A few years ago, when I lived in Boston, a WZBC DJ nearly made my head explode with his inspired decision to play a full 45-minute side of Natural Snow Buildings' crushing drone epic Slayer of the King of Hell in the middle of the day. The band sounded like absolutely nothing that I had ever heard before and I immediately resolved to find out absolutely everything I could about them and track down all of their albums. Both endeavors wound up being much more difficult than I had anticipated.
Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte met as university students in Paris in 1997 and began recording together as Natural Snow Buildings about a year later. Since then, the duo has released a steady stream of increasingly brilliant albums both collaboratively and solo (Mehdi as Twinsistermoon, Solange as Isengrind) on an array of small labels. Many of their earliest albums are essentially impossible to find now, having been originally issued in extremely limited editions of 50 or less (and sometimes only just for friends). Consequently, their emergence from the shadows of obscurity has been a long, slow process. Thankfully, due to the efforts of some sympathetic labels, their more recent output is considerably more readily available, yet their philosophy towards self-promotion has not changed much at all: Solange and Mehdi abandoned Paris for the small town of Vitre, rarely play live, and rarely do interviews. Natural Snow Buildings are a band that have attracted a devoted following simply by quietly making incredible and unique music year after year.
This interview was conducted with Mehdi and Solange via email over the course of a few weeks in October 2010. It is a bit lengthy, but could have been far longer, as I have been fascinated by the enigmatic twosome for quite some time and had no shortage of curiosity. In fact, it is only through sheer force of will that I was able to keep it this brief and refrain from exhaustive examinations of things like that ad-hoc exegesis that Solange has been working on.
Where did your interest in exotic instruments originate? Do you have a relatively static collection or is it constantly evolving? Do you ever go to great lengths to track something down?
What do you mean by "exotic?" The culture where the instrument comes from, or the way the instrument works and sounds? What about bagpipes, Ondes Martenots, and theremins? Can you consider them as exotic instruments despite the fact that they originate from western society? Sorry, I digress; it's just that, the word "exotic" seems so relative, and false as a category to describe instruments from all over the place. Back to your question, it's like you're asking us where our interest in instruments in general originated. Why does someone love music?
It depends on the money we can spend on new instruments at one moment. No, we are not collectors of instruments. The instruments we possess are cheap and they do great.
My apologies- that question could have been worded much better, as "instrument collector" has some rather unfortunate shallow/middle-class connotations. However, even within experimental music, the breadth of your multi-instrumentalism is pretty unusual (woodwinds, strings, eastern instruments, obscure western instruments). I was curious about what drove you to go so far with it. For example, do you begin working on a piece and realize that there is a sound you want that can only be achieved by a bagpipe, leading you to go find one and figure out how to play it? Or do you find an inexpensive bagpipe somewhere and think "This is an excellent find... I wonder how I can use this?" More succinctly, is your esoteric instrumentation driven by necessity or curiosity? If it is necessity, do you avoid resorting to synthesizers/samplers out of a desire to be organic/authentic or is it just a simple sound quality issue?
We could not plan in advance how one specific instrument will sound in our own specific environment. We have never thought things like: "Mmmm, this tune is lacking a bagpipe, let's go find one...what about some tampura?" The second option would be the one- it's much more driven by our curiosity about one particular haunting sound we could have heard somewhere. But it's also a necessity, as we never EQ while we mix (if we can still call pushing a button and leaving the room to do something else "mixing"). We only use effects during the recording process itself, so we rely a lot on the intrinsic sonority of one instrument, even if it's distorted…how they could be married with each other without being forced into one another. Now, we could use synthesizers, as the mix of acoustic and electronic sounds has always interested us, but they're expensive pieces of technology (when compared to one hulusi, for example).
On a related note, you seem to have absorbed quite a bit of traditional music from the Celtic Isles, India, and other far-flung locales. Have you actively studied folk/indigenous music from other cultures? Are you influenced at all by French music?
We don't consider ourselves as active students of music; we just listen to music/artists that catch us. Our music is open to any influence. It’s a great part of our life to dig for new sounds. They can come from France, Sudan, Ethiopia, India, USA, Japan, Indonesia geographically; or from various ethnic communities culturally– we'll listen to it with the very same ears. They are all important in our musical ethos independently of the genre they can be filed under.
How often do you play live? Is it only at occasional festivals?
Not much. When we’ve been invited somewhere, we've usually gone.
More importantly, how do you play live? Most of your music seems like it would be very hard to replicate. Do you have actual set lists or is it more improvisatory? Do you enlist other musicians to help?
Our very problem is the mix of loud electric instruments and acoustic ones, a goal pretty hard to achieve on stage. So we've done acoustic-only sets or electric-only sets. It’s a mix of written songs and improvisations. We have never enlisted other musicians to play with us, as we wouldn’t be Natural Snow Buildings anymore if we did– we would be another band. At least we would hope so…
I've never heard your very early self-released cassettes. Have you always had a very definite idea of how you wanted to sound or were there some growing pains, fumblings and false starts at first?
Yeah, a mix of noise/ambient and acoustic music with songs and a cinematic, pop, and experimental feel… And scarily, our first tapes sound a lot like a damaged version of what we are producing now…
Which albums of yours are you most proud of?
We like Daughter of Darkness because it's totally improvised, no overdubs and totally self-indulgent, and Blackest Rainbow did a great job with the packaging (a VHS box with five tapes inside). The Bride of the Spirits 7" we did with Dull Knife- Alison Scarpulla's photos are amazing. The Hollow Mountain vinyl version on the same label is another favorite: with its silk-screened gatefold and wonderfully printed booklet… I like …Then Fell the Ashes too because musically, it's kind of discreet, and artwise, it's simple and wonderfully realized… but we think we like everything we have done so far… We wouldn't wish our albums to be different…
Most of your albums are released in very limited quantities and tend to sell-out quite rapidly. What role do you play in the actual commerce/distribution end of your music? Is it something you actively try to avoid? What are your expectations when you finish an album?
Our role in the commerce/distribution end is a very small one, as it's up to the labels we work with. We're not disinterested in the process of selling and distributing music, but we feel we're better at playing it and creating the art that will contextualize it. It's pretty great just to work on an album and share the birth of a release with someone exterior to the band. And that it will be released in some form or another so we can think about the next one.
Given how quickly your albums vanish and how much effort goes into their (sometimes handcrafted) artwork, is it frustrating that most people will only experience your music through MP3s? Is it difficult to keep releases unique/special while still producing enough to meet demand?
It's been a long time since we've done an entirely handcrafted release at home… We'd rather concentrate on our work with labels. At the time of The Dance of the Moon and the Sun, we thought that the music would interest 30 persons at best, so… 50 copies was a hell of a lot of work. We are happy to see that people are actually sharing our albums through blogs and downloading–we've relied a lot on MP3s for the proliferation of our music. We think it's great that even if a record is sold-out or long gone, it will be never be lost thanks to MP3 sharing.
We've had the good fortune to work with record labels that are pretty open, sensitive, and receptive to our artwork. And since we could not rely on the handmade feel anymore, it forced us to convey this unique character through the quality of drawings instead. The way we conceive an artwork and its meaning–in conjunction with the music it is supposed to illustrate–has evolved through our work with labels and their constraints.
How closely intertwined are your music and your album art? Does one ever provide clues to more fully appreciating the other?
They are intertwined in a very loose and intuitive way. We tend to totally forget the music while we’re working on the art…just keep some impressions, some free links. What we're interested in at the moment of the creation will have an impact on the realization too. We always hope that music and artwork will work together at some point and make sense… The fact that we're taking care of most of our artwork ourselves should be a hint: that’s probably the same process behind directing the music and the artwork, despite their antithetic nature.
It seems like the artwork accompanying your albums is probably only a small fraction of Solange's visual art output. Is it? If so, are there any plans for the rest of it?
Solange: In fact, I don't draw a lot. Most of the time, I blacken sketchbooks and really concentrate on record artwork only when I have to do so. I see myself more as a musician than a visual artist.
Your sound is very unique and "timeless," seeming to have more in common with traditional folk/ritual music than anything being made at this specific time in history. Is it very difficult to maintain that feel? Do you reject a lot of ideas for being too derivative or too "now?"
No. it's not difficult. I've never felt that I would have to maintain it, I've never felt I would lose it…. but this particular feel probably comes from the fact that we're recording at home with our own techniques, and that we barely know any theory about recording music. It's totally amateurish. It's an everyday life activity for us, we don't ask ourselves many questions while we do it. In a sense, home recording is a form of field-recording. As for the ritual aspect, we are very fond of religions, cults, eschatologies, world visions, and philosophical systems from every place in the world–it bends the very way we perceive our own environment, so it's no surprise that it permeates what we create…
We have never rejected an idea because it's too derivative. Quite the contrary-we want to be derivative and anchored… Is there any music in the world that is not derivative?
Modlitewnik has a very ancient, druidic/pagan atmosphere (to me, anyway). Was there a specific time and place that you were trying to evoke? I am also deeply curious about the origin/meaning of the letter/number pyramids on the album's back cover.
Solange: You mean consciously? No… I barely have an idea of what it will sound like when I start working on a record.
The pyramids are teaching tools. I drew the back cover like an alphabet in a school manual, replacing the names of thinkers from classic humanity (Erasmus, Aristotle, Plato…) with those who would be the teachers in some imaginary demonic book of prayers. Right now, I'm making an ad-hoc exegesis: while I was making it, I just found the pyramids idea, well, kind of cool. It just makes sense in retrospect and because you've asked…
Your albums have a very "vintage" production to them, but many of your songs are very complicated and dense. Is everything still recorded onto tape or do you sometimes use computers?
I'll shatter a myth here: we don't use tapes to record and we haven't for years… Everything is recorded on a digital portable studio, as it's handier and it doesn't stand in the process of playing music… we don't intend to sound old… it's just the way we use the studio that makes our recordings feel vintage to your ears...
Both of you have voracious and wide-ranging cultural interests, but you seem to exist as an isolated pocket away from the modern world. Do you follow current music? Are you part of a community of like-minded people?
Yes, of course. We don't see ourselves stopping listening to music, current or ancient: it feeds us in the same way that literature, cinema, and every inch of our environment feeds us…
In a sense we are part of a remote community through the links we drew and will draw with record labels, other musicians and artists, listeners… We don't want to fit in too much though. We are pretty comfortable in our outcast role, we like borders and peripheries too much…
Are there any influences that have had a direct, conscious effect on what you are trying to do or is everything assimilated in a more oblique way?
Basically, we consider that all music that we listen to and like will influence us. So, we can cite a bunch of artists we think have influenced us in a way or another. There are some albums though that I like because of their particular ambience and that always inspire me, like Nico's Marble Index, Sonic Youth's Evol, Alice Coltrane's Universal Consciousness, Patti Water's College Tour, John Hill's 6 Moons of Jupiter, Sun Ra's Space is the Place, Tarentel's We Move Through Weather, Michiko Toyama's Waka and Other Compositions, Buffy Sainte-Marie's Illuminations, anything by Kath Bloom and Loren Mazzacane Connor, everything by The Christ Tree Community, Sibil Baier's Color Green, anything by Steven R. Smith, the list can go on and on and changes all the time…And it's kinda trivial, but besides albums as a whole, the shuffle function on MP3 players has been a pretty inspiring and formative influence for the last 6 years as well, in its way of freely associating random music of various origins…
I've got the feeling that every time we've tried to replicate consciously something we’ve listened to, we have failed because we have lost the specificity of it in the process. Even if we try to imitate some structure, or a way to use some instruments over one another...as soon as we are confronted with the act of playing it, it has changed. In a way, the music that we have listened to has to be in a state of fragmentation to be included/reconstructed in our song forms– it has to be partially forgotten, or in a state of dismembered impressions. Finally, we don't have any control on our influences, you can't ever know what’s going to emerge.
Do all Natural Snow Buildings songs originate as collaborations or do they evolve from material that you’ve written individually? If it is the latter, how do you decide if an idea is going to wind up on a Natural Snow Buildings album and not an Isengrind/Twinsistermoon one?
More than half of Natural Snow Buildings pieces originate in collaborative improvisations. The other half are compositions from one or the other of us that we overdub. However, one can also re-record a common improvisation alone-we have no particular rule when it comes to Natural Snow Buildings records. Isengrind and Twinsistermoon are strict solo affairs.
I guess what I was trying to ask is more specifically "There is often not a dramatic difference between Mehdi's vocal pieces on a Natural Snow Buildings album and those recorded as TwinSisterMoon. How do you decide which ones to finish on your own and which ones to enlist Solange for?" However, I think you may have inadvertently answered that with another response about narrative/thematic consistency within albums. And it may be a pointless question anyway, as it is probably taken on an intuitive and case-by-case basis. Regardless, now I am curious about whether all three projects are constantly in progress at once or if there is a designated "we are working on a new Natural Snow Buildings album now–the music that we write now is intended specifically for that album" period.
Mehdi: There are differences in the recording and composition process of songs: Twinsistermoon songs are often captured on a one take/good take basis; almost unfinished in a sense, like a sketch. Vocal pieces that will end on Natural Snow Buildings albums are more reworked, with overdubs and so on and a different sense of space. Of course, you'll find counter-examples...
The three projects are constantly in progress at once, paralleled to the point of blurriness...
...Then Fell The Ashes feels like a deliberate, complete song suite. When you write an album, do you attempt to achieve a kind of abstract narrative flow? Do the lyrics follow a cryptic thread from song to song? Also, I was wondering if "Then Fell The Ashes" (the song) is indicative of a conscious song-structure experiment to find a bridge between the "folk" and "drone" sides of your music or just something that felt right.
Mehdi: Yes, absolutely, it's a kind of soundtrack that doesn't need a film, a self-sufficient score, based not on a script, but on bits, pieces, and shards that will be glued together by what the music makes you feel. Sung parts are more spontaneous and can be considered as quasi-field recordings, like extracts of dialogue that re-contextualize the instrumental, more overwhelming parts; so yeah, that's a sort of a thread…
As for the song structure question, it's just a flow that leads from one continuous form to a discontinuous one, like water crystallizing into ice… and you can embed anything in a drone…
Do you have any upcoming releases? Is there any way to stay informed of Natural Snow Buildings news?
Yeah, a new NSB 2xLP/CD called Waves of the Random Sea on Blackest Rainbow soon, a reissue with bonuses for ...Then Fell the Ashes on Primary Numbers, and a reissue of the first TSM LP called When Stars Glide to Solid with bonuses on Blackest Rainbow again. We also have a project of several albums with Ba Da Bing for next year-that is what we are currently working on. Probably a LP on Aguirre records, too…
Also, this interview… or our mail: snowbuild at hotmail.com.
(All photos are by Mehdi and Solange)