Vitalic: fat beats and tall stories

Vitalic, photo by Lisa Carletta -
Vitalic, photo by Lisa Carletta

When electronic musician Vitalic, aka 33-year-old Frenchman Pascal Arbez, released his Poney EP in 2001, its thrashy guitar-tinged electrohouse sound set the tone for years afterwards. At the same time, Arbez indulged in a touch of Gallic mischief by creating outlandish fictional biographies in his interviews. The Big Issue caught up with him as he began a new European tour.

What bands have you’ve encountered recently that you like?

Last week I was in Leeds and Reading festivals and saw Deadmau5, he’s not popular in France but here in front of a really busy crowd it was spectacular. An album I’m listening to a lot is La Roux. I really love the Lifelike remixes, I prefer them to the original. It’s like French disco. And I love Major Lazer’s dancehall reggae.

When you started recording as Vitalic you made these stories, claiming to be Ukrainian and a former prostitute. Why the man-of-mystery routine? It was not planned, really. Before the release of the first album the label asked me to provide them with a biography. I thought, maybe I could fake something for fun and see what happens. I had a contract with another record company so I thought I’d try and be someone else to not upset anyone. At the beginning it was really cool, but they discovered me eventually.

Do people still ask you whether it’s all true? Yeah, people still ask me. I don’t regret it at all, it was funny.

The new album’s called Flashmob. What do you think of flashmobs? I think they’re a bit weird, a bit fun. In the UK they’ve become a bit commercial which is not the case elsewhere. I like the process – people who don’t know each other meet to do something crazy together just for a few minutes and than then go home.

I suppose once you see it in mobile phone adverts it loses something. Yeah, it’s not about performing any more, it’s about selling things

In France there’s a big underground techno scene. Did you go to raves when you were growing up? I was never really into that super hardcore sound, I liked music festivals with bands. We did used to have small free parties with 1,000 or 2,000 people which were great fun, a good size so you feel you know everybody.

Flashmob seems a bit mellower than the first album, you’ve dropped that thrashy, rock sound. Is that a conscious decision? Well, when everybody’s doing the same thing, you have to move to something different, refresh your ears.

You were quoted as saying techno is boring. What are referring to? At the time, around 2000, everybody was copying [legendary Detroit techno producer] Jeff Mills, everyone was a fake Jeff Mills. I have the same feeling now, now that electroclash, minimal sound is everywhere – it’s very boring.

Being devil’s advocate, the techno purist would say that 90s style of minimal techno influenced by Detroit and Tresor Records, it works by building up many layers of percussion into an irresistible, hard, funky groove. The electrohouse style is just a house beat with a big bassline, or a big keyboard stab. Do you think it’s too simplistic? No depth to it? I think it’s a question of taste, it’s difficult to say what’s simple or not. I think the most difficult thing is to find is a good bassline. The more you put in layers of drums and things then the more you lose the melody.

How do you play live? The bass and drums are pre-programmed, I have blocks of drum loops and bass leads. I vocode the vocals and play with the loops and use synthesisers, but I don’t play the melodies by hand.

We have the Kanye West album in the office… it’s too much. Is this the end of the vocoder? I think it’s more the end of autotune rather than vocoder. Vocoder keeps some of the voice’s frequencies, it’s different. I am a bit fed of up autotune. It’s very easy but it’s effective, that’s why it’s everywhere.

I blame Cher. Oh yes – Life after Love. Ha, I remember when I was living in Guilford…

I’m sorry. I was a student, it was great. That song was massive here, it was everywhere.

What were you studying? Economics.

So you’ve managed to avoid having an economics day job? So far. It’s more fun being a musician.

Both albums work as albums, not just a collection of singles – there are dancefloor and mellow tracks. Is there a difference in how you write them? Do they come from a different part of you? I think it’s a question of mood. It would be very difficult to write a dance track if I’m not feeling it. It’s not an exercise. I don’t sit down and say: today I will write a sad track.

The track Alain Delon particularly sounds very Jean Michel Jarre, it has that atmospheric, analogue keyboard sound. Is he a big influence? In France it’s bad taste to say you like Jarre. Many musicians admire him but will never tell. I don’t like his new stuff, it’s too cheesy, but his early work, Oxygene and Rendevous… He has a talent for programming and melody.

You track Still has a strange, Romanian gypsy, almost tribal sound to the vocal. Who is that singing? It’s just my voice, through lots of effects (laughs).

Really? Just your voice? The marvels of technology. I don’t have sessions with Romanian singers.

Someone called you the Wagner of techno. Do you think that’s a compliment? You think it’s not a compliment?

I don’t know, what do you think? Well… I’m no friend of Hitler. I don’t know if it’s a compliment, but it’s a good description at least.

Have you played any festivals this summer? Leeds and Reading, Lowlands and Pinkpop in Holland.

I keep meaning to go to I love Techno in Belgium. I’m playing there this year. I’ve been three times – if you like techno, it’s the place to go.

The thing about British festivals is you just know it’s going to rain. I saw a t-shirt at Reading, it said ‘It’s not the same without the rain’. I think you English like it really.

Vitalic plays live at Matter in the 02 Dome on November 28. Flashmob is out now on Play It Again Sam.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2009]


Transition Town Brixton

Brixton Pounds

“One of the failings of the environmental movement is thinking that the best way to get people to change is to give them a sufficiently depressing leaflet so they think: hell, that’s terrible, I’d better go and plant carrots.” For an environmentalist, Rob Hopkins has some strong views about environmentalists. “We need to find other ways to engage people and get them involved,” he said.

Ways, he suggests, that might mean planting vegetables or might mean issuing a local, alternative currency – as seen with the launch of the Brixton Pound and Stroud Teasel last month. Going so far as printing an alternative to Sterling might sound like a scene from Passport to Pimlico, but it’s all part of Hopkins’ plan to tackle climate change, neighbour by neighbour.

When he states bluntly that “there won’t be any planes in fifty years” it seems a pretty bold statement. But the 41-year-old lecturer, co-founder of the ‘Transition Town’ movement that has spread across Britain and the Anglosphere, has spent years designing methods to cope with an oil-free future – in which getting a fully laden aeroplane off the ground may be just too expensive.

“Without fossil fuels, generating electricity is hard – the priority is going to be keeping the lights on and infrastructure going, not travel,” he explained. “In fifty years, we’re going to need to go to bed every day having locked up more carbon than we’ve produced. How we do that is a huge, huge question.”

His Transition concept has in only four years taken hold in more than 100 cities, districts, towns and villages in Britain and the Anglosphere, parts of Europe, South America and China. It has even reached Ambridge, the fictional rural town setting for long-running BBC radio show The Archers.

Transition holds that communities must re-orient themselves around local resources, producers and consumers in order to create local economies more resilient to any future shocks. Such ‘resilience’ might seem a smart proposition in light of the recession that has thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work, bankrupted businesses large and small, caused runs on banks and highlighted the precariousness of Britain’s financial-institutions-and-callcentres-only service economy.

An oil-scarce or even oil-free future will ensure that flying in freight from abroad will become hugely expensive – perhaps even impossible – making it all the more vital for communities to be able to meet as many of their own needs as they can.

Hopkins said: “I don’t think anyone is saying that Transition will be enough on its own to save the world from runaway climate change. We need international legislation, government and local authority action. But community involvement has to be central, not just lip service.”

Critics state the Transition model is too vague, doesn’t go far enough, or leaves fails to address the root of the problem – seen from some quarters as capitalism itself. Green author Ted Trainer made these criticisms, adding that the only solution was “an Anarchist form of government”.

“People tend to bring their backgrounds with them to the transition movement, so ‘deep greens’ might say they have to remove capitalism first,” Hopkins said. “I feel if that’s the case we may as well not bother. A lot of people in the environmental movement have very little awareness of how little such a radical perspective appeals to people.

“We have to take out all these value judgements – cars are bad, capitalism is bad. We don’t have to convert everyone, people don’t have to change their whole job or their life, just enough to help rather than hinder.”

As one of Transition’s means to get people involved, issuing local currency ticks many boxes: it gives prominence to local businesses and producers, encourages consumers to spend locally, and forges closer links among the community. As it cannot be banked and is worthless outside the area, such currency re-circulates within the local economy instead of leeching into the pockets of large companies’ shareholders or City finance institutions.

While the Brixton and Stroud schemes join others in Lewes, Totnes and the Eko, used in the Scottish ecovillage of Findhorn, these are not cutting edge pioneers. Alternative currencies have existed for centuries: set up in 1934, the 65,000 members of the Swiss wir scheme trade the equivalent of 1.6bn Swiss Francs annually, the town of Berkshire, Massachusetts has issued $1.5m of Berkshares in only a few years, and the Lewes Pound itself existed once before between 1789 and 1895.

While not met with universal enthusiasm (“Monopoly money”, was one Brixton market trader’s dismissive response), 100 businesses signed up to the Brixton Pound including cafés, market traders and restaurants, a department store, shoe shop, record shop, caterer, bars and pubs, an off licence, computer shop, estate agent, builders, plumbers, a solicitor and a bellydancer.

Josh Ryan-Collins, co-founder of the Brixton group, said that the haulier’s petrol strike in 2000, with supermarkets only days from food shortages, showed the dangers of an oil crisis. Local currency taught “the democratisation of money”, he said. “It gets people thinking about how money can have an effect. It de-mystifies money and shows how it’s not just a neutral tool for exchange, but that it can also embody the values you give to it.”

He added: “And it’s fun – I’ve met hundreds of interesting new people. It’s changed the way I think about Brixton.”

Patrick Crawford, from the Lewes Pound, said at launch last year the group hoped for 30 businesses and around 100 shoppers using the currency, but now has signed up more than 150 businesses and 40,000 notes in circulation. “Some traders offer discount as an incentive, but I feel a sense of pride and independence using it,” Crawford said. “I enjoy using it because I can.”

What stood out, Crawford said, was how members of the group had come together under the Transition banner to start the ball rolling, without government or council involvement. “For example, Lewes had an energy discussion group, out of which we spun-off an energy company employing people to do insulation and glazing and carrying out work with grants on behalf of the council. The groups are filled with people actually interested in doing things, which is how thing’s get done. It’s very grass roots.”

The Lewes Pound notes bear the image of libertarian and reformer Thomas Paine, who lived in the Sussex town between 1768-74. Beneath are his words, as resonant then in the time of revolutions as they are now: “We have it in our power to begin the world anew”.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2009]