I’ve had the best time acquainting myself with Zubberdust!, which is the debut album of Montreal’s Avec le Soleil Sortant de sa Bouche. What keeps me coming back is the impeccable combination of “push” and “pull”. Like a carnival ride going slightly too fast, I fall dizzy under the blur of operatic vocals, persistent dance beats, kaleidoscopic guitar work and strange electronic squelches. Yet it’s also an instant pleasure hit. I grin manically as the lights and colours rush past. They’re currently on tour in Europe for the very first time – in fact, they’re on a plane as I write this – and they’ve got dates booked in the UK, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and more. Go see them if you can. Below, Le Soleil’s Jean-Sébastien Truchy talks about writing/recording Zubberdust!, the upcoming tour and the progress of record number two.
So I imagine you’re currently prepping for coming over to Europe at the moment?
Yeah, we are. We finished rehearsing late last night. We have one show in Kingston, Ontario on Friday before flying out the day after.
Do you feel ready to go?
Yeah. Actually, last night felt like a worthless practice [laughs]. We’ve been playing the songs enough to feel very comfortable with them.
I understand that the current personnel line-up is different to how it was on record.
Just the drummer has changed. Nasir [Hasan] left and Sam [Bobony] is now playing with us. It’s different from when we started overall because we used to have a lot more people; now we’re only four and we use a computer to play all of the other synths, electronics and drums.
What’s it like locking in with the computer? Has that been easy to co-ordinate live?
It was strange at first. We play with a click now, so Sam has to listen to that. At first we had some problems, so for the first few shows we were worried that something would go wrong. For the past year we’ve been comfortable to the point where we forget that we’re playing with a computer. We’re back to being able to play with intensity and freedom.
I guess there’s nothing to fall back on if things go amiss with the computer.
That’s the thing. One time my Firewire port gave up and I couldn’t use the sound card anymore, so we were playing without all of the extra instruments. For me, there’s no reason for us to play as a four piece – musically it’s been done and over-done, and in my mind we’re trying to come up with something interesting by adding the orchestration and synthesisers and with the format of the songs. When we lost the computer during that one show, we just ended up being this four piece post-rock band, which really doesn’t interest me at all. We could improvise but it’s not as interesting to me in this context.
With Zubberdust! I’m particularly drawn to those moments of “self-sabotage”, where you take these very sharp stylistic turns from within deep repetitive grooves. I’m thinking of things like the blastbeats at the end of “Face à l’instant”, for example. What’s it like to co-ordinate something like that between the four of you? Is it easy to get everyone on board with those drastic shifts?
Generally, yes. I really want to surprise myself and everyone is in accord with this. I think the biggest problem is trying to keep it in a “pop” format and still make it catchy, but everyone is fully on board with trying to do surprising music.
So it’s important to have that catchy edge?
Oh yeah, definitely. My solo work is much more abstract. Sam’s work is much more abstract. The main idea with the band was to do something catchy and pop. I think we’re failing on the pop aspect. To us it’s very pop, but some people tell me that I’m kidding myself on that. But it is very important – we’re trying to do something that’s catchy while still being interesting musically.
It definitely feels catchy. Those melodies have been lodged in my head for the past few days. But given that the melodic material feels pretty dispersed between all four of you, there aren’t exactly tunes that you can hum along to.
It’s hard to catch the balance. There were instances in shows where we’d finish playing “Face à l’instant” and people would be singing the guitar melody.
Oh wow, fair enough.
Yeah. So I guess it’s possible.
You’re responsible for most of the vocals in the band, which I understand are wordless. Is there any particular reason why this appeals to you?
I’m not gifted in writing lyrics. It’s probably also because I’ve read so many lyrics of greats; by friends in Montreal or by bands like Crass, which I think are amazing. I just can’t do that. I like to think that wordless lyrics can appeal to anyone just through the emotion conveyed in the singing.
Does it allow you to be more liberal and creatively directed with what you’re doing phonetically?
It’s something I’ve had to work on. It gives me a liberty for sure, but initially I noticed that I’d always do the same sounds. The more it goes, the more I have to ensure that the sounds are not the same from song to song. It gives me a freedom of being able to “say” whatever I need to say at a specific moment and make it fit.
Your vocal style is fantastic too. It’s so distinctive. I imagine you hear this all the time, but it’s almost got an operatic vibrato to it. Is that deliberate?
It’s deliberate in how I’ve allowed myself to go there over the past few years. This whole singing thing started with Fly Pan Am. If you know our last record, you’ll know that our vocal range was very limited.
I had a shock a few years ago. I was travelling with my girlfriend and we put this U2 compilation on in the car, and Passengers played – you know that song with Brian Eno and Pavarotti? I was shocked to realise that this is basically what I’m doing. In my solo work I essentially sing opera over abstract noise. I really enjoy it. I was just trying to find a different use of singing, and people have pointed out that it’s not that different; I was of course aware of Scott Walker. And then there’s Ghédalia Tazartès, which is weird because I know him…hopefully he’ll never tell me that I sound like him [laughs]. People also bring up Magma too, who I’d never listened to until last year.
That’s a very complimentary array of reference points.
It is. To me it’s problematic because I don’t want to sound like someone else, but they’re not people that suck at least [laughs].
I was listening to your solo stuff earlier today actually. It’s really good, although it feels very far removed from what you’re doing in the band…
Somehow I don’t find it that removed. The work on the form is the same – I use the same elements in both. It’s not as catchy of course, but the basis of the work is the same. I have new a record coming out on Root Strata that demonstrates this better, although the musical result is way more abstract.
So the process is the same for the band and your solo music?
To a degree. It’s always this idea of trying to bring together elements that don’t necessarily fit and write them into a form that will surprise you. That said, with the band, we’ll come up with the music and the general aspect of the piece together. Once we have those, a lot of thinking will go into the form that the song will take.
Is it difficult to catch a balance between writing something that’s ambitious and gratifying?
With Le Soleil it’s definitely hard. It’s so easy to fall into a genre and to sound like something that already exists, which we try not to do. We were writing a new song earlier this week, and we ended up doing this section that has this grind part in it. All of a sudden it sounded like 90s grindcore. It really brought the song elsewhere, because the rest of the piece is like a psychedelic afrobeat song with French pop arrangements. Although thinking back, it’s way too referential. It’s something we’ll have to work on. So yeah, it’s a fine balance.
When you’re trying to incorporate those surprise elements, is there a lot of discussion involved in the process? Or does it all arise from simply jamming it out?
A little bit of both. We tend to spend a lot of time thinking about songs. When I build songs I think about blocks, so there’ll be four or five “blocks” in a song and we’ll jam each of those blocks. But there’s a good amount of thinking prior to that; I kind of get obsessive with it actually. Once that’s done, there’s generally not too much talking about it. At the moment it’s coming together fairly easily.
Is it easy to know when to stop analysing and scrutinising the music?
Whenever the “surprise” aspects or the music get too obvious, or too referential, we stop playing. Or at least I stop playing and just say “no” [laughs]. With the thinking…I have a really hard time stopping thinking about it. I get obsessed about songs until I feel that I can no longer go further, but the thing with music is that you can always go further. I’m not very good musically – I don’t have much technical knowledge, so right now that’s what stops me. Luckily, over the next few months I’ll grow musically because we always do. Then I can go a little bit further.
Is there anything in particular over the next few months that you think will instigate that?
As we’ve been writing the second record I’ve been working more with digital synthesisers and MIDI. That’s opening the door to so many possibilities. That’s basically how I grow musically; in 2015 you can use the computer mouse and write anything, which has allowed me to grow. Do you know Native Instruments Kontakt? The sampler?
I haven’t used it properly yet, but I think the program allows you to take orchestral phrases and open them as MIDI – so not necessarily using the sounds, but using the actual phrasing. That’s really exciting to me, because I can open it in Ableton Live and modulate it, apply it to what we do, and just use whatever synthesiser I want to use. That’s been really interesting and inspiring.
So has it been important to identify new processes to interface with? Given that you don’t consider yourself a good musician, is it crucial to place yourself in situations that might instigate a new way of thinking?
Definitely. I really, really enjoy the idea of trying to do the impossible. With Le Soleil we’re trying to do the impossible in a pop way. It’s not the same as when I’m doing my solo work where there are no boundaries, but technology in 2015 – along with all the history of music – is bringing these limitless possibilities. I get really excited about that.
So is this upcoming Le Soleil record going to be a significant leap from Zubberdust?
Yes and no. Because we changed drummer it is a bit different; sometimes a bit more aggressive. We’re trying to keep the same spirit so that it makes sense. I’m currently working on the synths and electronics, which was, before, a shared task with past members, and orchestration-wise I’m really trying to push it further. And Sam wants to bring a more electronic aspect to the drums. It might change our general sound, but…it’s a hard question to answer. Quality-wise it’ll be much better; not that I don’t like the first record, but I want to go further. We’ll still ultimately sound like ourselves. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does. Sorry – it was a bit cruel of me to put you on the spot when you’re right in the thick of the process…
Oh no! I think that’s how we should talk about music [laughs].
In another interview I saw you talk about using a Japanese koto. Is that still set to feature on the new album?
Yeah, but that’s all MIDI. All of the orchestration up until now has been MIDI. I’ve just been gathering sounds and talking with friends who do stuff for commercials and movies. I spent some time with my friend Seth [Olinsky] who plays in Akron /Family – he’s doing a lot of commercial work now. Sound banks have come a long way. The koto sounds great to my ears; I don’t think anyone would know that it’s a MIDI instrument. Using all of those MIDI instruments and synths allows you to go anywhere.
Surely it’s a real wormhole though. I can imagine coming to a decision on a particular synthesiser, and yet knowing that there are 10 more possibilities that would sound just as good or potentially better…
Yeah. I do have that problem. I tend to end up with a lot of tracks. With the new song we’re working on, I go home and add all of the orchestration and then bring it back to rehearsal. At the moment I have 50 tracks of instrumentation on top of the band. They’re not playing all the time of course, but I just tend to add and add and add…at one point I’ll have to go back and cut some.
I’m also lucky to work with a friend of mine in the studio: Radwan [Ghazi Moumneh], who records us. I talk a lot with my friend Roger [Tellier-Craig] too, who I played with in Fly Pan Am. And of course, the band goes through it all…that’s a great way to go back and revisit what I do, otherwise I’d just be adding all the time.
How do your band mates react when you bring back the tracks with all of the orchestration added?
Up until now they’ve reacted in a very good way. I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable about it at times because of the amount of freedom it gives me to give colour to the band. Everyone has been very supportive about it.
That’s great. I guess that indicates that you’re all comfortably on the same page.
Yeah. Up until now [laughs].
The production job on Zubberdust is wonderful. A couple of the tracks cut back to just the drums and they sound amazing. It’s strange, because it’s a rhythmically precise record but that’s not at the expense of the “body” of the instruments.
I’m very passionate about the fact that it has to sound right. Whatever we’re doing, however we’re playing…it has to sound right. Same for Radwan. We met in punk rock bands when he arrived from Lebanon, and now we’ve now known eachother for 20 years. We’re both very strict on that – when it’s just drums, or when we’re grinding, it has to sound the part. I really like the sound on that first record, and on the second record we’ll take even more time to work on that. The recording of Zubberdust was done in two days. Next time we’ll take a week.
Two days for just the live elements? Or for the electronics and orchestration as well?
Two days for the live instruments. Everything else was done before. For the new songs, everything has been done on my computer already. I just work on them all the time. When we go into the studio Sam is playing with a click track, and then we just drop in everything else.
It must be nice to not have time constraints for at least part of the process, and to chisel away at the final shape in your own time.
With the state of the music industry right now, there’s no way we could spend more than three days at Hotel 2 Tango. No way. The record has been out for a year now. We still owe half of what it costs. If I think back to the Fly Pan Am days, we would have paid for everything and be making money by now. There’s no way I could imagine going to the Hotel and spending more than three days, because it’s just so expensive. I don’t understand how bands do it nowadays.
When I refer to the fact that we’re going to take a week next time, we’re just going to mix at the Hotel. We’re not recording at the Hotel. We’re going to rent a house in the woods for recording and then mix at the Hotel.
A house in the woods?
Yeah, just like a country house. Radwan has this portable recording rig and we’re just going to use that. Until we start selling a lot of records – which I hope happens, but for now I don’t see happening – we just can’t afford it.
Have you picked the house yet? Is there going to be some rigorous deliberation over the building you choose?
Oh no, we’re just going to rent something [laughs]. I’m assuming something with a big room. Radwan didn’t seem too preoccupied by that. The idea with taking a week this time was to really focus on sound and really work on the different parts so that the mixing process is easier. For the first record, a lot had to be done on post-recording. It was a little bit hard.
So this tour you’re about to head out on – you’re heading out to Germany first, right?
It’s a little bit all over the place. In the first week we’re playing Germany, France and Belgium, and then going back to France and Belgium, then Netherlands and England.
I see you’re playing Le Guess Who? in the Netherlands though. That line-up gets better every time I look at it.
Yeah, it’s going to be great. A lot of great bands, and a lot of friends from Montreal and from the States, so it’ll be fun. Constellation are curating a night and I think Radwan is curating one too. I was talking to Jessica Moss yesterday and she’s now also playing…she’s been doing really nice solo stuff.
You’re playing Birthdays in London too I see. That’s a really nice venue; it’s quite intimate and the energy levels are always very high. You’ll be able to crank it up in there.
Oh that’s great. We’ll definitely crank it up. We always play loud.