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Automelodi is Modern Music for Malcontents

We premiered the new video from Automelodi and interviewed Xavier Paradis about radio's obsession with dropping the bass.

As the current crop of cold/rave/whatever-wave electronic acts have shown, there are a ton of ways to go about making “synth” music in 2014. You could throw witch house/R&B into the mix a la oOoOO, dip into 90's pop/dance like Trust, even wade into the overcrowded kiddie pool of EDM, where Avicii and company are currently bathing the charts in their golden streams. Many other underground analog synth-ists are content to throw a 606 beat and some dour basslines together at a serotonin-deficient pace and call it a day, but that's not how Montreal's (by way of Quebec City and NYC) Automelodi go about things. After releasing CDRs in the late 90s/early 2000's as Arnaud Lazlaud, frontman Xavier Paradis started over as Automelodi in 2009, bypassing “goth” in favour of a chilly, Eurocentric take on new romantic pop. Released on NYC's Wierd Records, a haven for post-punk indebted and guitar-friendly synth groups, several songs from 2010's self-titled album were positively chipper, at times sounding like a 60's pop indebted OMD.

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On the other hand, the bitter undercurrent of 2013’s “Surlendemains Acides” (Electric Voice Records) makes it an ideal soundtrack to driving a motorcycle way too fast down a secluded highway in total darkness. It's easy to imagine the visuals to “Digresse” as the ennui-stricken lead in a Leos Carax film, indifferently ashing his cigarette, waxing cynical about l'amour over the song’s found-sound clattering. Though the new record exudes its fair share of malaise, in concert Automelodi are far from stilted or morose. Guitarist Simon Yupiktake trades between strumming and viciously beating MIDI drum pads, while Paradis is a dreamy blur, as the Italo disco-infused machine beats grab you by the collar and demand you move your mopey ass.

And yes, the vast majority of Automelodi's lyrics are sung/whispered/hissed in French, which may read as foreign to Anglophones but doesn’t dampen the lustful urgency of the songs whatsoever. While the sounds are familiar, this isn’t a retro-fest, and on a playlist Automelodi’s strikingly danceable tracks would fit snugly between Twin Shadow and M83 with nary a raised eyebrow. We spoke to Xavier Paradis about the new LP (vinyl out this month), a European tour in September, and why you can't turn on a radio in 2014 without being the victim of a severe bass-dropping.

Surlendemains Acides is a markedly more aggressive record than the self-titled LP, songs like “Digresse” have a colder, claustrophobic feel. What inspired this shift?
Xavier Paradis: I think musically speaking, coldness is a very debatable concept: it really depends on one’s emotional, cultural and sensory perspective. I personally feel this album is quite warm…more so than the previous one, actually. It is a rather dramatic and confrontational type of warmth, though. This partly emanates from my choice of a very spontaneous composition process, in order to catalyse the somewhat violent and disenchanted emotional landscape I was going through around that time.

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There seem to be themes of disconnection and identity crisis popping up often in your songs, especially on the new LP. Aesthetically, what are you trying to get across?
I guess these themes have just been slightly more present throughout my human experience. Even though it isn’t more valuable than any other human’s experience, I chose a certain way of expressing it. In a broader perspective, though, I think now is a good time to convey raw, human feelings (however ugly these can be) through music, because there might be very little time left to do so. If you analyze lyrics in various “underground” musical genres from the 70s and 80s, it’s easy to notice an almost ubiquitous fear of “dehumanization”, often presented through a sci-fi inspired lens. It turns out dehumanization is happening in a much less spectacular, but much more perverse and cynical way nowadays. The “future” in which we live today often looks like the ruins of what was advertised during the twentieth century, yet the shadows of Orwell and Huxley can still be found lurking in at least 75 percent of news headlines. The robot factories are running at capacity, but the robots won’t be made of steel. Alas, very few will notice. The others are either dying or just too busy taking selfies of themselves eating something “organic”.

Samuel Beckett wrote in French to bypass familiarity and linguistic conventions, to write “without style”. You're bilingual, is there a similar motivation behind almost all of your lyrics being sung in French?
I think I can say "au contraire" here. Although I respect Beckett’s approach, my motivation behind singing in French is probably the exact opposite. Even though I am technically bilingual, my relationship with the English language is still mostly a functional one. In terms of poetry, the crux of my inspiration is still mostly nestled within the French vocabulary and cultural perspective. Within this chosen language, that deeply-rooted perspective allows me to differentiate sensibility and inspiration from familiarity and linguistic conventions…I’ll be the first to admit that my English lyrics face a bigger risk of sounding conventional.

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You've listed Automelodi's genre as “Impossible Folk Music”. What does “folk” mean to you? Do you see yourself ever pulling a Frank Tovey and making a more traditionally “folk” record?
I simply think most of the songs I’ve written for Automelodi are part of a long tradition of popular lyrical expression, even though my choice of instrumentation is not yet widely accepted as “traditional”. Also, I totally embrace the post-modern nature of my music. I am certainly not trying to create electronic music as a way of bringing the “future” to the masses. Bands such as Kraftwerk did a splendid job with that during the 70s/80s but for me that concept expired somewhere in the mid-90s. I am simply one of the many cultural witnesses to the somewhat dystopian era in which we live. Noise surrounds and penetrates us like the air we breathe, nowadays. The buzz and flicker of a dying neon sign is music to my ears. It’s like a sad swan song, in a society based on programmed obsolescence. Using electronics is just a logical way of musically re-interpreting this environment, and this is, per se, a folkloric process.

Having released music back when post-grunge bands like Creed were king, are you surprised at the synth-centric pop charts and musical underground of today?
I am not surprised (and not easily impressed either). There are inevitable fashion cycles of course, but I think what we’ve been witnessing in recent years is partly due to “rock” culture and its (mostly white male dominated) cultural baggage inevitably becoming less and less relevant. Even though teenagers during the 90s were massively influenced by a certain nostalgia for rock n’ roll’s “golden age”, you can’t expect teenagers of today to spontaneously relate to cultural values and icons from the 50s, 60s and 70s at the same level. Meanwhile, technology keeps evolving. It is now possible to produce a hit track with a cheap laptop and it just seems logical that a large part of the “digital native” generation will be attracted to that option as a form of expression. Back when I started, in the early nineties, producing music with synthesizers and (the then not so user-friendly) computers was still a somewhat eccentric, almost “nerdy” choice to make. Some of my teenage friends thought I was a bit of a lunatic for trying to build a home-studio in my parent’s house basement. Nowadays, making electronic music seems almost as natural and casual as a teenage Elvis walking to school with a guitar on his back.

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Though you handle the production yourself, as Automelodi you collaborate and play live with a variety of musicians. What effect does this have on the overall sound?
I’ve been collaborating with five different guitar players since the early days of Automelodi so of course it makes a certain difference guitar-wise. These collaborations are not strictly musical: guitarist Simon Yupiktake is also a talented visual artist and photographer. We had a great time working together on that pseudo-Ikebana concept for the record sleeve. Then my friend JB Valiquette (who also lent me one of his synths and the TR-808 during the recording session) helped a lot with the graphic layout.

It's a good time to be into minimal synth music, with bands like Oppenheimer Analysis getting their due, and labels like Dark Entries re-issuing classic records and introducing new bands. What are you excited about currently?
Not necessarily “minimal” synth music actually. I’ve recently re-discovered my interest for a certain wave of Japanese composers who were doing very interesting work around the time the first digital sampling systems such as the Fairlight CMI became available. Sakamoto is obviously the most famous example here but there were many others. There are also newer bands doing exciting music: Montreal’s Essaie Pas and Nouveau Zodiaque, Ottawa’s “Violence” or Berlin’s Keluar… As a musician, I never really cared about whether my productions should sound either “cold” or “minimal”, and I can sense that common trait with these aforementioned artists. Beyond the fact that we’re all using analog electronics to a certain extent, the main idea is to develop a personal sound which is not (in my opinion) strictly based on sonic experimentation, but also dependent of a certain human element and lyrical atmosphere.

There's a European tour being cooked up for late September/October of this year. How do European audiences differ in terms of reception to your music and live show? Anything you'd like to add about the tour or the new LP?
It seems European audiences and promoters are slightly more organized when it comes to inviting or supporting touring bands/artists, especially within specialized music circles. It’s not uncommon for music fans to travel to another country for a festival or just a concert. Of course, the distances are a bit more practicable between major cities, plus they have fabulous inventions such as this thing called a “train”, which has never been properly implemented in our under-developed North-American countries.

Concerning the LP - which comes out almost a year behind schedule because of lengthy pressing-plant delays - I’m glad people will finally get a chance to listen to it the way it was meant to be heard. My focus was clearly more on songwriting on this one… I certainly don’t see it as an experimental record, but it has a rather dense lyrical structure which unfolds quite well in the context of a continuous side A / side B listen. That’s why the vinyl was so important for me this time.

Patrick Short is a writer and synth musician living in Toronto - @KindestCuts