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Octet's Fractured Electric Pop

The line between music and technology, art and computer capabilities, is a permeable one, says Benjamin Morando, one half of the French laptop-pop duo Octet. Their album, Cash and Carry Songs, out now in the U.S. on Plain Recordings (and previously released in Europe on Diamondtraxx), spins '60s pop, hip-hop, electronica, jazz and dozens of other styles in a high-tech blender. The result — what Morando calls "data-pop," a buoyant, joyous, fractured take on pop forms. These songs are slyly subversive, borrowing melodies, sounds and rhythms from classic songs, while turning them subtly inside out.

"Probably certain people will not like all the tracks," said Morando, in a recent email interview. (His English is a little eccentric, but much better than my French.) "Defenders of experimentation at all costs will find it too pop, and the pop lovers will find it too weird."

"Hey Bonus," for example, the opening track on Cash and Carry Songs, has earned the band comparisons to the most famous of all pop groups, The Beatles. That's mostly because of its Sgt. Pepper-esque harpsichord riffs and a snatch of melody from "With a Little Help From My Friends."

When asked about The Beatles as an influence, though, Morando gently deflected the comparison, noting that all kinds of musicians admire and are inspired by The Beatles. "It is the same thing with Shakespeare and all English language writers. Even if they write science-fiction or thriller novels, contemporary poetry, drama, a lot of them are obsessed by Shakespeare's work," he said. "As musicians, we are obviously Beatles fans. We love their melodies and harmonies, their arrangements, their sound, the way they sing and the way Ringo plays drums. It's perfect and eternal."

Yet at the same time, he explained, the song "Hey Bonus" is linked to many different '60s pop groups, including the Beach Boys, The Zombies, White Noise, the Left Banke, Montage, The United States of America and The Kinks, in addition to The Beatles.

That '60s sound is also filtered through a very modern aesthetic. As you listen more closely, the chopped-up shards of "Hey Bonus" start to sound not like a pop song itself, but an algebraic expression for one: (x=pop?). The lyrics "Wasting my time/ Losing my mind," "What would you say?" and "Gonna pack my bags" refer to pop songs; they are perhaps symbolic of other pop songs, but they are too arch and ironic to be the thing itself. Similarly, the captivating "4/4 Waltz" connotes a thousand love songs with its gentle strings and percolating beat and "boy...boy...boy" lyric without actually being one.

Octet began in 1997, when François Goujon and Morando met at the Transmusicales Festival in Rennes, France. "François had a lot of funny cheap synthezisers and samplers toys and a big collection of vinyl," Morando remembered. "We talked a lot and a few months after that we decided to work together."

Because Morando lives in Paris and Goujon in Rennes, the pair collaborated long-distance, initially sending minidiscs back and forth, then with the advent of high-speed Internet, exchanging files online. The band was originally named Buxtehude, after a German composer and organist who was a contemporary of Bach, but decided to switch to something easier to remember. "We wanted to find a name that was significant in both English and in French," Morando said. "Octet in English means an eight-musician band, but in French it means 'bytes.' It's a name about music and computer."

And in many ways, Octet is also about music and computers. "We use the computer as a tool to produce a lot of different musical universes without limiting ourselves [with] aesthetic barriers," Morando explained. "In the '50s you composed with a guitar, in the '80s with a MIDI sequencer, and today with a laptop. So you have the technical opportunity to change the traditional form of pop songs...slicing the singer's voice, stretching the drum snare etc. ..."

Yet, like more traditional instruments, the computer can be a source of ideas as well as a tool. "We are very often artistically inspired by what our equipment makes technically possible," Morando explained. "Some softwares ([such] as Melodyne from Celemony) are made to re-work the voice, some of them to create some granulated texture (as the freeware Thonk does) etc. ... Most of the time each of these software programs, virtual instruments, FX, synthesizers and drum machines have their own capacities, abilities, colors and spirits. So when you experiment with one of them you will find some specific ideas."

For an electronically-driven album, however, Cash and Carry Songs radiates warmth and humanity, in large part because of Octet's collaboration with Suzanne Thoma. Thoma sings on two of the album's best tracks, the sexy, swooning "Sneakers & Thong" and the more abstract, Björk-invoking "Blind Repetition." Thoma, who is best known for her work with M83, met Morando while at art school, sharing a class with one of his ex-girlfriends. She has been involved in the duo's work since 1999, both as a singer and, on "Blind Repetition," as a co-writer and lyricist. She will become a full member of Octet on the next album.

Octet are often compared to other French electronic artists like Air and Phoenix, but Morando said that there are few similarities between his band and these broadly popular outfits except that they are all French. "We feel closer to German artists [such] as Mouse on Mars or English artists [such] as Leafcutter John or Third Eye Foundation than French artists," Morando said, "even though there are some talented ones [such] as Jackson, Mr. Oizo, Joakim, Krikor. ..."

Morando says that Cash and Carry Songs was intended to be a diverse collection of songs that nonetheless shared important themes. "We wanted to keep a coherent mood, something intimate, nostalgic with some slices of humour and exuberance (listen the hidden tracks)," he explained. "We like, at the same time, crazy audio zapping — as John Zorn or Mike Patton do — and fragile melodies with a lot of silences. We like country music, tango, classical music, IDM, electro-acoustic, metal, R'N'B etc. ... We love so many different artists and we are influenced by every song or sound we've loved." — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, November 15, 2004]

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