High Anxiety: An interview with Autre Ne Veut

Words by Adam Harper

Autre Ne Veut is more than enough answer to the concern that there isn’t any sincerity in today’s pop music.

Sincerity and high emotion force their way out of his music’s every orifice, twisting its shape to manneristic excess and blasting the listener with new heights of feeling. Since his first self-titled album in 2010, this fearsome expressive urge has made him one of the most innovative songwriters around, pushing beyond any historical connotations his synthesizers and samples might once have had into a strange new 21st century message splayed across electronic fragments, uneven rhythms, and obsessive falsetto refrains.

Yet the success of Arthur Ashin as Autre Ne Veut is in making the message so immediate and human, as well as so mutant—much like Edvard Munch‘s painting The Scream, which features in the earlier video to the single “Counting” and is conspicuous by it absence on the cover of Ashin’s new album Anxiety. We’re surprised to find ourselves sympathizing with the monster because the monster is actually a most human of beings; it’s us.

One of the common symptoms of an anxiety attack is ‘derealization’, the sense that your body is no longer real, that your face and hands belong to someone else. This terror is vertiginously resolved into pure ecstasy on tracks like “Ego Free Sex Free”. In just this way, the portrait becomes a mirror, through which Ashin beckons us to join him staring the trauma of death and self-dissolution in the face (especially on “Gonna Die”), making these emotions not just safe, but sublime to behold. So, it’s unsurprising that when I interviewed Ashin, he described the album as “cathartic.” I’d go one further: it’s therapy.

 

What do you think makes Anxiety different from your other releases?

I would say that there are two primary differences, with considerable overlap. Previous recordings were done completely alone with the occasional guest vocalist. All were done at home, and as a result, there was really only one mind to bounce ideas off of or to play/program anything. This tended to make the earlier recordings a bit more myopic in scope and leaned toward more concise songwriting where there was no open musical space, just an incessant barrage of ideas and stacked sounds. The new record, in contrast, was more collaborative, with other vocalists and players; it is also a bit more sprawling—though the songs themselves were written in advance and more thoroughly conceived—and most of the sounds are given their own little place in the mix.

The studio setting, complete with engineer, allowed me to capture every sound at a much higher quality. There were software instruments used, which was an exclusive feature of the first two releases, but most of the sounds on Anxiety were actually hardware, recorded through high-end analog outboard gear, so there is live space and transistors adding character to each sound. This lent to a subtractive, rather than additive approach to the sonic ebb and flow of the recordings, because I felt more confident in every sound’s quality and value.

Why give the album the title Anxiety? Is the music a representation of anxiety or a response to it?

The album is titled Anxiety as a response to an array of social and professional anxieties experienced over the previous few years. So, ultimately the entire project, Anxiety included, is a sort of cathartic release.

The album cover shows a picture frame. How did this come about, and what is its significance?

Initially the cover art included the image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream within the frame. It was a recreation of the sale of the image. This placed perhaps the most famous modernist representation of anxiety within a capitalistic framework—arguably more anxiety-producing than the image itself. When the image was stolen we were left only with the symbolic exchange and all of the residual tension.

Do you consider your music a ‘portrait’ of yourself or of someone else?

The music is a portrait of my anxieties and frailties, and in that sense it’s very personal, but what I’m also looking to get at is a shared sense of humanity. These sometimes mundane but dark subjective experiences that we all succumb to from time to time.

Many of your songs reference the body. What do you see as being the relationship between music and the body? How does the one affect and influence the other?

I would argue that all of art and culture and science are an exchange between one’s body and the world or society. I just find the mind/body divide to be essentially artificial, since our sensorium so heavily informs the mind and the notion of mind itself is simply a function of the body (brain) working. Music is this sometime-ephemeral non-thing that affects the senses and impels the body to respond.

Two of the songs on Anxiety touch on mortality. Do you think art and music can help us cope with these ideas?

Yes and no. In a lot of ways, I think that ultimately creating art of any medium is a selfish act. Nobody does it if they don’t want to, exceptions being those who feel they do it because they have to (as a profession). The creation of music can be extremely cathartic to me and if it impacts others in that way, that’s terrific—magical, really. But I don’t set out with an intended response.

Your songs are fascinatingly orchestrated, spread in such interesting ways across different sounds and instruments. How do you go about making them?

This record is very different than my previous recordings. It was an extremely subtractive process, where I initially threw everything at a song, creating a sort of rough slab. Electric guitar over an entire track, sax blurts across an entire track, synth lines, etc. Then I just stripped large chunks away, developing the basic dynamics of the arrangements. And continued chipping away until things felt right to me.

How would you characterize the sound of the label Software? What might be your part in that?

I think that the Software ‘sound’ will emerge over time. Daniel [Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never]’s tastes are extremely eclectic, but I think that there are certain threads throughout that tie things together for him. He’s a sentimental guy in a lot of ways, and I think that attracts him to emotional music, but he also values artists that are idiosyncratic and push the boundaries of what is comfortable for the listener. I guess on some levels I do that, and others less so. I have no idea where I fit in exactly, but that probably says more about me than it does Software.~

 

Photo by Jody Rogac. Autre Ne Veut’s new album Anxiety is out now via Software.