[Interview] Breton Singer Roman Rappak Details Debut Album, Speaks In Multimedia Languages
photo credit: The Fader
What started as a simple solution to showcase their short films in a unique way quickly turned into what we listen to, watch and experience as London five-piece Breton. Lead singer Roman Rappak was kind enough to take a few minutes to duck into another section of their abandoned bank turned studio and home known as BretonLABS to chat with Some Kind of Awesome as he and his bandmates were making their final preparations before heading to Austin, TX for a week's worth of shows at SXSW and their first headlining performance at Mercury Lounge in New York City. With their debut full length Other People's Problems hitting shelves in the UK next week on March 26th and April 3rd in the US, Rappak brought me up to speed on the band from initial idea to present, complete with his experience recording in Iceland at Sundlaugin Studio - Sigur Ros' recording studio that was converted from an old 1930's swimming pool.
Below is our conversation from the Thursday before SXSW.
SKOA_KIBBE: Let's start with the basics. How did Breton come about?
BRETON_ROMAN: Oh. Wait a second somebody just decided to start playing drums. Great. I'm gonna go into a different room than this. Give me just one second.
KIBBE: Sure. Don't sweat it. Take your time.
KIBBE: I take it you're in the labs right now?
ROMAN: Yeah I am. Two of them just decided that one was going to play drums and one was going to learn a bass line which is really great and fun and creative except for the fact that as soon as you want to talk to someone on the phone you basically have to go on the roof.
ROMAN: Okay. Here. So basically I was at art school studying sound design and Adam was at Goldsmiths down the road and we were putting on short films and struggling to find a place to show them. In London the short film circuit is really tough to get into. It's tough because everything has to have release forms and you have to get nominated and shortlisted and then after all that you have to have your film screened in a small venue where you have to sit through 20 other films just to see your own. So we just thought it'd be kind of cool to try to put them on at gigs by playing the soundtrack live. We ended up getting a few people down playing some shows like that and then fanzines and blogs and stuff came out and we decided that we should put out some records because people wanted to buy the recording because they were mostly live at that point.
KIBBE: Are you guys a total collaborative effort or do certain people head up certain aspects?
ROMAN: We all sort of have our own thing that we kind of focus in on, like I do most of the production and the songwriting. Then we move it from the studio into the live room which changes everything and it means everyone has to kind of adapt it to make it work in a live setting. 'Cause obviously with an electronic band you kind of have to make it cool when you want humans to play it. For example, I had this really good idea when we were a bit drunk at 3 in the morning and decided to put in a 20-piece orchestra into a track but how are we gonna play that in a pizza shop at SXSW?
KIBBE: You guys are a very multimedia heavy band. How do you maintain a balance between your visuals and the music so one doesn't cancel the other out?
ROMAN: I guess in a way I quite like there to be an imbalance sometimes. I like the idea of the visuals being so strong that they take everyone's attention away from the music and then sometimes the music being so great that people forget that the visuals are even there. I think that's cool because a band has to sort of offer a lot these days for a live gig just because it's not like you're gonna say to people, "Hey buy this record. Here's some vinyl, this, that, and the other" and then just go and sit in a studio until someone says "Write another album", you know? Shows have to be everything. We've been playing a lot of shows in France recently and a lot of fans there have become really obsessed about what the films mean, like REALLY obsessed. When they watch it I try to not get too involved in what their interpretations are just because I think it's really exciting for someone else to read their own stuff into it. I like there to be a bit of a struggle for the visuals to get your attention and for the music to kind of compete with it as well.
KIBBE: If you could control someone's first time experiencing Breton, do you have a particular preference on how that should go?
ROMAN: Like I was saying about how people have their own interpretations for the films and lyrics, the way that they enjoy the band or the way that they absorb what we do, I think everyone has their own unique relationship with the music. Not just with our band but with all music. Things that one album says to me will not necessarily do the same things for you. I think that's the thing about music that I really love. There's something so personal about it. Even if people argue that "this blog told you to listen to this band. This bit of PR got you to try this band" I think that you still have the most personal relationship and that it reminds you of your own things. So I think which ever way someone is introduced to us that's part of what's exciting about it. Whether it's a massive airplane hanger in France like we played a few months back or like this weird exhibition hall that we'll be playing in Manchester in about 2-3 weeks. I think it's not up to us to force ourselves on anyone. Any way that they enjoy it is cool with us.
KIBBE: I saw in another interview that you think that bands nowadays have the tendency to overshare and that it's sort of ruining the element of mystery in music. Do you think that social media is hindering fans from getting the proper music experience? What does Breton do to keep yourselves mysterious without practically hiding yourselves away in one of your valts?
ROMAN: Shit did I really say that? It's always scary when someone's done their research.
KIBBE: I mean I could have played stupid and just asked you generic questions.
ROMAN:No it's cool. Actually, I don't know how quotes work, am I allowed to amend quotes?
KIBBE: Haha. Sure.
ROMAN: Okay. The thing is for any deeply held beliefs and philosophies that I have is I often change my mind. *laughs* The bit about that [quote] that I'd love to amend is I don't think that it's destroying the mystery of the band but I do think it shifts the focus a little bit away . . . There was this weird transition in the Myspace era where people were my friends on major [labels] were being told by big suited record dudes (which was really contradictory to the fact that this is massive PR functioning company that is a record label), "What you really need to do is if you like egg sandwiches you gotta tweet that you like egg sandwiches. If you like putting on blue socks the fans need to know that you're wearing blue socks." and I think that there was a lot of overkill about that at one point. I think that our response to that, because by definition if you try to maintain a layer of mystery it's not mysterious, you know? It's the lack of trying to do things like [trying to be mysterious] that makes things interesting. Our angle on it: people are much too clever and are much too able to use tools like Google to find things out. Like if you really want to know what color socks that the guys in Mount Kimbe have they can find that stuff out. Or if you want to find out if ASAP Rocky likes egg sandwiches then that information is there. So there's not really any point in them telling you all about it… Making a website where it's like "Follow us on Twitter and download this and here's us in the studio doing this" feels a little bit dated. I dunno. It feels a bit MySpacey to do all that.
KIBBE: I know when I was doing my research and I came to your website (which is just a video looping) I was like "Okayyy this all looks cool but there's no information here. *laughs* Time to look somewhere else" and it was really kind of refreshing to have to really dig to know more about it.
ROMAN: Yeah it kind of weeds out a lot of people that are like, I dunno. I did this week of interviews in Europe just ahead of the album coming out [on March 26th in the UK] and there was like two really different types of journalists I kind of found… there's some journalists like you who've done research and have got questions that are interesting and then you've got journalists who are like, "I saw here that you said your favorite color was blue, so what's your second favorite color?" or just like the most mindless kinds of questions. People don't really wanna know that surely. Like people can research, not only journalists.
KIBBE: I don't know. I think for those kinds of journalists there are fans who choose a level of fandom where you choose to align yourself with a band so much that you want to know the little nitty gritty details about them and things like that.
ROMAN: Yeah of course. I wouldn't wanna say, "People are allowed to know this and should ask this" I just know that from my personal experience about what I like to about the bands and filmmakers that I like and it's mostly in response to that question about, you know, Is the internet suffering from the death of this kind of mystery that we used to be? I think that there's always gonna be something new that you'll want to find out about [a band or something]. Just having access to that kind of information doesn't necessarily mean that everyone goes and gets it, I suppose.
KIBBE: You mentioned your new album, Other People's Problems. What kind of process went into that? What kind of things inspired you guys? Was everything recorded in BretonLABS?
ROMAN: Everything started out in little sketches and stuff. We had loads of little ideas that just begun as nothing and I tried to record them as well as I could here and then we made a version of the album which was about fifteen songs chosen from about 120 little ideas or full songs and then we settled on a narrative for the album, like "this would be a cool song to introduce the band with" . . . and then we listened to it and it was like… i don't know. It sounded really claustrophobic and a bit cold and brittle. I think it was because we had been staying in the same building for like 4 months. It felt like it would come off as an [inside] joke like it wouldn't make sense to anyone else. So Alex from our label said, "Why don't I ask Sigur Ros if you can go to their studio and record in their studio and use all of their stuff and see what it does to the music?" So at first we were like, "Well we obviously think Sigur Ros is amazing and we love all of their music and stuff," but you listen to [the demo version Other People's Problems] this like, really aggressive electronic and sort of punk album (which is kind of how I heard it, whether it is or not is a completely different phone conversation) and we thought, "actually it would be cool to take it to the total opposite of how it started". [The album] starts off in London which was all grey and miserable in this broken down old building that we kind of live and work in. At that time of year Iceland is in 24 hour daylight and the air is super clean and there's volcanic mountains and lakes and horses and waterfalls. Sigur Ros' studio is a converted swimming pool with oak panel everything and every instrument you touch sounds beautiful and sounds like a Sigur Ros song. So we thought it would be really cool to put it through that sort of filter, take off a lot of the sharp edges, and actually make it an album that you don't have to be in London in 2012 to understand that's actually a bit more universal. We can talk about it more when it comes out if it worked or if people are just like "no that sounds really London and really 2012" *laughs.
KIBBE: I don't know if I'd call it London-y but I guess not living in London I don't really know what a London album is supposed to sound like, or I guess what it sounds like to you.
ROMAN: Cool. That's perfect. You're the perfect test case then.
KIBBE: Yeah I mean, it resonates really well here in Brooklyn so I think you're okay.
ROMAN: Really? Does it? That's amazing.
KIBBE: Yeah I can even picture the venue where I'd have you guys play here in Brooklyn and it fitting very well.
ROMAN: Amazing. That's like the best thing I've heard all day. Totally cheered me up.
ROMAN: 'Cause no one knows how the fuck it's gonna work, you know? Like no one knows if it's gonna make sense to anyone even outside of this building.
KIBBE: Yeah true.
ROMAN: The weird thing about an album (and I never realized this) but I always thought that you make an albm and then you go "3-2-1" and then everyone listens to it and goes, "I like it" or "It sucks". But what actually happens is this really slow process where you play it for your band mates and you listen to finished bit and then you play it to your label and then they send it off to journalists. And you're like three months down the line and the first people who've heard it that you don't know are journalists who are like obviously by nature are like, inquisitive and critical. So it's like a really really nerve-wracking process. Like I always thought, you know, people who just listen to music would hear it first but the first people who hear it are people who write about music. It's been really interesting to see people's reactions.
KIBBE: Yeah, I can't remember where I was but I was about two tracks in on the album and I was like, "Yeah, we need to do something for this in the US" so I hit up [the guy who handles their press in the US]
ROMAN: Oh amazing. Yeah I'm really excited about just people hearing it, really. Touring and everything is so much fun and playing these shows and meeting new people is going to be amazing. . . . It's strange, I've never worked on anything this long or as solidly and then waited this long [to see what happens].
KIBBE: Okay. I've started doing this kind of cheesy finish this sentence but sometimes it helps open up the conversation more. Finish this sentence: "Breton writes songs about…"
ROMAN: What would happen to you if you were in a room surrounded by synths and drums and lots of records and had no way of talking to anyone. I don't know if that counts.
KIBBE: No it definitely counts. Would you say that because you utilize so many different multimedia elements that it's kind of your own way of communication?
ROMAN: Yeah totally. I kind of see these things as different ways of communicating (voice trails off)… it's so difficult to talk about these kinds of things without sounding like a wanker.
ROMAN: You know what I mean?
ROMAN: As soon as you start talking you sound like an art school essay, but actually it's trying to do something really simple.There's all these tools at everyone's disposal, like even moreso now whether you're a painter or a photographer or a journalist or whatever. There are some things that you can express in an article that you can't express in a song and there are some things in a song that you could never do in a photo. I guess the only way you can really totally express yourself properly is just by using all of these different "languages".
KIBBE: "Languages". I like that.
ROMAN: Yeah? Okay good I thought I'd lost you in a sea of babble.
KIBBE: Haha. Not quite.
ROMAN: I should send you a photo of where I'm standing. It's actually a very calm bit of the building. Never stood here before.
KIBBE: Let's move onto that. Tell me about Breton LABS. Are you the only people that exclusively operate out of there or are there a lot of people coming and going? What's a typical day like in Breton LABS?
ROMAN: Today's a good typical day because basically everyone is working 7 times as hard because everyone's going, "SHIT! We're going to Texas [for SXSW]" Like one of the guys in the band has never been to America .
ROMAN: Yeah and they're all super excited but also we play our first show 2 hours after we come off the plane [in Austin] so they're like "Shit. We better get it together". So there's one room at the moment where our bass player is re-learning/triple learning bass lines and then our drummer has headphones on and I think… you know I think he's just listening to an MP3 right now. He's not really doing anything but he looks like he's working really hard. *we both laugh* But yeah, a typical day here people just come and go. At one point [everyone in the band] all lived here at different points but it's just been a really cold winter so they all magically acquire girlfriends who've got warm houses and they all very mysteriously disappear and I'm left sitting in a big pile of synths and drums hoping no one breaks in. We live in one bit of the building [an abandoned bank] and there's another part of the building where there's an editor, script writer, another film maker and a couple of other people. It's like a magnet in a way because studio space is so expensive [in London]. We kind of attract a lot of photographers and film makers and other musicians just because we're quite lucky to have this space. It's really only down to luck that we got it so we figure jealously guarding it and not letting anyone in it would be stupid and it's actually worked out really well because we've met some amazing photographers and film makers and musicians just because we've got this space that they can work around in here. We don't ask them for any money, we just use it as a way of meeting new people.
KIBBE: That's really cool. I've never been to London but you just paint a nice enough picture to make me want to get on the next plane over to check the whole city out.
ROMAN: Ha. Yeah cool. Well come to London but just come to this part of it. There are a lot of shit places.
KIBBE: Oh really?
ROMAN: In fact just over the road is pretty shit. I'm looking over there now and there's a sushi place next to a lobster place next to a chip shop.
KIBBE: I hear sushi in London, well, the UK in general is pretty terible.
ROMAN: Yeah it's pretty crap.
KIBBE: Probably just spoiled here.
ROMAN: Yeah, I think it's probably more that America has just reduced it to a complete art form so whenever you go anywhere else it's just like, "yeah this is just sub par sushi". It's pretty hit and miss here to be honest. There are good restaurants but like if you go to "your average sushi place" it's rubbish.
KIBBE: Right on. Well good luck on your shows at SXSW. I'll be sure to grab you at the Mercury Lounge show and say hi.
ROMAN: Cool please do. Take care.