There is nothing like music as a means to connect people, bridge linguistic and cultural divides and provide an avenue for identity and expression. Music is a transformative experience and people taking part this transforming process will morph into new entities and develop, creating new exciting sounds and sonic landscapes; they become that kind of musicians who never stand still and becomes comfortable. They will always seek out new, yet unknown situations and positions just to be able to be creative. When something is predictable it becomes boring or “weird”.
One of those multi-faceted artists never standing still and always morphing into something new, always too restless to settle down, is Thomas Azier. Azier has consistently experimented with different musical directions on his three albums, moving across the World and taking inspiration from wherever he lived, from European cultural epicenters as Berlin and Paris to world cities as Kyoto, Japan, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast, constantly renewing himself musically and visually.
After three albums, all with their own geographical and cultural influences, Azier released “Raven On the First Floor” in May this year, a four-song EP created in his combined living quarter / studio space in Amsterdam, and yet again he morphs into a new musical direction.
When he made a stopover in Hamburg to play Nochtspeicher, Messed!Up sat down with him and chat about his interest of the unknown and experimental, being musically inspired by life changes, and facing the struggles of being an independent artist.
A music vagabond becoming more experimental
You have moved across borders quite much, like a vagabond, and lived in Berlin while releasing your debut album “Hylas”, stayed in Paris for a while and even recorded music in the Ivory Coast and Japan. But know you’re back in Netherlands and live in Amsterdam?
I live in Amsterdam since August last year, a big change. I was born in Holland but moved out early, when I was a teenager, to live in Berlin. But I wanted to leave; I come from the countryside and wanted to “live” something first before I wrote anything, I had the feeling I had nothing to say. I just wanted to get away from that surrounding and find my own identity and for that you need time, and I wanted a radical change. That’s something I don’t regret at all today.
It was a really interesting time. The first year you’re just high because you did it, that you’re in a big city on your own and everything that happens around you. It was magical and scary at the same time. But it’s the advice I give to all young musicians I meet, like “Just try to travel as much as you can because it opens up everything”, but it also gives you the idea of a European community.
I used to believe in the idea of Europe but found out quite quickly that Europe is more of a spiritual thing and not really the Europe I thought it would be.
Interesting that you say that because I’ve heard that from lots of musicians, maybe because musicians travel much and get a better feeling for how the idea of Europe works out in reality.
Exactly, because we’re in a very fascinating position where you have an overview, but not only from touring; in my case it’s literally about living in different cities. Of course I made sure to learn German when I lived in Berlin and took part in society because I wasn’t interested in living the Berlin life to the max and just stay three months and go back home, I wanted to participate in society.
I have to congratulate for the release of latest EP “Raven On the First Floor”. Yet again there’s a new Thomas Azier sound. There’s no doubt that if a new fan would listen through your albums, starting with “Hylas” and go through your full discography, he or she would probably think it’s different artists. But for every new album you lived in a new city. How much has that influenced your musical evolution?
It’s pretty much like that. “Hylas”, “Rouge” in major cities, and “Stray” I wrote a little bit everywhere, I was actually travelling all the time to the point where I was about to give up the idea of living somewhere completely. I just travelled to see places and talk to people.
It’s partly inspired by the places I go to but not that much anymore because I think I’ve found my way now. For me it has always been interesting to constantly find a new sound, and to find new sounds. It doesn’t really matter how, sometimes I find it in the city, but lately I made everything from the same spot in Amsterdam; I made “Raven On the First Floor” there and also part of “Stray”.
Life is morphing all the time, humans morph all the time, and I find the pluralism in ourselves interesting to explore, the unknown part of ourselves which you really can’t define yet. That’s what makes life interesting when you can’t define yourself as a person, or an artist, yet, when you don’t really know where you are. As soon as you can define something I find it a bit weird and I just try to break it off and move forward.
At this point I feel I’m going through an experimental phase and I’m super excited and scared at the same time to find out what’s going to happen, and “Raven On the First Floor” is the first step into that.
That’s also what’s so exciting about this moment in life where you don’t really know where you go because I think I won’t be able to define “Raven On the First Floor” until a year or two, what I did and what I was thinking about, but at this point it’s just messy. But I quite enjoy that mess and just wanted to put it out and not think too much. I hope it’s interesting for people to follow that instead of building up expectations like many do today where it’s like “You should feel this”.
Today feelings are forced upon us, not only in music but also in commercials, advertising and films, basically everything saying “We’re going to show you this now and this is what you’re going to feel”. Everything is pre-defined and it bothers me because we’re more complex than that. Lots of emotions are undefinable, and that’s the part of life I find interesting.
Does it mean that there’s a new album in the works as well or have you changed your mind about how to release music? I read that you may have changed your mind about albums and adapted to the modern music landscape where EP’s take the role of albums.
I love the album format but I also have my own label and can do whatever I want, for instance putting out music I do today already next month.
When I listen through your albums and look on your overall development I can see you in twenty years with just a piano and doing piano bar shows.
Definitely, but I’ve always wanted to learn something new wherever I’ve stayed, just like I wrote music in Kyoto.
I’m already doing it now at the end of the shows, and I’m also very interested in the abstract and improvisational. I love the format of songwriting but have slowly started playing with the idea to let go of the formats I’m used, but very slowly. I am a songwriter and I love melodies but I’m slowly getting into a phase where I like noise and the freedom of the abstract.
Does it mean that you will let go of the electronic side of your music as well?
The whole discussion of electronic and acoustic music is a bit irrelevant because if you ask a teenager today they don’t know the difference. If you look purely at electronic music like the techno scene, that’s not what I do because I’ve always been interested in everything and I will still combine everything, synthesizers and piano, but I’m also started to incorporate a lot of guitars and rock music.
I was very much in touch with my feminine side in my twenties, that kind of boyish feeling of enjoying another view of things, but now when I’m over my thirties – I turn thirty-two in August – I’ve started to enjoy many things I didn’t grow up with, typical male things, which is a stupid way to divide it because there’s no difference. Things like family and taking another kind of responsibility, and I like that very much. You hear, it’s not typical manly things, but let’s call it new things for me! It was never like that before.
With that comes a different kind of music which is more raw. I sing much lower, almost growling like an animal compared to “Hylas” where I sing very high all the time. As I’m moving forward and develop, the songs become more minimal, the instruments become fewer or more minimalistic. That’s me accepting both the feminine and the male side of me, but slowly.
Is it possible to say then that your three albums represent different aspects or phases of your life then?
Definitely! And that’s what I want to see among people and culture, how everyone feel just right now, and then put it out. People are sometime scared of change. Just look at politics; nobody knows what they’re voting for anymore. It used to be like “This is my party, I’ve always voted on them” but all that’s gone and divided in left and right, just a mess of different sides, and that makes people scared. To me it’s fascinating with these multi-faceted faces of society and humans.
Doing it DIY: You need endurance
Finding balance in an independent music career can be tricky on so many levels, especially when you need to do it all on your own; music may not even be the biggest chunk of every day work, non-creative administrative tasks take a lot of time as well. You want to dedicate a hundred percent of your time to it, but you need some way to pay the bills until you can get there.
Today some artists have turned to crowdfunding to pay for projects and touring, and they’re still using the traditional method of flogging merch at shows just to earn some extra. Touring has the potential to yield some cash, but as any touring band will tell you, you would have to be on the road relentlessly to do more than break even.
For Thomas Azier there’s no different story to tell but he knows that hard work pays off – and is about to write a manifest on how to not spend too much money on PR agencies.
You have become more independent for every album or EP you release and I just recently read your post on Facebook where you point out the challenges that comes with being a DIY artist. You started on a big label, Island in France where you released “Hylas” and from what I know it was quite a successful album. But what made you take that step to the independent side of music instead of having a comfortable position at Island?
That was comfortable, and since I went my own way all the doors have started to close around me, it has been very difficult.
When you consider the challenges that DIY work brings with it, what did you have to learn to run your career the way you do? What struggles have you had to face?
Oh, where do I start? First of all, with no team it’s really hard and I just have a few people around me. The income, it’s basically impossible to survive. You don’t make any money on touring, Spotify is a joke, and you have to be really creative to keep it going. You really need stamina to do these kind of tours, travelling from Groningen to Vienna in a bus for twelve hours, and you may still play for an empty room.
The whole idea of success is changing, it’s not anymore about money. I can feel that most people hold on to a nostalgic idea about success meaning the rock star type of success with lots of money, just showing up to the gig, get drunk and having no responsibilities. That’s all gone now, but a lot of people are still holding on to that.
Becoming independent is just about doing everything myself. Sometimes when I get a bit mad I can be “Fuck, do I have to print the vinyls myself as well?”, but it’s basically like that. I print two hundred vinyls and I need to find a way to get money for it.
But to keep creative control as you do through your own label Hylas Records very often comes with a lot of non-creative work and administration. What is your experience of working with your own label?
It’s easy to become depressed; the real trick is to not get depressed. That’s why you can’t do the rock and roll lifestyle today, drinking alcohol and taking drugs, like in the seventies. It’s a full-time job to be a musician. You really have to stay positive to pull it through and have a lot of endurance.
I’m dealing with touring, release plans, try to find money for PR because PR agencies take a lot of money from independent musicians. Sometimes I want to write a manifest for independent artists saying “Don’t pay that much money to PR agencies, be smart”. People need to be smart about how they spend their money because most money goes to PR and the result is very often poor.
My idea now is to try as I go along, and with this EP [“Raven On the First Floor”] I was like “We put it out, we don’t do any PR, we do nothing”. I just put it online and the people who want to listen to it will listen to it. Maybe it won’t turn up on radio, but we’ll wait and see.
I’ve become much more pragmatic about everything. For me the music and how I want it to sound like is most important, and the result, what comes out of it, is not that important anymore. Just the fact that I can do this right now is important to me.
Future aesthetic: “I’m thinking about Nick Cave”
Identifying yourself as an artist is one of trickiest things to get right as a musician. The image is your brand. It’s one of the things the public is likely to remember about an artist and what will make some musicians to stand out even before people have heard them sing or perform.
From my own work in the music industry I’ve learned that image is, and quite possibly always will be, more important than music because that’s how you become visible in today’s social media landscape. When people recognize you, they will be susceptible to artists’ music. It’s called “show business” for a reason.
Thomas Azier is a perfect example of an artist that have created a unique image in the music industry, but it has its downsides where many people, especially fashion magazines, want to take his image or the whole Azier brand in their own direction.
I’m very curious about your aesthetic. In an industry where it’s more important than ever to brand yourself just to stick out in the crowd of bands and artists out there, you have an aesthetic in videos, on photos, and in artwork that stand out from this huge pool of musicians. How important is it for you to work on your image, or brand as you can call it?
That is really important for me. I work with someone in Paris that is amazing with everything. It’s all about being very minimalistic, not too much. Part of the game on major labels is to spend shitloads of money on marketing but not doing any selection of what you’re doing.
This is the first interview I do in a long time, a really long time, and I can feel you do it with passion, but 99% of the things you do at a label is not that at all. Often you’re being portrayed with other people’s clothes, they have some photos and the stylist is doing some sort of interview with you where she asks “What does style mean to you?”. It has nothing to do with you as a human being or as an artist, it’s only about the clothes somebody sent from a magazine, and that is really scary.
I’ve been stopping everything that is not a talk about music because I don’t want to do this kind of selling myself person anymore, it’s just not me.
But how common is it that you’re being pushed into an image or being portrayed as something that is strange to you?
So often! In every fashion magazine I’ve been, but of course, it’s about fashion. Very often brands use musicians as basically non-paid models to make the brand look cool.
I can feel like that a lot money surrounding music comes from advertising today, and of course you have to play that game to a certain extent but also be very careful. But I’m very happy about the people I have around me today, I can feel their stamina and how much they want to do this, and just keep on going along as it goes.
If you imagine yourself evolving your image over the years, how would a fifty year old Thomas Azier be portrayed?
I’m thinking about Nick Cave, he is someone that today plays stadiums and that always have stayed true to himself, but when he did The Birthday Party [band together with Mick Harvey] I’m sure it wasn’t always that great, they also did shitty tours. If you look at Iggy Pop you probably have the same story. I was reading about the Sex Pistols and it was tough; they had a two-year run but it was hard for them.
The problem today is that to create these types of legends you need to be very clear with what you want. I see on everybody in my age, around their thirties, that just die out, get children and don’t want to do music anymore. They don’t have any stamina left, and they don’t want to deal with this complicated situation today where you need to have a job on the side. It’s tough but that’s how it is. Everyone starting with me have all stopped making music, and that really makes me sad.
The industry only looks for new faces, new bands and artists to put out, so there’s a lot of mid-career artists that find themselves walking downhill. And that brings up the question “When will we have our heroes?”. That’s a very important question for me, but I also have hopes to find a living in film because I love cinema.
One of my favorite artists is Scott Walker who recently passed away and he became more and more experimental as he got older. He started as some sort of a pop band with his brothers in The Walker Brothers and became more and more crazy doing a lot of experimental stuff [in Sunn O))) for instance], and I find that kind of direction extremely brave. I hope I’m allowed to do that and that I develop into something that is unknown, something I don’t know about today, maybe noise. I’m going in that direction already.
But do you feel home in Amsterdam and have found a permanent residence or is it a temporary stopover before you figured out where to travel next?
Not really, no. I’m not sure it will ever be that way, it’s rather temporary. It’s great because I have my studio in my home. I get up in the morning and can start doing music, I can do music at night. But it’s also super pricy in Amsterdam and I don’t know how long I can afford it. It feels more like home than Paris where I stayed for four years, but that was hard. And Berlin is very nice but I can’t see myself living there anymore. I don’t know what’s next but I will find out, for sure.
Photographer: ©Sofya Vavilova
Thomas Azier pages