Founded in September 2011, French experimental rock trio BIEN À TOI have recently released their debut record “Alta Loma”, widely considered “post rock” for many reasons, but also revealing a whole lot of different areas of sonic art. Having a subtle jazz influence, their debut full length offering is brilliant guitar sounds, original drumming and sensible grooves. The world needs to hear this record, so here’s a good chance. Play it and scroll down to read my interview with Antoine Larrey, the guitarist BIEN À TOI!
ALTA LOMA, BIEN À TOI’s debut album, is a genre-bending instrumental piece offering a fantazised world-view, a sensorial quest of redeeming transcendence.
Based in Paris, BIEN À TOI is the result of a long friendship between Esteban Avellan, Antoine Larrey and Paul Péchenart. After a first EP, ‘Diriger, séduire, convaincre’ (‘To lead, to seduce, to convince’) in 2012, and a second one, ‘La Faiblesse’ (‘Weakness’) in 2013, BIEN À TOI embarks on a new journey With ALTA LOMA, recorded in a week in September 2014, the group becomes solely instrumental. While expanding and refining their sound, they decide that voice has no place in their music anymore : an absence that doesn’t create a lack, and makes way for a new style, primal and universal.
A constant forward motion, made of juxtaposed layers of sound, in which massive rhythm sections and acoustic textures come together. Often spontaneously affiliated to post-rock, BIEN À TOI doesn’t relate to it and feels more familiar with the urgent aspect of the post-punk genre, but with distorted, elongated structures. The band has progressively developped a rich identity, with acoustic layers reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins, dissonant phases à la Sonic Youth, and even the physical and transcendental experience of repetitive music such as Swans.
This physical experience relies on the sensory evocation of a scorching heat, a faint vision in a mirage. The title of the album, a reference to the novel Ask the Dust by John Fante, is the reflection of this idea : the main character, Arturo Bandini, wanders around in the streets under the burning Los Angeles sun, and raves alone in his room at the Alta Loma Hotel. A writer in search for glory, a self-proclaimed genius and starving artist, Bandini is the figure of a man beat down by a modern world that he never asked to live in.
BIEN À TOI conceives a musical haven — one in which we could forget ourselves and get lost — as a redeeming exercise. The visual representation of this would be the album’s artwork, a painting by Felice Casorati : the drowsiness of these naked women sleeping in the shade symbolizes the search for an escape. If you question the band about their intentions during the making ALTA LOMA, they will tell you that they have but one goal : to make you dance and cry at the same time. Cathartic.
Hey guys! So, your debut album is out today! It sounds really impressive! How does it feel to have finally out and how hard was the path that led you to this release?
This release day came with a lot of mixed feelings. It is of course a joyful thing to finally have your work out into the world, and we are excited about people being able to experience the world of ALTA LOMA. On the other end, by the time your album comes out, typically you have heard it dozens of times during the mixing & mastering process, and it almost becomes something that you want to leave behind. Today we are looking ahead and already thinking about the next steps – putting together a new live set, giving birth to new ideas. Finally it seems that we can move forward to the next thing.
Now, about the path that lead to ALTA LOMA… When the band was formed in late 2011, we actually never planned to be an instrumental band. We tried a couple of singers back then but nothing seemed to work, so even though the songs from the first EP were initially composed with the intent to have voice added to them, they were recorded instrumentally. You can still hear a few distant screams on our first releases, which came from the band’s first drummer, but these were treated as an additional instrument.
For some time we tried to figure out how to deal with the role of each instrument, the question of voice came a few times. Around the release of our second EP “La Faiblesse” in 2013, we parted ways with our former drummer and it was decided to continue without these screaming interventions. A new balance was found and therefore, ALTA LOMA is the result of that process of becoming a 100% instrumental band.
Is there some kind of a concept that runs throughout the album? Tell me about some of your visions and ideas visualized through this music. Also, what’s behind the idea of this abstract Rubens-inspired cover art?
The idea that runs throughout the album is the sensorial evocation of heat : a heavy sun, distorted visions in a mirage… The title itself is a reference to the novel Ask the Dust by John Fante : the main character Bandini is a starving writer wandering in the streets of Los Angeles under the burning sun, and raving alone in his room at the Alta Loma Hotel. He is a man struggling to find his place in a modern world, looking for an escape. The album cover, a painting by Felice Casorati, would be the visual representation of this escape : a haven away from the sun and the weight of the world. Looking at this painting you can almost feel the heat that we want to evoke.
What was he running away from?
He’s a character full of contradictions, hoping for success but despising his peers’ mediocre existences, sharply feeling the weight of the world and the sad destiny of men. I think ultimately he’s running away from an empty life.
Apart from music, what other forms of art do you consume? Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
You’ll find completely opposite profiles within the band regarding art interest. Paul is 100% music obsessed while I tend to ingest a lot of different things, mostly painting and photography. Due to my work as a visual artist and tattooer, image is very important to me. Esteban would be a more balanced profile. But these different sources never actually come into play while writing songs, at least not consciously. When we write, sound is all that matters and the process is quite instinctive, more abstract I guess. We’d never actually say “let’s write a song about this book” but you’d hear things like “this part has to be like a cold blade”. The references to art come afterwards, when finding the titles, designing the artwork, doing a video… They help bring a context, an aesthetic to the whole.
How about books? How often do you read? Do you have any personal favorite authors, or authors you would dub as essential reading this year?
I don’t read nearly as much as I would like to… but my personal literary hero is Charles Bukowski, especially his poetry. He belongs to the same breed of authors as John Fante : raw and full of life, every line feels like a gamble. Most of the works are swamped with alcohol and poverty, but ultimately overflow with hope and warmth. The title “Ice for the eagles” actually comes from one of his poems.
Ok then, back to the music, what did the final recording sound like in comparison to your early sketches of the tracks? Please explain your recording process for “Alta Loma”.
Well, it was all recorded pretty quickly. 6 days for 10 songs (only 8 ended up on the album), but there’s a lot of layering going on in the album, and most songs have these elaborate structures, so sometimes it would feel like recording two or three songs instead of one. For guitars especially, there was a lot to record, basically there was no time to over-think anything at this stage. We had done home demos for the songs before going into the studio, so we’d start each day with a big list of parts to record and just get on with it.
Then we actually spent a bit more time mixing than recording, it took some trial & error to find what we wanted, the right balance between “raw” and “deep”. Basically with mixing decisions you can change the whole mood of a song, especially with instrumental music, so it was all carefully thought out : “what’s the color of this part?”, “which instrument should be put forward here?”. I personally think that mixing is one of the most creative stages and also a challenge. You have your raw recorded material and it’s a limitation in itself, because this is it, this is what you have in your hands, and you must turn it into this coherent whole. Due to this, in comparison to the early demos, some of the moods changed : when you listen to what you have recorded, new ideas can emerge.
How did other artists influence your writing process? Do you always try to somehow differentiate your compositions from the vast ocean of other recordings?
As far as influences are concerned… I think ours are diverse enough to not be too obvious. We never have a conscious intent to sound like a specific band or to fit into a genre, but in a creative process you’re always influenced, even subconsciously. If you take part of something, not the whole, and mix it with many different sources, it becomes your own thing somehow. ( “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, all is transformed”). In the end we are just doing what we like and what comes naturally.
Ok guys, so how do you release this record? Tell me about your approach to putting records independently and with a support of a label.
Quite simply, for now we haven’t been offered support from a label that we could identify with, so we’d rather do things and move forward than wait for a better opportunity. In this case that meant releasing the album ourselves.
What happens when music goes entirely digital? What future do you see for physical formats of music?
Well, as a band we still like to have physical versions of our releases because it’s a direct connection that we have to our audience. Especially for a small band like us selling our own merch, if a person comes to our show and has a good time, he can get the record hand-to-hand and we get to have a conversation. The guy leaves happy and we get to put gas in the car to go to the next city. I think it’s good to have something that you can hold in your hand and say “I made this”. In this digital era, things seem to be too abstract sometimes.
Ok guys, your work seems to be a perfect material for a live experience. Do you like the way these compositions are translated in a live show?
We love to play live, although we don’t necessarily feel the need to play every song just because it’s been recorded. We kind of treat the studio and the live aspects as separate things. As I mentioned earlier, some of the recorded songs have a lot of layering and these don’t always translate well in a simpler live setting. So we don’t hesitate to change the arrangements or ditch a song altogether if we’re not “feeling it” when rehearsing. There’s a raw quality to our live show, it’s quite loud which is something in itself, allowing us to use the physicality of music as a strength on its own. For the tour we are about to embark on, we have a minimal setlist including our oldest song that we have completely reworked. It’s all about the atmosphere and showing who we are as a band today, rather than doing an exhaustive review of our discography.
Great! That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Ok guys, so what can we expect from your live show? Do you try to visualize your work somehow? Will there be a lot of touring in support of “Alta Loma”?
It’s pretty raw, direct. For now we are playing small venues so we don’t have a fancy stage design or anything. Just a band filling the room with sound. The shows can be quite savage as well, we are putting a lot of physical energy into the performances. I hope the audiences get to feel something physically as well, the set we are working on will be heavy and hypnotic. Right now we are planning to tour as much as possible until the end of the year, to bring Alta Loma everywhere we can.
Ok gentlemen, I guess that’s all for now. Would you like to add anything before we sign off?
Thanks to anyone showing interest in our project. We hope to meet you somewhere along the way.
Thanks a lot for your time! Cheers!
BIEN À TOI on tour:
15.07 PARIS @La Mécanique Ondulatoire
19.07 ST-GERMAIN-LA-POTERIE @House show
20.07 AMIENS @Concert privé
21.07 FOLKESTONE (UK) @The Harp Restrung
22.07 ROUEN @Le 3 Pièces
23.07 NANTES @Le Chien Stupide
27.07. MARSEILLE @La Salle Gueule
28.07 DIJON @Deep Inside
29.07 HAZEBROUCK @Shaka Laka