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Of Everything That Rhymes: The Wordless Sonnet of Benoit Pioulard

28 May 2015

In 2006, venerable experimental label Kranky released Precis, the debut album by Benoit Pioulard, the project of a young man named Thomas Meluch. The album’s release was preceded by a wave of positive reception from influential internet tastemakers such as Gorilla vs. Bear, Stereogum, and Brooklyn Vegan. It’s easy to understand why; Benoit Pioulard’s music was soft, delicate, hazy, and more than a little psychedelic. Meluch’s singing—gossamer thin, delicate but not fragile, precious but not pretentious—made Precis a very compelling debut album. That the important Wordpressers and the Blogspotters virtually ensured that hundreds of followers and imitators would be joining in unanimous praise for Benoit Pioulard.

Little was it known, though, that the approval of such important blogs would soon become a kiss of death, as the trend of “blog bands” dissipated as quickly as it appeared, and once-beloved groups soon disappeared into virtual obscurity and backlash.


Thankfully, that didn’t bother Meluch, who kept on recording and releasing music as Benoit Pioulard, as well as a number of other monikers. If the hype machine bothered him, he’s never shown it, and he’s continued to make music according to his whims and desires, irrespective of a concern for a wider audience. Earlier this year, he released his fifth official album for Kranky, Sonnet—an affair that’s cold yet warm, natural yet artificial. To Meluch, though, it’s merely a continuum of his love for the sounds of nature.

Your new album, entitled Sonnet, is almost entirely instrumental. The rare moments where vocals do appear, they’re so light and hazy that the words are unintelligible. What is the connection between a title that references a lyrical form, and an album that contains virtually no lyrics?

Thomas Meluch: For me the best sonnets leave an impression, not necessarily something explicit — once the pieces of this record were coming together they felt cohesive sonically, but also like a good impression of the springtime blooming around me here in Seattle last year. I hadn’t been much in a vocal or lyrical mode at the time so it felt more appropriate to channel all my energy into the instruments and leave the words purely to the song titles.. I did consider leaving everything untitled for a while before that, but then ended up spending an entire month revising the track list ‘poem’.

The fourteen song titles on the album, when put together, form a lovely sonnet. What does this sonnet say to you?

Thomas Meluch: “The gilded fear that guides the flow’” is, maybe unsurprisingly, the fear of death that makes each second meaningful. It’s something most of us train ourselves to ignore so that it seems separate from life, but it’s one of the biggest parts. A capitulation of the sum of moments and memories in a given lifetime.. There’s also an element of the need to create in it — the way that most people long for some sense of immortality by doing or making something that will last a while. I haven’t listened to Belle and Sebastian since high school but I always liked the line from one of their songs that says, “Make something pretty while you can”.

You’ve called Sonnet an album of restraint. What were the natures of the restraints, and why did you feel the need to do so?

Thomas Meluch: As with the time I spent on each word in the track titles, I tend to be pretty obsessive once I have the full picture of a project in mind.. It will come to dominate my thoughts and drive me to distraction if there’s some tiny thing that doesn’t feel in place, so in trying new ideas and seeing what fits, I will rest on something for a minute or a day or week and really consider whether it belongs. It’s worst when an idea feels really strong but just doesn’t work in the context. That was the case with most of the vocal parts I added, then removed.. They worked in their own ways but the pieces felt just as strong or stronger without them, so they had to go..

You’ve always had an affinity for the outdoors and nature, and yet you describe this album as based upon a replication of sounds you captured in field recordings. Do you see your compositions as being an aural snapshot, an electronic, mechanical representation of the natural world?

Thomas Meluch: Every record I’ve made has been very much a document of its place and time in my life — it seems crazy to think that my first one for Kranky is nearly 10 years old, but in going back I can literally hear the ways in which I’ve changed and grown, and it gives me a lovely sense of continuity in life. In the same way, I’m really glad I started making tapes when I was a kid because I’ll always have those to go back to, and have a way to hear the core parts of myself that have always been there. Those first tapes I made were of the forest around my house in Michigan, so the notion of taking nature and capturing it in a medium has always fascinated me.. Also the music to which I’ve always been drawn is really textural, so somewhere in there is the base for what I’m making nowadays. Natural sounds are too perfect to really replicate, but if I can offer a sense of the organic or natural in what I do, well that’s the best I can hope for.

You also worked in primarily an analog format for Sonnet. How does this fit in with the theme of replicating the found sound that you used for source material?

Thomas Meluch: This kind of plays into what I was just talking about — though I’ll add that analog media like tapes and vinyl are far more kind to the ear than digital, so I thought it best to avoid anything computerized when I was building up these pieces. I guess it’s meant to be an easy listening record in that way.

When you came to the attention of the world a decade ago, it was during the prime era of the “blog band” phenomenon, and your work was promoted on quite a number of notable blogs and music websites. Did you feel any pressure at the time to deliver your music? If you did, did it affect your songwriting, or did you mostly ignore such outside forces?

Thomas Meluch: There was an initial thrill of having a deal with one of my absolute favorite labels and some amount of self-imposed pressure to really make the first album work, because when I signed with them I’d only submitted 5 or 6 songs.. When Précis got such an overwhelmingly warm reception I was amazed and surprised, but it didn’t change the way I did things in any way because I have this dear, blessed voice in my head telling me “it’ll never last, just have a good time” and that’s always been there. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to skirt any kind of ‘structure’, too, in the sense of management or being forced to tour or deal with sponsorships or anything like that. I record at home when I feel like it and it’s fucking awesome. Apart from good food it’s the greatest joy of my life, and having Kranky give the thumbs-up to such a different kind of record makes me feel all the more like I’m at home with them. I’m one of the only people I know who’s with a label that allows for 100% artistic license.

You’ve always been a prolific worker in terms of musical releases. What other things do you have in the works? Will new Orcas material surface?

Thomas Meluch: Rafael moved to New York last year so working on more Orcas material is difficult purely because of the distance — but I do fully expect we’ll work again as soon as circumstances allow, it’s just too good a working relationship to let go of this soon. Other than that my album with Kyle Bobby Dunn (under the name Perils) will finally be out this fall, I just finished a set of songs for a 7” and am speaking with a couple of labels about that.. I’ve also recently, curiously wound up with 5 or 6 of the poppiest pop songs I’ve ever written and am trying to figure out what to do with those at the moment. Maybe it’s time to start a new band.

 

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