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Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Mick Dillingham Interviews - Alain Pire

The Alain Pire Experience are a tremendous three piece combo from Belgium making captivating and engaging psychedelic music of dazzling clarity and purpose that both charms and amazes with equal measure. Not only is Pire a talented melodic songwriter with a perfectly suited voice, he’s also a fine guitarist of some note. 

It is obvious from the very first play of any of the three studio albums released so far that that his knowledge of psychedelia is both intimate and extensive. So much so you could almost believe he holds a PhD in British Psychedelic Music…oh hold on, he actually does, as you will see later. 

Despite all this vital stuff, his music is authentic to himself more that anything else and that is what makes it so special. Each album is a multilayered adventure in everything you love about psychedelic music and more. Overflowing with clever invention and surprises, it is music from and for the heart and the mind, that is both uncannily familiar and yet totally fresh and new. 

Lets see what Alain has to tell us shall we?

“I was born in 1953 and one of my earliest memories about music happened when I was five. In 1958, the Universal Exhibition took place in Brussels, with the Atomium and many futuristic buildings. I was lucky enough to go there three times with my Grandfather.

I remember clearly that on one occasion, we stopped by the Swiss Pavilion, which was probably not the most psychedelic of all, but there I saw a band playing, probably Oberbayern crap music. I managed to go behind the stage and looked at the drummer in awe. I said to myself, “This is what I want to do“

Some years later, my parents bought me a little fanfare snare drum and I began to play along to music that I heard on the radio. A bit later on, I used to go down the cellar with a small electrophone, my snare and some empty glass bottles that I used as cymbals.  It seems that I was possessed by rhythms and music.

In the late Fifties, I had uncles who listened to music like Paul Anka or Buddy Holly so I immersed myself into that. And then in the early 60s, I had neighbours who listened to what we call “Yé Yé” music in French, which consisted mainly of American or British covers sung in French. They also listened to the Shadows and Hank Marvin impressed me a lot with his guitar sound.

But the real start came with the British Invasion of 63-64. I became, like many others, a huge fan of The Beatles, The Stones and The Animals. The distorted guitar of Satisfaction just blew my mind.  Then the Yardbirds with stuff like Heart Full of Soul or For Your Love. After that Cream came along, I was so fascinated by Clapton’s playing, in interaction with Bruce and Baker, it was just wow!

At the time, I was like a sponge. Every week, we went to the record store to discover the new releases and it was just amazing to see the amount of good music that was released in a short period of time. My parents weren’t rich so I used to work in a gas station at weekends to make some money in order to buy …records of course. And the most influential record that I bought at the time was Sgt Pepper. I became completely fascinated and obsessed by the creativity that was sweating from that album."

"I managed to make enough money at the Gas Station to buy an old drum kit. Then I really started to learn how to play. I had a friend, André Lohest, who was an accomplished drummer at the time and I often went to his attic to see him play or rehearse with his band. I also took a few drumming lessons at the music school to improve my snare drum technique.

I was dreaming of a Ludwig drum kit, like Ringo and I managed to buy a second hand one – a dream come true. I began to play in ballrooms shortly after. It was a decent way to make some money while still being a student. It helped me buy my first car, an old Citroën 2 CV.

But, playing five or six hours in a row turned into a real drag after a while, not to mention unloading and loading drums into the car. I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed to learn a new instrument. As girls seemed to be more interested in guitar players than drummers, my choice was obvious.  I began to learn guitar around the age of eighteen and very soon, it became my instrument of choice.

My first electric kit was an old Fender Stratocaster and an AC30 Vox amp. I never had any guitar lessons, only learnt by ear, except for the basic chords that I found in a small book. Improvising was an obvious choice, so I began to dabble on the guitar neck to find what were the right notes in a certain key and then transposed it to the other keys. I don’t pretend that I invented anything on guitar, but I’ve always been keen to try to play like myself and not be a copycat.”

Were you in any bands in those early days worth mentioning here?

“Absolutely not ! I’m a slowly maturing person and it took me years, if not decades, to really find what I wanted to do musically speaking, according to my musical knowledge and taste.”

What were the first songs you wrote?

“I don’t remember the first ones, I have a recollection of song that I did with a friend in the early Eighties, but it was more Synth based. Then I played in a four piece band named Such a Noise, which was more rock influenced. I wrote some songs, one in particular named On The Riverside, which was inspired by The Allman Brothers’ Whipping Post. I recorded three albums with them and we toured rather extensively, doing opening for acts like Deep Purple and Ten Years After.”

When did you first start getting into psychedelic music?

“When I was sixteen, I used to listen to Revolver, Sgt Pepper, SF Sorrow, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Are You Experienced, Axis Bold as Love, Space Ritual etc.  I’ve always been a huge fan of Dark Star by the Grateful Dead and I had the chance to see them at Wembley in 72. I also dug krautrock a lot, Amon Duul, Guru Guru, Tangerine Dream, Faust, Can and Klaus Schulze.

The idea of making psych music myself slowly emerged in the early Nineties, when people began to look in the rear-view mirror. A wave of Neo-Psych came along, with bands like The Stone Roses, Asteroid N°4, The Dukes of Stratosphear, Spacemen 3, Primal Scream, and Spiritualized.
I formed a band named Michel Drucker Experience. We sang in French, but we had some decent psychedelic songs here and there.

In the late 90s, when I found a renewed interest into psychedelia, I was struck, as a musician, by the amount of creativity that took place between the end of 1965 to early 1968. I really wanted to understand how and why that musical style came to the fore.

I already had a Master Degree in Communication and I remembered one of my teachers, Pol Gossiaux, who was an anthropologist. I had really appreciated his lessons so one evening, I phoned to him, asking if he would agree to be my supervisor for a PhD about psychedelia. I really expected him to hang up the phone but surprisingly, he said, “Come next week to my office with a list of books that you plan to read”. It was very exciting to say the least.

I started that long process in 1999 and finally got my PhD in 2009. I read tons of books about the Hippie movement, the Counterculture, the music scene both in California and in England and the drug culture, the effect of hallucinogenic drugs on creativity.

I interviewed quite a lot of people such as Steve Howe, because he played in Tomorrow before joining Yes, Arthur Brown, Phil May, Dick Taylor, Brian Godding from the Blossom Toes. Joe Boyd, the producer of the early Floyd and Jenny Spires who was one of Syd Barrett’s former girlfriends.

I met John Hoppy Hopkins, who was a counterculture activist back in the 60s and we became really close and he helped me lot.  Barry Miles was another 60s activist and biographer of Paul McCartney, he kindly wrote the foreword of my subsequent book."

"After some years, I realised that if I wanted to cover both US and UK psych it would take me too much time, so I focused on the UK psychedelia, which I found interesting enough to fill more than 900 pages. It was divided in three main sections: The history of British Counterculture. The history of Psychedelic drugs and their effects and an analysis of 109 songs.

It’s very hard to define what exactly is Psychedelic Music. To simplify, it has to contain some elements of “strangeness”, either in sounds or in the song structure. It also has the potential to modify the listener’s level of consciousness, at least for the best ones.

I like two kinds of psych songs, the pop ones and the more improvisational ones …such as Cambridge for the pop side and Turn on, Tune in, Drop out for the more free form type of psych.
I could not do my thesis and be serious about music making at the same time, because I also had a full-time teaching job. So, after my PhD was over, I released a book with an edited version of the Thesis for French Editor Camion Blanc named “Anthropologie du Rock Psychédélique Britannique”.

Shortly after, they asked me to translate into French, one of the Syd Barrett’s biography named Dark Globe. It was released in 2011, but it had drained my energy, so I promised myself not to write a book again and to concentrate on writing music only. So then finally comes the Alain Pire Experience, which will most probably be my last band and the most fulfilling one for sure.

I met the two other members of APEx a bit by chance. I have a guitar player friend named Jean Pierre Froidebise and in 2013 he had a gig in Verviers, at the Spirit of 66, a renowned Belgian club.  But two weeks before the show he broke an ankle and therefore couldn’t hold his guitar for more than two or three songs, so I played a few numbers while he was singing.

The rhythm section was Marcus Weymaere on drums and René Stock on bass. I was really impressed by the way they interacted together so after the show I told them,  “Well guys, I really like the way you’re playing together, I have an idea about a band, give me your phone number, I’ll call you next week”

That’s how it started. They were not into psychedelia at all, so I had to make them listen to some songs that I liked, in order to set the right direction for the band”

So then in 2014 we have the first album, Cambridge.

“Every time I had two or three songs ready, I would call Marcus and René – and still do it the same way now – then they learned the structure on the spot. I always did and still do. three or four takes of each song and then keep the best one for additional vocals, guitars, effects etc. I have an old Roland VS2480 which allows me to record 16 tracks simultaneously, so it’s pretty straightforward to record a whole drum kit, a bass and a guitar.

Afterwards, I export all the tracks and import them into Reason, a multitrack software that I’ve been using for years. At that stage, I add everything that’s required for the song to be complete, like other guitars, all the vocal parts, some keyboards if needed. I like vintage sounds, so I’m keen to use Mellotron, Hammond or Farfisa sounds.

I really wanted to pay tribute to that magical period and the first song that I wrote was Cambridge. It was inspired by Strawberry Fields Forever for the music and by a trip that I made to Cambridge for the lyrics. I’m lucky enough to have my own recording facility at home, so I record most of the stuff myself.

But for Cambridge, I also needed string arrangements, so I contacted my pal, Didier Dessers, who is very strong in reproducing vintage sounds and for creating song arrangements. For most of my songs, I record them at home, but do the mix at Didier’s studio.

Lyrics always come after all the audio is ready. My main sources of inspiration come from psychedelic drugs experiences. But sometimes, I start with a sentence that sounds good and I build up on it though I’m hardly Bruce Springsteen nor Bob Dylan.

At first I wanted to set up a three piece band in the Cream fashion, because I had always been fascinated by songs like Crossroads captured live. I think that the interaction between musicians was incredible. Therefore, I recorded some songs that I put on the first version of the Cambridge album that were more rock than psychedelic.

Maybe I also made a compromise because René and Marcus were coming from a more bluesy background, so I was cautious not to hurt their taste. I soon realised that there was a dichotomy in this album so, after the first batch of 300 sold, I wrote two new songs, Your Elephants Are Everywhere and Things Behind the Sun and I replaced the four rock songs with the new ones.

Retrospectively, I made the right choice, because at the time, the project was still fresh and I didn’t have a clear view on the best musical direction to take to fulfil my needs and dreams. But finally, the official Cambridge album was released with eight tracks, and I’m still really proud of it.”

2017 saw the release of your second album Songs From The 13th Floor

“We had some decent airplay with the Cambridge album, so we began to perform gigs as a band.  But I wanted to increase our repertoire, so then I started writing songs for the 2nd album, which has a name inspired by Roky Erickson’s band.

On the writing side, I think that it was a step further. By now my two mates knew what I wanted to do, so I didn’t have to convince them anymore about the musical direction. They play with other bands anyway, so here, it’s Psych only and they know it.

The album, like always, is a blend of Pop tunes and more experimental ones, and it’s maybe more personal, with the exception of Lazin’ In The Afternoon which was inspired by ELO’s 10538 Overture. We still perform most of the 13th Floor songs on stage.”

And two years later we come to your most recent studio album Apex.

“You know, I will turn 67 next October, so I feel a certain sense of urgency, I tend to write faster nowadays, because otherwise, I’m quite a lazy fellow. I’m rather proud of the first track I Saw The Light Today, we open every show with this one. I really like the last two songs as well, Into The Deep and Lost On A Cloud.

The lyrics of Into the Deep are more mythological, I really saw pictures of men getting down into the Abyss … strange influence.  I called an old keyboard player friend, Jean-Luc Manderlier, he used to play with Magma back in the day and I knew that he would perfectly understand what I wanted for the keyboard parts.

It’s the first album to include a cover song, one that I really like from George Harrison, Only A Northern Song. I also really dig Have Some Fun, which is a nice Pop tune for me, but unfortunately, the video clip that I started to do about that song was never finished by the guy who were supposed to edit it.”

Would you say you had different influences for each album? Faves at the time that you wanted to echo?

“I think, but I may be wrong, that the influences tended to fade with the time passing, I try to write new songs in the Alain Pire Experience’s flavour nowadays. For example, on the Apex album, only the last two numbers can be clearly identified as Pink Floyd influenced, but again with my own blueprint. On Cambridge, I had several influences, like Cream, or The Beatles, but not only them, because Pink Floyd was never far away.”

I think its fair to say this is retro psych rather than neo psych, though due to the excellent songs, it is fresh and vital.  You never really do pastiches of old songs as such, it's original sounding. As if you picked up from where they left off in 69 and ran with it from there. 

“Oh thanks. I’m a deep lover of melodies. I think that a song should always contain a melody that touches the listener. I’m always the first one to be touched when I write new material, well at least when it’s good, because I trash a lot of bits that are not interesting enough.

It’s true that I tend to put myself in the late Sixties’ fashion, because this is the period with which I feel a very strong chemistry. I’m not into pastiche, because I want to be totally sincere with what I do and for the first time in my life, I feel really congruent with what I’m doing right now.

I once came across an interview of Jordi Savall, the Spanish Viola de Gamba master. He devoted his life to celebrate Renaissance Music and nobody has anything to say against that. So modestly, I want to pay homage to the period that had the deepest influence on me.

It’s also true that listening to songs that I really like have an influence on the way I’m writing music. For example, I’m a big fan The Temples’ first two albums, I listened to them a lot and even if I don’t have the voice of James Bagshaw, I like the way that they structure their songs, clever song writing, so it inevitably has an influence on me.

I also listened a lot to All Them Witches’ album Dying Surfer Meets his Master and I think that their song El Centro inspired me to write When the Moon Is The Rise, a song that I really love.”

Which is your favourite of the three albums so far? Personally, I think I like all three equally.

“Well, like you, I think that I like the three of them. There are songs that I prefer on each of them, but like I said earlier, I’m so happy to do this music right now that it’s simply a blessing to be able to do it. I’m really happy to have sold lots of albums in the UK and on Bandcamp, I also have many American purchasers, so for an obscure French speaking Belgian guitar player, that’s not too bad.”

So your latest release is a live album.

“I LOVE playing live, it’s a total different approach from studio work even though it’s not always easy to reproduce the sound of the studio on stage, because there are only the three of us. So on some songs we use backing loops that Marcus triggers.

For songs such as Cambridge, Lazin’ In The Afternoon or Your Elephants Are Everywhere, it’s mandatory. On the other side, we have numbers like Drifting South or On The Moon in which we can really improvise and perform a very different version from the original one.

The Psych scene in Belgium is almost nonexistent, so we tend to play in small venues over here with some people considering us as aliens. But when we played at the Fruits de Mer festival in Cardigan for example, we immediately felt the connection with the audience and that was very rewarding to me.”

So how did the Fruits de Mer connection come about?

“I sent Keith Jones an email early 2010 because I really liked a cover of 2000 Light Years from Home by the Spanish band Stay that had been released on Fruits de Mer. When I started the band I wrote again to Keith and he asked me to include Your Elephants on a sampler CD for the 13th Dream of Dr. Sardonicus Festival goodie bag. Then two or three years later, Keith and Pete Kald asked me if we would be ok to play at the festival… we said YES of course

Even though it’s very far for us, almost a whole day drive to reach Cardigan by car with the equipment, it was worth it.  Firstly for the warm audience and then because both years were recorded and I finally released a double live vinyl album, which was totally unexpected!”

Whats coming next ? 

“Well, I’ve started writing new material for the next album, but it’s still at a very early stage. I want it to be as good as possible, because it’s possible that this will be my last one… On stage, we are often playing as if it was our last day on Earth.  So I don’t know how much time this will last … we’ll see.”

You can listen to and buy Alain's albums here.


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