Interview: Aluk Todolo

PHOTO BY KIIK PHOTOGRAPHY

It’s the music of endless spiral staircases. Of running away from an unseen threat. We can talk about Aluk Todolo’s amalgam of krautrock, black metal, improvisation, jagged noise and surging surf rock, or we can address the fact that something within their sound isn’t quite right. Their momentum transcends the accumulative energy of guitar, bass and drums. Something sinister is driving this music through impossible contortions and up to surreal speeds; a demonic possession that fires the French trio into overdrive, puppeteering their limbs for the fulfilment of a terrible, potentially supernatural objective.

Back in March this year, the group released Archives Vol. 1: a compilation of rarities, B-sides, and unheard tracks from their first decade alive. Many of these pieces contain the essence that would be fully materialised on their various full lengths. Elsewhere, murky practice room jams only heighten my suspicions that Aluk Todolo have been co-opted for some sort of unpleasant covert conjuring. Below, drummer Antoine Hadjioannou and I talk about archival mystique, tarot narratives and the indivisibility of composition and its capture.

You did a tour across Europe a few months ago. How did that go?

Antoine Hadjioannou: The tour went very well. We teamed up with Oranssi Pazuzu and I think it was a great bill. Our bands have undeniable similarities as well as very different approaches. During this tour we’ve been playing our last album Voix in its entirety every night, which is a very challenging piece to perform live. To me the highlights were the shows we played in Brussels, Paris and Toulouse.

I understand that the tracks on Archives Vol. 1 were selected as they’ve remained in your consciousness over the years. What led to your decision to bring these together into a compilation, rather than incorporating them into a studio record?

AH: Actually most of these tracks ended up on some of our full-lengths, yet in very different forms. “IV XII MMX” is a basic track we recorded for our collaboration album with Der Blutharsch. “XVII I MMVI” is an early version of “Occult Rock II”, and “XVII I MMVI” gave birth to the album Finsternis. All the tracks on Archives Vol. 1 are some sort of sketches, in-between pieces. None were abandoned; they just continued evolving after these primitive recordings, but the reason we thought these raw versions were worthy enough to be part of this archival album is because they reveal some obsessive elements of our creative process, and draw a sort of secret, inverted map of our “official” discography.

With tracks such as “XV V MMVIII”, the record fidelity generates a certain archival mystique – it’s like listening to an unlabelled, undated tape from a forgotten jam session. Do you think that there’s something special to releasing many of these pieces in an “unrefined”, lower fidelity form?

AH: The lo-fi quality certainly brings something special, and this archival mystique you mentioned is obviously one of the aspects of this release, but I do not like to separate sound quality and music. Recording a piece is like embodying music into matter – once it’s done the result belongs to time and space, and all its aspects form a whole. I like to envision these tracks as living beings, formed of body, spirit and soul, indivisible, just like sound quality, composition and interpretation are.

The final track on this collection takes me back to the jagged sampling and jangly beats of albums like Descension. The processed samples on this cut are hideous, and I’m pretty sure I can hear someone screaming way down in the mix too. Could you tell me a little bit about the recording process for this track; in particular, about the sheet of noise that keeps bursting in and cutting out? How was that sound made?

AH: That sound was made… by mistake. Indeed, “X IX MMVIII” belongs to the same recording sessions as Descension, an album made out of several hours of recording that we used as prima materia for a very experimental editing/mixing process, which took almost a year. During this phase, errors and accidents occurred, and this peculiar sound was actually a way too loud guitar solo track that remained unmixed. We eventually incorporated it to the track “Disease”, as well as into “X IX MMVIII”, because even if it was unplanned, it just made sense.

I find it remarkable that the record has such a sense of fluidity and narrative, given that these pieces are all pulled from different times and recording circumstances. Was it important to you that the album made for a coherent, start-to-finish listening experience?

AH: Yes, this is why the tracks are compiled in a non-chronological order. That was the real challenge with this release: we had to find the proper disposition to achieve a narration. Like a tarot drawing, each card gets its meaning only when put in relation with another one.

Has the process of compiling Archives Vol. 1 led you to reflect on the existence of Aluk Todolo so far?

AH: Reflecting on Aluk Todolo’s existence is actually the purpose of the record, even though more than the changes, the process of compiling revealed to us some obsessive, yet shapeshifting elements, constitutive of the core of the band. Some of which we weren’t aware of before listening to the proper LP. We’ve always envisioned Aluk Todolo as our own esoteric tool, and among all our records, this one is probably the most personal, on this level.

Having been granted to opportunity to peek inside your writing process, I’ve been left with a greater intrigue about how you create your music. The furious momentum of albums like Voix has always led me to suspect that improvisation is central to your work, but I’m curious as to whether there’s anything more than that. Is it simply a matter of getting together and playing, or is there more preparation/discussion involved?

AH: Our creative process is very difficult to explain, and I’m not sure we’re able to put words on it. Of course improvisation is central to the writing process, but it’s more mediumnic than a usual jam in the practice space. The fact is that improvisation leads us to very locked forms. I can’t explain what happens between a free and feverish improv and a strict, definitive composition. I know that we need a feeling of absolute necessity. The process involves preparation and unreadiness, discipline and chaos, discussion and silence, rationalisation and mystification…and something more. We simply do not have a recipe, but, as servants of the music, we do what the music requires.

You’ve mentioned that there are no present plans for a second volume, but that “time will tell”. The fact that you can even entertain the possibility suggests that you’ve recorded a lot of material that never found a home on one of your studio works. How much unused recorded material do you have in the archives?

AH: A lot. Hours and hours of material. During the composition process we record almost everything, so… There will be a volume two, but it has to be legit, we won’t put out something for the sake of it, it needs to be meaningful. I guess a new proper album will be necessary before.

What other music are you listening to at the moment?

AH: While answering these questions I’m listening to John Coltane’s Live at Birdland. I’ve discovered Coltrane because of Magma, who are my favourite band. Christian Vander is always referring to Coltrane, and it took me a long time before being able to see the connection between these two universes. Now that I understand it, Coltrane is my new favourite drug. Music of the instant, magic of eternity!

What’s on the horizon for Aluk Todolo?

AH: Motocultor Festival next month, maybe a couple of small tours before the end of the year, and some new music soon…or later!