Sep 05, 2008, 05:26AM

INTERVIEW: Benoît Pioulard

With a new album set to come out on Kranky Records in October, Thomas Meluchen talks about his exotic pseudonym, making music for an indie label, and lo-fi recording in a digital age.

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I used to see Thomas Meluchen, aka Benoît Pioulard, walking around Ann Arbor with a camera dangling from his neck, or climbing a tree in the Arboretum, but it took a while to make the connection between the soft-spoken naturalist and the painstakingly-crafted lo-fi 7”s people were always asking about at the record store. Consequently, the reserved artiste released one of my favorite records from 2006, Précis, which sounded like The Jesus and Mary Chain in a log cabin in Petoskey during a power outage. Last year he released a 12” on Type and scored Meshes of the Afternoon for legendary avant garde filmmaker Maya Deren. Now, he’s got his sophomore effort for Kranky, Temper, ready to hit stores on October 14, and if the video for “Idyll” is any indication, it’s his best work yet. I exchanged a few e-mails with him while he was between sojourns to the forest and concerts with Jonas Mekas.

SPLICE TODAY: How and why did you choose the Benoît Pioulard moniker?

BENOÎT PIOULARD: It’s more as though the name chose me, I’d say; the recordings I made as a teenager never had a name as such, since their distribution was strictly limited to friends and family, and I never felt comfortable putting my given name on them for whatever reason. When a friend’s label was actually interested in a couple of things I’d made back in 2004, I kind of had to apply a pseudonym to them, and in one of my notebooks was written Benoît Pioulard, something I’d scribbled down in the middle of the night a while before…it jumped at me and ended up sticking.

ST: Has working at Ghostly International influenced your sound?

BP: It’s been some time since I actually worked there, though when I did its main influence was on my sense of the music game, rather than on my music itself. My experiences there led me to be aware of what to expect and what not to expect from a small-scale independent release, and by the time Kranky were prepared to sign me to a deal (totally unrelated, mind) I was fortunate to have a decently realistic perspective about it.

ST: How’d you put together Précis, more specifically, how’d you get it to sound like that (recording process, etc)?

BP: The album was recorded entirely at home with a rather minimal setup of one microphone, a couple of tape decks, single-input mixer and iMac. I’m by no means a tech head, and in fact my mind operates best with programs that act like the four-track I used for years, even though now I’m assembling songs with 20-30 parts each. As for the sound, some of the noise is a natural artifact of my total lack of professionalism, and some of it is intentional in the construction of an atmosphere. Once I finished actually recording the material for Précis I also spent about four months re-working and somewhat obsessively tweaking certain bits of every piece in an effort to make the whole take shape. Whether that actually worked, is up to the listener.

ST: What’s been your reaction to the positive critical response? Did you expect it?

BP: I was fully prepared to be completely ignored, except perhaps by diehard Kranky fans, but the album definitely seems to have found welcoming ears in a much broader circle than that. Of course I’m extremely pleased, mostly to know that total strangers can share this almost embarrassingly personal wavelength with me; the exposure, limited as it’s been, has all the same been infinitely grander than I could’ve hoped for. In my experience, receiving praise for both visceral and theoretical strength is rare, so to have had that happen is way beyond flattering. I’m also glad to say that it hasn’t changed the way I do things musically one bit.

ST: What are some of your influences?

Years of avid music listening and film watching as a teenager brought me a ridiculously broad range of favorites, many of which still linger; musically, Warp Records has always been invaluable to my sense of adventurous sound (particularly Broadcast, Boards of Canada, and Autechre) though other highly individual acts like Max Tundra and Ssab Songs bear mention as well. Film-wise, I glean all kinds of inspiration from Terrence Malick, Harmony Korine and Chris Marker; somehow all these things underscore the space in which I’m working, which at this point seems shapeless and boundless.

ST: How would you relate your photography to your music?

BP: Firstly, both things are more a compulsion than anything else; the same way a tiny detail in someone else’s song will vault an idea into my consciousness, an unspectacular physical scene will often catch my eye at the right moment and if I happen to have a camera on hand I’ll usually try to capture it as best I can. It’s all cataloging… for what purpose, I have no idea.

ST: What’s behind your fascination with Polaroids?

BP: I love their instantaneity, immutability, and color palette primarily. Each shot is by nature one-of-a-kind, and to me all the more special for it; as one may notice looking at my site, I can’t help but pair up certain photos based on specific qualities, with the hope that each lends something to the other. I’ve been working with the same Polaroid 600 camera for years and am thus rather intimate with its workings—which lighting works or doesn’t, which colors will develop true or faded, etc. It can be tricky and delicate, but so rewarding when you get the image for which you hoped. It’s more than a bit like recording, in that way.

ST: What was the process for scoring the Maya Deren film, Meshes of the Afternoon? And what was that experience like?

BP: Meshes of the Afternoon is a long-time favorite film of mine, and to have been afforded the chance to score it (for Bill Morrison, no less) was absolutely amazing. The process involved visually arranging the film in a notebook, scene-by-scene, then sitting down with a few different instruments and ideas to shape the sonic structure/arc to match the images. I made about 22 short pieces, from which the 15-minute score was built through a couple of different effects pedals. The debut at this year’s Filmmaker’s Co-op benefit in New York went without a hitch, the crowd was very receptive and I couldn’t be happier about it. I mean, fucking Jonas Mekas was there!

ST: How do you recreate your music live?

BP: I don’t. At least, not yet. The recording process I use at home is so much its own thing that I haven’t come up with a way to transfer the songs to a more spontaneous setting. Compounding the issue, I am utterly untrained as a singer and cannot sing in front of people, and I don’t have the time or energy to rehearse with a backup band or any such thing at the moment. The live shows I have done up to this point have mostly been noisier, drone-based improvisations, almost entirely non-album material or re-worked background elements brought to the fore. This has definitely disappointed a few people who were expecting something more faithful to the album, but a fair number seem to appreciate hearing a different side of my sonic obsession.

ST: Are you sticking around Ann Arbor for a while?

BP: No, for better or worse; having graduated from the university here at the end of 2006, my time in Michigan (where I was raised from the age of 10 months) has all but run its course and I’ll be moving to Oregon soon, with no specific purpose in mind just yet. It’s a wonderful city in a region of spectacular geography, and I’m looking forward to a new phase of sorts, as I move on with my little projects.

ST: What are some of your favorite leisure activities?

BP: I just built myself a new bike on the cheap, probably the nicest one I’ve ever owned, and have been riding around on that as much as possible. I also love a good wilderness adventure—hiking and tree climbing especially—and I spend a fair amount of time in Detroit biking, exploring abandoned buildings downtown, drinking on rooftops and so on. Summer has gradually become my favorite season.


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