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Interview: Scenius

by François Zappa

One of the surprises of this year has been the synthpop project Scenius, a band that has caught our attention with each of their singles. The duo of Steve Whitfield and Fabrice Nau has released their first album, entitled Enough Fears just one week ago, where we can find three of their previous singles and eight new tracks. Eleven songs that aren’t less than dreams.

—Steve you are also part of Klammer, a band that has appeared a few times in our news section but we have never talked with any of you. What can you please tell us about Klammer? Any plans for the future?

—Steve: Klammer have recorded a new album and we are in the final stages of the mixing process. We are currently in exciting talks with a larger label than we’ve been released on so far. So hopefully we can announce some news about that in Jan 2021!

—Steve you have also produced many records (The Cure, The Mission, Jane Weaver). How do you think that these experiences have helped your vision as a musician?

—Steve: I’ve learnt so much from working with other bands and artists, I don’t think Scenius and Klammer would sound like they do without my years of studio experience with them all. It’s not just about the technical stuff either, but how to (and how not) to organise a band, I’ve also taken a lot from bands that self employed or never really got started properly. There’s a lot to learn about what not to do. The 3 bands you’ve just mentioned have definitely taught me that you have to do your own thing and stay true to yourselves.

—Steve, how and when did you meet Fabrice Nau?

—Steve: I recorded Fabrice’s band years ago and we got on really well and stayed in touch. He came over to England last year and popped into visit. He saw my studio and asked if I still used my old analog synths. When he got back to France, he asked if I fancied trying to write some songs together using the old synths. Once we’d done the first one, there was a burst of creativity and very quickly most of the album came together.

—Fabrice, can you please tell us more about the bands you played with before Scenius?

—Fabrice: Oh yes. First, the band Steve has just mentioned which was called The Drift. It was a guitar-based band we formed as teenagers in the small town where we were getting really bored. There were definitely post-punk influences in our music. We loved bands like Echo and The Bunnymen, early Cure stuff, Joy Division, but we were also into noisier bands like Pixies, Girls Against Boys, Sonic Youth, as well as some more electronic stuff like Sofa Surfers, Amon Tobin, Massive Attack. At first we had bought guitars instead of synths just cause they were cheaper and easier to find, but we later added samples and synths. Then I was just about to start releasing solo songs when Scenius took shape.

—Now that you mention all those bands, I would like to ask the both of you, which other electronic acts have influenced you?

—Steve: Kraftwerk, Eno/Bowie, John Foxx/Ultravox, Cabaret Voltaire and more recently Boards Of Canada and LCD Sound System, but it’s not just electronic bands that have influenced Scenius, there are also so many guitar bands that have had a big effect on us. I think one of the reasons I keep going back to earlier synth-based music is that all the bands sound so different from each other. They only had a limited amount of equipment and they had to try really hard to make and record those sounds. I think today it’s almost too easy, you can switch on software like Reason or Garage Band on a laptop and quickly finish a track that sounds like anyone else. I think my brain is definitely hard-wired in a European way of thinking when it comes to music. Most of the stuff I like comes from a European tradition rather than American blues roots. I think for both of us, it has to have a melody. Even if you’re trying to do something out on the fringe, I still like it to have a strong melody.

—Fabrice: We definitely share this passion for that really amazing burst of creativity that happened in the late 70’s and early 80’s – and which, of course, doesn’t boil down to electronic outfits. In fact, I wouldn’t say I care a lot about whether the music I listen to is electronic or not, I just want it to touch and inspire me. Instruments are just tools, once you know how to make a few notes with them you can start getting creative, especially if you don’t care too much about so-called rules and codes. That’s what Punk made clear to the world – just like Dada had done a few decades before with visual arts. So you can very well be influenced by guitar bands and make electronic music and vice versa. This being said, in addition to the electronic bands Steve has mentioned there are a few others I’ve listened to a lot like Front 242, Trisomie 21, Norma Loy, Jean-Michel Jarre, Air.

—The name of the band comes from a term coined by Brian Eno, right? What do you like of the music of the creator of the Ambient series? Do you think that he has been an influence in tracks like “Held”?

—Steve: I have listened to the Ambient albums a lot over the years, so I guess the answer would have to be yes, but I’d also have to put some of the work he did with Bowie in there too, especially the 2nd side of the Low album. There are a lot of other influences in there too: The Cure’s Faith, Orbital and even Erik Satie just to name but a few.

—Fabrice: I like the fact that he’s invented Post-Punk before Punk even happened! Several of his songs as early as 1974 were brilliant New-Wave prototypes.

—You have been using analogue synths as much as possible as you have said, what are the advantages for you against digital?

—Steve: Well there are disadvantages in operation but advantages in sound. Old analog synths are slower to use, no presets (not on mine anyway), you have to keep manually tuning them, I only have one that I can store sounds on, and then it’s only has 16 memories! Locking them together is also much more complicated. The great thing about them is the sound. They don’t stay the same as the sound moves, they can sound warm and you have to make your own sounds. Even if I write the settings down or take a photo when I set that sound up again, it’s always slightly different. So we mainly used analog synths but we did record into Pro Tools which is a digital recording software. Using Pro Tools enabled me to do things to the old synths I couldn’t have done with tape. No presets were used on the album. I hear too many new electronic bands that sound like they have just run through the presets on new synths to make songs, and a lot of them just sound the same as each other. I also hand played in a lot of the synths into Pro Tools (the recording software) rather than use midi and overly tighten up the playing, so there’s a human feel and warmth that comes from doing that, not everything is perfect.

—What are Fabrice’s influences for the lyrics? It must be difficult sometimes to write lyrics in a different language.

—Fabrice: I find it pretty inspiring to write in English. First, probably because most of the bands I’ve been listening to over the years sing in English. Writing in English sets me in a mood that is associated with a feeling of escape, exoticism. A mood that’s quite inspiring in itself. Also I like to keep lyrics slightly elusive and English has a structure that works really well for that. French is less flexible in a way. But I do like to write in French too. It’s hard to say what influences me the most. I like many songwriters of course, like Lou Reed, Bowie, Ian Curtis, Leonard Cohen, and many poets, like Paul Eluard, Yves Bonnefoy, Antonio Gamoneda. And I often find popular Science books and Philosophy treaties very inspiring too. So it’s probably a mix of all that in the end. Usually the first bits of lyrics come along as I’m trying to come up with a melody. I like to preserve these bits of automatic lyrics as much as possible and build around them.

—Steve: I must say Fabrice’s English is excellent, which must make this difficult task much easier!

—In a book I am currently reading, the writer talks about the contract between cold synth sounds and a warm voice saying that it was really caught his attention in electronic music for the first time. Do you think that that description fits the music of Scenius?

—Steve: Yeah I think there’s something in that. Although rather than cold sounds, I’d properly describe them as warm sounds with dark melodies.

—Fabrice: As for the vocals, I’d say it’s a mix of warm and dark too. There are obviously much warmer voice timbers than mine and, just like the rest of the music, it seems to me that my vocals melodies sometimes have dark shades.

—How did the two of you compose the tracks of the album?

—Steve: I get the music together and send it over to Fabrice. He then sends a rough take back with vocals, that’s usually in a different arrangement. So I then have to rearrange the music to fit his vocals.

—Fabrice: Then I record the final vocals at my place. Sometimes I’ll include vocals FX-ed tracks cause I like to tamper with vocal takes and Steve enjoys the weird voices I come up with. I send these as separate audio tracks to Steve – who sometimes adds some backing vocals himself – and he does the mixing in his studio. It rarely takes more than a couple of mixes before we call it done.

—We have been celebrating any new single of the band and finally we have the full album. Is there anything you would like to share with us about your feelings/thoughts about the album?

—Steve: I must say a big thank you for your support from the very start of the band. We’re really happy with the album. I’m really happy it sounds like an album rather than just a collection of songs. I tried to use the same sounds as a starting point for each song to help gel them together, but, of course, as I continued to write, sounds would be added or changed.

—Fabrice: It’s been a very easy-going process, both purposeful and enjoyable. We’ve had no other target than making music we like and care for – plus maybe a certain will to surprise each other which makes for a very healthy competition.

—Is it difficult to keep the project without being in the same place? I mean it must have some good and bad things like not being able to play together?

—Steve: Fabrice and I haven’t even been in the same country, never mind the same room through the writing and recording of the singles and album! So I don’t think the lockdowns have changed anything for us, we would have worked like this anyway. when we are finally allowed to get together, it’ll certainly be good to get some band photos done and rehearse the live set together!

—Fabrice; I don’t think we’ve ever thought it was going to be difficult to work this way. We knew from the start we’d have to do it all via file transfers and emails. And in the end we’ve been lucky that the way we work was very lockdown-compatible.

—One song of the album, Superposés is in French. Are we going to have more in the future?

—Fabrice: Probably yes. I’m not even sure why there’s just one on this album – well in fact there’s some French in “Held” too. It wasn’t calculated anyway, I really like to write and sing in French as well, so I can’t see why there would not be more in the future. All the more that Steve likes it too – I guess it sounds more exotic than English to him ☺

—Steve: Yes, I hope there’ll be more songs in French.

—One of the previous singles, Glass Rain won’t be in the album, can you please tell us why?

—Fabrice: We had 12 tracks and our only plan was to start the album with Make it Shiny and then add the song that works best after that first track and so on until there would be no song that works well enough after the last one added. So, with this kind of DJ method, we could just as well have ended up with only 8 or 9 songs on the album. In fact, it was a rather good surprise that only one song couldn’t find its way on the album.

—Steve: We both really like Glass Rain but felt we couldn’t put all the early singles on the album and also I’m not sure it fits perfectly with the rest of the tracks

—Scenius has a gig planned for October 2021, how are you planning the concerts of the band?

—Steve: We have already started work on the live set and I’ve bought some new synths to take out live, as I don’t want to take my old analogs out on the road (too precious and unreliable)! I’ve taken it all out to Klammer’s rehearsal room and blasted it through the PA to check it’s going to work.

—What can we expect of Scenius in the future? I know that things are not easy at the moment due to the pandemic, but do you already have any other plans for 2021, apart from the concert mentioned before?

—Steve: Well we already have the bones of 8 songs for the next album! So it’ll be a full stream ahead to work on the 2nd album, get the live thing happening and plan more gigs.

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