Welcome to a place where you’ll get lost easily: noisy, dark, and even asphyxiating. It’s where the Minotaur, Jack Torrance from The Shining, and even Harry Potter end up at some point (and not with a very happy ending, to be true). Luckily, Frédéric D. Oberland seems to have a bright present and even brighter future thanks to Labyrinth, his second album, edited and released by Nahal Recordings on October 26.
The self-taught musician, artist, and co-founder of Nahal is dark, yes, and also experimental. His music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but for those who appreciate the subtleties of sound, the literary (and age-old) references, and a beautiful vinyl in their hands, this album couldn’t be better. Mainly inspired by Dante’s Inferno and Bataille’s Inner Experience, the creative process of this artwork (or artworks, in plural, because it’s an album as well as a video and a site-specific installation) has taken him almost a year and has involved several of his friends – each of them adding new layers of meaning and creativity. So without delay, we release exclusively the video of Labyrinth so you can feast your eyes, ears, and brains.
Frédéric, you’re a multi-instrumentalist, an artist, and also one of the masterminds behind Nahal Recordings. What came first and which do you think defines you the best?
I started playing the piano when I was six years old and attended very boring and uninspiring classical lessons. The only memory I have is of my hands moving on their own while I was trying to read the score. I was very shy and had to take a deep breath before playing recitals, and it was impossible for me to look at my music teachers or at the audience. I finally quit piano when I was fifteen or so, and one year later, I started playing the electric guitar by myself. That was when I really started having fun.
Little by little, I experienced more and more as an autodidact, jumping into all the instruments I could grab: alto saxophone, electronics, effects, vintage synths, etc. My idea wasn’t to learn how to play them, I used them as a way to do some personal exploration through feelings, experiments, games, and even mistakes in order to find languages I liked. I played my first shows when I was in my mid-20s as part of some weird, free-noise bands, and recorded my first sound pieces as soundtracks for experimental short films. Then, I became a member of a Parisian experimental film lab called L'Etna, where I made a few super8 short film essays.
After all this, and after a short time in the French national film school named La Fémis, I came into analogue photography via a cheap plastic camera; then, through point-and-shoot compact gear, I started using it more regularly and shooting mostly in black-and-white highly sensitive films. Both for visuals and sound, I’m interested in textures, grain, shadows, contrasts, and fascinated by trance, energy, immanence, and the perception of time – all of these moments where your mind can lose control and connect with something bigger. In fact, the symbol of Nahal Recordings, the label I'm running with Mondkopf, comes from a shamanic Malekulan tale that is also a rite of passage.
You’re now presenting a video that condenses a sound and visual installation you presented earlier this year at Labanque, an underground art space in Bethune (France). It consisted of a ninety-minute loop installation for eight speakers channels, two stroboscopic lights, one photographic lightbox and a few seats. Tell me, how was the process of turning an installation into a video? One has to be experienced in person and felt through all senses, while the other has to be watched and listened to. What were the biggest challenges you faced when doing so?
That was what we talked about precisely with my friend Grégoire Orio (aka As Human Pattern), the video’s director. He spent one entire day at Labanque in Béthune to experiment the installation by himself, walk around, feel emotions, shoot plans, etc. In this underground labyrinth, there were five main spaces, each of them with a different type of light and sound. But all of them were connected through corridors and a sound loop of one hour and a half. How to get that in a short film?
The idea was to create a video that could partly reflect some of the feelings and situations you could have confronted in this real labyrinth as a spectator and at the same time to build a specific piece which could be a continuity of the installation itself. We decided to approach it with this first person or very subjective point of view. The labyrinth looks like an empty space but inhabited (or haunted) by some invisible presence. And when Grégoire started zooming in some parts of the rooms and capturing details, I was amazed and felt like we had something there. For example, at the end of the video, where you can almost see some imaginary strange bird forms flickering in a sort of grainy sky – they are just some tiny marks on the floor. Grégoire did a stunning job in capturing and sublimating this.
There are two major works that serve as inspiration to Labyrinth: Dante’s Inferno and George Bataille’s Inner Experience. What aspects or characteristics of these works would you say have been the most inspiring or influential in Labyrinth? And what relationship do you draw between these two books?
First, when Léa Bismuth, the curator of this three-year collective exhibition around Georges Bataille, came to ask me to participate, I knew Bataille mainly for his work about eroticism, and his books Story of the Eye and Blue of Noon. I read the Inner Experience volume during a one-month trip to India to think about what I could do later for this installation. That was a pretty intense reading because I was surrounded by strange rituals, sacrifices, and weird relationships with sacred and mystical experiences.
I kept in mind a few sentences from Bataille’s book, like “The mind moves in a strange world where anguish and ecstasy take shape”. I didn't know exactly why but I couldn't stop thinking of this last canto from Dante’s Inferno, which I've been obsessed with for years. In this canto, the narrator, after meeting Lucifer, finds the staircase to escape to the stars. And that's what I understood/interpreted from Inner Experience: a mystical theology and experience of the sacred founded on the absence of god.
I thought it was the perfect metaphor for this tiny but powerful light that you only grab when you push your limits, when you're getting far in your quest of sense – eventually, when you're really down. This is the light that brings you up even stronger than before.
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Another influence is the Minotaur’s myth. The album’s title, Labyrinth, is an evidence, but there’s also a song called Les Larmes de Minos (‘Mino’s tears’, in English). Is Greek mythology another of your references, or do you have something special with this specific story?
Les Larmes de Minos is also the title of the black-and-white photographic lightbox I exhibited in the labyrinth – two eyes emerging from the darkness and staring at the audience. I thought it could be interesting to think about this famous mythological tale in reverse: Theseus would have already killed the Minotaur, and his father, Minos, would actually be in tears looking at you (the viewer). But what kind of tears are they?
The video is dark, sort of abstract, and even claustrophobic. It makes me feel like I’m actually trapped in an endless labyrinth, like I can’t escape this asphyxiating environment. I assume it was your goal, in the end?
Exactly. Like in a big dream.
But in addition to the installation and the video, Labyrinth is as well the title of your new album, released on October 26. Just like these other two, it’s dark, experimental, noisy. What was the starting point and how has it evolved until what we will finally listen to?
The process of this album took me one year or so. I first experimented at home and jammed with electro-acoustic drummer Jules Wysocki around drone-y and repetitive ideas. I chose an A tonal area as the basis, which is the lowest key on the piano and also the standard note to tune all acoustic instruments. Then, I added layers of texture in my home-studio and destroyed the final result with Jules, trying to find the marrow in it, slowly sculpting the sound of the bones, putting hidden melodies into the sonic maelstrom, and also using some processed field recordings.
I also asked my friend Pamela Maddaleno, who is a brilliant photographer and has a sublime low voice, to narrate this last canto from Dante’s Inferno in French and Italian. She’s from Tuscany and knows Dante’s work very well, but she had to find a way to say it properly for nowadays language without being theatrical – as the work is written in old Italian from Tuscany. And I love the tone she found!
Then, we mixed the entire piece with Jules in the underground art space, using all the speakers in each room. After listening to it, my friend Paul Régimbeau (aka Mondkopf) asked me to create a stereo vinyl version of it, so I decided to edit the soundtrack and rethink it as a possible album – turning an hour and a half of broadcast music on eight speakers into a 45-minute long stereo piece. It was an interesting process to deconstruct the piece once more. Also, if you have the proper equipment, I would suggest you to try to listen to the vinyl version in 45 pm instead of 33 pm. The experience hides another possible listening experience.
Now that you’re launching the album, I wonder if you’ll go on tour to present it. How do you work on your live performances? Taking into account how multifaceted you are and how important the visual part is in your work, I assume you won’t just go on stage, play, and leave.
At first, I wasn’t sure about performing solo to ‘defend’ this album, either live or in any other format. As a musician, I’m on the road on a regular basis with my bands Oiseaux-Tempête, Le Réveil des Tropiques, Foudre! and some other collaborative projects. I must confess I feel more confident playing with other people on stage, naturally. Probably, the shy kid is still around...
But Paul pushed me a bit and I’ve recently tried it a couple of times, performing in shows in Beirut and Paris – and I have a few more coming up. Behind the scary thing of being alone playing live, there is surely something to dig and find within yourself. So I’ve decided to use these shows as new material for a possible new album, for example.
These days, I'm really into a mix of textures when using midi-connected analogue synths, machine drums and electric instruments. Oh, and you're right! I asked my friend Grégoire Orio, the director of the video Labyrinth, to do some light show behind me during the performance by using video beams and stroboscopic lights.
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