Nicolas Chapels from Demians

Interview with Demian's Nicolas Chapel
by DPRP's John O'Boyle

Nicolas Chapels has delivered two very respectable and highly rated albums, "Building An Empire" and "Mute", under the banner of Demians. I was offered a chance to speak to Nicolas, an opportunity which I jumped at. What follows is an open and candid talk about his thoughts and feelings of his creative journey, offering a unique and what I would consider, an interesting insight as to what makes the man tick.

 

JOHN: Hi Nicolas I would just like to say a big thank you for taking the time out to offer this interview for DPRP. I recently reviewed your new album Mute, which I described as a, ďNo Nonsense ReleaseĒ, seeing it as a very impressive and mature release. Itís not often you get someone with such creative talent and vision, being afforded the opportunity to deliver two fine albums to a mass audience, with such quality. You offer a mature sound beyond your age, dealing with topics that obviously are very emotionally personal to yourself, which canít be easy?

NICOLAS: Hi. Thank you very much, and I really appreciate your support. Well the topics Iím talking about in my songs are just thoughts, questions Iím asking myself everyday, or just feelings I think are worth sharing. It's not easy or difficult to deal with these topics, it's just who I am, and it's just the way things happen.

Demians - Mute 2010
2010
Mute

JOHN: The name Demian comes from Max Demian that was a fictional character created by Hermann Hesse, a German born Swiss poet, novelist and painter who in 1946 was awarded a Noble Prize in literature; He also wrote Steppenwolf amongst others, whose name has already been used by another very successful band. What was it that you found so interesting about this character that you decided to name your project after him?

NICOLAS: It's the parallel that I make between the way Max Demian behaves in the book and the way creates music. See, I hate the way most artists are portrayed when they work on their own. Most of the time, it makes me cringe when Iím portrayed as the "one man band" shit, because it puts the focus on me when all I want to do is put the focus on my songs. Iím not what people think I am, Iím not more talented or clever than anybody else, and most of the time I have no clue of what I am doing. Songs happen in my head, I just take a lot of hard work and time to record and share them with people. This is the same way I see Max Demian in the book. He almost appears as some ghost, you don't really know if he exists or not, but the way he behaves pushes the character of Emil to question everything. It's not Max leading Emil to change the way he sees the world surrounding him, it's Emil himself changing his own views. My songs do that to me. They don't judge me, don't judge anybody, and donít teach anything to anybody. They're just there; they ask questions, they just show things in a different light, through different shades and colours. So I wanted to give them a name and they are what makes Demian.

JOHN: A basic resume of the book; Emil Sinclair is raised in a middle class family, amidst what is described as Scheinwelt, (world of light or world of illusion). Emilís existence can be described as a struggle between the two worlds, the show world of illusion and the real world, the world of spiritual truth; Max Demian being the character that leads Emil to his self realization, maybe his own daemon. Using this analogy, is this how you perceived the writing and recording process?

NICOLAS: To me, it was all about the character of Max Demian. There is absolutely no idea of "good vs bad" or "truth vs illusion" or anything like that in my music. Actually, same for the way I see the world. It's not black or white, it's a whole scale of gray levels, and it's what makes it interesting. So what really interested me in the word "DemiansĒ is that it describes the songs? Max Demian in the book, he never judges you. Never tells you what to do. The only thing you're sure of is that you're never sure of anything. Question everything, put everything in perspective, try, fail, try again. So my songs never judge me, never tell me what I should do. They're just happening, they're just asking me questions, help me to create who I am now, and respect who I was. To me, the writing process, recording process, or mixing, mastering, or designing a cover, or simply cooking, going out for a walk, thinking or meeting with friends is never separated. Everything is linked, and one always feeds the others with something relevant.

JOHN: Would it be fair to say that your debut album Building an Empire, you have really been heavily influenced by Hesse, almost aligning yourself with the character, like you are fighting demons too.

NICOLAS: That would be unfair. Actually, I read this book as a kid, remembered the whole impression it made on me, and forgot about it. It didn't obsess me at all. And I decided to read it again only years after I wrote the songs for the first record. So there was no heavy influence, it was just a parallel that I made, and the only thing influencing me on the first record was the things I wanted to share musically and the questions I wanted to ask to the world. Also I don't fight demons. I just understood they'll always be here somewhere, and the idea is that everyone stays where he belongs.

Demians - Building An Empire 2008
2008
Building An Empire

JOHN: Do you view the song writing process as a form of therapy?

NICOLAS: Not at all. A therapy would mean that I want to heal something. I don't try to heal my wounds. All I want to do is to learn how to live with them. They'll always be there; I just learn how to respect them and live with them instead of trying to go against them which is a desperate fight. So no, a "therapy" couldn't be further from the truth. A "balance" would be accurate.

JOHN: Lyrical contents is very important in song structure, it can make or break a song, as can the musical passages. It would appear that this is so, for you, when you look at the lyrics for say The Perfect Symmetry, which to be honest is a very powerful presentation of words, they can even stand alone, they are very powerful in their own right, as are others lyrics on the album. Do you find it easy to write the lyrics?

NICOLAS: It's always difficult for me to answer these questions. Writing or recording music or lyrics is never easy. But it just happens. I think there's always a risk of looking like a pretentious douche bag when I talk about the way I create my music, but I'll take this risk anyway because there is nothing fancy or forced about the way I create music. There's no secret or formula, it just happens. The lyrics are highly personal, to the point of ending up abstract sometimes, but they're never highly intellectualized or anything. I grab the mic, record what I hear in my head, I do a few takes and take notes and the lyrics will be ready in less than an hour. I like when things are personal, abstract, powerful, touching, real, and spontaneous. But Iím not "trying" to do it, I just sing whatever I feel like saying, and it works for me. The great thing is that some people will think its rubbish, while some will relate to it to the point of wanting to share their own story as well, or to the point of telling you how much your words and music are important for them. That's life for me, and Iíll keep it that way. :)

JOHN: Itís nice to see that you arenít afraid to work with differing soundscapes, experimenting, but what comes first in your creative process, an idea, words or music?

NICOLAS: What always comes first in the creative process is a feeling. I concentrate on what I want to communicate, and never on the way have I wanted to pull it off. As long as I don't lose focus of what the original feeling was, that's fine for me. And also, I need to finish the song right away, or after a while I lose this focus and forget about the song. If the lyrics are not finished within the next few hours, you can be sure Iíll never work on them again and the song will never be finished. I have countless songs that need to be finished, missing a line here or there, but that will never be finished. I don't care anymore, I did what I had to do, they gave birth to other songs, and I don't feel the need to try to recreate a vibe that Iíll never be able to find back. So to sum it up, everything sort of happens at once, and very quickly. I leave space for accidents, but never lose the initial feeling.

JOHN: Obviously you write and record in the true sense of the words solo artist. What is your reasoning for working in isolation?

NICOLAS: What I don't really like, is this image of the "one man band" dude, you know, this "guy in the darkness, away from humanity", etc... That's not what I do. :) When I spend some time to work on a song, I don't feel isolated. Actually, I feel connected. Iím being honest with myself, Iím being honest with people, and I feel connected to all that within the song. People might like the song in the end or not, that's not my problem. Just like you have close friends who hate some of your other friends. You're not there to please everybody. Well what I just do is write songs, to say or ask what I want to say or ask. People don't listen to random people. But songs, people listen to songs. So Iím not isolated, Iím part of a bigger picture.

JOHN: Do you isolate yourself from the musical world when you are writing, so as not to become distracted or influenced by others?

NICOLAS: The only thing I want to stay away from is the hassle of being forced to be in a band. Why should I do that? I can record whenever I want, whatever I want. When I have a song in my head that needs to come out, you could just come over, blast a stereo with another song, or tell me whatever you want to influence me, I wouldn't even notice you. What really used to distract me was when I was in a "regular" band, I mean with band members around all the time. I remember the hundreds of hours spent waiting for someone to show up, dealing with bullshit, egos, and other non musical things. In the end, when I was younger, Iíd spend hours dealing with that and ended up playing 20 minutes of music Iíd barely enjoy, at the rehearsals. Ask people in amateur bands, they'll tell you how little time they actually play and enjoy it, compared to the problems they had with ex band members, or lack of motivation, and etc... Iím not putting everyone in the same category, Iím not saying everyone is like that, but it's the way I experienced it, and to me it was a waste of time that lead me to run things by myself. I was tired of waiting for something that would never even happen, so I decided that Iíd carry on by myself and say what I have to say. I'd love to have a regular band with things running perfectly, but it didn't happen, so I had no reason to wait.

JOHN: Do you see yourself as a perfectionist, control freak, or is it just a more efficient and easier method?

NICOLAS: I just see myself as someone who wants to do what he loves. If a guitar player loves playing the guitar, then he should just do it and never look back. If a singer wants to sing, he should do it. My passion is not to play the guitar, to sing, to play the drums or write music. My passion in life is to create a tangible reflection of the music I have in my head. So Iím putting everything I can to do just that: creating songs. Being a perfectionist would mean that I strive for perfection. I don't. I strive for a perfect reflection of what happens in my head, which is completely different. Iím not a control freak either, because Iíd need to have something or someone to control. I just let things happening, free of any outside pressure, and free of any ego involved. It's not an easy task, which is why I don't relate to anything trying to portrait me as a genius or bullshit like that. It's a lot of hard work. Iím not better or worse than anybody, Iím just dedicated.

JOHN: The piano is obviously a very important medium for you, but as a multi instrumentalist, what is your preferred choice of weapon, as you are very accomplished and gifted with a range of instruments?

NICOLAS: Iím not particularly accomplished, nor gifted, with any instrument. I'd even say Iím a really average player. The only medium that is important to me is the song. Whether it takes a piano, a string quartet or a wall of guitars to make my point, is only depending on the song and nothing else. My first instrument was the guitar, Iíve been playing for more than twenty years, but I almost never write with a guitar mostly because I "know" what Iím doing. I like it when I don't know. It keeps things really interesting. Sitting behind a piano, I mostly have no idea what Iím doing. This way, I have no idea of what I could come up with, it becomes fascinating. You'll find millions of people who are better than I am behind a piano; I see it as a toy. Then, I just play what Ii have in my head over and over again, and keep the best tracks, the most spontaneous or the ones that sound "alive", and that's it. There's not much more thought put into it than that. :)

JOHN: For me Black over Gold is by far the best track on the whole album, with its dark and brooding approach. If someone ask me as a point of reference as to what Demians is all about, this would be the place I would send them, with its stunning guitar work, emotional vocal work and intelligent lyrics. What musical reference point would you say on either of the albums would sum up what Demians is all about?

NICOLAS: I have no idea about that, and I honestly think that the day I can answer this question, it will mean that this project has lost its purpose. I can only hope for people, that they wouldn't be able to sum up their whole life or personality in one word, one song or one story. I agree it doesn't sound "commercially easy" to say that, I could pimp a song over another, tell people how awesome the records are... But I can't. All I want is people to listen, to take their time, to find whatever they want to find in my music. The interest is in the process, that's what is really interesting, according to me. I don't know if my work is "intelligent", all I can say is that it comes from the heart, it's made sincerely, and once it's out, it's up to people whether they want to spend some time diving into this musical world or not. Funnily, Black Over Gold is a song that talks about just that. It was inspired by a childhood memory, was at school painting these huge pieces of white paper with black paint, only leaving tiny spots of white here or there. And while the teachers behind me were saying how much I was "such a sad kid, we should call the parents", and blablabla... All I could see were those tiny little spots, really bright, behind all this black. I was fascinated by the contrast, I was finding the light brighter than ever, when seen this way. That memory really remained strong in my head. It put things into perspective. It quickly helped me separating my own thought process from people's opinion about me. Sadly, many people let others decide what they should be, what they should think, and whether their life should be black or white. They don't even notice. When you're not afraid of searching for what could be hidden behind the black, you might as well find gold.

JOHN: Having created and recorded two very well received albums, (both Building an Empire and Mute being well received at DPRP HQ), where you have had total control over the life cycle of each album; do you find it easy letting go, when you take it these creations into the live arena?

NICOLAS: Yes, I separate these things so that one doesn't compromise the other. I'd never tell myself "oh we're never gonna be able to pull this off live" or stuff like that. I used to stress a lot over it, when we used to be only three on stage and play with backing orchestrations, a click track and stuff like that. It was fun for a few shows but is not what this project was about in the first place. So now, the focus is being put on creating exactly what we want to create as a live unit, not trying to play our CD in a bigger room than people's living room. Since I separate both areas, I have fun in both, and it's going to be a real pleasure to play these new songs on stage with the band!

JOHN: What are your criteria for selecting the right musicians to play your songs; tell us a bit about each band member? Do you take this into consideration when song writing?

NICOLAS: The first criteria was; the human one. We had to get along perfectly. And Iím very happy with how the Demians family turned out, everyone gets along really well, we're all different and learn a lot from each other. That's a great feeling to be on tour with these guys, and it was my main criteria, considering how bad is the feeling to spend months on the road or in a rehearsal space surrounded by people who are not there for the right reasons. It used to be that way with other people, it was hard to achieve that, but now Iím confident I chose the right guys. They are my friends.

Antoine Pohu - Photograph by KriboGaŽl Hallier
Antoine PohuGaŽl Hallier

Antoine Pohu is the bass player and the most adorable guy you could find. He's gaining a lot of self confidence through this band, and it's a pleasure to see him having a lot of fun during a tour, while being such a solid bass player every night on stage. GaŽl Hallier is the drummer of the band and he almost saved this band when I was starting to completely lose faith in musicians. I can throw whatever drum part I want him to play, and he'll play it with such passion. That's the best way I could really have fun in this project, we all have no doubts when we play, and everyone finds a piece of himself in the songs. We now have an additional guitar player, and we'll introduce him to the audience on our next tour, which we'll start when the time is right. We all are really confident in our sound, and our new member really gels the live band together. I don't take these things into consideration when writing the songs. The live band members would even tell you themselves that they'd never have written their parts the way they're written or performed on the CD. But this way it makes things interesting for everyone, it's breaking the habits, and brings a lot of fresh air when preparing the tour because we didn't spend months vomiting the same songs over and over again in the studio beforehand.

JOHN: Building an Empire was obviously recorded on a budget and Mute was probably in a better position financial during the recording phase. Mute is a somewhat heavier recording being in my eyes a more guitar orientated album than Building an Empire. Was this deliberate or just a natural progression for the music to take?

NICOLAS: Mute was not made in a better financial position; I think it was even worse. I had spent so much of my time, energy and money in the 3 years before Mute came out, trying to create a live band with real people involved only for the music, that I came back from the last tour completely burnt emotionally, musically and money-wise. I was dying to get my passion for music back again, to find the motivation back, so I started recording the new record with not more budget than the debut. People have to know that these records are self-produced and self-financed. The only two major differences this time were the awesome support that I had from the people around me, like the brands which supply me with my instruments. I had really good instruments to choose from, and that made the main difference. The second difference was that I could record whenever I wanted, so the songs would be really close to me when they'd come out. It really helped in the confidence department, Ii believe, which is why I think this new album is as powerful, subtle and confident as it is. As far as being a more guitar oriented yes and no. Yes because guitars were used everywhere. There's no synth on the record, if there is a sound which you don't know the origin of, there are 99% chances that this would be coming from a guitar or guitar amp. But no, also because none of the songs were written on the guitar, for example. I'd say, and Iím not trying to play with words there, that the new album is more "instrument oriented". I didn't use any sample, I didn't use ten cymbals or seven toms, or record twenty guitar tracks on top of another. The focus was put on my sound, on the way I sound behind the instruments, so the record sounds more upfront, creates a real proximity with the listener, and it ends up sounding a lot more massive, even in the more subtle and laid back songs. I mean, the piano in Black Over Gold is everything but "light". It's very upfront, sounds heavy, and has a real space around it. The first record was too distant.

JOHN: There are a few reference points that can be made about your two albums to date. The biggest one for me is Steven Wilson / Porcupine Tree although this is a path that you are obviously not travelling down as such; I once read a quote you made which said that, ďSteven Wilson is the best at being Steven WilsonĒ, so in saying that who do you consider your biggest influences?

NICOLAS: There are many questions in this question. First, everyone can make his own reference points, about my music. Your references are 100% of the time generated by what you listen to and like, not by what listen to or like. I have no problem with people making comparisons, that doesn't bother me. But I have a problem with people talking about "influences", though. 9 times out of 10, when people mention an "influence" in a review or an article, they're completely wrong. Anyway, just to say that if you want to refer to Porcupine Tree, that is up to you. I just disagree. I have a lot of respect for this band, but they are not a reference to me and I don't listen to their music so they couldn't be an influence. When I say Steven is the best at being Steven Wilson, I mean Iím not trying to copy him, he is not an influence in my works, and there would be no point to copy him. So if people find analogies, Iím flattered, but these comparisons are just in their head. My biggest influences are the people I meet, the conversations I have with them, the people I love or have loved, the places Iíve been to. They are my biggest influence. Sounds corny, but it's the truth. If Ii should mention one artist that really influenced the way I see things and the way I get involved in my music, which would be the band Neurosis. Their level of commitment to their art, and the passion that's always been leading them is truly inspiring. So when people want to talk about an influence, this is the place to start. And if you want me to mention artists who have had an impact on me, Iíd mention BjŲrk, Thom Yorke, Robert Del Naja, or Alva Noto, with no hesitation.

JOHN: On the back of the current success of Mute what does the future hold for Nicolas Chapels and Demians?

NICOLAS: Iím really looking forward to hitting the stage with the whole Demians crew again, and people will love the change for sure. We're still working with the live band before we hit the road later this year for new shows. Iím always working on some new music, both for future Demians releases and other unrelated albums, trying different sounds and colours. I also started recently to work with other artists, and it should lead to some pretty interesting things in the future. :)

Interview for DPRP by
John O'Boyle

Demians Publicity Photograph

Links
Demians Official Website
Demians Myspace Page
Demians Official Forum

DPRP Review of Demian's Building An Empire (2008)
DPRP Review of Demian's Mute (2010)

Interview with Nicolas Chapel by Edwin Roosjen 2008

InsideOut Music
SPV Music


 


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