Tell me about the recording of Pompeii…
Samur Khouja, who co-produced Pompeii and who I work with whenever I do anything, is incredible. We have such a good relationship, I feel alone when I’m with him, if that makes sense, and we had this plan to maybe go somewhere like Chile or Norway, somewhere really remote where we could be completely removed from any exterior influence or any familiarity. But, before that, we went to Iceland to work on John Grant’s record, and that’s when everything shut down. I wasn’t able to get back into the US really, so we stayed and worked for about two and a half months in Iceland.
At one point, I went home to my family in Wales with this notion that, you know, things will open up soon. Obviously, any plans I had at that time were totally incompatible with reality. So, instead of waiting, I flew Samur over to the UK and we rented a house from a close friend in Cardiff and set up a little studio in a child’s bedroom of a terraced house. Obviously, that’s the total opposite of what
I had envisioned, but, you know, it was the only option we had.
How did that situation inform the music on the album?
Well, when I made the record before Pompeii I removed myself from everything that was familiar and took myself to Lake District in England to enrol in furniture school. So, I’d kind of gone through a lot of isolation already, before the pandemic. During that, I recognized that I was flitting in between despair and optimism, and neither of those things were really serving me. Neither of those things really have an action, they’ve both quite abstract feelings and don’t serve a purpose.
I had this idea that the future being dark doesn’t necessarily have to mean that it’s all bad. It can also be where great, wonderful things happen and you can start leaning into hope and curiosity. But also, working at a time when the music industry’s being absolutely decimated and everything’s been turned on its head makes things quite liberating in a way. To be making something and thinking that it doesn’t really matter helps you find the positive corners that can give you freedom you’ve not experienced before.
Many artists seem to be making much more direct music in response to the events of the last few years. What do you find abstraction and surrealism offers your art?
I’m a big fan of absurdity and ambiguity and nuance. To me, it opens things up, it takes the ceiling off something and allows it to constantly be transferred into something else and lets it be interpreted in so many different ways. But I think that there has to be real vulnerability and emotion behind it for you to transfer it all. I’m a big fan of Dadaism and of Cabaret Voltaire. During extreme periods of darkness, if you react in a way that’s playful and absurd, it’s like an acceptance of chaos. To me, it’s kind of like an endless conversation that’s being started as opposed to something very definitive and declarative.
How do you manifest those notions in your music?
I don’t think it’s a repeatable process. I think it’s more about the conditions that you give yourself to do it. You have to really be in a place of complete abandonment. I used to write in the middle of the night when I knew everyone was sleeping because it gave me this sense that I could fashion something. It’s giving yourself the space to roam and allow those things to take the reins and to trust your gut. It’s about really employing abandonment to the point where you’re creating like a child without the awareness that you’re doing something anymore.
Do you feel safest operating within the surreal?
You always choose how much you reveal and I think that’s the case in all ways that you can communicate with someone. Sure, you can say something very declarative that’s universal and that everyone can kind of get their teeth into, but it could be totally devoid of any emotion, you know?
So, I think that when within the surreal you feel safe because you can also disrobe under those conditions. Those two things are very interesting. For example, Claude Cahun’s work is these really vulnerable setups in this exploration of identity and gender, but in a very absurdist setup. I think they connect with people in a really unexpected way where the roots are a little bit deeper because it was unexpected and because there isn’t an obvious link between the motion and the words. So yeah, I think there’s a safety in it that allows you to be unexpectedly vulnerable in a way that you maybe weren’t intending to be.
How are you feeling about performing live again after so long?
For me, performing live is the moment that I reclaim the record as my own. You put a great band together and it becomes something really different. When you’re making a record in the bedroom, it’s something very private, it’s the inner workings of your mind. Performing gives it a whole new meaning for me. It’s really a lovely experience and it has this even more heightened feeling when I get to connect with people who have bought my music and want to come to a show. I’m really excited because there was a time when I just thought it was never going to happen again and it makes you really realise how fallible it all is.
I went to see a friend play in LA I think it was one of the first shows I have been to in awhile and I thought it was going to be weird and dystopian and a bit bleak because of people wearing masks, and because it was seated. But, it was so joyful and people were losing their minds. People were dancing in the aisles, people were on their chairs. It was a real moment of ‘God, this is what it means to people’ and that is really beautiful. I was half thinking about cancelling the tour up until that point, and then I thought ‘God, it’s good.’ Even if 10 people come, it means something to them and it’s worth it, right?
Cate Le Bon April 5, 20:00 Frannz Club
Cate Le Bon is a Welsh musician and producer who has worked with artists such as Devendra Banhart, John Grant, Deerhunter and the Manic Street Preachers. Pompeii, her sixth album, is a marvel of surrealist art-pop.