The songwriter born Thomas Meluch made a cathartic, uplifting album after a troubling time in his personal life—and then his brother died.
All photos by Sean Curtis Patrick
There's a slipperiness to the music that Thomas Meluch has made over the last 15 years as Benoît Pioulard. Coated with ephemeral effects and inhabiting shifting atmospheres, his songs feel imbued with a sense of how fleeting life can be. But on his new album, The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter, he finally confronts that reality head on, and in the very first line: "I finally found the sound I wanted, and it disappeared."
The six albums that the Seattle-based producer, singer, and songwriter has made for Chicago label Kranky this far brim with textures that seem to decay with time. A wisp of acoustic guitar will melt into an echoey drone; a hushed vocal will dissolve into a field recording. Pioulard's working process is similarly transitory: he rarely saves settings or listens back to previous releases. "[The opening lyric] relates to my sense of making music as a Mandala experience, where you put every bit of energy and attention you have into it, and then you let it go," Meluch explains to me over the phone. "It's my best method of dealing with life—just process it and get it out there."
Dealing with life got intense for Meluch during the two years it took him to create Listening Matter. He struggled with "issues of abandonment and self-medication," including bouts with heavy drinking. "Making this record involved a lot of soul-searching," he says. "I spent afternoons lying on the bed looking at the ceiling, just trying to connect the dots through my whole life and make sense of everything."
He also spent an entire month creating short guitar loops—a routine he describes as a form of therapy. It was a way, he says, "to watch the days tick by and not think about any kind of temptation...and get back in touch with a part of myself that become defocused." Sadly, the process of making Listening Matter ended with a brutal loss: his brother died the day after he finished the album. "I didn't really need that reminder that life is short," he says. "But the fact that it happened right then made me think, 'Man, what is going on?'"
Using music as therapy is a natural choice for Meluch; playing and writing has been part of his life for a long time. Growing up in Michigan, he took piano and marimba lessons as a child before convincing his dad to buy him a "$50 junk-shop guitar." He drummed on Yes and King Crimson covers in a high school band, and credits "bashing the shit out of drums everyday" for making his teen years bearable. At home, his listening leaned toward Nirvana and Weezer, then Mogwai and Aphex Twin. "I think some combination of all the electronic stuff and the moody guitar stuff I was listening to is the guiding force behind what I'm doing now," he says.
While learning to play instruments, Meluch also became fascinated with field recording, though he didn't even know it had a name. "I thought I was the first person in the world to do it," he admits. He'd buy cheap blank tapes at Target, grab his boombox, and "just walk through the woods and hit record," he recalls. "I'd come back home and listen to what I recorded over and over. It was the most comforting thing to me at that age."
The name Benoît Pioulard came to him in the middle of the night, when he was studying French in college; soon after, he started folding the field recordings he'd been making into structured songs and abstract pieces, frequently bridging together folky tunes and ambient meditations. The abstract side became especially pronounced on 2015's dense, evocative Sonnet. Listening Matter is clearer and more melodic, but hints of nature seep in. Some tracks, such as the bird-chirp-filled "A World of What-There-Is" and the airy "In-The-Vapor," are more environments than songs.
The results can sound complex, but his process is refreshingly simple. He makes everything in GarageBand, using its limitations to force himself to find clever solutions. One favorite trick is transferring sounds to tape, embracing the grainy imperfections of the cassette format. "Almost every time somebody hears something in one of my songs and says, 'What is that?', I go, "Oh, that's just me snapping [my fingers], but it's on tape,'" he says. "It makes it sound good no matter what, basically."
As an example, he brings up the contemplative Listening Matter track "Layette." He thought it didn't feel quite right as recorded, so he experimented by dubbing it off repeatedly. "I finally put it on an old Maxell tape that had a Squarepusher album on it, and that added a little high-frequency hiss and a few quivers in places that are barely noticeable," he remembers. "That gave the song the atmosphere that I was looking for."
In making Listening Matter, Meluch chose to create music that is questioning and philosophical, even uplifting, despite all the turmoil that he was experiencing. "Several songs became guided by the process of healing," Meluch explains. "I was focusing on austerity, on being present in every moment." That attitude seems an integral part of his approach to loss—responding with acceptance and gratitude rather than self-pity.
Listening Matter's shimmering acoustic guitars, upbeat rhythms, and intimate vocals suggest that hard subjects call for hopefulness. Even the album's title is a little bit playful; it's an homage to a book Meluch's dad gave him, The Mason Williams Reading Matter, by humorist and musician Mason Williams, best known for his work on the 60's TV show The Smothers Brothers and his song "Classical Gas."
That levity comes to the fore on the bright, strummy "The Sun Is Going To Explode But Whatever It's OK." Here, Meluch contemplates "the great conversation of the universe," one where "nobody sticks around too long," but everyone has fun anyway, evidenced by a chorus that's nothing but la-la-la's. "I thought maybe there should be lyrics in those breaks," he recalls. "But a friend suggested, 'Just pretend like you're having a party,' and I thought that fit the idea of the song."
Optimism also imbues Meluchs' use of field recordings, which he admits have a personal benefit. "[They're] like little hidden messages to myself," he says. "I've gone back to certain songs and heard something in the background, and remembered, 'Oh, that's from the time I went to the Canterbury Cathedral and climbed up the bell tower.' Nobody else would ever know that, but it's fun for me." It's another way for Meluch to deal with impermanence, to save the things around him that are fading by turning them into music.
On Listening Matter, Meluch's words are sharp as ever, evoking worlds of meaning in quick turns of phrase. He cites e.e. cummings, who first blew his mind in high school, as a poetic influence. "It oozed such raw emotion, and I was thrilled by the idea that you can completely destroy any idea of format," he recalls. "Reading through some Cummings poems recently, I realized that I have unintentionally stolen quite a few ideas from him over the years."
In the midst of "I Walked into the Blackness and Built a Fire," he captures the ineffable feeling of watching things just beyond reach: "Little sliver in the cloudy sky / Glowing red like the devil's eye." That opening line was inspired by an incident during his honeymoon. "I walked out to the beach and saw this narrow sliver of sky that had opened as the sun was setting, and it contained the deepest, brightest blood red that I could imagine," he remembers. "It was there for just about 30 seconds and then closed up again."
That image is perhaps the perfect metaphor for Meluch's ongoing fascination with impermanence—if everything in his music seems to be slipping away, it's because that's how he experiences the world. Even the final couplet on Listening Matter—"Find a quiet place to lay your head / & look up at the sky as it turns red"—echoes this idea.
Another elusive subject emerges in "Like There's Nothing Under You," which uses just six lines to describe Meluch's social anxiety, opening with the claim that "I blend in like an empty chair." "There's this part of me that wants to be anonymous and fade into the background," he says. "And then there's a side of me that's comfortable playing personal songs on stage in front of total strangers. I still haven't found a way to reconcile those things."
Struggles with interpersonal connection might explain Meluch's love of nature and the peaceful isolation it offers—a fondness reflected in Listening Matter's cover shot, a self-portrait in a mirror that Meluch passes by every day on the way to his job at a revolving restaurant at the top of Seattle's Space Needle. "It makes it look like I'm in a literal bubble, with this dark, decayed concrete all around it," he explains. "I grew up in natural surroundings, and I feel like I'm most drawn to them."
Meluch says he hopes to eventually move from Seattle to more rural environs, study forestry, and become a park ranger. Still, chances are he'll never plan that far ahead.
"The truth is I don't really know what I'm going for," he admits. "The fact that [my music is] just out there for people to take or leave—that's the thrill of my life."
Benoît Pioulard's The Benoît Pioulard Listening Matter is out October 14 on Kranky. You can listen to a new single "The Sun Is Going to Explode But Whatever It's OK" up above and pre-order the album over at Kranky's Bandcamp.
Marc Masters is a writer and he's on Twitter.