Interview: Perturbator

[...] one thing that bothered me is that, since the release of 'The Uncanny Valley', people have been making me one of the “Poster Kids” for the whole movement. It bothers me that people talk about me as a pure “synthwave artist”, because I believe I’m able to be more than just that."

From the depths of Bandcamp all the way up to major festival gigs and front cover features for prestigious publications, James Kent’s rapid rise to success over the last few years is a phenomenon unlike any other. Standing against all odds, the French artist has swept the metal scene by storm, an accomplishment all the more intriguing when one factors in that Perturbator is,  in point of fact, a full-on electronic music project. Drawing inspiration from classic 80’s synth horror flicks and B-Movie soundtracks, James’ dark, abrasive take on electronic music has reconciled many of the metal scene’s most reticent fans with the sounds of synth music, from metalcore fans to black metal purists. After a prolific first few years of fully embracing the “80s’ synth” aesthetic, James returns with New Model, an EP marked by its violent, cold atmosphere, a clear shift away from the glossy neon colours and retro nostalgia found in earlier releases. Sure enough, one only needs to look up a couple of recent interviews to pick up on the artists’ alienation from the scene, confirmed no later than last December with the release of ‘Tactical Precision Disarray’, the EP’s first single and our first glance into what seems like a new beginning for Perturbator. We caught up with the young artist and decided to inquire about the projects’ current direction and its possible link with the “synthwave-frenzy” he has, in spite of himself, been caught up in.

E&D: Your new EP draws a pretty clear distinction from its predecessors. Would you say New Model is an evolution, a culmination or rather a cutoff from your previous releases?

James: I’d call it a cutoff release, a “break”. To call it a culmination would imply an ending, which I don’t think it is. I wanted to prove to myself that I still had some ideas in me and that I could free myself from the whole synthwave scene and its all-too-overused sounds. I wanted to go for a Perturbator release without the whole cheesy eighties synth schtick, and I think I did a fairly good job at it, I’m pretty proud of it.

E&D: If I may jump straight into addressing the elephant in the room here, it seems pretty clear through your recent efforts and interviews that you’ve been reaching a saturation point with regards to the “synthwave” label.

James: [Chuckle] You could say that. It does bother me, it “perturbs” me [laughs]. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but it’s true that since the release of The Uncanny Valley I’ve felt like we’ve been reaching a “saturation point” as you say. I feel like there’s an overflow of synthwave. I’m not naming names and I’m not pointing fingers, but it feels like synthwave projects are flooding in by the dozens every single day. Some of these artists are good, some aren’t so good, but the fact remains that it’s become formulaic, very codified and it does bother me. For instance, one thing that bothered me is that, since the release of The Uncanny Valley, people have been making me one of the “Poster Kids” for the whole movement. It bothers me that people talk about me as a pure “synthwave artist”, because I believe I’m able to be more than just that. I make electronic music, I can delve into techno music, industrial music… What I really want to do is be Perturbator, I don’t care about being synthwave. That is what I wanted to set off with New Model. There’s an unexpected side to the release for the listeners. The whole formulaic approach, doing things because that’s how things are, repeating things over and over… it’s unsettling to me. I find it pretty unhealthy, whether it’s for the development of a musical movement or for the artists in the movement. I believe you need to break down walls and experiment, even if it means running the risk of failing completely.

 

E&D: Shortly after the release of The Uncanny Valley, you expressed a need to take a break from Perturbator, even going so far as to say in an interview that you wanted to lay the project to rest.

James: That is true. I went through a sort of burn-out at the end of my European tour. The tour was pretty tough as well actually, much harder than my last North American tour. Towards the end of the tour I was getting pretty sick of everything. With that being said, I must say that I was pretty tired during that particular interview and I had maybe had a little too much to drink [laugh]. I definitely wasn’t sober. I was a little fed up with everything and so I just threw it out there and said that The Uncanny Valley would be my last album. I didn’t think people would take it seriously, especially since I stated at the end of the interview that I will have most likely changed my mind within a week. Rumours started running around as a result of that, but here I am! I haven’t gone anywhere [laughs].

E&D: Trends have changed quite a bit since you first arrived unto the scene. It seems as though we’re right in the middle of a whole 80s’ revival in pop culture, maybe now more than ever. You’ve got Stranger Things 2, It… even Thor: Ragnarok is said to have a “synthwave” score. As a fan of 80s’ culture, are you excited by this or have you also reached a saturation point?

James: The latter. Truth be told, it does really tire me. We’ve all witnessed this whole cycle before. The best example I can give is the whole dubstep trend. Whether you like the music or not, there’s no denying that there was a time where it was everywhere. It was in movies, in games… I definitely feel like it’s reaching that point with eighties retro. I’m not a big fan of all of this. With that said, I’m not dismissing any of it from the get go: I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok nor the new season of Stranger Things. All I’m saying is that it certainly doesn’t help. I want people to take my music seriously sometimes. I don’t mean all the time, but some of the stuff I do is pretty serious and I’m passionate about what I do. The whole cheesy “neon eighties” nostalgia aesthetic people point back to is a little tiring. New Model is definitely a bit of a reaction to this whole thing.

E&D: Would you say that the “tacky eighties cheesiness” present on your previous releases acted as “protection blanket” at times? It seems harder to write a deadpan, serious release such as New Model after all.

James: New Model is indeed my darkest, most deadpan release, you’re right. It might have happened in some very specific instances, but I never really used the eighties theme to shield myself, it was simply something I was passionate about back then. After releasing four albums and three EPs revolving around that aesthetic, I felt like I had said all that I had to say. I was starting to repeat myself. After releasing The Uncanny Valley, I ended up writing songs that I had already written, I was very frustrated. I mostly used the eighties theme because I obviously liked it, even though I’m starting to like it less and less. I still like it, but there’s definitely a lot more interesting roads to explore. I’ve been surprising myself playing around with “modern” music like techno and I’m having great fun.

E&D: How did you come about creating this new sonic universe that you display on New Model?

James: It was a little tricky. It was almost like starting things from scratch. I started out with a concept, which was basically to take out all of the cheesy components, which got my thinking as to what I could replace them with. I listened to a lot of music: modern music, eighties and nineties industrial music, EBM, Trap Music… things that a Perturbator fan would not expect. I took some time to soak some of it up, refine and choose the stylistic codes that I wanted to keep and mix it all up. I wanted to make sure it sounded like Perturbator, that was the most important part for me. I ended up with something that still retained my stylistic DNA, simply because it’s impossible for me to erase myself completely in my work. I don’t know what it is exactly that makes it sound like me, but I’m glad I didn’t lose it. From there, things became pretty intuitive and I started getting down to business.

E&D: Interestingly enough though, the songs on New Model also feature some of your most “narrative” pieces through your use of linear song structures. What first got you into this form of songwriting?

James: I found myself listening to a lot of progressive music and experimental music. With New Model, I wanted break free from “standard song structures” and deliver a record that was almost difficult to wade through, maybe a little bit challenging to those who aren’t used to experimental, progressive music. I wanted my tracks to have strange, shifting tempos. I didn’t want to release a radio-friendly record, quite the opposite. Some of the tracks like ‘Vantablack’ and ‘Corrupted by Design’ are still a tad bit “single”-like, but I wanted to make the kind of record you wouldn’t play at a party. I tried to avoid the old basic 4/4 as a template and used it only in a purposeful manner in order to add an odd twist to the tracks. The album is a little more challenging and I’m happy that way.

E&D: Finishing: could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books as of late?

James: The only film that really struck a chord in me lately is Blade Runner 2049. I wasn’t expecting anything from it, but I really loved it. My only gripe about the film is the soundtrack. I don’t think Hans Zimmer was the ideal choice. To me, Blade Runner evokes a delicate atmosphere, something Vangelis perfectly captured in the original score. The new soundtrack sounds like a tribute to Vangelis’ work, only with big Hans Zimmer-like horns added on top. It’s not too bad, but I felt like the score didn’t live up to the film and its fantastic aesthetic.

Album-wise, I’ve been listening a lot to the new Ulver record The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the new Grave Pleasures album Motherblood. I’ve also been listening to a lot of experimental electronic music, stuff like Board of Canada, Clams Casino, Vaporwave… I haven’t been listening to a lot of metal lately. I’ve yet to hear a recent metal release that wowed me.

Book-wise, I’m in the same situation I was the last time we spoke [laugh]. I’ve started loads of books but I never find the time to finish them. I started reading other William Gibson books like All Tomorrow’s Parties, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Video Game-wise, I should add, there’s fantastic game I’ve been getting into called Observer. The main character is modelled after Rutger Hauer, who plays Roy Batty in Blade Runner and the Hobo in Hobo with A Shotgun. The plot is a detective story with a strong cyberpunk ambience, it’s bleeding fantastic. I highly recommend it to everyone out there reading.

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