The depths and the seashore: interview with Benoît Pioulard, pt. 1
Photo by Will Calcutt
It’s all disappearing in this digital age. Sure, information is moving at whiplash speeds, but everything else is shrinking (vinyl to cassette to the anorexicly slim CD) and then altogether evaporating (MP3s). We’re fast becoming a paperless world, one without artifacts or souvenirs or tangibles. I can’t remember the last time I received a friend’s letter or really even what a letter smells like. (I do still know what an electric bill smells like for now.)
That’s why I love the fact that Benoît Pioulard, nom du plume of Michigan-based musician Tom Meluch, is a man out of time. A bard of the lost and obsolete, a poet of snapshots and scrapbooks, he makes gauzy, arcadian songs that sound dipped in fog. They’re lovely to the extreme, both timeless and somehow also very much of this time. His new work, Précis, may also be the ultimate fall album, slowly, imperceptibly foreshadowing the chill and change impending in the air.
Précis is many other things as well of course, depending on how you approach it. Maybe it’s the sound of the past sent from the future or a hi-res scan of your sepia-tinted ancestors. Maybe it’s the music your subconscious sings as you drift into semi-consciousness or the dug-up palimpsests of some holier civilization. Above all though, it’s something admirably crafted to last, an album that you can faithfully return to again and again, an objet d'art that you can really hold onto.
And now here’s the first part of my conversation with Benoît Pioulard:
NL: What did you do today? What’s a typical day in the life of Benoît Pioulard?
BP: Let’s see… What is today? Tuesday? Well, it’s also Halloween. I had class this afternoon and work. I work at Ghostly International based here in Ann Arbor so I was there for most of the day and had class—I’m graduating in December—and then had to go buy some film because I’m going to New York tomorrow for CMJ festivities and I’m just hanging out at home for a minute. Then I’ll probably go to a friend’s haunted house in a little bit. That’s not part of a typical day though.
NL: What are you studying?
BP: I’m doing Comparative Literature.
NL: What are you reading for that?
BP: The only Comparative Literature course I’m taking, because I’ve actually finished that up, is about the exchange of French and Italian artists during the Renaissance. It’s being taught by my favorite professor so it works out pretty well.
NL: That’s cool. So how did the Benoît Pioulard sound come about? Is it something that evolved over time or is this the kind of music you’ve always been interested in making?
BP: “The sound.” I don’t know, I guess it’s been referred to as “the sound.” I’m not sure. The songs kind of arrived out of nowhere. I’ll start out with something very simple and then just keep adding things and taking away until it gets to the point that I like it at. So I guess it’s organic more than anything and I’m used to working within limitations so that’s got a lot to do with that. I used to record exclusively on a four-track that’s since perished and now I’m using the editing software on my computer, which is pretty basic as well, which keeps it pretty simple.
NL: What is it about limitations that you find inspiring?
BP: I tend to be able to hear the sounds that I want to be there. Having limitations and being really intimate with them is important to be able to search out and figure out how to get the sounds I want. I think if I were using a less intuitive and more option-based program, where there was this huge list of effects, I’d probably just go nuts and not really get anything done. Just experimenting with things all day.
NL: Why did you decide to work under an alias?
BP: I’m not sure really. I guess it never felt appropriate to put my own name on whatever I was recording because I feel like it comes from a different place than who I myself am. I don’t know how to put it. I don’t consider myself a musician… I make music but… And [Benoît Pioulard] was just kind of the name that came out of nowhere so I figured I’d keep it although the problem is that nobody can… I mean, my last name is actually pronounced MULL-uck and nobody can ever pronounce that right anyway so I wanted a name that is equally difficult to pronounce for most people.
NL: Are you a Francophile? And what’s the reasoning behind naming a song, say, "Coup de Foudre" versus "Love At First Sight" for example?
BP: Actually, speaking of Comparative Literature, I had to take a lot of French classes to complete that, so a lot of these things like coup de foudre is just something I learned in one of my classes. Just a little idiomatic expression that is apparently the expression for "love at first sight," but it also means more literally—
NL: A thunderbolt, isn’t it?
BP: I’ve always been attracted to little plays on words in French and English. I’m don’t know if I’m necessarily a Francophile, but I’ve been speaking the language as a second language for a long time. It certainly plays into it. It’s been part of my curriculum for the past ten years of school or so.
NL: Have you been to France?
BP: Yeah, I was there for a couple of weeks a while ago, four or five years ago. Not extensively.
NL: What’d you think?
BP: It was wonderful. I was forced to deal with some of the more rural areas, out in château country. There were a lot of open spaces. Strangely, a lot of it reminded me of Michigan, but maybe that’s just because my brain was playing tricks on me.
"I’m really attracted to the flow of
language and sometimes, my lyrics go into meaninglessness if they sound good"
NL: Huh. Okay, switching gears, how did you take you to put together the album and what was your process like?
BP: After I sent my first demo to Kranky, they expressed some interest, so I just spent most of last summer recording a bunch more songs for them that I sent off. After that is when they said we’d like you to do more for us and sign a contract. That was about a year ago at this point. So all of last winter up until about February, I was recording and after that was all mixing and mastering. It took probably eight months of recording. I write songs as I record them so it’s not like I had a big bank of songs waiting to go. Signing with Kranky was, first of all, really, really unexpected and really amazing, because I’ve been a fan of theirs forever. Also, it was a big spur, because it just got my ass in gear and got some songs done. It worked out really well.
NL: For every song you kept on the album, how many did you end up scrapping?
BP: Let’s see… so there are fifteen on the record. I think I have three or four, if you count some interludes that never really got finished. Actually, one of the extra songs that I always liked but that just didn’t seem to fit in there, I just gave to my friend Praveen for a compilation of his. So I’m not sure if I’ll find homes for all the ones that didn’t get used. It was just a matter of flow and the way I wanted to sequence the whole thing that some things got left out. But actually, a few people have remarked that they felt it was too short, so maybe I should left more in there. I guess I’m all for conciseness.
NL: Tell me a little about your approach or philosophy to lyric writing.
BP: Yeah, I don’t really know how most people do that. I write all the time. I keep a notebook in my backpack with me all the time, jot things down whether they’re stupid or profound. It’s usually more of the former in that category. So those things come together. I’ll get a vocal melody in my head and set something into it and then adapt rhymes, so it just comes from all over the place. Very rarely will I be able to sit down and write the entire lyrical content of something and keep it that way. After I get something down, it undergoes revision for a few weeks as other, better words pop into my head.
NL: So in your notebook, do you write the draft to a song or do you take little bits of what you’ve been writing down and piece them together into one song?
BP: Yeah, usually what I jot down are phrases, sentences or less, and little ideas or combinations of words that fit together really well with me. That’s one thing—if I hadn’t pursued Comparative Literature, I probably would’ve done Linguistics, because I’m really attracted to the flow of language and sometimes, my lyrics go into meaninglessness if they sound good and if they sound like they fit into a particular passage of a song.
NL: Do you happen to have your notebook nearby?
BP: No. It’s at my office, I believe actually.
NL: Fuck. I was curious to see what you’ve been jotting down lately. Ah well. What are some of the effects you used in creating the music?
BP: Whatever is in GarageBand. That’s the only program I used to edit it. I also made liberal use of my dictaphone to record things, anything that sounds more analog than the rest of it. Some bells and things I usually used the dictaphone to record, just because it softens and kind of rounds the edges. For the most part, the effects are limited to some bit crushing and what else, lots of reverb I put on vocals. Actually, I find it funny that the CD, maybe just because it’s coming out on Kranky, it seems to be getting filed in “electronic” in a lot of places. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, considering that it’s ninety-five percent live instruments.
"it makes me that much gladder
to have it out in the world."
NL: And you play all the instruments yourself?
BP: Yeah, it’s all me. I think the only one that isn’t on the whole thing is some trombone on one of the tracks for fifteen or twenty seconds. That was my friend Phil who lived in the same house as me when I happened to record that a couple of years ago.
NL: Kind of going along with that, how do you describe the music to people who have never heard it? Because I’m having a hard time coming up with how I’m going to describe it.
BP: I guess “experimental folk” is the easiest way. I mean, that’s still way too broad. (Laughs) It somehow hasn’t come up that much. There was a review of the CD that just got published, I liked one part of it that said, “So what exactly does it sound like? Well, it sounds like a folk band in a dense forest from forty yards away…”
NL: Yeah. The Stylus review. That was a good one.
BP: Yeah, that one. I thought it was really astute and I was really flattered by that too. Some things people picked out I never would’ve expected and it makes me that much gladder to have it out in the world.
"all these things that have been swarming around in my head since I’ve been old enough to think them kind of coalesced in watching that whole series."
NL: Do you approach your music visually as well as aurally? Because you have that title “Ext. Leslie Park” which to me suggests a cinematic aspect and you have that ongoing series of Polaroids…
BP: The “Ext. Leslie Park” thing was a reference to screenplay writing, which is something I haven’t done much of. It’s just that I liked that particular phrasing.
NL: I was trying to Google "Leslie Park" to figure out what it was. And it said that it was a golf course in Ann Arbor. Is that right?
BP: Uh… maybe? It’s just a place where I’ve ridden my bike a whole bunch before. I think there’s a golf course in part of it, but I don’t usually pass by.
NL: So then the song’s not about a golf course?
BP: (Laughs) No, not necessarily. Not as such.
NL: Good to know. So what would a Benoît Pioulard music video look like?
BP: I actually was just finishing one up with my friend Adam last week, who directed it, for the song “Triggering Back.” I’m in it sort of but not really. I’m mostly obscured by leaves and stuff. We went out to, speaking of dense forests, a rather dense forest and shot me wandering around. It’s mostly foliage and sky and nice effects. We are working on making it look forty years old and like it was not shot on digital.
NL: When is that going to come out?
BP: He said that he would have it finished within a couple weeks. So hopefully, by the end of next month.
NL: Following up on that forty years old thread, you’ve cited William Basinski as an influence and I can definitely hear that in the songs. So what draws you to ideas like disintegration, antiquation, obsolescence?
BP: I’m not necessarily sure. To be honest (and to namedrop), I have had a love affair with the show Six Feet Under, which has brought about a lot of profound things. A lot of people call it superpretentious, but I really enjoyed that whole series. All these notions of time passing and impermanence and whatnot, I think it even comes up in my one-sheet, but all these things that have been swarming around in my head since I’ve been old enough to think them kind of coalesced in watching that whole series. That whole aspect of [Basinski’s] The Disintegration Loops as an album and I really enjoy the film Decasia, this Bill Morrison film just built on archival footage. All that stuff is just really weird and beautiful. That’s the same reason I like Polaroids, in that it seems like an instant artifact.
NL: It’s kind of funny that you said that, because my next question was, “Have you seen Decasia? That’s another work that seems to be coming from a similar-minded place.”
BP: Yeah. Most definitely.
NL: Don’t steal my questions, Tom.
BP: I try to turn as many people onto it as I can. But I don’t know, I don’t have too many friends who like it as much as I did, suffice to say...
Part two coming tomorrow...
* MP3: "Palimend" - Benoît Pioulard from Précis [Buy it]
* Artist Website: Benoît Pioulard
Tags: Benoît Pioulard, Tom Meluch, Précis, MP3, Palimend, Kranky, interview