Astral Realm: An Alternative Roundup #13
Astral Realm is your conduit to all things future-facing. Clash staff writer Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest, most essential alternative releases in music. Each roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist spotlight, and a breakdown of the month’s noteworthy releases.
Focus Artist: Varnish La Piscine
Lofty dreams, nostalgia and exorbitant amounts of excess defines Varnish La Piscine’s new cinephilic invention. Recorded in his native Geneva, inspired by the expansive Lac Léman that stretches across the Alps, Varnish La Piscine is eager to breach every possible convention on his latest collector’s item, ‘The Lake Is Successful’.
Where 2020 project, ‘Metronome Pole Dance Twist Amazone’, was crepuscular with it’s twilight discotheque backdrop, the follow-up is sunlit, panoptic and all-inclusive. Varnish criss-crosses his way through space age yacht-pop, francophone rap, wah-pedal funk, bossa nova and ska, all filtered through a chromatic lens. Paired with a freewheeling short film, ‘The Lake Is Successful’ is an extended vacation overlooking the Riviera, a travelogue that morphs into something rhythmically off-kilter and visually delirious.
Varnish is aphoristic in conversation, mirroring the scattered nature of his work. He’d much prefer the listener sink into and locate themselves within his dreamscape. With co-signs by his musical heroes, Pharrell and Tyler the Creator, Varnish is ready to go global.
Let’s start by reflecting on your early life. You grew up in Switzerland to Congolese parents, and France has also become your base. Where is home?
I grew up in Switzerland but never settled to live in France. I still live in Geneva to this day and I really like it here. Geneva is home. I only come to Paris for music-related purposes. I was born in Meyrin and went to art school for a bit but school wasn’t the best fit for me because I like learning and experiencing without limits.
What was your early musical stimuli?
Congolese music defined my early home life but also pop acts like Phil Collins (Genesis), Police, Sade, among others.
What is the first album you purchased with your own money?
‘In My Mind’ by Pharrell.
Name three albums by other artists that most define who you are as an artist?
I can’t say that they define me as an artist but there’s three I highly recommend: ‘Dots and Loops’ by Stereo Lab, ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ by Clipse and Les Baxter ‘Space Escapade’.
Your multivalent sound leans into the innovation of Y2K rap and RnB. Who inspired your production process?
As far as my production style goes, I have to say The Neptunes and Tyler The Creator are primary influences. They are my forefathers. Everything about Pharrell appeals to me. He allowed many artists like myself to embrace our eccentricities. He redefined what being cool really meant. Otherwise I’m inspired by great music – modern music. It can be bossa, prog rock, reggae, whatever. I am inspired by great musicians and ensembles who bring freshness to their music patterns.
I was a big fan of ‘Metronome Pole Dance Twist Amazone’, because of its reminiscent sound. Tell me a bit about the formation of that project, and how it aided a refinement of your creativity?
Thank you! This project meant a lot to me because it’s the first time I was able to write, direct and score a movie, Les Contes du Cockatoo. It gave me a lot of inspiration as I firmly believe that my music is to be seen and my films heard. The album is the OST. I can’t explain how different songs come to me, it’s a process that’s hard to define. When it’s there it’s there, and when it sounds the way I want it to sound I’m happy.
You recently signed with French electronic label Ed Banger. How does it feel to be a part of a talent incubator with such an impressive roster?
Signing to this label was a dream of mine. I really look up to Pedro Winter and respect what he has brought to the music scene. I really didn’t want to sign on any label if not his. Their team gave me full control of what I wanted to achieve artistically, they trusted my vision and gave me all the time I needed to complete this project the way I envision: a film and score. It feels great to be part Ed Banger.
There’s an absurdist quality to your music, even down to the titles of your work like ‘This Lake Is Successful’…
The lake on which this adventure takes place has a lot of success! If you watch the movie you will understand…
You’re the sole producer at the helm of this new dreamlike rendering...
Yes, like with all my projects, this one was entirely self-produced. I collaborated with musicians on some tracks to add fullness and colour. I also mixed all the tracks with the help of engineers like Gracy Hopkins and Theo Lacroix.
In what ways is ‘The Lake Is Successful’ an evolution from what came before?
I have grown as an artist and auteur but really, I just want to make the best possible music by being true to what I have in mind. I am very specific about how I want my music to sound and ultimately I want to achieve something I can be proud of.
Your lead single ‘Ring Island’ reminds me of ‘Kiss’ from ‘Metronome…’ Is the song about touching freedom? Is it about psychedelics? Are you chasing a high?
Kind of yes. ‘Ring Island’ is about the effects of a drug that brings people into a Sonic The Hedgehog Universe; a universe where you make your own rules.
‘Nubian Farlow’ is the standout song from the album; it speaks of black nobility and enterprise. How does it fit into the wider context of the EP?
‘Nubian Farlow’ is the boat they use to find the special fish. The song is really an ego trip but I’m glad you feel it speaks to black nobility and innovation. The Nubian aspect is important. But I also really feel each song can stand on it’s own. They all came to fruition because I felt I’d executed what I wanted to perfection. It’s too early to say which one I feel is the strongest, however.
On the last song ‘Bye Bye Forever’ you repeat the line: “I changed my mind I’m heading back to the port….” Why is this the concluding line?
The song is about a break up but I wanted to end the project with a sense of hope, with a sense of renewal. There’s finality but there’s also the promise of tomorrow.
You directed the 4-part visual accompaniment to the project, a trippy crime caper in the vein of a Wes Anderson tragicomedy. What was the experience like commanding a cast and crew?
It felt great to have so many experienced people willing to give their all to respect my vision. It’s my duty to be there for them and lead them towards a final goal they will understand once they hear the music.
For the non-French speakers, what is the core narrative of the film and the significance of the “fish elixir? How would you describe the visual to viewers about to watch this in a cinema?
There is a premium fishing company, some police officers and a serial killer. This story revolves around them and a lake that holds mysterious fish that gives people special powers. The fishermen who angle them become very rich. Amaury Lefèvre the greatest fisherman that ever lived is killed right after finding the fish he always wanted, the rest of the story follows on from that.
‘The Lake Is Successful’ is a trip, taking the listener on unexpected detours through this dreamlike world you’ve created. Is the goal to provide escape? To provide levity and catharsis?
Yes, I want my listeners to take a break from what they have to do in their lives and open their mind and feel free. With this album I’m not trying to tell a particular story. I want to give life to different inspirations and translate a feeling that I had and make it sound good. I welcome interpretation, the best art always does.
Next Wave Recommendation: Debby Friday
Debby Friday’s aesthetic modes are manifold. Nocturnal animal, benevolent droid, mythical siren, the Toronto show-woman knows how to craft something inter-dimensional – something hypnagogic.
On debut album, ‘GOOD LUCK’, Debby surveys the disordered nature of youth, and the gossamer-thin veil between dreams and reality, as one crosses the threshold into adulthood. Throughout the album’s ten tracks, Debby engineers a kind of decadent madness. Influenced in part by her experiences with rave culture, Debby constructs a desolate dominion with Big beat aspirations, exploring the effects of neuroses in her life, in her relationships and in her art. Ultimately, ‘GOOD LUCK’ is about synergy; the exchange of energy between bodies played out in panoramic vision on her dancefloor.
For Clash, Debby charts her journey from a fledgling DJ to a protean creative. This is her story of emancipation.
Your music has this nomadic quality; you’re not bound to one place or one feeling. You were born in Nigeria and raised in Canada. Did you ever feel dislocated from your surroundings growing up?
Home is wherever I’m at. Besides being born on a completely different continent, I moved around a lot as a kid and then also as an adult. I’m used to a certain nomadic flavour to life. I used to want more anchoring, but I’ve since adapted. Now I travel all the time for work and for enjoyment and I love it. I wouldn’t say I feel dislocated from anything because my sense of home is connected to people rather than a place and as long as they’re in my life and I can see them in person a few times a year, I’m good. I feel very boundless, very free. I’m a true Sagittarius.
Raving is an essential part of your creative DNA. Tell me about your experience with rave culture and the club experience that has left an indelible mark on you?
The music! The catharsis! The coming-together! It’s difficult to put into words what felt like a very spiritual and metaphysical experience. Raving gave me an experience of music that is so multi-layered and nuanced, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It connected me with people and places and sounds that changed my life.
Tell me about your love of astrology, psychology and the human condition…What threads your work together? What are you trying to access?
I’m a curious person; curious about the world, about people, about myself, about everything. I think every curious person gets to a point where you realise that everything is connected to everything else and these are the threads that bind us together. It’s cliché but it’s the truth. So, when I’m studying astrology, philosophy, psychology or art history, I’m also studying myself and I’m studying others. I’m studying the world. Of course, it all feeds back into my music and into the art I make. We’re all part of each other.
Name 3 albums that get as close to revealing who you are as an artist?
‘They Say I’m Different’ by Betty Davis, ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse and ‘The Life of Pablo’ by Kanye West.
Talk me through the experience of making your debut EP, ‘BITCHPUNK’ and the follow-up ‘DEATHDRIVE’. Those periods where marked by upheaval in your personal life…
Right before I made ‘BITCHPUNK’, I had a nervous breakdown. I’d just come back from a month-long stay in Europe where I toured as a DJ, and that entire trip was a “come to Jesus” moment. I realised I just didn’t like the way I was living; I especially didn’t like myself. When I got back to Montreal, everything started crumbling. I quit DJing, I quit nightlife, I quit drugs and alcohol after years of substance abuse issues. I went out west and lived in my Mom’s basement for nine months.
But this is where I taught myself how to produce and I made my first EP, ‘BITCHPUNK’. My whole life changed after that. The rest is history. I got into grad school and moved to Vancouver. My time in Vancouver was interior and experimental: I made a lot of weird, interesting studio work in my classes, like ‘DEATH DRIVE’ and my thesis project LINK SICK. I was lonely but I’m grateful for it because I got to know myself intimately and to develop trust in my creative methods.
Why did you opt for the title ‘GOOD LUCK’ in naming your album?
I think of the title as a kind of omen to myself. I had this feeling that something big was on the horizon, that another adventure beckoned. I’m saying “Good Luck!” to myself.
Break down the process of making your debut album, ‘GOOD LUCK’. How long did it take and what were the events that catalysed its creation?
I started writing ‘GOOD LUCK’ in earnest near the beginning of the pandemic. It was never going to be just an album. I knew I wanted it to have a strong visual element, so I was writing the short film at the same time. Both of them were feeding into each other and melding together. So much of the album is self-reflective in a way I think can be universal. It’s about the mythology of “DEBBY FRIDAY” yes, but also about the mythology of becoming yourself. Everyone experiences grief, joy, anger and playfulness; everyone suffers and everyone grows up.
This a heavy record but it’s always defiant. What are you wading through? Is this album about purging past versions of yourself?
It’s about traversing the surface of the moon and going on that hero’s journey. I steer clear of centring trauma because that’s not what it’s about. Everybody suffers. There’s a universality in that suffering that connects you to other people and humanity. A lot of things are just the by-product of living and being alive. I wanted to make a record that laid all of me on the table and was totally free and expressive and said “I’m here. Do you fuck with this? Do you get the message? Yes? Okay, let’s go. Let’s do this together.”
On ‘So Hard To Tell’, you explore that inexplicable feeling of existing between two planes of existence. It’s a wonderful embodiment of your sound which veers into a more ethereal realm…
‘So Hard To Tell’ is one of those songs that came about by complete accident. I was messing around on Logic one day and I found that sample; the sing-song loop. I built the skeleton of the beat and then I opened my mouth and started singing. It felt like divine inspiration, for real. I’ve never sung like that before and also, I’ve never really been comfortable with presenting my softness as part of my public persona. I’m rough, I’m tough but I’m also very sensitive, girlish and tender. ‘So Hard To Tell’ brought out that side of me and put it on display for the first time and I’m grateful for it.
On ‘GOOD LUCK’ you’ve built an unrefined sonic world with no studio sheen. It’s chaotic yet stylistically coherent. Was there a method to the madness? Was your process more instinctive?
Honestly, I go by instinct and feeling more than anything. Especially since this was my first album, I just wanted to be present in the experience of making it: to create without thinking and see what I could make, and what I could put together. The hybridity of it all comes from who I am as a person and also, the vibe of this moment in culture. Everything is “hybrid” because everything is everything else. The internet has flattened time in a way, which makes these current times the context for everything.
Accompanying the album is the ‘GOOD LUCK’ short film you directed with Nathan De Paz Habib – a pseudo-autobiographical meditation on the transience of adolescence. What themes from the album did you want to bring to life visually?
Nathan and I met in Paris at a mutual friend’s art show where he’d directed a short film and we talked for all of five minutes. I showed him the album, I sent him the script for the film and it was instant! Everything moved so quickly and, in a few months, we were filming in Toronto.
Some of my influences come from directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Schrader, Maya Deren, Paul Verhoeven, Lynne Ramsay, Pedro Almodóvar. At the crux of it, these directors deal with the stuff of life in their work in a way that speaks to a certain absurdity of the human condition. There’s a surrealism that acts as the undercurrent to all the realism and it feels truthful. With ‘GOOD LUCK’, I wanted to do that in my own way, to take something mundane like a relationship, and amplify it to a point of silliness in order to tell a truth. I think directing is one of those disciplines that you can only really get good at as you get older. Let’s check back in when I’ve done my fourth feature.
What’s your favourite lyric from the album?
“Big Debby! I make you my fan and my witness…”
What mantra or affirmation guides you?
“Your life is your responsibility.” Succinct and true. It changed my life once I embedded this into my brain. You didn’t decide to be born but you’re here now so what are you going to do about it? You have to save yourself.
If this album is a dialogue between artist and audience, what do you most want to communicate?
I love you! Now get up and let’s go!
Alé Araya – ‘in visions’
“It’s sort of a coming of age story, child-like, thoughtful, vulnerable…”
Spring blossoms on the debut project from Chilean-American artist Alé Araya, who came up a co-collaborator for the likes of Saba, Merlyn Wood, and Alice Glass. ‘in visions’ sees her strike out on her own, an eight-track rhapsody on soft and hard-femme desire, cosmic alignment, the pull of polyglot community and the importance of performing self-work in real-time.
Araya synthesises elements of Latin jazz, soul and colour-saturated club genres, her cherubic voice and lightness of touch permeating songs that abound in hazy atmosphere and weightlessness. ‘Janet’ tackles TikTok-DnB ubiquity with crystalline precision, and ‘Citrine’ featuring Istanbul musician aisu, is fizzy 90s house nostalgia. EP centrepiece ‘Midnight Gospel’ featuring Pivot Gang founder Joseph Chilliams, injects rhythm and pace to a reggaeton-inspired ode to romance performed under the stars. Tempered and low-key, there is magic and majesty in Araya’s glazed reveries.
Santangelo – ‘AdWorld’
Santangelo established his roving approach to time-contorted sound experiments on 2016’s ‘A Jaded Attempt At Something Iconic’. Seven years on, the Florida-born, Georgia-raised artist returns with ‘AdWorld’, an invective and parlance of these tech-consumed times. ‘AdWorld’ is a perennially-online sensory onslaught that rigorously demands the listener confront their proximity to extractive relationships and exploitative systems. It’s not all declamatory. The apocalypse ensues in quiet places, in the fragments of Santangelo’s warped imagination: ‘Window’ is a jangling folk reprieve and a glitching moment of spaced-out introspection, ‘Stripper Song’ is both a lurid late-night dalliance and a soothing illusion of disconnected souls.
On ‘AdWorld’, Santangelo sinuously transitions between the tangible and the surreal. Knotty and kaleidoscopic, in the maelstrom of ‘AdWorld’s’ chopped-and-skewed ephemera, Santangelo laments the purity of having a dream, and doing everything to make it happen.
Louis VI – ‘Earthling’
“This is the most thought-about concept of an album I’ve ever done, and at the same time it was the most free. I wasn’t thinking, I was just being…”
Three years in the making, ‘Earthling’, the North London native’s full-length, centres Mother Nature as the main device and spiritual guide. The seeds of ‘Earthling’ began to germinate when a hurricane hit the island of Dominica – where Louis’s ancestral roots lie. His proximity to the ecosphere can be traced back to his childhood, when frequent trips to the Natural History Museum provided refuge and release from the domestic violence he experienced at home.
Combining field recordings with a genre-crossing fusion of jazz, vaporware rap, funk and breezy afrobeats, Louis VI excoriates his demons on ‘Earthling’, linking micro-level emotional cataclysms with man-made devastation. Subdued confessionals ‘Take Your Shoes Off’ and the Lex Amor-assisted ‘It’s OK’, run parallel to songs like ‘Orange Skies’ that break down climate racism and the hellish loop of environmental ultraviolvence wrought by the powers that be. ‘Earthling’ explores human-to-nature symbiosis, an eco-conscious missive that telegraphs a message of hope and renewal amidst collective despair.
Victoria Monét ft. Lucky Daye – ‘Smoke’
First teased back in 2022, Victoria Monét commemorates her signing to RCA with a funkified, roller-rink offering. Ushering in the ‘Jaguar 2.0’ era, two RnB heavyweights – propped up by D’Mile’s sonorous production – deify the wonders of the green leaf. ‘Smoke’ transcends the 70s soul nostalgia tag thanks to the duo’s agile interplay and the mid-tempo bounce that is never too sanitised or sleek. Special mention goes to the reprise, where Monét manufactures cloud nine rapture; a placid vocal echoing the velvety strum of psychedelic guitars.
Yaya Bey ft. Exaktly – ‘ascendent’
“Blessed and highly favoured in this mother fucker…”
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, Yaya Bey continues to furnish her sound with new textures and inflections – this time invoking David Morales dancefloor catharsis. Following the heady delirium of ‘Remember Your North Star’, which explored the legacy of parental loss and misogynoir, Bey exults in her own resolute power on the final track from transitional EP, ‘Exodus the North Star’. Aglow in warm rays of synthy goodness courtesy of D.C. producer Exaktly and the promise of a house thump that only appears in closing moments, Bey liberates herself from the enervating pressures that plague her. She’s ascended.
Salami Rose Joe Louis ft. Soccer96 – ‘Akousmatikous’
Bay Area’s Salami Rose Joe Louis, the musical project of Lindsay Olsen, opens up her inner sanctum to electronic duo Soccer96 on the title track from her forthcoming album of the same name. Together they build what sounds like a three-song suite within one. With allusions to the ‘akousmatikoi tradition’ and their pious practice of harmony and justice, ‘Akousmatikous’ starts with Olsen’s aloof signal, before building to a polyrhythmic crescendo of strings and carousel keyboard stabs. It’s the sonic equivalent to a droid coming across humanity for the first time, adapting to corporeal existence before malfunctioning due to sensory overload.
Harve ft. Miso Extra – ’02.29’
South East London’s Harve returns with a dusky number cementing their place as a producer-to-watch. Churning Brandy-Darkchild synergism through a slo-mo churner, ’02.29’ is irresistibly gauzy, crawling and seething under your skin with its smouldering stop-start motion. Harve and the ever-expressive Miso Extra spin a late-night tale of lovers that can’t help but orbit circles round one another.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain @ShazSherazi