Dirty Body Music: Èlg Interviewed

In the first Rockfort French Music column of 2013, David McKenna delves deep with the extreme physicality of Èlg

Towards the end of last year, going through the equal-parts frustrating, cathartic and illuminating process of examining all my belongings before moving house, I come across a clutch of CDs and mini-CDs in that I received a number of years back while doing a radio show for Resonance FM.

Largely, the card sleeves and actual discs feature a succession of more or less naively drawn figures, mutant faces, a bleeding mouth protruding from the back of a hand – and a giant baby-man wearing a superhero (Robin…?) -style mask, a Hollywood dame resting in his arms and a menagerie of dream creatures for company, including a feathery dragon-thing perched on his head. The baby-man has ‘el-g’ on his T-shirt, and his/its album is called Le Prototype de l’Homme Bebe. Elsewhere you encounter an eyeless, half-human, half-dog face. Èlg (I think the re-configuration of the characters in the name is another mutation he has undergone) plays unsettled songs (with guitars, electronic hums, sound snippets) and sings in tones that range from a buzzing, multi-tracked mid-range to a queasy, quavery falsetto. A mini-CD like Capitaine Présent #1 is even more schizoid, a sequence of songs, skits and sketches full of  treated multi-Èlg voices backing or undermining each other. The voice is everywhere, in the distance or needling you from up close, pleading, whining or giggling childishly.

What to make of it all? One of its triumphs, I realise, is that you quite quickly get a sense that Èlg might not be human at all. Perhaps something resembling a mugwump, or those visions of future-humans with expanded craniums, or the ‘perfect smoker’ from this 1980s government public information campaign.

Alternatively, it occurs that Èlg might be all-too human – far from having a resistance to "heart-disease, lung cancer and thrombosis", he’s too much in touch with the physical, with disease, discharge, pus, sweat, excrement that adults try not to dwell too much on, an homme bébé, still trapped in the anal phase, fascinated by his own secretions and excretions. That mucousy voice (sorry, I think the New Year cold might have put me on this train…) never leaves you feeling particularly comfortable but it’s hard to remain indifferent or to turn away unaffected.

Anyway, shortly after re-discovering this unhealthy bounty, this plague casket, I realised that the long-neglected (by me) Èlg was active as ever. There was his own most recent album, Mil Pluton – released and rapidly sold out on Hundebiss Records – as well as his latest collaborative effort, Globe Et Dynastie, as part of Reines d’Angleterre with Jo and Ghédalia Tazartès. Tazartès you may be aware of already, his 1979 debut Diasporas recently described by The Wire as "an exercise in fake ethnography." As an avant-vocalist he’s perhaps even further out than Diamanda Galas, and he perches atop Jo and Èlg’s electronic edifices like a living gargoyle. As for Mil Pluton, it has everything that delights and disturbs about Èlg’s earlier work and more – more fully realised (with help from Jo and PAN’s Bill Kouligas amongst others), more alien (singing in what sounds like an invented language), insectoid electro-pop.

It’s the best of Èlg’s own work that I’ve come into contact with – and looks as though it has been his last before entering a period of what he describes as "hibernation". (Maybe he is not quite human after all, I think, and describes ‘Èlg’ to me as being like "an elephant with ten heads that takes up too much space", although in the photo he sends later of himself, Laurent Gérard, he looks surprisingly normal.) Therefore, I was given to understand that this interview might be something of a summation as much for himself as anyone else and I was asked to preserve the order of the questions and the integrity of the answers, at least as far as my skills as a translator allowed. My emailed questions were, I realise, fairly straightforward and open-ended, since I didn’t really know what to expect. Èlg (real name) appears to have used this fact to develop his own narrative.

Was there a point where you thought you had found your voice (vocally or otherwise?)

Èlg: Yes, sometimes I think I’ve found a place that is particular to me and then I quickly realise that it’s an illusion and that nothing is ever fixed, in spite of personal tics. I therefore try to accept the continual transformation of forms, which is not always easy but which allows the work to continue, and to remain open to the unknown. I’m always stunned by the commercial approach of a certain group of contemporary artists and this desire for their work to remain eternally frozen. Probably as a result of fear and insecurity. I had the impression at the art school where I studied that they were teaching visual artists to become their own ‘company’, with a flagship product that was ready for the market. Instead of making it clear that when you leave the school you know nothing, or virtually nothing (wait and see what life has in store!), the opposite happens, the starting point is pretending that you have attained a fixed and privileged social status and associating the work with the personality of the artist, like a brand logo for shoes that you commercialise and rework ad nauseam. So I can definitely say that I don’t see myself as fitting that model.

Do you think you have developed technically from albums like Le Prototype de l’Homme Bebe or have you just been exploring different modes?

È: Since Le Prototype de l’Homme Bébé, my musical explorations have been quite varied and my interests have opened up to many new horizons. Probably too many, and often mutually exclusive ones. That’s all a result of a certain urgency that comes from being young, a thirst for experimentation, for the simple childish pleasure of ploughing a furrow, building little castles, dykes and bridges and admiring the result. Seeing also where the boundaries of psychosis are, mixing things that in theory shouldn’t go together, making sure that humour can have a place in experimental music, that it sounds true and not too fake and so on. I’m a man-child who has had a good play with his own shit, in short! But if we’re talking about recording and mixing techniques, I learned a lot by making mistakes, by trying to assess the results as frankly as possible and not hesitating to throw a lot of stuff out. Over time, my brother Mim, who is a musician and also a producer, helped me to learn a lot of recording techniques, both the classic methods and more recent ones.  

Your music doesn’t feel ‘healthy’ to me, the product of some very private obsessions (that’s not necessarily a bad thing). Are you conscious of having a certain aesthetic?

È: Yes I have obsessions but it would be difficult for me to name one, it’s all very abstract and difficult to grasp. In any case I have the feeling that they’re evolving and that they are less painful than in the past but an obsession is always unhealthy by definition…

Would I be able to make ‘healthier’ music one day? At the moment, I think you can find mountain tops and the scent of violets in there as well as boggy wetlands and mazes without an exit. I think there is as aesthetic which is developing quite naturally by dint of work and practice but I still have the feeling that I’ve only just flown over the landscapes. As if I had laid out the maps of several countries without really deciding where I want to live. In any case, I don’t have a conscious desire to create some kind of aesthetic package, like the instantly recognisable cakes cooked by your grandma. These are things that come in spite of themselves.

EL-G – Paris, 3 December 2011 from Bipolar Poodle on Vimeo.

Following on from that, do you aim to create a incite a certain discomfort or unease in the listener?

È: I like mixing things up, playing with convention, questioning and twisting different trends (it’s one of the approaches with Mil Pluton), it’s funny and it stops the music being fixed under one single and horrible, all-encompassing label. It forces people to constantly reassess what they’re hearing, to not fall asleep, to realise that they shouldn’t have particular expectations, or try to understand or to categorise because that’s not going to be possible. At worst, some lazy journalists will start firing out different references, since nobody really knows how to write anymore based on the actual music but only using and re-combining stores of accumulated knowledge, usually in an arrogant, if not totally careless, way, or both. And let’s just say that doesn’t really get us anywhere…

Otherwise, I’m not interested in inspiring unease. I don’t record in a comfort, and that’s a driving force. This relationship to music engenders some paradoxical sensations, a certain unease that endures through to the end of the mixing process. Maybe that’s where this ‘discomfort’ comes from.

Is pop music, or an idea of pop music, something you’re interested in?

È: I have a great deal of affection for melody lines that have their own character and which are easily recognisable, they can provide companionship and comfort like a warm fire-place – it’s the Beatles effect. Or they can refresh your whole being, as with Talking Heads. My 12-year-old neighbour can understand it, it provides a link between people from different generations or socio-cultural backgrounds. I like the fact that this connection exists, that it’s something we all have access to. It’s the historical basis of music. I’m also wary of the nostalgic dependence on certain kinds of syrupy pop and folk, of its whipped cream illusions, of its sugary fantasies, a sentimentality that fixes everything in a crystallised state. I think it can do a lot of harm in people’s lives. Personally, I feel I’m still getting over a certain musical self-pity, so I’m really calling into question a somewhat soppy approach I sometimes had until recently.

I see a lot of people on the train or the bus, with their big headphones covering their ears, their face pressed up to the glass, ready to dissolve into the melancholy soundtrack of their lives, their gaze totally disconnected from the present. There was a time I would have found that rather sweet but now I view it more as a generalised escapism. On the global level, I’m very mistrustful of the cult of personality and image in indie or the mainstream, this narcissistic centrifuge that, unfortunately, is also to be found in the so-called underground. It has a major attraction for young audiences. I thought I’d also fallen for that but in the end it made me uncomfortable, as if I wasn’t being honest with myself.

I wonder on an almost daily basis about the mental health of our Western culture and especially the worst layer of an entertainment culture that’s come from the USA, this dream factory with a narrow outlook that’s more suffocating than ever, and which is reaching a disturbing level of blindness and schizophrenia. I recently read an interview with a female musician who said she was obsessed with becoming a pop star to the point where it was stronger than her, even if all the hoops she had to jump through, all the daily efforts and the sacrifices involved in getting there, made her feel sick. It’s worrying, don’t you think?

What or who excites you in (or outside) music?

È: At the moment, silence is winning out. I’ve entered a hibernation period when I’m taking a step back from music and everything that goes with it. I’m re-immersing myself in silence, the big silence that is so frightening but which also gives rise to so many wonderfully unexpected things. It’s a need to back off a bit so that I can experience the world better. On your site last May you interviewed l’Ocelle Mare. I think Thomas (Bonvalet) is a great example of musical integrity. He thinks about every action, as if at every moment he’s discovering afresh that every sound has a life and every sound has a death. It takes a great deal of focus to get there, to that level of accuracy. There’s no sentimentality or manipulation, just an emotion from one moment to the next that gets deep under the skin of the listener. It’s this kind of figure who is equally devoted to sound and to silence that I find really inspiring.

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