Preterite’s wholly intimate offering of last year, Pillar of Winds is a refreshingly modest piece of music. Alternating from mildly distorted folkish drone to century-old mysticism, this pairing has involuntarily yielded an album steeped in redemption and reverence. A recording that has seen multiple replays since my initial review last year. Between the alluring voice of Geneviève Beaulieu and the grounded visions of James Hamilton, Preterite arise. For the first time here, they concurrently reveal and add to the mystery that lurks beneath the hum.
How did this collaboration come together?
JH: I first saw and heard Menace Ruine at their CD launch concert for ‘Cult of Ruins’ in 2008 and really liked what they were doing. People perceived them at that point as a black metal sort of thing which I didn’t really hear – to me it was something I hadn’t really encountered before, with echoes of psychedelic and even progressive music hidden beneath the harsh surface. And of course, Genevieve’s voice and presence were overwhelming. We first met when MR came to one of my shows (as Nebris) in the summer of the same year, and we hit it off right away. Over the following months we talked about eventually collaborating but had no idea what sort of form the music would take, and after a few tentative steps things began to gel, and eventually what resulted was Preterite.
GB: I must say that first, when I saw James play as Nebris, I heard no space for me in his music. Although I enjoyed his work, I had no idea that he was so versatile as a musician and that he learned instruments so easily, as well as already mastering several. I mean, when I saw him he was basically banging rocks together, though in a very sophisticated and musical way! But in an era where almost everyone is making noise with everything, pretending to make music or not, I was delighted to discover his musical background.
What elements do you both individually bring from your independent musical backgrounds?
JH: Speaking for myself, I bring a sort of obsession with music existing in a physical space clearly defined by the sounds utilised. I’m also responsible for the technical and production end, more or less, and the visuals (to which G actively contributes also – she did the animal illustrations on POW, for example). Preterite sounds little or nothing like anything I’ve been involved with in the past, in part because the instrumentation (Indian harmonium and kemençe) is new for me. Most of my work over the last decade and a half was very abstract, used few actual musical instruments and was composed through improvisation and subsequent meticulous micro-editing, and so working on very tightly structured songs and playing actual instruments again is a welcome challenge.
GB: I bring the songs, as I do in MR, but I’ve come back to playing mainly guitar, which is a great pleasure as it’s my first instrument.
The sound of Preterite is very hard to categorize. Mild nods are made to drone, mysticism and psyche folk – but for the most part, the charm that you weave with Pillar of Winds is totally unique. Was the idea to produce this kind of music direct and intention or more restrained and left to improvisation?
JH: The way I see it, there are no ‘kinds’ of music, just music… the sounds are there to support the songs and we didn’t try to push things into a ‘style’. I’m allergic to music that’s conceived around a predetermined aesthetic or that deliberately tries to fit into a genre niche – form should follow content or evolve naturally! The songs on POW are almost entirely Genevieve’s compositions and in some cases predate Preterite by some time – ‘Synagogue’ was originally composed around 2000, for example, and ‘Trial of Strength’ started life as a Menace Ruine piece. We did agree early on that we wanted to use mostly acoustic instrumentation, and that there should probably be a harmonium involved, and that Genevieve would sing, and that we would try to avoid excess in all things, and those decisions guided the development of the music more than anything else. We’ve never improvised together in the context of Preterite, and there’s no improvisation whatsoever on the recordings.
JH: In purely musical terms, just the range and limitations of the instruments we decided to use and the nature of the songs themselves. But there were certainly quite a few non-musical influences at work, especially in the texts, which I will leave to Genevieve to elaborate on.
While I find it hard to link Pillar of Winds to other musical outputs, I can find startling similarities between other art forms and even certain moods and feelings. The closest musical tie I can summon is one based purely on aesthetic. That’d have to be Korouva’s Shipwrecks & Russian Roulette and the kind of port-town, sailors heavy with regret and loss kind of vibe. What does the music represent to you as its creators?
JH: Everything you need to understand is there. I don’t hear regret and loss in this record at all! I’d say the keywords are redemption and reverence. To me it’s all very positive, though there’s some hardship there too.
GB: The album certainly speaks of redemption, and is filled with positive energy, but with the notion that the positive comes from afar, in the sense that it takes time to attain, the result of a long journey with many detours. No regrets at all, more like understanding and healing.
What is the underlying purpose to the droning somnambulism of Preterite?
JH: ‘Somnambulism’ implies unconsciousness, and while there is some reference to unconscious archetypes in Pillar of Winds, it’s definitely a music that is very much awake and conscious and clear-eyed. As to underlying purposes, there’s no sleight-of-hand at work here, everything you need to know is there to be heard and seen.
How does Preterite differ to Menace Ruine differ as a vehicle of expression for Genevieve? Both projects fully utilize her ululating, uniquely captivating voice against a backdrop of hypnotic martial folk, and droning, ambient fuzz. Where do the roads between the two projects diverge?
GB: The major difference is in the instrumentation. Obviously, I’m always the same person, and my “creative impulses” are the same across everything I do. In the case of MR, the aesthetic is more fixed, but is very rewarding in that the sounds themselves inspire the compositions. When I find a sound that inspires me, a song tends to happen almost instantaneously. And even if it seems limiting to work with just a synthesizer, amplifier and pedals, the possibilities are endless, and this setup stimulates my imagination in a very different way than when I pick up my classical guitar at home and write a song guided purely by melodic progressions, as opposed to the saturated distortion of MR. Both projects are important to me, and since the beginnings of Preterite they are very distinct, even if there are two pieces on Pillar of Winds made with my MR setup. Presently the dividing line is very clear. I have to say I’m very happy to have returned to the guitar, which I set aside since 2001 due to problems with the joints in my fingers, especially in winter (saleté d’hiver québécois!) which made guitar playing only a seasonal activity. It seems to have been going better lately, and I’ve composed my most recent songs on classical guitar. And so I’m getting closer to a certain acoustic, minimalist ideal which I’m very attached to, a purity of sound which takes nothing away from my enthusiasm for MR, rather it helps put it in balance. James is very creative as well – I plan to contribute to his compositions as soon as I am finished working on the next MR album with S.
Is there a deeper meaning to the lyrics beyond what is immediately decipherable? Does the album deal with some subject matter in particular?
GB: I would be very curious to know what you deciphered so immediately 😉 I’d really like to talk with people sometimes about my writing to know if it evokes something for others… I hope so. I don’t write to obscure my subjects, but I often use images and references that accentuate and enlarge my personal trials. ‘Synagogue’ is probably the most personal song I have ever written. My triangle of inspiration for POW was Hildegard von Bingen’s visions, C.G. Jung (who is a long-time and very fruitful guide to me) and some of the Gnostic scriptures. I love creation myths and explanations about the origin of the world. I’ve known for a long time that my “earthly mission”, as it were, is not particularly material, and I’m much more interested by interior, spiritual experiences in the sense that I believe that this is the real purpose of evolution, and not just in the personal sphere, because in perfecting ourselves in a global sense we can do good to those around us in a natural way, without specific expertise. It’s always a bit risky to describe yourself as religious, in the sense that people will ask for explanations, and want to know what group you’re aligned with, which dogma you’re a disciple of… Same thing when you talk about your interest in the occult. This album for me is a religious one, even if I have no specific orientation to speak of, simply a belief in the force of nature, and in the divine spark that exists in each of us if we have the faith and courage to seek it out, and also that we always have to be conscious of the consequences of our actions, and of our place in the global balance. Like all people, there are moments where I feel very convinced, and powerful, and other moments low and discouraged. I believe that POW contains a great deal of hope and motivation to find happiness.
How did you get to working with Rloren and his Handmade Birds label?
JH: Originally we were working with Beta-Lactam Ring Records, but for various reasons they were unable to release the album as planned. We approached Handmade Birds based on the diversity of their catalogue and the evident care that went into the releases. RLoren had already been in contact with Menace Ruine for some time and so we thought he might be interested in what we were up to. He was enthusiastic and so there you have it. He managed to release it in a very short time span without much prior planning, and we’re very happy with the finished product.
How has the response been to Pillar of Winds? Are there any plans for new releases?
JH: So far people seem to like it, though there hasn’t been much press so far. Our second album has been in the works for awhile now and is nearly complete. It’s a natural evolution from the first, much more minimal, at least on the surface. The last traces of distortion are gone – the focus is very much Genevieve’s guitar and voice.
What have you been listening to? Has this had an affect on the music you’ve come together to create?
JH: There’s a huge disconnect between my music listening and music making habits at the moment… The only thing that may have had some sort of influence on Preterite might be certain types of religious and folk music from North Africa, the Mid-East and Asia. In general my listening habits lately tend towards psychedelia (of the PSF Records/Tokyo Flashback variety), free improvisation, electroacoustic music and so on. So nothing much to do with the direction Genevieve and I are pursuing presently. Though maybe some of it comes out subconsciously! I guess that`s for other people to judge.
Pillar of Winds is available now from the Handmade Birds store.