Cercueil: Buried Treasure

In our review from Les Transmusicales de Rennes 2009, we described Cercueil as a "dark, ghostly mix of updated Cold Wave electronic pop and guitar noise." Here, the group talk about the working methods and being slaves - or not - to the machine.

Rockfort: You started as a duo and then become a trio – was that change between the first and second album (Ed: 'Shoo Straight Shout' released in March this year on Optical Sound)? 

Nico (guitars/bass/keyboards): The first release wasn’t really an album, just an EP, but it became an LP on vinyl with remixes. The second one is our real first album and we asked Olivier to join because we wanted to have not only electronic drums but something more acoustic. On the first EP it was only a drum machine, but now it's both drum machine and acoustic drums – we don’t want to leave the electronic stuff out.
Rockfort: Olivier, was it easy for you to find a way to fit into the band’s sound?
Olivier (drums): I think it’s the first time I had to play with a drum machine, and it was fun to find a new way to play drums. It’s the first time I’d played in a project where the electronic side was so important. The drums don’t dominate the electronic side or vice-versa, we’re looking for a real balance. It encouraged me to find other ways of playing, new ways of thinking about the rhythms, because I’m no longer providing the skeleton for the track. The best thing about Cercueil for me is that I can progress and not rest on my laurels as a traditional drummer.
Rockfort: Skeleton’s an interesting word in the context of the band. Particularly seeing you live, it didn’t seem as though the music had flesh, as though it wasn’t fully incarnate. That’s a compliment by the way…!
N: I don’t know about that, people always tell us that we have a very full sound. But it’s true we work more through layers of instrumentation rather than having a traditional rock n’ roll core. I sometimes use my guitar almost like a sampler, and there are already keyboard sounds in the samples and we’ll add more keyboards on top, but there isn’t a core on which we build.
O: It’s a method of composing as well, we not necessarily looking for the stability of a rock song which is built according to a certain reassuring model, from a-z, we’re more into instability and rhythms that are completely backwards… I think that’s what you’re talking about. They’re not songs with a solid base that you can automatically get your head around. It’s something to the side of that, but it’s still very much thought out.
Rockfort: How did having a drummer on stage impact on the live experience?
N: It changed a lot, it provided a physical support that we really needed. Initially we weren’t always comfortable on stage, but we were trying a lot of different things as well – we used to come with a lot of equipment and tinker a lot, but we’ve gradually streamlined things to be able to focus more on being on stage and enjoying ourselves, and less concerned with the technical side of things. I think it has definitely freed us up on stage, even within our self-imposed limits.
O: It took me a while actually – what’s really hard for a drummer is playing along with a machine without seeming like you’re playing to a metronome. It took me a bit of time to realise that it wasn’t important to stay exactly in time with the machine –
I know the machine won’t stop but that’s a freedom, and what’s interesting is to play alongside it, adding something more human. When I realised that I started to enjoy myself much more on stage and now I don’t think about it at all, I don’t have a click track, I just play along to the music as the audience hears it. It’s about turning a constraint into an advantage. I’m free to stand up and just hit a tom for a while, the track isn’t going to stop if I stop. It’s the first group I can play in standing up!
Rockfort: So limitations are important, they guide you to an extent.
N: It’s not conscious; it’s just that we’ve chosen to work that way.
Pénélope (voice/keyboards/guitar): And the computer is a bit like the fourth member of the group and it guides us a bit, like a conductor. The constraint exists at the level of improvisation, which we do very little of, but it opens up possibilities when it comes to texture and colour in the music.
O: The times when we improvise are the moments when we screw up! It’s interesting seeing how we recover from that. Usually if I make a mistake I repeat it four times…
Rockfort: In spite of the name (which means coffin in French), you don’t see yourselves as a goth group.
N: Not at all, we chose the name almost as a joke, something that would be an awkward fit for us. We thought ‘ok, let’s use the name and see what happens’. We hoped the name would attract people’s interest, and they might check us out to satisfy their curiosity. Sometimes people end up not liking us at all, but at least it might get them thinking. But people have often coming along thinking we were a goth group.
Rockfort: However, the darker New Wave (dubbed Cold Wave in France) sounds seem like a possible reference point.
N: If that’s the case it’s in spite of ourselves, I think, just down to things we heard when we were younger, that we grew up with, but what we’re more interested in is mixing songs with a pop – or perhaps Cold Wave – influence with more modern ideas. We like groups like Matmos, Black Dice, Liars; we’re not keen on being tagged as Cold Wave.
Rockfort: You’re from Dunkirk…?
N: Yes, we’re originally from Dunkirk but the three of us live in Lille now.
P: We’ve been there for eight years now.
Rockfort: How has the scene in Lille changed over that time? I get the impression the scene wasn't as vibrant eight years ago.
N: We had already been making music in Dunkirk back then, and there definitely wasn’t really much of a scene so we organised gigs in our house. We invited groups that were touring, sometimes English groups, and we had them play in our living room. So that was our way of creating a scene there.
Rockfort: Was it really just a standard living room?
N: Yes, we held the concerts about once a month, with maybe a maximum of 70-80 people in there. We had groups like the The Oxes, The Robocop Kraus…
O: There were always lots of groups in Lille, even 15 or 20 years ago but they were less visible. Over the last ten years there have been more venues, more professionals taking risks with younger groups. There are better links between venues, professionals and young groups.
Rockfort: Do you still organise and promote music events yourselves?
N: Yes, we met Olivier almost immediately and carried on with that, we still put on gigs in a venue called La Malterie with a capacity of about 120. We put on a kind of club with one or two gigs a month. So we’ve never stopped really, it’s also a way of keeping in touch with what’s going on, with groups on tour.
Rockfort: Apparently you’ve also worked on film soundtracks…
P: It’s mostly been Cine Concerts, putting music to pre-existing films, but now we’re doing concerts with films we’ve produced ourselves, frequently with images that we’ve found on the internet, but there’s a lot of détournement. We also do music for films, documentaries, shows…
N: I also play the cello, with a lot of effects…
P: But it’s completely separate approach from Cercueil.
N: But naturally it feeds into what we do because we learn something with every new experience and that can’t help but inform what we do with Cercueil.
Rockfort: Are there limits to the band’s aesthetic – are there ideas, or things you work on, that you think aren’t appropriate for Cercueil?
NPénélope and I have always had a more experimental group on the side called Puce Moment, and it’s true that there are things we do there that we wouldn’t do with Cercueil. With Cercueil we’re keen to keep a song-based format in some way, it’s more live and direct. And we like to keep that apart from when it’s just us with our machines, which we do to fiddle around, experiment with sounds which we then we turn into samples and play other instruments over.
Rockfort: Where do the words come from?
P: It’s me usually, although sometimes Nico comes up with some initial ideas. The words are largely inspired by the music, because the lyrics come afterwards. So it’s usually the atmosphere of the music that suggests images that then take shape in the lyrics.
N: It’s important that the lyrics are open-ended enough to allow space for interpretation.
Rockfort: Do you work quickly? Are you prolific?
P: On this album, yes.
N: We wrote it in about two and half months. We’re all very busy doing different things, but when we get together it all goes very quickly.
Rockfort: Is that because you feel like you’ve found your voice, does it come to you quite easily now?
P: It’s a new experience every time, we wrote the first album the two of us in our flat and it was the beginning of the collaboration with Olivier, and we did everything with amazing rapidity.
O: But we’ve been playing together for more than a year, but it’s still coming together little by little and I don’t think there’s a formula yet. We might see it differently after the second album!
N: We don’t have a traditional group relationship, we don’t come up with ideas through jamming and rehearsing, the ideas always precede that and then we work on them before and after, I’m always working on new sounds that I want to try out. I’ll come up with something and send it to Olivier, so he can think about what he wants to add.
O: It’s new for me, all the groups I was with in the past we always wrote through jamming. And it’s interesting, it leads to things that wouldn’t happen if we were always together in the same room. We have a little bit of distance to think and to suggest new ideas. I don’t think it’s a replacement for being three or four people in a room together but it’s a good way of working.
P: And even if the music is a bit virtual and pre-conceived in a way, we can really live it when we play live, there’s something organic that happens on stage.
Interview and translation by David McKenna