While listening to Alcest’s latest album, there’s a brief, rather peculiar moment in the middle of the song “Là où naissent les nouvelles couleurs” that instantly jumps out. As drummer Winterhalter’s snapping, syncopated beat pushes along richly distorted guitar chords, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Neige’s ethereal clean singing merges with overdubbed screams that gradually sweep through the mix like blasts of icy wind scouring a craggy mountain peak. It’s a mere 30 seconds that succinctly establishes the contrasts at the heart of the French metallers’ sound. Heavy riffs back up tales of childhood reveries, torrents of blast beats punch through languid guitar strumming, and Neige deftly switches between the aforementioned hair-raising shrieks and beautiful melodies. The new record, titled ‘Les Voyages de l’âme’ (the voyages of the soul), may be Alcest’s finest offering of their unique amalgamation of shoegaze, post-rock, and black metal yet.
Neige and Winterhalter were kind enough to speak with us backstage before their show at Glazart in Paris a few weeks ago. Keep reading to check out what they had to say about touring in support of ‘Les Voyages de l’âme,’ the meaning behind their new music video, and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire.
How’s it going?
Neige: The tour?
You in general.
Neige: Oh, me in general? [sighs] Stressy days.
And the tour, I guess.
Neige: Stressy as well. But very successful. Very, very successful. I didn’t expect something like this.
Is this your biggest tour so far?
Neige: The biggest headlining tour, for sure. We played with Enslaved last year.
Oh yeah. I missed that one. I really wanted to go see that, but I didn’t get a chance. But that was really good too?
Neige: Are you from the US?
Neige: From which state?
I study in Boston.
Neige: Boston, okay. In Boston, we played… What was the name of the venue in Boston? [asks nearby road crew member the same question in French]
Road crew member [in French]: The Zoom… it was The Cafe Zoom.
Was it at The Middle East, by any chance?
Neige: It was a very big bar.
Road crew member: It was The Middle East, yeah.
Neige: It was very good.
Road crew member: Are you from Boston?
Yeah, I go to school there.
[Winterhalter joins us at our table]
So I know you’re good friends with Les Discrets. How’s it like touring with them?
Neige: It’s like touring with friends, just like you said. It’s very good.
Winterhalter: Like a family.
Neige: Yeah, like a big family on the road.
Does it make it a lot more enjoyable when you’re with other bands who you know very well?
Neige: Yeah, it’s better.
Awesome. What do you think of their new album [‘Ariettes oubliées’]?
Neige: The new Les Discrets?
Neige: I think it’s very, very different from the first one. But it’s still very good album. Yeah. What I said to Fursy [Teyssier, Les Discrets guitarist/bassist/vocalist, Alcest album artwork creator] is to see how different the first two albums are, I’m really curious to see what he will do on the third one.[laughs] Already thinking ahead to the next one?
Neige: If it’s as different as the first two first albums are, it will be like… I don’t know what to expect.
What does he say in response to that? Does he have any ideas yet?
Neige: He’s telling me that he doesn’t want to make music for a long time, to have a break.
Okay. That makes sense.
Winterhalter: For me, I’m just not satisfied with the drum sound. But, you know, with this kind of music it’s almost impossible — I like organic sounds of drums. No triggers, natural. But it was —
Neige: There are too much guitars.
Winterhalter: Too much layers of guitars.
Neige: In Alcest already, it creates many guitars.
Yeah, definitely. Yeah, the new
Neige: Well, no, it’s very natural. For Alcest, it’s —
Winterhalter: No triggers.
Neige: Only natural.
Yeah. That’s very cool because that’s a huge trend in metal these days, to do that.
Winterhalter: You know, you will see tonight — the sound guy will compress just the bass guitar and the vocals. All the rest is natural and sounds great.
That’s awesome that you guys do that.
Winterhalter: No gate, nothing. It’s great.
Sweet. So what’s your live band lineup looking like these days?
Neige: The lineup live? The same since one year, one year and a half. So it’s Indria on bass, Zero on guitar, Winterhalter on drums, and myself on the guitar.
And considering that it’s you two on the record, only you two, what’s the biggest challenge in bringing the music to the live setting?
Neige: Not to lose the…
Winterhalter: The sense?
Neige: Yeah, the sense and the spirit.
Winterhalter: Yeah, and because of the layers of guitars and keys, it’s quite hard to reproduce on stage. But we try —
Neige: We try to bring more of something dynamic and powerful, instead of — it’s a different side of Alcest on stage.
Neige: Yeah, on stage, it’s a bit more…
A bit more straightforward?
Do you have keyboard tracks prerecorded, or is someone doing that somehow?
Winterhalter: No. We wanted to, but not for this tour. For the US tour, I think we’ll —
It’s a work in progress?
Neige: We do have samples, but it’s guitar… Some guitar tracks. Just three or four guitar tracks in the whole concert that we couldn’t play —
Is that a part when there’s a lead line?
Neige: Yeah, it’s a lead.
For a harmony or something?
That’s cool. Let’s talk a little bit about the new album, of course. Did any specific bands inspire you when you were writing and recording the new album?
Neige: I try not to take my inspiration from bands with Alcest. But when I started this project, of course I was influenced by Yann Tiersen, Dead Can Dance, Summoning, and Burzum.
You’ve said before — I was reading in some interviews that you didn’t really get into shoegaze music until after you were done making ‘Souvenirs d’un autre monde.’
Neige: Yeah. Before ‘Souvenirs,’ I didn’t know anything about this music, and I discovered this music reading an Alcest review.
Yeah, I heard that. That’s pretty funny.
Neige: But now, I am the biggest Slowdive fan.
So have you ever actively taken that influence?
Because — this is something that I’ve always wanted to ask you — the beginning of “Écailles de lune (Part 2)” reminds me a lot of the beginning of “When the Sun Hits” by Slowdive.
Yeah. Do you see that at all?
Neige: [hums a melody] Yeah, a bit. Maybe.
But that wasn’t a conscious tribute or anything?
Neige: Yeah. No, it’s not conscious.
I see. Do you have any influences from books or movies? I know that you’re a big fan of cinema.
Neige: Yeah. I love the [Hayao] Miyazaki movies, the animated ones.
Yeah. What’s your favorite one?
Neige: I like almost all of them. Maybe The Castle… [asks Winterhalter in French] What is it?
Winterhalter [in French]: Le Château Ambulant?
Winterhalter: The Castle That is Moving?
Howl’s Moving Castle.
Neige: Yeah, that one. Mononoke.
Neige: Almost all of them. Otherwise, I love the movies Let the Right One In, American Beauty, Contact, and horror stuff like The Thing, and Alien. But that’s not an influence. [laughs]
Winterhalter: [laughs][laughs] That’s not Alcest! [laughs] That would be funny if you incorporated some horror stuff. You could have a sample —
Neige: Actually, there is one movie that is very close to the Alcest universe, but it is not a so good movie. It’s The Lovely Bones.
Oh, is that the Peter Jackson one?
I never saw that one.
Neige: It’s not a very, very good movie, but it’s okay. But it’s very cheesy. Even more cheesy than Alcest. The theme of the movie is 100% Alcest-like. It’s life after life stuff.
Are you joking about saying that Alcest is cheesy, or do you see a side of that in your music?
Neige: No, it’s a joke because I see this so often.[laughs] Yeah. Every interview that I’ve read or heard with you in it talks about the inspiration of these visions that you had as a kid. On this new album, were you still inspired by —
Neige: More than ever. More than ever. The goal of this album was to push the concept of the band to the maximum. All the lyrics are very clear this time because before I was speaking about this but taking other directions to avoid that stuff. But the lyrics of the new album are really speaking about this and nothing else.
Okay. Is that why — I feel that this one is much more warm sounding and more optimistic sounding than ‘Écailles de lune.’
Neige: Of course, of course it is.
Is that the reason why? Because you’re really focusing on that concept?
Neige: Yeah. ‘Écailles de lune’ is the least Alcestian album. That’s the album that is the least close to my ideal. I don’t say it’s not an Alcest album, but it was a kind of…
Yeah. Did you go that way because you were getting tired of the Alcest sound, or did you just want to do something different?
Neige: No because it was kind of a dark time, dark period of my life, and I could only do this kind of album. Very like —
Winterhalter: Like a catharsis, maybe?
Neige: Yeah, in a cathartic way. A very abysmal album.
Neige: Yeah, because you know…
It’s dark, yeah.
Neige: Kind of dark.
Yeah. Like “Sur l’océan couleur de fer”… That song is just one of the — every time I listen to it, it feels like being alone in emptiness or something.
Or space. Do you ever think you’ll get tired of having that inspiration from that source?
Neige: Maybe, one day. Yeah. And then I will stop. I don’t know. How can I know?
I guess so. But it’s not running dry for you now?
Neige: No, no, no. Not for the moment.
That’s good. So those visions — would you consider those to be religious in nature or your own personal philosophy?
Neige: No, it’s only personal. I believe in something. I am not atheist, but I really don’t like religion. For me, spirituality is something you have to live as an individual. Not following any books or any people telling to you what to do in the name of God or something. I think that’s one of the most stupid things ever.
Could you describe what you believe in?
Neige: Just read the Alcest lyrics. You can find many translations on the internet.
No, I try to work on understanding them in French, since I’m studying French.
Neige: Ah! You try to read in French?
Yeah, because in translation you lose a lot of the meaning.
Neige: Yeah. You lose a bit of the… yeah. But it’s not so complicated lyrics.[laughs] Yeah, I guess so. Speaking of lyrics, on ‘Le Secret,’ you used Baudelaire on one of the songs.
Neige: Yeah. “Élévation.”
Do you consider him to be an influence for you, lyrically?
Neige: Yeah, in a way. Yeah. I have very, very, very far to go to write in the same vein as Baudelaire, of course. But I love the way his poetry is so simple and at the same time so rich. It’s a poetry you can read so easily. It’s a book I read when I was maybe 13, and everything was clear for me. But at the same time, it’s extremely referenced; it’s full of references in mythology, in everything. Very rich.
It works on multiple levels.
Neige: Yeah. I don’t like when something is too complicated, too intellectual. Baudelaire, for me, is a poetry from the gut. Really something full of feeling. I like it a lot. It’s not pretentious. It’s very well-written.
It seems to me that’s kind of how Alcest is. In one sense, you can listen to it as a whole, and you don’t need to analyze it or think about it too hard because it kind of just washes over you. But if you want to, you can listen for little details. That’s very cool.
Let’s talk a little bit about the video that you guys made for “Autres temps.” Did you guys have a large hand in helping create that, or did the director do it independently?
Neige: I gave him the directions. Where to go; what to speak about; what kind of images I wanted to have; casting. Pretty much everything had a direction. It’s not me who filmed the video; it’s him.
You structured it very specifically.
Neige: At least in the concept.
What would you say the concept is? It seems to me that it’s kind of about the transience of life, the way everything changes.
Neige: You can see many things in this video. Speaking about the absence of time, but at the same time, it’s the contrast between the fact that nature is moving, changing but still is here and will always be here. And the humans are just going here and disappearing very, very quickly. So it’s very contrasted. But you can see many things. That’s not even my own way to see the video. It’s looking for the water. If you look deeply into the video, it’s two people looking for water across a kind of magical landscape, and at the end, they find the ocean.
I did not pick up on that! That’s very cool.
Neige: Yeah, it’s very subtle. And the ocean is the symbol of immortality in a way because life is the symbol of — water is the symbol of life. So if we consider the ocean, it’s like a… As I believe in immortality, and Alcest is speaking about immortality, it’s — you can see many things. And you know the necklace? That has a meaning as well.
Really? Is that one for the fans to figure out themselves? [laughs]
Neige: That’s a good thing, yeah. You can see all that you want in this video.
That reminds me of — do you read any Japanese haikus?
Neige: Ah, okay.
Because the idea of time passing but things staying the same —
Neige: You mean the very short —
The poems, yeah. It reminds me a lot of that.
Neige: Yeah, yeah.
Winterhalter: Yeah, a bit.
Do you ever read that stuff?
Neige: Yeah, I did. I don’t have a book at home, but I have read some.
Neige: It’s very cool, yeah.
Yeah, definitely. I see a lot of similarity between those and your music.
Winterhalter: It’s… [speaks in French] how do you say… well-seen.
Neige: It’s good that you saw this, yeah.
Well, thank you. [laughs] I read your recent interview with MetalSucks, and you said in that interview that you “don’t think there is a lot of melancholy” in your music and that “it’s not negative” at all. How do the more aggressive elements of your music like the blast beats or the screamed vocals fit into that way of thinking?
Neige: For me, the blast beats —
Winterhalter: Are not brutal.
Neige: Yeah. On “Élévation,” for example, its just something cyclic, something hypnotic.
Kind of like a wave or something.
Neige: Yeah. But it’s nothing to do with [pretends to scream and mimes playing blast beats on drums][laughs]
Winterhalter: Just a wall of sound.
Neige: Yeah. Just [mimes playing drums again] very hypnotic.
And is it the same for the screaming?
Neige: Screaming is more like when the clean voice is not enough.
Just taking it to the next level.
Neige: Yeah. No means to be grim or any shit like that.
You’re not singing about sacrificing goats or something.
Neige: That’s why people are criticizing Alcest. Because it’s not metal enough. But I never pretended to be aggressive. I never said that Alcest was a black metal band. They say, “Oh, it’s so mellow; it’s so sweet.” Of course it is! Of course it’s sweet.
Winterhalter: We’re just using some tools.
You’re putting them in a different direction than say, Burzum or something.
My next question kind of ties into what you said about people criticizing you for that. I’ve read some reviews where critics say that the new album lacks some sort of tension or a drive, an aggression. How do you respond to that?
Neige: Sometimes when I read reviews of the new album, I wonder if I listened to the same music as the people. Not because I say it’s good, not because of that. But I think that the album is full of contrasts, full of different atmospheres. I think it’s an album that was listened to too quickly. It’s a very complex album. It’s long and compact. It’s not so full of arpeggios. I am sure that if some of these critics had listened to the album two or three more times, they would really understand it better.
So you do read reviews?
Neige: Sometimes, yeah.
Do you ever have to get yourself in the zone before you do that, or do you just not care what they say?
Neige: It depends if I am in a good mood or not. [laughs][laughs]
Neige: Yeah, really.
Yeah, it’s probably not a good idea to read those if you’re having a horrible day.
Neige: If I am in a good mood, I will say, “Oh, they don’t understand nothing. They suck.” If I am in a bad mood, I will think, “Oh, shit. Maybe I play shit music. Maybe I should quit music.”[laughs]
Neige: [laughs] No, no, not to that point. [laughs]
Yeah, that would be extreme. I just have one more question for you: both on the album cover and some of the promotional videos, and I think in some of the live videos, there’s this peacock imagery, with the feathers. What inspired you for that? Why a peacock?
Neige: The very first idea was the colors of the feather. For me, they are really surreal, a bit like butterfly colors. It’s like they were painted by someone.
It almost seems unnatural in a way.
Neige: Yeah. I like this because it’s very Alcest-like. It’s too beautiful to just be a coincidence, if you see what I mean.
Neige: It’s so elegant and so ethereal. Yeah. It’s a part now of the Alcest imagery, this peacock stuff. And that’s why we used the animal.
Yeah. It’s very cool artwork. Did you sit down with Fursy and map it out with him?
Neige: Oh yeah. A lot of times. We did maybe four versions of the cover.
Winterhalter: Maybe more.
Did he ever get really pissed off at you guys? Like, “Why are you telling me it’s not good?”
Neige: We were constantly unsatisfied. And still, when we finished the cover, I was unsatisfied.
Neige: I don’t know. I think it was because I was too stressed or something. When we looked at it after when we were on tour, Prophecy made the promotion, and they published the cover. And I saw it, and I was like, “Whoa! But that’s good!” I changed my [mind] and I think it’s maybe the most beautiful Alcest cover.
I really like the last two ones. They’re really beautiful. It’s something you could have as a painting.
Neige: Yeah. Fursy is a genius.
Pick up Alcest’s new album, Les Voyages de l’âme.
For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.
Make sure to check out our review of Alcest’s recent concert at Paris’ Glazart!