Alcest Interview with Neige: Shelter by the Sea

There’s a point at which an artist has to decide why and for whom he or she creates, and for French post-black metal innovators Alcest, that point seems to have been during the recording of their 2012 full-length, Les Voyages de l’Âme (review here). As guitarist, vocalist, keyboardist, founder and principle songwriter Stéphane “Neige” Paut recalls, it was during this time that he began to feel as though he was playing to routine, making music more to please his fans and to meet expectations than to answer the call of his own creativity. If there was any question where Neige might end up on that issue, certainly the band’s fourth album, Shelter (review here), puts them to rest.

Released through Prophecy Productions and recorded in Iceland by Birgir Jón Birgisson (Sigur Rós), Shelter maintains the emotional core that’s been at the center of Alcest‘s approach since their groundbreaking 2007 debut, Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde. What’s changed is the context in which that signature element arrives. Shelter dispatches with most (not all) of the band’s black metal influence, Neige and drummer Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre opting instead to shift their focus to a dreamy, bright melodicism which has always been there in Alcest‘s sound, but has never come to the fore in the way it does now, post-intro album opener “Opale” working quickly to establish a new clean, clear tonal foundation that songs like “L’Éveil des Muses” and “Voix Sereines” build on with the band’s signature shoegazing adventurousness.

One could easily argue that adventurousness has never been more prominent in Alcest‘s approach than it is on Shelter, both in terms of departing from what they’d established as their “norm” to unknown aesthetic ground, and in more obvious factors like choosing an English word for the title and bringing Slowdive‘s Neil Halstead to sing lead on “Away,” one of the album’s most central melodic washes. I spoke to Neige about these things and more prior to Alcest beginning a European tour with Hexvessel that wraps up this week in support of Shelter. He was both conscious of the changes in his band’s sound and of Shelter‘s potential to alienate some of their following, but resigned in having to do what he had to do to keep the band going. As much as it was one, his choice clearly had been made.

Please find the Q&A enclosed after the jump, and enjoy:

How was the tour in the States with Anathema?

This tour was probably the best one we did so far, because we played quite big venues and it was packed and the band package was nice and also the fact that we played two new songs, two songs from Shelter, it made the thing very exciting for us. We finished the show by this song “Délivrance,” the last song of the album, and it’s a really epic song, so it was really cool to play every night just for this very moment, this epic ending. Yeah, it was nice.

The album was already recorded at that point, obviously. Was it strange for you to be out and playing songs from it between recording and the release?

Yeah, because I was a bit scared, because you give new material to the listeners, you play it on stage, and it’s a good test, a good way to know if it’s going to work or not, and it was great because the feedback we’ve got was really nice and people liked a lot the new songs, so it made me feel like more confident in the album and in the work we have done on this album. And yeah, everybody was saying, “Wow, the new songs are great, I cannot wait to hear Shelter,” and it was cool.

How did going to Iceland to record come about?

We wanted to change our habits, and to take a bit more risks. On the previous record, we had this very clean, metal sound, very regular. And we wanted this time to have a more grainy and crispy sound, and we knew that this studio was very good for that because they’ve done Sigur Ros, and Sigur Ros, they have exactly this kind of very organic sound, and we thought it would be good for Alcest, so we decided to come here and the fact that it’s Iceland was also something very attractive (laughs), because it’s also something exotic for us.

What was the atmosphere like where you were and in the studio?

Ah, it was dream-like, really (laughs). So good. We had high expectations from Iceland, but it was 10 times better than what we thought it would be. It’s really a different world. Really. There are no trees because, I don’t know, they cannot grow or something, and it’s like this huge, lunar landscape, huge mountains, huge valleys, and everything is so wild, almost dangerous for human beings. Very special. Very special atmosphere and, yeah, in the studio, it was very relaxed. Very full of positive energies and the guy from the studio, he likes a lot to experiment and to try things with us, so it was a very creative mood and I would say Icelandic people, they are very crazy when it comes to making music, so yeah. It was just great.

What was it about these songs that made you want to change the atmosphere and the approach and step outside what I assume at this point was a comfort zone for you?

The music changed, so we had to change the sound as well. It’s as simple as that. We wanted to try new things and have fun recording this album, because before, on the last album, the Voyages one, we went almost into kind of a routine, and I hate that (laughs). So yeah, we decided to change this time of Alcest, and so the sounds in consequence.

Was that something you decided to do while you were writing?

It was even before. During  the recording of Les Voyages de l’Âme, I was already almost a bit bored with what I was doing at this moment, so I was already thinking about how to change the Alcest sound. So it was two years ago, and the songs were composed very, very fast. Like in three or four months. It was like an urge for me, because I needed this breath of fresh air so much. Because I have been doing metal-inspired music since almost 15 years now, so yeah, for me it was time to change, and it’s the most sincere approach we could do, because if you try to please the fans first, I don’t think it’s really good when it comes to making art and music.

How did your songwriting change moving past those metal influences?

It was like starting something new. So I was very excited, very – I hope – very inspired. It was new, so it’s always good to start from something fresh, and I think I was way more relaxed in a way. So that’s why it came so quickly, the songs. I didn’t want to put so much pressure. There is so much seriousness about Alcest all the time. There is so much meaning behind this music, like I want to say something precise, and this time, I was more like, “Okay, let’s make the music you want to listen to.” Because before, it was not the case. It was not necessarily the music I want to listen to, but it was the music I had to do. But this time, it was more like, “Yeah, let’s make a record and have fun,” and I know it sounds a bit silly, but just like being completely free and sincere and do what you want to do. That’s what I told to myself.

Had you labored in the writing for Voyages as well? Was it at that point that you started to feel that routine and maybe that you were playing to expectation, or was it just in the recording?

It’s been a couple of years that I started feeling like being in a routine and wanting to try new things, and I like speaking in this way. The core of Alcest, the melodies and the spiritual message and the nostalgia of Alcest will never change. It’s just the way to express it. So before, we used these distorted guitars and heavy drums, but it could be everything, or anything. It could be songs played just with the piano, or like string quartets, anything. It’s just the shape that’s changed, but the core of Alcest, I think it’s still pretty much the same. Same kind of very uplifting music. So yeah. I think for me it’s a good way to keep being inspired, to change this shape.

Were you at all apprehensive about how it would be received?

Yeah, you always fear. It’s always difficult for me when there is the time to show the work that has been done in the studio and especially in the past because maybe, you know, when I released the first album, the Souvenirs one, I didn’t expect anything, like any special kind of reaction or anything, and suddenly, there was this big talking about this album because back then, there were not so many bands doing this kind of shoegazy metal music, so it was quite new and there were a lot of arguing and some people really loved it, some people hated it, and yeah, so I noticed that this music, yeah, could be appreciated by some other people. Not just by me. And of course, after that, there is always a kind of pressure, but I think I felt it especially with the previous album, Les Voyages de l’Âme, because we were repeating kind of the same formula, so we had to do it better. Or not better, but at least as good, in a different way. So yeah, I was quite anxious, but for Shelter, I really think I have done my best and I am very proud of this record, and I know not everybody will like it. We knew it from the start, because there was this big departure from metal, and of course we are going to lose a lot of fans. But you know, what can you do? I don’t want to go into routine and release all the time the same album, and it’s important not to do any compromise when you make music and to really do what you want to do in a precise moment. Not being afraid of people’s opinion. Because I think that if you are really sincere in your approach, if you do the things you like, if you have fun, if you take time to compose good songs and then if you’re proud about them, there is no reason to be scared. If some people are going to leave Alcest because it’s not metal anymore, maybe some other guys that didn’t like Alcest before will like Shelter more. We try not to think too much about people’s reactions. Even if it’s not easy. I have to admit, when I read a very bad critique, I feel like shit (laughs), but yeah, at least we try not to be affected. But we are humans, so of course when we see something bad about our music, it’s always a bit painful.

Thinking about the title and the meaning behind the title, is your retreat into this new songwriting process the Shelter you’re talking about?

It’s very interesting about this title, because of the distance, and from the minute we chose this name to now, I realize that this concept could be applied on many things related to this album. First, the original concept of Shelter is this very safe place where as you say, you can hide, and find yourself again. Because we live in a quite tough world and it’s very easy to lose yourself and to forget who you are and to feel very down. So we all have these kinds of places, or movies, or music, or persons, that prevent us from being lost. That was the concept of Shelter, and this shelter for me was the sea. That’s why all the songs are talking about the sea, and it’s because I used to go by the sea with my parents and I love so much just to sit in front of the waves and let the water clean my soul, in a way. When you go back to your home, you feel like if you took like a bath, even if you didn’t go into the water, because you feel exhausted, but you feel so good, and yeah, that’s something that always was important for me, because even if we change and we evolve and we grow up, as human beings, these things won’t change. This landscape I like will not change, and I know that I can find myself again just by being in this landscape. Just because it’s like a mirror. That was the first idea about Shelter and to make an album that people could listen to and just feel good. As simple as that. Just feel good. And the second interesting thing is in the fact that we chose Iceland to record this album, because actually this also was our shelter for two months, because we were away from everything and feeling so great and feeling free and being in the studio and it was very meaningful for us, and also, as you said, yeah, the fact that I just wanted to be in a bubble and make this album. Not being afraid of changing the state of the band, not being afraid of people’s reactions. People think we are going mainstream or something, but it’s not true. I think you lose sincerity when you try to make music just because you are afraid of losing fans. That’s really insincere, for me.

Were you close to the sea where you recorded in Iceland?

Yeah, you’re never too far from the ocean when you’re in Iceland. The cities are on the coast. I think we could see the ocean from the flat, from the neighborhood we were living in.

Alcest has always been very lush and had this wash of melody. How much of that comes together in the studio and how much is thought out beforehand. In terms of adding layers of sound into the songs.

When I first compose a song. I try to compose in a very minimalistic setting. Most of the time I just have one guitar. Sometimes it’s even just an electric unplugged guitar. I even don’t use any amplifier, so it’s really oldschool (laughs). Even if in my way of recording before, even now, I was just using an 8-track, physical recorder. I never worked with computers to make songs, because I’m very bad with technology, and I like to focus on the essence of the song, the pure songwriting. If you forget all the effect pedals, all the plug-ins in ProTools, just the songwriting. So that’s my way of working. And then, yeah, as you said, we record like 80 tracks of lush guitars. But that’s just the shape of the song. You can record 100 of shoegazy guitars, it will not make it a good song. That’s my way of thinking. Do a great song first, then you can add as much shoegazy layers you want (laughs).

Is that how “Délivrance” came together?

“Délivrance” is a very strange, special song for me. I think it’s probably one of the best Alcest songs to date. It’s a really special song. This melody came to me, I don’t know how, I don’t remember the moment when I found it, but something really brilliant happened. It’s pure songwriting. When I composed it, I just had my guitar. We added all the instrumentation, the strings, the female vocals and stuff, just in the studio. It was not on the demo version, so yeah.

And was there a reason you went with the English word for the title, Shelter, over the French?

Oh, it’s really stupid. It’s because the French word sounds like shit, so I used English. In French, it’s refuge, so Shelter, it’s way more elegant and natural, and yeah.

I know you’re doing shows in January/February with Hexvessel and CROWN. Very cool band. Very metal.

It’s a special show, because these CROWN guys are friends. We love their music, but we’re playing this show because first they are friends, and second it’s a warm-up show for the tour, and third, the guitar player is going to do our sound on the tour. He will be our sound guy. So we will do a residence in this venue, just to work on the sound, and then in the evening, we do this show. But it’s a special show. And you know, when we book headlining tours, we always choose the bands ourselves, and in the future we will avoid playing with metal bands, because you know the story, we are trying to show Alcest’s music to new audience, so maybe we are not going to play with so many metal bands anymore, but for this, but for CROWN, it’s an exception. But it’s a fucking great band.

Do you know what you’re doing after that tour?

Yeah, I think there are plans for a tour in Japan, and in the summer, the usual festivals, and working a lot on the new record, because we already started these days working on the new album.

Awfully quick. Where are you in that process?

You know, I kind of never stop, so it never stopped and it never ends. I am just composing songs since 15 years, nonstop (laughs). Some people tell me, “What about taking a break, or holidays?” but that’s my holidays. I just love that. If I go on holidays, I would be bored. It’s a real pleasure for me. I am so lucky to be able to do that, and I take advantage of every day of my musician life. It’s so good.

Do you feel like, with Shelter, you’ve given a shift that’s driven your inspiration?

Yeah, definitely. I think Shelter was a transition album. The album we are working on at the moment is even more special. The metalheads, they are crying now, but for the next one, they will cry much more. So yeah. Be prepared (laughs). For some blasphemy. You know, I am kidding with this “metalheads.” We don’t want to lose metalheads, because we were metalheads, and my drummer, he still loves metal and we know it’s the best audience, it’s the best rock audience ever, because these guys are very loyal and they really support the bands, and they really are into music, so yeah. We don’t want to despise this audience. It’s really the best one. We are just very conscious about the fact that we are going to lose a lot of fans, but that’s life.

Alcest, “Délivrance” from Shelter (2014)

Alcest on Thee Facebooks

Prophecy Productions

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