Music

20 Questions: Le Concorde

Allison Taich

Le Concorde’s fourth studio album House (October 2010, Le Grand Magistery) has set 2010’s mark for contemplative pop, bursting with catchy hooks and California sunshine.

Le Concorde’s fourth studio album House (October 2010, Le Grand Magistery) has set 2010’s mark for contemplative pop, bursting with catchy hooks and California sunshine. House neatly presents love, memories and personal metamorphosis over a bed of keyboards, synthesizer, drum machine, and muffled guitar. The music itself features candy coated synthpop glistening with a topcoat of '80s New Wave.

The slick and vibrant House was composed by the heart and soul of Le Concorde, a.k.a. Stephen Becker. Becker (singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist) crafted House’s earnest pop around migrating from the Midwest to the West Coast. In applying his personal journey, Becker embraced the pliable essence of modern pop music with clean layers of synthetic musings. PopMatters took a moment to get to know Becker with an old-fashioned round of 20 Questions. After listening to Becker’s music it is fitting to hear him gush about intellect, humanism, and urban culture.

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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Requiem for Detroit. I guess I’d never fully considered the evanescence of the 20th century American city. We think of cities as enduring. The notion that everything you take for granted around you as a city dweller could decay and the metropolis could be reclaimed by nature is a scary thought. It’s not just the architecture but also an erasure of the landscape of memory. I found that very moving.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I don’t know how to answer this. Every answer that comes to mind seems only to apply up to a certain point and when viewed in terms of the whole narrative suggests narcissism, bad habits, and tragic consequences. I better just keep working on writing my own story, thank you.

3. The greatest album, ever?

The photo album of my Dad and I driving Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles last fall. I’d said goodbye to 15 years in the Midwest and was on my way to greet my native coast.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I like that Star Wars depicts the hero’s journey, but it is a predictable adaptation of this classic myth, isn’t it? Star Trek fascinated me as a kid. When I was 11, my Mom took me to hear Leonard Nimoy deliver a lecture on Van Gogh at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I went on to study art history and my MA thesis and PhD dissertation crossed over into that field.

5. Your ideal brain food?

For years, I gorged on brain food at the expense of heart food. When I finally left academe, it was the classic case of vowing to write just poetry and live on a hill. To an extent, I managed to follow that path for a while. I came back to philosophy through Baudrillard, which to me is almost like reading poetry. I seemed to go back to Derrida for a while ever year with results that would (further?) embarrass my teachers. What else? I was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita a few years ago, which I think will probably keep feeding my brain for the rest of my life. Lately I’ve been fascinated by the neurological experiments of Benjamin Libet.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I’m not into pride. Pride is usually a bummer because it likes to morph into arrogance and contempt. We’re all going to die soon. In a couple hundred years this will probably all be forgotten. That’s how it is. So you better put on your boogie shoes and start jerkin'. If you’re still stuck in '90s, may I suggest the Macarena? What’s important is to dissolve the irony and really get into it. Work to develop some actual skill, make the form yours, and take pleasure in the dance. I seem to encounter challenges that make past achievements seem to evaporate and any lingering pride irrelevant. There are challenges that make me say, “Wow, I don’t know if I can do this”. But then you breathe, and if you line things up right, the invitation to step into the flow arrives. It’s that way every time I start writing, recording or rehearsing a song.

7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?

Being a good friend, hopefully. But as for my life’s “work”? I don’t mind if you forget me. Why do we take pop/rock music seriously? Music is a form of play. By letting go and recognizing this fact you do not diminish music’s potency or potential for creative genius. When did people begin thinking that pop/rock music is supposed to be timeless? It is ephemeral by design. It’s gloriously disposable. Sometimes a recorded song disappears for a couple decades and then reemerges as relevant. So if someday I do spring to mind because the shelf life of one of my recorded works exceeded the shelf life of my body, well fine, as long as it brought you pleasure and didn't just get stuck in your head as an annoying earworm.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

My grandfather John Becker was one of the liberators of Dachau and earned a Purple Heart for his service. He never boasted about it and rarely, if ever, spoke of it. During the liberation, in a moment of astounding synchronicity, he came face-to-face with a former schoolteacher of his—a Catholic priest who unbeknownst to him had been imprisoned after being transferred from Minnesota to a parish in Germany. This teacher had been hard on him as a boy and had punished him by making him stay after class (maybe more than once) to write, “I will not chew gum” or some such phrase one hundred times on the chalkboard. Amid unimaginable carnage and human drama, John encountered this man from his past. He looked him in the eye and asked, “Do you know who I am?” The priest did not. Without missing a beat he replied, “I’m Johnny Becker. Better write that down one hundred times”. This was reported in a Minneapolis newspaper, but I never knew it until after he passed away. He was a station master at the railroad station in Minneapolis and the father of five. At Christmastime he would take extra jobs in order to put gifts under the tree. He loved to laugh and enjoy life.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

I sat here paralyzed by this question for ten minutes. There are too many works in too many fields and media to answer. In the area of pop music often I return to the programming and production of Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 and am consistently awestruck by the detail.

10. Your hidden talents . . . ?

“Show me what you hide / I’ll tell you who you are / Tell me what’s in your periphery / I’ll show you your core”. That’s the middle verse of my song, “Sick As Your Secrets”. The words are taken from Alexis de Tocqueville. But in the song I’m talking about a private conversation between close friends, not an interview with a broad audience. So I’ll pass on this one.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

When you are in a total freefall and a bird hands you an anvil, what you do is you try to scramble up on top of it.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Neil Tennant once informed me that writing an international smash hit is easy--just borrow these chords: B flat maj/Cmaj/Am7/Dm7. And that’s the chorus of my song, “People Mover”. Not a smash. But that’s what you get for seeing if you can write a song in the time it take to step onto the moving walkway at O’Hare airport to when it ends. I’m keen to try again. Thanks Neil.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?

Can any of us honestly state that the times we felt the best in life were times when we had our clothes on? What would David Lee Roth say?

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Good old friends from Chicago and Seattle.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

Let’s all astral project to difficult scenes of our youth and give ourselves some extra love and encouragement, OK? Time isn’t what our minds lead us to believe it is. Time is an epiphenomenon OF mind. It is created in the mind. Recently read and highly recommended: “The Yoga of Time Travel: How the Mind Can Defeat Time” by Fred Alan Wolf, PhD.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?

Doing what you love. For me, that’s the only thing that’s ever truly worked to melt stress and turn work into something that actually makes sense.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?

California red wines.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

It has to be both/and. Not either/or. Italian aristocrats of an earlier age advocated a vibrant life in a cosmopolitan city paired with salubrious restoration and quiet contemplation at a country villa. I don’t own a country home, but as a guest of those who do I often visit the high desert of Arizona, the mountains of British Columbia, the lake country of Minnesota, and before I got divorced the Maine coast. By contrast, I’ve lived in the urban centers of Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, and mighty Lewiston, Maine. Universe and Villa, the title of the first Le Concorde album!

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

I don’t even know who this is anymore. By the estimation of people much more knowledgeable than myself, valid answers might include the CEOs of the military industrial complex, the folks in the upper echelon of the CIA, or maybe the board of directors of Goldman Sachs. What could I possible suggest? An early retirement? I’d say go spend some time living with families of differing socio-economic strata elsewhere in the world, then go have a psychedelic experience at a national park. Return to the fold with some transcendental empathy for humanity and nature. I know that sounds self-righteous, but why not.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I’m working on three albums at once. One is a lo-fi easy listening cassette for Hollywood housewives to put on during afternoon errands. One is a secret. Another is the next ultra hi-fi Le Concorde album. And hanumanasana.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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