Beautiful Dreamer – An Interview with Alcest


Alcest pc William Lacalmontie

Like the visions of a mystical “fairyland” which visited him as a child, Stéphane Paut, a.k.a Neige, has always been a musician who let his imagination run riot. Driven by his own muse, Neige is not the type of musician who lets the expectations of his fan-base dictate the direction of his music. Catching up with Neige via Skype from his Paris home, the front man is a confident and driven, yet humble individual who embraces challenges and hopes that new record Shelter will be a watershed release for Alcest. “The concept of this album is very uplifting. It is about having a secret place to retreat to when we have difficulties in our lives. It is somewhere that can make us feel secure and stable. For me it was the sea. Now I live in Paris I see how stressed people are, always rushing around. It’s important to have that safe haven which reminds us of who we are.”

 

Neige may see Shelter as a comforting place where he is free to express himself creatively without restriction but just a cursory listen to the record will have many of the band’s fans being somewhat critical of the band’s new direction. Choosing to discard their metal influences is a bold and risky move but one Paut felt was necessary. “It was boring and very limiting for me.” Neige candidly admits. “I began writing metal when I was fourteen, half my life ago and I needed to explore other genres. Alcest will grow with me. It is the band of my life and it must continue to evolve as I do. Shelter has taken a shoegazing and dream pop influenced direction on this album but in the future things may again be very different. I hope our fans will remain open minded when it comes to our music. We have not decided to do mainstream music; it is just about keeping us satisfied. If that means changing the music style we play then so be it!”

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Dreamy and ethereal though it may be, Shelter has been shaped by an uncompromising stance, which Neige remains intensely proud of. “We didn’t want to make a tribute record to the shoegazing scene. It still sounds like Alcest one hundred percent. The music I make is purely for myself. I do not make music to please the fans. When we play live I want people to enjoy the concert and we will play the old songs for them but going forward I don’t see metal shaping the future of this band.”

 

This unwillingness to be pigeon-holed, along with a ravenous desire to challenge his own abilities, has created an album full of light and wonder. Choosing to record Shelter with Sigur Ros producer Birgir Jon Birgirson in Iceland really shaped the way the album was conceived. “We wanted that dirty, grainy indie rock sound! Sigur Ros music has a lot of character and we wanted to switch from the cynical metal sound we had on the previous album. Iceland was magical, like being on the moon. It exceeded my expectations. A truly life changing experience. It fits perfectly with the concept of Shelter. We spent time in our own creative bubble undisturbed by outside influences.”

 

As he alluded to earlier, Shelter was greatly inspired by Neige’s love for the sea. Waxing lyrical upon his childhood visions and trips into a “fairyland” has been the chief inspiration for Alcest’s work. It appears that a fondness for nature is now what comforts the twenty-nine year old musician. “My parents used to bring me to the seaside until I was a teenager. My father and I would go sailing in his boat very often. I guess it left a pretty big mark on me as I missed it greatly. I make sure I go at least once a year to the beach with friends near where I grew up. It is these precious moments and the most simple but the most special times of our lives.”

 

Shorn of the harsh metallic aspects of their sound and adopting a direction favouring light and atmosphere, has clearly been a breath of fresh air. Shelter has also seen Neige realising another dream, that of working with one of his favourite musicians Neil Halstead of British shoegaze pioneers Slowdive. It was truly touching to hear Neige’s gushing appreciation of Halstead’s work. “We have tried to contact him for a long time. I was not sure it would happen because he never got back to us. Finally he replied to me on Facebook saying he loved the music and was interested in working with us! He is one of my favourite musicians and having him in the studio with us was a dream come true.”

“We had to have the lyrics in English for him to sing and I think his performance is fantastic. The lyrics are about dreaming and escaping reality. It allows you to forget yourself and become lost in music.”

 

The cinematic feel of Alcest’s music is certainly an aspect that sets the Frenchmen apart from their peers. Neige may now disown the “fathers of blackgaze” tag and has set his sights on new creative pastures, with scoring music for film being high near the top of that list. “This is a dream of mine to make a classic soundtrack. I have achieved my dreams of playing in a touring band and making records and this is something I desperately want to do. My music is very sensitive and I would love to score the next American Beauty or Let The Right One In. That film is a masterpiece! Music is all about visions and images for me. I always have mental pictures of my music when I record it so this would come very naturally to me!”

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Alcest’s music videos have been vivid journeys into the front man’s consciousness. The latest for the debut single ‘Opale’ contains much colourful and romantic imagery integral to the mood of the song itself. “The coloured smoke was my idea. It is inspired by the Indian celebration ‘Holi’. It makes for very otherworldly scenery with people throwing coloured powders at each other. In the beginning, the characters are cold and distant to one another but in the end, they find love and happiness. It fits the song quite well I think.”

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Fans may miss the darker aspects of Alcest’s music moving forward but no doubt, this explosion of colour and change of direction has been good for the soul. While careful not to dismiss the band’s back catalogue in the live arena, there is one aspect of their music Neige was keen to leave behind. “We compose music only for ourselves and never think how others will react but when we perform it is for the people. I really don’t miss performing the harsh vocals but I love to hear classics from my favourite bands, so I will still be performing these types of vocals for sometime unfortunately! I want people who see us live to enjoy it and feel great so I will perform the old songs because I know they are special to the fans.”

Boldly stepping onto new ground while being eager to give the fans what they want live may prove distinctly challenging yet Neige has never been afraid of such things. Looking to the future, how does Neige see Alcest’s music shaping up? “I want to use strings and perhaps samples but the core of this band has always been the melodies. It is important to experiment and try new things. I am thinking of using electronic elements and seeing what may come of that. I feel at my best surrounded by nature. Paris has a lot of concrete and can be very claustrophobic at times but I suppose the fact I miss nature inspires me also.”

 

Softly spoken and polite, despite refusing to comprise the nature of his artistic vision, Neige remains a dreamer looking to a future of light filled with hope. Come what may, Shelter is a bold step into uncharted territory for an act hungry for adventure.

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Ross Baker