‘Looking For A Primal State’: The Esoteric World Of Orphan Swords
Lean but venturous, judicious but audaciously severe, Yannick Franck and Pierre de Mûelenaere concoct an oblique, stringent form of techno. Favouring progressive, heavy-duty abrasion their productions are a commanding mix of rusted churn and spartan thud. Although modishly textured with fractious industrial noise, there’s a distinguished asceticism to the material they make as Orphan Swords; in the way intensities and momentums build by ever sturdier degrees, often culminating in an enrapturing critical mass which sounds as if its fateful energy is being powered by repurposed, ill-functioning tools.
Out of manifold, multidisciplinary interests the duo found common ground through a compatible attitude and an intention to eschew limits and embrace a radical approach. Listening to the admirable run of releases they’ve accumulated over the course of a fertile three years – for the likes of Desire Records, Clan Destine, and Franck’s own Idiosyncratics imprint – suggests that they’ve remained faithful to that premise. From the feculent, eddying dissonance of ‘Dantalion’ to the insistent, monotonal thrum of ‘Hooker’, their work wields a brutal hypnosis.
In the wake of the announcement of a free remix package boasting turns from estimable noiseniks including Helm, Svengalisghost, Prostitutes and Black Rain, we discussed their respective backgrounds, the underlying principles of Orphan Swords, the Brussels scene, and collaborating with Ike Yard. It’s fair to say things went astray, with forays into demonology, sexuality, and self-styled paganism…
I was wondering about your respective backgrounds and what instigated the project. What did each of you listen to in your formative years? How did you both meet?
Yannick: I was always a hybrid. I studied painting in an art school, then became a performer, then a sound artist and a musician, and now I don’t even bother knowing what I am anymore. I guess I just see creativity as the most important thing in life.
Pierre: After studying literature, I have been a bookseller in the 2000's, then I co-created a publishing house dedicated to Belgian contemporary writers. In the meantime, I started to work for Brussels’ center for fine arts (Bozar), creating and curating the Bozar Electronic Arts Festival (BEAF) with Marc Jacobs (who is also making music as « Prairie »). I’m also involved in the creation of audiovisual performances and installations. At the moment developing a collaborative installation project inspired by Franz Kafka’s novel “The Trial”.
Yannick: I met Pierre because Finnish artist Inkeri Harri was my partner for several years and they were working on audiovisual projects together. Pierre was interested in my solo works and he invited me to perform a couple of times. Someday he came up with the idea and the very same day I accepted and came up with the name. We agreed instantly on pretty much everything and that’s how it works between us most of the time. We became close friends and it’s a pleasure to have found such complementarity, both when recording music or having beers in my basement. Of course we happen to disagree on things, but those disagreements generate new ideas and challenges. I feel quite lucky to have the opportunity to do the project with him.
Pierre: Couldn’t say it better !
Can you recall how the collaboration originally came together and what ideas informed its conception?
Yannick: I think we both needed some radicality in our lives. And there was something in the air, a change in the social atmosphere, new musical influences too… Personally I needed to get back to performing in front of yelling, dancing, wilder crowds, audiences with a certain response. I never felt too comfortable playing in experimental music sanctuaries where everyone sits and listens religiously. For me live performance has something sacred indeed, but it is much closer to a lively pagan celebration then a mass of any kind!
Pierre: To create and develop a strong aesthetic fed by our common concerns and our respective musical backgrounds, without any limitation of style or genre, which lead us to a form of radicality. We share a lot, everyday, not only sounds but links, ideas, pictures, words, artists, etc. All of this constantly nourishes our project and our inspiration on a broader level.
How long has the project existed now? Have your initial intentions for it changed in any way?
Yannick: 3 years. Since a great deal of the intention was to remain free on a creative level I think we can say they didn’t change too much!
Yannick you’re from an art background and seem to have quite a multidisciplinary practice going on, tell us about your other work. Has it factored into the Orphan Swords material in any way?
Yannick: Sure, lots of techniques and sounds I’ve learned experimenting with noise conveys through Orphan Swords’ aesthetics. Same with performance art, a concert is a performance too and I wouldn’t have the same approach of it without my background as a performer. I think that pretty much everything you do shapes who you become and will be a part of your future creative realm. Even if you provoke a rupture, it has been generated by your experience too.
Also on a theoretical level as well as an art curator and as a composer working with living arts I’d say transdisciplinarity is one of my core concerns. No art can be used as a tapestry, it’s all about building something where every discipline involved becomes fundamental and irreplaceable.
Equally Pierre, I understand you record as ‘Maze’, did the Orphan Swords project represent much of a departure from your solo work?
Pierre: The conception of Maze started right after the beginning of OS. We were all about building a new artistic realm around us, influenced by the maelstrom Orphan Swords generated in our lives. I do not release music under that moniker yet, for now I’m only playing dj sets from time to time, exclusively with portable K7 players from the 80's and a big collection of tapes.
I’m building rhythms and beats using various audio sources, producing a lot of rhythmic samples and structures. As some of them take a different direction than the ones we use for Orphan Swords, I guess they will come out one day under the Maze moniker. But I don’t feel any urge to release anything on my own at this point.
Who handles what? Is there a clear division of labour?
Yannick: We’ve tried several different methods but the most workflow efficient one is the following: Pierre sends me the structure and most of the rhythmics and then I process it and overdub until I have a consistent draft. Then we meet up and do changes / additions. I usually fine tune the mix on my own and send versions to Pierre until we’re both happy.
Pierre: There is a great mutual confidence in the work we both do on the base material. When our track called Dantalion just emerged, it became suddenly obvious for us that we were in a very creative and collaborative process. The way we do things really differs from bands involving several musicians playing different instruments, each one coming with his part in the whole. I like to let Yannick surprise me with his input on the material I send him, and then it goes back and forth between us until its ready. It’s pretty fluid and natural.
The track names are mostly centred around demonology, where did this interest originate? It seems to be a significant, recurring influence on your material…
Yannick: We’re looking for creative strategies to emancipate from the controlled, corporate version of the world, exorcise its influence on us. We’re looking for a primal state where we can shelter and that reconnects our lives with meaning and direction. That with the help of a whole pantheon of mythological figures, they symbolize potential, the deeper self and the deployment of life.
There’s a quite heavy, forbidding intensity to a lot of your work, your productions seem to possess quite a live energy, as if they were recorded in one take, but it’s also densely layered which suggests otherwise…I was wondering what your recording process was? Does it differ much from how you translate your work in a live setting?
Yannick: Both! We compose the music and then some “live” overdubs, sometimes it’s the other way around, we record and then process the take into something we like. Personally I like not to consider a track finished until I have the feeling I would find this track inspiring and powerful as a listener. As Laurie Anderson often says: “make the music you want to hear”.
Pierre: Signal processing was quite new for me and I learned a lot thanks to Yannick and his huge background of performer and sound artist. Such processing is meant to transform the original signal into something stronger, richer, to create complexity. Something that is more « alive ». And I would say that our live setting goes even further into this. It is quite intense and it forces us to stay extremely focused on what’s happening while performing.
How do you think Orphan Swords should be received in the live environment? Do you see it as suited to a club context?
Yannick: Sure! We’re loving both directions, “concert” set up and dancefloor oriented sets.
I thought this might be interesting considering previous remarks you’ve made identifying the ‘ecstatic’ element of your music. I was interested in how that relates to what conventional expectations of what ‘ecstatic’ music and ‘ecstatic’ experiences are? I suppose many people wouldn’t immediately expect dark music such as yours to accompany such a feeling…
Yannick: My point exactly. New age is too easy, “feel good” music is too easy. You’ve got to challenge yourself by embracing reality’s rawness in order to reach a certain level of understanding, possible regeneration. It’s like shamanic techniques, visions arise when the subject loses all his protections and overcomes his fears.
Pierre: OS performances are definitely solid experiences. They are pretty much about reaching other levels of perception, especially for ourselves, it represents way more than just playing or reproducing something pre-established. It is firstly due to the internal logic of our music itself. It is designed to generate a strong response. A long, progressive track like Dantalion is a good example of this.
How has Brussels been as a base for the project? Is there a supportive scene in the city?
Yannick: There’s a small supportive scene, and quite an enjoyable sense of community although we directly relate to few people artistically, the scene is rather diverse, often inspiring and friendly. Also Brussels has something lively, even pretty wild sometimes. I lived in Gent for years and I couldn’t take the ultracivilized manners and all the polite art you see in project spaces anymore. I don’t mind it, but it’s not for me!
Pierre: In 2014, we had the pleasure to open for Vatican Shadow at STUK and for The Body at De Kreun – most of the interest and the requests we get here are coming from the northern part of the country. Then we played at Les Nuits 2015 at Botanique. We’ll play at the newborn schiev festival in November next to artists such as KETEV, N1l, RSS BOYS, ZAMILSKA, etc. And we are confirmed at Ancienne Belgique for « The Sound Of Belgian Underground », a yearly festival powered by Subbacultcha. It's quite supportive as you can see, we are happy with that.
Musically step by step something is growing up here with artists like Icon Template, Onrust, Ripit, etc. It looks like Belgium is slowly emancipating from the qualitative though harmless beat scene that leads electronic music here for the past five years -that was basically a kind of follow-up of all the LA beat scene-fly lo etc.
The evolutions of electronic scenes spread out a little slower here than in Germany or UK for instance. When I invited Vatican Shadow or Silent Servant to play at Bozar Electronic Arts Festival a few years ago, those names sounded strange and were still unknown to most of the audience attendees. Same thing this year with Kerridge. Nevertheless, there is currently an increasing demand for anything disrupting, anything wicked.
Do you feel connected with the history of the Belgian industrial/post-punk scene? I’m thinking of the likes of Neon Judgement, Front 242, Absolute Body Control as well as broader, more general connections with EBM and new beat…
Yannick: Sure, absolutely! You can top it up with Nacht und Nebel, Arbeit Adelt!, Aroma Di Amore, Tuxedomoon, Snowy Red, The Names, Siglo XX, Red Zebra,.. The old stuff though. Belgium had an incredibly vibrant scene and spirit back in these days. We have no national pride, we originated 20th century’s potentially biggest, filthiest, revolting asshole Leopold II, we sell insane amount of guns all around the world, but we happen to make great music.
How did the collaboration with Ike Yard come about? What’s your relationship with them?
Yannick: We simply proposed Stuart Argabright to do it and he accepted. He did an amazing job on Vassago, then we had the possibility to share the bill in Paris and since then we met on several other occasions. We love him.
Pierre: Getting such a great appreciation from him about our music was something very meaningful to us. He's a very inspiring artist and person, and now a good friend.
Such human connexions are fundamental. The project we launched is much more to us than recording tracks, releasing records and performing.
Do you see yourselves as affiliated with any contemporaries or any particular scene, especially in light of the increasingly widespread cross-pollination between noise, industrial and techno…?
Yannick: Sure, we are somehow a part of it. Though we’re not ending up in that niche because we want to sound like anyone in there but because several of our concerns seem to converge. We collaborate with artists when we like their work and aesthetics and if we believe it has some potential.
Pierre: This techno/noise thing has become rather big the electronic scene but we do not define OS in terms of genre, some new tracks we are currently working on go in completely different directions. As a matter of fact the Risk EP was already totally different than what came before or after.
It’s an interesting notion to consider bearing in mind Levon Vincent’s recent comments about techno reminding him of ‘heavy metal’, and being purely about ‘angst’, what did you make of that as artists whose work might be aligned with those associations?
Yannick: Although there’s an obvious disappearance of stylistic boundaries in the air, I don’t believe we can sum it up to only being about angst or anything too simplistic. It’s a whole exploration field, with the complexity, the challenges, the opportunities and the traps that any creative journey proposes! It’s exciting!
You’ve also had a fair amount of remixes out – for the likes of Dwellings, Ike Yard, and imminently Gainstage – do you approach remixes differently from your own work? What’s been your favourite track to work with so far?
Yannick: Remixes are fun!
Pierre: It is also a great way to connect and build something with people we appreciate. To be remixed and to remix. To remix Ike Yard for DESIRE was definitely a great honour, but each remix comes with his own challenges and induces different approaches. Oh and remember to check the remix we made for ONRUST lately!
License To Desire EP has been remixed by Helm, Black Rain, Prostitutes, Icon Template and Svengalisghost. The remixes were supposed to be released on 12'' in 2015 on Desire too but we’re experiencing issues with the label lately. However we’re planning on sharing it with the audience in a different way if it is necessary.
I loved the track ‘Hooker’ from the ‘License To Desire’ EP, it seems much more intensely minimal than your other work, how did it come together?
Yannick: Out of the blue really. Sometimes you record a track and you know you should not touch it. The little something, the special feeling you experienced while recording it is still there when you hear it again. Then there’s not much editing to be done for it to take shape.
Pierre: It was important to bring a kind of counterpoint as an epilogue for the License To Desire EP, We wanted Hooker to put a more laid back, somewhat minimal conclusion. Its also a great track to play live, for the same reason I think.
You’ve previously identified ‘License to Desire’ as ‘an ode to carnal love’, what motivated this particular focus? I know it’s a theme which is often prevalent in EBM and industrial…
Yannick: Sex is too often seen as something callous or shameful, or not worthy of interest, or reduced to a mere necessity.. When it’s not instrumentalized in a way or another. But as Genesis P-Orridge once said, Pleasure Is A Weapon. By means of sex, you can reconnect with your own body and have a moment of communion with another human being, you can transform energies, celebrate life and live something intense and beautiful. If we reconquer our bodies and learn to give and receive genuine pleasure with it, we’re already winning over alienation. Our times are so prone to disincarnation, and western culture so prone to the division between body and spirit… I believe we have to reconquer the realm of sexuality as an essential and important part of our lives.
Pierre: Of course it's a lot to do about it, but further than sex License to Desire is about the need for experimentation, the impulse that leads you to the creative path.
The artwork for ‘License To Desire’ is pretty special, where’s it from?
Yannick: From Belgian photographer Lara Gasparoto, we like her a lot. The model on it is the performer-dancer Doriane Dubost Dessertine.
Pierre: Just wait for the artwork of the « License To Desire remixes » EP, it features another picture by Lara. Splendid work ! And perfectly matching the concept behind this release.
Similarly with ‘Risk In A New Age’, the artwork is great, it looks like it’s lifted from some satanic esoterica…
Yannick: Marc O’Callaghan, the artist who took care of Risk In A New Age’s artwork and myself share a pronounced interest for esoteric studies (ranging from serious esoterism to pulpier countercultural material) and I think those influences can be seen in what we’re doing, but it is all quite freely inspired. In the case of Risk In A New Age, Marc reproduced the seals of four goetic entities after which the songs that figure on the EP were named.
5 records you’ve each got on heavy rotation?
Sleazy – Soisong EP
Motorama – Poverty
Container – LP 2015
Eat Skull – Wild and Inside
John Cage – Works for percussion vol. 1 (1935 – 1941)
Rrose – For aquantice + Vanishing pools
Tuff Sherm – smugglers bureau
PMM – Serpent's Promise
Gainstage – Gainstage
Shady P – speaker for the dead
a little extra: MYTH – Evaporate on Rabit’s new Halcyon Veil imprint
What are you currently working on? What have you got coming up?
License To Desire EP – vinyl edition – before end of 2015 on desire
We have a remix that comes with Gainstage’s debut LP on Portals
Silken Tofu has released the new ONRUST 12'' for which we provided a remix too
Our track Astaroth has recently been released on vinyl, as part of the Dark Acid V compilation Clan Destine put out.
A New EP is coming on Clan Destine in early 2016 it features both brand new and classic OS material that hadn’t been released on vinyl yet. That will be our last EP before the LP that should come in 2016.
Head HERE to receive the License To Desire Remixes for nothing (but your worthless email address)