It's an Arthouse Thing
Leaving the crack behind, Stephen Beaupré delves into new realms of sound and sight.
Taïca Replansky - June 23, 2010
“I like pushing things a little bit off kilter", explains Stephen Beaupré, "but staying on a grid. Just trying to make things be a bit quirky, have scars, have bunions, grey hair… give it some kind of character, and THEN trying to animate it, make it do something, go somewhere, skip and jump…"
There is something innately alive and constantly growing in Beaupré’s music. Syncopated rhythms, layers of instability, a glimmer of hope in a sea of darkness, a wandering spirit, all mix together even as his grinding rhythms keep your feet moving unquestioningly. These elements become even more obvious with his latest project, Gemmiform, an audiovisual work premiered at MUTEK 2010 with the Banjo Consortium. But where does that persistent searching come from?
Growing up in Ottawa, Stephen Beaupré was exposed to typical classics such as the Bob Dylan and Beatles records that his mom had on at home. Listening to music was not an especially important activity, not even an everyday habit, and definitely not something that was passionately pursued.
His first introduction to electronic music came during a high school trip to Italy, where he met a local DJ that gave him several mix tapes. Beaupré was hooked. Coming back home he started going out to parties, raving in what was then the east end of Ottawa, in the early 90s. His love affair with electronic music was bright and strong, and for a while quite exclusive. There was a feeling that there was so much to discover in the realm of electronic music itself that there was no real need to explore other genres at the time. Beaupré also experienced that classic fascination with the effect that a good DJ has on a crowd of people – how one person can make a crowd move together and experience the same thing, creating a fleeting unity. Like many before him, Beaupré was intrigued.
And so followed a period of buying records, browsing, exploring and playing out parties and events that he also promoted himself. He remembers a large influence of west coasters in Ottawa at the time, who brought with them a healthy dose of breaks, house and deep house that also captured his imagination.
It wasn’t until his move to Montreal that Beaupré's musical horizons started to expand: “There’s enough music aficionados around in this city to make you feel stupid if you don’t listen to something else, he says, “And I realized that I couldn’t listen to techno at home anymore.”
"If I was blind I couldn’t make music"
Beaupré’s approach to music is very structural and visual, reflecting his background in Fine Arts; he moved to Montreal in the 90s to do a Bachelor’s degree in visual art at Concordia University. But all the while he was drawing and painting, he really wanted to make music. He would get his art and painting assignments out of the way quickly, and then go make tunes. He quickly got tired of art in an academic setting, the semantics, the endless critiques, and realised that he could satisfy his need for visual arts without having to actually be directly involved in them.
One gets the feeling that Beaupré’s music begins where his visual arts training leaves off. He has a fascination with sculpting and architecture that becomes even more apparent when he talks about creating music. When making sequences, Beaupré is creating images, patterns and layers that look good to him. “To me music is static,” he explains, “of course it goes from point A to point B, but I know what the form is. The test comes when you listen to see if the structures and images sound good.”
It was a Crackhaus Thing
Crackhaus was Stephen Beaupré’s most recognizable project for a time, just before his solo work picked up steam. In Crackhaus, Beaupré found a natural pairing with Deadbeat (Scott Monteith), another Ontario-raised artist that found his way to Montreal in the 90s.
Beaupré met Monteith very soon after arriving in Montreal, at a Sven Väth show. Beaupré recalls, “I needed a place to live, and Scott invited me to come live with him. So we had 2 sets of turntables and two soundsystems at our place, and just listened to endless hours of music.” Monteith was heavily into dnb, dub, reggae; Beaupré was still exploring techno and house, and the two met in the middle, with minimal. Crackhaus wasn’t born until after the two moved apart, however.
Their first track under the Crackhaus moniker was made for Force Inc’s Montreal Smoked Meat compilation (2002), and came quite naturally. "We got really drunk and made a track in 2 hours,” recalls Beaupré. “It worked so well we thought, hey, let’s do it again.” So they did – again and again, until they had enough material for a full length album. For many, It’s Crackhaus Thing (2003) remains a perfect example of just how fun - and funny, microsampling can be. The collaboration started slowing down however, as Monteith was busy with his own productions, and Beaupré was moving on in his own projects as well.
Kill your darlings
The pace of creation sustained by Crackhaus is actually unusual for Beaupré. Whereas with Crackhaus the pair would feed off one another and rapidly produce track after track, when Beaupré works alone he is admittedly – slow. He refers to Stephen King’s On Writing, when talking about his work style. As Beaupré explains, King suggests that “when you finish a work you should put it in a drawer for a few months and don’t think about it, don’t touch it. Let it get mouldy, let it age, steep. And when you come back it’s very clear. It’s time to kill your darlings.”
On Writing also talks about uncovering artefacts, of writing as archaeology. Beaupré feels a similar process while creating music. Everything that’s there is there already, and he works to uncover it. The works goes in leaps and bounds, you may spend a long time finely dusting something off before it is fully revealed, or you may make a huge discovery with minimal effort. “Sometimes you dust something off and wish you hadn’t,” he says. Happily, the process does get easier – “after ten thousand hours of practice you become better at knowing where to dig.”
With his first solo album, Foe Destroyer, arriving in 2006, as well as regular 12" releases following suit, one could say that Beaupré has indeed been accumulating those hours of practice. While many influences can be pointed to in Foe Destroyer, the album is incontestably the work an artist who has developed a sound of his own. Those off-kilter elements are ever-present, the driving basslines are given even more room to breathe and grind. Vocal samples have played an increasingly prominent role in his music, to the point where newer releases have favoured full-fledged singing, some of which is Beaupré’s own. Tracks like "Lotus Eaters" from his Achaemenid EP (2009) also hint at his increasing interest in 'real' instruments.
Beyond the sample
Beaupré is a sample-based artist. He admits to not being very technically minded, relying solely on his computer for making music, using no hardware at all. If he comes across a patch that sounds good he’ll tweak it a bit and play with it, but generally stays within the bounds of that pre-made sound. Like ancient manuscripts, and the writing on writing that characterizes a palimpsest, Beaupré sees, “sampling as a way to unearth within certain sounds - artefacts that were previously not seen or heard. And that’s what I like about it.”
While sampling paved the way for Beaupré to create his music, he has, like many artists, over time, started feeling the limitations of this method. Especially he says, when “you can’t get a melody that you want from a piece, and when you try to create the melody from a single guitar pluck or piano note, it sounds flat."
His latest project, Gemmiform, may be a natural evolution and reaction to these limitations. Musically it is quite far away from his previous projects, and is notably the first time he’s delving into an audiovisual and non dancefloor-oriented project.
While his acclaimed debut solo album, Foe Destroyer, had a few pieces that hinted at this new direction, he was looking to express a different range of production ideas. He explains that, “on the dancefloor, you can get away with a bit more muddiness, you hide it under the kick drum. But when people are sitting, listening, everything has to sound clear.”
Musically, Gemmiform pairs Beaupré with Jacques-Philippe Lemieux Leblanc, a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, flute, accordion and mandolin) who performs under the name, The Banjo Consorsium. There is a sense of wonder in Beaupré when he talks about working with Leblanc. Beaupré would present his ideas and fragments of melodies to Leblanc, and the two would spend time playing together, recording Leblanc’s improvisation over Beaupré’s rhythms and harmonies. Seeing someone spontaneously create a melody that would take him two days to assemble on the laptop left Beaupré in awe. He realized that their melodies were emerging richer and fuller than if they had come from a sample.
While working with The Banjo Consorsium proved to be very natural, other aspects of the project provided fresh challenges. It was the first time that Beaupré composed a work that flows as one long, continuous piece. He approached it with the traditional mindset of separate tracks, choosing to work on different segments at different times, outside of any chronological order. Stitching the work together, finding the transitions between the individual tracks, and keeping a strong narrative feeling proved to be very difficult as a consequence.
The V in A/V
Gemmiform is also Beaupré’s first audiovisual project, bringing with it fresh challenges in meshing together audio and video, including collaborating with not just one, but three separate visual artists. First, Montrealer Patrick Bernatchez's ethereal images inspired the project’s aesthetic. Visual artist Nancy Belzile used a variety of film and animation techniques to bring the drawings to life, while also adding her own imagery to the piece. Her approach largely strays away from computer animation in favour of more painstaking, hands-on techniques. The results are well worth the extra effort, as the flickering, constantly morphing sepia images play a essential role in establishing the fantastical atmosphere of the piece. Finally, the visuals are produced and performed live by video artist David Fafard. Predictably, Beaupré feels like Gemmiform is a project that still needs to mature before the music will feel seamless with the visuals, and before the project will feel less like a series of vignettes, and more a full story of its own.
While the word organic quickly comes to mind when listening to Gemmiform, this was not Beaupré’s principal preoccupation for the project. Instead, he envisioned myths, fictitious creatures and fantastical elements, all tied together in a tale of the unknown. And still, the result is quite haunting.
‘Organic’ does influence other aspects of the project, not to mention Beaupré’s compositions in general, and he says, “it describes at least a form, a breathing something that doesn’t necessarily do something. You can make it do something, but it has to at least first come alive somewhere…there’s a letting things grow on their own. Hence Gemmiform, the bud that can take a miraculous shape at any given time.”
Inspiration for Gemmiform: one of Patrick Bernatchez's drawings
While Beaupré will continue to evolve Gemmiform, notably into a version that can travel, he is already looking forward to working on a new, unrelated album with the Banjo Consorsium, declaring: “I’m a sucker for a simple banjo pluck. I’m a sucker for these very simple, mysterious melodies. And sad strings.”
One wonders if, with his penchant for instruments, narratives and architecture, Beaupré might consider becoming more heavily-involved in orchestration, but he shies away from this idea, citing a lack of musical education. One thing is certain, he won’t be abandoning his friends on the dancefloor – as he cites a backlog of requests from several labels such as Musique Risquée, Wagon Repair and Circus Company, as well as a solo album that has been slowly brewing within and will soon need to escape.
And what does he do to balance all this inspiration? While many of us rely on the abstractness of music to fly away from our daily lives, Beaupré finds his counterweight in the most concrete of activities – gardening and homebuilding – to help keep his feet on the ground. Perhaps it is this very quest for balance that feeds the searching spirit of his music.
By Taïca Replansky. All photos and audio used with permission of the artist.