Steve Kerr meets two of Montreal's most exciting new pop stars to chat about their split LP on Hippos In Tanks / Arbutus.
On an inconceivably bleak, rainy day in April, I visited Claire Boucher’s (aka Grimes) apartment in Mile End, Montreal to interview her and Chris d’Eon about ‘Darkbloom’ (listen below), their split mini LP released jointly by Hippos in Tanks and Arbutus.
The record features some of their most accomplished songwriting to date, and it really sounds like both are on the verge of something major (download Vanessa by Grimes on the right). We talked for a couple of languid hours about visual presentation, rap and R&B, anxiety and nervous ticks but mostly about their music and ambitions. There was a cat named Vladislav presiding, but I don’t think he moved once. Maybe he was stoned.
How did you meet?
d’Eon: We met at Lab Synthèse [now-defunct Montreal loft space]. We played a show together, I actually missed your set. We know all the same people.
Grimes: We have all the same friends.
Were those early incarnations of d’Eon and Grimes?
Grimes: I guess. You played traditional Eastern music…
d’Eon: Yeah, I was playing Tibetan music at the time…
Grimes: And I was just like, it was Blue Hawaii but it was me instead of Raf.
d’Eon: On the bill you were listed as Claire-slash-Alex, and not Grimes, and this was right before your first tape came out. And I was playing with my buddy under the name Hassan I Sabbah X.
Have you always wanted to collaborate?
d’Eon: Within a few months of us knowing each other we were like, “We should totally do like a mixtape or something of our songs.”
Grimes: But I thought it would just be like B-sides and no one would ever hear it…it kind of is B-sides.
d’Eon: Both of our labels were just like, “Yeah we wanna get in on this!” and decided to release it properly.
Last year you played a show together where you soundtracked a silent movie.
d’Eon: Yeah, for Pop Montreal. It had mixed results because it was mostly improvisational.
Was that the first time you played together?
Grimes: We jammed twice. The first one we smoked a lot of weed and it was really good…second one not so good.
d’Eon: We don’t jam with other people very much, so…that’s why we did the split, rather than a collaboration, because it would just be too stressful to compromise both of our [sounds].
Do you think you’ll work together again in the future, or maybe remix each other?
Grimes: Probably play shows. Remixes would be good. I was going to sing for you…
d’Eon: Yeah, I definitely want to write some vocal music for her. There are certain things that I want to do vocally that I can’t do, and I’d have to get someone like Claire to sing.
Grimes: I like the idea of someone writing a song and me singing it. I do that with Devon, from upstairs – Majical Cloudz.
When were the tracks on the split recorded? Were they B-sides to your respective 2010 albums?
Grimes: Mine is post-‘Halfaxa’, but…I don’t know what I did, why I wasn’t writing music. I’ve since written an album, since the split, but for some reason I had nothing for it.
d’Eon: For me it was definitely all new…
Grimes: A lot of mine was from Christmas break, in Vancouver.
d’Eon: All my stuff was made for the split. Over six months to a year, when I was recording ‘Palinopsia’, I was thinking on the side, maybe I should do something for this split that might happen someday. I made like four tracks, and then you made some tracks, and then we scrapped those and made some more…
Grimes: Yeah we went through so much crap.
d’Eon: So there’s probably at least twenty songs.
Grimes: B-sides for b-sides.
d’Eon: My side was basically done in January. I did those four songs really quick, because I wanted it to go together, as parts.
Yeah, I hear it as a suite.
d’Eon: Yeah, I think it might be all the classical music I listened to as a really little kid. I’m really into bringing back themes and having movements.
“I’m really into bringing back themes and having movements.” – d’Eon
There’s a visual component with this release – your prior releases both obviously had artwork, but this has a really distinct set of photos and videos. Was there any concept?
Grimes: I decided I’m going to be a video director. I think music videos are really important, and you can approach them the same way as you approach a song. For me, it doesn’t need a narrative, it can just be an abstract representation of a sonic piece, rather than like, a film. I really wanted to do something that was…kind of impish…J-pop feel, but also kind of creepy.
They seem like two parts of a whole.
Grimes: I just wish we could have used the same camera for both though.
d’Eon: But it’s kind of cool, it’s a little more DIY.
Grimes: I like that yours is DIY…
d’Eon: Claire and Sadaf, who did the photos for the cover, are mostly responsible for the visual stuff, because I’m not really a visual artist and I don’t have that sort of eye. But I’m really glad we used that photo for the album cover. It’s weird, a lot of people in this sort of circle of music don’t really use their faces.
Grimes: We want to bring back the pop star. Like an Alicia Keys cover where it’s just her face.
d’Eon: I am a little wary of having my face on the internet, but it is a little more distinctive just to have somebody’s face instead of some abstract art.
Grimes: I think it’s necessary.
d’Eon: I kind of look like a metalhead, or a junkie, or a hippie or whatever, none of which I am. I like that cognitive dissonance, because you hear some of the songs and you think, “This guy sounds like Phil Collins or Ashanti,” but then you see the video and you’re maybe like “Who the fuck is this guy?” I like not looking like my music.
Grimes: The photos are almost distastefully high contrast.
Yeah, knowing what you look like it’s hard for me to dissociate, but to some person, the people on the cover might not be you.
d’Eon: I think it’s important to have videos – it gives new context to the song. For example, Videophone by Beyonce, it makes it an even more banging track.
Grimes: Same with Single Ladies! There’s a visual catchiness. Humans like to look at people – are there any really famous landscape paintings? Music is about humanity. I like pop stars because you can see who they are. Knowing who made something can make it a lot better, or a lot worse.
I think there is a rawness in the synchronized dancing in your [Grimes’s] video in particular.
Grimes: The actual production of that video was really intense and everyone got quite drunk…one girl puked. For everyone it was really nerve-wracking, but at the end we were really comfortable. It was a really long day. I wanted it to have this impish, we’re-just-pulling-it-together quality, which it does kind of have, but then it’s also got that…
“Music is about humanity – are there any really famous landscape paintings?” – Grimes
Grimes: It’s got a sheen. I love the sheen. The guy who shot it [John Londono] really knows what he’s doing.
Yeah, he’s involved with fashion…
Grimes: He mostly does fashion stuff and that’s why I like working with him, because he’s turning Grimes into a fashion thing, and I really like that.
d’Eon: Yeah that’s part of the whole popstar culture now, with fashion. It used to be you could be a popstar – look at Phil Collins…
Grimes: Phil Collins all the time!
d’Eon: I know…but he’s a good example because in his videos he’s wearing a sweater and some jeans…but now if you want to be a pop singer you have to always wear haute couture, avant garde, crazy shit.
Grimes: I love that.
Claire, you’re really into that angle – but you [d’Eon] were talking about having a dissociation from your music – what is your stance on it?
d’Eon: I don’t really want to be a popstar but you do need to have your face out there…it’s fine if you’re a dubstep or UK funky producer, because you’re part of a collective thing, but with pop music people expect an identity. On the other hand, I think of some of my music as noise music – on the Palinopsia album, there are parts where the songs are so long, and so repetitive, and the high end is mixed so fucking high…it’s like really subtly noise. But my new music is not really like that – everything is much more compressed.
Did your processes change at all in writing tracks for the split?
Grimes: I’ve been studying popstars…those songs, I feel are old though. I’ve moved far beyond that, in terms of like…me and my manager Seb went into the studio and then we mixed everything, and he basically taught me – everything is still bedroom, but we replaced a lot of the drums in the studio, put effects on the vocals. Seb made me…he was like, “we’re mixing the vocals high” and I was like [whispers] “no, I’m so scared…” but now I love it, I just had to get over that fear of hearing myself sing.
d’Eon: For me too, I learned a lot from Seb. I don’t know how to actually produce…
Are you going to continue working this way? Do you think anything is lost?
Together: No, everything is gained.
Grimes: There was a frustration to my other albums of me doing things because I had to. Now I can actually make the music that I have in my head. Like, “are you a musician?” You need to be able to stand up to that test, and my music is production, that’s almost everything about it. I want to make music that’s pleasurable, but not boring, and not at the expense of being experimental.
“There was a frustration to my other albums of me doing things because I had to. Now I can actually make the music that I have in my head.” – Grimes
d’Eon: It’s a huge struggle for me because when I was really small to sixteen or seventeen, my whole life was classical piano. And I quit that almost ten years ago, but music theory is subconsciously ingrained in my mind. I can’t help but follow the musical rules. I feel like a lot of producers – especially in jungle or dubstep or hardcore…the reason it sounds so good is because you’ve got a bassline happening in C minor, but the vocals are in D major and it fits because it sounds really weird. If I want to do something like that, I have to make the conscious decision to…
You have to unlearn it.
d’Eon: But I can’t not…I’m really worried that some of my songs come off as pedestrian because they often follow the rules. With the song Transparency, everyone is saying it’s an R&B 80s smooth jam, and I thought, this isn’t smooth…there’s no smoothness. The only thing that makes it sound 80s is the DX7 patches…
Grimes: It’s so subtly weird.
d’Eon: I’ve always thought of that song as being particularly sad, and really desperate and full of dread. It’s not goodtime music, it’s badtime music!
Grimes: It’s also goodtime music for me!
d’Eon: Okay, personally it’s badtime music. When I was making all of these songs I was insurmountably fucking unhappy, very angry, I was living in a room without a window…I was like, I hate everything that life is giving me…
Your voice and lyrics kind of cut that pop sheen.
d’Eon: Exactly…I really like pop songs like S&M by Rhianna, [which is] super radio friendly, but it’s talking about women being physically subjugated and…
Grimes: The smell of sex.
d’Eon: And really fucked up lyrics. A really good example of that is the Magnetic Fields. He had a few synthpop albums in the nineties that sort of sound like the Silly Kissers. All those songs are super sweet and schmaltzy, and chintzy and a little bit cheesy, but there’s one lyric: I’d like to beat you black and blue / For all the desperate things you made me do. I really like those contrasts, where it’s a sweet, radio-friendly pop song with unspeakable lyrics.
“When I was making all of these songs I was insurmountably fucking unhappy, very angry, I was living in a room without a window…I was like, I hate everything that life is giving me…” – d’Eon
I think anyone who writes a concept album with sixty-nine love songs has to be kind of…deranged.
d’Eon: Yeah, Stephin Merritt is so self-deprecating, and you hear so many singers who are just like, “I get so many women, I have a Bentley and I have a Benz and I get like five blowjobs a day” [collective laughter]. I love singers like Stephin Merritt who are like, “Why won’t you fuck me?” “Why don’t you love me?” That Woody Allen sort of vibe, because I’m very insecure and self-deprecating, so I feel an affinity.
Grimes: I like it when people are cocky…Tyler the Creator, Wiz Khalifa…
They do have a self-deprecating element as well though.
d’Eon: Yeah, that’s true.
Claire, your vocals are higher in the mix now, does this mean you’ll start incorporating more lyrics?
Grimes: I think about it a lot…I want to, but…I feel like any intention I have musically is very abstract…ahh, it’s a struggle. It’s much harder to mask what you’re saying when [your voice] is really clear. I’m also trying to use less reverb, less delay. I’m really into Dungeon Family, that kind of production – really upfront, tons of really sharp overdubs. I’ve been reading about phonetics, linguistics – when I hear music, I don’t hear the words. I need a specific sound, an “ah” or an “ooh”, and then [I wonder] how to get a word that’s that “ooh”. It’s hard to have that meticulous of an idea about enunciation when you’re trying to construct vocal parts. I like a lot of consonants together, like in Eastern European languages. I sang one song in Russian, I’ve been putting a lot of things backwards…
d’Eon: I wish I knew Arabic…all those glottal stops and guttural sounds…
Arabic would definitely fit your sound.
d’Eon: And at the very beginning of Arabic, it established itself as the language of God. It has these holy connotations that are really interesting. I’d really like to learn it, but it’s never going to happen…
OK, so the press release for the d’Eon half says that you use “bygone genres such as drum n’ bass, trip-hop, and new jack swing.” It also says footwork although that’s like hyper-zeitgeisty. When you incorporated those rhythms, were you thinking about bringing these genres back, or was it more about fitting a particular track?
d’Eon: It was really unintentional. The only time it was intentional was for Thousand Mile Trench with the jungle breakdown. Whenever I hear a song that’s 80 to 85 BPM, I always think, it’s right there! You can just put in a jungle breakbeat and it fits perfectly! I really like going into doubletime, and then going back into halftime. As for the others, I didn’t think about it until after the fact.
Grimes: None of them seem distasteful to us, I mean…when was drum & bass? It was the thing, it was in there. I went to some bad parties…everyone danced with a backpack on…
d’Eon: In high school, I was so into jungle, jungle mixtapes from people on the internet. It was so foreign and British and strange, and it comes out. I’m definitely going to make more tracks with jungle breakbeats…but I get a little miffed when people claim this is such-and-such a throwback. You can’t not throw back.
Grimes: The world is finite…nobody I know listens to just one genre.
What’s coming up for both of you?
Grimes: I’m working on a full-length, which I kind of feel is my first album. I’ve had to travel and play a lot…there’s not going to be any crap on this one.
Is that through Arbutus?
Grimes: Yeah. And I’m touring a lot.
d’Eon: My plan’s pretty similar. I may go on tour in the fall, but this summer I’m just playing a bunch of scattered shows. May and June, every week I’m going somewhere…I’m playing in New York, San Francisco, Milan, four or five other shows in New York in June. Hopefully this summer, like in July, I want to go into a studio…with a piano – I need to use the piano, and preferably an organ, horns, and darbukas, doumbeks, a daf…I want a real album that isn’t just all DX7. Almost a prog album, with [recurring] themes and movements.
Steve Kerr interviewed d’Eon and Grimes in Montreal on April 20th 2011