Alcest – Still the same stone, but what you see is different

January saw the release of Alcest’s latest album, Shelter. Even though I myself am not a big fan of this particular offering from the band, it’s clear to me that it is a proper culmination of gradual changes in Alcest’s sound and direction. As a long-time Alcest fan, I’ve read a number of interviews with Neige over the years. Thus, it was a pleasure to be granted an opportunity to speak to the other main player of the group, Winterhalter. His responses not only provide a different perspective on the Alcest story, but they also suggest ways that the band will continue to grow as a musical and artistic project in the future.

Greetings Winterhalter! I haven’t seen too many solo interviews with you speaking as the drummer of Alcest. Are you hoping to do more in the future?

Hi. Yes, I think that I will do more and more interviews now because we are starting to split them between Neige and I when there are too many.

How did the recent tour of Europe go? Who was playing in the band with you and Neige this time around?

The tour has been over for a few days now and I think that it was one of the best ones we have done so far. We have had good responses from the crowd and it was interesting to see how many different people came. Also, the tour package was very interesting with the Fauns and Hexvessel, two really good bands with really nice people.

For this tour the live line-up was Neige, Indria, Zero and myself.

Has Alcest’s increasing popularity as an act offered new challenges to you all as a touring band?

We are always trying to improve our presentation and the live experience in general. For example, we are using samples for some parts like the glockenspiel, strings, etc. to make the live music sound as full as it is in our albums. We have been playing together for quite a while now, so we know each other better than before, and we have more experience now too, which makes things a bit easier.

How did you first come to play in Alcest? 

Neige did some auditions to find a drummer. I tried out and at the end he chose me.

As has been discussed in numerous interviews, Alcest is a project that has deep and personal significance for Neige. It reflects many experiences and glimpses of a place outside most people’s everyday perception. Given that I have the opportunity to interview you, I’d like to ask you whether this guiding inspiration for Alcest has had any impact on you over the years, either spiritually or artistically?

It was quite difficult for me to enter a solo project. Neige has created Alcest for personal reasons and it took several years for us to both fully connect musically because of this. But now it is second nature for us to work together; we have evolved together as musicians and friends and now share the same vision and direction.

You’ve been a part of Alcest releases since the 2009 split with Les Discrets. How has your role in the band changed in that time? How much say or interest do you have in the direction the music takes?

Part of this question has already been accidentally answered earlier in the interview, but maybe I can elaborate by saying that Neige and I speak a lot about the Alcest direction, even before we start to work on new songs. The first things we speak about are guidelines, ideas, concepts, sound, etc. And then, only after this has been done, do we begin to rehearse together.

Many of the projects you’ve been involved with often feature the same people, though sometimes in different roles. As a drummer in the French scenes (and beyond) in which you work, is your involvement with other people’s projects about shared interest, goals, and respect, or is it more a matter of practicality given the relatively niche nature of music scenes?

I prefer not to be a session drummer, so if I’m playing with someone it’s because I like the music, the concept, and the members. It’s a band, my band. I’m investing all of my energy and skills in it, so yeah there is shared interest, goals, and respect, and if one of these is missing, I generally prefer to quit.

I’d like to talk about the latest album. How involved were you in the writing/recording of Shelter?

To summarize the best I can, Neige first comes to me with new material (an embryonic song), and then we try to play it together to find the right drum beats and fills and arrangements. It is a very organic process without too many rules. We shape songs together, sharing our thoughts on it, and then when we feel ready, we record a rough demo of the song. After a few days/weeks of listening to the demo, we might change some structures, parts, etc., if necessary, and then we are re-starting the whole cycle again until the moment we are both happy with the final product.

Is there a particular song or moment on Shelter that has particular meaning for you? If so, why?

I think that the album as a whole has a particular meaning for me. We were recording at the Sundlaugin Studio in Iceland. The experience was very intense; we were in a kind of cocoon, just focused on the album and the recording. Nothing else was important. Iceland is an incredible country with amazing people and I think I speak for both Neige and I when I say it has had a huge impact on the album and on ourselves. There were also some very intense moments when certain guests came to the studio to record their parts, and it was amazing to hear different vocals and a real quartet (Amiina) on Alcest music.

For all the ways in which Shelter is different from Alcest’s previous work to some degree, there are also moments (particularly “Wings” and “Délivrance”) that sound very much like Alcest in an almost pure form. From your perspective, what are Shelter’s most distinguishing characteristics, particularly when compared to previous Alcest releases?

I think that this album is brighter, lighter, and more positive than the other ones. It also sounds more rock and roll and natural. Shelter is very simple in the songs’ structure, the main melodies, and the drums, but it’s full of details, layers, and arrangements. There are also less metal influences, no screaming vocals, no heavy distortion, and no blast beats or double kick.

This time around Alcest has embraced and incorporated influences from shoegaze and dream pop groups (Slowdive’s Neil Halstead even appears as a guest on the album). Shelter sounds like it’s intended to make sure that Alcest won’t continue to be stereotyped as being a “black metal” band. Is Shelter a deliberate attempt to open up future musical possibilities and collaborations for Alcest?

Alcest has never been “black metal.” Maybe the first demo was a bit, but it was a demo, not an album. The concept of Alcest is quite the opposite of black metal if you are listening to the music for more than five minutes. We are playing Alcest’s music: sometimes we are using some “tools” like screaming vocals, blast beats, and sometimes we are using brushes and strings. Alcest can be seen as a stone and every side is different from the other one. It’s the same for the albums. It’s still the same stone, but what you see is different.

We don’t want to always play the same music again and again and to release the same album. We have no barriers, we want to try different ways to express the music of Alcest.

Prophecy’s promotional material for Shelter describes the title as referring to everyone’s need for a space in which they can “escape from reality,” even if only temporarily. Do you think Shelter’s lighter sound is a permanent adjustment for Alcest, or do you and Neige see it as a temporary escape from the legacy of the band’s heavier work?

As I touched upon before, it’s still the same music concept, but now it is played with different tools or in a different way. Maybe the next Alcest will be heavier, or lighter, but I’m quite sure that there will not be screaming vocals anymore.

Besides continuing to work with Neige to support and promote Shelter, are there any other projects that you’re working on coming up in the near future?

I was playing in some other bands, but now Alcest is taking most of my time. The distances between band members made things even more difficult, so for my old bands it was better for both sides to stop working together. I’m still playing in the black metal band Glaciation. I’m also working on a project for a new band in the US.

Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to my many questions. I’ll leave any last words to you.

Thank you for the interview and also thanks to the people who took the time to read this interview.