For over 10 years, Thomas Meluch has been making texture-rich avant-folk and electronic music under the alias Benoit Pioulard, a French name he took from a dream. His latest, The Benoit Pioulard Listening Matter, marks his fifth full-length for experimental stalwart label Kranky. Two years in the making, Listening Matter charts the process of grief and loss, but never gets mired in navel-gazing or self-pity.
Listening Matter’s 13 tracks are as melodic any in Meluch’s catalog, and they crackle and hiss with the distortion that’s come to characterize his work, employing electronic flourishes and found sounds to create a dreamy atmosphere. Meluch’s vocal approach tends to shift from release to release; some of his records are strictly instrumental, while others set the vocals far back in the mix, serving more as additional instrumentation than narrative. On Listening Matter, Meluch’s voice is out front for the first time. Over warm guitar chords that hum and thump with kinetic energy, he sings openly and vulnerably, allowing his lyrics to come fully into focus.
While much of his catalogue may not seem as immediately personal as Listening Matter, his albums have always been, to some extent, diaristic. He also documents his life through photography and field recordings, which he often incorporates into companion releases.
We spoke with Meluch about the personal hardships reflected on Listening Matter, making music as a means of healing, and the value of handmade art.
When you’re working on music, are you working on it with an album in mind, like, ”I’m putting together a collection,” or are you just working on songs?
It’s kind of all over the place. The more serious project that I was working on [when I started working on Listening Matter] turned into the album Sonnet, that came out last year, and which is mostly instrumental stuff. And then in the midst of that, I ended up writing a couple of songs, came up with the melodies while I was wandering out in my neighborhood—that kind of thing. I just recorded two or three of the songs, and then I was going to release them as a 7”, but then the label that was going to release the 7” folded and backed out, and I just decided to keep the songs. I wrote a bunch more, and cobbled all those together into what sounds like an album. I did some re-recording, tried to make it sound a little bit more consistent. It was pretty long and way more relaxed process than previously. I was in a more dedicated songwriting/recording mode, and I’ve just been recording whatever feels right for the given day over the last couple years.
Most of it has been instrumental, but I also really enjoy a lot of more experimental pop music, and I’m attracted to song structure and that kind of thing. Where indulgence into instrumental stuff was more of a rarity [for me] eight or 10 years ago, it’s more the norm [now] than writing songs, [which] I do a little bit more rarely.
In regards to your instrumental versus your lyrical work: Is your approach to each one different? Do you feel a different kinship with the songs depending on whether or not you’re singing?
I guess they tap into different parts of myself, and what I look for in the experience of making something. Usually the instrumental stuff is largely improvised, and I can make a whole piece front to back in a day. But if I’m writing a song, a lot more effort goes into the lyrics. I’ll sometimes revise lyrics for a month until I get to a point where I’m happy with every single word. Usually recording as many layers as I do will take two or three days, so it’s a lot more involved and a lot less spontaneous. I would say it’s a more three-dimensional depiction of what I hear in my head, if that makes sense?
In terms of experimental pop, is that what you listen to? What do you listen to?
[My taste is] kind of all over the place actually. Today I went to the record store and bought a copy of Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk because I’ve never owned that record. Mostly around my house I’m listening to really gentle piano music like Chopin, that kind of thing. And then a lot of the [Private Issue] ambient box set that Light in the Attic put out a couple years ago. I’ve been making my way through that one.
Where does the title Listening Matter come from?
It’s from a book by Mason Williams. He put together a book of his writing in 1965 [ed. note: published in 1969] I think, called The Mason Williams Reading Matter. My dad always had a copy of that one on the coffee table at home, and it became one of my favorite things when I was a kid. I still like it a lot, and have a copy of that and another book, which is called Flavors—they’re both kind of similar; there’s a very black sense of humor. He was a songwriter, too. He most famously known for writing the song “Classical Gas,” which you’d recognize.
Much of this album is about grief and loss. Were you writing the songs as a means of processing what you were going through, or were you processing the events independent of writing the music?
The lyrics have a lot to do with self-medication. In the last few years, my grandparents passed away, and my brother died this year—that actually happened the day I finished recording. He struggled with addiction his whole life. A few of the songs on here are about trying to find means, strength, and the willpower to get a hold of bad habits. There’s certainly a heaviness about it. I also think that a lot of the songs are my most upbeat arrangements so far, and I’ve always liked that kind of contrast—the darkness to light. To me, there’s a dark sense of humor I don’t know if anyone else has found at all. It’s obviously very personal, and I try not to make any pretense other than the fact that I made it for myself first and foremost. I guess it’s kind of self-therapy.
What were some of the skills you developed in order to help you cope with what was happening?
Recording in and of itself was kind of a daily therapeutic exercise for me. I released a series of instrumental tapes called Stanza last year—two separate releases. I just finished the third one in that series, and that started [an] exercise where I would just sit down with my guitar and pedals every morning, like every single day for a week straight, and just make some noise and record it. And through that, I kind of centered myself. At the time I was feeling at risk of developing a drinking problem, or a more serious drinking problem than I had ever had to deal with before. I think, because of those efforts, I went the entire year plus without feeling the need to regress into that habit. I feel really good, but also kind of guilty for having something that is that easy to access, in terms of being able to get control of something that is that potentially troubling. I know a lot of people who have issues with substance abuse control and that kind of thing, and they don’t really have any way to deal with it other than maybe seeing a therapist, because it’s such a part of their daily lives. I’m a good ways into my 30s now and can’t act like a 22-year-old. I’m actually 32. I feel like an old man.
When I first interviewed you in 2008, you had played less than 20 shows. Now, you’ve toured regularly. As your profile has risen, was there ever a time where it felt like you were less making music for yourself and more for this entity that you’ve built?
I’ve always followed the muse. It seems like every time I put together a full-length album, the motivation’s a little bit different. The first record I did for Kranky was all about a breakup, and so was the third one. The second one was all about moving to the other side of the country, and there was a lot of introspection going on on that record, too. I was reflecting on having graduated college, changing location, and being cosmically homeless—I don’t know how else to put it. Then the fourth record I did for them in 2012 was when I was living in the UK, so it was obviously inspired by displacement, as well as a lot of other things. Every time that I end up with a complete project, I feel like it very much reflects a particular era in my life. I try to be as honest with myself and honest through the things that I make. I wouldn’t even say I’ve gotten that much notoriety. I’m extremely grateful and appreciative to the hundred and something people that always pay attention and always buy things that I put up on Bandcamp, but I don’t expect nor do I feel I deserve for anybody to pay attention this long. It’s been like 10 years since the first record came out. The fact that anybody cares is pretty amazing at all. I’ll probably keep making things regardless. I feel the need [to take] some downtime after this, just so I can collect myself and do other things. I’m going to Europe to play some shows in March, hopefully, if things work out, and next year I’m going to be focusing on some other long-term life goals.
Are you still doing photography?
Yeah, actually, I was out taking pictures today. The Impossible Project has been making some incredible film stock for Polaroid SX-70 cameras lately, so I’m slowly putting together a book that may or may not come out next year, I don’t know. I’ve been focusing on that, especially since I broke my wrist a couple months ago. While I was unable to play guitar, once I was able to get out and was still in the cast, I focused on taking pictures more because it’s a real rewarding, creative outlet, and a good way to document things. If I can end up with some kind of thing afterwards, that’s great. We’ll see where that goes.
Picturing you out and about taking photos brings to mind the field recordings that you do. How do you approach those? Are you ever going for specific sounds, or are you just putting yourself out in the world and recording exists around you.
I try to keep a tape recorder with me as much as possible, and I also admittedly make use of the digital recorder on my iPhone, because it’s actually pretty good. Sometimes, especially living in the city, I walk to work and I pass the freeway—[if] something strikes me as worthy of documenting, I can just do it on the spot. I don’t typically go out and search for sound—much less so than I go out to take pictures. I just went out to Georgetown in West Seattle yesterday [and] took a bunch of pictures of this abandoned, overgrown tennis court that turned out really nice. Having that kind of improvisational attitude tends to work out. When it doesn’t, that’s fine too. At least I tried.
You’re doing a limited-edition run of a handmade companion to this record that you’re selling through Bandcamp, which is something you do with each release.
That’s one thing that I always do. I typically have always done 25 of those, and I feel privileged to say that they’ve alway sold out really quickly. So I decided to roll the dice and make 50 this time. And it will probably be the most elaborate one I’ve done so far.
What do you see as the value behind something handmade?
I try to keep track of a few artists who do things like that, just because I appreciate that connection so much. In fact, the fact that there is something like Bandcamp—and I’m not trying to pander—it’s been the biggest boon to my output probably since I signed to Kranky, just because they make it so easy to get stuff out there, and the quality is so great. The fact that you can interact with an artist one-to-one whose music you enjoy is awesome. I try to support as much as I can when I find something I like on there. With limited editions, you’re holding the thing that was held by the person who made it. I think [that’s] pretty special. That’s the most profound connection to me. It doesn’t happen all that often, but sometimes when I’ll get an email or an instant message out of the blue from a total stranger and they’ll say ‘A particular song [of yours] means a lot to me,’ or ‘I had this experience with [your] music,’ and what do I say to that? That’s incredible. Other than doing it for myself, that, I would say, is the biggest reward of putting stuff out there. That’s totally an honest, genuine connection to me.