The first time I saw Alcest play was in 2010, in a small, very crowded room in a then up-and-coming (ish) neighborhood in Philadelphia called Fishtown. It was the French post-black metal band's first North American tour, and they were a little nervous. Onstage at Kung Fu Necktie, the trio of founding guitarist and vocalist Neige, drummer Winterhalter, and live guiarist/vocalist Zero seemed a bit overwhelmed by the crowd pressing up against the foot-high stage, but they got into the zone soon enough, and the music flowed as gracefully and beautifully as it did on their then-current album, Écailles de Lune. I’d booked the gig, so at the end of the night, we all tramped back to my friend Diana’s house in West Philly and stayed up way too late quaffing the nice booze and red wine they’d magicked out of their van (a rare luxury for a couple of grubby college kids like us).
It was the perfect end to an excellent evening, and a memory that was very much on my mind as I stood before the stage at last weekend’s Prophecy Festival and watched the trio—now joined by live bassist Indria—prepare to play Écailles de Lune in its entirety for the first time. The festival took place inside a massive, beautifully lighted Stone Agecave called Balver Höhle (Balve Cave) that cast a fairytale ambiance over the proceedings. I honestly can’t imagine a better place to see Alcest, a band that came into being when founder Neige first tried to put his feelings of being caught between this world and another, more eldritch place into music.
Since that first North American run, the past six years has seen the band’s profile rise considerably—after the commercial and critical success of their ensuing albums (2012’s Les Voyages de l’Âme and 2014’s Shelter), as well as of Écailles itself (there’s no way you’d see them at a venue that small now!). Next month, on September 30, Prophecy Productions will release Alcest’s new album, Kodama, on which Neige & co. promise to revisit their heavier, darker roots—to circle back to Écailles de Lune, and view those ghosts of the past through a much different lens.
"Kodama" is the Japanese word for "tree spirit," and spotlight's Neige's ldeep-seated interest in Japanese art and culture as well as his career-long fascination with the concept of duality (as well as a hefty The Cure influence!). When I spoke to Neige and Winterhalter backstage at Prophecy Fest, I hadn’t heard the new album yet; now that I have, I’ve got to say that it does bring back that same feeling I got from Écailles de Lune, without sacrificing the strides the band has made in its rich explorations of cinematic shoegaze and post-rock.
A North American tour is in the works for later down the road, but for now, you can check out a new song, “Oiseaux de Proie,” below, and read on for my conversation with Neige and Winterhalter. We talk about how Japanese anime inspired the new album, that pesky “blackgaze” tag, supportive parents, and the nature of chasing perfection.
Noisey: How did they convince you to do that whole record in its entirety?
Neige: For every band that played the festival they asked them to do a special show—either a full record, acoustic, or with some special musicians. For us we didn’t really have the time to do a full acoustic thing so we decided to play this record. It sounded like a good idea and it was a good location to try these songs.
It’s been awhile since you’ve played those songs; how hard was it to prepare for this?
Neige: It’s been six years! We had to practice and rehearse a lot to find the guitar parts again, so it was a bit of work, but I think the show was good.
Winterhalter: The cave is amazing; when you’re on stage and you see all these people in a cave, it’s very strange actually.
Neige: And it actually fits with the theme of the album, because it’s actually about the abyss, and the ocean, and the death of the ocean, and it was almost like being inside a cave in the ocean. It was cool. On the new record, the drums were recorded in a big mansion; we’re rehearsing there in the attic, and it’s huge—it’s like three hundred square meters, and we used natural reverb because it has a very deep sound.
How are you going to get that big sound when you play those songs live?
Winterhalter: [Laughs] We really don’t know. It’ll be kind of a challenge, but we’re confident!
This record is different conceptually, too—it still follows the Alcest tradition of channeling otherwordly spirits, but this time, it’s got a pronounced Japanese influence. Where did that come from?
Neige: It’s an album about [the] confrontation of the natural world and the human world. The concept of the album came after I watched [Hayao Miyazaki's anime film] Princess Mononoke; [in the film] it’s exactly that idea, of the two different worlds that try to live together. They struggle, and I think we are really busy taking care of our little programs that we forget there is another world around us that is being neglected. Nature always inspires us, and also it has kind of an urban side because I’m living in the city; it’s like a mix of very mortal things and very spiritual things.
What made you want to go back to this heavier sound? You guys veered into more melodic prog over the last couple of records but this one sounds like it’ll be a bit darker, a bit closer to your roots. Why now?
Neige: I think we couldn’t have gone even softer then we went, because Shelter was the softest record we have done. We wanted to go back to something a bit more punchy, because at the time we felt this need, in a very natural way, because after such a mellow record, you want to make something a bit more punchy.
Neige live at Prophecy Fest / Photo by Dajana Winkel
It’s going to be interesting seeing the reaction to this record, because when your first few records came out, nobody really sounded like you, and now at this point so many bands have ripped you off, or been inspired by you.
Neige: That’s true; when we started there were not many bands doing this thing, and now, for me the first band that I really liked in this genre was Deafheaven, because I think they made it really good—this black metal shoegaze thing— but lots of bands are not so good at it. There’s effects and things, but a good song is not based on guitar pedals—it’s all about how to build a song, and how to make catchy melodies and stuff.
Is that a title that makes sense to you? Blackgaze?
We had all kinds of names; it’s labels that people try to give to this music, but if they choose blackgaze, it’s okay. I guess they have to find a name for this genre.
In the beginning, we were labeled as “gay,” because the melodies are very fragile and the imagery we have is very different from metal imagery; we stand behind this, though, it’s a part of our universe. In the beginning, when people tried to ask me what was the link between Alcest and black metal, I would say that we share the same taste for spirituality because I think black metal is a very spiritual music, but Alcest is on the bright side—it’s very uplifting, and black metal is darker, but actually we share the same taste for things that are beyond this world.
Are you spiritual people?
Neige: Me, yes, I think [Winterhalter], too; we have a strong connection with nature.
How does that translate into the Japanese spirits that you’re talking about on this record?
Neige: First, I love Japanese culture; I’ve loved everything about Japan since I was a little kid, because in France, we've got a lot of Japanese animation and we grew up with that, so in a way, it left something with people in my generation, like a kind of connection. When we came to Japan to play, it was really something special; we did acoustic shows in temples. So this and the fact that I think that some of the Asian countries—especially Japan—they keep a very strong connection to spirituality, and it’s quite interesting to see how they mix their modern life with the traditional and the spiritual, as opposed to [what we see in] Christian countries. I don’t like that type of spirituality; I feel more of a connection to the Asian culture. For me, it’s more true and normal than Europe.
I don’t think a lot of people in France have a strong connection with nature. But [the album] is not really about nature, it’s about this feeling that I’ve had and been trying to express in the lyrics where I feel like I don’t belong to this place—the feeling of being a stranger. There is a song called “Je Suis D'Ailleurs” which means “I’m from somewhere else,” and a lot of lyrics on there are about this, where I feel like I’m here but I don’t feel like home here, I have my home somewhere else.
Does creating this music make you feel like you’re getting closer to finding that home?
Neige: Yeah, sure, that’s the main goal. It’s what I’m doing since I’m fourteen. In the beginning, I was alone, then Winterhalter joined me, and that’s the whole concept of the band—this idea that this is not the only place for us. The point with nature and why we spoke about nature is that when you’re in nature, you kind of have to find a connection with this alien side; I’m sure a lot of people are very old souls and when you are in nature, it helps you connect with part of your soul that you don’t necessarily know or feel very close to in an urban context.
Winterhalter: It’s also about the fact that, okay, I’m talking about nature, but do I do the right things for nature? I’m just like everyone, so it’s also speaking about our weaknesses and how it’s hard to act. Neige: It’s funny, because if I spend too much time in the city, I’m a little bit crazy and I want to be in nature, and if I spend too much time in nature I miss the city, so that is the duality, these two worlds that you try to live in together and it’s very hard. That’s the connection where Princess Mononoke came in. [Neither of the characters ] is the evil one, they both have flaws; it’s just trying to live together.
Alcest at Prophecy Fest / Photo by Dajana Winkel
So when you're writing songs together, especially for this album, did you talk about the deeper ideas and themes behind it or do you write the songs first and then get into what they mean?
Neige: No, I’m writing the music and the lyrics, and we’re working on the drums [together] and the structure too; basically, I’m bringing the melodies on everything, and we are listening to it, sharing thoughts, changing it, but that’s it, really.
I guess it’s kind of always been in your head since the beginning.
Neige: Yeah, I started when I was fourteen, and for many years I was alone. I recorded the drums myself in my parents house, and then Winterhalter came to record with me, and he was a much better drummer than me, so it was good to have him involved! It really took some years for us to be in the same boat. It’s such a special band.
We come from two different music cultures; he’d show me things, then I would show him things, he’s into the 70s bands like Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, and First and Second Wave black metal; and for me I’m into coldwave, shoegaze, grunge, maybe a bit more modern things. We don’t have the same taste, but it’s always interesting and I’m actually trying to get into his music more and more. I think on this album there was a very good energy and good connection between us.
It’s my baby; it’s something I’ve had for a while.
It’s your life’s work! How old are you now?
More than half of your life is Alcest. How long do you want to keep doing it? Until you find that place you belong?
I don’t think it will happen. As a musician, you always try to find perfection, but perfection doesn’t exist, so you always find flaws in what you are doing; I’m not able to listen to Alcest too much because I’m only focusing on the flaws. I’m always hoping to make the perfect album, because I know it’ll never happen but it’s a good thing, because once you make the perfect album, you stop.
What do your parents think about your band?
Winterhalter: My parents are here actually at the festival, I was seeing them in the audience! It’s really cool, they’re very supportive. Our family house is like a second home to Alcest. They really enjoy the music and all the people in the band. When they can, they come see us play.
Neige: It took them a long time for them to take me seriously as a musician—it took some years. I had kind of a confrontational relationship with them, because I started making music very early and I guess they were a bit scared I couldn’t do something serious with my life, but when they saw it was actually working out, they started to get interested in the band and support me. And now they come to see us and support me, but, they were worried. And you know there's a thing between fathers and sons, when your father doesn't support you, you want to prove him wrong; it gives you the energy to think, "Okay, they don't see the point, they don't trust me? They will see!"
It seemed like it worked out just fine. Do you guys have day jobs, or are you just Alcest?
Neige: We’re just Alcest, it’s not like we’re rich or anything, but we’re surviving—it’s a daily job.
Wnterhalter: And you can do what you want, so it’s pretty cool!
Catch Alcest on tour with Mono in Europe later this fall:
Nov 9th – Southampton, UK @ The Engine Rooms
Nov 10th – Birmingham, UK @ The Institute
Nov 11th – Leicester, UK @ Queens Hall
Nov 12th – Glasgow, UK @ Classic Grand
Nov 13th – Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
Nov 14th – Manchester, UK @ Gorilla
Nov 15th – Cardiff, UK @ The Globe
Nov 16th – Bristol, UK @ Marble Factory
Nov 17th – London, UK @ Brixton Electric Kim Kelly is still jet-lagged on Twitter.