Interview with Joel R. Steudler for Starvox (part1)

1) Winds... explores the darker side of emotion pretty thoroughly, covering maudlin gloom, frightful trepidation, wistful longing, and many other degrees of despair. What draws you to compose music that traverses such grim territory?

Renaud: It's rather difficult to answer this question. ELEND is the work of two composers who have quite diverging views regarding many matters. We happen to concord in a small domain, which happens to result in the work we do in ELEND and some related common projects. Apart from that we or I (I should speak for myself here) have musical interests that may not seem compatible with the dramatic compositions of ELEND. The work done together is based on an arbitrary choice, that's all; but based on a mutual, equal comprehension of certain aspects of music.

2) How did you manage to find the right balance between brutality and beauty such that your music is neither totally oppressive nor devoid of power and intensity?

Renaud: I don't know ... composing for ELEND is always a rather natural process; the balance between these extremes is intended, and to me it doesn't appear as such a difficult thing to accomplish. ELEND was founded with this aim precisely. As a matter of fact, I think that your formulation captures exactly what we would wish to achieve with our music.

3) You seamlessly incorporate synths with live orchestral elements in a very organic way throughout the album. What problems did you have to overcome to merge such disparate sounds into a cohesive whole?

Renaud: Since this album was the first one we mixed without the help of professionals, we were confronted with quite some difficulties. All I can say is that one has to rely on one's own ears! We have had a life-long experience in diverse types of music so that the choices we made came about naturally. As to models in production quality, there are not many, unfortunately ... considering specific elements, we have analysed the production of certain film soundtracks, but most of all, recordings of "classical" or what we prefer to call "serious" music. There are tendencies in contemporary "serious" music and soundtracks (which are but more popular approaches to original ideas coming from serious Western music or from Western or non-Western traditional music, most of the time) similar to what we are doing. But we don't know any references in either domain that merge such contrasting elements as Winds Devouring Men.

4) On Winds... you employ a diverse group of live instrumentalists (playing brass and strings). Many bands these days, however, opt to use synths and samplers in place of live musicians. What are your feelings on using synths/samplers to emulate acoustic instruments?

Renaud: Well, that depends on the quality of the synthetic component! As long as the result is aesthetically valuable, I don't have a problem with synths.
On our previous albums we had to have recourse to synthesizers because it was absolutely impossible to work with session musicians for financial reasons. If you listen to The Umbersun you will understand what I mean: the work we did there was almost entirely based on synths or sampler instruments, but still, the sound is closer to "serious" music than to anything synthetic in the music scene. It is not sufficient to use synths to replace musicians; you have to perfectly know the instrument or group of instruments you are about to reproduce artificially in order to achieve a satisfactory result. This involves lots of work; programming, even interpreting, sound editing etc. Apart from isolated elements you will never hear a complete orchestral ensemble artificially produced but destined to sound as authentic as possible (and destined for the interpretation of elaborate pieces) because it would be a lot simpler to achieve the same result with live musicians (provided you have the money, technique and location to do that of course). Nobody would do that in today's music scene! We were probably crazy to reproduce a larger-than-life post-romantic orchestra by such means, but it was the only way to realize our ideas at that time. Music for Nations gave us the biggest budget we have ever had, but it was miles behind what would be needed for the recording of an authentic classical orchestra (we managed to collaborate with a professional choir, however). The sums we are getting now are ridiculous in comparison, but we don't need that much money anymore: since the beginning of ELEND we have been building up our home studios, slowly but continuously, and only since recently are we able to work completely independently of external studios. We record, mix and master our albums on our own. This enables us to work without stress and guarantees that the result will correspond to our ideas. We still cannot work with large ensembles of course, but this is not necessary anymore; I think that we reached a peak of orchestral density with The Umbersun - and after the symphonic approach of the Officium Tenebrarum cycle, which was completed with that very album, we are turning to other means of expression. Certain elements of the music such as this density would not have been possible with a live orchestra, so I guess that the synthetic component helped us, too. Technology has made so much possible, it would be just as stupid to ignore the many possibilities it offers as to abuse it by employing it without brains - which many people choose to do unfortunately.

5) & 6) With such a large group of musicians working together, songwriting and arranging could easily become quite difficult... especially given the complexity of much of the music on the album. What kind of process do you typically follow when setting out to write new material?
What challenges do you face in trying to meld everybody's creative input into a unified composition?

Renaud: There are no conflicts at all due to the number of participants; there are only two composers, Iskandar Hasnawi and myself. Both of us created the project in 1993 and fixed some fundamental rules that were to govern our work. Apart from myself and two musicians who played on Winds Devouring Men, all other members live in France; we don't meet often and are used to this situation. Things are a lot easier today than when we started with this project; now there is the advantage of the internet and of our own recording studios.
We have never been a "group" in the classical sense: we don't live in the same country, so there can be no rehearsals. In fact, ELEND should be thought of as a kind of collective, with a core consisting of both composers and a sound-engineer (Sébastien Roland, who worked with us on the first album, but only joined us as a full-time member in 1997), and a group of musicians who appreciate our music and participate in one or another of our projects... depending on the instrumentation or the style of music.
Each composer works on themes, sounds or structures and presents them to the other. Eventually, something appears which both find interesting. Then the composition starts according to certain principles (division of the work to be done, decision of which instrumentation to use etc.). Most of the pieces that are created like this are brushed aside when a coherent string appears in only a few of them. From this moment on, the rules have to become even stricter in order to produce a coherent group of compositions that can be put together on one album. This sort of work was even more constraining on our first albums, because the pieces had to correspond to certain norms that we had decided with the beginning of the Officium Tenebrarum cycle and that we had to follow until its end.
There is not really any need for rehearsals: the music is written and the score is given to the musicians. They rehearse on their own for a few days or weeks, and when the time is right, they come round to record their parts. There is still room for improvisation, of course, but since all of the people we work with are excellent musicians who know the pieces they are about to play, the result generally fits our ideas.

7) If I had to guess, I'd say that you're more influenced by composers of orchestral music than anything in today's gothic or metal scenes... perhaps because much of Winds feels like a dramatic filmscore. Are there any particular composers that have had an impact on your band's style, or that you simply enjoy listening to?

Renaud: In fact, the aim of ELEND has always been to re-evaluate musical violence. For our work, there are two sources of inspiration, both of which were responsible for the creation of the project: extreme metal on the one hand, and "serious" Western music on the other; the intention of the first, the means of expression of the latter. But we have always structured our pieces of music in a much more popular way than it is done in a "learned" kind of composition. We pursue a more ambitious kind of work, too, but not with this project.
Anyway, you are absolutely right in presuming affinities to orchestral music. I can give you a list of composers which I think are esteemed by both of us, and in whose tradition we like to see ourselves. I will try to keep it short: Mahler, Strauss, Bartók, Varèse, Scelsi, Messiaen, Xenakis, Ligeti, Nono, Henry, Górecki, Penderecki, Pärt.

8) What trends in the current "dark music" scene (encompassing goth, metal, whatever) excite you? Or perhaps you aren't too fond of whats happening in the music world at large. If so, what's bugging you about the state of modern dark music?

Renaud: We have never been interested in gothic at all; I don't think that it has anything to do with dark music. Metal does not count as dark music either, but it is a style that is concerned with musical violence, and this is what we appreciate. I still miss this kind of barbaric, violent approach in many metal bands. But fortunately there are some people of whom I think that they have understood the essence of metal - Immolation, Morbid Angel, Cadaver Inc., Dillinger Escape Plan, Cephalic Carnage, etc.

9) You seem to be unafraid to ignore genre boundaries and conventions. It would seem that fans of a wide variety of styles (gothic, classical, even dark atmospheric metal) should be able to find plenty to enjoy on Winds. What kind of audience are you hoping to reach with the album?

Renaud: It is pleasant to know that people from diverse musical backgrounds are able to appreciate what we are doing. But we don't really mind about the reception of our music. We were first signed to a metal label in 1994, which made the metal scene the first one in touch with our work; but at that time ELEND was much more easily accessible for somebody familiar with extreme metal - and there were many misunderstandings of course. The new cycle we are beginning with Winds Devouring Men might not please this audience that much, while people who approve the album without knowing the previous work might be shocked when they are confronted with its raw violence, the screams, the uninterrupted torrent of violence that pours from it.
I don't like the idea of independent scenes that don't get in touch with each other (and even when they are said to do so, they don't really get in touch; there are exceptions fortunately; take Fredrik Thordendahl's Special Defects album, for example; this is what I would call artistic achievement). Our understanding of music is completely alien to the functioning of the market.

10) Winds... to me feels more like a work of art than a commercial endeavour. Additionally, it isn't presented in a typically commercial fashion (i.e. discreet songs that can be used as 'singles' for radio airplay, etc.). What difficulties, if any, have you had in marketing the album?

Renaud: Thank you! We don't see the point in attempting to release hit singles! Although I can tell you that the pieces of music on Winds Devouring Men are objectively a lot more accessible than those of the previous albums! In contrast to the pieces that were part of a concept that had to function as a continuous flux growing more violent with every album (i.e., the albums of the Officium trilogy), we are now able to pursue a different kind of method which might only be fully understood when the next couple of ELEND albums will have been released. What can be noticed now, I guess, is that we can treat each piece individually or independently, focussing only on a few aspects per piece instead of having to consider the whole album for unity. The pieces are deliberately structured in a more popular way; we rely less on musical leitmotifs strewn over the album than before; the leitmotifs are nearly exclusively on the lyrical level now. I understand that the distance to commercial releases is still enormous, but I take it as a positive aspect.
Fortunately, we have our license partners to take care of marketing. In Europe, the new album is presented like a big comeback after a silence of five years, and the press has been extremely favourable. As to the audience, I think it is still too soon to tell.

Thanks for your time, and please keep making excellent albums like Winds Devouring Men!

Renaud: I have to thank you for your review!