By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious
An inherent tension exists between the organic and electronic elements in the music of Arthur Ashin.
Ashin, better known by his stage name of Autre Ne Veut – “I want no other” in French – deftly manipulates pitch and timbre in a way that shouldn’t work. His music careens from one extreme to another in a matter of seconds, an elasticity that pauses only so slightly along the spectrum to offer us an occasional glimpse of the transformations in process.
Across his latest album, Age of Transparency, a sense pervades that things might unravel at any moment, but the dynamics somehow manage to keep it all together. Ashin has created an aural world with steampunk elements, where chords resolve in unexpected places and pop sequences are sketched with bizarro shadings. It’s a gorgeous and challenging record; one that’s hard to walk away from without a degree of whiplash.
When I connect with Ashin in early October, he’s traveling a more linear route, headed east on Interstate 76. The stretch of road connects Colorado to Nebraska and eventually Chicago – a thousand-mile trek that will take the better part of his next two days.
“It’s been a nature-themed tour, really,” Ashin says of the tour, speaking from behind the wheel. “We started off on the West Coast and hung out in the Redwood Forest. We did some national parks out here in Colorado yesterday. It was all really beautiful.”
Ashin conveys an immediate warmth and openness. An attention to detail is evident in his interpersonal manner – he takes great pains to make sure that his entire focus is on our conversation and on my questions – and no stone is left unturned.
As he sits in a van somewhere in the outskirts of Denver, Ashin reminisces on their experiences the previous night at the Lost Lake Lounge.
“It’s a crazy town. Some of the band members smoked some weed, but I don’t,” he admits. “I don’t like how it makes me feel.”
This is possibly the least surprising statement from someone who makes the kind of music that Ashin does.
The focused, quiet intelligence Ashin radiates is clear even when relayed via satellites and frayed by static interference.
It’s been reported that Age of Transparency was originally conceived as a series of jazz sessions. What inspired that idea?
Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve always wanted the record to sound the way it does – at least in theory, not the specific way that it sounds. The intent was to create a record that had three phases: one being a more naturalistic one, which is the jazzier stuff; one being a pop paradigm; and the third being a more experimental and electronic part. The idea was always to create a hybrid. It was important that each of the three records could exist in and of itself without the others. The inspiration was built on my actual listening patterns, and it was important to play out each of those paradigms.
There was an area of jazz involved in this performance, and I just wanted to create a session version of this. We spent ten days with the Hazelrigg Brothers at Avatar Studios, and those sessions functioned as kind of “samples” for the formal recording of this album. The songs had been written and arranged in advance, and the music was pumped into the [studio] players’ ears while they were playing.
I guess the inspiration was that I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate some of that kind of stuff into what I had been doing for the last five years.
You’re doing some amazing things in terms of technique on all three parts of the album. Are you collaborating with people that you’ve been playing with a long time? Or does all of this stem from your own vision?
I mean, the record is from my vantage, for sure. I’ve been touring with two of the four people for about three and a half years – since whenever Anxiety came out. They [Cristi Jo Zambri and drummer Joe Stickney] perform and play on it. Everyone worked off the demos we made.
Then I added my buddy Chris [Madak] and my friend Rachel [Brotman] to play keyboards and bass – in reverse order, not the way I said it. [Laughs].
There are two types of act and influence on the record itself. This is my weird little baby project. [Laughs]
A lot of your visual aesthetic seems influenced by symbolism and, in particular, the works of Edvard Munch. What draws you to this kind of art?
You know, it’s hard to say. I think music videos are an interesting medium. I’ve worked on all of the videos with Allie Avital, who is a close friend of mine. We conceived of the videos together, but she’s really the brain behind the final product. We have a shared appreciation for Michael Haneke and early David Byrne works and Lars Von Trier. I think the idea is to look at the abject as kind of notions of horror but in a non-traditional horror method. It’s a really appealing idea to me.
We’re also trying to create singular, cool images, employing some things that are just bizarre. [Laughs] Most of the films that I like use music in a diegetic space, and there’s tension between music and what’s happening on the screen that becomes defiant of logic itself. I don’t know if you’ve seen “Funny Games”, but there’s something about the way the two young men who destroy the family’s lives keep putting on this piece by John Zorn [Naked City’s “Bonehead”], playing it while they’re walking around the house and following the family around.
It was an interesting task to try and conceive a video where we worked on fighting against traditional expectations of what would happen in a narrative. Let’s try to have all the human beings in this space, in real-time, on camera, and play with what’s supposed to happen.
I don’t know what draws me to that stuff. I guess they’re all things that feel more “real” or something, even though it’s all movie magic, including the record, you know? [Laughs] It’s nice to activate other feelings beyond sadness and happiness – broad feelings and more specific feelings. I think art should aspire to accentuate those things as much as any other things that large swathes of the population tend to like.
You once said that working with Software Recording gave you the freedom to focus on the traditional singer-songwriter aspects of making Anxiety. Why did you choose to move on from them and sign with Downtown Records?
Well, I wasn’t on contract for the last record with Software, which is part of the Mexican Summer family. It’s one of those things where Dan [Lopatin, founder of Software Recording Co.] and I are very old friends at this point; it’s over fifteen years of friendship. Initially, we thought we would work together on the first Autre Ne Veut record, but he was super busy leading up to the recording time, and I wrote a bunch of songs and wanted to move forward with them. I brought them in to Olde English Spelling Bee, and that first record just kind of happened. At the time, I thought I would be on that label – who released my first album – for the rest of my life, but that didn’t work out for reasons beyond my control.
You know, after you put out a record that people tend to like, you have more options that provide a greater sense of financial security, to be honest. [Laughs] The people at Software were actually really great, and we’re obviously still friends. They allowed me a lot greater degree of control to create a more malleable album on Anxiety. As far as I’m concerned, I was happy but I love the people at Downtown, as well. I have plenty of friends at Software and Mexican Summer but it was just a one-off arrangement, and I went out there and got an actual record deal. [Laughs]
You alluded to this earlier when you mentioned composing this album in three parts, but beyond that, how did making this album differ?
I definitely write songs the same way I always have. The self-titled album was probably the most idiosyncratic in how I wrote – I was writing and producing at the same time, every day. I was making that album using Reason and an SM-58 [microphone] and a shitty little MIDI controller, and just making songs in my bedroom in New York, and then I was in Upstate New York for a while. The thoughts were coming fast, but it was a shitty process. [Laughs] I ended up feeling like it made both things worse, because I wasn’t able to focus on either one of them totally at any point. But I was able to go to the studio and bring these songs to life.
On Anxiety, it was much easier because Daniel [Lopatin] and I were in our triangle – a live group and playing together often. We had a beat machine and were playing a bunch of MIDI data and then we’d tweak with that, giving us an immediate feeling on each song. I demoed that for basic direction and basic vocal tapes, and that led to the Avatar Sessions, which were the basis for this album.
For a while, we toyed with making a record in the vein or color of a jazz record, but I realized ultimately that was not what I wanted to do. That production technique was what worked for me. So, I spent another year tweaking with what we had created and fucked it all up. [Laughs] That was the creative process for Age of Transparency. [Laughs]
Do you feel like you benefit from being in New York and Brooklyn? Do you take any cues from being in a fertile artistic moment in time and space?
I think in a historical sense I do. I probably think more about the Velvet Underground or Television or their peers from that New York scene more than bands from any other era.
There are some of my contemporaries in the New York scene that I listen to, but I don’t really see them as influences for what I do. Most of the artists currently touring that I look to are Canadian, actually. I feel that I really enjoy the simplicity of what they write and the way they use space and silence. It pushes me to think a little bit more in that way, although that’s not my natural inclination. Lydia Ainsworth is one such artist – she has one record out right now, and I love what she’s doing. All her stuff is fucking brilliant in my mind
To be honest, Dan’s work is always something that I look to as a musician. He can just present ideas in such an idiosyncratic way, and he’s able to get at real emotionally salient shit while still maintaining that perpetual challenge of our expectations. That’s the kind of stuff that I listen to. Every record that I listen to has an element or two that I like, and I try to apply to my music. I guess I am inspired by people around me. [Laughs] I tend to think about it like “Wow, you did that thing with those drums. I want to do that too.” That’s the level that I’m focusing on – just little production tricks. That’s what gets me really excited. And pop music does it too, where ideas and little techniques just become widely adopted. I put a lot of energy into researching the details.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.