There Are Other Worlds: Stellar OM Source Interviewed

With new album Joy One Mile, Christelle Gualdi turns the crystalline harmonies of her early synthesiser music towards gauzy, immersive club tracks. She speaks with Rory Gibb about a chance encounter with a TB-303, a love of synthesis and working with Kassem Mosse

I first met Christelle Gualdi well over a year ago, on a freezing cold February day in an east London pub. It was the day of her second Stellar OM Source performance in London since radically re-tooling her sound: the previous year had found her shifting away from the heat-hazed ambience of her early work towards iridescent, dazzling forms of club music. Although only two tracks of that style of material had found their way onto record by that point – on the exquisite Energy/Clarity 7" – her live shows had undergone a sea change. That shift had come about thanks to the chance acquisition of a fully operational Roland TB-303 for a fraction of the vintage machine’s usual price. The previous owner had sold her it for €25, believing it was broken. "It’s amazing," she recalled with a smile. "This 303 literally fell from the sky, it’s insane. This is a dream of I don’t know how many people."

Later that night, her performance was simultaneously energising and soporific. Its jagged acid lines and drum machine rhythms scythed back and forth through the mix like sharks on the prowl, but they were all sunk deep within saturated, low-hanging storm clouds of synthesiser harmony. Some in the audience were moved to dance wildly; others remained stock still around the margins of the floor, content to immerse themselves within the music’s depths.

Although fleeter-footed and more explicitly rhythmic, the set shared many traits with Gualdi’s earlier work, especially in its harmonic richness and sheer density. Although hailing from France, the pristine, crystalline structures of her early Stellar OM Source material aligned her with the late ’00s bloom in US post-noise synthesiser music, and she fostered strong connections with fellow explorers such as Oneohtrix Point Never and The Skaters’ James Ferraro and Spencer Clark. Her excellent Trilogy Select compilation of early work, released in 2010 through Olde English Spelling Bee, contains some of the best music to have emerged from that entire disparate scene: the smooth curves, glassy surfaces and spider-webbed patterns of its tracks conjure up visions of off-world cities and alien architectures with intense, hallucinatory clarity.

As well as being a classically trained musician – she studied piano, violin, saxophone and more at a conservatory as a child, and developed a love of synthesisers thanks to her musician father – it’s telling, perhaps, that Gualdi is also a trained architect. In our interview that day she frequently slipped into the language of structures and design processes while discussing her approach to composition. "The great thing about synthesised sound, and what I find so amazing, is that you can just sculpt it," she enthused. "Once you understand all the properties of how a sound is synthesised, how rich it is, how many worlds and emotions you can create… In a way acoustic instruments have their limitations, though you always hear about someone who’s been pushing the limits of the instrument. Synthesisers, of course, are just two knobs, and then you’re totally somewhere else. This is the potential of how many doors you can open, how many worlds, how far you can go. And the way you can stack things – I’m really into layering sounds, and the combinations of frequencies. I love when I’m mixing down tracks, I’m so amazed at the properties of certain sounds, what is their frequency range, how big they can get. And then thinking, that’s why we percieve it and feel it like this. And that, with electronic music, is magic."

Fast forward nearly eighteen months since that first meeting, and Gualdi is releasing Joy One Mile through RVNG Intl., her first full-length album to document her shift to rhythm-driven dance music. It captures the exuberance and hyperactive intensity of her earlier forays into hi-tech soul, but further pries open the mix and sharpens the music’s impact, allowing each drum hit and fizzy firecracker melody to breathe and operate as distinct from others around it. That’s doubtless due in part to the involvement of Leipzig-based producer Gunnar Wendel, more widely known as Kassem Mosse, whom she drafted to mix the album, and who has also contributed a lovely, slow remix to her new Elite Excel single.

‘Elite Excel’, taken from the Joy One Mile LP

Barring a single 12″, Image Over Image, released at the end of last year through Rush Hour, Gualdi has put out no other recorded music since our previous interview. It’s taken quite a while, I suggest, to ready the album. “It’s been pretty much like making a movie, or building a house,” she laughs. “It’s funny, because at first I was worried that it wouldn’t feel new anymore – waiting so long that it’s not going to be fresh. But actually it’s the other way round. Ok, maybe it’s not fresh for me anymore, but at least in terms of what I want to achieve – which would be a timeless thing for everybody – it’s like, if it’s still fresh after a year and a half, maybe it will still be fresh in ten years.”

So had you just decided to leave it to see how it settled before releasing it?

Christelle Gualdi: It was actually the involvement with Gunnar, Kassem Mosse. For me, I knew some of the tracks for even a year before [that] – imagine it, a couple of those tracks are almost two or three years old! – so for me it was an even longer process. When [Gunnar] agreed to work further on it, that took a while. I gave him the entire album as one block, so to process all that takes a really long time. He had a huge mission in a way – [I was] like ‘Look, this is too dense, I can’t work on it anymore, it has to change, there’s something to get out of it’. It’s a huge thing to ask. So we agreed there would not be any pressure on that. Not like, ‘hey, you spend a whole summer on it and it has to be done by September’ – not like this at all. Having total freedom to do it was very important. That meant an unlimited amount of time.

You can’t put someone under pressure for something that involves that amount of creative input.

CG: Yeah. He did one remix of one song, but the rest was mixing and arranging the tracks. He didn’t put in any new sounds, he didn’t change much of the structure, but he did this arranging and mixing job, which is really subtle. Those are like the final touches to the work, so they are delicate, and they are really important. [The audience] never hear [it], but producers, people making music, hear a rough track, then how it sounds when it’s mixed – and it sounds so different. So his work was huge, you know. Of course, if you’d compare the tracks, it feels like if a person is dressed in certain clothes, and then you change a few elements and it’s changing your whole perception of this person. So that’s what it did.

The whole reason I wanted to do that with someone else was that I got so attached to some sounds that it was really hard to get rid of them. I knew they had to go, but I was just so attached, so it was just easier to give it to someone and say ‘Do what you think has to be done’. It’s like when your house is all cluttered, and you can’t throw anything away, so you go away and ask a friend to clean up for you. When you come back it’s done, and there’s this feeling when you’re like ‘Oh damn, this is gone?’ But then it’s like, no, this is good, it had to be done. It really was like a lesson in Buddhist non-attachment.

Was it quite a surprise, hearing the new versions he’d sent back?

Yeah. Because I was so close to it, for me it was really different. A third person would not have said that at all. It actually took me five times listening through it – the first time I was like ‘No, that cannot be like this!’ But then slowly, after listening to it for the fifth time, I realised that it finally was there, it achieved clarity, which was what I really wanted. At the beginning it was a bit scary. I do love to have this kind of risky process [though]. I like to, I’d say, throw things into the universe and see how things get guided, and see if things are strong or not. Sometimes you have projects in your life, and some will work and some won’t work, or will bring you in a different direction. I felt that if this music was strong enough, then it would arrive somewhere that it had to arrive. So yeah, I’m really happy with the whole process, it was very unique. I don’t know if I would do it again! [laughs]

What drew you to work with Gunnar?

CG: He really leaves space for things to happen, and he creates amazing combinations out of very few elements. I actually looked for someone who would be a kind of opposite to me. I have more of a baroque approach – there’s always too much, maybe out of fear that I need to fill in gaps and keep peoples’ attention. Gunnar has a process that I find marvelous and that I admire him so much for – well, I don’t know if it’s the process, but what I hear from his records is that it’s about letting things happen, and therefore also creating curiosity. Also, if you hear the techno tracks he makes, it’s like ‘Where is the beat? it’s there, but where is it?’ It’s just so buried, and so groovy.

That’s why I was really hoping that he would like to enter this project, because he was so diametrically opposite from me. He has a lot of traits, music-wise, that I admire, and I know it’s not my personality. I also admire his secrecy. This is something for me that I admire so much, I wish there could be no pictures of me on the internet, things like that. This is one of the greatest things.

The album’s obviously been in the pipeline for a while. How do you think things have developed with your sound and your approach in the time since you started making more dance music-centred stuff?

CG: Last time we met that felt more like cruising, some kind of smooth development, getting more confident with the machines I use. I just feel I’ve arrived at some kind of plateau where I can really explore. Maybe I’ve found my sound a bit, you could say. It’s just been steady continuity, and I’m not preparing a new live set. It’s comfortable in some way, I feel I’m just getting really confident with what I do.

‘Energy’, from the Energy/Clarity 7"

On the surface of things it could seem like quite a shift across from the beatless stuff you were doing before into more of a dance music realm. Were there any artists or styles that particularly inspired you to do that? In Joy One Mile I feel like can hear a strong element of classic Underground Resistance, in particular.

CG: Um… [pauses, thinks] Most Underground Resistance releases, and up until the mid ’90s stuff by Mad Mike, are just huge references for me. A lot of the musics made in the late ’80s and early ’90s were to me very soulful – very genuine, very heartfelt, with such strong beliefs, and stemming from their culture and from Detroit, this very strong belief in the music. I guess that’s what really inspires me, and that’s why so much music of now doesn’t inspire me. There’s also this jazz idea – jazz fusion, a little bit of free jazz, John Coltrane. I don’t listen to much music, I definitely enjoy silence. I have changed to a studio which has a garden, so I’ll just sit there and listen to the birds. But when I listen to music it often will be John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and things by Underground Resistance. If I lose a [sense] of my inspirations, or my tracks – thinking ‘what’s the direction for my tracks?’ – then [listening to those artists] it’s like ‘Oh ok, yeah, that’s what I want to convey, that’s what I want to express, those kind of emotions’. About current music I cannot say much – I know the music of Kassem Mosse through Omar S, I feel a lot of similarities with Underground Resistance, and the big guys like Theo Parrish. But otherwise it’s very hard to me to listen to new things. I wish there’d be more contemporary things grabbing my interest.

I don’t know where I read this, it was a long time ago, but I think it’s really valid for anybody that’s creative. We have a span of about four hours, and with our ears it’s really extreme. If I work for four hours on music, then it’s as if you’ve printed something with ink and then the ink is still there. I feel like my brain is just imprinted with the sounds I’ve been working on. It stays there, and then I start not to hear things in my mind anymore. After four hours I make sure to have a break of at least two hours. And after that, at the end of the day, I’m like, I just need silence. I love silence. Your ears need to rest. There’s nothing like the first few hours of the morning. It’s just magic, being so fresh, that time of the morning for me is golden, to make the right decisions.

Stellar OM Source’s Joy One Mile album and Elite Excel 12" are both out now via RVNG Intl.

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