Interview by ART ADVISOR Muriel Quancard - 04/15
Muriel Quancard: The reason why I moved to New York myself was mainly for music and literature. But when I arrived I noticed that I had already been conditioned by American culture. By the early 70s, European musicians already listening to American music and turning it around, like the Rolling Stones for instance. When I listen to your record, it reminds me of this exchange.
Sebastien Leon: You’re right. It's interesting, you know I come from a small village in the middle of France and yet the way I play the guitar on this record is very American, using slide guitar, the tremolo arm, vibrato, reverb.
And then Kaia, who is from Texas, nonetheless speaks German, has lived in Berlin, and Kaia’s band Rainer Maria is named after a German poet. I guess our paths cross somewhere over the Atlantic.
Kaia Fischer: On our way to meet you today there was this man walking behind us. He was on his cell phone and I said to Sebastien, “Listen to him speak in French, what’s he saying?” And Sebastien replied, “Actually it's not really French, it's Creole.” I think we’re doing a little bit the same, it’s some kind of creole—not the creole of the Caribbean, but more the idea of someone creating their own thing by speaking in a foreign tongue.
MQ: You know the concept of “Creolization” developed by Edouard Glissant, a Caribbean writer—very influential in the visual arts world. Creolization is about cultures getting together to create new ones.
KF: Yes, “creolization,” or even syncretization. Very much like when Indian Buddhism went to Tibet, where it could be said to have been syncretized with the indigenous Shamanistic religion, and later came to America where it is quietly being syncretized with Western psychology. But this evolution also strengthens the authenticity of the original idea, because it exists in relief.
So for me, listening to this record, I’m shocked by how American the six string guitar sounds, it is more American than I could play it, in a real way.
MQ: I agree. Since I was a little girl, I’ve been listening to all these French musicians like Alain Bashung, playing the guitar in this very American way, which in a way has become French. So for me it is very natural that Sebastien, who is French, plays the guitar like this—this is what French people do.
SL: For me music has always been a way to travel. I come from this small and secluded village in the middle of France and music offered me an escape. When I managed to escape for real, the music of my youth stayed with me.
MQ: You say that your music is deeply rooted in the American South. But I also hear European influence in your record, in the vein of the whole German early electronics scene: Can, Neu! …
KF: Interesting, we love these guys. I spent a year in Germany on the heels of the German reunification. Later I returned to live in Berlin and work for the film director Rosa Von Praunheim.
MQ: Did Berlin have a strong influence on you musically?
KF: More personally than musically. I was in the queer scene there, living with one of Berlin’s great cabaret queens, Ovo Maltine. It was a very particular, sort of gender-anarchist sub-section of that scene. I remember Ovo saying, “We are not beautiful women. We are beautiful monsters.” I didn’t do a lot with it at the time, but I’ve carried it with me since then in a big way.
MQ: How did you and Sebastien meet?
SL: Back in 2006, I was working on an art installation project in a church in Chelsea and wanted to incorporate music. A friend said, “You have to meet Kaia.” We had dinner in Chinatown, and have been working together ever since.
I had played in bands as a teenager but then stopped as I started living abroad. I lived in Birmingham (UK), Milan (Italy), Seoul (South Korea) and Madrid (Spain). I bought a classical guitar in Madrid and learned to play the bossa nova on it.
It’s a different way of playing the guitar. My chords are less resolved, and the variations between one chord to another are usually subtle. I will usually keep notes in common between two consecutive chords. This means that any chord has the memory of the previous one and announces the one to come.
MQ: Kaia, I hear you chanting in Tibetan on the record. How did you start the practice of chanting?
KF: I have been studying Tibetan for many years and I work day-to-day as a translator of classical Tibetan texts. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition places particular emphasis on oral transmission, so when one meets a master teacher, it is common to request to receive transmission. With Miktsema for instance, the verse is a five-line litany from the Dalai Lama’s sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Some other students and I went to the Indian Himalayas with our teacher, and he introduced us to an esteemed elder monk who recited it for us. That encounter left a deep impression on me. He was old and frail and yet full of joy. We requested the recitation, and he just lit up.
MQ: In your case Sebastien, how does your work connect with your music? You’re involved in so many media that it’s hard to describe what you do with a single title.
SL: Well, I think they intersect in different ways. Probably the most obvious is that we play some of my sound sculptures, like the Carileon. Or we use some sound sculptures and rare instruments by other artists like the Cristal Baschet by the Baschet brothers, or Sonambiants by Harry Bertoia.
I don’t think that the Sonambiant has ever been used in a musical recording of this type. So that’s one direct aspect, looking for textural and hypnotic sounds. The last track on the record, “Striking the Sunset,” uses all three sculptures, in addition to slide guitar and lap steel.
KF: The intersection of a visual art sensibility and the music we make opens up the actual vocabulary of the music itself. It shows in the music we play—we think in terms of color, shape, texture, spatial extension, as much as bars, beats, or chords.
MQ: A lot of contemporary composers approach music in a conceptual way.
SL: With recordings, I don’t tend to consciously follow a conceptual approach. A record to me is something you want to listen to walking down the street, sitting on a plane, or in your car… With my installation projects, it’s another story.