ALCEST's NEIGE Debates Why Heavy Music Needs To Sound 'Dark': 'The Ultimate Provocation Is To Make Metal Sound Uplifting'

May 13, 2024

By David E. Gehlke

ALCEST's rise from relative mid-2000s obscurity to becoming arguably the second most popular French metal band behind GOJIRA has been one of plain old sticktoitiveness. Behind founder, primary songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Neige (real name: Stéphane Paut),ALCEST has skirted subgenre norms in favor of a sound that is dreamy, atmospheric and at times, sunny. It's an approach that has netted ALCEST critical and fan acclaim but also invited backlash from some of metal's less-than-flexible crowd, who continue to rail against Neige's soft French-sung vocals and the proliferation of shimmering melodic guitars. The term "blackgaze" is often used in relation to ALCEST, but it paints only a fraction of the picture now that the band has ditched some of the darker elements heard on previous releases in favor of the unabashedly emotive and positive "Les chants de l'aurore", their first album in five years.

According to Neige, "Les chants de l'aurore" was not an easy album to make coming out of the pandemic thanks to a bout with writer's block. He also had to contend with the increasing expectations that come with each ALCEST release, but in speaking with BLABBERMOUTH.NET, the frontman sounded assured and relaxed that he'd finally assembled the kind of album he's always wanted to make.

Blabbermouth: You had writer's block during Covid. How bad was it? Did you worry you would never come up with anything worth using again?

Neige: "I often have periods where I don't feel inspired, but it doesn't last long—maybe a couple of months. The maximum has been three months, but this time, I spent a whole year picking up the guitar and having no fucking riffs coming to me. Nothing. I was like, 'Okay. Maybe it means I have lost it. Maybe I need to find a real job.' Eventually, it came back after some time. I think it had something to do with the lockdown. It happened during Covid and we were forced to stay at home. Even if ALCEST music is very personal, introspective and intimate type of stuff, I still needed some outside output. I guess I still needed to meet some people or walk into nature. We were forced to stay at home. Actually, I was starting to worry. I was talking to some of my musician friends. They were also experiencing more or less the same thing. I know a lot of people who had writer's block for a while. Eventually, it came back and when it did, it was all good, but I got a little scared."

Blabbermouth: Did the weight of expectations on ALCEST also have something to do with it?

Neige: "Oh yeah. [Laughs] Exactly. Of course. As I always say, people now have such a deep connection with ALCEST. I don't know if it is the same in the States because we haven't toured there so much lately, but in Europe, it has become quite important for people, like, important in the underground. We have some really passionate fans. You always hear the speech from musicians, 'We don't care what the fans think.' I agree with that to some extent. When I write the music, I am 100 percent in my own world and bubble. But when it comes to showing it to people and releasing a song, I don't sleep so well the night before. I'm scared. I'm really scared. I'm like, 'Are they going to hate it? Will they like it?' This is our seventh album. We have been doing this for a long time. I always have this image of so many bands tend to release their best work in the first years, like the first albums. This is my nightmare. I don't want us to be a band with a couple of 'good' records in the beginning. That's why I'm setting the bar higher and higher every time to the point for this record when I reached some levels of perfection that were embarrassing sometimes. Like, we got the mastering back from the label. At the last minute, I wanted to change something in the mix. We had to say, 'Stop! Stop everything!' to the label. I got a track remixed. I told my bandmates and my collaborators and manager, 'Once the album is out, I'm going to give you guys a big apology for being such a pain in the ass.' I felt, 'These poor guys have to work with me.' In the end, I'm sure that it was for a good reason. I don't care about money. I don't care about fame. The only thing I care about is to fulfill my vision. I guess that's why ALCEST is a pretty authentic band. We only care about what we are referring to the people in terms of the music and visuals and lyrics; it's like a full artistic entity. I don't want to compromise anything. In life, you can compromise many things, like with your friends and family or your boss. In art, there shouldn't be any compromise."

Blabbermouth: Has a potential "compromise" with ALCEST been the suggestion to sing in English?

Neige: "Actually, no one has ever asked us to do that."

Blabbermouth: That's crazy. It's surprising a record company never came along and asked you to do it.

Neige: "I'm aware I sing in this weird-ass French language. The thing is, the vocal lines are so ethereal and melodic that I think a lot of people don't need to hear English. They are fine with the French. Also, I have a special way to sing. Even the French people don't understand what I'm saying. [Laughs] I use very specific words in my lyrics. I try to make it a little bit, for the lack of a better word, 'universal' in the feelings and melodies I'm using. Also, I think people like the fact that there is a band in our style who sings in French. It's not super-common. I don't know of many French bands in the metal scene who sing in French. GOJIRA sings in English. Most of the bands sing in English, but I don't feel comfortable writing in English. I just don't do it."

Blabbermouth: On "Les chants de l'aurore", are you trying to become even more genre-less?

Neige: "It's complicated when I meet people in the bar or whatever, and they say, 'What do you do?' I say, 'I play in a band.' They go, 'What type of band?' I don't know how to explain it. I have always had a description since the early days of ALCEST when I was still a teenager: For me, it's like music from another world. Whatever that means, it comes from another place. It takes the shape that it takes because I grew up listening to black metal and then I went into post-punk and shoegaze, indie rock, classical music and soundtracks. It's not like I never think of a combination of many different styles. I just have this vision in mind. I use whatever musical tools I need to use. We are definitely not a black metal band. In black metal, you've got the word 'black' and there is nothing dark in ALCEST, so it cannot be black metal. We are also not shoegaze because I think our vibe is very romantic. There is a lot of 'fantasy' but it's not a good word for what we do, but it's music that's supposed to transport you to another world. Shoegaze is a bunch of indie kids making a lot of noise with their guitar pedals."

Blabbermouth: While staring at their shoes!

Neige: "Exactly! We're also not progressive. I think of PINK FLOYD and I don't think we sound like them."

Blabbermouth: "Kodama" and "Spiritual Instinct" both had their dark moments. On the other hand, "Les chants de l'aurore" is all uplifting. Why did you head in this direction?

Neige: "I always felt like I didn't belong here. It's the same for a lot of people, but I think we are here to experience something, like an earthly life, but we come from somewhere else. Our home is not here. All I do in this band is try to describe this place and explain how I feel now that I'm leading a human life. I'm not saying I'm not human. Of course, I am. [Laughs] But I think we are more than that. I think our essence is much more. So, this was the image or concept of ALCEST, which was going on for the two or three first albums. Then, I went in different directions. 'Shelter' was different. 'Kodama' was a dark album inspired by Japanese culture. 'Spiritual Instinct' was a more angry album because I was exhausted and a little bit lost at that point in my life and was disconnected from my spirituality. On the new one, I needed to come back to this original otherworldly concept. That's what it is. It's going back in time, taking things where I left them in the early records, but doing it again with all the experience we have now as musicians and having a more grand vision. It was really nice to get back into that. Maybe I felt that I lost my connection with this other world. It's still inside me. It was a pleasure for me to write this album. I'm really not the type of person to say 'Oh, you know, our new album is the best one!' I never say this because I don't think our last album is the best, but I think for this one, I'm really happy. I think it's going to be a very important album in our musical career. I think it's the first time I'm really happy and able to listen to it. Usually, I cannot even listen."

Blabbermouth: Do you also see "Les chants de l'aurore" as a rare glimpse of light in otherwise dark times?

Neige: "Yes. I'm a little fed up that heavy music rhymes with dark music. When did we decide that heavy sounds have to be dark? Where does it come from? BLACK SABBATH. Okay, that was 50 years ago. Why can't we play loud music and express joy and some ecstatic feelings like sweetness and nostalgia? Even fragility, because it's something you never see in metal bands. They always try to be so 'bad-ass' and tough. I'm not interested in that. I've never been interested in that. I'm aware that it's not the music that can appeal to all metal fans because it sounds too 'gay.' It's terrible to say that. It's horrible, but I do my own thing and there are also people who like to hear something different. It's crazy to think that the ultimate provocation is to make metal sound uplifting."

Blabbermouth: Did the downtime after "Spiritual Instinct" lead to any sort of reflection on how far you've come?

Neige: "Oh yeah. Over the years, I received many messages from bands saying, 'We started the band because we like ALCEST and try to make something like what you're doing.' I guess as a musician, to be an inspiration for other musicians is the best thing. Even though we are not a very famous band, we have this kind of special status. Some people get really attached to this project. Sometimes, it's even beyond me and some people tell me really crazy stories like where they were when they listened to a specific song. It's really beautiful."

Photo credit: William Lacalmontie

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