Combining trip-hop tonalities, harshness of guitar-parts and ambience of soundscapes, Franz Treichler, Emilie Zoé and Nicolas Pittet released one of the best albums of 2021. Collaborative situation pushed Treichler, well-known as a founding member of The Young Gods to go a bit further. While Franz notices that working with Emilie and Nicholas pushed him to write more on guitar, I start thinking that self-titled debut of /A\ is unlike anything he has ever done before. It’s aggressive. But in this case, the aggressive tonalities of songs like Fire In My Fingers is level-headed with atmospheric synthesizers and the vocals of Emilie Zoé. Somehow, trio has found the balance between contradictory elements putting them together and in the form of trajectory – from darkness to light.
In the newest interview for Louder Than War, Franz Treichler speaks about the formation of /A\ and switching from French to English, about energy and radicalism, discusses songwriting and sampling.
LTW: One of the most amazing things about /A\ to me, is the fact that over the years you’ve been focusing primarily on The Young Gods. You did collaborations with other artists, worked as producer. But The Young Gods has always been the main thing for you. What made you to start a new project in this particular situation ?
Franz: “Actually, it wasn’t my idea! It was a festival who asked us to get together. Last year it was supposed to happen. This festival is called Transonic. They usually gather to put together people from different generations. Of different styles of music. They asked me and Emilie Zoé, if we want to do something together. That’s how it started, basically! I knew Emilie, because I like her work. Especially the last three records. And I’ve seen her a couple of times on stage. They opened once for The Young Gods, also. So we got along very well. But we never had the idea of making a collaboration like this. And so, this festival, they wanted us to do that.”
“So we said: “Yes! Why not ?!” – it was supposed to happen in early November 2020. It got cancelled. But before doing a festival we met and we played together: Emilie, myself and Nicolas – the month before the residence of the festival. We jammed for three-four days. To see how we react, where we could go. This was all aimed for a live-performance. And when the festival was cancelled – we decided to record this material. Because, we basically got along very well.”
LTW: A lot of your songs represented a certain trajectory – from darkness to light. On /A\, you have both these elements working together but in absolutely organic way. Grain Sand And Mud would be a good example of this. How to keep these two different polarities together without letting them destroy each other ?
Franz: It’s probably a question of personality. I think, I know myself enough to not let myself go into darkness, if you wanna call it, to go down. To keep my eyes and see more positive things around then negative. So, other peoples’ music gives me a lot to do that.
“Since my childhood, music has always helped me to consider that there’s other realities and some people out there that are like my big brothers. They know music and understand my dreams. Once I started doing music, I wanted to have the same aim. Trying to give people positive energy. Even if the surrounding is weird. That’s probably the balance. I don’t mind when things have a feeling of danger or something going out of control.
I think, I’m here to transcend this into something positive. Life itself doesn’t compete with death. It’s a cycle that always goes round and round. There’s no competition. Death is just a part of this cycle. I don’t think it’s “dark”. I just think it’s natural and I try to look at it this way!”
LTW: But is it important for you to have this dark foundation at the beginning of your work ? So you would know that you’ll need to transfer this energy into something light or positive.
Franz: “Not really. To tell you the truth, I’ve never considered The Young Gods’ music as something “dark”. I’d rather use the opposite – “deep”, because there’s no negative connotation with “deep”. “Dark” is a bit like negative. So I’d say it’s deep. If you’d go deep into your psyche you could have find strange stuff, of course. But because it’s hidden doesn’t mean that it’s dark. It’s just something you don’t know how to give a finish to it. A lot of people like consider this “dark” and put it into a box, like a black-box. But it’s not a black-box.
I think, it’s just something we don’t know. We’re afraid of the unknown. But it’s not specifically dark. I just think it’s maybe overwhelming. Maybe strange. But we have this habit – we tag things we don’t know as dark. So answering your question – I don’t need a dark foundation. Maybe it inherits my approach. And I can’t control this. To some people it’s gonna sound dark. But I like your definition of understanding it as a constant way to bring it to something light. I like this 80’s thing: the only way is up ( laughter ). I believe in this!”
LTW: How can you describe the process of work you had with this particular record ?
Franz: “I tried much to go on unknown territories. I played a lot of guitars, which I start to play more and more with The Young Gods. But, with The Young Gods, we always use samplers and the machines. This was more of a live-approach. I had some new synthesizers I had never used before. I brought them to the sessions – just to try things. And Emilie had some new prepared guitar…She actually made the bass-sounds. She used different microphones for bass and the guitars. We all tried stuff. Even Nicolas, he used a lot of computer sounds, patterns and things. Just to try to go somewhere else.
Emilie and Nicholas are known for doing some rough rock. Almost 70’s like with no effects. And I’m known for using a lot of machines. Also, for psychedelic rock kind of stuff. So the idea was to try to make it come naturally. And take some risks. And some example Emilie is a great singer. But she doesn’t like to sing in jam-sessions. I can sing in jam-sessions.
I improvise words or [with] no words – [just] put some voice everywhere. It’s good to have some voices, I think. After a day, she tried to sing as well. I don’t know how to tell you. We had this experimentation as a main-line, basically.”
LTW: In case with Emilie, how was it to share the vocal duties with somebody else ? Which, I don’t think you have done before…
Franz: “Yeah, I never did that before. So I was very curious of how my voice could fit somebody’s else – feminine voice, which is really different. I’m a screamer, basically. I’m not really like a singer. I started becoming a singer with years going on.
I think, at the beginning of it, I was just like a screamer. Having this possibility to share microphone and voice with someone who’s actually really-really passionate by doing harmonies and stuff like this – it was amazing to me! Because, I had to switch to: “Ok! Now I had to sing the right tuning!”( laughs)”
LTW: Once you said that your lyrics always referred to the band you’re in. At the same time, if with such Young Gods’ songs as “Our House” could have regarded as a metaphor of your-inner-band relations, songs on /A\-Record like “We Travel The Light” or “Count To Ten” are maximally abstract. Were these changes brought by Emilie or you changed your lyrical focus ?
Franz: “I think, I do write abstract lyrics, as well. We Travel The Light – I wrote that lyrics. Count To Ten – Emilie wrote this. I think, we mutually encouraged [each-other] to go with both not knowing where it would lead us. The fact that we have two singers – is more than one writer. For example, if you’d take the first song: Hotel Stellar where she sings 2\3. She brings in the atmosphere. At the end of thew song, I’m almost like an answer to her coming from outer space. She’s describing this hotel room…I’m calling her…This is also a very abstract! And it wouldn’t be possible with only one singer.
This complexity of questions and answers and opening the poetry more to somewhere with both of us. Because, she reacted to my lyrics and I reacted to her lyrics. If we’d take “The Leaves” for example – she started with these lines. I started singing just a couple of words. At the end, she wrote the lyrics. She wrote it the day after – because she was inspired by the sum of my few words.
Emilie started the story of [someone] looking for a man in the city, not finding him. And I thought: “With this lyrics in the story – I could be the man. But where do we meet ?” – that kind of stuff. So, it’s a new adventure. It’s a new way to write for me as well.”
LTW: It seems that you’ve been searching your sound on the first three records. Mixing cabaret, opera, other musical directions. How long did it take for you to achieve a certain unity of sound ?
“The fact that we used samplers already helped this unity. At that time, in 1985, it was very new for everybody. And for me, as well! Because, I learnt the guitar. And then when the sampler, cheap sampler came on the market in an affordable way – it changed my vision of how to write music and I put the guitar away. Because I was tired of playing chords…E-string or A-string. Writing stuff with chord-changes. I had the sound, I had formulas…When the samplers came to market, I started doing songs only because I was fascinated by sound. Not by chords, not by harmonies – just by sound. It was almost [like] music concrete. You pick up some stuff, it could be whether classical or cabaret or field recordings – you collage, you put these together.
Of course, it’s a different way of writing music. In the beginning, with the first three Young Gods’ records I used a lot of the effect of surprise. Guitars and what’s next? Classical? Ok! People [who] were listening to the records or [us] playing on the concerts, they constantly be on all the senses open. Because, you don’t see the guitar-player. You can’t anticipate to what’s coming next. So I think you’re more available to what’s inside of the music.
Because, you don’t have a cliché of the guitar-player or headbanging or stuff. It’s just a pure sound. So you are always in a state of surprise. I think this was a part of The Young Gods’ sound for the first three records. And then with “T.V.Sky” I thought this was becoming a formula. And I wanted to have more unity of sound. Directed on 70’s-guitars, early psychedelic. And then, it became more compact.
Not coming to one classical song to one rock to one cabaret. So that was the turning point in the discography of The Young Gods. But it still was sampling! These guitars came from nowhere. Nobody could play these guitars live. Samplers and a keyboard-guy – it was still strange and different. I think our unity came from that.”
LTW: But at the same time it was the turning point for you as well. “T.V.Sky” became the very first record of yours written in English, unlike the first two LP’s. Do you think, this transition between two languages with different rhythmics affected your writing part ?
Franz: “I think, it became more question of an environment. I started writing in English. Because, after touring for five-six years, I noticed that internationally, in some countries people could not identify French. It was natural to me to write in French in the beginning because my inspiration began from my surroundings, my friends, my places to play – with a small developing scene in Switzerland where we speak French.
Then I met a lot of people on tour. Then I started travelling a lot to England with The Young Gods. And then to New York. I started being interested in staying in New York for a while, with the producer – Roli Mosimann. We were speaking English. We were watching TV in English and I was having conversation in English. That inspired me – I almost started dreaming in English. And I thought: Wow! Now I should go and write lyrics. And see how far… How can I find words or simplify my poetry. Cause I didn’t have a lot of vocabulary at that time. And “What can I do with it ?!”- it was a bit of a natural process as well.
I was also conscious that it would open doors. For example, right after I started singing in English we went to play to Australia, we had more concerts in the states. All that stuff. It was the question of becoming understandable by a larger international audience.”
LTW: If we’d speak about your work in general. Being focused on the production side you sometimes have this lack of interaction between members – in these cases, what guides your organization of sounds in the compositional structure ?
Franz: “That’s really hard to tell. Because, it’s very instinctive. At some point, you always have to make space for each sound and you need to treat them all in the way they’d fit together. And I don’t know…I think it’s a lot of work. I don’t know how to explain it, basically! When I sit in front of speakers, it’s almost like a painting. If you’re gonna put too much colours in one corner it’s gonna influence the colours that are next.
So you have to find the way for everything to fit. It may take days. I’m not a quick-producer. I’m like: “I need to spend some time…” – especially on /A\-record. It was done on a laptop. So I really needed to dive into sound and try to make space for each sound. Whether it’s guitar or drums or vocals…Everything! I don’t have a specific formula. I think, just working and not be afraid to spend some time.
At that point, you have to conclude, of course. At some point, you have to decide: “Not if I’d go beyond this point, it’s not gonna sound better – it’s gonna sound worse” (laughter) – that’s the hard time. That’s the difficult one. Sometimes, you could spend some time and stuff and never release anything. So you also have some point deciding “That’s it!”. But I don’t have a formular for it, really.”
LTW: At the same time, using sampling-technology you lose this physicality of performing. The quality that makes so many great players unique. Do you think it worked as an advantage for you ?
Franz: “It did work as an advantage! Many-many years. Because, we said before – the effect of surprise, the vision-opening to a different way to write music. Of course, The Young Gods’ sound was definitely important. And made the difference. I think, little by little, also we started including synthesizers, guitars etc…But you have to remember that drums were always live. So that also made the link between the machine and the men. There was always the collaboration with The Young Gods’.
We can deal with the machine. We can make something together. If we treat each other correctly we can co-habitat. That’s also a statement in a way. Because, there’s always be a controversy. When electricity came to the guitars people howled Bob Dylan: “Fucking electricity! Fucking machines!” – all that stuff. And with distortion pedals, echo-delays, digital delays…There were always people like:
“Eeeh. The machines running the industry, running the industry…”. But I agree with you! Great guitar-player is the great guitar-player. There are so many of them. I think, I was more interested by leaving the guitar and trying different way and different path…”
LTW: But you got to back to playing the guitar in 2000’s. Even with /A\ – you play quite a lot of guitar on the record. Does it connected with your desire to get back to more of a rock-band format ?
Franz: “Em…Maybe…Maybe it’s also because of nowadays the technologies are everywhere. And a lot of music is exclusively done for machines. Voices are corrected and everything is overclean and controlled. ProTools and everything is in the place all the time. Also with time to dare going back to a bit more chaos.
I think, playing an instrument live now for me is more of a challenge. Also I see the limitations! I used to like having only a microphone and going into my vocal thing…But…I don’t know! It’s a moment like this.
I could spend some time with a new synthesizer and stuff. I find it interesting basically. Sometimes you go in one direction and another. But with /A\ – I think, it was easier to jam with guitar and vocals then to prepare tones of samplers and stuff. It would have been too much like The Young Gods record.”
LTW: A lot of your work on A-Record was rounded by exploring sound-landscapes. Whether these are “Hotel Stellar” or “The Leaves”. What was the architecture of your writing like ?
Franz: For “The Leaves” it started with the loop of Moog. That’s the machine I bought two-three days before I started jamming. I just messed around before I started this loop…What’s interesting with Moog and this modular thing – you can’t recall exactly the same sound. It’s gonna change anyway.
Because, if you’d turn one note – it’s gonna become something you can preset. You can preset a sequence but not a tempo – for example. So there’s this change, the factor of change. Which is different. And I like it! With sampling, sounds stay sounds.
And then it may sound different with different speakers. But by the time you’re gonna hit the key, it’s gonna sound exactly the same. Going on without a control is nice. And I like that! That was the approach with /A\. That’s also the approach I have with The Young Gods now, as well.
LTW: While listening to you, I was thinking about Knock On Wood – your acoustic album and a perfect example of your interaction within The Young Gods. What it was like, to perform these songs in a different way compared to those they were written? With different accents etc?
Franz: “To me, it also was a surprise! You were talking about Our House – if you take it’s version on T.V.Sky which is almost like an abstract rock-kind-of…I don’t know how to call it! It’s really different then the acoustic version. But the acoustic version shows us the song-quality of these pieces. So it was an amazing challenge – I was surprised myself.
Because, if you could do it on an acoustic guitar – not only one but we had two, sometimes three guitars… and make it sound still intense, I think, it opens the mind of people as well. A lot of people came to us and said: “Oh, man! I didn’t know you guys were musicians!” ( laughs ). “Oh, thank you!” ( laughs ). People who are afraid of big sounds – like we were talking at the beginning of this conversation. Big sounds, darkness, as you said.
The same songs with an acoustic and all of a sudden, for them it’s totally acceptable and fantastic. Maybe it brings them for the original versions of the records. And I think, this is cool. Song is a song and then you may have it with a symphony or with acoustic or samplers. Make it really inspire a lot of people. So it’s just a question of how you arrange the instruments.”
LTW: It works perfectly with you. Even with closing Our Love Is Growing – mostly instrumental one, you still could reach organics taking into account that this song was written around drum-part. Was it challenging ?
Franz: “This song was one of the jams, the very first jams we did when we met. It was probably 15-minutes long. And we didn’t know each-other. It was adjusting because, of course Emilie and Nicholas, they play together for many years. In this song it’s very interesting – because, all the heavy-guitars are not me. It’s Emilie.
She plays all the heavy-chords. And I play floating-stuff for this. This is me! So I find it amazing. Because, we were listening to each-other. I was like: “Where is she going ?!” – even with this chord. I wait, there’s a lot of space. The drums are also looking to where I can fit with this foot. It’s the essence of the music [I think] – really paying attention to each other. Talking and developing language in the moment.
When we were listening to that jam we have to leave it the way it is. Because, it’s just beautiful. [Like] waves in the Sea. Sometimes they clash, sometimes they go along smoothly. You never know why it’s like this and when it’s gonna reach the shore! These songs Fire In My Fingers and Hotel Stellar were basically the first jams we did. Then we added vocals on “Hotel Stellar” and added vocals on Fire In My Fingers . On Our Love Is Growing , I just added these three lines. But we just cut…That was almost ready-made.”
LTW: One of the biggest mysteries to me was why did you choose such name for a project – /A\ ?
Franz: “I had five or six different names to propose. And I had this name but with A LOT of slashes before and A LOT of backslashes. Very complicated. I thought: “This is Great!”. Emilie looked at it and said: “Yeah, it’s great! But maybe only one slash and one backslash? It’s gonna be much better…” – and I thought: “Yeah! That’s cool!”- because actually it can be a lot of things in your subconscious. Anarchy. Not in a round-circle but in a pyramid-like triangle. It’s also three graphic things. It could be me, maybe Nicholas in the middle and Emilie – like the foundations holding together.
I think, “A” is the beginning of a lot of nice words. Like “adventure” – that kind of stuff. And also, we were very conscious [that] it would be very difficult for internet googling and searching and stuff like this. Which, I think is great ( laughs )! Because, nowadays you can Google and [you’ll] find stuff. With this project you’ll need to look a little bit more before the algorithm would get it. I think it’s also adds a little bit of resistance to accessibility of everything, everytime.”
LTW: I also think it’s a bit ironic – taking into account that Switzerland is the country where Dada-movement had started. Who wanted to show other nature of things.
Franz: “Yeah. Definitely! It’s the best thing Switzerland came out with ( laughs )!”
LTW: When you started your career, you were compared to Einstürzende Neubauten, who were a bit older than you. I always defined the main difference between Neubauten as: they were provocative – you were radical. But despite the changes in your career – especially with the lineup of The Young Gods, your music still sounds radical, to a point. Is it important for you to have this epithet being associated with what you’re doing? Or does this “radical” comes out of a certain darkness in your music?
Franz: “I don’t know!…I thought, Neubauten were radical too. Maybe, with the music I’ve been doing with The Young Gods so far, I wanted to give it an edge. Definitely. Because it’s the kind of music can help you to actually see things from a different side. It’s also like if you take some drug and you’ll see the world differently. All of a sudden. And I think I always wanted The Young Gods’ music to have this possibility.
That you go like: “What THE FUCK IS THAT?!”. Like you said in the beginning – it gives you the positive energy. So to me, I like all kinds of music. I think, it’s cool to have music for children to go to bed. It’s good to have music for people to cry. It’s good to have music for people to dance. Anything is welcome. But at some point, you have to choose if you want to master one possibility, one path. You have to choose.
And that’s what I’ve chosen with The Young Gods. Because, I thought: “Radicalism is a bit of a statement. Music will be like this and kick your ass. Show you things you don’t wanna see – that kind of stuff.” – so I think it’s a good adjective.”
LTW: What you’re working on right now ?
Franz: “The Young Gods with Terry Riley In C. “In C” is the music that was written in 1964. We played this with a dance company, we played with a brass-band and we’re gonna keep on playing these different opportunities. Sometimes it’s good. We go out of a rock-club and we play it theatres with dance-companies. We play it [for] movies.
We’re working on a version of “In C” and at the moment we’d love to record that. And with Emilie, we’re working on a new record. We started writing new songs two months ago and it’s not a fast process because of the financial situation with COVID and stuff.
Also, all of us sometimes need to find some other possibilities to leave. But the new material is interesting. It’s a bit too early to talk about it. But we’d concentrate on composition after the summer because, in the summer we’d do a few shows in Switzerland and just a few abroad – France, Belgium and maybe Czechozlovakia. We’d put out strength on the record. And maybe we’ll do a couple of a new shows. I don’t know yet. We plan to keep on going!”
Photo credits: Mehdi Benkler
Interview by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.