- Mon, 2012-04-23 17:33
Earmarked by many as one of Britain’s more promising and idiosyncratic prospects of recent years, London-based Breton have just released their debut album, Other People’s Problems. Toying with elements of hip hop and dance amid their angular indie riffs, the boys also find a creative outlet in crafting short films and visual clips to accompany their music. It’s a potent brew.
I Like Music caught up with frontman Roman Rappak ahead of their headline slot at London’s Corsica Studios, chatting with him about chaotic live shows, their creative HQ bretonLABS, surrealist literature and starting out life as a pretend band.
“I Like Music because...I have no other way of expression. Except for video, and graphic design, and remixes and podcasts.” Roman, Breton
ILM: You’re at London’s Corsica Studios tonight. What does this show mean to you as a band?
Roman: It’s a meaningful place for us to play. We’re based just up the road and we’ve seen loads of DJs there from Boiler Room nights and things. Plus it’s our first headline show in London. The fact that it’s sold out is good, we don’t have to worry about the turn out. We’ve done two support tours and done loads of support shows and it’s a bit soul-destroying doing that. I mean, that’s what it’s for: you’re meant to go there and be like “hello, people who aren’t remotely interested. Here’s a song...”
ILM: Have they been going well though?
Roman: The support tours? Yeah, they’ve been amazing. You learn so much. Playing rooms where it’s difficult to play is a really good exercise. Difficult in the sense that no-one’s screaming after every song, and no-one’s singing along. When we supported Tom Vek everyone had been waiting for Tom Vek to play for five years, so the idea of waiting another half an hour to watch us was excruciating. I didn’t even want to wait; I just wanted to see Tom Vek!
ILM: What is your vision for the Breton live show?
Roman: The assumption is that live music is probably more important than it has been in 60 years. Everyone thought that when recording technology came about – vinyl – that it would kill live shows. Going to see music was the only way that you could hear it, and then suddenly you didn’t need to go anywhere to hear it. Weirdly enough the internet has meant that live shows have become really important again. Our album has been out for two days, and I guarantee that you can go and download it on something like Pirate Bay. If you can download all the mp3s, what can a band possibly offer you? It has to be the live show. Some concerts that I’ve been to – even quite small gigs – have been the most incredible moments of my life. Just listening to some music and being there with other people, having the band blow your mind... And I do feel that with records, but with records it’s more like a nostalgic, remembering where you were when you heard it kind of thing. It’s the repetition of an experience rather than a new one.
ILM: And when you see something live there are always going to be one off moments, nuances and experiences that can never be repeated...
Roman: Exactly, and that’s something that is massively important. Especially in electronic music, because those nuances are fewer and fewer because it’s a machine that made it. It’s not like a bloke with a guitar, and one night it’s slightly out of tune, and another night his fingers are sweaty so he misses a string, or the drummer doesn’t hit a beat, or he hits it extra hard... The more electronic the music goes, the more soulless it is in a way; the fewer errors and chaos and nuances there are. So, we try to capture a lot of them on the record to begin with, but also add as much chaos... It sounds stupid but, we try to get as much wrong as possible!
ILM: To create as many new live moments as possible...
Roman: Well, tonight we’re playing samples that are recorded and will sound the same no matter how hard you play them, but there’s a human being playing them, so he’ll get them wrong slightly, or he’ll be excitable and play them faster. And the visuals; even though they’re videos and they’re captured moments on film, they’re still triggered by a human being who’s on stage with us. Each song has got its own video, so one night you’ll see it and it’ll have a particular vibe to it, and another night it’ll be completely different, or different enough to warrant wanting to come and see the band again.
ILM: What equipment do you use up on stage?
Roman: Do you really want to know that?
ILM: Um...yeah. I’m sure people want to know.
Roman: They do, they do, but sometimes it’s so difficult, because you do have to learn a lot of things, and then you have to forget them, because you have to realise that it doesn’t really matter what’s up there. You don’t want to get totally lost in it. But, we use Native instruments. They came up with MPCs, which are important because they’re the physical aspect of it. It’s not like someone presses play on an iPod and it plays the track. You chop up every single section so it’s like a sampler: even though I’ve recorded stuff in the studio using electronic machines, you then cut that into pieces and make a human trigger them.
ILM: Which is exciting.
Roman: It can be really exciting. Sometimes humans can’t play things that machines can, and you have to make a compromise. Sometimes a human being will add things that you would never have thought of doing when you’re in the studio on your own. Their passion can still be communicated. People pick up on a song having an energetic moment, or a melancholic moment. You could never turn up the ‘melancholy’ button, or the ‘emotional suspense’ fader...
ILM: How are you feeling now your debut album is out?
Roman: It’s fucking mental! I’ve never had an album out. There’s been a really positive response. I don’t know what to say about it really. I’m scared that it’ll all stop. I never know whether you should say “well, I put a lot of work in, so I’m glad people like it.”
ILM: There isn’t anything wrong with that!
Roman: No, there isn’t anything wrong with that, but then I think that I’m very lucky that I’ve got musicians in my band that I really love, and who really encourage each other. You could really fuck up. You could have non-supportive bandmates, or too many clashes with who wants to do what. Or you could have rotten luck: play the wrong show, get the wrong guy in, choose the wrong tracks for your EP. We’ve had a lot of good luck, and there have been a lot of gut instincts. We’ve not gone “this should be on the record because it’s a single,” we’ve put on songs that are really important to us. When we started we took it to some majors, and first of all they say “if you sign with us we’ll sell 10,000 singles, and send you to Mexico City, and do this and do that.”
ILM: They tried to entice you with sales figuers?
Roman: Yeah! And they do it as if it’s a good thing, whereas in actual fact you’re being told you have to sell 10,000 singles. What the fuck happens if I don’t? They’re already spending on you as if you’re going to sell those figures. Fat Cat said “yeah, we love what you’re doing!” Where a major label would say “you can’t really put this out as a single, because it’s four minutes long, it’s slow, it’s got no real chorus and it’s a bit miserable,” Fat Cat were just like “put it out, we don’t care.” It still got played on the radio, and did all the things they said it wouldn’t. So, we’ve been fortunate.
ILM: Well, thank goodness you were left to your own devices.
Roman: Yeah, people have responded to it by saying that it doesn’t sound like other things and I do think that’s because we’ve been left to do what we want. I wanted to do this interview in our studio, which is just around the corner. It’s such an important part of it. It’s a massive warehouse space that’s got everything we need in it.
ILM: How did you end up there?!
Roman: I have this amazing ex-girlfriend who was in a band, and she rehearsed there. We were so stuck, so she asked the guy who’s place it was if we could rehearse there. We started to, and then the guy who lived there had a kid, and then a breakdown... He had a particularly rough winter, there wasn’t even any heating in there. As soon as he said “look, I’m leaving this place,” I just knew...
ILM: Knew that it was an opportunity to focus on the band?
Roman: You know that feeling you get when you look back and you go “fuck, I’ve got seven ideas that I’ve started...” It’s the worst thing in the world not to finish projects. It’s like a millstone around your neck. There’s always that little voice in your head saying “you remember last time, when you started that thing but never finished?” I think that’s the worst thing in the world. So this was an opportunity to really pursue something, to see it through to its conclusion, whether it was a good or bad one.
ILM: So what was the conclusion? The finished album?
Roman: I think the conclusion is still eluding me. It’s not necessarily a conclusion in the sense that it’s a final result. If you spend twenty minutes on a piece of music you have twenty minutes worth of understanding about what you could do with it. If you spend two days on it you would have maybe four different versions of that same song. If you spend two years on it – not necessarily just on that song, but trying out new instruments, new people, playing new cities – then you definitely have a better understanding of making better music and art.
ILM: How did you end up with the album’s title: Other People’s Problems?
Roman: Have you heard of automatic writing? In the Surrealist Manifesto, which is by André Breton, they talk about how you’re a slave to your habits. You sit down, you try to write something, and it reads like the past twenty things that you wrote. It’s because you’re sitting in the same room trying to write about the same things. Then suddenly, something inspires you and you’re off. Writing about something else because you’ve had a different start point. There’s an equivalent, the surrealist game when you write a sentence on a piece of paper and fold it, then someone else does the same, and so on. The interesting bit isn’t that you’re opening this thing and it reads gibberish, the interesting thing is that you’re interpreting different things from it. And no-one’s written it to make you feel a certain way, so everything that you’re feeling from it is pure inspiration. It’s like when you look at a cloud and see something there. There’s no artifice.
It was the same thing with the music. We were trying to name the album, which is really hard; everything sounds really contrived. So we decided each to bring three books to rehearsal, and we’d each randomly choose one of the books, then we’d open a page and choose a random chapter. The one we chose was the philosophy of Andy Warhol – he has really interesting things to say about popular culture – and this paragraph was about when psychiatry became a bit of a fad in the sixties. He’s kind of jealous because everybody else seems to have all these problems, and they’re seeing shrinks and talking about it. He felt like he was missing out, so he books an appointment with this psychiatrist, who tells him he’ll call him, but forgets to. So he’s waiting thinking “I feel I should have problems, and be talking about them and indulging them in some way,” and as he’s walking somewhere he sees this black and white TV – he’s never really had or watched one – and he buys it, takes it home and watches it for four days. He watches news, he watches game shows, he watches people talking about their problems. He’s so obsessed with it and consumed by it that he forgets all about his own problems.
We liked it because we were talking about all these outside influences, and the chaotic randomness that gave us this space, and we realised that it was because of the recession that we’d got this building. It’s something that’s affected us, but it’s someone else’s problem. We’re not slaves to the economy, but we are affected by it. And there were various other elements – not necessarily negative problems – that affected us, so it seemed to fit.
ILM: A couple of reviews have mentioned that your album has mass-appeal, what do you think of that notion?
Roman: I feel that you can get away with talking about things and having an aesthetic and conceptual approach to something, but you can’t just do that. I hate art when it’s just conceptual for the sake of it. But I do like to talk about the music. One of the most exciting bits of a record is what it made you feel, and having a conversation about it afterwards: what you shared with someone. So, I think an invitation into the music or the conversation has to exist.
Aside from that, I love pop music. I love to play someone my song and they hum it, whereas if you play a Burial song to 80% of people it’s kind of alienating, especially if they don’t know the background narrative of the musical style. It’s difficult music. The album’s meant to be a portrait of what we listen to. I love really stupid pop songs. I love songs where you don’t have to think about them. There’s something more instinctive and primal about that. A Rihanna song speaks to you in a caveman way: you hear it once and you can hum it. That’s a real gift if an artist can pull that off.
ILM: Film plays a big part in your music. How did that synergy come about?
Roman: Originally we just made short films. I was studying at LCC, and through my film degree I’d ended up doing sound design. I’d never really produced any music before, but if you do sound design you’re using similar things, except you’re mixing footsteps, or atmospheric rain, or dialogue. I love that, because you’re describing an image with sound. Whenever I listen to music I have a picture in my head, rather than it just being a tune. So, Adam and I were making short films, which we really wanted to show to people. It wasn’t that serious, but we wanted to show our friends and put it on YouTube. And, going back to the internet, it makes you want to go to the cinema more, or go to see live music more, because the screen has got smaller and smaller, and the speakers have got shitter and shitter. We really wanted to black out a room, have really fucking loud sound, and play these films to see if they worked. We couldn’t get into any film festival circuits because it’s really complicated. You have release forms and then you get there and it’s like 20 films of varying degrees of shitness, then you invite your friends along and they’re paying £10... So Adam had the idea that we should just pretend we’re a band, send them the demo of our soundtrack stuff, and then go to a pub –
ILM: It started off with you pretending that you were a band!?
Roman: Well, it didn’t work at first, because we sent them the stuff, told them we were a band, and they listened to the demo of these drones and atmospheric stuff –
ILM: Was this under the name Breton?
Roman: Yeah. And we sent them links to our videos so they could listen to it and imagine what it was going to be like. They were like “it’s total bollocks. There’s going to be a band playing five indie songs, then there’s going to be another band that play five indie songs, and then you guys are going to go on and play some abstract, wanky art-kid stuff. No.” So we decided that we’d put two tracks at the beginning of the demo tapes that still used elements of found sounds and atmospheric noises, but had verses and choruses and singing and stuff, then all the other stuff at the end of it. Promoters and booking agents never listen past the first track, so we were safe to say “well, we sent you a tape, and you listened to it and said we could do it.”
ILM: So you got your first gigs...
Roman: Yeah and we’d play the first song, there’d be some choruses and clapping and guitars, then the second song would get a bit weirder and have some visuals, and for the third song we’d get our mates to shut off the lights, and we’d turn up all these atmospheric sounds with Adam triggering dialogue or footsteps or creaky doors, and I’d be playing melodies on keyboards and guitars. It worked really well! We played some squat parties, and places where they’d put on that kind of weirdness, and some blogs and fanzines picked up on it. Then someone said we should put out a record. It was really strange, because the whole point of it was that it was a visual thing, and this was the soundtrack. It’d be like putting out atmospheric sounds and dialogue on a CD. So we blended them all together; not compromising too much of the cinematic aspect, but making things work in the format of verses and choruses.
ILM: The whole thing has grown pretty quickly.
Roman: Yeah, that’s what’s great about the internet: you can send someone a track and it gets linked on someone’s Facebook, and then on someone’s Soundcloud... I did an interview with this French journalist, and they’re really obsessed with the English underground. I was really trying to answer their questions on it, and then I realised I don’t really think there is an underground...
Roman: Well, not because everything’s mainstream, but because you can get everywhere. The notion that something is underground suggests you can’t get hold of it, because there isn’t a major label that’s putting it out across the world. But if you put something that’s a good idea on Soundcloud or YouTube people will do their own promotion. Even the concept of ‘going viral’ is a bit dated. Viral just means people like it. You get big companies trying to simulate the viral advert because for them word of mouth is automatic advertising, but you can have an idea and send it to six people, and they’ll send it to twenty people... It’s only really effective ideas that go everywhere. Certain types of bands and journalists want to imagine some secret thing that’s going on that they’ve found out about, but I just think that if it’s good then you’ll find out about it. If you go out and look for great music on the internet you’ll find loads.
ILM: [As the other interviewer waits, I'm nudged by the PR to wrap our conversation up...] So....Finally, what have you got planned for the rest of the year?
Roman: We’re making a documentary about music for the Sundance film festival. Ironically enough, the London Short Film Festival, which is the one that we never got to do because of forms, is doing a retrospective of all of our stuff. And some music has been commissioned for London Fashion Week, for George Harding’s catwalk show. We’re touring the states, and doing a gig in Mexico City, and doing some festivals, and we’re not going to see any of our family or our friends. And we’re doing some remixes. And I’m writing some songs for the next record....