Cocoon Interview: The Dark Side of the Force

Following this month's column on The Quietus featuring Cocoon aka Christophe Demarthe (a founding member of cold wave/industrial group Clair Obscur), Rockfort presents a full transcript of the interview used in the piece.

Rockfort: The music for ‘III’ came from two different productions. Can you tell me about those productions? Why did you decide to put them together and how did you arrange the two sets of music for one seamless album?
CD: With a bit of hindsight I tell myself that over time I’m in the process of creating a body of work. These days, for example, when I compose a track, I ask myself whether it’s more destined for Cocoon or Clair Obscur. The two things have got a bit muddled up and I think that’s a good think.
I’m lazy, I wait for things to come to me, I don’t force them. Except when I’m commissioned to do something, obviously. That was the case with Edward Bond’s ‘The Children’, which was being staged by Bruno Lajara. During this period of composition I felt I was in Cocoon mode and that a large part of this music would, after being used for the stage, become a work in its own right.
As it happens that’s very much how I see things today: from commission to commission, separately or in parallel to those, I’m building up a body of work, one which touches on mingles with my own personal work.
The music on this third album is mostly from the Bond play but there’s also a track, ‘Meet’, that I originally wrote for a Sci-Fi TV film and which had been kicking around for a few years, forsaken like an orphan. I knew this track would find its place within a larger work one day, and that happened when I conceived a concert for Dreamachines at Ososphère in October 2010. And now it has found a proper home on the new album.
To be a bit more specific, ‘III’ is not the music from Bond play. The album draws heavily on it but the tracks were reconfigured and reworked so that they would tell their own story. Other tracks were written and added to finish this 38-minute story. It’s worth noting that the running order was decided on before mastering. You can hear it when you listen to the CD in one go. ‘III’ was designed to be listened to like that.
‘The Children’ is a beautiful text by Edward Bond in which a child kills another child inadvertently, while carrying out a crime out of obedience to his mother. To escape punishment he decides with his friends to escape from the town where he committed this terrible act. From that point, their journey becomes ever more strange and disturbing. Bruno Lajara staged the play with a group of children aged between 11 and 16, from the Chemin Vert quarter in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, a ‘zone sensible’ (‘sensitive area’) as they say. What was interesting about this experience (the term experience – Ed: This doesn’t really work in English, the word experience in French can mean both ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’ – has more sense in this case than with a standard theatrical production with established actors) in that – contrary to my usual habits – I was writing as much based on my responses to the young actors as to the text. I was more interested in them rather than the theatrical production. But I’m not really that interested in theatre any more. I used to love the theatre. I don’t go any more.
The additional tracks were written and reworked for the Ososphère festival in Strasbourg. Pierre Beloüin, who was the co-curator of the festival that year, invited me to come up with a programme for a concert in the Aubette room where the audience were sat in semi-darkness, facing several spinning dreamachines. I produced something quite religious and aquatic that, it seems, worked very well!
As for the track ‘Meet’, that ends the album, it was originally written for a scene in a film where characters reunite. The mood of the scene recalled Godard in Nouvelle Vague, so I wrote a track almost as an ‘exercise de style’, doing some Godard-style music (or more in the style of Michel Legrand since, according to Legrand, he conceived of and suggested the idea to Godard of using musical waves that arrive to blot out moments of dialogue between two characters). I thought that ‘Meet’, with its (second) waves that wash over you, was a nice conclusion to the album after these other… how can I say?... more tormented tracks.
Rockfort: Can you tell me about the exhibition that accompanied the launch?
CD: When Plateforme invited me, in March 2011, I think they expected me to play a concert in their space. Since it’s a gallery space, I favoured the idea of putting on an exhibition. Why? Because I use a lot of visual and textual elements in Cocoon performances (which are more than straightforward concerts) and these elements generally only have an ephemeral existence, tied to the duration of the performance. But some of these have, in my eyes, an intrinsic value that allows them, in the context of an exhibition, to come alive in another way, separately from each other. That’s what I tried to create at Plateforme, the world of Cocoon made manifest in physical, visual and sonic form. I combined texts, photos and videos and produced some pieces especially for the exhibition. I also invited some artist friends that I work with as Cocoon to come up with ideas based on the notion of a landscape. So the exhibition expressed in some way the wider landscape of Cocoon.

Rockfort: How have your working practices in Cocoon changed since the first album? A lot of ‘III’ seems even more stripped down to essentials than ‘More Violent Days Are To Come’.
CD: I don’t know, I continue to use my favourite plug-ins and there are still these broken loops that populate a lot of my work. The aquatic and sort of sacred sound of this album is linked to the circumstances of its gestation and I certain state of mind I was in. I have no idea what the next Cocoon album will be like, nor when it will appear. At the moment with the tracks I’m writing I don’t know whether they’ll be for Cocoon or Clair Obscur.
Rockfort: What elements of live performance (if any) are there on ‘III’ and how/where have you captured them?
CD: There are no live elements, everything was created (or recreated) in the studio. It’s a bit dumb really because, since I work with Ableton Live, I could have simply hit the ‘Rec’ button at the beginning of my performance. At the same time, a track, a mix, shouldn’t necessarily be the same live as on an album. The space-time is not the same, and this type of music doesn’t work the same way in different contexts. For example, some of the pieces written for the Bond play were stripped down for the album version. And they tracks that I played at Ososphère were a lot drier in their recorded form.
Rockfort: In what way did Cocoon grow out of Clair Obscur – was it to express things you couldn’t in the band or do you see it as an extension of your work with them?
CD: Today I see it as an extension of Clair Obscur, but I only speak for myself and you should ask CO’s two other founding members about their opinion on this. In the late 90s Clair Obscur were fed up with the lack of interest from French professionals who wouldn’t book us. There wasn’t any friction within the band but we were playing more and more infrequently. So I started composing tracks myself, a bit autistically, for my own enjoyment, an onanistic enjoyment, initially without any intention of releasing them. Then at a certain point it occurred to me that these tracks seemed to work together as a single project. So that’s how Cocoon was born.
Rockfort: The first two albums were mastered by Norscq – were The Grief among your peers in the 80s.
CD: No, we didn’t listen to French groups apart from Marquis de Sade and Orchestre Rouge. We listened to Joy Division, Tuxedo Moon, Durutti Column, The Virgin Prunes, DAF, The Talking Heads, Psychic TV, The Cure… We went to the New Rose record shop in Paris and Gérald, our favourite shop assistant, helped us to discover other groups that were in line with our tastes. He didn’t play us any French records (apart from maybe The Prophets). I didn’t meet Norscq until 2004, through Pierre Beloüin. It’s funny, there are a lot of French musicians from the cold wave/industrial scene of the 1980s that I only met recently. We were quite insular in Clair Obscur. We sometimes went to clubs, like Rose Bonbon, Les Bains Douches, The Palace, but when we went out it was mostly to shut ourselves in our rehearsal rooms and play. It also sometimes happened that we would sometimes go on long treks to listen to a particular group, like the time we made a return trip from Paris to Cap Fréhel in Brittany to see Marquis de Sade and Orchestre Rouge in concert. We met some fishermen that were going to the concert before going out to sea, in terrible weather. We were still thinking of them when we returned to Paris at 5am when the market stalls were just being set up.
Rockfort: I would argue that the French Cold Wave/Dark/Industrial legacy is better served by Cocoon and Norscq than obvious Cold Wave revivalists but how do you see it?
CD: I’ve never understood revivalists. What’s their point? It started with these punk revivalists whose motto was "punk's not dead". It was a complete misunderstanding of the whole “no future” of 1976… and the music of those revivalists was so awful. At the moment there are these cold wave revivalists who look for vintage synths on eBay so they can have the same sound as the people who influenced them and make the same music. What’s the point of that? An artist like Tricky on his Nearly God album is much closer to Psychic TV than any revivalist musician today. The last group I listened to with some interest was The Liars. What Psychic TV, Tricky and The Liars have in common is that they’re artists who explore, who experiment, who innovate. It’s the only thing that counts. With Clair Obscur, it was the only thing that mattered to us. Trying things, risking new directions. To begin with, we were considered New Wave, then we couldn’t really be pigeon-holed. Everyone should be uncategorisable, the world would be more interesting.
Rockfort: What’s special about Optical Sound, as a label generally and in France particularly?
CD: Optical sound is, above all, the work of a visual artist, who is a big fan of music, of a certain type of music. Optical Sound is definitely a label but it’s also just as much an aspect of Pierre Beloüin’s artistic work. And the artists on the label have to be aware that they are part of this work. There are in some way engulfed by the ogrish vision of an insane artist-manager.
Rockfort: I take it you’re aware of the other French band Cocoon…?
CD: You know what ? They even asked me to become their friend on Myspace in 2004. And I agreed. Unfortunately my account was deleted by Myspace some time later because of certain videos I had posted... I had to recreate a new account and of course I lost all my friends on Myspace. I like the confusion between the two French Cocoons. Once I was even invited on a national TV show. I answered that I feared I was the wrong Cocoon, the dark side of the force of Cocoon, the Cocoon they would perhaps meet if they went out at night in Paris in some peculiar places... Seriously speaking the music of the French band Cocoon is not worth mentioning.
Interview by David McKenna