Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
From ATP to the Amazon: An interview with Vincent Moon

From ATP to the Amazon: An interview with Vincent Moon

07 March 2014, 10:50

“I wanted to go on tour, just to get a feeling of how it is to play so many shows in such a short space of time, like bands do. As it turns out, it’s really fucking exhausting.”

Vincent Moon was born and raised in Paris, but has carved out a reputation as a modern-day nomad over the course of his colourful career to date; not that it’s prevented him from struggling to adapt to the rigours of a quickfire jaunt around Europe. “You don’t get to see any of the place you’re in; you’ve got to keep moving. It’s only for two weeks, so I should survive…hopefully.”

He’s in Copenhagen when I speak to him at a frankly ungodly hour of the morning, ahead of a one-off project that will see him go back to his roots; a one-take film of Efterklang’s final ever show. They’re just one member of the veritable who’s who of indie rock that comprises the list of Moon’s past collaborators; it’d be quicker to list the major alternative bands of the past decade that he didn’t film playing in the streets of Paris for La Blogothèque’s Take Away Shows, and he also produced full-length documentaries for the likes of Beirut, The National and – infamously – Arcade Fire.

The past five years have seen him doing something completely different, visiting all manner of far-flung destinations as part of his Petites Planètes series, which investigates traditional and religious music in locations as obscure as the Amazon rainforest and Chechnya. This tour of Europe has him presenting some of that work, alongside another nod to his more conventional beginnings; the six-film series From ATP, which he’s finally managed to finish, strangely enough, around the same time that the festivals have wound down for good in the UK.

“I thought it’d be nice to go on the road and show these little films, as a way of hanging up that cycle, and closing that part of my life,” he says, his English delivered impeccably through a thick, Parisian drawl. “I went to ATP for the first time with some friends from back home, and just took a small camera with me, with the idea of maybe making a little film. When I was there, I spotted that a full crew was shooting, and realised they must be making a proper film about it. Later on, I found out that Warp Films were putting together this thing that was supposedly going to be directed by Jonathan Caouette. I got in touch with them, because they were looking for recordings that people had made at the festival that year.”

“They really liked what I sent to them; I think they were kind of surprised at how close my films were to what they wanted. They invited me back and paid for the trip, and I ended up going to another six or seven editions, shooting more and more. Some of the footage was used in what became the All Tomorrow’s Parties documentary, but the deal was that I could use some of it for my own short films.”

Expenses aside, Moon didn’t make any money from the project; in fact, he doesn’t make much money from anything he does, making all of his work available for free online (“ATP was like everything else; I did it because I was passionate.”) There was clearly something about the festival’s unique atmosphere that appealed to Moon, and lent itself quite naturally to the way he makes films.

“I think it’s very obvious that I’ve always wanted to approach live music with the point of view that what you see on stage is only half the story; I’ve always been more interested in how people interact with musicians when they’re no longer on a pedestal, when they’re back to everyday life and everybody’s on the same level. ATP was just fantastic for that, because the shows were great, but before and afterwards, everybody was together. It was just the simple fact that the musicians came and stayed for the whole weekend, even if they were only playing once. That was so unusual, that they all excited enough to make the time to see everybody else play.”

“Then, there’s the fact that everybody stays together, too; you’d come out of your chalet and realise that Sonic Youth were staying in the next one. That was mind-blowing, and I remember thinking, “this is it! There’s no hierarchy here. We’re all together.” You’d be up at three or four in the morning, drinking beers in your chalet with guys you’d seen earlier onstage, and it was such a beautiful feeling.”

The From ATP films – which all run between twenty-five and thirty-five minutes – are shot in Moon’s inimitable style, with plenty of black-and-white, washed-out images and eccentric approaches to angle and focus. Some of them, too, feature narration from musicians involved with the specific installment of the festival they covered. “I’d look at the lineup and think about who I’d like to exchange ideas with,” Moon explains. “I was always wanting them to focus on bigger ideas about music than just their own careers, to think about how our generation interacts with it. I thought of people like Lydia Lunch and Saul Williams, people who were eloquent enough to express what I was looking for, or Josh T. Pearson, who’s just an incredible character. I wanted to have these beautiful voices holding the narrative together, kind of an omniscient presence running through the sequences.”


Vincent Moon

Moon’s work elsewhere in the world prevented him from attending either of the End of an Era events that brought down the curtain on the UK’s ATP weekenders, but he does feel that there was already a sense of things reaching a natural end long before the festivals were finally consigned to history last December. “It was incredible that they managed to keep it going for so many years without sponsors, because nowadays it’s fucked up how the name of the festival always goes alongside the name of a brand. They were really proving it was possible to do things differently, but I think the energy that was so special about it had already started to fade by the last couple of times I was there.

“They might have started to do too many; it never seemed as special when it happened three or four times a year. Plus, they seemed to be going against the original idea of having one artist curate everything because, by the end, there were always a few of the artists on their own label on the lineup, too. But things change, things evolve, and I’m happy I was a part of it. It was the kind of thing that only could’ve happened in the UK, I think; you don’t get that same passion anywhere else.”

Moon missed those final ATPs because of his work on Petites Planètes; in fact, he’s spent very little time whatsoever in Europe during the past five years. The project saw a major shift in focus for him, moving from working with established Western acts to exploring traditional music in some of the world’s most exotic locations. “At the time, I was just living it,” he says of his decision to leave La Blogothèque behind. “I left Paris because I’d become bored with the culture there, so I moved to New York to live with a girlfriend – not the most radical place to go, really. She kicked me out not long after I got there; suddenly, I was homeless and had nowhere to stay. It made sense to travel because I had a real desire to discover new music; I felt like I’d done as much as I could with professional musicians and, little by little, I started to become attracted to things I wasn’t familiar with. I remember being invited to go to Chile, and when I got there, I ended up staying for a while and exploring the local culture, because I had no place to go back to.”

“I discovered that the idea of music I’d had in mind, of going to shows and seeing people on stage playing music for an hour or two – it was just very wrong. If you go back to ancient times, music was never on stage, there was never that divide between performer and spectator. In a lot of the cultures I went and researched, that’s still the case, and I became obsessed with the purity of that idea; exploring a a culture through music, particularly these cultures where music was all about community. I made the films in the same spirit – very improvised, very DIY, just my little camera and my backpack – but the focus was totally different.”

The sheer tenacity of Moon’s passion for the project is blindingly obvious, if only from his manner of speech; he talks – very eloquently – at a rate of about fifty words per second, one of those second-language English speakers that puts you to shame by being twice as articulate as you in your own mother tongue. “As you go a little deeper with that kind of music, you quickly get into spiritual stuff, religious stuff. The next thing I’m going to do, in two or three months, is settle in Brazil, in the Amazon, and make some films about music and spirituality. There’s been a real resurgence in shamanism there, and I’ve become obsessed with the use of chants in the Amazon; they’re the deepest use of music I’ve ever heard. I was in Peru a few months ago, researching Ayahuasca rituals; they’re healing rituals, where they use a psychoactive plant to allow the shaman to see your sickness, and then he’ll sing the appropriate song to take it away. It was the most beautiful thing, so powerful. My interest in music and sound has totally switched towards that kind of thing now.”

I wondered how he came to decide which places to visit; was he just sticking pins in the most obscure locations the map had to offer? I mention Chechnya, a place that I know little about beyond its reputation for separatist unrest, and probably the last place on earth I’d give much consideration to culturally, and in musical terms. “It seemed like the obvious thing to do was to go to places I didn’t know anything about,” he explains, “places that I could go to and develop an understanding of as my research progressed. I knew a little bit about Chechnya, because, of course, we’ve all heard bad news come out of there. My desire was really to go beyond that kind of media firewall; we live in a world where we think we understand different cultures, because we live in this information age, but it’s not true – the media has left us with a really fucked up understanding of certain cultures.”

He’s on a roll at this point; I’d struggle to get a word in edgewise even if I wanted to. “In Chechnya, I realised that what we’ve heard about radical Islam is absolutely fake, absolutely wrong, and that actually there’s so many incredible aspects to the Sufi Islam there. I ended up making a series of five films on Sufism because nobody else has done it, and I honestly think it’s my best work. Nobody knows about those cultures because there’s never been any effort to report on them. I think that was kind of my mission, to help people to understand places like that better.”

There’s an obvious emotional investment in the communities that he became part of whilst working on Petites Planètes; his use of the word ‘mission’ doesn’t ring false, by any means. “I’ve not made these films for the cool kids in New York, you know?” he says. “There’s a really beautiful quote from the American thinker, Hakim Bey, who said that every recording is a tombstone of a life performance. I think, with that in mind, we should really be careful about this idea of recording everything for the sake of it, because there’s this idea that keeping everything for the next generation is important – I think that hurts a lot of cultures, if what’s been recorded doesn’t represent them properly.”

There’s probably no greater indicator of the fact that Moon makes films for the love of it than his insistence on releasing all of his work for free online, under Creative Commons license. “I think I’ve always wanted to prove that there are other options, outside of going down the usual business-driven route; I do really believe in the idea that culture shouldn’t have any monetary bias involved. The other thing, though, is that it’s forced me to keep a low profile, because I’ve always had to live without much money. That’s challenging, sure, but a good thing in that it keeps your working relationships simple; I couldn’t afford to pay any of the musicians, so if they were working with me, I knew it was because they wanted to. That’s been especially hard these past few years, when I’ve been trying to collaborate with people who don’t give a shit if I’ve worked with Arcade Fire or R.E.M.”



To help fund the post-production and promotion necessary for From ATP, Moon turned to Kickstarter, although he’s surprisingly cool when I ask him about the site’s perceived merits. “There’s some amazing projects that have been made that way, but a lot of bullshit too, with people trying to use it for the wrong reasons. I haven’t used it again since From ATP; it’s great that it allows you to make the intermediaries disappear and have a direct relationship with the people who effectively become your producers, but crowdfunding isn’t the only way to do that. I’ve often relied on local contacts; it can be as simple as finding somebody you can stay with for a little while, and then they might know somebody who can drive you out to whichever remote village you might be shooting in – you’re still relying on others, but it’s a more personal way of working and living.”

Many of the contacts he’s built up down the years have been fans of his work on La Blogothèque; he might not lean too heavily on crowdfunding, but the internet has certainly played an integral part. “I’d get in touch with people who’d emailed down the years,” he recalls, “telling me how much they’d enjoyed the Take Away Shows. I think a lot of them were surprised that I was interested in local music, because all they wanted was to have people in their area playing the same kind of music as Beirut, or Arcade Fire. The most rewarding aspects of my work these past few years has been encouraging the young people in these places to look into their own culture; it’s meant I’ve been able to discover it with them, and change their own perception of the places they live in.”

There’s no avoiding the fact that Moon’s work with some of the names he’s dropped so far is the primary reason he’s speaking to us in the first place; he’s collaborated extensively with some real heavyweights, and you wonder precisely what it was about his approach that attracted the likes of R.E.M. and The National. “You should ask them!” he laughs. “Most of those bands weren’t really very well known at the time, I guess. I mean, I’ve been friends with The National from the really early days, from their first trips to Europe. What interested me about La Blogothèque was what a good job Christophe (Abric, founder) was doing of contacting these bands and getting them onboard.”

“I think, at the time, there wasn’t the saturation of video recordings in that style that we have now; it was still pretty new, pretty fresh. Bands would come over on promo tours and spend the whole day in a dark room, answering the same questions every thirty minutes, and when we started doing the Take Away Shows, we were just saying, “look, we’d like you to spend that thirty minutes in the street, playing for us.” Back then, I think they found that very exciting. Nowadays, though, I have friends complaining to me, saying “wherever we are on tour, there’s always a fucking guy turning up with a camera asking us to play in the street!” I think it’s been overdone now, and it’s starting to drive people nuts.”

It seems like a strange coincidence that I should speak to him at such length about his newfound love for traditional and religious music on the same day that he’s going back to working with a band like Efterklang, although he quickly shoots down any suggestion that he might return to working with conventional rock bands. “I don’t really see myself being interested in that kind of stuff again; I don’t even really listen to it any more. I know that tonight, I’ll have a great time because I love those guys and it’s a very important night for them, their last ever concert. It’s interesting, actually, to draw parallels between that kind of indie music, which was really my first love, and what I’m interested in now. Tonight’s this big, important event, and I’m going to film the whole show in one take. I think it has a sense of significance attached to it, and that was what attracted me to the rituals I’ve been following this past year or so. I think it’s possible to enter into a kind of trance through both of those types of music, in the right circumstances.”

I spoke with Moon for just shy of forty-five minutes. He barely stopped for breath the entire time, and that seems like a reflection of an incredibly active mind; he’s bursting at the seams with new ideas when I ask him what he does see himself doing next. “I feel like I’ve come to the end of a five year cycle, where I’ve been refining a certain style,” he says. “I’m really happy with where I arrived with that, but now and again you have to just turn things upside down and do them differently – that’s the normal way to create, for me. I want to experiment with different formats, and eventually expand what I do to include pure sound recording. I want to take some time to write, too, and focus just on that; I’ve been trying to do as much of that as possible, recently. But the truth is, ultimately, I really don’t know what’s next. I never really seem to. I guess that’s the beauty of doing what I do.”

Vincent Moon is streaming the From ATP films on-line now, including one exclusively on Best Fit.

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next