In Conversation: Vitalic

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It’s been a while since we last heard from Pascal Arbez-Nicolas, better known to the world as electronic visionary Vitalic, but the arrival of the first part of his long-awaited two-part LP ‘Dissidænce’ this month comes as a welcome reminder of his ability to cultivate a stonking electronic soundscape.

With Episode 1 out now and Episode 2 due to follow in early 2022, Vitalic’s long-awaited follow up to 2017’s ‘Voyager’ sees him returning to familiar territory, whilst continuing to innovate in his own distinctive mix of styles.

Conceived entirely during the pandemic, the first eight of ‘Dissidænce’s 16 tracks feature nods to the belting club sound of his debut album, ‘OK Cowboy’, Flashmob’s thrashing brand of electroclash, through to the dreamy cosmic disco of ‘Voyager’ and everything else in between. Meanwhile, Episode 2’s eight tracks promise to take listeners into harder, heavier territory – a tantalising prospect indeed.

Clash caught up with the man himself back in September, inviting him to reflect on the process of creating an album during lockdown, as well as his experiences of remixing Daft Punk and his former penchant for taking the piss out of music journalists.

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Congratulations on the new album, ‘Pascal’. It’s a really thrilling record. It’s come at a time when we’re just starting to get out and dance again. I understand that making this record felt like it was a kind of return to your roots. Is that right?

I didn’t want to do the same thing, but I wanted to bring that rock energy that I didn’t feel like I’d experienced much of. During the past year I was more into disco. But yeah, during the lockdowns I rediscovered the acid tracks from the 90s, with this raw energy. I didn’t want to make pure acid and I didn’t want to make a techno album, but I wanted to bring back some of this energy to my music.

Episode One felt like a bit of an amalgam of ‘OK Cowboy’ and ‘Flashmob’, with lots of other elements thrown in.

In a way, yes. ‘Flashmob’ is more disco and ‘OK Cowboy’ was a strange mix, but yes the idea of the album was to make a bridge between late 70s post-punk and techno, so that was the idea. Of course with these vocals and the lyrics, you can make a link to ‘OK Cowboy’, in a way.

What was the timeframe for the record? Had you started work on any tracks before the pandemic?

I had a few drafts before the pandemic. And then, in the beginning of the lockdown, I couldn’t make music at all. I thought I would have the time to make music and it didn’t work because I was experiencing nothing special. I was at home and it was difficult to make music… I have a house in the south of France and I worked a bit, but I came back to Paris for the second lockdown and then I really didn’t go out at all… In Paris, it all started to work and little by little I finished the first episode and then the second.

So it was quite an organic sort of process for you, really?

Yeah, I’m not the kind of guy who sits behind a desk and makes concepts to think about. Most of the time, I realise what I did after the album is finished. I have some basic concepts. I have some directions about the sounds, about the programming, about the machines. I have some basic ideas, but I only really understand at the end what I did.

At the end of the process you found yourself with 16 tracks. How do you go about piecing together these different pieces and ordering these tracks, especially if there isn’t an overarching concept? Was that a fun process – piecing it together?

Yes it was, as you said, it was organic, you know? When I finished, I had 12 songs and I had the feeling it was not finished. I had to make more songs and then, instead of making one record with 16 songs, which is a lot for an electronic album, I think, I decided to split it into two different parts – one that would be more electropop, and the other one darker and more industrial.

You’ve described Episode 1 as “aggressive, but still sexy”. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

[Laughs] Sexy, I think it’s because you have these songs in French, which is the first time I’d done that… And it’s aggressive, but I wanted to bring some melodies in… Most of the time you have aggressive songs, or you have melodic songs, but in between there is nothing. I think I’m there, in between.

Talk me through the mixing process. Traditionally, I understand that you don’t mix albums in your own studio, right?

No, because I mix terrible. [Laughs]. My sound is mono, in a way. It’s really medium, really harsh and it’s good because I’m used to mixing live. It’s good for when I play live, but for the studio, I don’t have the techniques. So I know what I want, but I can’t do it myself… It’s a job in itself. You don’t have to be able to mix your own music. It’s also good to have the ideas of someone else around mixing everything. For this album I worked with Erik Schaeffer who mixed my second album, ‘Flashmob’… I couldn’t go to Germany because of the lockdowns, but we did it by sending the files on the internet, and it worked. It was a long process – longer than going to Germany – but we had the time, so it was okay. And I really like how he mixed it. It’s very loud. There is depth.

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How did you decide which tracks sat on which episode? Was it always apparent where each would sit?

When I decided to make two episodes, I had more than 16 tracks. I had 20-22. Some tracks I kept for later, because they wouldn’t fit this record. For the first time, I did some French music in a way – in French – and there was also this techno thing and also this post-punk thing, so it was a case of figuring out how to stick them together in a homogenic way that doesn’t sound too messy. Organising all the songs I wanted to keep into two parts was a way to tell the same story through different filters, but keeping something consistent.

The prospect of taking these songs out to audiences must be quite exciting – finally getting to road test these tracks that you’ve been working on for some time?

Yeah, because for the first time I couldn’t test those tracks. Usually I test the songs when I play live and when I DJ. This time I couldn’t test them… It’s a bit old fashioned but I like to release an album and prepare a new show and go on tour with a new show. It’s something I feel comfortable with, so in December I’ll set up the new show with a team and prepare the stage and the instruments and in January we’ll be on the road.

Are you going to be in a position to test some tracks from Episode 2 then too? What’s the plan there?

I really don’t know. First we have to wait for the vinyl, because there are production problems there. So for Episode 1 we had enough time, but for Episode 2, it’s not clear. Some time between January and March, something like this.

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As an aside, I wanted to ask you about remixes. Back in 2005 you remixed ‘Technologic’ for Daft Punk. It always struck me that Guy-Manuel and Thomas were very selective about who reworked their material. How did it feel for you to be invited to remix them and that track, in particular?

I felt very happy and proud that that came about, because I’m a longtime fan of Daft Punk. Whenever I have a request to do a remix, I’ll accept it if I listen to the song and have an idea in mind in two seconds of what I can do, or what I want to do. And with ‘Technologic’ it was like this. I knew the song and instantly I knew I could do it this way… For ‘Technologic’ it was really obvious. I did this kind of electroclash remix of this in the style of the song. But yeah when Thomas asked me, it was big news. It’s something big when you have Daft Punk asking for a remix, but it’s the same for Bjork as well. I was really stressed. You don’t want to disappoint.

What kind of feedback do you tend to get back from artists like that? Do you ever get notes back?

Yeah. Bjork didn’t write back to me directly. It was through management, but usually yeah, I talk directly to the artist. So far, no remix has been declined, which is a good thing.

As an artist who does remixes but has been remixed themselves, what do you look for in a remix?

I think it’s funny to see how someone can use your material, your sounds, your melodies and turn it into something different. Sometimes it can be really good. Sometimes it can be lazy. When you are astonished by someone changing, mixing and having a different view but the same basic melodies. It’s something interesting, yeah… I did a few remixes for Flashmob and a few for Rave Age, but there are no remixes for the first LP and I won’t do remixes for Dissidænce. I will do the remixes myself, as I used to do in the past.

I guess it’s quite a personal thing to open up your work like that.

Yeah, it can be interesting and also a bit intrusive… It’s a bit like you’re cooking some beef stew and someone could be coming up into the kitchen and changing everything and putting some different vegetables and changing the sauce and it’s a bit weird.

Back in the early days, I understand you got a kick out of taking the piss with journalists. You invented a Russian persona and there’s a story about you going somewhere and being given a Russian translator. Was that a thing?

Yeah. It was in Argentina. Yeah. I got pissed with journalists because sometimes… I did a remix for the label of Laurent Garnier and that got some bad reviews. They said it was like ‘Hoover music,’ which is funny, because nowadays, the main sound is ‘Hoover music’… There was a journalist in France who said that the first Daft Punk album was the biggest load of crap in the world before it was released, you know? Which obviously it wasn’t, because you can look at the before and after now… I was young, and it was difficult to read things about what you do. And now I’m much more relaxed.

But yes, for this reason, I made a new life. I changed everything to start from scratch, and I pretended I was Russian and Ukrainian. And I had some crazy situations with the daughter of the ambassador from Ukraine coming to Brazil, and some crazy situations like that. And we’d have some translators at some parties, or they would come to pick me up from the airport with a translator, so it was funny… I was into the character and it was fun to do that. It didn’t last for long – maybe one year – but it was a lot of fun.

Still, that’s pretty good going to keep that up for a year. You couldn’t do that nowadays.

Yeah, I pretended that I was a former male prostitute, a male escort.

I guess you get to a point where you’ve got a rep for taking the piss and you can’t go back to doing it. You have one shot to do that.

Yeah, I didn’t know how to handle it. I got asked at one point to follow up with a fake biography at some point and I said, “No. It was not true. I’m French. And I’m not a prostitute.”

It’s weird asking this when I know that Episode 2 is on the way, but you’ve got tracks leftover from these sessions. Do you have an idea of how they could kind of take shape for a future record?

For the moment, I’m working on the score for an Italian movie and also I’m preparing a show with a Tunisian singer, so that’s a lot of work right now. Episode One and Two are ready, we are making the promo and we’ll set up the show… At the moment I’m doing something different and I think for next summer I guess I can start to think again about what I want to release, but I have 16 tracks ready right now so I’m going to focus on those ones for now.

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‘Dissidænce Episode 1’ is out now, with Episode 2 due to follow in early 2020.

Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap

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