Break on Through
Guillaume and his Coutu Dumonts break through the laptop's fourth wall
Philip Sherburne - April 28, 2010
Montrealer Guillaume Coutu Dumont returns to his native city from Berlin this June, to deliver a worldwide exclusive, the premiere of the live band that worked on his exceptional new album “Breaking The Fourth Wall.” Comprising fellow Montrealers Nicolas Boucher (keys), Sébastien Arcand-Tourigny (sax), and Marc-André Charbonneau (guitars), the band known for this performance as The Side Effects will also feature San Francisco’s Dave Aju on vocals.
Coutu Dumont is no stranger to MUTEK. Having begun his career with the festival back in 2003 as part of the duo EGG (alongside current Artificiel member Julien Roy), it is fair to say that seven long years later, Dumont has hit the big time in international circles. After a slew of releases on the affiliated MUTEK_Rec and Musique Risquée labels, Dumont has added international labels such as Germany’s Oslo and France’s Circus Company to his roster of admirers, as well as legions of fans worldwide. A classically trained musician, Dumont brings a heightened awareness to the musicality of his compositions. An expert with percussion, he is known for weaving complex, culturally diverse rhythms into the template of his tracks. Meanwhile, his love of sampling old afro-beat, soul, space-rock, and jazz records has also added to his sonic signature, making his current sound one of the most seamless and infectious packages in contemporary house music.
Guillaume Coutu-Dumont and The Side Effects appear June 5 at Metropolis.
"I'm a scavenger," says Guillaume Coutu Dumont, but his Berlin studio gives scant indication of any hoarding tendencies. There's the usual clutter of cardboard boxes, cables and sonic odds-and-ends, including a couple of mbira resting high on a shelf, souvenirs from his travels in Senegal a decade or so ago. Otherwise, though, his shoebox of a studio is about as tidy as a room its size can be.
He's talking, of course, about his sample collection, and he proceeds to give me a tour of his hard drive, folders inside folders, a nested archive of loops, drum breaks, a cappellas, acoustic instruments, drum machines, you name it. It is, indeed, vast. And it's this vastness—a sort of exponential vastness, given the depths, the nooks and crannies hidden in the grain and the room tone of any given one of them—that informs the range of Guillaume's own productions. His tracks, which loosely follow house-music convention, stand out by virtue of their porousness, their multi-dimensionality; joining doo-wop with drum machines, sampled vinyl breaks with remixed studio collaboration, his music is riddled with wormholes, tunnels that weave through a hundred years of recorded music like strands of a greater continuum.
Guillaume is packing light by necessity; when he and his wife moved from Montreal to Berlin, three years ago, they could only bring so much. "I didn't bring everything I had in Montreal; I didn't want to, anyway," he says. "Drums are another life, man. You gotta let go."
Letting go has proven a fruitful philosophy. When he and his wife left Montreal for Europe in 2006, he struggled to find labels interested in releasing his music, and landing gigs outside of Montreal was even harder. Today, he has dozens of records and remixes under his belt for European imprints like Hartchef, Oslo, Circus Company, Karat, Get Physical, Crosstown Rebels; his bookings have him playing every weekend, at places like London's Fabric, Moscow's Arma 17 and Ibiza's Cocoon party at Amnesia. And that's just for his solo project, the misleadingly named Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts. He also plays in the duo Chic Miniature, alongside Argentina's Ernesto Ferreyra, a fellow Montreal-to-Berlin transplant.
Now, Guillaume has released his second solo album, Breaking the Fourth Wall. It's a concept album of a sort, even though Guillaume is loathe to say much about its concept, preferring that listeners find their own meanings. What's clear is that it's a major step forward for Guillaume, as he branches out into new rhythms, tempos and emotional registers without losing his footing on the dance floor.
It's also his most collective effort to date, featuring a number of friends' contributions on guitar, horns, piano, and vocals—in addition, of course, to his usual cast of thousands. And when he performs at MUTEK this year, he'll be bringing a live show to match, playing his first major full-band set—the next step in breaking the notorious fourth wall of laptop music.
Since your last album, in 2007, you've released a slew of singles and toured pretty much non-stop. Was the new album recorded in one concentrated burst, or have you been working on it the whole time?
It really took a lot of time to put this album together. I narrowed it down from 100 tracks to 25, and then from 25 to what's on the album. The earliest track is from almost three years ago. The newest one was finished two weeks before the mastering date. The way I work is to make as much as I can, choose the proper material to make a coherent progression, and then fill in the gaps. That's the hard part, the finishing touch.
I really wanted to do an album you can listen to from beginning to end, that would be worth buying on CD, and not just ripping some tracks from on Beatport. I find that quite sad, really. All the albums that have inspired me were albums where I would press play, and not leave the room until the album was finished. That's always been the type of music that seduced me the most. Pink Floyd is the perfect example—I don't allow myself to stop listening to Dark Side of the Moon until the album is over. But it's not like there's one type of album that's good and one type that isn't. It's more what I wanted to do.
I'm curious about the dialectic between the studio and the stage. Does the live set feed back into the recordings?
It's pretty rare that a new track develops out of the live set. When I'm in the studio, I like to listen to the music, and in the club there's the whole physical aspect. Once, at a club in Munich, late in the morning, the owner started playing Hank Williams on the big club PA. Dude, it sounds different. It's not the same music, you know? Listening to a track at a reasonable volume, versus an absurd volume in the club, makes the experience totally different. So when I make music here, it doesn't sound like what I play in my live set. I always have difficulty mixing the two together.
You did a lot of collaborations for the new album.
Since the last album it's something I've been trying to do more and more. Collaboration with other musicians offers a different kind of input. Electronic music is so often just the vision of one brain. Music for me is really interesting when it's a merger of so many ideas that the results are greater than the sum of the parts.
Also, on an album, it's trickier to use samples. Recently I've been using samples almost too much. With some of the Musique Risquee releases, I would never think I could get away with it. It's the same thing with Oslo: there are some samples that I can't believe I could pull off. It's too in your face: 16 bars of an a cappella from the Temptations, it's too much!
How do you feel about the ethics of that?
That's a good question. If you manage to really integrate a sample into something new, it's worth it, I think. It's just lately, that fucking structure of doing a beat, and then the beat kind of breaks down, and a huge sample of a Brazilian singer kicks in, and it's like the whole track, and then it comes back to the beat, with a little bit of the sample chopped off. It's always the same fucking structure—always, always, always. For me, this is super boring. It's like, OK, you're DJ and you just did a mix. It's not a new track, it's not a composition. But if you take an African guy playing kora that you recorded, and you make a beat and you sample some congas from another record, and you put a '70s soul band on top of it, then maybe it's more interesting, in my humble point of view.
How exactly do you incorporate live instrumentalists in your productions?
When I'm working with musicians, I go into the studio with rough tracks, and they play on top. When I went to the dOP studios in Paris, I arrived with maybe 10 tracks; I recorded some saxophone, percussion, trumpet, vocals with Joe from dOP, keyboards, flute, toy piano, stuff like that. Finally I ended up doing a couple of tracks with that material, but I still have a lot that's untouched.
But I never end up using their parts [as they recorded them]. I always end up treating the recording as a sample bank. For the next album, I'm going to try and invest in going different places with different musicians, and record as much as I can—build myself a huge sound bank and work with that. The thing I find most interesting is to be in the studio, with a workflow that's super organic, and just gather stuff. I'm a scavenger, man. When I watch a movie, I always have my Wiretap open. Whoop! Grab it, put it in the sound bank.
Your live show is pretty spontaneous. How do you preserve that when you're playing with other musicians?
Maybe the first time we do it, it's not going to be that spontaneous. Improvisation alone is easier than improvisation with five different people. For me, there's no secret: if you want to have a band, you rehearse. Free jazz players spend their whole lives rehearsing. Playing together, knowing the other players, you get deeper into the language and the exchange. So that's the secret, to rehearse as much as we can.
Just to make sure, I'm going to manage on my end to have something ready so that even if all the musicians disappeared, I could still do it. And then add them as flavor. Unfortunately, one of the singers can't make it, so it's going to be more centralized around Dave Aju, but he's a super MC, and way capable. It's just that the singing aspect won't be there, so I'm going to use recordings. The guy's going to be there, but he'll be there virtually.
How has the move to Berlin been?
It was such an obvious choice for a lot of people, including me. You're coming from Canada and the only thing you have in your pocket is Canadian dollars, where are you going to go in Europe? It seemed impossible. We went to Paris for six months before coming to Berlin, and I got in so much debt over there. It was an investment. It could have gone really sour, and we'd be back in Montreal and I'd be working, being miserable. In the end, I was lucky. I was one of the lucky ones.
I always wanted to live in Europe, so it was time to do it. At some point, too, you have to leave a city. You feel like, I did what I could here, so now I have to move. Montreal is a fantastic city. But it's North America. Every city is super far from the other, and there's always a struggle to make events because it's so restrictive on every level.
There's something really stupid about it: all the clubs have to close early. Because they close early, they can't sell alcohol, so they can't make money. And because they can't make money, they can't really build proper programming. I'm talking about more underground places, which is the interesting side. Big commercial clubs, they wouldn't book me anyway.
There's no place like Fabric in North America – a big, commercial club with relatively underground programming.
I don't think so. Montreal is fantastic because of the festival. MUTEK always acted as such a strong force in North America, since the beginning. It was linking North America with the underground scene in Europe, which was really hard to get to. Especially at one point when there was no digital downloading, and for records you'd have to go to a shop to buy them, or the DJs would go to Europe—I remember that like it was yesterday, Marc was coming back from Europe with a shitload of new records, and then we'd play a small venue in Montreal. Most of the interest for me was going to hear this new music I didn't know. When I came to Europe, I was astonished to see how much people were playing the same music everywhere here. It really brought me down. It's really sad: everybody's playing the top 40 in "underground" music.
I know for a fact that Montreal is a fantastic city, there's something unique happening that makes it interesting. But it's business. If you make music, maybe you're the type that can work another job during the day, and make music at night, but personally I can't. If I do another job I feel miserable. If I can't go to the studio, if I can't do music when I want to do music, I feel really bad. I need to do music. So if that's your point of view then you have to live off of it. When you try to sell your music, do some shows, put your name out there, starting from scratch over there is a little more difficult. For me it was. And the move in Europe just proved my point. When I arrived here it was a rough stretch at the beginning, but then I started to release more music and put my name out there, and I was lucky. Everything fell into place, and I could play more. That's the difference: between living with music in your head and struggling to pay your bills, or living with music in your everyday life and not having that burden, not knowing if you can pay your rent.
But yeah, I miss Montreal for real. I was even thinking about moving back, because of the kid, and because of [my wife] Charlene. It's not going to be easy for her to find a job here, and I don't want her to end up working in a restaurant. I would go back in a heartbeat. Obviously I would spend my life on a plane for a couple of years, until I decide to do something else. We're going to give it a try here, but if it's too difficult…
We moved from Montreal with like 12 people at the same time. And those people were the people I was seeing the most there. For me it doesn't make so much difference here. Almost everyone I saw everyday in Montreal, they're here. And others are visiting frequently.
Do you wish it were otherwise?
In the beginning I thought it was a problem. Obviously the reason I'm not more integrated here is due to that. But growing up, looking at my parents, and those big moves in their lives that tore the friendships apart, because you have to do what you have to do--in a way we're blessed that we get to stick together. I think it would be a blast if we all decided to move back to Montreal at the same time. I was talking with a guy in Montreal who said that the whole exodus was dramatic. For sure. But maybe it opened the door for new stuff over there. When I was there, there were a lot of DJs who were never playing, so maybe since we all moved, it made room for other people. In a small scene like Montreal, it makes a big difference.
Sort of like when Detroit's first generation started gigging in Europe every weekend, which opened up space for the "second wave" players.
But they stayed there. It made a big difference. Actually, the young cats moved here, but the old ones held the fort. I can't imagine Moodymann or Theo Parrish moving to Mitte.
Speaking of America, your own productions are heavily invested in classic American forms—doo-wop, blues, gospel, soul…
It's funny, because when I think about my childhood, that's the music I remember. That's what my mother was listening to—Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole. Old stuff: '20s, '30s, a little bit of jazz, Miles Davis, early Coltrane when it was more happy-happy. That's what I remember: Sunday morning, waking up and she's blasting Ella all over the place. That kind of dirt in the recording is pretty much my first musical memory.
I'm basing my whole thing around that music. For me, the most spectacular thing that happened music in the last 2000 years is the cultural collision between African and European traditions that happened on American soil. It changed the face of music all over the world.
Born in Portland, Oregon and currently based in Berlin, Philip Sherburne writes about music for The Wire, Pitchfork and Resident Advisor; his byline has also appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Slate, Interview, SPIN, XLR8R and numerous other publications. When he's not writing, he's often making music. (In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure, he remixed Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts' "Les Gans" in 2008.)