From her top-floor apartment in the Forest neighborhood Altitude Cent, Céline Gillain lives a few meters above the rest of the city. Even the name of her street, Avenue Jupiter, confirms the unique quality of the area. Having accomplished an ascent this high, one can take a moment to meditate, to reflect on the current state of things. This is certainly what Gillain has done while making her recent album Mind Is Mud, a genre-bending and cutting-edge album reaching out to both the dance floor as to alternative spheres. “But there is no room for club music in an experimental venue”, she mentions. A statement glimpsing her idea about the ideal club night, as we’ll uncover later.
These and many other thoughts are discussed in her living room on a warm afternoon in August, surrounded by Gillain’s musical gear. The musician and part-time professor in sociology of art and sound creation and experimental music at La Cambre offers us coffee and water, before we dive into a long conversation.
First of all, congratulations with your album Mind Is Mud on Cortizona. It’s such a powerful work of art and it feels very complete and rich. When do you start working on it?
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Well, before the lockdown I was working as a resident artist at Beursschouwburg while I was preparing a live performance. As an experiment, I wanted to create a version of my music where people dance, very clubby. I was at the time and still today, reading a lot about club music, its history and the resistance associated with it. I wanted to explore the use of my voice and singing as a way to transfer words and messages to a dancing crowd. The texts were very straight forward and political, they were protest songs. This was right in the middle of the #metoo movement, an issue that concerned me deeply. I performed the show twice, once at Beursschouwburg and once at STUK in Leuven. But right after, the world came to an abrupt halt and this project with it.
And as a result, the pandemic was what motivated you to make an album?
Yes indeed. I remember this period very much as a sort of collective burn-out. There was too much info, too much of everything all the time, it’s like we finally realized that we no longer were able to listen, in an economy where our attention has become the most precious commodity.
Mind was mud!
Exactly. And also the Covid and the brain fog and all that stuff. I think it’s still there actually, the brain fog.
The so-called “new normal” of less cars on the highway, less cheap flying around the planet, etcetera was quickly abandoned for more of the same, as it was before?
Yes, we went back to the normal from before and now it’s even worse. The Mind Is Mud title is still appropriate for me. Releasing the album now is the result of a three-year process that didn’t exactly end when Covid-19 ended.
Has protest always been part of your music?
Yes, but it got more acute lately. It seems very clear to me now that we are in an unstoppable machine that is leading towards the end of things. The hope that change was possible in the beginning of the pandemic, has now permanently switched into a collective state of paralyzation and powerlessness. This feeling of helplessness is very strong today, it’s something I explore in my music. To be honest, my live shows just prior to Covid-19 were much harder and more angry. I received feedback from people in the audience afterwards, some being surprised about the angry woman on stage I had become. I felt some disapprobation, which is not a very nice feeling. As a woman expressing anger in the public space, I knew I could expect some kind of hostility, but it was difficult for me to distinguish between what was a form of unconscious misogyny on the part of the audience and what was actually constructive feedback towards the content of my performance. It took me a while to figure out that, while the misogyny is of course very real, my performance was also a bit dogmatic. I realized that the last thing I want to do with my music is tell people what to do or think or feel. As obvious and cheesy as this may sound, music is about freedom. On the album, three tracks from the live performances remained. The others I made later.
An interesting realization, but I can imagine that protest often starts from idealism?
That’s very much true. I wanted to explore this idea that as a musician, you are also some kind of a politician. You have a platform, you are on a stage and you have an audience’s attention. This is at least the case until a certain hour in the evening, when you lose people’s attention. In Beursschouwburg this was around 10 or 11 PM, when the mood in the room switched.
Do you see a lot of protest in contemporary electronic music scenes?
Yes, mostly in queer communities. They are still acting very strong and inventing new ways to protest and share vital messages. I listen to a lot of club music from these scenes, this is very inspiring to me. The very idea of queerness in music is a resistant point of view. To not respect the rules of genres is something I want to explore more. Fun fact, in French gender and genre are the same word genre. Scenes and audiences are actually still very separated. An experimental music club and a night club are two completely different worlds for instance. I hope to make music that can bridge various worlds. In club settings I would love to have more silent, contemplative or experimental moments, while in an experimental venue I wish there was more club music present. Club music usually does not enter an experimental music venue. This separation between the intellect on the one hand and the body on the other, is not only limiting, but also discriminating.
Do you feel comfortable in today’s music industry?
What I find hard is the industry’s expectation for artists to only expand and grow. I have no desire at all to do so. I don’t lack ambition for my music, that’s not it. But the industry for me is some kind of a doom area, which I first encountered after releasing my first LP Bad Woman in 2018. I didn’t enjoy feeling obligated to perform, tour, promote and so on. There is this sort of agenda, with many people prescribing you what to do to be a pro, and what kind of behaviors and ideas you should have in order to have more visibility and success. It feels very oppressing to me.
You made the whole album here in your flat in Forest?
Most of it, yes. I made about 30 tracks in total. Cortizona’s label boss Philippe Cortens helped me do the difficult job of making the tracklist of the album. Until the very last moment, I kept on changing my mind. I was scared that the album wouldn’t sound as a whole, but in retrospect I’m pleased with the result.
What drew you to this neighborhood in Brussels?
The Dudenpark, obviously. I can’t afford a big apartment. Having grown up in the countryside of the province of Liège, in the Pays De Herve close to the Dutch and German border, adapting to the big city is and has always been rather difficult for me. As a child, I never even visited a city. I only knew meadows, woods and fields. I feel so much better when going outside, but in the city I can’t go out as much as I would want to.
But still you prefer to live in the city?
The city stimulates me more in terms of creativity and network. There is a cabin in The Ardennes, where I often go. As soon as I arrive there, all of my problems are gone. I made a few tracks for the album there. But living in a city, being constantly confronted with the presence of other human beings, is what also drives me to be creative, to make music. I can’t imagine this sense of urgency being full-time surrounded by trees, bees and flowers. The condition of friction in a city is an important part of me. When I’m in the countryside, I always look forward to going back to the city. The importance of having communities around us is also something we learned during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
You make music on your own, but by using samples of your own voice and spoken word, you are able to create a sense of polyphony, as if you are a group of people. I sense a similar tension between being alone and in a group, as in the city versus nature. Is that something you can relate to?
I never thought of it this way, but you are right, creating some kind of choral experience is something that interests me a lot. I am my own material and with the current technologies available, you have so many options using just a few devices. I made this album in a tiny flat, using technology to create spaces that are extremely vast. Think of a cathedral or a football stadium, using reverbs to obtain the most massive effect. This allows me, maybe, to escape from the claustrophobia of my small apartment and the screen of my computer.
At the museum for contemporary art in Antwerp M HKA you are hosting a year-long programme dedicated to listening called ANTENA. What are your favorite conditions to listen to music?
The only way I can listen to music is while doing nothing else. An exception to this is dancing, when my entire body is in a relationship with the music. Dancing is an excellent way to listen to music. My most favorite spots to dance at are clubs, but due to the abundance of invasive stimuli in clubs, these are not the ideal spots for me to go out dancing. This is not very convenient, but my health situation simply doesn’t allow me otherwise. I frequently suffer from heavy migraine, so I have to handle external stimuli with care. In M HKA, part of ANTENA will also program a nonviolent club experience, that doesn’t force anyone into a certain mental state of mind, that isn’t expensive, ageist, that doesn’t hurt bodies.
What are the ideal conditions for a club night for you?
First of all, let’s tackle the question of separated music genres and scenes. I would love to hear more musical directions, as I mentioned earlier, and program experimental live performances equal to club music. My ideal club night has a sound system tailored-made for the space it is in. Important is also the option to be able to eat and to have non-alcoholic options. And finally, to make a venue open to everyone. In M HKA this will be hard, since it’s almost a fortress that isn’t accessible to anyone. The question of access is something we’ve been discussing a lot with the curator Anne-Claire Schmitz.
You do a bi-monthly show at Kiosk Radio. Does this project located in the Park Royal come close to an ideal club for you?
Kiosk Radio is an incredible project. Everyone is welcome at their small wooden shack. They are very aware of their position in society and continue to ponder on important issues such as the commodification of music and fun. My radio show at Kiosk has been a huge inspiration for the album. Being able to still have a public spot to play and listen to music during the lockdown was a bliss. Kiosk saved the lives of many people during Covid. They are the ideal club!
Céline Gillain is playing at the Kiosk Radio’s Woodblocks Festival in Brussels on Sunday September 10th. On September 23rd she’ll perform at a Cortizona label night at Dokrijk in Antwerp.