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OISEAUX- TEMPêTE, sprawling soundscapes of beauty & transcendence

Interview by Christoper Michael

Oiseaux-Tempête are a French experimental group who have been consistently pushing the boundaries of contemporary music for over a decade. The group, who does not follow the conventional structure of most modern bands or musical ensembles, was formed in 2012 by Frédéric D. Oberland and Stéphane Pigneul. Since then, they have released a series of critically acclaimed, genre-bending albums that take inspiration from a wide range of sources including avant-garde sounds, Middle Eastern and North African influences, psychedelic rock, and free-Jazz.

Their latest album, WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable), is a psychedelic work of sonic exploration that showcases the group’s unique vision. A free-wheeling, sometimes chaotic, collection of nine new songs, the album creates a somewhat post-apocalyptic soundscape, at times anxiety-inducing while simultaneously offering trance-like meditative moments.

The album’s title, WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable), is a nod to the chaotic and uncertain times in which we live, with the group reflecting on a sense of unease and dislocation, while also offering moments of beauty and transcendence.

Working in a truly unconventional way, the album was recorded between Canada, Lebanon, and France, everywhere “from beautifully-equiped recording spaces to run-down spots and home studios.” For Oiseaux-Tempête, following where the sound goes is key – with this album taking shape organically over five years.

This long production process is due to the intentionality of their work, sticking to their vision while allowing space for improvisation and collaboration. Oiseaux-Tempête’s sound comes from a space of artistic freedom, working with multiple collaborators and across multiple locations, yet the outcome is a distinct sound generated from years of practice.

The group’s music is born from instinct, and they often work from visual references like a photograph or film. Recently they even scored the Tunisian film Tlamess, which premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Oiseaux-Tempête’s sound is extremely cinematic on its own, generating vast sonic landscapes which teleport you into another realm.

The twenty-minute trance-inducing track ‘The Crying Eye — I Forget’, for example, evokes the feeling that you have stepped into a portal to some faraway place while listening. The filmic nature of their sound is one of their strongest abilities, and WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable) leaves listeners feeling as though they have just stepped out of a cinema after a full listen.

Oiseaux-Tempête is best enjoyed through intentional deep listening, where you can be submerged within their sonic landscape. WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable) is a beautiful addition to the enigmatic group’s eclectic discography, offering a unique, sprawling soundscape across each of its nine tracks. 

WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable) artwork, Oiseaux-Tempête (2022)

Could you please tell us how you met in the first place, what triggered you to make music together and if your context/city has influenced you in the process (how, if so)?

Frédéric: 15 years ago or so, Stéphane and I met at indie / experimental/weird gigs in Paris, going to the same shows, sometimes playing at the same venues. One night for a New Year’s Eve fiesta, we were «officially » presented by our partners at the time, and we found at some point of the party a room full of vintage acoustic guitars.

There, the both of us eventually jammed for hours; something very strong clicked straight away! A few months after, I invited Stéphane to play bass in my collective FareWell Poetry, then we formed Le Réveil des Tropiques with a bunch of crazy guys. It was a psych-improv-noise group.

While I was travelling in Greece with photographer Stéphane Charpentier to do the first research around what would become the first album of Oiseaux-Tempête (S/T, 2013), I asked him to join the adventure… 10 years and 10 releases after, with loads of contributors and friends around this duo (which actually became a trio with Paul joining the core team lately), here we are!

Stéphane: At the time I was singing and playing in my post-punk band OBJECT and I joined the French post-rock avant-garde band ULAN BATOR, which was signed on the Michael Gira (SWANS) label Young God Records. It was a very intense time, always on the road in Europe and especially in Italy.

We met several times with Frederic as he said, and eventually played together. It was like finding your soul mate in music, no words, just playing, same feeling, same roots. It was the first time we didn’t have to speak, everything was easy, simple, one answers to the other, no frontiers, no limits. It was just pure fun and joy.

How is normally your process of pre-production and conceptualization of your works? Is there something usually triggering the sonic aspect or vice versa? Perhaps a bidirectional process?

Frédéric: First rule, to have no rule, but instinct. We’re not overthinking too much before a recording actually cause it is the best way to be disappointed… But we’re often trying to impulse a dialogue with other artistic elements, like photography, film, poetry, travel, etc.

While our first album was connected to several trips in Athens and Thessaloniki and the visual work Stéphane Charpentier came back with, for ÜTOPIYA? (2015). It is a picture from Yusuf Sevincli (the cover of the album) which actually invited our music to jump further in the Mediterranean Sea, in between Istanbul where I travelled and Sicily where Stéphane was living.

All of our recording sessions at the time were 3 days of almost full improvisation, trying to translate the urgency from the room we play in. For AL-‘AN!, partially improvised/recorded in Beirut Lebanon between 2016 and 2017, we had to prepare a bit more in advance, not very much the music itself but the spirit of the sessions, to open the circle of our music to a lot of new guests, sometimes post-trad musicians, playing on the record.

Our friends Grégoire Orio & Grégoire Couvert (As Human Pattern duo) documented these encounters with hi8 cameras (which eventually became one of the basis of their documentary Khamsin), I shot a few rolls of photographic film, and I guess all of this sonic and visual substance became intertwined all together in the whole making of the album.

If From Somewhere Invisible was pretty much going back to the intensity recording in three days, impulsed by our dear friend Radwan Ghazi Moumneh who produced the album at Hotel2Tango, for WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable), the sessions we had were so varied and versatile in terms of moods that we had to find a kind of new dialogue in between all these elements.

Stéphane: Yes, it is a bit bidirectional as all the aspects of external links ( photos, texts, books, new partners) and the musical research of the previous albums tend to put you in a new mood.

How much improvisation is present in your process of composing? How is a normal day in your studio? Do you have certain ways to start on a song or project or some methodologies you have developed? And particularly how is the dialogue between you three in terms of musical decisions when composing?

Frédéric: We never had a dedicated studio space with Oiseaux-Tempête, and we still don’t have one. Improvisation and experimentation are the starting points of all the tracks we build together. Of course, the three of us get to have home studios where we separately are trying shit out with different gear, discovering or pushing our individual skills of the moment, but I guess the idea when we are playing together with Oiseaux-Tempête is to come in a very simple and honest way.

We never mixed straight away out of the recording session, so time (to listen back, to forget, to argue or to arrange) is the main ally of the band. This is where composing is very much entering the room: what to pick, to choose, to transform in order to create something we didn’t do in the past. For the new album, WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable) (2022), these arrangements and production moments were a big deal in the process. 

Stéphane: As we never have very much time to record, it is like all your work in between, your efforts, your parallel process, your sonic state have to pop up at the right moment, now, here. You can’t really think of what you’re actually doing. At least, it’s not thinking. I am still a bit surprised at what we can achieve in this tiny recording frame. We don’t even have the luxury of adjusting a riff or the skeleton of a track. It just pops up, and you have to stay focused and hold the helm. It’s a very exciting moment, full of emotions. Of course, it requires a lot of pre-work, but it always comes nicely and effortlessly.

In your works is it possible to notice a lot of genres and styles, but also to blur them into new sonic forms that are not so easy to categorize. Do you see this as some kind of holistic integration of styles or more like an escape from any of them?

Frédéric: In this first quarter of the 21st century, thinking of genres & styles in music is more and more outdated I think. Are there any hashtags which will push you to discover something new, today? I think the more the sonic forms are free the better it is / could be. Of course, our ears are like sponges and we have listened to so many different kinds of music over the years; with the versatility of our guests, and the ability we get to play different instruments, these are some keys to not be stuck in one direction. Our music is very much alive and if it helps to blur the lines or to open new territories for imagination, we are delighted! 

Stéphane: The only thing I can think of in terms of genres, could be experimental. We‘re always looking for new ways to make music. So yes, it blurs all the different ones into ours, I guess…. I hope…

Having so many instruments and sonic possibilities, do you set yourself some kind of creative limits? Or is your composition method based on a wild exploration of many different things?

Paul: I think our composition is really based on freedom, we’re not going to try to sound like something precise but we let ourselves discover what we could be capable of. We let our skills be the only limitations, even if they’re small, haha

Frédéric: It is all about finding the right/personal texture/tone, then listening to each other, really. 

Stéphane: Of course, you can’t play the guitar while you’re holding a saxophone, but even this could practically happen! Why not, if it works? This pallet of instruments is like colours, some feel right with others. It reminds me that Jean-Michel (our drummer) wants to try to make an entire track with a triangle. 

How is your process of taking compositions into the live setting? I see you are used to collaborating with a ton of musicians for this. How is that process done and how different are live/collective versions compared to studio/duo ones?

Frédéric: As we don’t compose anything before going into the recording studio, it means that for the live setting, we have to re-learn afterwards what we put out on the album! Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s very challenging or almost impossible… Then the idea is to experiment again and to create a kind of new script/partition from the recorded track to the live version of it, fitting one more part of improvisation inside and strong musical elements which could be – why not?- played by someone else in the crew.

I guess our process is like building a kind of free orchestra in between us, and this way we can invite people to join us on stage who could possibly play extra material over the top. For example, during the last tours, we have live tracks which could almost be « songs » when G.W.Sok (formerly The Ex) is giving his voice to previously instrumental tracks.

Same while Jessica Moss (A Silver Mt Zion), Ben Shemie (SUUNS) or Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (Jerusalem In My Heart) come to perform live with us; each show, each version of a piece could be very different from one night to another, and we love this. As for our albums, playing live is a way to experiment, to make a link between us and the audience. 

Stéphane: It can take three or four shows sometimes to have the right tone of a live version. But we just jump into it and listen to the others. Anyway, the key to everything – you can turn it into a million questions, squeeze it or something – the key is to listen to each other.

How was your experience of composing your first soundtrack for the TLAMESS film? What were the main challenges with it and how different from your normal composition process was it?

Paul: For me, it was not my first soundtrack, but it was the first time I did it with a band. And the process of this work was really fun. It reminded me a bit about Popol Vuh jamming on Herzog rushes before it was edited because it was actually the same process.

Frédéric: The director, Ala Eddine Slim, gave us a carte blanche to improvise and compose in front of the rushes of the film. Ala came with us to the studio, trusting our inspiration from what he shot and at the same time searching with us for what could transcend the sequences. In the end, the soundtrack is a kind of character in TLAMESS. As we were huge fans of his prophetic and mystical cinema, it was very inspiring and powerful.

How was your process and idea behind the new album WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable) and what was different/unique about its process compared with your previous works?

Frédéric: The sessions we used to create this album were done during the last five years, in different countries (Canada, Lebanon, France) from beautifully-equipped recording spaces to run-down spots and home studios. We spent hours in the studio Mer/Noir in Paris with our engineer friend Jean-Charles Bastion in order to sculpt the mixing of each track even until cutting the lacquer off it.

We knew that this album would have a more electronic music tone than the ones before and that many different vocals would appear. After two years of disruptive lockdown, and crazy dystopia everywhere, it seems that the backdrop of WHAT ON EARTH (Que Diable) is not a specific country or an area of the planisphere, but rather a universal feeling about what we’re all experiencing in the now – ecological catastrophes, idiocracy and some last state of neo-liberalism/fascism. 

Stéphane: Yes, and I think we pushed a bit further in the sonic area. We spent more time mixing the album with our friend and sound engineer Jean Charles Bastion. We also met François Terrazzoni who did a fantastic job with the lacquer for the vinyl. The results are so great.

Do you think about an ideal way or setting to listen to your music? How would it be?

Paul: There are many ways to listen to our music, comfortably on your sofa with a good hi-fi system, in your headphones riding a bike through the city (but be careful though). Personally, I think the records will take you on a nice trip whatever your setting is.

Frédéric: Music is of course a kind of refuge where feelings/emotions are pushing you somewhere else. Maybe your body needs to be connected, and you could lie down on the sand / the grass / your floor, run, dance, be in movement, sit, alone or not. I guess the best way is at least to shut down your phone and have a bit of time. 

Stéphane: Oh yes, please destroy your cellphone and realize you don’t need 10 social networks to live. Take a book, a pencil, draw, paint… If our music could give you the desire to express yourself in any kind of way and make you stop scrolling like a rat in a cage, for me, it would be what I call success!

Besides your music, Frédéric & Paul, you also curate NAHAL recordings together. Could you please tell us how you came to the idea of it and how has it developed over the years? And especially, there’s a strong concept around myth, haunting, mysterious and esoteric ideas. What drove you to those conceptual elements in the project? What’s behind your sonic fiction?

Paul: NAHAL Recordings was built to be a nice home for certain of our own side projects and those of our friends. I think Fred and I both like when music is mysterious and moving, it is so intangible, like magic for us. So we try to translate this in the design of our records, we work with talented visual artists or photographers to make a real emotional impact on the listener, starting with the artwork.

Frédéric: A (very) small shelter for weird albums made by crazy people, with a soft spot for ritualistic and true processes or results. Maybe music could be a kind of new mythology, and the releases we will put out become something that we could, maybe, be proud of in a few years. We like to accompany the artists in the last steps of making an album, from mixing to the tracklist to artwork and PR things.

There is almost a transmission idea here for Paul and me, after having passed the last 15 years releasing our own music on different labels. In this way, the collaboration with acclaimed avant-garde label Sub Rosa on the release of Oiseaux-Tempête’s WHAT ON EARTH was an appealing move for us and we were even surprised ourselves that this album fits so well in the NAHAL roster. 

Regarding the curatorial and conceptual process in the label… Is this a similar collaborative process as with your music? How do you pick the works you release in there?

Paul: We choose recordings that really move us. We don’t want to sell music like we sell a random product. So we have to feel really connected to the music, whatever genre it is. And I think that’s as simple as that.

Frédéric: We need to both agree on a release first and the release has to offer us something to work on. We never release « finished » products as other labels could do. We like to hang out with the artist, meet before, discuss, and work around the album and concept to possibly push it further. As we work for free on this label (releasing a few albums in very limited runs), the human/emotional aspect of the work is essential.

What is your chief enemy of creativity?

Paul: Ego.

Frédéric: Time (spent doing other boring things rather than creating).

Stéphane : Bitterness and thuggery

You couldn’t live without…

Paul: Earth, so we maybe should stop destroying it…

Frédéric: «Pas mieux» – as we would say in French. 

Stéphane: At the moment, the one I love and … my acoustic guitar!

(Media courtesy of the artists)
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