More absorbed than ever in electronics, Yann Tiersen’s latest album ‘11 5 18 2 5 18’ finds the Breton composer sampling and resampling old tracks into compelling, exquisitely wrought fresh shapes… with an occasional nod to the dancefloor. Who knew?

Electronic music has always been important to Yann Tiersen, even when it was well hidden in his work. So while it might look like it’s taken a lifetime for the Breton to become a fully fledged electronic musician, it’s more a case of coming full circle.

For ‘11 5 18 2 5 18’, his wonderfully expansive new album, Tiersen finally indulges his propensity for modular synthesisers and sampling, which has played a more important role in his musical development than you might have realised. But there’s no hint of a dilettantish, fly-by-night producer on the make with this, his 12th studio long-player. It’s a textured, multi-layered and accomplished work, featuring nine progressive tracks infused with waves of emotion, set against brutal, austere soundscapes.

Its backstory should start by addressing the misconceptions around Tiersen’s public image. The 52-year-old has been making records for nearly 30 years, with a discography as varied and experimental as you could hope for, from post-rock to orchestral, field recordings to freak-folk. But it’s for 2001’s award-winning soundtrack to ‘Amélie’, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s mischievous Paris romance, that he became globally famous. A blessing and a curse for Tiersen himself, it could be the éléphant in the room.

“It’s not a very good movie,” he says bluntly, speaking from his dressing room in Detroit, where he’s in the middle of a North American tour. “It’s not my type of film. And I don’t like to be associated with that kind of Parisian folklore and the vulgarity of it. I sometimes think it’s annoying, although now I don’t really care.”

‘Amélie’ raised Tiersen’s profile and afforded him the luxury of creating meaningful works, often from the margins. It also helped him to buy an old nightclub on Ushant – a small island in the Celtic Sea off the west coast of Brittany, where he’s lived since 2000 – and build The Eskal, an impressive three-studio recording facility. But the film has also led to false impressions about what he is as a musician, and even what he represents and where he’s from. An advocate of Brittonic languages, with forthright separatist views, Tiersen considers himself neither a soundtrack composer nor even particularly French.

“I only ever did one soundtrack in my life!” he says. “OK, I did one for ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ and one for a documentary about the sailor Éric Tabarly. But that’s it.”

The music for ‘Amélie’ was purloined from Tiersen’s first three albums – 1995’s ‘La Valse Des Monstres’, 1996’s ‘Rue Des Cascades’ and 1998’s breakthrough, ‘Le Phare’, inspired by Ushant’s Créac’h, the most powerful lighthouse in Europe. Instrumentals such as ‘La Noyée’ – written to commemorate Alice Reed, one of 250 people who drowned when the SS Drummond Castle sank in treacherous waters near the island a century before – were reappropriated and stripped of their intended meaning.

Moreover, the relative distance between him writing those tracks and the success of ‘Amélie’ meant he had already moved on by the time the movie became a huge hit around the world. Tiersen’s 2001 album, ‘L’Absente’, was a dreamy work featuring a variety of strange instruments and sounds, including an old-fashioned typewriter, but that didn’t stop him from getting dragged into what the French press called the “nouvelle chanson” movement, while the international inkies assumed he was a film composer.

“I’m not!” he says, still somewhat amused by this notion. “Actually, I’m really bad at doing soundtracks. I don’t like the process because, for me, music is something really abstract – it’s about meditation, trance, dance. I think it’s impossible to make music based on images or a story. So I have always been really uncomfortable with that label.”

Born in Brest, north-west France in 1970, Tiersen was playing the piano at the age of four and the violin at six. Yet, although he was classically trained at several conservatoires, most notably Rennes, where he spent much of his childhood and adolescence, his real musical education came from the city’s vibrant indie scene.

For many years, Rennes has hosted Transmusicales, one of Europe’s premier showcase festivals, so the young Tiersen got to see the likes of Nirvana, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Einstürzende Neubauten and many more.

“Transmusicales was just great and it still is,” he says. “And there were two or three really good gigs a week with incredible bands from all over the world. So yeah, I was really lucky to have my teenage years there.”

By the time he was 13, Tiersen’s violin wasn’t sitting well with his burgeoning hardcore credentials, so he smashed it up, took up guitar and put together a rock band. When the band split a few years later, he decided to dispense with musicians altogether. Armed with a Roland Juno-106 and a Korg DSS-1 sampler – his first synths – and an old Uher 4000 open-reel magnetic tape recorder, he started making music with samples, something he would return to in later life.

“Sampling has always been really important to me,” he says. “It changed my way of seeing and doing music. People say, ‘You play a lot of instruments’. But no, not really – I use a lot of them because I started with sampling and it opened up all these possibilities of sound.”

Photo: Richard Dumas

Then in the early 1990s, Tiersen repaired his violin and set off on a whole different trajectory.

“I don’t know why I did it,” he laughs. “But I guess I was fascinated by repetitive music… Neu!, Steve Reich and minimalism. I was discovering all of that. So that was when I started thinking about acoustic instruments again. I began to mix toy pianos with harpsichords, pianos and accordions to make repetitive patterns. I remember in those early days, playing a festival in Nantes in this really big room in a warehouse. I was opening for Charlemagne Palestine, and that night was so good.”

All of this sonic experimentation and hobnobbing with legendary New York minimalists is a far cry from the perception of Tiersen as a purveyor of bal-musette accordion, playing in the streets of Montmartre for his supper.

“I was using accordion with a sense of humour, like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra or something,” he reasons.

“It’s been a big misunderstanding over the years, for sure. We once had this really posh woman complaining at the merchandise table, asking, ‘Where’s Yann Tiersen? This group is far too noisy!’. The guy at the merch table said, ‘That’s him onstage’. And she said, ‘No, my husband says it’s not him!’, which was funny…”

The reception so far on his solo tour across the US has been wholly welcoming and positive, with no reported incidents of posh women complaining about awful dins. Tiersen looks relaxed today too, talking ahead of his soundcheck at the Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac, Detroit. As the birthplace of techno, it’s an appropriate setting to discuss an electronic record that is more likely to make you want to dance yourself sweaty than purchase a dainty mille-feuille and people-watch from a pavement cafe. ‘11 5 18 2 5 18’ represents a rebirth of sorts, though the ruggedness he evokes in so much of his oeuvre is ever-present.

At first glance, the numerical album title looks like it could have been plucked from the dystopian pages of Huxley or an early George Lucas film – at least, that is, until you crack the code. Each number represents a letter of the alphabet, from 1 for A to 26 for Z. Tiersen kept this information out of the original press release to maintain an air of mystery. The dactylonomists among you, though, will already have worked out that ‘11 5 18 2 5 18’ translates as ‘Kerber’, the name of Tiersen’s acclaimed 2021 album – a piano-led, classical crossover that integrates experimental electronics into its sound tapestries in a surprisingly ingenious and cohesive way.

But that doesn’t make ‘11 5 18 2 5 18’ strictly a remix record. For one thing, some of the tracks hark back to earlier moments in Tiersen’s catalogue. The final track, ‘13 1 18 25 (6 5 1 20. 17 21 9 14 17 21 9 19)’, is based on ’Mary’, originally recorded with Elizabeth Fraser for 2005’s ‘Les Retrouvailles’ and now featuring his wife, Emilie Quinquis. ‘Palestine’ (‘16 1 12 5 19 20 9 14 5’), meanwhile, was harvested from 2010’s ‘Dust Lane’, Tiersen’s first album on Mute, which was his first to fully incorporate synthesisers.

And perhaps even more importantly, each track begins with a short sample or two taken from its root counterpart, before being developed into something completely unrecognisable and unmistakably sonic – more stem-cell technology than counterfeiting originals.

Tiersen fell in love with modular synths in 2009, on a visit to Berlin’s famous SchneidersLaden synth shop to sort out equipment problems ahead of a gig in the city. This resulted in the start of his relationship both with the instruments and with the shop’s owner (and Superbooth synth festival host), Andreas Schneider. These bits of kit undoubtedly suit Tiersen’s music, and they seem to have a hold on him too. At times, he’s almost evangelical about their functionality and the strange forces they exude.

“There’s an organic thing with electronic music that goes much deeper than with acoustic instruments,” he muses. “It has something to do with nature – it’s a holistic thing where everything is possible with electricity. You can try to master it, but you can’t really. Whereas acoustic instruments are human inventions – especially the piano, which is maybe the extreme Western monster. What you can do with it is kind of narrow. You’re not free with this kind of instrument – you need to practise a lot, and it’s a bit square.

Electronic instruments are infinite. As I get older, with them I can go deeper into whatever I want to achieve.”
Which leads us nicely back to the genesis of ‘11 5 18 2 5 18’. After lockdown, Tiersen suddenly realised something while working on an upcoming Keeley Forsyth remix.

“We’d had two years of the pandemic, then the war in Ukraine started, and it was all too much,” he reflects.

“I felt really, really bad about it – it’s horrible. So I was doing Keeley’s remix, and it sounds crazy because I was just using patches on the modular, but when I’m listening to it now, I can hear and feel all the anxiety I had at that time. It went through the synths and the patches. That’s amazing, and I do believe that when you’re comfortable with electronic instruments, it’s like an extension of your nervous system and brain. I’ve never achieved that with acoustic instruments.”

He started thinking about his own work and how he could manipulate and augment it, and then came the invite to play Superbooth 2022… and the idea for the new album was born. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d taken his songs and reinterpreted them electronically for a live audience, although the process would be different to that employed by his short-lived modular synth group with Lionel Laquerrière and Thomas Poli. Under the name of Elektronische Staubband, they’d performed new renditions of tracks at the La Route Du Rock festival in 2012, including ‘Palestine’, and even released an album as the abbreviated ESB via Bureau B in 2015.

Tiersen says he feels blessed to have worked with both Mute’s Daniel Miller and Tapete’s Gunther Buskies, two of the most electronically-oriented and nurturing label bosses in the business, although the complete answer as to why it has taken such a long time to produce an album like ‘11 5 18 2 5 18’ still evades him.

“Yeah, it’s really weird because I have always loved these machines,” he says. “Even if you had come to my studio back in 2000, I had more synths than other instruments – some guitars, but lots of synths. I’ve always been obsessed with them, but I didn’t use them that much for a while. I don’t know why… I think I was a bit intimidated. Maybe I felt I wasn’t mature enough. It has been a really slow, drawn-out process to be able to express myself with a full electronic set-up. But I’m here now, and it’s good.”

‘11 5 18 2 5 18’ is out on Mute

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