Fly Pan Am’s Lifelong Curiosity

Photo by Yannick Grandmont

Fly Pan Am may have been dormant for a while, but their presence was always there, woven in the ethereal maze of not just Montreal’s experimental scene, but throughout different pockets of space around the world. Their early records on Constellation were a huge jumping-off point for me, and in a city and on label full of heavyweights, their work has always stood out. Their new album, Frontera, is a multifaceted experience, picking up the various strands each of the band’s four members have explored in the intervening years and combines them into something new and invigorating.

I have known half of the band, Roger Tellier-Craig, and JS Truchy, for over a decade now and the opportunity to reconnect and learn more about their work, ideas, and histories was fantastic. Finding out where the motivation for their work comes from and what continues to push their individual creative processes after so many years answers a lot of questions as to why, after such an extended hiatus, they can still come together to make something as memorable as Frontera

I spoke with Roger and JS through late May and early June. Frontera is out now on Constellation Records.

What are some of your earliest memories with sound? Not necessarily music – though that works too – but I’m always curious what environmental sounds left a lasting impression from people’s childhood and what sounds helped define some of those memories.

Roger: I don’t have any strong impressions related to sound from when I was a kid, other than the fact that my dad used to record a TV show called Friday Night Videos which we would watch every Saturday. But at some point in my teens, I remember being fascinated by faraway sounds, especially during the summer where you could clearly hear planes flying over. There was something mysterious to me about these sounds, it was like experiencing the presence of something that was actually absent in a sense, almost like a ghost or a hallucination. It felt to me as though these sounds had their own story to which I didn’t have access, therefore this would trigger my imagination in an abstract way and make me daydream. 

JS: My earliest memory of sound is the horn of a cargo ship. I didn’t know what it was. Thinking back on it now, the sound was probably associated with a sentiment of fear because of the surprise I felt hearing it (which was big enough to create my first or second memory). I may have poured milk over my head afterwards as a result. These two memories – that may have happened at the same time or not – would be my first two. 

One of the things that has always made Fly Pan Am so great to me is that, while you all always sound cohesive, you all do a great job of bringing different elements into the project and combining them in a way that makes sense. So. when you all are working together, what is the common thread that brings you all together, and what do you think each person brings that is specific to them?

Roger: We were really strongly influenced by Faust when we first started, especially in the way they would juxtapose very contrasting styles and aesthetics which really made listening to their records an unpredictable and stimulating experience. We were interested in how these different tropes would feed off of each other, horizontally as well as vertically, and how the end result was never just about the different components taken as such, but rather, the relationship, or dialogue, that emerged from mashing all of these things together. We were also really invested in the idea that Fly Pan Am had no leader and that all voices were equivalent, at least as much as one would care to manifest themselves, so at one point we made a clearer effort to make sure that our records would reflect this and we learned to make more space for difference in the band. Fly Pan Am could therefore also become a space for us to confront our aesthetic biases, and in the process, open us up to different sensibilities. I guess you could say that the common thread is simply that we are all interested in seeing the improbable creatures that could come out of us getting together to make sound. 

JS: To add to what Roger said, we also, quite early in our personal lives, started questioning a lot of rules that dictate the way we live and think. And when you see how these rules are simple transparent walls without any structural integrity of their own but only stand as a result of the will of the one that upholds them, you begin to see that there are other possibilities and realities as worthy of existence as the Reality we follow and take for real(ality).

At least, that’s how I see it. Questioning how music and songs were crafted and played made me question even further into ethics, morality, and philosophy, which in turn further influenced how I saw and made music. And I think that, without wanting to talk for everyone in the band, we all share this experience to various degrees. This is the reason we feel comfortable working with all our various influences. The only thing then that needs to be worked out is an aesthetically pleasing result within an agreed conceptual vessel.

I think as I get older the more interesting and challenging stuff for me is to fully embrace what I am genuinely attracted to, and to cut out all the noise to make sure that I am in tune with whatever “calls me” as much as possible.

That tangentially relates a lot to an idea I’ve thought about a lot, especially in this last year – how sound is such a powerful medium in the way it can bring people together, but also kind of push people apart. Not just in sort of metaphorical ways, but even in literal, physical ways. What do you think about how music and sound can be this shared experience for people, especially in a way that brings us together, and how that has perhaps changed over the past year?

Roger: It’s funny, I should probably think about that more but to be honest I never think about the fact that music brings people together. Not being much of a concertgoer anymore, I think I tend to experience music on my own more often than not, listening to it at home or on headphones when commuting. But the fact of folks bonding over similar tastes and sensibilities remains a big part of a shared musical experience, and I think that’s where I’m more sensitive to what you describe. It’s hard for me to say how this has changed in the past year since I just got my first phone this year, so it feels like I was more aware of what folks were up to or listening to but I’m not sure that’s specifically because people had more of an online presence due to the lockdowns or if I ended up being online more than ever ha ha. 

JS: This is an interesting question that I don’t know how to answer because the question relates to people’s true appreciation of music as well as what they think they truly like. In this time of the internet and social media, influencers and movements are more present than ever and dictate more and more the likes and dislikes of people. Not only that, the association of music and personalities can influence how you perceive an individual, or groups of people, nations, etc. I also noticed, when I used to attend a lot of shows, that people seemed to enjoy more what they knew than what was new. What they knew allowed them to mingle, talk, hang out and feel connected to one and other within their scene. What was new demanded an effort and perhaps a reexamination of their own status quo, even if only aesthetically. All that to say – and to keep it short – I don’t know how much music is truly what brings us closer or apart nowadays. The answer may lie more with the idea of the music and what it represents to an individual and a group of people rather than the actual content. And please, do not think that I am an exception to that view. Although I would like to be, and I do try, I do the same thing. But I’ll admit that by stating this, I’m also ignoring the fact that people can be brought together when experiencing joyful or difficult situations by the fact that they can share inexpressible feelings, thoughts, and emotions via music that they can all listen to or sing together. And that is truly beautiful and powerful. I’ll add as well that personally, whether my first reasoning is right or wrong, it does help me compose the way I do, whether it is with Fly Pan Am, Avec le soleil, or solo. If what dictates the appreciation or rejection of music isn’t the music itself but the ability to be in relation with said music, then one might as well completely fuck up the status quo and create one’s own language and art, which hopefully can be shared and appreciated for what it is in a successful way. I not saying that I gave up on having a hit record or a financially successful music career, but it is – at least for now – sitting comfortably in the back seat. Success would be nice, but I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon. Ha!  

Let’s talk a little about the new record… so this was made as a live soundtrack for a dance piece, which was a collaboration between you all and dance company (Animals of Distinction) and visual effects crew (United Visual Artists). Can you tell me a little about how the project first came into being?

Roger: I’ve been collaborating with Dana (Animals of Distinction) now for around 20 years, and the band and Dana go way back as she used one of our earlier tracks in a piece she did back in 2003, so when she heard the band was coming back she got in touch about working together on this project. This was an interesting challenge for Fly Pan Am and definitely the most ambitious live project we’ve ever taken on. We were invited to watch the work in progress back in the summer of 2019, with UVA flying in a few times to test some of the lighting concepts they had in mind, and eventually, Dana gave us a mixtape of temp music they had been using in rehearsals since it was pretty important that the music we’d come up with would follow the energy and bpm of the tracks used. At first, the stuff we cranked out didn’t have too much personality since we didn’t want to drift too far away from the mixtape, but as soon as we started rehearsing with the dancers we started developing the material further and really made it our own. We recorded the basic tracks in the studio after coming back from the Frontera tour right before the pandemic in early 2020, and we finished everything during the summer.

What did you all have to change or alter about your process and approach to work within this different environment?

Roger: I’d say the biggest change is that we worked with sequences for the first time, which isn’t easy if your drummer learned how to play drums in bands and never practiced with a metronome. It’s something we wanted to do for “C’est ça” at first, but we just never got to it. It was also the first time that I only used a computer onstage with Fly Pan Am – I’ve always had a guitar with me in the past. Also, this project demanded that we revisit our roots in a sense since the piece needed mostly instrumental tracks that had a driving, repetitive energy, which is something we had kinda abandoned after Ceux qui inventent n’ont jamais vécu (?), so I don’t personally see this as the proper follow-up to C’est ça, though this is definitely still a Fly Pan Am record.

JS: We definitely had to learn to compose differently and take on a supporting role. Which at first made me think – or maybe made us think – that this record wouldn’t be a proper Fly Pan Am record. So thinking that, we allowed ourselves to visit various musical avenues that we probably wouldn’t have visited if it wasn’t for this project. And interestingly enough, because of that, I think that this record ended up being one of our strongest to date. What I first thought to be a record that wouldn’t really sound like Fly Pan Am, ended up being refreshing as well as offering a positive outlook for our future compositions.

What were some of the biggest challenges when it came to composing the work as well as performing it live around the world?

Roger: Figuring out the interplay between the live drums and sequenced stuff, which was mostly handled by JS and Félix. Other than that, we had our own sound tech and we played in these great concert halls, so the conditions were more than ideal, way better than the times we toured in the past, so playing live kinda went really smoothly. 

JS: What Roger said and I also really appreciated – now looking back at it – the pace at which we had to adapt in the final months of composition. Especially during the last 2 months of residency. So much was done at that time. To us, a band that likes to think, overthink, try things and do a lot of work in post-production, to have to come up with changes or new parts on the fly, right there and then, so that the dancers can try a run again with a different beat or speed or energy, was quite challenging in the most positive way. It helped us shape the music in a way that we might not have thought about, allowing us to have a fresh look at our instruments and approach them differently. 

The Faust thing makes a ton of sense, and I like the connection of how, in your personal lives, you questioned why certain ‘rules’ existed in the first place and things along those lines from an early age. Now that you’ve been creating music and art for such a large part of your life, do you ever think about how even when you’re creating your own reality and sort of living in your own way, not something that was prescribed or whatever – do you ever think about how even then you can get stuck in your own sort of rules or patterns? And how do you fight against that to continue pushing yourself in how you explore and approach sound and composition? (Hopefully this question makes sense!)

Roger: Yes it does make sense. This is a complex question. It’s always been very important to me that I avoid falling into the trap of being complacent and believing too much in my own outlook on things. I think it’s important to be very self-aware, to stay awake, and learn to lean into discomfort. But I also think it’s important to remember that questioning yourself for the sake of questioning yourself can easily just become a comfort zone, in the same way that sticking to what you know is a comfort zone. Also, challenging yourself should not just become a sport, you know? Like it shouldn’t be about ego. To me, it’s about being more open to what I don’t understand, relinquishing control. I think as I get older the more interesting and challenging stuff for me is to fully embrace what I am genuinely attracted to, and to cut out all the noise to make sure that I am in tune with whatever “calls me” as much as possible. And this always makes me feel very vulnerable. I don’t really care if I’m perceived as covering new ground or not, that is not why I make music. I am more interested in humbly connecting with what calls me and bringing that to light, knowing that nobody else has the same exact perspective on things as I have. It is a very vulnerable place to create from, and in some way, an act of resistance, since trends and social pressure are a very real thing. Nothing I ever create ever feels safe to me. I always keep pushing, but towards what I’m attracted to, and this always forces me to up my game and push my abilities further.  

JS: Oh, I definitely get stuck in my own ways and patterns. Absolutely. I try to keep myself in check as to not do that too much. It’s not easy. One thing that helps me is that every time I have a strong reaction, especially a reactive one (but of course, it’s also good to do that with a positive one), I try to notice it and examine why I’m reacting that way. And a lot of the time, it’s only because the situation is going against my preferences. These kinds of situations are great opportunities for growth. Doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything and everyone of course, but I find that it helps me work on being more flexible with whatever situation has come up, whether it’s in relation to art or not. It helps me to not only be concerned with my likes, dislikes, and needs.  

What pushed you all to get the band going again and how has it been different (or the same) this time around?

Roger: All through the years when the band was inactive we all stayed in touch. We were all kind of following each other’s work, and at some point it started feeling like maybe it was time to pick things up where we’d left them, seeing as we’d grown so much creatively and technically in the meantime. For my sake, it always felt like N’écoutez pas could’ve been “better” if only I would’ve been a better electronic musician, which I now was, so I wanted to take another shot at making a proper record using this template as a starting point. It finally feels to me like Fly Pan Am has become a proper cyber-rock band, just like I always wanted. When the band started back in ’96 we were excited at the thought of Seefeel being the first “rock” band to be signed to Warp, and we were aiming to exist in a similar realm as they did but we didn’t have any idea how to get there. We were just a bunch of kids who knew nothing about computers or samplers. Me and Jonathan, the other guitar player, were literally learning how to play guitar as we started up the band – we were both around 21 years old. I’ve always wanted to channel a kind of Main/Seefeel/Fennesz approach to guitar and this is what I set out to do with these last two records; I don’t actually play guitar on anything we’ve done post comeback, it’s all samples I’ve generated using processed guitar and synths. 

JS: Yes, I think that it just got to a point where we got really curious and excited about bringing together the music and possibilities we were separately working on. And like Roger said, we now had matured as musicians AND we had technology that helped us and allowed us to do things that we just couldn’t do in 2004. 

What are you all working on next, whether with the band or other projects, solo or otherwise?

Roger: The band has kind of been on a bit of a break since the start of the lockdowns, though we finished working on the Frontera LP and we did that Corona Borealis single, “Mirror Cracks Seeking Interiority”. We are planning on getting to work on a new record at some point this year but we’re in no rush. I pretty much used up all of last year to complete a new solo record that will be coming out sometime later this year or early next year. It’s a bit of a departure from what I normally release under my own name, and in a way closer to what I used to make under the Le Révélateur moniker, kinda like if Robin Guthrie made a record produced by Christian Zanési using CGI/VST guitars. 

JS: I’m trying to finish my second solo record. It’s been a long process. I’m hoping to be done with it by fall. Then Le soleil will start working on new material and eventually Fly Pan Am as well. And hopefully we’ll get back on the road! 

What have you missed most in the past 15 months?

Roger: The potential of chance encounters, the dynamic that comes from having time on your own and then working with others, traveling vs being creative in your studio. For the most part last year I was really involved in making this solo record, so I could say that 9 of these months felt awesome, like I was just lost in the world of that record for days on end and it was hyper-stimulating, but then I finished the record and just crashed ha ha. Everything has felt kinda dull and repetitive since then. 

JS: To be honest, strangely, I have not missed much. I’ve discovered and rediscovered many things in these past 15 months and got to spend a lot of nice time with my family and occasionally see friends via zoom. But now that restrictions are being lifted, I’m really enjoying meeting friends elsewhere than on zoom ha ha ha.

If you like what Foxy Digitalis does, please consider supporting us on Patreon.