Alcest’s music has dazzled, dazed and left us dumbstruck. Since 2005’s debut EP ‘Le Secret’, the French act has risen to transcending heights with an amalgamation of beautiful soundscapes. The reception of latest record ‘Les Voyages de l’Âme’ has been overwhelmingly positive since its January release seeing the band – who are now joined full-time by drummer Winterhalter – enjoy a new phase of popularity. Calum Robson had the great pleasure of meeting the heart and soul of Alcest – Stéphane Paut (aka Neige).
When you speak to Alcest mastermind Neige you soon realise that your usual reference points for lyrical content have gone out the window. The Frenchman says he underwent a series of experiences in childhood and early adolescence that went on to provide the basis for all of his future music. For us, they can only be described as otherworldly, but for Neige, these intense episodes were very real. “When I was a child, I thought it was quite common,” he explains. “But I noticed that when I spoke to people about it, people were looking at me saying; ‘do you smoke?’ It was so strong, so powerful – it changed my life. It changed my way to see life, people and death. I wanted to make an artistic project just about this thing.”
At the age of 15, that’s exactly what Neige did. First inspired by the Norwegian 90s and appreciating fellow Prophecy Productions artist Empyrium, Alcest demonstrated an altogether harsher black metal sound with 2001 demo ‘Tristesse Hivernale’. Nowadays, Alcest are well distanced from any straight-forward BM leanings. The project is constantly referred to as a mix of ‘shoegaze’ and ‘black metal’ or sometimes said to be simply ‘post-black metal’. But the multi-talented musician can’t agree with any of the tags. “It’s too limited,” he says. “It’s more than this. When people say this is black metal meets post-rock or shoegaze – what the fuck? I never intended to do that. For me it’s just tools. A few blast beats and a few distorted guitars doesn’t mean I’m playing black metal. Everything can change. Maybe on the next album I will only play classical guitar. The shape of the music doesn’t matter so much, the core is much more important to me.”
And the core isn’t an easy concept to grasp. Neige’s visions are the main inspiration for Alcest and the perplexing nature of them make his experiences hard to describe. From the outside looking in – we could perhaps liken his experiences to a form of astral projection. “It’s very similar,” he reasons. “But in my experience I was clearly conscious. I didn’t go out of my body – it was just mental. I have seen some kind of beings. It’s like I could understand them without speaking, it was just like immediate communication. It’s much more complex than words and we don’t have many words to describe these things – that’s why I wanted to make music. Music is not perfect but at least it’s more diverse than words. It’s closer to the way I want to express myself. Instead of speaking about this experience, I want to make melodies and accompany the lyrics with the pictures to get even closer to people so they can really understand what I’m speaking about.”
As Neige makes an attempt to pinpoint the experiences that came to define Alcest, his thoughts move to bigger contemplations. “I think there is something beyond this that we don’t know and don’t have access to because our body is very limited to the senses,” he says. “We can only see with eyes of flesh. We don’t see the real existence. I think our essence is not even human. We just become humans when we enter this body. For me, when the soul goes into the body, it goes to jail because we are enclosed in our body. All these people having astral projections and outer-body experiences – they say that images become sounds and the sounds become colours, because everything is a perfect perception of the reality. I have felt a very similar thing in my visions – like as if I was an entity and I was a landscape.”
For most of us on planet Earth, the nature of three-dimensional reality crafts our human experience. It’s an experience that’s commonly understood as just that; human. The foundation of knowledge and discovery might lie with scientific, empirical values that work on a ground-level, trial and error basis. But with atheism at its peak and other forms of spirituality arguably stained by the stigma of organised religion, are Neige’s visions relevant to any other way of thinking? He has found no solace in mainstream belief systems and can relate to no organised religion, but he admits that he has looked at other possibilities. “I have read books and many people experience this kind of thing through astral journeys or near-death experiences – when people have an accident and they go into a coma, come back to life and say ‘I have seen beings of light.’ It’s not the same but it’s very similar.”
But how can something so abstract relate to a vast audience? The popularity of second record ‘Écailles de Lune’ established Alcest to a wider fandom and gave Neige the chance to take his music to Europe, China and the US. He accepts that the concept may be hard to define, but says he only wishes that gig-goers take their own experience from an Alcest performance. “I just hope they have a good moment and escape from this world for a few minutes and feel good. We played all around the world – in China, Mexico, Australia, the US – and all the people react the same. Even if they are Buddhist or Muslim or Christian – it’s all the same. I really think it’s not a matter of culture or French culture.”