Interview réalisée par Bertrand Hamonou
« Gandrange »
Release april 22nd 2022
On a scorching hot day’s late afternoon, we meet with Sylmalm to chat about his fifth album, "Gandrange", and take the opportunity to learn a little more about his mysterious industrial electronica project, Sylvgheist Maëlström. As the time of the meeting approaches, the wind picks up and becomes frankly threatening, the gusts of wind batter the awning of the terrace on which we are installed. In retrospect, it could not be otherwise, given what the Parisian confided us during the interview.
You always take us to unusual places on each of your albums: after Pripyat in Ukraine then Norillag in Siberia, this time you’re taking us to Gandrange, in France. Why this destination?
Gandrange is a steel site bought by Mittal from Arcelor in 1999, promising the earth at the time, and specially to keep all the jobs. Actually they started to dismantle all the industrial tool to focus on other sites for the sole purpose of making maximum profit, while dismantling everything else, and leaving behind a lot of employees. There is another reason why I chose Gandrange: it is because Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, who both came to visit the site, also promising the earth, did not save any of the jobs at the end. And eventually, the site shut down.
And what decided you onto Norillag for your previous record?
Norillag is the condensation of Norilsk, the industrial site in Siberia, with gulag, which was originally to this site Russia sent all its dissidents, mainly to extract nickel. Following the dismantling of the USSR, the Russian oligarchs transformed the gulag into a company, and it was called Norils Nickel. It is the most polluting site in the world: in short, this city pollutes more than the whole of France. You have to imagine the consequences of this for the environment. People are sent there with a seemingly attractive salary, double or triple the salary in Moscow. They dangle a higher salary to send people to hell, and it's more or less work or die: you don't have the right to be sick, you don't have the right to be old. To sum it up, people leave Norilsk when they are sick or when they are too old to work.
Looking at the tracklisting for "Gandrange", I immediately noticed the track called "Dötstädning", and I tought that it would have made an excellent candidate as an album title, in particular thanks to its two umlauts reminiscent of those of Sylvgheist Maëlström. What’s the story behind this Swedish title?
Dötstädning is indeed a Swedish concept, which makes me think that there are a few different concepts gathered around a global theme on this album. Dötstädning is the end-of-life cleaning, before the death of those who do not want to bother their descendants’ life with material surplus and useless things. I liked the concept, of course, and above all it reminded me a lot of those workers who suffered what I was telling you about earlier, and who understood after a while that they were going to have to move and whose lives would need to change. There are some people who started to revolt to try to keep some of their industrial tools, but they failed. For me, "Dötstädning" is also a way to look at life in order to be reborn better by seeing death coming, by trying to focus onto essential things, such as the basic concepts of family ties, and to make sure to get back on track, because life often leads us to falling out within families.
How about Sylvgheist Maëlström, the name you chose for yourself: is it also Swedish?
No, it's a name that I made up, it's not Swedish, even if you're right, it sounds like it. Sylvgheist comes from the forest, like the Scots pine, which represents nature. Gheist comes from poltergeist, the ghost, and the maëlström is a French word that you will find in the dictionary: it is a marine whirlwind that carries away everything in its path. For me, this name evokes a concept, that of nature reclaiming its rights over civilisation. This idea came to me in 1999, when I was studying in Sweden. I had already started to work on electronic music with hardware devices that I had brought there with me, and I found myself working on it in the middle of the woods. That's when I thought to myself that I wanted to define something that could be the framework of my music. And I chose this theme of nature which takes back its rights over civilization, and by extension, not only of natural disasters, but also of industrial disasters which have consequences onto nature. Then, these consequences onto nature come back to take their rights on civilization: it’s a vicious circle.
Photo Bertrand Robion
For conceptual albums such as yours, do you already have the idea in mind from the the very beginning stage, or does it appear throughout the composition process, which lasted four years for "Gangrange"?
No, it comes later on. I live things that give me very personal feelings on a daily basis, in this case, for "Gandrange", related to my daily job. A lot happened to me this year, I had to change my job and that explains the concept of the album. In general, I take a look at my own life, and not just to stare at my only self, I pick a phenomenon, an important media event that many people know, in order to try to explain my own living. It's a game of mirrors between my personal story and History with a capital H. I do this each time for every album.
Up to your previous album, "Norillag", each title was followed by a number on the cover, which was in fact the date on which you had started working on the track itself. But you didn’t do it this time, why is that?
Indeed, I wanted to simplify things on "Gandrange", on the one hand because this was not very clearly understood, and also because very often I happen to rework very old tracks to the point that they end up becoming something totally different from the original idea ; they finally become a brand new piece that has nothing to do with the original demo I did three years earlier, even if I kept an original sound or a sequence that I liked in it.
Since we’re talking about your sounds, on your bio we can read that your sounds are "cutting". I would add that they are also "bubbling" and "electrifying". Some of your tracks make me feel that they’re disintegrating at the end. For example on "Attrition", it's bubbling all over the track and I guess this is the desired effect?
Yes, absolutely, this is done on purpose, and since we're talking about "Attrition", it's one of the only titles for which I had the name before writing it, because I usually find it later. But for "Attrition", I already had it in mind because attrition, in the context of Gandrange, is demotivation at work: that of your own work as well as this pressure that you are subjected to, which makes people admit that at some point, they have to leave the company they’ve been working for, and it's often motivated by a social plan which I experienced personally. To tell you the truth, I almost called this album "Attrition", but as I like to give a place name to my albums, I preferred "Gandrange" at the end.
How do you name the titles of your songs when they are finished?
Most of the time images will appear to me, but I also sometimes I’ll set up listening sessions with some of my relatives to whom I’ll hand a piece of paper and a pencil, and I’ll ask them to write down any idea that comes to their minds when listening to the tracks.
How does the composition process usually happen?
I’ve ben using the same software for years, and it’s always been Reason. It's my main tool, and I also have synths for the addition of sounds, but my sounds bank and my sequences are all being made on Reason. I would find it hard to change today ; I tried to change it at one point, but over time Reason became like an extension of my own hands. That being said, I also use Ableton for gigs.
« this concept of squeaks, saturations and sound layers additions comes from death metal in which you will also find these sound layers walls. That's my background, and that's what I’m trying to achieve with Sylvgheist Maëlström. »
Your sound is very remarkable, it’s a trademark of some sort. How did you forge it?
I'm going to tell you about a specific moment which happened in 2004, one of the first times I went to the Maschinenfest, this great German festival that unfortunately disappeared after its last edition in 2018. Orphx were playing that year, and even if I hadn't planned to see them beforehand, it turned out that they replaced a band that I had planned to see. And at the first second, I wondered what it was: I loved every minute of their set, and I told myself that this was where I wanted to go, when my first idea was to mix death metal with electronic music. It has deviated ever since, of course, but this concept of squeaks, saturations and sound layers additions comes from death metal in which you will also find these sound layers walls. That's my background, and that's what I’m trying to achieve with Sylvgheist Maëlström.
I would like to talk about your records sleeves, especially "Norillag" which I find very unique in its genre: there are three pictures of yourself, one inside the others, and I find it very atypical for the music scene you belong to.
It was made by a friend of mine, Mathieu Orioli, who happens to be the graphic designer with whom I have been working since the beginning. Before "Norillag", I would usually pick an image by photographer Bertrand Robion. Actually, for "Norillag", the initial plan was that we were going to an industrial site for exploration as we did each time before, and when we came back, Mathieu suggested that I should show pictures of myself on the sleeve. I gave it a second thought, and we had to try thirty different covers before deciding on the final results.
How about the one for "Gandrange"?
It is again a photograph by Bertrand Robion. This time, I was looking for an image that could suggest a double concept: work, as well as suffering and exploitation at work. On this image we can see numbers that evoke the workers, as well as the hooks on which they register with a ring. On the photograph that I picked, there is only one ring registered on its hook, which is the one of the only worker who was there that day, whereas previously there was a ring associated with all of the numbers. This of course suggests the dismantling and the end of the site, as well as the loss of the workers. As for the logo, it’s suggesting the use of a stencil, which refers to the workers' struggles as they used to paint their slogans with stencils, as well as the protest demonstrations in the streets.
On this album dedicated to Gandrange, there is a track called "SARS-CoV-2" and I wondered how it got there. What immediately struck me is this unfamiliar drum'n'bass loop: is it here to suggest the virus contaminating the track?
Absolutely, that’s the idea behind this loop. I wrote this piece during the first confinement, when I was working from home, and I thought to myself that I had to compose a song about this very special moment that we were all living. I also made the video that goes along with it live right after recording the track, which was the very first time I did such a thing. Even before writing it, I knew that the title was going to be called what it is, I very clearly visualized what I was going to show, the concept was well established early on. And I also knew that I wanted to give it the scientific name of the disease.
You mentioned playing live earlier, and I know that you played in Brussels and Paris two evenings in a raw in July. Do you get lots of requests to play?
Not really, it happened by chance this summer. I received two offers that came one after the other for two evenings in a row, in Brussels then Paris, and this is the first time this has happened to me. Nowadays, what does work is the Berlin techno genre: The Berghain, the famous Berlin club, has spread all across Europe. I'll give you an example: the day before my gig on Saturday July 16 at the Petit Bain (Dark'n'Stormy evening with Mila Dietrich and Ghost Dance - editor's note), there was such a show at the same venue and the place was packed. For our shows, even if it was quite reasonable on Saturday, it was far less busy than the night before. These days, there are Parisian organizers who bring artists from the industrial milieu into a rather techno line-up without officially claiming so, as even if the genre that is a little different, it is close enough to techno. It's a new concept: the line-up is kept as a secret, and it's a surprise when you finally go to the venue. For instance, Iszoloscope came to play in Paris this spring in one of these events, and a thousand people attended!
There are videos throughout your live shows, from beginning to end. Do you make them yourself?
Until 2018, my brother took care of that aspect of the work, but he left the project, which meant that I had to have a go at it without having any background at it myself, and today I find myself handling the videos in addition to the music, yes. I know what you're going to ask me: do you really need to play videos during your live shows? I think that when it comes to electronic music, the answer is yes, since everything happens behind a laptop. And even if I try to move a biton stage, I can't say that I'm jumping from one side to the other either. My videos allow me to tell a story, as I also use them to try to explain that concept of nature taking back its rights over civilization.