Interview: Maelstrom

I remember dancing in the sand for 10 hours, and then when the sun came up, some of these guys were playing live with rudimentary equipment, improvising like a jazz band in front of one of the trucks. The samples were manipulated beyond recognition, drum machines distorted in mixers, flanged or delayed, and the result was something I’d never heard before. That sense of musical freedom was the main reason I started making music.

French electronic producer Maelstrom specializes, as his moniker would suggest, in overt menace. Co-owner of the RAAR imprint, Maelstrom’s gritty distortion and aggressive synths are omnipresent in his latest effort, Her Empty Eyes, with antagonistic song titles like ‘The Murder of Jose Robles’ and ‘Woman Training for a Republican Militia.’ Maelstrom is in the company of the confrontational European sound found in Tommy Four Seven’s 47 label series featuring artists like Headless Horseman, Shards (a Tommy Four Seven alias), and Snts.

But this is not just searing techno. For his first full-length RAAR release, Maelstrom has delivered a conceptual album requiring the album length to fully realize. Her Empty Eyes is the soundtrack to an imaginary novel about Marina, a news photographer covering the Spanish war between 1936 and 1939. During her journey, she meets John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway at Madrid’s Hotel Florida, George Orwell and Buenaventura Durruti on the frontlines, and anonymous volunteers of the International Brigades in Barcelona. She investigates the death of Jose Robles, a Spanish intellectual who was allegedly killed by members of the soviet secret police. The album’s dark timbres imply a gloomy ending to the story.

(((o))): What’s your musical background? Did you grow up playing any instruments? Were you exposed to specific music or movies at a young age that feed into your aesthetic now?

Maelstrom: There wasn’t any music in the house when I was a kid and none of my parents were musicians (or had a taste for music actually), but they were both avid readers and every wall was covered with books, so that’s probably why my influences or my ideas mainly come from literature. I got into rave culture at a very young age. I started going to warehouse parties when I was around 14, and the music at the time was very diverse. There were noise and experimental raves, techno and hardcore, and early drum ’n bass and UK hardcore. That kind of music really had a strong impact on me as a teenager and still influences my work a lot.

(((o))): Tell us about an experience that contributed to your musical development?

When I was about 16, I went to an illegal techno festival with some friends. It was organized by a group of anti-nuclear activists to protest against a nuclear plant project by the river near Nantes where I lived. They had invited most of the sound systems from the free party scene in Europe: Spiral Tribe, Desert Storm, Vox Populi. They all were there with their Mad Max trucks and buses, not to mention their huge walls of sound. I remember dancing in the sand for 10 hours, and then when the sun came up, some of these guys were playing live with rudimentary equipment, improvising like a jazz band in front of one of the trucks. The samples were manipulated beyond recognition, drum machines distorted in mixers, flanged or delayed, and the result was something I’d never heard before. That sense of musical freedom was the main reason I started making music.

(((o))): Describe the software and hardware you use. Are there any particular techniques you employ that distinguish your sound?

The central piece of my studio is my Midas Venice F mixer, a great analog board with beautiful EQs and preamps but also a soundcard, so you can record multitrack takes to the computer but also playback multitrack recordings into the board. I almost always record live takes, so I usually work on a few synth patches, prepare drum kits, and then record 10 or 15 minutes of improvised jams. Then I go back and edit if necessary. Sound sources vary from track to track, but the Elektron Rytm will be used very often. It’s by far the best drum tool I’ve ever owned. It’s a drum synth with a sampler and an incredible sequencer.

(((o))): Her Empty Eyes is a departure from your club material. What brought this about?

It feels like I’ve always produced this kind of music. Tracks like ‘Oxy Blur’ or ‘Optical Tendencies’ on Optics are close to the aesthetic of Her Empty Eyes, but maybe people were more focused on the club or rave tracks than the B-sides. As I was working on the album, I realised the most interesting part of the music was hidden in the background, so I kind of flipped things over and decided that the background elements would become the main focus. This is why Eyes revolves around textures and atmospheres so much. Bringing up emotions and movement by shaping textural dynamics makes creating music interesting.

(((o))): How has the experience with the RAAR label been?

Starting RAAR has been the best decision myself and Louisa ever took. It’s opened so many doors for us creatively. Of course it’s a challenge, because you have to face problems and address issues that aren’t always music-related, but at the end of the day it’s worth it. We have total control over the music we release and it puts us in a position where we’re allowed to take risks because we’re the only ones facing the consequences. Taking risks and pushing things into uncharted territories is the only reason why I’m still doing what I’m doing.

(((o))): What drew you to this specific period of Spanish history in the 1930s?

I had an interest for anarcho-syndicalism, and of course I knew about the war, but I got drawn into it by my readings. It started with an autobiography of Antonio Gimenez, who was in the Durruti Column during the war, and then I started reading everything I could find about this period: Cercas, Orwell, Hemingway, Dos Passos. Little by little, the music I was making became the soundtrack of the books I was reading, and connections happened between certain tracks and historical events, or quotes from books, or even pictures or photographs. It just happened naturally, and by the end of the process, it was obvious that the album was actually a story.

(((o))): Did you ever think of incorporating more lyrics into the album? Just listening to the music you wouldn’t necessarily get the story.

Quite the opposite actually – I never wanted it to be too literal. The listener should have as much freedom of interpretation as possible and should be able to access the work with his or her own lens. If someone likes the album enough to research and find out what I had in mind when I was working on it, that’s great, but I don’t want to make it required. Half of the meaning or interpretation of a piece of music comes from the listener, and I don’t want to take a place that’s not mine.

(((o))): How do you incorporate Milton H. Erickson’s self-hypnosis technique when creating music?

I started using this technique a couple of years ago. At the time I was obsessing over details and overanalyzing every element of every track I was working on, and it was taking months to finish new music, so I found out about self-hypnosis and saw someone who taught me. I used it to let go of these fears, and after a few weeks I was able to record one-take tracks almost every day. It was just a routine, almost like meditation. Every day I’d enter the studio, sit in my chair, and practice this technique for up to half an hour. I don’t really need it anymore as I guess I fully have that path opened for me now, but at the time it made a huge difference. I don’t think I would have been able to finish the album without it.

(((o))): Do you have any forthcoming releases or live shows coming up?

We have super exciting plans for the label in the next 6 months which I can’t speak about yet, but we’re starting a monthly RAAR residency at the Nuits Fauves club by the Seine in Paris in early June.

Maelstrom’s Her Empty Eyes is available now via Kompakt.

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