PopMatters talks with Arthur Ashin, the man behind the Autre Ne Veut name, about making one of the year's best albums in the avant-R&B masterpiece Anxiety, along with the trends in R&B and contemporary pop that have influenced his diverse sound.
Despite the forward-thinking music he's made under the Autre Ne Veut moniker, Arthur Ashin still falls behind the times on some things. When I called Ashin via Skype for our interview, I asked him -- a resident of Brooklyn -- if he had any experience surrounding the cronut fad in New York City. As an Oregon resident, I could not wrap my head around why the hybrid pastry had led many New Yorkers to scheme and scam to purchase and then flip the pastries, as were they characters in a George V. Higgins novel. To my surprise, however, Ashin hadn't heard of it.
However, even though the overhyped pastry had been having a field day with local news stations and social media outlets prior to our interview, it is pretty easy to understand why the story had yet to get to Ashin. Autre Ne Veut's sophomore LP, the beyond-brilliant Anxiety, dropped in February, and since then he's toured the record extensively -- with European dates set for late summer -- including stops at big festivals like SXSW.
The demand for shows isn't surprising; while Autre Ne Veut's promising 2010 self-titled debut, as well as the subsequent EP Body, benefited from their context in R&B's upswing, with Anxiety the project took the fast track to the genre's upper echelons. The debut's take on bedroom R&B has left the building, now replaced with Anxiety's expansive, near epic sound. Much like his contemporaries The Weeknd and How to Dress Well, Ashin is very much interested in mood and texture. But whereas the aforementioned groups tend to downplay the music in favor of an evocative minimalism, he isn't afraid to bring in a manifold of synthesizers, guitars, and beats to create a mood that's equally compelling -- but in a larger-than-life way that's entirely unmatched by his peers.
As the band's sound has grown, so has Ashin's daring. Pop hooks and production in the vein of Katy Perry coexist with lyrics that meditate on the inability to deal with mortality. Slow jams like "A Lie" incorporate comically exaggerated amount of layering and vocal tracks. Ego and sex, two key facts of R&B's storied existence, are upended on the (un)sensual "Ego Free Sex Free". One will have a Sisyphean time pinning a genre on Anxiety; even "R&B" is only marginally successful in getting at the project's sound. But if one is coming to Autre Ne Veut for anything conventional, she is completely out of luck. In the musical world of Arthur Ashin, everything is happening all at once -- it may be chaotic, but it's an animated, unbelievably fun chaos. In a live setting the energy doesn't deplete an ounce; having seen Ashin perform in March at Bunk Bar in Portland along with the entrancing Majical Cloudz, I can say with confidence that Anxiety retains its smorgasbord excesses in person just as it does on the LP.
PopMatters spoke with Ashin about life on the road, his experience as a graduate student in psychology, and the disappearing act that occurred with the sleeve art of Anxiety. The cronuts, sadly, will have to wait for a later date.
* * *
Anxiety got a lot of critical and popular love. What's it been like touring the album following that reception?
It's been really awesome. Having an audience that knows and cares about the songs is pretty fucking cool.
Even though the album is pretty grandiose, in your live shows the setup is pretty spartan: in addition to you, there's a backup vocalist, an Ableton interface, and a drummer. Is that due to a lack of resources, or do you prefer a simple setup?
For years -- on my first record, for example -- all the touring was just me and an iPod, so this an expanded band in my mind. [laughs] So, I mean, if I could have a 12-piece band, would I do it? Absolutely. But that's an expensive venture, for sure.
Autre Ne Veut -- "World War" [Live]
You also bring along a keyboard, which you only play once, for the track "World War". It ends up taking on a different life than the LP version. What made you want to perform the song that way?
I felt that it's the song that lent itself best to that sort of re-interpretation. Everything was first written with just me in a sort of singer/songwriter style on a keyboard, but you don't want to lose the energy of some of the more upbeat numbers. For a song like "Gonna Die", I didn't want to give up the high-octane histrionics. But "World War" was the one that lent itself most to a kind of Lady Gaga-ifying. [laughs]
Anxiety is much more epic and all-over-the-place than your debut. Did that change happen naturally?
I wanted to make a record that worked against the hypnagogic paradigm, for sure. The thing about working in a lo-fi, hypnagogic paradigm is that there's this kind of "implied" music, kind of like Ariel Pink's "For Kate I Wait" or James Ferraro's Night Dolls with Hairspray. Part of what's there, which adds to the appeal, is a kind of fantasy on the part of the listener that this is a lost, mega pop jam that if you were only to clean up the mess, it would expose itself and there'd be this real pop song in it. But the reality is, from a production standpoint, it's a crutch at a certain level. So the challenge for me was to remove that cushion and see if I could play what exactly I imagined. To see if I could create the pop songs -- or, at least, the weird, deconstructed pop songs -- that I acted like I accomplished with the first record, but doing it in a way so that everything was clear and present.
There's been a lot going on in R&B, the "hypnagogic paradigm" of artist like The Weeknd being a big one. Do you like the way the genre's been going?
Yeah, I think it's cool. This is a question I've been asked a number of times, and I think R&B -- much like hip-hop -- has been a place where the most progressive ideas about sound design can be presented to a populist audience. It's been common in the Pro Tools era with both genres; "Drop it Like It's Hot" and "The Whisper Song" are just atonal, minimalist hip-hop tracks. Before those songs dropped, it was almost unimaginable to have a super-pop smash hit that uses so few sonic elements. But then, there they were, and now it's been part of the pop repertoire for quite awhile.
In my mind, what's happening right now are a series of sonic and production decisions that are becoming more acceptable to a wider audience. It's a pretty common practice in pop music, as well as hip-hop and R&B in particular.
The press release for the album lists David Byrne, "Scratch" Perry, Laurie Anderson, Annie Lennox, Katy Perry, and Rihanna as influences on your music. That's quite a list. What do you usually find yourself listening to when you write music?
No, during my writing periods it tends to be me processing music I've been listening to -- nothing specific. All of those influences are primarily considered in terms of production. Songwriting is a different beast; songwriting is a type of thing where you can lather on any production style you want on top of it. There's a totally different tool kit you have to access there. With production it's just going into my memory of things and trying to incorporate as many interesting ideas I could think of.
Plenty of people find it easy to be cynical about some of those pop influences, especially the sugary sweet style of artists like Katy Perry. Would you say you're optimistic about pop music?
Well, when I said Katy Perry, what I really meant was [producer] Dr. Luke. That kind of chintzy, almost satire of contemporary pop music almost all derives from his little world. Katy Perry's politics I could probably do without, though I have friends who have interacted with her that say she's very nice.
I like pop music. Earnestly. Most of the greatest technicians, mix engineers, and players are working in pop music. It's great when there's a producer who is as talented that works outside of that system; Olof [Dreijer] from The Knife, for instance, is as top-notch a producer as anyone, and he does a really good job of functioning outside of "the system." But there's a reason why this is the way it is; money attracts the best talent. [laughs] So there's an appreciation in terms of levels of production with pop music. There's a certain type of indie fan who would balk at the prospect of there being value in pop music, but I think that's foolish. They're not really listening.
Autre Ne Veut -- "Play by Play" (Lyric Video)
With your music, at times there is so much going on; with "Play by Play", for example, which is really exuberant, it seems like there are almost too many influences. Do you ever find yourself having to pump the brakes when writing a song?
Yeah, but I kinda like to not tell myself no. That song definitely has a number of different parts that reference what would qualify for many people as guilty pleasures -- or not really pleasures at all. So yeah, there are times where I have to tell myself, "This is one too many ideas," but for me on "Play By Play" it really works to go through that process, to take you on a weird journey through contemporary pop music.
Now that you've toured all these songs extensively, is there something about the music you've discovered that you hadn't noticed before?
I wish I could say that. Aside from when I'm performing the album -- and I have to admit a certain brand of narcissism involved there, where I'm not really listening -- I haven't sat down and listened to the record even once. I had it for a year before it came out, so I had a lot of time to process it.
You switched labels to make Anxiety. What facilitated the switch to Mexican Summer and Software?
The self-titled was on a label called Olde English Spelling Bee, which as far as I know no longer exists. [Author's note: The label's website lists some releases in 2013, though its activity has slowed significantly.] It was a great, great place to start; I have a lot of love for Todd [Ledford], who ran the label. At the time, they were releasing the early Ducktails stuff, Julian Lynch, and Forest Swords' first EP, all of which was really interesting stuff to me -- interesting experiments in hypnagogia. It felt like a good home. Unfortunately, they didn't have the resources to allow me to turn this into something liveable in any kind of way. Dan [Lopatin], who runs Software as an imprint of Mexican Summer, is a really good friend of mine, and we'd been talking about working together for years. So I decided to try another family.
Does the title Anxiety refer to anything specific?
Yeah. There's the personal level, the three years that led up to the production of that record. I was in grad school, dealing with massive amounts of personal anxiety around notions of success -- by "success" I mean just making a living doing anything that I care about, at all -- an interesting relationship that had its ups and downs. All of this nods toward the idea of anxiety disorder, although I've never been diagnosed with one.
Then there's the fact that I was looking to express a series of symbolic and social anxieties that are a little more universal and less personal in terms of specific details. So while there are autobiographical features to all of the songs, a lot of the relational ideas have been fictionalized and expanded to take into consideration a baseline of social anxiety.
And then, of course, there's the theme of a capitalistically derived notion of anxiety, built around relating through social media and the [computer] monitor. Being monitored perpetually by the government, by the state, by corporations. That was where the cover art was derived from. So the music does deal with anxiety, but not necessarily all the specific, concrete types.
You have a master's in psychology. Did that play a role in writing the lyrics?
No, not at all. When you're studying psychology you're studying an empirical science, or at least attempting to be an empirical science. It's a lot more about handing out Likert-style scales to people and having them answer on a scale from one to six, answering questions along the lines of, "How intensely do you experience X, Y, and Z?" Then you throw those into statistical models.
What about the name Autre Ne Veut?
At the time I picked it -- it was about 2003, 2004 -- I was up at the Cloisters, which is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just for shits. I stumbled upon this little hat ornament that had the name on it. They claimed it translates to "I want no other;" there was a little backstory that involved it being a gift from an English duke to his French mistress. During that time I was making Brian Eno/Harold Budd-influenced ambient nothing music, and it felt apt. Then I felt stuck with it. [laughs]
On the original sleeve art of the LP, Edvard Munch's The Scream was in the frame. Now it's empty. What motivated the removal?
One was aesthetic. After seeing it mocked up for awhile with the image in it, it felt lacking, despite that we went with a more lacking cover. Another was that in Europe, the copyright on the image lasts until 2015. So, we figured, "Why not not deal with that?"
Do you think the message the cover was sending initially is different now?
I think it problematizes it in a way that I find interesting, in the sense that it's less concrete. But the initial idea wasn't so much to reify the image of The Scream so much as it was to place this canonical, modernist icon of anxiety within a capitalist framework; the cover was a re-creation of the sale of the latest sale of the painting. The capitalist framework challenges both the value of the salience of this modernist icon as well as creates a space of anxiety in of itself. Where this, at this point, almost meaningless object represents twenty-one million dollars. You have to ask what kind of world we're living in where that's how art is valued; this arbitrarily gets this value, while something else gets a different value. It's an examination of the space where we're consumed by this capitalist framework and art is necessarily in bed with all of it.