Interview with Othilia

Sonnenzeit is Othilia's first public release ever and was composed in 2009. The release consists essentially of two tracks, or to be more exact, of one track that sees two long synthetic pieces following each other – the first one being more techno / IDM, and the second one more clearly ambient, with very stretched sounds, that seem to interpenetrate each other, to start over and over again, like the tide or a natural phenomenon of that kind. The album is bathed in tape hiss and at times in what sounds like radio static. Field-recordings open and end the two sequences, and there is a short, strange passage from Ulver's first album between the two tracks. Sonnenzeit is a perfect support for a long daydreaming, and losing oneself in the infinite and misty forest which appears on the cover and where Othilia obviously invites us to enter.

Why this name?

I wanted something that would evoke my region and set a certain atmosphere. Without being descriptive, like "Winter misty forest" – or any other of those boilerplate names you hear in the ambient, dungeon synth, neofolk, etc. world. And with a Germanic sound. Othilia fulfills all these criteria, since it is a Germanic name, Odile, and a reference to Saint Odile, the patron saint of Alsace, whose name is also on a convent – and where I live near.

Do you have any musical influences, specific to Othilia? Do you listen to the post-indus scene, precisely?

Post-indus? Not really. I like some Coil stuff. But no, it's not my favorite scene. And in no way do I feel influenced by the sounds or the themes that you find in this scene.

One influence I am clearly aware of for Othilia: Gas, Wolfgang Voigt's project. But I knew that I couldn't reproduce the sound he manages to produce, and it wasn't my project anyway. But let's say that he, more than all the electronica, knew how to show me what a technoid base could give, when the sound was treated to obtain ambient. I know it's a cliché to say it, but listening to his music you feel like you're listening to a rave party in the middle of nowhere, in the forest – a real or even a ghost rave, through the thickness of time. Just snatches of music and rhythm, muffled, indistinct. There is something fascinating about it. It is less the kind of music that is the subject here than its sound treatment. It is a pure production exercise before being a composition exercise.

One could compare it to Burial, when he tells, in an interview, that the heart of his approach was to find the sound and the feeling of some records he heard in his youth, via his brother, who was a raver – him being too young to have known that.

Yes, to find THE sound that haunts. Gas evokes that, but also, in a completely different genre, Ulver, which I sampled on the album. I really like their first album, Bergtatt. The music is sublime, but even better, the sound is totally muffled and distant, and there too, as with Gas, you have the impression of hearing something through the years and memories; it's a question of personal sensibility, but as much as I hate, and even physically can't stand, modern prods with 150 tons of bass and infrabass and a volume that rips your head off, as much as I like and am very quickly moved, really moved, by distant, weak, a bit dirty sounds, that evoke me, whatever the kind of music, the past, the memories, it's the equivalent for me of a slightly yellowed, slightly faded photo.

To come back to Burial, even if I am not sure and certain that he is not exaggerating a little, I find admirable and very romantic, so to speak, the fact that he composes on an old laptop and the only software Soundforge.

What is your equipment and your composition process, by the way?

My equipment for Sonnenzeit was limited to a PC and some samples. I did everything at my girlfriend's house, on a scrap computer that could just go on the Internet and run some old music software, not too performance intensive. I don't have any particular process. Here the base of the two pieces is a set of samples, house music type, that I used in a software that generates loops according to algorithms.

Isn't it a bit limited, releasing randomly generated music as an album?

The thing is that I generated hours and hours and HOURS of music, which then had to be re-listened to, and selected or discarded. Let's say that my fundamental work on this record is to have chosen the starting sounds, then a curatorial work. But yes, randomness is at the core of the process. This part of chance and thus of non-responsibility, for me, as for the music produced, is very important, and even fundamental. I need to be surprised by the sounds I produce, I don't want a music that I would be the author from A to Z, controlling everything, mastering everything. There has to be some kind of magic at work. So you have to rely either on other musical partners (I don't have any for this record) or on the wrong notes, accidents, etc. Or on this kind of soft. Once I had the music, I added samples, like the ones of the little kids at the very beginning of the album – my sister and I as babies, in this case. Or the short Ulver sample between the two tracks. And others that blend almost imperceptibly into the music; and whose provenance I've actually forgotten, which is perfect.

You mention Ulver: this choice of pure metal sample is quite surprising, in the middle of the album. In another way, these samples of babies before coming to such an abstract and cold music is amazing too. How do you choose the samples you add to your music ? Do they have a particular meaning ?

A particular meaning, yes and no. It can be, and often is, because I have a sentimental relationship to music above all, and so personal, intimate issues, especially related to my own past, have their part in it – but I can also choose some samples absolutely at random from my collection and decide to include them without any other justification than the surreal charm it can give to the music. Again, as with the random generation, it's a way to provoke accidents, to be a little less the absolute author of the music, but simply a kind of channel through which "something" impersonal can pass. In the case of the samples used on this album, it's both reasons at the same time.

You're pretty eclectic, musically.

I guess that after the age of 20, to stick to one genre or scene, for the sake of purity or whatever, is a serious sign of mental retardation.

What other projects do you have ? Do you compose in other musical genres ?

I do have other projects that I don't want to talk about here. I absolutely don't want Sonnenzeit to be listened to according to my other projects or my previous releases. Each record, by the way, should be approached as a unique, absolute thing. Maybe the regulars of the Strasbourg scene and the free parties in the area will recognize me.

If you release other Othilia albums, they will be listened to according to this one, you can't help it.

It's true. I can hide my projects from each other, but not the albums from each other, unless I change the project for each album, but I don't have a big enough stock of cool names (laughs).

This being said, do you have any plans for other releases, currently, for Othilia? Without prejudging their actual release one day.

Yes, I have a project for an album or just a song, which it's way too early to say if I'll be able to make something good out of it, but it's based on an old 33 rpm record of Mozart's Requiem, where my grandmother sings; not as a soloist but as a member of the choir, which is already enough to make it a precious object for me. I would also like to use samples of an old Glenn Miller double LP that I listened to a lot as a teenager.

The fetishism of old vinyl, old jazz, it's a bit like The Caretaker, isn't it? We're back in the waters of the hauntology scene that I mentioned earlier with Burial.

Yes, but no. My intellectual approach has nothing to do with his. Besides, I would be very pretentious to speak of an intellectual approach concerning myself. I'm not a specialist of The Caretaker's work, but he seems to use these old tunes to illustrate something both personal, the fear of insanity, and political, with the whole Mark Fisher problematic about the fact that nothing new, culturally, can happen anymore because of economic conditions, etc. I have no opinion on that. I don't have any opinion on that and it's a thousand miles away from my preoccupations, which are to recreate a very personal world, with sound.

Where does the photo on the cover come from?

I took it, in a forest in Alsace, more precisely in the Alsatian Vosges. I live near the Mont Sainte-Odile as I said, and I always liked the majestic side of these forests, the silence that reigns there, the almost indiscernible, and rare, vestiges of the past – ruins of castles, etc. Even when I was away from it at various times in my life, this landscape was my mental landscape. I remember at a very young age, maybe around twelve, thinking that if after one's death one came back to haunt the places of one's life, then that's where I wanted to return.

Do you believe in ghosts?

In ghosts? Do I believe in them literally? I don't know. I've never witnessed a single supernatural event like that, nor have any of the people I've talked to in my life. I've read some disturbing stories like everyone else, but it's hard to make up your mind on that basis alone. I certainly don't believe in spiritualism or any of that nineteenth-century nonsense.

Why this logo? What is its meaning?

The logo is composed of the Christian cross surmounting the rune Odal, which evokes the notions of family, inheritance, property, wealth, prosperity...

Is the intellectual, or let's say spiritual, positioning of Othilia a Christo-pagan synchretism?

Not at all. The Cross, again, is on top, or over, the rune. It's not underneath or beside it. It's on top. I don't want to over-interpret this symbol myself, but let's say it can be seen this way: we have a substratum that could be called pagan, taken here in a less religious sense than in a cultural sense – our physical appearance, our clothing, our cuisine, our language, our art, our stories, our music, our psyche, our landscapes. Christianity has been added to this. It has replaced or transcended some aspects of our culture – the gods, in this case – but it has not annulled it entirely, because that is not its vocation, contrary to what some right-wing fools claim.

What is the concept, if there is one, of your project?

There isn't one. Once again, Othilia doesn't "talk" about anything, it's a pure sound project; exquisite corpses designed to provoke reverie. Because a work is not a political leaflet nor the sound illustration of a leaflet. Its poetic function is primary, if not exclusive. On the other hand, the sounds I choose to use, the atmospheres I try to create with them, are linked to the past, to my past, to my most intimate references, and the music I create aims to make all this come alive again and again. You were talking about ghosts a little bit earlier, I don't want to create sonic ghosts like Burial; I want to bring something to life. A sound, a feeling. But there is no speech as such, no story told; nothing verbal, only the ineffable.

Yet the cover sets up a world – something that will determine the listening... Even without a concept.

It's true, with this picture of a misty forest, and with the symbol I added, one can believe that Sonnenzeit is a record about nature, paganism or esotericism, in short the usual thematic mix that one meets in the ambient, post-industrial and company scene. And that wouldn't be entirely wrong, but clearly it wouldn't be entirely right either. I composed these pieces years before I decided on the photo I would use; and that photo itself was taken over twenty years ago. The meeting of the music on the album and the photo selected for the cover is in itself an exquisite corpse. I could have made a different choice. And it would have undoubtedly determined the listening experience in a different way.

Even a white cover, or the absence of a cover, which is not the same thing, would have determined the listening. We don't get out of that question.

That's right. At some point I had to decide, and I made that choice. It impacts listening, including mine now, but it has only a relative value. But it impacts the listening... etc.

Why is the radio static added over the music at certain times?

It's relaxing like rain against a window. It's a sound I like. I listened to the radio a lot as a teenager, and made literary or musical discoveries that were absolutely decisive in my life – Muslimgauze or The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath A Cloud, for example, used as background music on France Culture! Or Gavin Bryars, on German radio. Or other things that had a huge musical influence on me, even though I still don't know their names twenty-five years later... Parasites were part of this soundscape and I love them like one might love the crackle of a vinyl or the hiss of a cassette. I wanted to find this atmosphere on my own record. To use an old cliché, it's my Proust's madeleine. And I am pursuing exactly the same goal: destroying time.