French experimental lo-fi folk duo Natural Snow Buildings play Upstairs at Whelan’s this Sunday. Ian Maleney talks to them about culture, country living and releasing five-hour long collections of songs.
Natural Snow Buildings have a reputation for disconnection. They are underground, issuing comically limited runs of CDs and tapes to an audience waiting with constantly baited breath. Facts are scarce but it is known they are a duo, Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte, and they are from Bourgogne in France. With their own releases beginning to see more and more reissues on fine indie labels, the word is spreading and now the duo have undertaken their first ever tour. How their earthy-yet-otherworldly lo-fi folk makes the transition to repeated live exposure will no doubt make for interesting and immersive experiences all along the tour’s path.
Some of your work, like Daughter Of Darkness, unfolds over a very long duration, several hours in many cases. What kind of experience do you expect the listener to have over such a long listening course?
Well, it’s something that happens when we play in a live setting, structure built by the interaction of the two of us improvising, and we like long, unfolding songs, epic movements, sounds that would take its time to modify something deeply in the listener’s mind. Daughter of Darkness… is a particular case, it was almost a provocation: with more than five hours, you have to immerse yourself in it. It can be a pleasant experience or a very unpleasant one, you can let it enter your listening space. You can also shrug it, pretending that’s just shitty noise, but you have to deal with it. The fact that everything was improvised and served without any edits was very important for us at the time, while most of our production was, uh, pop-like produced (with composed and overdubbed parts). It was some kind of affirmation, so five hours sounded appropriate.
The sheer amount of music you’ve released in a very short time is quite staggering to someone quite new to your work like myself, and you’ve talked before about music just being something you do every day. How much of what you do is habit and do you find it difficult at all to stop yourself slipping into familiar rhythms or ideas?
But the familiarity is what we can call our style, the very core of our musical practice, so familiarity is reassuring in way. And in a society where you are constantly hammered with so called “newness” and innovations, the sudden revolution in one’s music sounds like commercial arguments. We still produce songs that we are pretty satisfied with, and as artist we tend to see the differences between different songs that would seem similar to an outside listener. I don’t know, there’s definitely a pattern to the way we are producing music, but breaking it too fast would be like a radical change of language: would you still be understood?
You seem quite inspired by a variety of cultures, I was wondering how you feel about working with material from all over the world and how careful you are to not appropriate things in an over-casual manner? I was thinking it might be easier for you than others because you don’t seem to be of a particular (national) culture, artistically at least.
We don’t claim other cultures (i.e. the culture different from the ones we grew up in) as ours, that would be some sort of imperialism; it’s just something that is important in our balance. The reality plan we live in would be crippled without the glimpses of the multiplicity of reality that cultural perspectivism creates. And, despite the fact that there are cultural elements that are universals, (we share the same cognitive material after all, whatever the culture we grew in), it’s important to keep some weirdness, and to accept it not because you can absorb it but because you will never absorb it or erase its specificity in an illusion of total understanding. It’s the same with our own culture; we feel strange in our own country, we laugh about that, but “where is the mothership?” is a sentence we often say to each other. So, in a way we need that prism, built from a variety of world visions, to defract reality. Don’t know if we’re making sense. We think we just let those cultures impregnate our work in a – don’t like this word but will use it – unconscious way. It’s more like how extraneous cultural elements sneak their way into your own world vision, I guess.
There is a contemporary tendency to wish ourselves out of modern life and back towards an innocent infancy, something often typified by a return to simple, country living or de-politicized works of art. To me, this feels like quite a dangerous train of thought. How do you feel your own music and art stay relevant to contemporary life or do you feel that it doesn’t matter?
You mean people escaping city life to go back to nature, sounds like a cliché, eh? But why should country living be considered anti-contemporary? Why should noise music be confined to urban spaces considered the only modern space? For us, living on the country side is the more close we can imagine to some sort of lo-fi/DIY aesthetic and way of life. Country is also synonymous with empty spaces. As artists it’s important to face solitude and isolation in our own living environment.
Building on that last question, it is often quite easy to render the countryside/nature as naïve or innocent in art but I feel your own work goes to some lengths to engage with the darker side of the natural world. Is that balance important for you?
Yeah, we are more interested in the survival connection you’ll have with your environment than some sort of fantasized harmony with nature. We don’t think there’s naïveté or innocence in what we called nature.
There is a bit of a tendency for ambient music (in whatever form) to take itself quite seriously, if only because the people making it don’t often have a chance to speak in a way that can reflect their funnier sides, perhaps with the exception of song titles. Is it important to you to stay aware of yourselves and your contemporaries and to be able to laugh at yourselves?
We’re afraid we can’t explain our twisted sense of humour (well, grotesque) but, yeah, the artwork of our records should be a nice hint about it too (giant rabbits, man). We don’t feel we belong to a “serious” genre of music, you know like ambient or experimental music, which could be worse for us, because hey, we are not that serious and we barely have the theoretical background to justify our belonging to this genre; despite the fact that we really dig as listener what’s called experimental or avant-garde music. If you asked us right now what genre of music we feel we belong to, how to classify it, we would say lo-fi, which would the less serious musical genre in the world! Four-track recordings? Come on…
Finally, what do you get out of live performance? What elements of it do you enjoy (or not), and what do you feel you achieve by doing it?
Well, that’s interesting to build entirely your day toward the perspective of performing music in public every night. That’s what we enjoy the most, this focus.
Natural Snow Buildings play Upstairs at Whelan’s on Sunday 11th March with Be Honest.