Downing A Willow with CIA Debutante

As CIA Debutante, Nathan Roche and Paul Bonnet have created a musical world that’s both medieval and decayingly futuristic, a strange, role-playing video game-esque land through which a voice reminiscent of a groggy Mark E. Smith is your only guide. Their third and latest for Siltbreeze RecordsDown, Willow finds Roche’s typically murky grumblings having grown sonically clearer, and the synth fog that Bonnet once shrouded them in mostly lifted. Stepping to the fore is something resembling actual beats, while the usual array of vaguely mechanical noises have taken on a mesmerizing three-dimensional quality. The word “percolating” has been used in relation to the sounds Bonnet produces, and while that’s still applicable here, there are about a hundred other verbs that likewise spring to mind — trudging, whirring, glinting, sputtering, and contracting among them — all doing their part to carry, provoke and underscore Roche’s droll recitations.

Although Down, Willow is notably cleaner and more composed in appearance than CIA Debutante’s past work, the details are still very much in question. Take “Old Masters,” the track that bookends the album, where it’s nigh impossible to distinguish whether Roche is offering elliptical commentary on the high class of pre-1800s painters or taking the piss out of the audio mastering process. Either way, is he really wrong when he concludes that “Truth be told, no one knows what mastering is”? Or consider “The New Season,” where the listener is informed that a locksmith is stuck in a high tower where a windsucker (that is, a horse with a bad habit of gulping air) is taking all the humidity out of the room. “Float thee email with request for this book’th,” commands Roche in response. This scenario raises more questions than it answers, of course. What’s a horse doing inside a tower? Is the air being made drier really such a bad thing? Roche sure makes it sound ominous enough. And what on earth does an e-request about a book in pseudo-early modern English have to do with any of this? Meanwhile, during the track’s final moments, Bonnet’s giant, plodding reverberations and digital droplets give way to what resembles a straw extracting the remnants from the bottom of a glass. The last bits of moisture in the room, perhaps?

I caught up with Roche and Bonnet via email, their preferred interview format, on the eve of a Scandinavian tour to talk some of these things over. True to the spirit of their recordings, however, their answers mostly just begged more questions. 

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CIA Debutante started in 2014, right? Can you talk a little bit about how you guys met and how the project began? 

Nathan Roche: I believe our slimy mutated birth into existence was closer to 2016.. but what is time other than a Discogs year reference for a release. I am sad to announce that our prehistory is somewhat uneventful and uninspiring and plays out like your typical 1990s VHS rom-com: boy meets boy on the canal, boy talks about various music (Vanity Records?), fictions (Don DeLillo? Anna Kavan?), films (ZerogradDead Man’s Letters?), arts (paper-mâché, and finger paintings?). In general,… another boy suggests recording in the small overpriced apartment (900+ euros a month), and sooner or later, boys wind up like mechanical dolls on tour in Lithuania with a recently released short-run cassette. 

It’s all pretty straightforward; you’ve heard it all before..seen it in your MOJOs and your UncutsRolling Stones, and Negative Guestlists. No, I am kidding. I saved Paul Bonnet’s life when he was walking across the street in Paris with a Tolerance VOD box set, and since then, he owes me his soul. 

Paul Bonnet: That would be fall 2016. Nathan and I were hanging out in the same circles and got talking about music, books, etc. I was kinda curious to try and make music with him as I had not attempted this before, and it seemed there were shared interests/inspirations that would make for a fertile ground, as well as a certain spontaneity.

We set out to improvise and record something live on tape, which ended up being our first release, a self-dubbed tape limited to something like 30 copies. I’d say we attempted this without any real objective in mind, but that may not be so true; I really think there was something already there in the background, and it very naturally got caught in the recording.

The Paris scene was, and still is, a fertile ground and a great community, so we quickly started playing in local venues, etc.

What about individually – when did you start playing music, and what inspired you? Did you grow up in musical families? 

NR: No, my parents weren’t musical at all; more or less, no aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc., are or were, and there is a lot of them, so the odds were in their favor. If Footloose was a town that banned dancing, then my family was in the sister city, not paying attention.

My parents mostly listened to Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.. in hindsight, the absurdity of driving through the Australian desert listening to HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance must have had some sort of early surrealistic influence.

I started recording the day I got my first guitar when I was 13, I suppose? I used a Panasonic tape recorder and then eventually got a computer mic to record the cassette while it was playing. Those early projects were Eliminate Death Phobia and Noise Reduction, that I released as CD-Rs and cassettes to schoolmates, like the rugby boys and the morning rowers, and the I.T Department. They were just guitar experiments, really. 

But then The Marf Loth Loloply started a couple years later, which was a sort of Captain Beefheart-inspired noise mess. We played our first concert at the short-lived avant-garde redneck hoedown See, Hear, Now Music Festival organized by Michael Whiticker in Townsville. No one saw the concert except Room 40’s Lawrence English, who was eating a fish burger in the crowd and would perform later that evening. Anyway, after that, I tried writing real songs for a decade… and now I am sick of it. 

PB: I’d say I only really started playing music with CIA Debutante, although there were some attempts earlier that quickly fizzled out. I had a little setup of a drum machine, an analog synthesizer, and a four-track tape player that I used to record attempts at textures, but it was only later that I found a space to develop these.

I’d always been very fascinated by some specific aspects of certain records, certain attitudes, recording tricks… These records served as musical education for me rather than actual practice. I could cite Tolerance’s Divin for the strange libidinal interactions between mechanical rhythms and a half-heard voice, the shock of that inhuman, slowed-down voice in I’m Some Songs by The Shadow Ring.

Untitled drawing by Paul Bonnet

Tell me more about your upbringing and where you grew up. I’m curious about what you were like as teenagers. Were your parents supportive of your creative endeavors, and are they still?

PB: I grew up in Paris and left for Nice to study art, but I quickly came back here and finished my studies at Beaux Arts de Cergy. I wasn’t a musician but drew a lot, and that practice grew into zines, photocopy, and printmaking, which evolved later into oil painting, which informs a lot of what we do with CIA Debutante. I was lucky enough to have parents encourage me on this path rather than try to make me study something more classic and stable.

My teenage years are a bit more of a dark blur, but I did do a lot of Warhammer 40,000, and I’m pretty sure this somehow still guides me to this day lol.

NR: I grew up in a place called Townsville; it’s on the coast of tropical north Queensland.. a fine place to grow up, filled with rainforest fauna and deadly annual cyclones. I don’t remember what I was like as a teenager. Every morning I wake up, I feel born again. Since I moved to France in 2014 (I think?), this has bought me a sort of “get out of jail free” card, wherein my parents don’t ask questions anymore. I just send them a photo every now and then of Paul and me on a bus in Budapest or eating deer sausages in Poland, telling them, “Look, we made it!” 

Let’s talk about the new album, Down, Willow. It feels more propulsive and rhythm-based than your previous records, and the song structures and lyrics seem more composed. It’s also your clearest-sounding recording so far. Did you approach it differently in any way compared to your other records? 

NR: It might appear to be the case, but I think that is after a lot of training, whether it be making the other records or playing live. Things seem more in place and structured because we are quite used to doing it now and much more confidently. Paul has become very good at production work and mixing over the years. Keep in mind he comes from zero musical background or technical ability. It blows my mind. I am proud of him. 

PB: There wasn’t a laid-out intent of breaking with the last records, but our way of working/existing just lends itself to exploring new angles. Each record, I think, looking back on them, dealt with a specific approach to how we think of CIA Debutante, whether lyrically, technically… Where The Landlord was dealing in texture and ambiance, like a kind of dark vortex, Dust was an immediate, tense, and drier affair, focusing on made-on-the-spot songs with a kind of urgency. Down, Willow both learns from these mistakes and successes and tries to synthesize these approaches while exploring the in-between spaces… So it’s a record that is more focused on composition and less on artifice while still making jokes about artifice. Specifically, the one called “professionalism.”

Tintoretto’s Finding of the Body of St. Mark

How about influences? What sounds/art/books/movies were you guys into when you were making Down, Willow?

PB: We recorded Down, Willow last spring and summer over two sessions, and I then spent most of last fall mixing it. It came at the tail end of what was basically a 2-year long post-lockdown hangover, and I think most of our interests/obsessions were still being digested at that moment. The discovery of Ligotti through Current 93’s “I Have a Special Plan for this World” was still strong, and a general interest in weird fiction, specifically Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan in my case, Bruno Schulz, perhaps also the movie The Innocents and its song “O Willow Wally,” which was covered by C93 on their record Soft Black Stars (another Ligotti reference). So that’s for the weird fiction/gothic tale angle, and from this background, it seemed interesting to develop Down, Willow as a weird, techno-gothic pastoral.

But I also listened to a lot of simple, guitar-pop music over that time. I really like sentimental stuff. That’s the other guiding principle.

NR: I don’t really remember, but after the confinement, we released the last LP, Dust, and finally went on tour to Italy after years of sending emails, and for us, it was completely inspiring, I think, at least for me. All of the text came from that week over there. 

We love to see these rotting architectures and thick dough pizzas. Paul is pretty switched on with what museums and galleries to go to.. and we went to Pinacoteca di Brera with our friend Tommaso Bonfilio (SabaSabe and Mother ) in Milano. It was a mind-blowing experience… this huge Tintoretto of these creatures crawling out of a checked floorboard? What more inspiration do you need? We were probably in a “Lovecraft and his magic friends” period, maybe Clark Ashton Smith and Algernon Blackwood… but I think we drank during the day in Bologna; I looked up at these antennas. I said to Paul, ‘They are like the antennas outside the window on the Dust cover,” anyway, during this drunken discussion, I said to Paul that if The Landlord and, I suppose, Music For Small Rooms was this sort of domestic Polanski cosmic horror. Then Dust was sort of walking outside the house and around it…then, Down, Willow would be leaving the property… so, our next LP will be like Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.

In your interview with Safety Propaganda, you said that the working title for Dust was Harvest Season on the Clickfarm. Were there any other titles you were considering for Down, Willow? What’s the story behind the title?

NR: No, actually, it was the first thing we discussed that the title should be called Down, Willow. Especially the comma, the comma was really important. We spoke for hours about the comma. Days, weeks, months. I think that Harvest Season on The Clickfarm might have made its way into “New Season,” at least conceptually; I believe I say it at the end of “Garden” off the Digital Regress 7-inch. So yeah, clearly, nothing ever gets wasted; all grains are seeded to grow. 

I am not sure about the origins of the title. But, now that you mention it, my transition from musicals as a boy to Peter Gabriel Genesis as an early teenager suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched as it was so theatrical in itself, with his costumes and various characters throughout the songs. I thought that even in grade nine, it was far more beneficial to learn all the lyrics of the 20 min epic “Supper’s Ready” off their album Foxtrot than Algebra or other mathematic and science equations. 

 “If you go down to Willow Farm to look for butterflies, flutterby, butterflies open your eyes; it’s full of surprise; everyone lies, like the fox on the rocks and the musical box.” 

But then, someone might come up to me and say, “Oh, it seems like a reference to Iain Sinclair’s novel Downriver…” but then I would say, “Oh, but isn’t that a reference to Finnegans Wake?” then they would say, ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.’ and I would say, “Down, Willow.” 

PB: We definitely had the title in mind before we started recording. We don’t practice and don’t live in the same cities, so when we do meet to record, it’s with a shared psychic ground developed over talking, exchanging references, or just life stories… So things like titles or moods take an important role; everything feeds into each other. There was the song from The Innocents, a certain gothic air we wanted to explore, so you take that image projected by the word “willow,” but then on another level, it’s just silly playing with words. I think that’s a good summary of our general attitude toward art.

The Innocents (1961)

You also talked in that interview about your mutual interest in art/music/movies/books that offer a world that you can get lost in. What’s happening in the world that Down, Willow takes place in? Can you describe it a bit and tell us what you hope the listener experiences when they listen to the record?

NR: I don’t really know; Paul says we should always avoid any kind of concept record, and he is probably right. 

But these things and whatever images they produce should serve as a theme park for the mind. Go in, visit the wild, wild west..take the plunge on the tower of terror and then come back home for afternoon tea and nine hours stuck on Reddit. It’s all about interpretation and what you get from the medium. I get excited about making links. From other art, I mean, and this could stretch back to Tolkien and Led Zeppelin…I don’t know, The Listener…it seems silly to expect anything from anyone; at the very basis, we are doing this for our own sick and twisted obsessions…but those things have come from absorbing the work of others. 

Seiobo There Below might be a good way of understanding something very simple. 

PB: When we read reviews of our records, we’re always a bit surprised that people tend to overstate the weirdness or aggressivity of the music. I don’t really work with the goal to get a specific reaction from anyone… But I’d like to imagine the record as a ruin to wander in, something that evokes a sense of gentle longing.

There’s some early internet imagery in the lyrics. I’m thinking of the chat room talk on “Dark Ages” in particular. What were you guys up to on the web in those days? Were you chat roomers in the nineties?

PB: I spent some time as a teenager on message boards, shitty self-made websites about all sorts of things, all of which have been utterly destroyed by social media. I don’t feel any kind of nostalgia for this, though, and I’m not sure there’s much for me to say about all this…

The lines in “Dark Ages” about the Internet, I like to think, function as a kind of anachronism in regard to the rest of the lyrics in order to take the piss and create a breach for the other words to flood in. But also, I guess these lines about the Internet, which were especially present on The Landlord, must illustrate our own ambivalence towards having any kind of representation online, so really, we’re just making fun of ourselves.

NR: I think I used MSN Messenger to talk to school friends one hour later after seeing them? I didn’t advance much further from there in terms of social media. I think I only ever had Facebook for a year in 2009 when it started, but then I realized I was wasting all my good jokes and ideas on something completely éphémère, and it was better to focus on putting them in my books. No one read them, but at least they aren’t temporary. 

Have you read Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban? I can’t even understand the English language anymore in this dystopian landscape, which is why it’s easier to speak French because it doesn’t change every day based on Tik Tok or online slang… 

I remember reading about your interest in how different places and situations affect your live shows, which are mostly improvised when you’re on tour. What was one of your most memorable shows in this regard, good or bad, and why?

NR: There are really too many to choose from; I lost all the tour posters on my computer, so I can’t remember everything…I remember playing in a snow-covered village neighborhood in Hungary …ah, Miskolc ..yeah, and there was a huge Soviet spy tower next to the guy’s house where the concert was, and it looked across the river to this huge abandoned industrial city. I don’t know, me waving down cars on the outskirts of Bucharest around five in the morning to get to Veliko Tarnovo because we missed the bus is another highlight…arriving there, in this medieval fortress town in the mountains…Ah, a tour in Poland with an ex-motorcycle champion, a Polish pop star, and an art-brut heroin manufacturer where we slept in war bunkers in the park and played to a mountain cult… there are too many? Dried salmon in old wooden bars in Riga? Old Town Macedonia? Concerts in Czech beer houses? Bordeaux? A beautiful bathhouse in Gorzów Wielkopolski with Ensemble Economique? It’s endless! 

 Avas Kilátó, Miskolc, Hungary

You collaborated with Zhu Wenbo (of the Zoomin’ Night label) on a tape in 2020. Are there any other collaborations in the works? Is there anyone else you would like to collaborate with at some point? 

NR: I met Mattin last year, and I’ve always been a fan of his projects, Billy Bao, and the songbook series, many other things, and his production work is very unique. Anyway, long story short… I love him and his spirit, and he is a wonderful and inspiring human being. I asked him if he could record us one day, and it happened we were playing in Berlin, and Al Karpenter played with us; I said maybe we could record tomorrow, and he said, “Let’s record with the Al Karpenter band,”…so we made an LP in a day, and it will be out on Ever/Never at some point, we are going to Spain next month for about 9 shows thanks to their help…Ah, yeah. Mattin’s partner and child were sleeping when we came after our concert at Arkoda, and we had to whisper, so Paul, Mattin, and I were whispering for like 3 hours, and it became something transcendental and hilarious…dadaist. I can’t explain.. that tour was a good tour for meeting inspiring personages at last, like Mark Harwood and Dennis Tyfus. Further collaborations? I dunno. It will have to happen naturally! 

What’s ahead for CIA Debutante or for you guys personally in the next year?

PB: I think we’ll work on releasing some kind of shorter companion for Down, Willow, a kind of dirty mirror for it. There are a lot of songs in these sessions. Personally, I’m working on several recordings made in collaboration as well as solo ones, which I hope to release throughout the year.

NR: Depending on when this article is put online, we will be in Scandinavia next week for five shows …we are very excited to go there at last! Stavanger seems completely insane…we have a Flix bus from Gothenburg after our concert at three o’clock in the morning to Oslo, and then a train from Oslo to Stavanger.. which takes 7 hours? This is pretty outrageous, but it’s always worth it. I am excited to meet Gaute Granli at last, I love his music, and he is putting on the show for us… after that, we go to Spain… ah, and if we ever figure out how to ask for art funding, we’d love to finally go to USA and Japan and then Iceland… and then the easter islands and everywhere else to take their knowledge and send it somewhere else, down another willow maybe. 

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