Travelling inside
your little castle






A Chat with
MIND GAMERS
Text by Adam Rivett
Photographs by Juliet Taylor 
In front of me are numerous sheets of paper covered in notes constituting, in my mind, the conversation with French musician Sébastien Tellier that will take place in an hour or so. The sprawl of notes reflect Tellier’s quixotic approach to music. Pick any of his songs of albums at random and see how they fit. String and synth-drenched meditations on faith and love? No? Then how about discoish sex jams? Brazilian music inspired by memories of childhood? Lowkey electropop film scores? Or, perhaps, lush orchestral arrangements that sound like scores for films yet to be made? He does all this and more, and that’s not even accounting for his 2008 Eurovision Song Contest appearance.
In the face of such wanton eclecticism my notes wander far and wide. Lists of deep cuts, famous collaborators (Arthur Verocai, Tony Allen, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo i.e. half of Daft Punk) – even heaven forbid, questions and angles that I hope will lead us into the heavier topics: the language of pop and the international market, issues of influence and translation, the very nature of genre itself.
Mind Gamers are a band who’ve played only a handful of gigs, are still working on their debut album, and at this moment rehearse at the nearby Bakehouse Studios for a performance tomorrow night at the State Library of Victoria. They are, by any standard of journalistic assessment, a  new entity that only wants to look forward.
Bakehouse Studios is a sprawl of hallways and refurbished rooms, which might at any time (and often simultaneously) bleed nine types of noise. Bands lounge in the courtyard, hold meeting in the kitchen. There’s gear everywhere. Each room is decorated in a unique style – some festooned with books or record sleeves or photos of famous bands, a few particularly tiny rooms flaunting some trompe l’oeil trickery.
When I asked about the band I’m directed upstairs. On the second floor I find a small collection of serious uncommunicative tech people moving about a large room covered with neon green sheeting of the kind you see behind the scenes footage of CGI-heavy blockbusters. Some kind of 3D panoramic camera – expensive, and one of only a few in the country, I’m told – sits in the dead centre of the room. Later tonight the band will shoot a music video here. The small team of professionals fuss over angles, the exact arrangement of objects. There is much referring back to laptops, much tweaking of lighting. The instruments sitting around the room are, for now, a secondary concern. 
Eventually I track down the band. They’re momentarily lost between two forms of music. The real rehearsing has been going on nearly all day, whereas tonight’s performance, I learn later, involves miming and the pretend paying of instruments – non-performance as performance, imitation as the real thing. Behind the green sheeting and other abandoned pianos and warehouse junk we find a backstage area – dominated by a light bulb-framed mirror, like an old timey star dressing room – where we can sit for half an hour and chat.  

 

They explain how the band came to be. Stricker (drummer with Melbourne band Midnight Juggernauts) and Kirby have collaborated with Tellier before, Kirby in particular quite closely, playing the lion’s share of keyboards on Tellier’s My God Is Blue and L’Aventura, and touring for both records. The creation of L’Aventura seems a particularly happy memory for both – recording with legendary electronic composer and producer Jean-Michel Jarre in his personal studio, they had access to top end equipment, particularly synths (“all the best synths on earth” Tellier says, sincere and a little awed).
The recording process for the new record has been a little more scattered, taking in Paris, Los Angeles, Sydney, “some stuff in Mexico” and, most crucially, an extended stay on the Greek island of Hydra (“full of donkeys, fantastique”). The record will, they hope, be out next year. They admit that it can be hard dealing with the geographical separations, the delays, grabbing time and working space as it presents itself. Tellier sees it as a challenge – in his own inimitable half-broken English: “If you listen you can’t imagine we are in the middle of a rubbish tip, no?”
I ask how each song was developed given these challenges.
John: It’s weird, we work the tracks up in stages. Sometimes there’s two of us, sometimes we’re all in different places emailing back and forth. The process is always changing. Since we’ve been here we’ve been rehearsing – and that informs the process. Since we’ve been in Australia, that’s flipped everything. Being together, rehearsing, preparing for a gig, playing it live.
Daniel (turning to Sébastien): You mentioned this earlier, the computer thing.
Sébastien: There is something in a computer, in the soul of a computer – it’s not a regular soul, but it becomes a soul. We’ve tried to catch that. We try to imagine, in fact, what’s next – after the computer. There will be something else. We try to discover the secret of the next part.
Daniel: But with emotion. I just saw the trailer for the remake of Ghost In The Shell – that makes me think about that same sort of concept. So much so far has been in the studio, but playing here, bringing it into the room, it changes it again.
Me: Some synth music, some heavily computerized music… some of those records, even the ones you’ve worked on, the synth textures are warm, enticing, heartfelt. They’re moving. Other times electronic music feels really asexual and remote. How do you work in that style while trying to avoid that?

 

Sébastien: Technology is just the stairway to go somewhere – it’s like you climb the computer, and you arrive somewhere, and we try to discover this place.
Daniel: It’s like a hammer, a pickaxe. It’s not an end goal.
Sébastien: This isn’t like a school band, with some kids after class. With Kirby and Daniel, I meet them five or six years ago, as an adult. Our approach to music, it’s super intellectual and at the same time we are completely the slaves of our emotions and our feelings. We try to think, but it’s always the same – our emotions are stronger than our brain, so I mean – this band… to be intellectual, or be sensitive? We go forward like that.
At this point in our talk, clearly needing to feel pretentious, I mention Kafka’s famous quote, with some paraphrasing, about literature being the axe for the frozen sea within us. I let them know they can use the quote in future interviews if they want to be pretentious too.
Sébastien (very droll): Kafka, it’s a brand of coffee, no?
Daniel: Neskafka
We move on. I ask Sébastien if, having worked with European musicians for most of his career, it’s strange to work with musicians from Australia and New York. Is the approach different – is there a shared language no matter where you go?
Sébastien: For me – I don’t know the world at all. I travel a lot, but each day I’m surprised by the beautifulness of the world. It’s like – ah, I’m so disappointed by everything, so I try to get some pleasure from music and from people like Daniel and Kirby, who are super sweet and super nice. You create a kind of castle, you travel inside your little castle, super solid, but everything around you is garbage. The studio is a cocoon. That’s the best feeling, all the doors are closed.
As if to puncture the cocoon we’ve made for ourselves tucked away in the back corner, an impossibly heavy and repetitive bassline kicks in from a rehearsal room below us and doesn’t stop for the rest of our conversation.
Me: Has this time, these rehearsals, have they shaped what’s to come with the recording?
John: We didn’t think of that, we didn’t plan ahead, but it did.
Me: I know asking musicians those sort of questions is hard – you’re not necessarily thinking like that, that far ahead. This is all a kind of cut and dried thinking that’s unhelpful, maybe.
Daniel: I think the more perspective you can give to a project the better. As long as you’re not confusing yourself.
Sébastien: But you have to finish at some point – it’s always possible to do better, but that’s the story of  music. You have to keep going.
Daniel: Through this whole process, the way I see music or any creative thing, it’s not about the end result, it’s about the process. That’s the enjoyable thing. With Mind Gamers the whole process has been this really interesting journey, and we’re near the end of that journey now. We’ve been through different stages but it feels like in the last few weeks we’re at the last part, at least for this stage.
Me: Can you imagine making more records together – I know, I know – you’re just trying to get through this first phase…
Sébastien: Yes yes, I feel like this is the beginning of something important in my life, I hope for the guys it’s the same.
I mention to Sébastien that each of his records is a kind of departure from the previous one – the path from Politics to L’Aventura is a winding one. Do they imagine, looking ahead, that a future record together would sound different again?
John: We’d have to be open to it being a 180. None of us will ever say – “oh no, that’s not this.” We’ll say, let’s see it through, if it’s not this, then forget it.
Daniel: I think the one thing that defines what we do is that we’re really open to anything. And not in a way where it’s going to become experimental or whatever, I mean we’re thinking about the audience, but as an idea it’s not “oh no, that’s not our vibe”. It’s like “let’s try it!” And even if we try it for a month, and at the end of that it doesn’t work, that’s ok, that’s part of the process.
Sébastien: You have to follow the same lead, and continue in the same way. You don’t have to break it into stages. You just climb the mountain of shit.
Me: I know after the fact it’s easy to draw lines between work, but I know at the time you guys are just feeling it through, working on one thing at a time – feeling from inside the fog, hoping it works out.
Sébastien: Look at the inventor of the Moog – think about the new guy, the new kind of synth, a new approach. The real magicians are the people who created the first synths. The guy who created the first guitar, he’s a real genius! Even Jimmy Page after that is just a… well, not a loser (laughs)… a follower!
Me: That’ll be the pull quote I’ll sell to someone. “Sébastien Tellier Calls Jimmy Page A Loser”.
Daniel: When you think about synths, it was just scientists to start off with. Wendy Carlos, people like that.
Sébastien: Scientists are the best. For me, it’s half scientist, half artist. That would be the perfect world.
They dynamic between them, and what the work obviously means to them, is as good a reason as any to offer a little to a stranger, but not much more. There’s an obvious passion and shared commitment that registers, to me, as either poeticized yearning (the vague, tentative language of creation), or a quiet resolve (which says as little as possible). Both forms are sincere, without false reserve or self-conscious “cool”. Group logic dictates all – an interior purpose, a camaraderie, that holds firm against the mess of the world outside. A trip inside your little castle.
In twenty-four hours time the band will play to an audience who can count themselves amongst the first to hear their songs, if, perhaps, in a form only somewhat resembling their final recorded form. As the musicians play them, they’ll perhaps hear that final version arrive to them in what seems, momentarily, like a realizable sound – things to correct, arrange, fine tune. But nearly in sight. They’ll carry these ideal forms in their mind until the next recording date, and maybe beyond. And my ears, at some undecided later date, will hear the version of this ever-evolving music in the actual form that was sought after and sweated upon and discovered and finally nailed down in the months and years of slow recording and re-recording, in the time that has passed, and in the time yet to come.