Alcest’s latest record, Kodama, is an album that wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s rich, textured and warm and is influenced by frontman Neige’s (Stéphane Paut) love and affinity for Japanese art. Having recently embarked on a huge European tour with Japanese group Mono, the Frenchmen soon head over to America to meet up with The Body and Creepers. We spoke to Neige both before and after the Euro tour in order to garner his thoughts on the past, present and the future.
Scene Point Blank: How are you?
Neige: Oh, fine. We are doing a lot of promo and a lot of preparations for the tour. We are going on tour for a month. It's quite long and we will have no days off so it's quite difficult. But I'm really looking forward to it.
Scene Point Blank: How do you prepare for that? Both mentally, because that's long time to be away, and physically as well? Do you do anything to get yourself into a good place for that?
Neige: Yeah, in the past I wasn't doing anything. Nothing special, we were just rehearsing before the tour then going out and nothing special was planned before. But now, I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or because I'm a bit more organised but I forced myself to take some days off so I could relax, do things on my own outside of music. It's very important to start the tour in a good mood. Of course I am rehearsing, singing a bit every day. These new songs, they're not technical but for being Alcest it's a bit more technical so I have to play guitar and things like that.
Scene Point Blank: Could you talk a little bit about why you formed Alcest and how it's changed for you over the years. The first demo is quite unlike anything you're doing now. Tristesse hivernale (2001) and then the first record, Souvenirs d'un autre monde (2007) has quite the contrast, what changed in between then and how is it changing now?
Neige: The first demo, as far as I'm concerned, I don't even consider it as an Alcest release - it's too different. I was just starting, I was maybe fourteen so I bought a guitar and I learned how to play by making songs. I was into black metal - I wanted to make those kinds of songs but I don't think this could be considered as the real Alcest. It was just getting into music and I pretty much have nothing to say about the demo. It's really crappy black metal. Nothing to see, just move on you know. (It's worth noting we laughed about this, he wasn't upset!)
Scene Point Blank: I mean, it has a certain charm!
Neige: It's very influenced by Norwegian black metal because I'm really into this period but I don't listen to a lot of black metal. When I do, I like to listen to the Norwegian classics -- Darkthrone, the first Emperor. So, very quickly, I wanted to do something more personal, obviously, because as a band I think it's not so good to just imitate other bands. It's good to do your own thing.
[At this point Skype cuts out and after many profuse apologies we continue to talk about why Alcest was formed and what prompted this journey.]
Neige: I wanted to do my own thing and I had this very special experience when I was a child. It's not really easy to talk about it, because it's kind of beyond words. It's very hard to describe. I had these kind of flashes or...it was bit like having memories of something that's not your life. In my case it was a place and feelings that have nothing to do with the...with what we can have here. It was a different place, a different way to perceive what was around me. Beyond the human body, beyond the senses. it was the most beautiful thing I could see and experience. It's like this very, very heavenly place and I really didn't understand what it was. It was really, really strange and I thought actually that everyone was having this type of vision, so when I was child I wasn't really concerned about it but when I grew up I realised that maybe it was something a bit more special than I thought. I wanted to be able to talk about it in a way. If not by words, then by music and that's how I started to make this music.
From the EP Le Secret (2005), that for me, is the first Alcest release. So it's these two songs but I think those songs are really, almost the most personal thing I've done with this project. It was really about this experience and the first album, Souvenirs d'un autre monde, was also very much about this experience. So these two releases are really the closest to what I wanted to express first, with this project. Quite important for Alcest and in the meantime, I was discovering new music genres, so on top of the metal themes, I wanted to add some more influences. So I was listening to a lot of indie rock and bands like Dead Can Dance. I wanted to use elements from black metal but not have this dark vibe and pretty much doing the opposite of what the other bands were doing. Using very exciting melodies, major chords, and clean vocals. I wanted them to sound angelic, ethereal and that's when people started to talk about shoegaze. But actually, I didn't know much about that. I just wanted to make this very angelic type of metal and then people started to compare us with shoegaze bands and that's when I got interested in that style.
Scene Point Blank: I think a lot of people are under the impression that that came first, but actually it came after?
Neige: Yeah. Just after the first album I started to get into My Bloody Valentine and stuff like that.
[This next portion was completed via email after the band finished their European tour.]
Scene Point Blank: The new record, you've said in other interviews, is heavily influenced by Japanese art. What did you bring to the album that you've discovered through Japanese film and other art forms? Why does Japan speak to you in that way, do you think?
Neige: The new album is indeed influenced by Japanese art and by our recent travels to Japan with the band. However these Japanese elements in Kodama are actually quite subtle. There’s obviously the title taken from the movie Princess Mononoke, that is Japanese and that both means "tree spirit" and "echo," the visual style of the cover, inspired by the illustrator Takato Yamamoto, and some guitar melodies here and there that sound very Asian. Some people didn’t even notice that there were Asian scales being used, but it’s definitely there. We wanted to integrate these influences in a way that feels appropriate to the context of Alcest. The goal wasn’t to go full-on Japanese, it wouldn’t have sounded right. I would say that it just gave an overall feel to the record, an identity. The reason why I always was attracted to Japan is because it’s so different from Europe on every level. It’s almost like another world for occidental people.
Scene Point Blank: You've spoken about Kodama harnessing an older sound, what brought you to that choice and did you feel a little pressure after how "clean" Shelter was to do something that people were quite vocal about wanting?
Neige: After Shelter, that was an airy, bright, guitar-focused album with strong dream pop and shoegaze influences, we needed to go for something more personal, more contrasted (louder drums), that was darker too. In a way, each Alcest album is composed in reaction to the one before, and that’s not something that we actually plan. It happens to me naturally when I start working on new material, and I need these changes in colours and sounds in order to keep being inspired. Kodama comes back to some of the older aspects of our sound (like the screaming vocals and the length of the songs for example), but I would say that it also has a lot of new elements that could be considered as a heritage of Shelter. As for the pressure, we don’t think about it when we are working on new music. It kills creativity.
Scene Point Blank: Alcest's music has a duality to it -- how much of that is a reflection of your personality?
Neige: That’s a very good point. I would say the brighter side of Alcest is being used as a way to describe a world of beauty, pure, ethereal, and that has nothing to do with down to earth reality. On another hand, the harsher aspects, the screaming for example, could express this sensation I have not to belong here, to always feel out of place, disconnected, and longing for somewhere else/something else. In both cases, I am using Alcest to express very personal feelings and emotions. I am not really interested in talking about daily life or things like that. The purpose of this music is for it to be like a journey to another world, be it metaphoric or real.
Scene Point Blank: The colours and sounds of Kodama feel very autumnal and Shelter felt like the beginning of summer - do you associate time periods to the music, is it a reflection of when it was written?
Neige: Indeed, I often associate seasons with our music and colours too. For example, Souvenirs d’un autre monde is a spring album, Shelter a summer one. My two favourite seasons are spring and summer, probably because I’ve been growing up in the south of France where there’s a lot of light and sun. The visual aspect of Alcest has always been so important to me, almost as much as the music. It’s a part of the package, a part of the travel. I am often visualizing things when I am composing, it can be very abstract (just colours) or more precise things, like a landscape. Sometimes I’m even looking at images while playing. I get a lot of inspiration from movies, illustrations/paintings or photographs.
Scene Point Blank: Paris is your home, but after the attack at the Bataclan, did that change how you view the city? How did that influence the record, if at all?
Neige: It had a direct impact on our lives, at least for some months. The mood was really sad everywhere in the city and in the rest of France too. Now things seem to be back to normal in a way, but I think people are traumatized and of course nobody forgot anything that happened. People are now prepared, if this shit was to happen again. As for the influence on the record, it didn’t have an influence on the composition of the songs, as most of them were already finished when the attacks took place, but you can hear it on “Onyx” for example, the outro, that was composed last and that is really dark. Also in the production and the energy of the record, I think it sounds more angry than any other Alcest record. People say that Kodama sounds more metal, but I prefer the term "angry."
"Alcest is a lifetime project, almost like a spiritual quest for me, and I am so invested in it that it obviously involves a lot of sacrifices and stress."
Scene Point Blank:The record sounds very rich and warm, yet also quite angry at times, as you’ve mentioned. Do you go into writing with set ideas or do you allow the music to flow?
Neige:: It depends; there are no rules. Sometimes I like to compose in a cathartic way, just let the emotions flow along with the music. At times, I also like to work with a specific guideline in mind, especially when I have a precise concept or ambiance to stick to. I would say that in the beginning, when I am looking for a guideline, everything’s very spontaneous and then I like to give a certain unity to the record and try to make something coherent, a link in between all the songs.
Scene Point Blank: Is Alcest a long term prospect? Do you think you'll find what you're looking for? How long do you think the band can carry on for?
Neige: Actually, some Alcest records are less close to the initial concept as, for example Souvenirs d'un autre monde or Le Secret or even Les voyages de l'âme (2012). Écailles de lune (2010)or Shelter or Kodama are dealing with it in a different way, they're not as direct. For example, Écailles de lune was an album about escaping -- escaping from reality and leaving the human world -- in a metaphorical way.
Alcest is a lifetime project, almost like a spiritual quest for me, and I am so invested in it that it obviously involves a lot of sacrifices and stress. I think at this point I have to learn to take things easier and try to keep following the approach I had when I started this project. It’s really difficult for me to know if I will keep on doing this for many years to come. Life’s events can be so unpredictable, but I am sure I will always find a way to keep Alcest alive. Lately, I’ve been learning to take breaks, since I didn’t really take any for several years. It’s very important if you want to keep having a healthy relationship with music.
Scene Point Blank: What music inspires you? What are you listening to at the moment?
Niege: Lots of different stuff: October Rust by Type O Negative, Grimes, Cocteau Twins, Julianna Barwick, Emma Ruth Rundle, The Cure. I also heard the new Nick Cave album recently, it’s beautiful and really touching.