AU REVOIR SIMONE
Four years on from Still Night, Still Light, they’re back. And now they’ve got Environmental Biology on their side.
Everyone seems to know three things about Au Revoir Simone: they’re a Brooklyn band, they only play keyboards, and they’re, ahem, ‘twee as fuck’. After watching the girls perform in East London, speaking with them, and listening to their new record Move in Spectrums, it’s clear these truths are varying in their truthfulness.
Being described as a ‘Brooklyn outfit’ brings with it a cultural baggage that was at one time appropriate, and perhaps even helpful for Heather, Erika and Annie. But over the course of four albums they’ve transcended their birthplace, proving themselves too malleable to be tied to a sole locale. The ‘Brooklyn band’ description is a lazy one, but the girls’ love for the Big Apple is also too large to be ignored.
Their video for Crazy (the most palpable pop song from the new album) maintains and twists those ties to New York by reenacting Scorse’s bitter comedy After Hours. The video is reverent and humorous, squeezing the entire storyline into under three minutes, and featuring the three girls filling all the roles. Heather’s turn as central protagonist Paul is a particularly fine one, and the novelty of seeing her shirk her onstage pop star goddess is thoroughly entertaining. “I learned that men’s suits are really comfortable”, she says, adding that “all one has to do to convincingly play a man is slyly check out women’s asses all the time”.
But it wasn’t just the silly outfits that attracted the girls to the video idea. “After Hours is my favourite Scorsese film of all time, mainly because I love seeing pre-internet/cell phone New York City, which I’m very nostalgic for,” says Heather. “Before everyone just walked down the street staring at their phones like zombies, New York City used to be the kind of place where you could talk to a dozen strangers in one day, making new friends and enemies along the way. I miss that city a lot.”
So the video is a muted celebration; an artistic exercise with a core that yearns for the past. Sort of like Au Revoir Simone and how they only use vintage synthesisers, right? Not quite. Whilst making this album, the synths were the robotic elephant in the room. “In a way, our commitment to keyboards had become a limitation,” says Heather. “We had already made three previous keyboard-focused albums, so the question of how to make a new-sounding album using keyboards again weighed heavily on my mind. But we decided to just keep our minds open and let the song guide the instrumentation, not the other way around.” The result is an album that is paradoxical – embracing live drums and bass has given a greater depth to songs which are actually more sparsely arranged. “I was interested in the economy of sound; using only what was absolutely essential in order to round out a song. The songs feel more pure and stripped back to me now.”
The most ‘stripped back’ songs make for some of the record’s most exciting moments. The Lead is Galloping uses its live drums to canter through your brain and down your nerve endings. Even without any live drumming during their recent London gig, these pared down tracks made the most impact on the East End crowd. The new songs flaunted drum punches and piston beats – when Erika later says she wanted “to be more fearless,” on this record, it’s not surprising. Fresh hooks, and the band’s sincere interaction with the crowd made the show endearing and impressive.
Finally, the ‘twee’ thing. Their influences are too diverse, their brains too massive and their music too polyvalent to reduce Au Revoir Simone to such a vague and simplistic term. It’s a tag that became attached to the girls before tags were useful, back in 2005 when The Disco Song was on everyone’s Creative Zen. Things have changed, and these three women have successfully proven that a heavy focus on electronic instruments plus an ability to write an excellent pop song doesn’t always produce something saccharine.
Where does this ability to fondle synths until they create more than the sum of their soldered parts come from? A willingness to tackle the abstract may be the answer. When asked about the new album’s title, Move in Spectrums, Annie says “I really believe the world is a grey place and there’s no black and white.” Erika explains the title is about “accepting ourselves in whatever state we may be in, because we are only human. We move in spectrums. We are neither all good or all bad, all success or all failure.”
There’s an increased maturity at play which reverberates whenever the band speak of their creative process. Erika notes, “I think we are good at letting the songs guide us and letting the recording process happen how it needs to happen. Sometimes holding too tight to an idea can hurt the end result.”
They certainly haven’t clung on too tightly to Au Revoir Simone during the last four years. The girls have stretched themselves with projects, musical and otherwise. Erika worked with Dev Hynes, played with Cliffie Swan and Tony Castles, and released her solo EP Erika Spring to acclaim. Annie got on board with her husband’s outfit, the satisfyingly named Pursesnatchers, and “fun rock band” Uninhabitable Mansions. Heather, however, took a slightly different route. She went back to Columbia and completed her degree in Environmental Biology. “I spent a lot of time in the laboratory extracting DNA from soils that I collected from rainforests in Malaysia.” she says. “It was an amazing experience and one that I miss very much.” What was it like coming back from one insane job to another? “It took a while for me to feel that I had something to ‘say’ in this band again, but once I did, I wanted to get back into the recording studio right away, and now I’m very happy to get the chance to share our music.”
She should be. With the new album they’ve returned with their keyboards in tow and a love for the musical landscape. Santigold, Tame Impala and St Vincent all get good-taste-ticks, but the fact Annie cites the influence billboard hip-hop also helps qualify why the record entirely belongs in 2013. “The stuff I’m working on now is definitely inspired by the energy of Savages and the production and keyboard sounds of Drake’s Take Care and Kayne West’s Yeezus.” Let’s only hope it won’t be another four years before they do this all over again.
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Move in Spectrums is out now via Moshi Moshi.
Words + Live Photography: Suzie McCracken
Main Photograph: Sebastian Kim