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It is a gloomy saturday morning when I meet on Facebook with Guillaume and Mathieu, two of the tree minds behind the atmospheric project XCIII, which recently made its debut with the album "Like A Fiend In A Cloud". Music, ambience and poetry is what they mix in their album. Let's talk about it…
Ok, first of all: to those who do not know anything about you, introduce the band. Who are or what is XCIII?
Mathieu: We formed the band like 3 years ago during our first high school years.
Guillaume: XCIII is a french avantgarde metal band composed by Mathieu (pianos/synths), Jonathan (guitars) and Guillaume (bass and singing).
Mathieu: We cannot really put our band into a genre but we would say it's atmospheric metal.
And what do you mean, precisely, by "avantgarde"? Your is an approach very different from the average Norwegian, blackish act.
Mathieu: It's not particularly different, as both, in our own ways, try to emulate a certain type of ambiance and mood. The goal, I think, is the same: we make music, that's all. But surely we do not sound the same.
Guillaume: Oh yes, well we have some black metal influence, but also other genres inspired us. We chose avantgarde metal to define us, because we are kind of a hybrid band. And we want to be free from all etiquettes. The term "avantgarde" includes a lot of styles. So we find it more appropriate to speak of "avantgarde" or "atmospheric" instead of black metal or prog metal which are clearly defined genres.
That makes perfect sense. Speaking of "being free from etiquettes", how did the process of songwriting go? Did you have a precise idea of what you wanted "Like A Fiend In A Cloud" to be, when you started composing it? What changed from the first demo?
Mathieu: Guillaume this is for you… Are you speaking just about the music or including the lyrics too?
Anything that concerns the album, from the music to the artwork and pictures of the booklet: did you know what you wanted since the beginning or was it a gradual process, more a "step by step"?
Guillaume: The sound! The process of songwriting did not really changed: I wrote the structure and the other two added their ideas. At first, there was the will to compose some black metal or, blackened metal, but as I said, we have a lot of influences, so we just wrote the songs, without thinking that we had to put it in a way or another. It just came from the heart. And some of the parts (especially on the piano) were composed during the recording process. Which is exactly what we wanted: a stream of consciousness, more than something which is really written. Corncerning the lyrics, Jonathan wrote "Perpetual Place", I wrote "Hibernal Sadness", "Bal Macabre" and "Autumn's Call", and we took poems from William Blake, Baudelaire, Paul Eluard for the other ones. I guess it was more important to have a coherence in our lyrics than in our music. So we tried to put our story in 19th century romanticism. That's also what the artwork is supposed to indicate. But also here you can find something which is undefined, hidden behind the mist. It's something mysterious and kind of dangerous, because you don't know what lies behind it. So is our music, and the composing process.
Mathieu: Well, it was, like you say, more of a gradual process. Some songs, like "Hibernal Sadness", were played since Jo, Guillaume and I met. In fact, we were only meant to play together for some stage lives. But we did enjoy the songs, even though at the beginning they were quite raw in their structure. The thing is, we got to modify them, and as Jo has been playing guitar for quite a long time (8 years if I can recall) and I finished the conservatory, we had some ideas to put in these songs. In the end, I think we all changed the songs the way we wanted them to sound. And the result was coherent, which is quite rare, I think.
That's a very accurate and fitting description, the album indeed sounds very "fluent" and cohesive, despite the differences between the songs. Speaking about the lyrics, they are not in the booklet: what do they talk about?
Thorny subject. And what do they say about women?
Guillaume: [laughs] yes this is actually true, we speak a lot about women. They are what I call a metaphysical perturbation. They are some kind of masterpiece: beautiful on the one hand, and, like every piece of art, very dangerous on the other. Because they put us in front of our human condition, which is a finished one. We try to find a meaning to our life, something special, something which will elevate us to some mystical place, call it the Nirvana or what you want, it's not that important. It's important that there is a place, and we want to reach it. But we can't. And it's frustrating to try and try and never reach our goal. But the music, and within the lyrics are these experiments and during the whole adventure of the album we float in some kind of heaven (in a non religious way) … But when the music stops, this beauty fades! Like in the poem XCIII from Charles Baudelaire in "Les Fleurs du Mal", which says: "A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty."
That's an interesting approach… Women are not an usual matter in metal (apart from those trendy-teeny-oriented symph-goth bands), and it's a very peculiar way of dealing with them, this one you have. Very phylosophical and considered, I like it. And concerning the music again, on the other hand: you mentioned you have many influences, would you name a few? I'll give you a hint: in my review I wrote that in a song like "Autums Call" I hear very much an "alcestian" sound, am I wrong? Moreover: is "Autums Call" supposed to be "Autumn's Call" or is it something different I didn't understand?
Guillaume: For example I'm actually listening to Bonobo, a trip-hop band. I also like Wax Tailor, Massive Attack, Portishead, Dead Can Dance ect. But of course I also have metal influences, from Burzum, Satyricon, Agalloch, to Katatonia, Anathema, Porcupine Tree. Alcest and Les Discrets are indeed very important. Speaking for Jonathan, our guitar player, I can say he really likes Satriani, Vai etc. and more than everything blues! Not very metal, but that is what defines us and that is what makes our originality I guess. It's "Autumn's Call"… Not a lot of Metal Bands are influenced by something else than Metal.
Indeed, that's why I always ask this question: it is very interesting to see what kind of "root" a specific album has. Usually you wouldn't say, but it happens that bands use to listen to music way different from what they actually play; this is your case with trip-hop, for example, surely an atmospheric genre, but definitely distant from metal. I'll wait for Mathieu and then go on with the next question.
Mathieu: As far as I'm concerned, it was less metal and more classical music. And jazz. These are the two influences for the intro (even though you may have a doubt about jazz). For the rest of the songs, I didn't really had any particular influence. I mean, I didn't wanted to "sound like" or "do things like". What was played was what I thought was the most natural to be played at that moment in the songs. Of course we all have influences, which take part and even dominate our inconscious approach to music, or in fact to most things. But the goal behind was to make our own music and make the song stand by itself in a complex but coherent way. You could say it's a very planned improvisation.
Guillaume: I think we take what we like in each music genre and put them together: violence and anger in black metal, atmospheric sounds in trip-hop, cold and eerie sounds in wave music and so on. And we built our own fundament.
And again, as far as I can tell, you reached that goal; planned improvisation is a very meaningful definition. I'll move on to a totally different subject: in the beginning you spoke about playing live. Is that an important part of XCIII? And, consequently, how do you feel about not having a drummer?
Guillaume: It's an important part, but before we play live again we have to study the possibilities. We will probably try to play without a drummer and sample the drum parts. It will be a lot easier for us to explore the sound and to create a special atmosphere because we can concentrate on the melodic parts. It's very hard to find a drummer who understands what we want to do and who has the technical abilities to play as we want him to play. So we have a strong connection going on between Jo, Mathieu and I and I think we will use this connection to prepare something which corresponds to us. We'll see in the near future how we will do it. But yes, we want to create an unique intimate show! It's part of the "art total" process.
Mathieu: Well, it was, at that time we all lived in the same city. Now, it has become hard to gather, as we all live in different… countries. So for the moment we are focusing more on exploring our understanding of music, which could sound the same as in the album, or very different as well. We aren't planning to stay in Germany or Spain next year, and both Guillaume and I will return to France, so we will consider playing live at that point. As for the drummer, we do not need one for now. Maybe next year, but again, what could be the possibilities offered by taking a drum machine ? It will all resort to our mad experimenting.
So currently you are a band with its members dispersed all around Europe, that's interesting as well. It will surely srengthen your personal knowledge! The last couple of questions, and then I'll free you from the cage of this interview. First of all: are you happy with the result of "Like A Fiend In A Cloud"? Both artistically and critically, so to say. How was the album welcomed?
Guillaume: We now have 15 reviews which all gave us a good mark. So I think the album made a good impression. Personally I'm happy with this album but there is still a long way to go. I mean, if everything was perfect from now on, we wouldn't continue I think, as we are searching for the perfect sound. How boring would it be, if we found this perfect sound since the beginning? So it's a start, and now, it's our inspiration. We will try to do better and different next time. We'll try out new things but starting from this ground! We will listen to the people who have an opinion about us and our music and take the essence from their critics.
Mathieu: I think that both turned out great. For the album, we got to a point where we couldn't see what could be added or removed from a song without it sounding too much different. We tried to find new things even during the recording, but I think we didn't retain any of these ideas. But now that the time has passed, we see new things that could have been done to the songs. It's everchanging. The critics as for now are all accepting positively our work. And we are very happy to read them as some are very constructive. But again, that doesn't mean we will listen to them anyway…
This is very honest and humble from you, and from my point of view is the right path to follow, this way you can't but get better and improve. And this leads me to the final question. This research of yours… What are your plans for the next future?
Guillaume: Sit together and talk, a lot. Drink wine. Get drunk with our music! Compose new stuff and plan our live shows. We will also try to release a vinyl edition of our album. Perhaps a split CD is coming in early 2014, but nothing is for sure now. Perhaps we will write a short novel together. Would be fun and interesting in this art total process. Create an all around universe.
Mathieu: I think next future will mainly be focused on songwriting. We got to the end of a cycle with "Like A Fiend In A Cloud", in a sense that we couldn't add more songs, or even change some parts of the songs without preventing the whole musical universe of the album from falling apart. So it's again back to the white paper sheet, and see what we want to do. Future is going to be very interesting, as those years made us evolve musically, wheter it was from playing together or not.
XCIII is an everchanging creature, following its stream of consciousness, that's coherent, indeed. We'll be here then, waiting for any kind of news coming from you guys, who knows what will happen. To conclude the talk, if you want to leave our readers with one last word…
Guillaume: First of all, thank you very much for this interesting interview! And of course we want to thank all the people who follow us and read our interviews, listen to our music. People who, like us, are passionate and and who are indeed a inspiration in itself!
Mathieu: Thank you for the interview! And to our readers, please give us feedbacks for our album or particular songs on our Facebook page. As we are very interested in what they liked or disliked. We will re-animate our twitter soon enough to make things easier.