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Interview with NIL
interview by: Dave Sissons
 

Nil

Following my enthusiastic review of the excellent new album by Nil, I took the opportunity to ask a few questions of Samuel, David and Benjamin.


Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on your excellent new album "Quarante Jours Sur Le Sinai". What has the response been like so far?

Samuel : Great! We didn't expect so many enthusiastic reviews at all. We worked on this album for so long that we all were a bit anxious of people's reactions. But in the end nobody complained about the journey we offered...

For those, like me, who are new to the world of Nil, could you tell us about the history of the band?

David : The band was formed to fill an existing gap in the universe. From a vacuum quantum fluctuation, "40 jours sur le Sinaļ" spontaneously emerged and immediately searched for humans to be performed. It has been a bit delayed before finding us because it took the wrong station at the Virgo cluster and had to hitch-hike the last twenty millions light years. In the meantime, other stuff reached us so that we recorded a first 6 tracks demo in 1997. We re-recorded this album in summer 1999 and at the same time we released our adaptation of the Debussy's masterpiece "Nocturnes". We then played in a French festival and sold a few CDR albums. By the way, we learned a lot about the progressive French community. We learnt that probably no-one would give us attention and money to release our albums, that CDR are definitively a bad format to promote music, and that even in the progressive sphere we were too progressive (not enough pop) to catch the attention of labels. So we worked hard to improve the compositions, to improve the sound quality, to improve the pop sections (this last point failed...), improving again and again until reaching a satisfactory point...

Where and when was Nil first formed?

DavidDavid : The "idea" of forming a band probably pervaded my little skull when I was eighteen, the day Sam brought back home "Tubular Bells". At this time, I had a classical formation and I was only playing Clarinet (and I had a very poor musical background). I have an extremely clear souvenir of my mental state when I first heard this album: I thought "Wowww, what intriguing rhythms, I didn't know that such interesting things were existing, I want to play guitar like this guy!". So I started to learn guitar by myself, played three years in a cover band acquiring knowledge in other instruments vocabulary, by transcribing a great number of rock pieces into scores for all the members (drums, keyboard, bass, guitars). One day, I just had enough of it. I tried to drag the band towards more complex music and none was interested, so I started to do something different on my own. So to answer to "where", I must say "La Biolle", a nine hundred inhabitants village where I used to live with my parents and my brother, that is located a few kms from Annecy where the band rehearse today (Annecy is a nice little town in France, close to Geneva). For the "when" matter, I might say "probably in the year 1994", but it was only as an embryo of an unlikely band.

Who were the original members?

David : Er..., me! And also a young 14 years old drummer. Then Sam quickly joined us, skipping the usual blues apprenticeship to learn to play bass directly through odd time signatures rhythms (an awkward consequence is that Samuel has trouble today with 4/4 signatures). One year later, in 1995, we met Benjamin. He's the sole member of Nil graduated in music. He is a multi-instrumentalist (bass, guitar, keyboards) and despite this he was much younger than us, he had experienced writing music in another band. At that time, as he was able to play all of these instruments better than Sam and me, he had no choice but to play keyboards!!! After our drummer departure, a drum machine joined the band, but as it was not very user friendly and was not a good conversationalist, we trashed it against a wall. Frank joined the band in 1996. It was very hard for him because many things he heard seemed just completely crazy and senseless (Frank has overall Jazz influences). Finally, the band started in 1999 a four years group therapy. Roselyne (vocals, but she has a bachelor's degree in psychology), after her recording experience with us, concluded that it was too dangerous to leave uncontrolled four neurotic obsessional personae in nature. Since then, she sings in NIL to quiet our nerves.

Nil is French for the Nile and the concept of the latest album concerns Egypt. Who came up with the name, (In English, the word Nil means Zero, which gives a totally different impression of the group!)

Samuel : I do believe everything has a purpose in this world and that everything has a meaning... Sometimes, we just don't get or pay attention to what is whispered to us, and then the whisper becomes a yell... I remember us trying hard to find a name, and NIL came out of nowhere, and everyone liked it straight away (which is very rare for us as we struggle on every little decision to take). We wanted something short (not like our songs !). We liked the sound of it and the meaning came only afterwards...We're gathering meanings of the word NIL in many different dialects to write concept-albums based on each of them !!

Are the concepts the work of the entire group or if not, who is responsible?

Samuel : I'm the one to blame I'm afraid ! Writing a song is so personal, that you don't want anybody to interfere with the creation of your "baby". The next album will contain even more personal stuff, and I'm really happy Roselyne adopted those lyrics...She'll get to write her own at some stage I hope.
We always wanted to write science fiction books as kids with my brother so hopefully we'll manage to write a story with four hands (four ends?!!)

There is a wealth of supporting material in the accompanying booklet. Who is responsible for the research involved?

Samuel : I have a great interest in ancient Egyptian culture, I learnt for two years to read hieroglyphs in Grenoble, (home town of Champollion - He is the genius who deciphered this beautiful language, even though English pretend Thomas Young did it first !) I also wanted to gather in the booklet a lot of writer's quotes that touched me, some poems and some historians' prose to set the story in the "real" world. I was also a bit sick of all those shallow movies/comics/albums... where stories are thin as cigarettes paper, and you just get a 'eye of Horus" on a wall for the "Egyptian" feel...
I hope this work is a bit more "complete"...

When planning a new work, do the ideas and concept come first and if so how difficult is it to create fitting music for such complex ideas?

David : As you say, it depends on who come first. A case when the concept came first is "Nogegon" on our first album. It was suited to illustrate a strip cartoon, which was itself designed to have a palindromic structure. Hence, the piece is fully palindromic for each instrument (it means that we play our score first forth and then back again). We came up with unusual harmonies, and it took us a huge amount of time to reach a satisfactory result. As always, our first wish is that the listeners enjoy our music and the fact that a particular song is based on a complex mind operation should only be a bonus.

Samuel : For this album, 70% of the original ideas came from David...and he had in mind some subjects while finding them, but I kind of hijacked his concept ! So in this case, we shot the arrow and drew the target afterwards !

The second album was a classical adaptation. This was a bold move. Whose idea was this and are there any plans to do similar projects in the future?

Samuel : It was in the air, and one day (I was having a bath !!) I was listening to Debussy's Nocturnes and I remember thinking : "It sounds like good old Genesis, let's propose this piece to the boys".... We do not have any plans like this in the future because for a 20 little minutes track, it took us a hell of a long time to achieve this project...If we have the money and time for it, we'll write a piece performed only by classical instruments, so that in a hundred years, a prog band will do a cover of it !!!

What kind of response did this work receive, and how did the response differ to the other albums?

BenjaminBenjamin : Our first two albums have had a quite confidential diffusion and, in that sense, the response they have received from the critics and audience are not comparable. Retrospectively it seems to me that these three albums are very different to each others. For this reason the opinions are generally quite varied. However everybody says as one that "40 jours" has a very better production and shows a larger maturity than the two previous ones. The critics we have received are excellent, which is really encouraging for us !

Which, if any, of the classic French bands have been inspirations to the sound of Nil. I am not familiar with too many French prog bands, but I thought I detected some influences from Shylock, is this the case?

Benjamin : I don't know this band, but congratulations for knowing other bands than Ange or Gong, which is not always the case for some French reviewers ! I don't think there's anyone else that sounds like us around here, even though there is a really interesting French progressive scene, as Priam, Minimum Vital (specially the Vital Duo project), Jean-Pascal Boffo, among our favorites.

What other prog bands would you say were an influence?

Benjamin : The influences are so various ! And in very different styles (to be honest, some members of Nil don't listen to progressive rock every day, but I won't give names...). This said we try not to copy others and it seems to work. Talking about me, I often listen to Crimson, Anekdoten, Anglagard, Zappa, Wyatt, Peter Gabriel, Gentle Giant, the French above-named and many, many other things from jazz-rock to middle-age music.

As mentioned in my review, I particularly loved the vocal sections of the current album. Are there any plans to feature more of these on subsequent projects?

RoselyneSamuel : We were happy with instrumental songs, but Frank suggested to include permanently a singer in the band, so we did. We were really pleased with Roselyne's work on "Quarante jours sur le Sinaļ", so naturally we proposed her the job and she accepted ! She has a great sense of melody and rhythm (which helps when you're playing in such a band !). She also brings a lot of freshness, and we can't say dirty jokes in rehearsals anymore ! So the answer is yes : There'll be more vocals in the next album, some great instrumental songs as well and a mini "opera" based on an incredible science-fiction story wrote by David...

How did Roselyne Berthet become involved in the project?

Samuel : We forced her to sing with us, and it only worked because she loves to be tied up... I auditioned her for a cover band I'm playing in, and I loved her voice and her personality so much that I presented the girl to the boys. I was a bit nervous, because I knew she would be perfect for the role of Isis in our concept-album, and I didn't know what the others reactions would be, but in the end they loved her as much as I did...

Is it your intention to always augment the core group with other musicians, and are there any particular musicians or instruments you would like to see involved with the group.

Benjamin: On this album you can hear, except the five of us, harp, different singers and narrator, cello, and soprano sax. The project needed these additional colors. This is how we work - when we have an idea that we can't achieve ourselves, we ask someone else to do it for us. It is quite interesting because it allows us to have external judgments on what we're doing and, those musicians often bring new ideas that will make the music better. We always give them a free hand to express themselves entirely; then we decide to keep what seems satisfying to us. We work like this since our first releases, but there is no rule. We should manage to do our next album ourselves, but probably in the end someone will propose to add some bassoon or a symphonic orchestra on three bars! If Brian Eno wants to make an appearance, he'll be the welcome on a couple of tracks !!!

Does Nil exist as a live band or is it merely a studio project?

David : Nil is formed by several persons with sometimes different aspirations, moods and jobs, so it is already a hard task to co-exist as individualities and as "Nil" at the same time. We have decided to promote our album through live sessions. Due to the complexity of our music, we need good conditions and a long preparation to offer a high quality show. Many people think that our music is impossible to play live partly because of the huge instrumentation involved. We will soon prove that they are wrong, starting with the Artrock festival in Gouveia (6th of July, Gouveia, Portugal). We also planed several dates in France. We would be very happy to play in Holland or in any other country ! These concerts will allow people to discover songs of our fourth album. It is completely written, and we will try to record it as soon as possible. Hence, if it is easier to be a studio band, mostly for practical reasons, it is very important for us today to have a feedback through lives.

If concerts are performed, A) how difficult is it to reproduce such complex music on stage?

David : When we have started to record "40 jours sur le Sinaļ", I think that many of us were not able to reproduce in less than 100 attempts what was put on the recorder, because of individual technical limitations ! It has been overcome now. There is also a big difference between "being able to play" and "play for real". On stage, you first need "feelings", and you can only achieve this when the band and each member of the band separately have reached a certain maturity. I would have not say that a few years ago, but I think that we have now this maturity and coherence. This is something you personally feel as a musician (and as a listener) when it is present as you play. Otherwise, you don't know exactly what happens but you know that something is missing. It does not mean that we will never fault on stage!!! What is difficult in our music is that i) structures are complexes, and within these structures ii) rhythms are complexes... and we (each instrument) sometimes play different harmonies and rhythm patterns at the same time. Structures are driven by harmonies so that it is particularly important for all of us to distinguish clearly the notes the rest of the band plays. But all of this can be achieved with enough practise and rehearsals.

and B) Are the works rigidly adhered to or does improvisation play a part ?

FrankDavid : Well, I'm sure my answer will enjoy, surprise or disappoint some of you. I prefer to mention first an important point because sometimes people (and even musicians) do not believe it : there is almost no improvisations on "40 jours sur le Sinaļ" and in our music in general. All is written, and only a few parts result from improvisations while recording (only in order to define soli). As improvisation is to a certain extent a matter of personal taste, each member of Nil is free to improvise on stage, with the sole condition that structures must be respected. Having jazz influences, Frank is the one who change his parts the most (he's the French Bruford !). Some soli are also "up to the executant". We also have a new song for which we have only a few themes that can live and blossom or on the contrary can die and sound quite poor depending on our mood. It is the main problem with improvisation. Thus, improvisation does not play a great part in our set, but I think that the music is enough rich and interesting to gain a further dimension from the mere fact of watching the musicians playing. And as we pass a great time to decide each note we play, you can imaging that they cannot be replaced easily by any others!

Samuel : We also don't give that much concerts at all, and we want to offer quality shows each time we play. In the past some rock bands could improvise on stage, because when you perform 300 concerts a year, you could allow yourself a few poor representations....Listeners expectations are higher today I think, and they can't be fooled anymore (I'm talking about people having ears). Another problem is bootlegs : If you give a bad show (which is only human), recordings of it will spread in the big world like a plague, and you don't want that as a musician !

The latest album was an independent production. How much success have you had in publicising and distributing the cd.

Samuel : The first thing I want to say is that this choice is our own : most of the deals the labels proposed us were not interesting at all (to say the least). We opted for autoproduction because someone said one day and I believe this is true that if you want something to be done properly, then you just have to do it by yourself. Albums are selling extremely well, and we're really pleased with that. We don't have money to spend on publicity, so our "success", is only due to the quality of the album, and from all the excellent feedbacks we had on it. This said, there's only a few places where you can find our CD (apart from getting it via our web site), and we'll have to work on that for the next one !

Would you like to see Nil sign with a label or would this compromise the creative process too much?

Samuel : We can't even make each others compromise on the tiniest inconsequent little thing of every day's life, so imagine the power a label might have on us ! As humans, we do all have in the band a strong sense of what "creation" means...if anyone is sincerely interested in helping us to widen our audience, fine, if not, there are plenty of talented bands out there they can work with...

The album was written and recorded over a long period and has taken along time to be released. What was the reason for this?

SamuelSamuel : As said above, we do almost everything by ourselves. The day we'll decide to print some t-shirts with the name of the band on it, we'll probably buy a couple of sheep, shear them and spin the wool to weave the damn thing! In this precise case it took time to find motivated and talented musicians. After mixing the album on sixteen tracks, we bought a better equipment and I had to remix the album on a 24 tracks digital recorder. It took me an incredible amount of time, but the sounds improvement made it all worth it. We also had countless problems with this new recorder, at some stage we thought someone had put a curse on us ! Then we had to find the right person to translate the enormous booklet, find the people who could make the booklet (it seems easy, but believe me, it is not)... I quoted a guy above, and the thing he forgot to say was : do things by yourself if you want them to be done properly... it might take a very long time though !

I understand that the members of Nil are involved in various other projects. Can you give us some details of the main ones, and what ways do they differ to Nil. Does this "outside" activity directly influence the music that Nil creates?

Samuel : Frank plays in a jazz-rock/fusion band, Benjamin has several projects, including playing bass in a dub band, David and I are playing in a dark/folk/progressive band called THORK, Roselyne plays in a lot of cover bands... This allow some of us to make a living with music. I'll be happy to have only one band at a time, but we don't sell enough records with NIL, so I have to diversify my activities ! All those projects help us to become better musicians, but it doesn't influence us in the writing process of Nil's songs.

As a recent convert to the band, I was keen to explore the previous works. I note form your web site that the first two albums are sold out. Is there any plan to reissue these works in the future?

Benjamin : We thought about it for some time, seeing the recent demand. But we prefer to go forward and offer some new compositions, instead of reissuing old stuff that is, according to us, not totally satisfying. We will re-record them when we will have no more new ideas, which is not for tomorrow !

What does the future hold for Nil? Is there a new album on the way, and if so, can you tell us a little about its progress.

David : The future will hold many things I hope. Our main concern is to find a label that could help us promoting our 4th album. Generally, we never stop the writing work, so we always have one album in advance, or songs in advance. This is the case here, and we already started to work on a concept that will lead to three long separate songs. We have made a break for preparing concerts, but we have no major preoccupations about ideas... it's just a matter of time and money to release them.

Finally, I would like to wish you much success with your future projects. Thanks for your time ...

Samuel : Thank you for taking the time to listen to our album, and for the interest you're showing to the band ...

Dave Sissons

 

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