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Autre Ne Veut: “I wonder whether I can handle living in this surreal context”

Autre Ne Veut: “I wonder whether I can handle living in this surreal context”

02 April 2013, 11:20


It’s not hard to understand just how overwhelmed Autre Ne Veut appears to be with the reception that his recent album Anxiety has received. Just last year, he was most well known for following up his debut self-titled album with an EP that was notorious mostly for its cover apparently resembling female genitalia.

That it was in fact an oiled-up hand didn’t get in the way of the male tendency to assume that anything fleshy and lubricated is probably the female reproductive organ. In 2013, however, people seem much more willing to talk about his music after the deeply unsettling subject matter of Anxiety resonated with enough people to bring in a smattering of gushing reviews for its unconstrained eccentricity, all nailed in place by a seam of pop stylings.

Its boundary-battering neurosis seemed popular enough that each report of SXSW seemed to have an obligatory report of Autre Ne Veut (real name Arthur Ashin) embedded somewhere, but although Arthur was aware that eyes were on him (“It’s a lot,” as he bluntly puts it), he was grateful to be there at all after past experiences. “I got grounded and wasn’t allowed to go when I was like 13 or 14 and so in my head it’s always associated with not seeing Pavement.” The longer we speak, in fact, the more you get the sense that he’s grateful just to be in the position that he is in, as he energetically races through incredibly detailed answers to any question directed his way. He sums up his approach very neatly by simply expressing that “when your job’s something like this, you don’t have the right to complain.”

Still, that’s not to say that he doesn’t feel uneasy about being thrown into the glare of the media, and suddenly having people dissecting the meanings of his songs and, by extension, Ashin’s own psyche. “Yeah, it’s not my comfort zone at all,” he agrees, “but I have mixed feelings about it. It makes me feel self conscious and weird, but also it’s like a weird combination where the narcissist side of me has its ego stroked, because people care.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise for somebody who wrote an entire album that centred on the concept of anxiety in relation to romance, death and social situations, but the sudden intensity of analysis that him and his music are being subjected to has been tough to deal with. He admits “my baseline has become surreal in the past few months. I kind of wonder as somebody who’s painfully self aware whether I can handle living in this surreal context for much longer, and also if the surreality ever stops being surreal and starts redefining what reality is.”

It’s exactly the sort of remorseless self-reflection that you’d expect from an ex-psychology student, as Ashin is, and he sums up his position by adding that “it’s definitely more attention than I’ve ever had on me at any time in my entire life, period. I’m the type of person who prefers to be a set of eyes in space, watching the world, so it’s weird to have that sense of people looking back.”

Given his introspective character, I can’t help asking Ashin whether he had any reservations about making such a stark and cathartic record that is the musical approximation of his deepest emotions being ripped from his grasp and being placed under a magnifying glass. But perhaps importantly, he dismisses that idea by explaining that “when I’m writing, I’m alone,” and without any knowledge of his record’s future audience, the self-consciousness didn’t arrive until after Anxiety had been written.

It’s central to Anxiety’s raw appeal that it was written in this honest way. Of course, given that the record was released by Software Recording Co. and Mexican Summer, there were a few people around during recording. But these people were Daniel Lopatin (of Oneohtrix Point Never, who also happens to be Ashin’s ex-roommate) and Joel Ford, who both helped out with all of the technical stuff that you’d expect them to be experts in. As Ashin says, even though he was working with them he wasn’t worried about laying his emotions down completely unedited: “I have the benefit of having really great people that I’m close to who know all my problems anyway working with me in the studio, so they’re not the people that I’m embarrassed around.”


So why does he think that Anxiety has connected with so many people on a scale that he couldn’t and didn’t foresee? Especially seeing as its subject matter is inherently dark, traversing as it does between the certainty of death, crushing romantic frustration, and the unrelenting pressure of day to day social situations; how is it that so many people could enjoy that?

Like any self-respecting psychologist, he begins his answer with the furrowed-brow-inducing question of, “do you know Bataille at all?” Satisfied that I am not, he explains that, “well, there’s this notion, and Freud deals with it too, that death drive and sex drive are really closely linked. It’s the idea of wanting and lack of access; tension is wrapped up into our system of desire.

“Also I think there’s a fetishistic or pornographic and highly sexualised and desirous relationship between the things that we fear the most, and the things that we want the most.” In a sense, then, we are fetishistic voyeurs for indulging in Anxiety because it provides us with a window into the things that terrify us; an improperly intimate snapshot of somebody else’s tortured mind.

It’s here that we approach the colossal elephant in the room; that he’s continuously lumped into the convenient genre of contemporary R&B. I ask him if he sees himself in the same context as artists like Miguel and the Weeknd, and he leaves us in absolutely no doubt; “I’m definitely coming from a very different musical background, I mean I’m an R&B fan, but I’m not coming from within the studio system which they both are.” Immersing yourself in Anxiety, it’s not tough to see where he’s coming from, as though he shares their rhythmic styles, Autre Ne Veut is a project steeped in the unexpected, more subverting traditional structures rather than neatly fitting into them.

He certainly doesn’t fall easily into that commercially successful tract of R&B, and he seems to know it, continuing that “I think of R&B as being basically a marketing label that the music industry uses to sell records to people. From a musical standpoint, if someone wants to categorise me as that, that’s cool, but I’m not sure if the best aspects of the record come out when seen through that major label-style R&B lens.”

But if he doesn’t sit comfortably next to other contemporary R&B artists, he certainly has no shame in pointing to the genre as a huge influence on his music. He cites his parents’ living in Kenya as an integral part of his formative years, stating that “my musical tastes were informed heavily by Kenyan musical tastes; R&B was a big thing there too. I did spend a year living there later in life, but my culture wasn’t Kenyan directly, it was more a weird filtration of it that my parents kind of passed down to me.” Perhaps this unique cultural upbringing is part of the root of his singular sound; as he says, “hip-hop is full of samples from so many different places, and what I’m really doing, without actually sampling, is culture sampling.”

Looking to the future, Ashin seemingly isn’t racked with any of the reticence that’s common in other artists; he’s ambitious, but in an artistic rather than commercial sense. “I’m really invested in the idea of trying to make unique music. It’s something that I’m always thinking about. I realise that trying not to borrow from anything else is nearly impossible, but I’m trying to push boundaries musically.”

Hopefully not prophetically, I ask whether that will be harder as he makes his next record without the lack of self-consciousness that defined Anxiety; there’s now very definitely a global audience for Autre Ne Veut’s work, and he’s aware of it. “I hope that stays irrelevant,” comes his tentative response, before (not entirely seriously) adding that “I was writing before this all happened, so hopefully this next record will have enough content that already existed.”

Yet throughout all his lofty talk of being committed to unique music, and the psychology of Freud and Bataille, Ashin retains that humble appreciation of his situation, and an obvious passion for making music. As he sums it up himself, “the best part to me is the ability to have somebody fund me to go into a studio and work on music; the world is random and I’m lucky as shit.” I wonder if knows Kant at all, because as he would have it, luck doesn’t come into it at all.

Anxiety is available now through Software Recording Co.

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