Interview: A Q&A with Montreal-based electro pop act, Seoul

Over the past few years, Montreal has developed a reputation for having a rather vital and very diverse music scene, as artists such as Grimes, BRAIDS, Majical Cloudz, Jef Barbara and others have received both national and international attention. And with the release of their debut effort, I Become A Shade, the Montreal-based electro pop act Seoul, comprised of childhood friends Nigel Ward and Julian Flavin, and Dexter Garcia, added their names to a growing list of artists from that beautiful Canadian city, who have received attention Stateside – and elsewhere. 

IBAS’ first single (and video), “The Line” immediately captured my attention as the song is an icily foreboding and hypnotic track comprised of angular synth stabs, eerily swirling and undulating electronics, skittering percussion and hot flashes of cymbals paired with plaintive vocals that sonically and thematically bear resemblances to Beacon and I Love You It’s Cool-era Bear in Heaven, as the song deals with the difficulty of connecting emotionally and physically with others, as well as ourselves, and the difficulties of moving past a profound loss or a profound disappointment. The song evokes the lingering ghosts, neuroses and heartaches of human life, haunting us at our most vulnerable and weakest – when we’re alone and at our most desperate. Released a few weeks later, IBAS’ second single “Haunt/A Light” is arguably one of the most gorgeous tracks on the album. Comprised of Nile Rodgers-inspired guitar chords played through layers of reverb, shimmering and gently undulating synths, ambient chiming and swirling electronics, a sinuous bass line, and plaintive vocals floating over the mix, the song captures the narrator’s regret and obsessions in a way that feels familiar and deeply unsettling – all while possessing a subtle yet insistent sensuality.  Several other songs and sequences on the album channel Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours as throughout there are subtle nods to that album’s psychedelia and mood-setting instrumental sequences – and although IBAS manages to channel some of my favorite albums of the past 7 years or so, the album does so in a way that’s more than mere mimicry, and in fact, reveals rather exceptional songwriting; the songs sound carefully and deliberately sculptured with chords fitting tightly into place. 

I recently spoke to the trio via email about Montreal, Montreal bands that we all should know, their debut album, their songwriting process and their forthcoming North American tour over the Fall. Check it out below.

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Photo Credit: Daniel Toepete 

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Photo Credit: Christopher Honeywell

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WRH: Tell us something cool
about you – or about Montreal that we (my readers and I, who are primarily
based in the States) wouldn’t normally know.

Seoul: Montréal is a good
spot. Seasons are really full blown and extreme with a really bitter cold period
and then a really hot summer. The city blooms in a sort of social renaissance
when the weather gets warm again, it’s with suspicion and disbelief that you
realize you can be outside comfortably again. It’s cheaper to live here than
Toronto or New York, and it’s quite a good smelling city. There’s a mountain in
the middle that has a giant cross on the top of it – in 2008, it was a classic
joke to tell tourists that Justice was playing a DJ set when you’d be walking
around.

WRH: How did you get into
music? And when did you know it was your calling?

Seoul: Julian and Nigel met
as classmates and have been friends since childhood. We both dabbled in piano
and guitar over the course of our early childhood but there wasn’t really a
concerted effort to write music together until we were 13 or so.  We
started a band with a friend and started playing in Julian’s parent’s basement,
just messing around, writing stuff, playing covers etc. Dex joined later on
after he met Nigel in college. He was doing a lot of weird stuff with MIDI at
the time, weird glitchy sample stuff and mashups and things. Dex and Nigel were
both pretty enthralled with Logic at that moment, having both recently acquired
it, so they started recording stuff and ended up living together – that was where
some of the early album ideas came from; “The Line” was made in that apartment.

It’s hard to say if we
consider music our “calling” per se, it’s obviously a very important outlet for
us right now though. There was a time nearing the end of high school when Nigel
was spending too much time writing and recording music to justify pursuing
anything else in college, so he did that. That happened to Dex, too; it was
either music or baseball. Julian studied cognitive science.  

WRH: Was Seoul something you
two had childhood dreams of — and something you knew that you’d know you’d
always be doing? How did you two meet Dexter Garcia? How did you wind up coming
up with the project’s name?

Seoul: It seems we “dreamt”
about being in a band and making records and touring mostly as young teenagers,
but eventually, if music is something that really resonates for you as a person
and remains a meaningful part of your life, it becomes less of a “dream” and
more a practical matter of how to actually do it and make it happen.

Dexter was at school in
Boston and met Nigel there in an English class.

Seoul was a name we arrived
at after finishing our record. We realized the songs often centered on certain
sorts of experiences framed by an urban backdrop, so the first thing the name
provided was a reference to an urban area that would evoke “city-related”
thoughts. Seoul was selected in particular though because it’s English
pronunciation sounds like “soul” – evoking the inner life and subjectivity of
a city’s inhabitants – and “sole” – evoking the potential for an alienated
existence in an urban area.

WRH: How would you describe your
sound?

Seoul: We like to embrace the
spaces we have to record in; that often informs our decisions in terms of drum
sounds. We mostly record at home, so we sample a lot of drums – chop them up
and record live cymbals over them and stuff.  We like a lot of pop music
and also listen to a lot of ambient stuff, so on this album, the songcraft
often comes from the pop stuff and the textures come from the ambient stuff.

WRH: Who are your influences?

Seoul: Read below –

WRH: Who are you listening to
right now?

Seoul: Talk TalkSpirit of Eden currently on at the cafe.
A lot of YouTube channels. Discovering stuff through Discogs and the $3 bin at
Human Head Records
in Brooklyn. Moodhut Records in Vancouver have been on high
rotation. Anything that Long Island Electrical Systems and Future Times puts
out. Madonna instrumentals from Ray of
Light
and the NASA Voyager Recordings. Jackson C. Frank and the Lialeh Soundtrack. Some French Darkwave.
Arca and Bruce Springsteen in the tour van. Young Thug from an iPhone
exclusively. We went on tour with an amazing band from Berlin called Ballet
School
and after every show we’d blast this song called “Bamboo Houses” by
Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian. We’d lose our shit.

WRH: Are there any artists
from Montreal that my readers (and myself) should be listening to right now
that they wouldn’t know?

Seoul: You probably know
TOPS, but we’re fans so we’ll give them a shoutout. Un blonde, Bantam Wing,
Slight, Marie Davidson, Homeshake, Kyle Bobby Dunn, Sea Oleena, Paul Trafford,
Solpara, Oren Ratowsky, Broken Obelisk, DJ Dolphin. Good people.

WRH: How did you come up
with the album title, I Become A Shade? Was there any point that the album
had a different name or was the current title always the album’s title?

Seoul:
I Become A Shade actually paraphrases a line from the end of James Joyce’s short
story “The Dead.” We were interested in the tendency to lose perspective on the
self and how certain sorts of ostensibly banal spaces or situations tended to
promote that blurring and dissolution of one’s mood/ethos/outlook. We wanted to
look at these moments of liquefying into one’s surroundings as a reaction to
things and marvel at the alternate beauty and horror of it. It was the only
title the album ever had. We had named a song “I Become A Shade” and someone
proposed transposing it to the title of the album. The agreement was unanimous.

WRH: As you can imagine,
I’ve listened IBAS about 15-20 times as I was coming up with questions
and researching for this Q&A. And to my ears, I was struck by how much the
material on IBAS reminds me of several albums released over the past 7
or so years that I love immensely — songs like “The Line,” “Haunt/A Light” “I
Negate” and “Silencer” remind me quite a bit of Beacon’s impressive For Now
EP
and their first two full-lengths The Ways We Separate and LP1,
while other songs remind me a little bit of Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours. There
are also subtle nods to fellow Montreal-based band BRAIDS last album and to
Bear In Heaven. For me, the material on the album manages to maintain a balance
between an icy minimalism, psychedelia and warm, club-friendly pop. What
inspired that balance? Was that intentional? And how much of an influence (if
any) did the likes of Beacon, Cut Copy, BRAIDS and Bear In Heaven have on the
material and its sound?

Seoul: Yeah that’s interesting!
We’ve listened to In Ghost Colours and enjoyed it quite a bit
– don’t they also play with transitions amidst bigger pop moments on that
record? BRAIDS are friends of ours – to be honest we feel fairly different to
them stylistically but maybe there are certain affinities we don’t pick up on
being so close to the source. We weren’t ever trying to emulate specifics from
those bands, it’s really just listening to something and asking yourself “has
the original energy been preserved, is this music alive?” and that’s just a
glow that inspires you to pursue your own self- expression. There’s always new
musical language being experimented with and shared that may or may not
resonate with you and that you can explore to inspire your own work, but often
great music is brought to being without too many superficial considerations.
It’s less a question of balancing musical styles and more asking yourself “have
I been represented? Are my heart and gut and feelings properly accounted for?”
It’s impossible to say how that will come about before you dive in.

WRH: “The Line,” “Haunt/A
Light” and “Silencer” are among my favorite songs on the album. What influenced
those songs? And how much of your personal experience or that of others inform
those songs and the rest of the songs on the album?

Seoul: “The Line” was a
super early exercise in drawing a midi synth part that would sound big,
geometric, and disorienting – and trying to balance that feel with a soft
vocal to form a song that could represent the multiple sides to pain and
transition.

“Haunt/A Light” was written
over a fairly long period of time – with verses and the ending added to the
whole slowly over time. It’s the only song on the record with a real grand
piano recorded and it benefits a lot from that rich dark depth. We also did a
take hitting empty bottles and scraping a suitcase with a drumstick to get a
different feel in the verses.

“Silencer” is a strange
song in retrospect because at the time of writing it, it represented a sort of
self-empowering vehicle to encompass and overcome a lot of negative feelings
one of us was experiencing in the aftermath of a relationship. The problem with
writing in that mode however, is that you express yourself before gaining
perspective on the situation. As much as it was an aid to healing to write, it
feels in the end like somewhat of an immature and irresponsible piece of music.
That’s not to say that it’s failed, just that the original energy being
captured was very fleeting.

Personal experience informs
all the songs. Maybe it won’t always in the future, but it does for now.

WRH: I wind up chatting
with a number of artists and the writing process is something that I find
rather fascinating. For some artists, songwriting is a difficult, laborious
ordeal while with others, it just seems to come about easily. How does your
songwriting process work? And how do you know when you have a finished song?

Seoul:
It depends. Sometimes the song is 90% complete in an afternoon, other times
it’ll be 2 years before the ideas totally sink in and mesh. And it depends on a
thousand contextual factors. Usually songs begin with someone bringing a sketch
of an idea to the table that for whatever reason is unanimously exciting, and
then it changes hands amongst the three of us until we’re all pleased with how
it feels. Since we’re writing quite a bit on computers, we’ll usually only fully
experience the final power of a song once it’s been mixed fairly extensively.
We’re super into textures and how things sit together, and that work is
somewhat sculptural.

WRH: Song ordering is a
rather difficult and inexact science for bands. I’ve heard albums in which you
can arrange each song in a completely different order and it would essentially
be about the same. And then there are albums where if you’ve re-ordered the
album’s songs, it gives you a completely different feel and interpretation. Along
with the actual songwriting, this can be a vexing issue. Was it difficult for
you to come up with the exact song order for IBAS?

Seoul:
We bought this whiteboard from an office supply store to keep a list of all the
songs ideas we were working on when we were tackling this project. Coming up
with the tracklisting happened somewhat simultaneously with narrowing down the
ideas on the whiteboard that felt linked in mood and theme. It’s kind of like
doing a Rubik’s cube where you finally get one side of the cube arranged but in
so doing you’ve totally made a mess of the opposite side. So for us it was a
slow tinkering process and this quest for balance sometimes involves using
ideas that wouldn’t have been your absolute first choice in another circumstance.
We incorporated ambient instrumental transitions into the fabric of the record,
which definitely helped conceptualize how to arrange things – they give the
record room to breathe and let meaning rear its head in more abstract ways.

WRH: The video for “The
Line” offers arguably one of the most stunning visuals I’ve seen in the last
couple of years. How did you and the production team behind it come up with the
concept?

Seoul:
Thank you! The original idea was sparked by seeing the LED-screen ad-trucks driving
around Montreal. It just always felt like such a dream-machine of sorts,
spewing tired corporate mumbo-jumbo into forgotten corners of the city, whether
people were there to see it or not. We felt like it would be incredible to
re-purpose the truck towards our own ends and tell a story that would actually
get to be put on display in the streets. Screens are so pervasive in our daily
lives and we felt like a giant LED-walled truck playing personal, intimate
images showing the tension between our real and projected selves would be a fun
and timely thing to do.

WRH: What advice would you
give to bands who are trying to make a name for themselves?

Seoul:
Maybe to practice accessing the part of yourself that is truly inspired, and to
work towards creating a community and environment for yourself where you’re
getting the best brought out of you on a regular basis. It seems like if this
base is set, you’re bound to come up with good things, and people will always
be drawn to that glow, that health.

WRH: What’s next for the
band?

Seoul: We’ll
be touring Canada and the States in September-October, and are trying to write
new songs this summer to get back into the routine of trying things out,
getting confused, not knowing how to proceed, and from that active state,
eventually figuring it out. The life pursuit, learning about ourselves… How
to be…

 

North American Tour Dates

Sep 20 – Seattle, WA
The Vera Project [tickets]


Sep 21 – Portland, OR
Mississippi Studios [tickets]

Sep 23 – San
Francisco, CA
Bottom of the Hill [tickets]

Sep 24 – Los Angeles,
CA
The Echo [tickets]

Sep 26 – Phoenix, AZ
The Rebel Lounge [tickets]


Sep 29 – Dallas, TX
DADA [tickets]

Sep 30 – Austin, TX
Red 7 [tickets]

Oct 3 – Atlanta, GA
Drunken Unicorn [tickets]

Oct 4 – Chapel Hill,
NC
Local 506 [tickets]

Oct 5 – Washington, DC
U Street Music Hall [tickets]

Oct 7 – Pittsburgh, PA
Spirit [tickets]


Oct 8 – Philadelphia,
PA
The Barbary [tickets]


Oct 9 – Allston, MA –
Great Scott [tickets]


Oct 10 – Brooklyn, NY
Rough Trade [tickets]

Oct 12 – Cleveland, OH
Beachland Tavern [tickets]

Oct 13 – Chicago, IL
Empty Bottle [tickets]

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