This time Breton singer Roman Rappak tells us more about their home BretonLABS, their way of understanding a band in the year 2012, their first artistic steps, and other secrets about their working process. Additional to the interview we feature an exclusive photo gallery with shoots of the band in their home and studio BretonLABS. All done by Alexander Basile.
(picture: Marc Sethi)
Roman, you and your bandmates live and work in an old bank in South London. How did you end up there?
Roman Rappak: We found it about two years ago when everyone’s girlfriend played in bands. At that time, my girlfriend was playing in a band that was like a twee folk-anti-folk band that rehearsed in the building. They put fairy lights all over the room and plastic flowers everywhere. They played this happy pop music in this huge echo-y, empty industrial room. Anyway, the winter came and there is no heating in there. They were, like: “No, we will not practice in there. It is too cold.” And, so, we just moved in. We bought coats and gloves and hats. Then we found out that we could do anything in there - make videos, take pictures. At one point it was just a couple of mattresses and a drum kit. Now it’s like a living place - but still without a heating!
Does the place offer special energy and inspiration?
Roman Rappak: The place is the reason why we are here and we will not leave it unless they throw us out. But, we’ll find another place if we have to. Still, we are obsessed with that building. That is why our logo is the cube and all our t-shirts have the lab floor plan on them. We love it!
But it also means you can never escape from Breton. Isn't that a problem sometimes?
Roman Rappak: Well, this was not a choice we made. It was a natural progression. We always spent time with each other. Like the avant-garde band Throbbing Gristle who also lived together. They had this routine where they had a box of clothes, and each day they would chose something new to wear in order to look different. Or they never slept in the same bed. Or they never slept with the same person in it. Keeping this sort of difference is a useful thing that stops you from falling into habits. A lot of our friends who are in bands have normal jobs after which they go to their studios and practice with their mates. There, you play your songs seven times and then you go home. And then you have a gig an Friday, and you go there and you play the songs. For me that feels a bit like being a decorator. That is not how I understand a band.
Do you always live in this Breton bubble?
Roman Rappak: No, we have lots of social life. There are a lot of artists we know. In London, there is a very heavy trendy art scene in the East. In South London it is much more raw. You have fantastic artists who are so ruthless with their art and so uncompromising they don’t even want to get any exposure for it. There is a genuine scene in the South, and we are linked to it and it gives us lots of energy. South London has a realness that East London has lost. We love it!
As part of the south London scene, Breton actually startetd of as video artists, correct?
Roman Rappak: We always did our own thing, and we started off as video makers. In the first videos, we were into sculptural, glitchy art installation stuff. Then we wanted a VHS pixelated look that was very stylish and narrative. After that we wanted to have a set piece installation shot really beautifully and slowly. They were all produced at BretonLABS.
And that is how people found out about you?
Roman Rappak: Yes - because we were able to do a video that was fucked up and glitchy and then the next is slow and beautiful and then the next one is very narrative and short story-based. We were approached by major companies for our videos before we were approached for our music. Big companies, like Nike, contacted us and said: “We really like your stuff and we want to work with you.” But everything we do is one thing – not matter if it is an album or a video or sound design. It is all Breton and we didn’t want any piece of that to become part of a commercial process. For The Temper Trap it was different. We first did a remix. They liked it so much that they asked us to do a video for it. And for Tricky, we just did a remix.
We just saw your video Interference. Could you talk about the main character? Is he a drug dealer?
Roman Rappak: (Laughter.) The character is based on a pretty horrible person that we were actually going to use in the film. But then, when we were planning to take him to our studio people said: “You just don’t know. This guy suddenly needs £2000 and thinks: ‘Wow, these guys have a camera and this is where they live...’” Well, yes, it is based on an unpleasant person. But we changed him into somebody else. And, yes, we wanted to leave the choice about what he does to the viewer.
Your first record was released by Strange Torpedo Records. Is this your label?
Roman Rappak: It was a label that just existed to put out our first EP. It was kind of a joke, really. People came to our shows to hear our music and some bloggers found out about us. They asked: “Where can we get the record?” But what we were saying – what our music was saying - was: “Records are dead.” But then we thought: “Maybe records are not dead. Maybe records are like T-shirts or flyers. They are one part of the story. They bring people to our shows.” So Ian Patterson, our sampling man, said: “Let’s make our own label and release an EP.” He’s from a small fishing town called Grimsby, where everyone has brought out two albums, three EPs and wrote five fanzines before they turn 17. So it is in his blood and he just released our first EP.
And then you moved on to Hemlock - a world famous Dubstep label that does'nt have very many musical links to your sound.
Roman Rappak: That was exactly one of our reasons to move there. They were so pleased to work with us because we bridged that gap between inaccessible, abrasive Electro and popular dance music. A lot of Hemlock purists were really pissed off.
You don't like purist then, do you?
Roman Rappak: I don’t like purists to a genre – like those Hemlock purists. I always had a problem with genres. Like, we make drum ‘n’ bass and we can’t speak to those guys because they make liquid Drum ‘n’ Bass. This kind of discussion is something very 1990 to 1995. Today, people consume music in a different way. I think, in general, audiences are much more up-to-date with how music is consumed than the artists. Because there are still these old expectations. In the old model, you went into a studio and made eleven tracks that sounded like the single. You have one sound, use one type of guitar, you wear one outfit, and that is it. But that’s not the way it works anymore. Today, people make their playlists for themselves on their iPods. The old model is long gone.
It is funny that you say this, because your record Other People's Problems is a concept album guided by a story arc.
Roman Rappak: Thanks for the compliment! And, of course, our record is against this one-track-usage. I like the idea of an album that is working in the playlist world of an iPod shuffle list. But, also, there is a reason why we put an album out. We could have this big, long conversation about how the iPod shuffle generation changes everything and that people don’t listen to albums anymore. But, still, if I love an artist, I love to find out how he or she sees an album. For us, the track order is always a narrative. We have so many great songs, but in the context of the album they did not work. An album usually is a thing where you put out your eleven best songs. But, for us, our eleven best songs didn’t work side by side. We saved them for B-sides or provide them for exclusives. The album was meant to be chapter one of the story of this band. And it touched some things that we made along the way. There are parts of a documentary we made. There is a poem of an actor that we used in one of our films, there is field recordings of a mosque in Belgium, of a subway in New York. There are things that make up the story of how we are and the history of what was happening when we were writing these songs. Over the course of a year and a half, lots of things happened. There were government changes in the UK, there were cuts in student financing, there were the riots. There was everything.
Do such political and social occurences motivate you to write a song?
Roman Rappak: Not really. I think there is a consistent message in all of the songs. The thing that holds it all together is this real search for trying to do something different. The role of an artist, in my head, is always one of a cipher for everything that is around. You are not a spokesperson, but, rather, like a lightning rod to all kind of different ideas. And that is what makes it interesting to a lot of people. When they listen to music, watch a film, or fall in love with a band, it is like total escapism and they want to go to a different world. A world with a unique language. We always really try to say things in our own language. And this language tells how music feels to us in 2012. We say nothing more because we don’t see ourselves like spokesmen.
Does your filming affect your music or the otehr way around?
Roman Rappak: It works both ways. I love it when Ryan, who does our visuals, just randomly chooses old footage that we have and just projects it on a wall while we try to find a sound that works with it. I graduated as a sound designer from the London University of Arts. And, as a sound designer, they give you footage of a film and dialogue and you have to paint a picture of the atmospheric noises and you have to create some music that reflects the mood of the film. I love trying to paint a picture with music but I also love to put a film to a song. Both are interesting.
(Roman Rappak live)
Your record was released on FatCat records. How did you get in touch with the folks from Brigthon?
Roman Rappak: FatCat was the first label that approached us and the only indie label that approached us. Everyone else was old-fashioned major labels. What can a major label really offer you today? The used to offer you this big infrastructure of distribution. But, you do that with SoundCloud now. Or they can put you in a really great studio. But you can do that with Logic Audio on a Mac now. Or, finally, a music video. But we make our own videos. But Alex Knight from FatCat said: “I want to put out your record. It’s amazing and I don’t want to change nothing.” Also, the label has this strange history with genres. It starts off with Detroit House and then they put out Animal Collective and Sigor Ros – such strange things that are ahead of their time and very cinematic and atmospheric. And then they put out Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks – very guitar-based bands. Our music has beats, dance music, cinematic atmospheric sections, and guitars. So it all fits with FatCat. It wouldn’t be the same record with anybody else.
You're doing a lot of touring now. Tonight you will do your first German show. What can we anticipate?
Roman Rappak: Our concerts bring it all together. And we are very dedicated to doing concerts. The more you have mp3 the more you can listen to music everywhere. Ironically, people find themselves listening to music on tiny laptop speakers. And the more you can put films out everywhere on Youtube, people watch them on tiny little cellphones. So it is kind of ironic that the more the technology advances, the crappier the experience gets. Because all this technology is so great and we have so much access to it, an old experience, like being physically in a room with 200 people watching a band play, is all the more important. Or going to the cinema is more exciting now than it was, because you are used to seeing films on small devices. For me this means: bring on Pirate Bay, bring on more iPods. It means people want to go more and more to concerts. And our shows are made for those people who want to get physical again.
So you are very wild on stage?
Roman Rappak: Sometimes. We plan all our shows, but no show is ever the same. The VJ creates the videos live. There’s a film for every song. The VJ has sequences of the edits of different parts of the film. Sometimes he uses this part and then that. He can really do whatever he wants. I think this is really crucial because the VJ can respond to and work with the music. It is quite easy for us to just set up a laptop and play a video along with the music. But for us it is much better to have a dedicated person, a human who makes errors and mistakes. Sometimes he does a great show and sometimes he doesn’t. We love mistakes. They are what makes things unique. When you go and see a trapeze artist, it’s not amazing because of what he’s doing, it’s amazing because he could fall down. It’s exciting because it could go wrong. Today, with all this technology, it gets harder to find human mistakes, especially in music. You just go on Garage Band and say: “I would like this synth.” And then you choose this drumbeat and then you say: “Here is my song.” But there is nothing different from about a million other songs, because it was so easy to do. The same is true about photography or movies. Hitchcock had to find a clever way to make a scene run. Now you have so much technology, it has become easy to do heavy camera movements for instance. The more options you have and with the ease of use of everything, there is less error and there is less uniqueness to things, you know.
You're a fan of Hitchcock?
Roman Rappak: I like the way he composed. He had the ability to make a movie that you can watch as a popcorn film with your girlfriend and know nothing about film. And you could read Cahiers de Cinema and see his movies like artwork. Something that Breton also tries to do in its own stylistic way. For some people, making videos and making music is two different jobs. For us, it is one and the same thing and we will continue to go our own ways.