Ray Bartok Interview: "Chance has its part to play"

The eponymous debut album by Parisian duo Ray Bartok (aka Tino on vocals and sampler and Larry on drums), the follow-up to the excellent 'No Panic' EP, sees them expanding on their compact, pulp-y, highly visual style.

Each song from these dapper gentlemen (suits are de rigueur on stage) is like a puzzle or a bizarre hybrid contraption of indeterminate function, featuring samples of classical music, jazz, film scores, the pair's own instruments and, often, Tino's distinctively croaky vocals. 'Ray Bartok', which was produced by Norscq, also features a cover of The Stranglers' 'Bear Cage'.

Rockfort: When, why and how did you form Ray Bartok?
Tino: We formed Ray Bartok in the last days of December 2006 but we've known each other for almost 20 years. It's a strong but easy friendship, which is very practical when it comes to on-stage rapport. A small gesture is enough for us to find our bearings, which aren't always that obvious! We met in 1992, playing in an experimental group that mixed rock and jazz, before getting together with a guitarist friend to form a kind of post-folk orchestra drawing very much on Eastern music, comparable to Beirut or Julian Curwin nowadays. We've also composed the music for several films together, worked on sound effects. The idea of Ray Bartok, following on from a fairly unfocussed period, was to rediscover some energy, through playing live, exploring instruments we hadn't used before (the sampler, basically). We wanted to experiment while retaining a certain element of rock you can dance to.

Rockfort: Can you talk about your sampling process - you sample yourselves as well as classical music, film scores?
Tino: The sampler has a primordial place in our music as it guides the majority of our compositions. The majority of the samples we start with – guitars we've played, usually – are then replayed at a much higher or lower pitch and this deformation can lead to actual rhythms, as is the case on several tracks on our album like 'Là-bas' and 'Kreepin'. Then the drums enter the picture, giving impetus and a structure to the track. We then progress to the last layer of arrangements, adding snatches of jazz, classical music, easy listening and more, and there as well chance has its part to play.

Rockfort: Has the visual side (sleeves, projections) been important for you from the beginning?

Tino: Yes, completely. We're immersed in all that – cinema, photography, design. Images allow us to stake out our territory even more clearly, I think you have to take that seriously. On top of that, the people we collaborate with – VJs, photographers, graphic artists – all bring their own approach, their own style and, on that front, we're lucky to have these people around us. It's not a collective, more individuals who come to blend our work with their own, to share the experience. And it's fascinating. Working guided by a certain rhythm, not only a sonic but a visual one, is a pleasure. The films of Jarmusch or Kaurismaki play out according to a rhythm, and that's before you even take the soundtrack into account. We're touring a 'cinémix' at the moment and we play live with a VJ, Italovideo. It fits very well with one aspect of Ray Bartok, the film music side.
Rockfort: Terms like 'collage' and 'montage' seem appropriate to your music. Do you see it in that way?

Tino: In a way, yes, because of the number of samples. And records like those of Amon Tobin or Hal Willner are definitely reference points. In a way no, because everything is played live. I struggle with laptops on stage. I don't use loops, for example. So it's a kind of live collage, via my big fingers!
Rockfort: How do you find the 'subjects' of your songs? Do you use any techniques influenced by surrealism or Oulipo?
Tino: The lyrics are generally quite brief and repetitive. The sound of the words, their rhythm, counts for a lot. The subjects are then determined by a phrase, two or three words that work together. But basically, the words focus on women, obsessively. We're quite far from Oulipo even if I like that sense of play and have devoured the work of Perec, Calvino and Queneau. If there is an 'oulipian' constraint at work in Ray Bartok, it's more in limiting the sounds to the five octaves of the keyboard. But that still leaves quite a lot of room for manoeuvre...

Rockfort: How important is humour in Ray Bartok?
Tino: Very important but it's underlying, let's say. There's musical humour, certainly. It's good not to take yourself to seriously, it allows you a little perspective. Humour creates a certain healthy discrepancy. But lunacy is equally important – we're ultimately drawn to musicians who are out of the ordinary, out of step, Raymond Scott, Moondog, The Residents.”

: Some of the album's tracks almost cross over into hip-hop - are you both rap fans?
Tino: Hip-hop is certainly one of the most interesting styles going, even today. For its rhythmic foundation firstly, the phrasing, but also the use of samples. After that, obviously, not all hip-hop is equally good. But with everything that's been done, including Outkast, A Tribe Called Quest, Antipop Consortium, Roots Manuva, DC Basehead, it's already a historical genre with its sub-categories and the reservoir is inexhaustible. For that reason we're very happy to have recorded two tracks on the album with Napoleon Maddox, from the excellent rap group ISWHAT!? But it wasn't a case of making hip-hop tracks with him, just of using his wonderful voice.”

Rockfort: Why the Stranglers cover?
Tino: Covering The Stranglers is a bit of a nod to teenage years. It's a group I listened to a lot when I was 15 and Larry lived in London for a fair while. All that punk, post-punk, disco-punk movement, we were both totally immersed in that. Before discovering lots of other things, like old rhythm 'n' blues, jazz, the Balkans, repetitive music, soundtracks, anti-folk, the downtown New York scene...

: The album was mixed by Norscq. What did he bring to the album?
Tino: Clarity and space, without ever losing sight of the trashy side to our sounds, respecting our choices with patience and... humour. An expert touch. Norscq is also a musician, which really helps the dialogue in the studio. And his music is fantastic!
Interview by David McKenna