When you are following a spiritual path like I’ve been doing pretty much since forever, if you want to be a better person and try to improve yourself and grow as a soul and human being, you need to face your demons first... For once I wanted to put this into music, and not only speak about the uplifting part but also the fact that if you want to have a spiritual life you need to first look at who you are.
France’s Alcest are purveyors of beautiful music par excellence. Their unique ‘blackgaze’ style has gifted the world some incredible compositions over the years. Now on their sixth offering, Spiritual Instinct, the band have turned their gaze inward to look at the darker side of the human spirit. Nick Dunn sat down with frontman Neige to discuss spirituality, his own personal struggles, and everything else that goes into an Alcest record.
E&D: On first listen, Spiritual Instinct is possibly the heaviest album you’ve ever written. There’s much less emphasis on the crystalline guitar tones and dreamy choral atmospherics of previous albums, but there are still moments of hope, and a greater one on black metal riffs. It evokes a lot of angst and a great sense of urgency. Was this deliberate on your part to try and evoke the spiritual struggle that seems to sit at the core of the album?
Neige: I never really plan how the next album is going to sound. It’s not something I really calculate. Usually what happens is I make the first two songs and I see where I’m at in terms of feelings and sound and go from there. Usually you just let your feelings talk by themselves and then maybe you can see which style it’s going to take.
E&D: So, it’s more of an organic process?
Neige: Yeah, I mean, do bands really try to make albums sound a certain way?
E&D: Maybe Tool do!
E&D: Do you feel comfortable elaborating on the spiritual struggles you’ve experienced in the making of the album?
Neige: It was a struggle on several levels. When I came back from the tour for Kodama, I felt I was losing touch with my spiritual side and I was feeling very anxious and very stressed. We’ve toured a lot and I really felt I was missing my spiritual side. When you are following a spiritual path like I’ve been doing pretty much since forever, if you want to be a better person and try to improve yourself and grow as a soul and human being, you need to face your demons first. You need to be honest with yourself and see exactly who you are with no lies. Sometimes you can see things that you don’t like about yourself, and you have to deal with that anxiety. In my case, I have insomnia. I don’t sleep a lot, because I’m very anxious. For once I wanted to put this into music, and not only speak about the uplifting part but also the fact that if you want to have a spiritual life you need to first look at who you are.
E&D: So what does living a spiritual life mean to you?
Neige: In my case it started when I was a kid. I had visions of a place that I felt I knew wasn’t from here. It was not a terrestrial place. It looked way too beautiful, incredibly otherworldly. I know I wasn’t dreaming. I was in the car or at school and having very brutal flashes – like when you have a strong memory of something. I still don’t know what it was, exactly. I couldn’t really speak about it because it’s difficult to speak about it. When I was a teenager I decided to make a band to speak about it, which became Alcest.
To live a spiritual life… this is what brought me to spirituality – maybe if I hadn’t had this experience, maybe I wouldn’t be into spirituality. It is to wonder about the meaning of life, what are we? Is there a God? What is waiting for us when we die? Is there a meaning in my actions? Is all this having a meaning, or is it coincidence? These are questions that everyone’s asking, but in my case I didn’t want to follow any religious dogmas or rules. I didn’t want to find my answers in a book. Instead, [I wanted] to try to experience these things by myself. That’s what spirituality is, as opposed to a religion. Religion is thinking that you’ve already found the answers and spirituality is knowing that you are not having any answers to your questions and that’s fine. The most important thing is the quest, the journey.
E&D: It’s the journey, not the destination?
Neige: Yeah, because can we really find the answers? How pretentious is that, to say “I know what it is all about.”
E&D: It’s a very British thing to say: “We think we’ve got it sorted”, but we don’t. So, how did that influence this album, your desire to live a spiritual life?
Neige: The dark side, you can hear on the record. It’s much more heavy. The demons I was talking about, you can hear the scream and you can feel them in the heaviness of the music. The spiritual side still remains in the beautiful moments, so you still have the two sides.
E&D: In both ‘L’Ile des Morts’ and ‘Le Miroir’, synths feature quite prominently. What was the decision behind this, and can we expect more synth on future records?
Neige: I was using a lot of synths on our earlier records and I didn’t for the last two albums, and I felt that I wanted them back. I think they really bring additional texture, something different from guitars. It’s always refreshing for the ears to hear a different spectrum. It’s mainly analogue synths that I was using.
In the lyrics of ‘L’Ile des Morts’, there’s a line that translates to “We are not of this Earth.” Do you consider yourself to be part of that unearthly collective? Who are they?
Neige: I think I am not from this Earth as I think you are not from this Earth too.
E&D: Including humans?
Neige: Yeah. We are humans now. But maybe before we were something else, or at least a little bit different. We became human once we are in the human body. But our essence, or soul, is wider.
E&D: There’s a spiritual reality that we might have come from originally, and now on Earth we’re human?
Neige: That’s what I think, yeah. It’s the world of the ideal from Pascal. There’s a world where everything is a perfect version of what it is here. Have you ever met someone and thought “Wow, this person is really not from here!”?
E&D: No, I haven’t actually.
Neige: Sometimes you meet people like this and you can see they are not from here.
E&D: And you consider yourself to be someone who is not from here?
Neige: I don’t want to sound like a douche, like “Oh, I’m not from here, you are lower humans!” That’s just what I feel. I’ve always felt I was not from here. I just don’t want to say it because it sounds like I might be a douchebag!
E&D: Moving on, what inspired you to take the lyrics of ‘Le Miroir’ from the Charles van Lerberghe poem?
Neige: He’s a Symbolist poet, and all his poems are really speaking about the same things I’m speaking about in Alcest: dreaminess, otherworldliness, spirituality, nature. It’s very magical. It’s not the first time I’ve used one of his poems. I liked this one – it means ‘The Mirror’ and that’s what I was saying about having to look at yourself in the mirror and having to see yourself for who you are.
E&D: Other than his work, who or what were the biggest influences on this record either in terms of the music or in terms of the wider themes?
Neige: My musical influences are always a bit the same. I grew up listening to black metal as a teenager and then went into indie rock, 80s Goth, shoegaze. In terms of sound, it’s a mix of all these things. Lots of Celtic music and Japanese music too. Alcest is a weird beast! That’s why people struggle to put us in one category.
E&D: It’s the usual suspects, as it were?
Neige: It’s just Alcest. People never know how to label my music, and I have no idea.
E&D: Looking at the cover art, the sphinx is a traditional guardian of the passage between worlds, a link between humanity and their gods. Given that the music of Alcest as a concept has been a way for you to show the world your visions of an otherworld, was that the reason behind the use of the sphinx on the album cover? If not, what is it that you particularly relate to about the sphinx imagery?
Neige: It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about the guardian idea, that’s a good point. Initially it was because the sphinx is a reference to the Symbolist art movement. The symbolist painters used the Sphinx a lot in their paintings. It’s a symbol of the enigma. As I said before, in spirituality there are lot of big enigmas and I felt the sphinx was a nice way to put it in one creature. Also I love that it’s a mix of something very primal and very noble, a mix of the human and unknown. It’s got a very noble and reflective face, and noble wings, but also has lion feet and claws. What I feel when I say I don’t really feel like I’m from here, I feel like I’m a bit of a weird creature like the sphinx.
E&D: Something I’ve always wondered: What does the word ‘Alcest’ actually mean? Is it something to do with the magical world of your visions, or is it something else entirely?
Neige: It’s something I took from a book when I was younger. It’s from a book called the Misanthrope. It has nothing to do with the book though. There’s a character called Alceste, but with an ‘e’, so I took away the ‘e’ to make it different. I just liked the way it sounded. Our first demo is a straightforward black metal demo, not original, and was called Alcest and I just liked the name so much that I wanted to keep it even if we changed our style. I think it has something ethereal about it. It’s just a name, no special meaning!
E&D: What made you feel that black metal, or the combination of black metal with genres like shoegaze, was the best vehicle for the themes you wanted to explore with Alcest?
Neige: Do you really choose that? You start with the music genre that leaves a strong impression on you and you want to do the same thing. So I decided to take this base for my music but I took it in a very different direction. So I don’t like it when people say Alcest is black metal because I like black metal, I know what it is, and Alcest is not black metal.
E&D: But because it has that base, people lump it in and say it fits into that category?
Neige: It wasn’t a very strong choice, I just wanted to use some elements from black metal and make it absolutely otherworldly and dreamy and uplifting. The first Alcest album is very different from this one, it’s very uplifting. It’s the same type of stuff – blastbeats etc, but has some major chords.
E&D: Not something you hear very often in black metal, major chords!
Neige: No, and back in the day there was a big clash, people were saying “WTF is that”
E&D: “This isn’t really metal” etc.
E&D: Are you looking forward to your appearances at Damnation Fest and at the Beyond the Past event with Mono?
Neige: Yes! Damnation Fest is going to be very cool because last time we played there was almost 10 years ago and it was one of our first shows with the band, so it’s great to be back. We are just very happy to be back. The show with Mono is going to be good too. It’s a band we’ve toured with in the past, and they’re great guys.
E&D: Are you worried about Brexit getting in the way of that?
Neige: What can happen really?
E&D: Nobody seems to know!
Neige: I noticed the change when I took the Eurostar yesterday – there were more controls there than on the plane!
E&D: How do you feel about the political crisis that the world is going through?
Neige: If you listen to the media it looks like the world is going to end tomorrow! There are many bad feelings in the air. Now, at this point, I’ve been so affected by the bad news all the time I’ve stopped watching the news. But is it really as bad as they say? Is it just the media generating clicks and attention?
E&D: Possibly a mix of both? There are horrible people out there though, like Trump.
Neige: Oh my God! People thought he was a joke in the beginning, but the joke became the President. There were people saying “You have to be careful, he’s going to become President!” And they were right.
E&D: Do you worry about the same thing happening in France with people like Marine le Pen?
Neige: The thing in France is that Marine le Pen is terrible, but all the others are terrible too. So who should we vote for?
E&D: The least terrible?
Neige: That is what’s been happening, people are just voting for the least terrible! And I will do the same, of course.
E&D: Lastly, if there was a way to see into your soul, what five bands, or albums, or songs would we see there?
Neige: Slowdive, The Cure…
E&D: You played with them didn’t you?
Neige: Yes, at Meltdown!
E&D: That must have been crazy!
Neige: Such a big honour! …Hammock, Type O Negative and Joe Hisaishi, who composed for the Hayao Miyazaki films.