The man behind the band that created blackgaze two decades ago discusses supernatural visions, his pragmatic approach to songwriting and tone, his love for the Jazzmaster, and his band’s new album, Spiritual Instinct.
At 14 years old, French guitarist Stéphane “Neige” Paut received a supernatural vision of a different place and time. Not knowing how to explain the vision to others, he grabbed his guitar and began translating his experience through the lens of the black metal he loved.
“It was strange, but I was able to remember a different place than where I was in this world,” he says. “Now, I’m living a very normal life, but at the same time, I have a part of myself that is still in this other place.”
Neige named his musical outlet Alcest, and the seeds of blackgaze (fusing elements of black metal and shoegaze) were sown. Thanks to the ominous ambiance of a diverse range of artists, blackgaze has since brought the influence of extreme metal to a massive audience. Not bad for a genre that was initially cast aside by the black metal community. But its rise to global consciousness got its start with Alcest’s 2001 black metal demo, Tristesse Hivernale.
Though the demo gained a substantial following, Neige found black metal’s monochromatic palette unable to illustrate the beauty of his celestial experience. To better communicate what he’d seen, he began tweaking the band’s sound by adding shoegaze-like ethereal passages, memorable melodies, and colorful ambiance. Within a single song, listeners could experience a war of darkness and aggression while simultaneously losing themselves in spacious beauty. Unknowingly, Neige was creating what would be named blackgaze.
“When I started this band, mixing genres was never the goal. It’s just that I grew up with metal and also wanted to do something different in terms of choruses and emotions,” Neige explains. “Actually, when I started Alcest, I didn’t even know about shoegaze.”
But even the new sound began to have its limitations. Not content to be pigeonholed, Alcest’s music moved even further away from its black metal origin, even flirting with indie and alternative rock on 2014’s Shelter. But with 2016’s Kodama, Alcest began rediscovering its black-metal-influenced sound and setting the stage for their latest release, Spiritual Instinct.
A glorious concoction of Alcest’s signature elements, major keys and alternative-rock influences abound on Spiritual Instinct. Swirling reverb and delay wash over every track, and each song delivers surprisingly catchy, sing-along melodies. But the Immortal-approved blast beat on the album’s opening track, “Les jardins de minuit,” signals that this album isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
An outcome of grinding tour life and Neige’s ongoing battle with anxiety, Spiritual Instinct explodes to life with anger, demonstrating the darker side of his visions. And though it was Kodama that reintroduced these influences, Spiritual Instinct delivers them with a streamlined approach that exemplifies the best in Scandinavian-rooted metal. And that’s by design.
“I listen to a lot of minimalist composers like Philip Glass,” says Neige. “So, for me, simpler music is more direct. It doesn’t have to be super complex to be interesting.”
Complex or not, Spiritual Instinct attempts to demonstrate the balance between the darkness Neige has felt and the beauty he sees. Neige further explains to Premier Guitar this transcendent yin and yang.
How did Alcest start and how did you get to where you are today?
It’s a little bit of a special story. I created this band because when I was younger, I had a spiritual experience. I had some visions coming to me. I could remember the place where I was before being here. I know it sounds a bit strange. I had some memories from a place that doesn’t look like anything we know. I didn’t know what it was. For many years, I didn’t know what to do with [the memories] because it’s obviously not something that’s super common. I felt quite lonely. So, I decided to start a music project to be able to speak about it. That’s Alcest.
I started it when I was 14 or 15. I’m 34 now. It was a teenager’s project for 10 years. I was alone in the project for 10 years, and then in 2009 a drummer (Jean “Winterhalter” Deflandre) joined the project. We started to play live in 2010. Onstage, we have two extra members (Pierre “Zero” Corson on guitar/backing vocals, and Indria Saray on bass).
Initially, you were part of the European black metal scene. But your sound has shifted quite dramatically over the years.
I had a metal background, so that’s what I knew. The first Alcest tape is black metal. But very quickly I changed to something else because black metal wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t want to be a Darkthrone copycat. I had something to say. I wanted to say it in a very personal way.
Alcest’s sixth studio album, Spiritual Instinct, was recorded to tape over a period of three months with a “purist approach” of just guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Neige’s tonal recipe is to make his Jazzmaster sound like a humbucker guitar by using an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, a Fulltone OCD, and a Marshall JMP.
The concept and message that [black metal] has is completely the opposite of mine. The place that I wanted to portray is very beautiful, otherworldly, and ethereal. It’s not some creepy forest with demons and stuff. That’s why the music was very fragile, luminous, and ethereal. The black metal people, they didn’t know what to do with us. Now you have bands like Deafheaven. But back then, it was a completely new sound.
So the sonic shifts were to better illustrate your visions and memories?
Yes. Maybe if I grew up listening to classical music, my music would’ve been classical. But I got into metal. I thought it was a very interesting type of music and very powerful. I thought, “Why not use this music?” But instead of speaking about negativity, hate, and stuff like that, I would use very different types of imagery and messages. What I wanted to evoke was a very heavenly place. It has nothing to do with the metal clichés.
You have an immensely personal connection with your subject matter. Are you the sole composer in the band?
I write everything in the music and the lyrics. I’m a drummer, too. So, we work on the drums together. Winterhalter has a very good ear and very interesting opinions. We don’t necessarily listen to the same types of bands. What he has to say is always very interesting. It’s usually something that I would’ve never thought of. So, I listen to what he has to say about my songs.
Throughout Spiritual Instinct, I hear influences as diverse as Emperor, Sonic Youth, and even Isis. Who are your guitar influences?
Actually, I don’t listen to a lot of hard rock. I’m more into melodic types of music. I’m not so much into guitar heroes. For example, I love J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. I really like Robert Smith from the Cure. I’m a big Cure fan. I love Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins, too. What he did on the first Pumpkins records is incredible. I also listen to a lot of new wave and indie rock.
Where did you get your black metal influence?
I was into black metal when I was 14. I didn’t do this rock, then heavy metal, then thrash metal, then black metal evolution. I was listening to everything on the radio. Then a friend of mine showed me black metal, and it was love at first sight.
I was listening to the first Emperor album, In the Nightside Eclipse. I didn’t know that such music even existed. It took me away from down-to-earth reality. What you see on the cover is what you have in your mind when you listen to the music. You’re transported to this dark fantasy, dark-side-of-nature type of place that I was really into. With the experience I had, I was attracted to things that took me away from reality.