar, static noise, distorted vocals and a drum machine. It is pretty much the extension of what I was working on back in 1995-1996, but is different from my HNW work, for which I've set very strict rules. If there is a link, it's into my larger commitment to anti-music. The vocals are based on texts that come from cut-ups, readings, translations and ideas. They reflect my disillusioned view of the world, describe some possible routes towards sexual chaos and sound the warning notes of profound change. I describe Romprai Etron as 'vomit-core': harsh noise and bawling, basically!

Roro Perrot is an acoustic project with a touch of synthesiser. I describe it as 'shit folk'. I've had the opportunity to play live with Yves Botz (Dust Breeders, Mesa of the Lost Women). We get on very well, and we play very badly.

What brings all of my noise work together is its non-savoir faire, its anti-musicality; the fact that anyone could do it. I see it as pouring out all of my disgust in the rawest, and most absurd ways possible. Of course, when you come to analyse it and reflect upon it afterwards, the cynicism, the deep irony becomes clear, but when I make my noise, it is deeply serious.