Ian Maleney talks aesthetics, travel and escape with High Wolf who plays Upstairs At Whelan’s this Friday with Magic Pockets & Cian Nugent.
High Wolf is the stage name of a man from France called Max. We don’t know much more about him. His music channels a sense of spirituality and transcendence that feels genuine and cuts through the haze of new age crystal gazing. It’s psychedelia but in a very personal way, designed not to send you out of you mind but to help you find a place of comfort within it and so awaken a stronger sense of one’s place in the world. Or something.
First of all, how was your Christmas and new year? Very good actually, I’ve been able to go for a week of vacation in a remote house I have access to, by the sea, and it was a perfect time of relaxation, reading and introspection. Something I see more and more as necessary, escape from civilization, even for a short period of time.
What do you look for in escape? Is there a particular type of peace that you search for when you get away? What parts of the modern world are you escaping from? Well it’s very simple, basically no matter how hard I try it’s difficult to escape the infernal rhythm of city life, you get caught in this speed race, race for productivity and success, no one has time for anything, you feel like you’re swamped all the time, checking emails ten times a day, spending too much time on the internet…you feel like you have way too much things to do and there is no way you can do it on time, you know, that kind of feelings. You are focused on action, only that matters, people believe in action and work only.
It’s way stronger than me, and when I get away in a remote place, with no internet, then I realize how much time I waste with bullshit. Peace of mind comes easy then, and some occupations, like reading and writing, work way better in that kind of environment, with no cellphone ringing after two pages read or stuff like that. And all that makes you understand it’s ok to not be busy for a while.
You’ve talked before about how recorded music can lose it’s resonance with you. Have you found any ways to deal with this or do you think it is even a problem as such? How does that then affect your live performances? What kind of experience do you strive for on stage, for yourself and for the audience? There are many elements that I find problematic with the recording process, the most important being, about my own creation, time. And by time I mean passing time. A record is stuck in time, for ever. It’s very hard, almost impossible, to consider a piece of art as definitely completed, but records force you to put an end on it. Which can be good also, to move on and focus on something new. But sometimes when you think back you can have some regrets, or disagree with what you’ve done, what you thought, and even who you were back then. Because we change with time. And the worst for me is when records take 2 years between recording and releasing, which happens, then you feel disconnected with your own creation, you don’t recognize your self in it. Not completely. Like it has been done by a different you.
Live performance has a better relation with time. It’s here and now, and it will never be again, anytime, anywhere else. And that’s what you share with the audience, pure time, pure energy. It doesn’t work all the time, but when it does it’s a beautiful experience. My feeling after a live show is never about if I played better or worse than usual, what I care about is the level of connection with the audience, that’s what makes a show good or disappointing.
And with a live set you can create all the time, do it over and over, change your pieces all the time. Sometimes I carry a piece for a few months but I change it all the time, for every tour, keeping just a portion of the beat, or a bassline, whatever, and changing, changing again, a real dialectical process, which you can’t have with record. Though you have restraints with live as well, you cannot do as much as you can do on record. I guess I should accept the pros and cons of each situation and get the best from it.
You’ve talked about spirituality in relation to music and how it suggests that there is more to the music than just the music. Do you feel the way that people integrate music into their lives is somewhat different now than it might have been in times past, that it can be all aesthetics? That’s the energy I’ve mentioned, the note vibrates with the energy and the feeling of the musician, and you can feel the conviction, the life, the love of the musician if he cares. The same piece of music, played with the exact same instrument and musician, and microphones will sound different if he cares or not.
Also, to answer your question about the role of music, leaving the metaphysical for the anthropological or psychological point of view, it is true that there has been the birth of the aesthetics when music went from a collective expression to something related to the ego of the artist. Aesthetics makes you different, hence potentially better, every artist wants to be distinguished, and that’s an objective fact, I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong. But what we can say is before (and still today in some cultures) the music is done with humility in the research of something greater than you are. Trying to speak to gods for instance, you will show humility, your ego is not concerned. Aesthetics gets rid of humility, and in a way it’s good, because that’s the birth of “real” art, art as art, with no other purpose. Danger is superficiality, non-convinced poses, when aesthetics become a calculation more than a conviction. And both as a listener and as a performer. It’s cool to listen to this, it’s cool to make that kind of music, that’s a wrong motive. You should do what you truly believe in, what makes you vibrate the most.
What do you think are the most important differences for you as a musician now compared to when you first started making and/or releasing music? It changed for sure. I won’t speak of when I started to make music as it’s all blurry but starting to release music makes a way more visible reference point in time. First I’d say I think I know a tiny bit better what I’m doing now, I gained some experience that makes me, I think, a better musician. Some things haven’t changed, I didn’t loose my love for creation, I’m still very excited about making new music, and that’s positive after those few years, I hope I’ll never lose that. Whatever changed has been a very slow movement, on a daily basis, so it’s striking when all of sudden you think about the beginnings (if someone asks you this question in an interview), but other than that you don’t really sense it.
The other thing that changed is the level of recognition of a lot of artists who started in the same time and scene than me, more or less, like Sun Araw, Prince Rama, Eternal Tapestry now on Thrill Jockey, Ducktails, lot of those guys are rising up and it’s a good thing for every one of us, and it’s nice to see more and more people listening to their music. It’s kinda getting more serious in a way. We’ve all started with DIY limited tapes, recording on cheap 4 tracks and now some of us, and I don’t include myself of course, are amongst the leaders of modern music.
You’ve traveled pretty extensively around the world, for musical and personal reasons, and I was wondering what you think about the romanticisation of “the East” by “the west”? Do you think there is a misunderstanding there at all, or a willingness to see only what “we” want to see? I think the romanticization of the east by the west is the recognition of the things lost, a certain view of the world, of life, that is long gone here due to two millenniums of Christianity and two centuries of capitalism. It’s not really a misunderstanding I think, or only slightly, meaning that maybe we don’t understand the true reasons of our fascination and romanticization of those cultures, and in those I include not just the east but all “other” cultures, other than the west; African, Native Americans for instance. It is a romanticization because it’s not the answer. It’s not a perfect life they live, far from it, but we envy them with nostalgia I think. It’s like they live a life we’ve lost since Greek civilization fell apart. Connection with nature, simplicity of life and needs, simple desires, sense of community, to name a few of the differences. We go past the negative aspect to focus on a few things, those that our civilization has put aside and that we miss.
Related to that, how blurred do you think borders are now in terms of music and aesthetics? For instance, your music doesn’t sound French but people will obviously accept that you are French. Where you come from seems less important than ever to a lot of people. Well that example would be in my opinion a victory of music aesthetics in the sense that the aesthetics of the music matter the most, more than non relevant information regarding the creator of this music, such as genre, age, nationality. But it’s not as obvious as that, because in order to relay this to the previous question, people are not surprised because I come from a western country. It fits with this kind of music . Now if I was from a more exotic location, like Mongolia or Iran or Nepal for instance, people would be very surprised. So that shows more a sociological fact to me (that is the uniformity of the west), than a definitive victory of music creation over the creator in people’s interest. People don’t care that I’m French because it’s not interesting enough, my story isn’t interesting or surprising. But give me something special, like I’m blind or without legs, or my father is famous, or I’m from an exotic place, and then that would become the most important for some people, way more than the music. And maybe a cause for success in itself.
High Wolf plays Upstairs At Whelan’s this Friday, January 25th, with Magic Pockets & Cian Nugent.