With the imminent release of Ensemble Economique’s touching and beautiful new album “Blossoms in Red”, Secret Thirteen’s Paulius spoke with Brian Pyle, the man behind the project, about the overtly personal and hopeful tone of his music, the distinctiveness of the new record, the importance of dissociation from external reference points, and the charm or European cities.
Ever since the first record, “At the Foot of the Nameless Roads”, Brian Pyle’s Ensemble Economique (EE) has shaped a beautiful and phantasmagoric world, which has evolved organically over the years. His music has always been a matter of balance between stark romanticism, hazily elegant dreamy soundscapes, traces of psychedelia and monolithic washes of ambient atmospherics. Even though there has always been constant and significant progression, the same textural core is felt throughout Ensemble Economique’s diverse back catalogue, whether it was the cinematic horror aesthetics of “Psychical”, the sombre nocturnal delicacy of “Light That Comes Light That Goes”, or, finally, the bare intimacy of the recent “Blossoms in Red”. The beautiful nature of Brian’s sound itself always goes together with very personal undertones, strong visual associations and retrospective resonance. Full immersion into EE records is equal to a mode of careless wandering through the streets of some unknown, yet strangely familiar city, illuminated in dim lights that cast strange shadows across vast but cozy squares - spots for a rendezvous. At the same time, there is a perpetual feel of an unstable presence of light and nature nearby, which is even moreso expressed in Brian’s excellent new LP to be released on Denovali Records.
Blossoms of Light
“Blossoms in Red” seems to be the most minimal, but also the most intimate and carefully crafted of Brian’s records to date. It strikes me as the most organic as well, in the same way that emotions relate to our organic surroundings. Even though the album is more sparse, less sonically expansive than his previous ones, emotionally it is tinted in brighter undertones and elements of natural light. In contrast to the previous two records, which were more reliant on soundscapes and ambience, “Blossoms” is an exploration of purified human feelings and has a more prevalent presence and heritage from the songwriting tradition and a confessional tone.
The cover art presents a transitional narrative in terms of tone and lighting, blurred black and white images give place to an obscured image of a floating boat-like object filled with blinding evening sunrays. It has an impressionistic feel and as Brian puts it “deep traces of nostalgia in the work, of time, of moments passed, yet something else, the rising sun, beauty in the moment now, the thrill of being alive, of living, of love.” The opening and closing tracks elaborate on these narratives. “From the Train Window, Red Flowers on the Mountain” is as minimal as the perfect soundtrack for such a view should be. Regardless of whether you see flickering lights or hilltops in the horizon. It is a plain synth track that is extremely touching. In Brian’s words “I think of primarily the idea of looking at something, be it a red flower, while in a passing train, or the beach under a midnight moon and having that image summon a memory or even something more abstract, like a feeling. What does that memory or that ‘feeling’ mean? Trying to express these emotions.” The closer “Nothing is Perfect” acts as a melancholic acceptance, and that mellow piano passage feels extremely genuine, sad, and hopeful - “life isn’t perfect but it’s feeling pretty fucking good at the moment. I’ve been traveling more than ever and really engaging with the world. Perhaps this has opened up some channels of expression. Hard to say though really. Life is a perpetual shift and every record for me is deeply personal.”
And it’s true: EE’s music always had a strong element of light and hope and underlying beauty. The “Light That Comes Light That Goes” album title serves as a nice summary of this feature. “There is melancholia too, but for me it is not dark, it is more hopeful. I see a glass half full in my songs, I don’t see them dark, I see them full of light. And I want the listener to have the same experience too, I don’t want them to be sad, I want them to be filled with hope. I want that people would be thrilled and excited by my music, but not depressed. And I think this is one of the misconceptions with goth music. When I listen to early Joy Division or The Cure records, they don’t make me sad or melancholic, I feel excited. For me, these are great make-up records, great romantic records. Just because you dress in black and listen to this kind of music, you are associated with sadness, but I think that is wrong. It is just a cool aesthetic.”
Towards the personification of sound
This aesthetic very organically resonates with the personal layer in EE’s sound and since “Fever Logic” it has become even more apparent and upfront. “Fever Logic” came out of a break-up of a long relationship. Making a shift towards more vocal and song-oriented music seemed very natural. So with “Fever Logic” I started to explore this new song-format and then I carried over into “Light That Comes Light That Goes” and even more into “Melt Into Nothing”. I am still trying to combine these elements of sound collage and dark ambience, but also with this deeply romantic, emotional and very human raw pop, this very honest personal style, and I hope the listener can have a personal connection,” Brian says. Indeed lots of personal traces are found in the subsequent records and one of those examples might be the track “Ksenia” from “Light That Comes Light That Goes”, which is the name of Brian’s Russian ex-girlfriend. With “Blossoms in Red” he goes even deeper into personal territory as the album has some confessional elements in its sound and narrative.
Brian neatly summarises the latter points: “That’s what makes music exciting. I am not excited by power electronics and noise music nor am I excited by things that are overtly pop. You have to find the balance, the human behind the sounds. I think that is one of the benefits we have as musicians. It is a particular art form, where you are able to express yourself in a really honest personal way. And it is a great opportunity to explore and to utilise compared to a painting or other art forms, where you are really disassociated from the artist. You can get the idea about the artist, but not so much, you just look at the painting. With music, I think because of the way we listen to it, it is inherently very personal. So I see no reason not to have a personal connection when you do music as an art form. If you are an artist that makes music, you might do something that is deeply personal. There is a huge tradition in history of that too.”
The ability to integrate personal elements in strong visual aesthetics has deep roots in the history of cinema and no wonder that Ensemble Economique’s sound has an indirect relation in terms of artistic approach. “Directors like Aki Kaurismaki, Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, David Cronenberg are framing a scene and they are expressing something, I feel like I am doing the same things with songs. All those directors, they are very concentrated. You see their films and they are in their world, while when you listen to my record, you are in my world. I want these records to be timeless. And if you watch a Kaurismaki, Lynch or Cronenberg film, there are these timeless feelings. That’s where I feel a strong connection. But I am also trying to create a scene with sounds. So consequently the music has a very cinematic feel and I’m desperate for my music to be used in a cinematic context”, Brian explains.
Sounds and Cityscapes
The circumstances of the interview seemed very fitting with the artistic content of Brian’s output. During a rainy day in late spring we were sitting in “Kablys", a venue in an old large Soviet neoclassicist building, which had been disused for many years and was later turned into a club on the outskirts of the Vilnius center. The gig was organised by local promoters “Agharta”, and EE played an excellent and very emotional set that night, showcasing lots of new material and signature sounds. The surroundings of the district around that venue has a bit of resonance with Brian’s sound and artworks.
There are some Eastern European references in Brian’s music ranging from album covers to song titles such as “Make Out in the GDR” reminding some romantic meeting taking place in the tense urban landscapes of 80’s Warsaw or Prague. When asked about this particular track, he says “This song is about just having a great make-out session in East Berlin. But I like the idea of a couple making out in the GDR, or the idea of romanticism existing in a place, where there is so much tension, so much covert action, underground action. I like the feeling, I want to be part of that, that tension, that drama. So I think if you were living in East Berlin in the early 80’s and you were making out with the girl, it was probably really super-dramatic. So it’s a sense of politicism in drama.”
Another recurring symbol in EE’s lyricism is the image of a train, which is a central point of one of his most beautiful tracks “As The Train Leaves Tonight” with Spandau Ballet’s sample as its core around which the whole noirish ambient drama revolves. It is also no wonder that Brian feels spiritually bonded to the Hungarian master of Eastern European photo retrospectivism, Tamas Andok. “I love his aesthetic, which seems to fit very nicely with my music. It is just a black-and-white still frame from the centre of action, just capturing a moment in time and I think that my music is doing something similar,” he explains.
“I have that influence. Also where I live in Northern California it is very grey and rains a lot. So I feel at home in Eastern Europe. I love the drama, the architecture, also the way life feels, the way this part exists aesthetically, I think it feels very natural to me. And, yeah, so I feel close to it, I feel very natural in Eastern Europe and Northern Europe. I also feel a certain warmth, I don’t feel coldness, I think all the Eastern, Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Germany are being misrepresented as being cold, I think this is just the misconception of this region. I feel like it is a very warm culture,” he adds.
It seems that locale and constant moving might be one of the reasons for the ability to disassociate from external influences and craft a separate sonic space. That dissociation is a crucial element of EE’s creative process. When asked whether it is a difficult task to achieve it, Brian explains: “It is not difficult, because it happens for me instantly and seamlessly. It’s automatic. I don’t need to disassociate myself, I do it automatically. I always relate to music this way, even when I first started playing guitar. I never learned how to play cover songs, I still could not play a cover song. I was always just playing notes that sounded cool to me. And that philosophy just grows, I always just do things that sound cool to me. But sometimes there will be things that connect with other things, with other records, movements, ideas. But that’s just coincidental, it is never premeditated. You always connect those dots after the fact. But maybe perhaps, because I live in such an isolated place.”
“I always work from a zero reference point. That’s the only way I know how to compose, that’s the only way I can associate myself with music. I always work with music, with the sound itself, and I don’t connect that sound with anything else except for that sound and how it relates to anything else. That’s how I dealt with composition. When I am working on composition, I am building it, I never think about anything else than the sound itself and how it makes me feel. It’s always a deeply personal interaction in the compositional process and in the studio. When I listen to music outside of what I am doing, I never associate the music with what I am doing. I listen to it purely for what it is. And when I work on my own music, that stuff does not bleed over. It is more my own personal reaction and connection to whatever is happening at that moment, “ he adds.
EE’s tracks transmit this feeling of a particular moment very well, but at the same time they are very universal and can be applied to our diverse personal narratives, spaces and encounters. They are like personalised soundtracks for some movie, which might have never been made. “Blossoms in Red” feels as a truly logical progression of this narrative and having in mind Brian’s high creative productivity, it is interesting what the next turning point in the story could be.