— Stephan Mathieu, a musician

Sylvain Chauveau & Stephan Mathieu

The very first release of Mathieu’s Schwebung label, combining his own waves of sound with Chauveau’s interpretation of Bill Callahan’s lyrics, as originally heard in the songs of Smog

by Jack Chutner

ATTN Magazine, December 5th, 2012

Collaboration is often at its most wonderful when the addition of another perspective results in a radical shift in the creative direction; not the mere affirmation or expansion of a proposed idea, but its drastic re-evaluation and re-contextualisation. As it turns out, there was a hidden potential within Stephan Mathieu’s part in this collaboration, but it took the eyes of Sylvain Chauveau to pluck this out of the dark – who knows how Palimpsest would have sounded had Chauveau overlooked this potential pathway, but thank goodness the pair chose to pursue it.
Each of these tracks creeps into being as these complex, interwoven strands of electronic tone – the sort that glows with Stephan Mathieu’s unmistakable ethereal signature – and proceeds to swell and recede with the unity and fluidity of an octopus, with each limb swaying through its own movements while drifting as one soft, unified body. In the context of my previous experience of Mathieu, the sound feels more hostile and unpredictable than I normally associate with him; ridged with serrated edges of dissonance and incoherent mumblings through walkie-talkie radio, inescapable in a manner that feels unnervingly claustrophobic rather than blissfully detached.
And then in comes Chauveau’s rich baritone from absolutely nowhere (recorded by Adam Wiltzie of Stars Of The Lid, no less). Initially his presence is somewhat startling and even awkward; he juts out like a rock breaking through the surface of the sea, protruding from within Mathieu’s soundwaves with a brashness and phantom sense of rhythm that seemingly stands in opposition to the tempo-less drift of the surrounding instruments. At times he can even sound oblivious to the atmospheric movements around him, as though blocking out Mathieu’s contributions and singing along to the original Smog tracks as heard in his head. At others, there’s an unmistakable feeling of disconnection – the immediacy of Callahan’s lyricism (“I’m gonna be drunk, so drunk, at your wedding…”) vaporises as it meets Mathieu’s mercurial abstraction, instantly lost and rendered almost trivial in amongst the music’s unfathomable expanse. It almost feels like a comment on the dislocating nature of remote collaboration: a tangled web of misread intent, isolating timespace distance and communicative disconnect. Thoroughly hypnotic.


Sylvain Chauveau & Stephan Mathieu

by Joe Kennedy

The Quietus, October 23rd, 2012

Although he insists that his lyrics articulate the points of view of characters rather than those of his own, Bill Callahan’s work always seems designed to present gritty universal truths about relationships that penetrate the romantic veneer. Indeed, their supposed demystifications of love acquire, amongst Callahan’s fanbase, the status of cultish wisdom: here are songs which – allegedly - hack their way through the jungles of greeting-card sentiment to get to the sweaty, stained, conflicted, envy-ridden core of desire.

For those less willing to cede a pedestal to Callahan’s worldview, his work as Smog is often read not as a rising-to-consciousness of certain hard-to-stomach facts about sexuality but as just one more layer of (admittedly scuffed) romance. As with vaguely-comparable gutter prophets Charles Bukowski and Bill Hicks, he has a propensity to mistake airing his own psychological linen for pulling away the blinkers of his audience. In short, his material is possessed by a surfeit of partiality.

Palimpsest, by French vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Sylvain Chauveau and German sound artist Stephan Mathieu, sets some of Callahan’s more notable lyrics to an instrumental backing of heavily processed zither, Farfisa organ and brass. Even allowing for their author’s claim that Smog’s words are essentially fictional, it immediately strikes the listener as odd that the texts Chauveau has selected for reinterpretation here are associated so heavily with such a forceful subjectivity. Detaching them from the grain of Callahan’s baritone – albeit only to give them to Chauveau, who intones in a similar register – deprives them instantaneously of some of the extralinguistic significance they establish in their original contexts: there’s a perceptible wrongness to the act of appropriation undertaken here.

Wrongness, though, doesn’t necessarily equate with failure. In fact, one of the most impressive effects of Palimpsest is the way that, despite the superficial crossover between Callahan’s voice and his own, Chauveau’s singing is characterised by a hint of melodrama which contrasts deeply with the stylised world-weariness we recall from Smog records. At once, Callahan’s ersatz saloon-bar Bukowskisms are forced into the Brecht-Brel-Bowie current of modernistic Euro-melancholy; more specifically, Mathieu’s sound-worlds (particularly on an astounding, windblown ‘Wild Love’) make Palimpsest a cousin of David Sylvian’s 1987 album Secrets of the Beehive. Generally, the collaborators effect a modal change from Smog’s creepiness to a more profound eeriness, evacuating the lyrics of their conjugal realism and transforming them into figures of alienation and detachment.

The reworking of ‘Prince In The Studio’ pulls this off best, imbuing Callahan’s faintly absurdist fly-on-the-wall routine into an investigation of a dread which veers close to Lovecraftian cosmic angst. Less successful as a recasting is the concluding ‘I Break Horses’, which sticks too closely to the minor-key prettiness of the original, apparently oblivious to the fact that such melodic attractiveness arguably served to unjustly redeem the misogyny of the character Callahan created in the lyric. This apart, Palimpsest is an engaging exercise not only in détournement but in composition: looking beyond Chauveau’s vocal contributions, Mathieu’s long electro-acoustic durations eschew low-register drones, consisting instead of a music of airy, almost dematerialised tones which imply wintriness and fragility. These soundscapes alone would make this a good record; throw in the uncanny resurrections of Smog and we’re left with something genuinely absorbing.


PALIMPSEST by Sylvain Chauveau & Stephan Mathieu

By Bill Meyer

Dusted Magazine, September 26, 2012

A palimpsest is a page that has been reused after having its original writing scraped off. In ancient times, parchment wasn’t cheap, so documents deemed inessential would be scrubbed clean and reused; since the erasure was often incomplete, scholars have been able to lift all manner of ancient lore from recycled pages. I’m not sure how much ancient wisdom lies in the grooves and/or binary codes that bind Palimpsest’s music; its texts were all written by Bill Callahan, the artist formerly known as Smog, and the people who inhabit his songs are usually even less wise than they think they are. But the title still holds because the music is made from layers of rewriting and repurposing.

Palimpsest’s genesis lays in some music that German sound artist Stephan Mathieu sent to French multi-instrumentalist Sylvain Chauveau for possible re-working; neither is known for song-oriented work. Mathieu is a lapsed jazz drummer who switched to electronics in the 1990s, although evidence suggests that he is no longer in their thrall; he once memorialized a series of equipment failures by naming a solo album The Sad Mac and his preferred sound sources of late are pre-digital gramophones, virginals, shortwave radios, and Farfisa organs. But whatever Mathieu plays gets put through transformative electronic processes that often render them quite unrecognizable as their former selves, and consequently, instantly recognizable as his work. He favors continuous sounds whose gradual rate of change conceals all manner of rich details, like the radio broadcast that pushes up from behind several strata of drone.

An inveterate collaborator, Mathieu has previously worked with Tape, Taylor Deupree and Ekkehard Ehlers. While you might here a voice here and there, it’s chiefly about sound. Chauveau’s music, on his own or in shared endeavors such as On and Arca, is also usually non-vocal and tends toward plush atmospherics and unabashedly romantic flourishes. But when he heard Mathieu’s music he felt moved to do something different. He doesn’t play any instruments on Palimpsest; instead, he renders a half dozen pages from the Callahan songbook in a smoky baritone croon quite similar to David Sylvian’s. Callahan’s singing usually rides ahead of the melody; Chauveau’s hangs over Mathieu’s carpets of electro-acoustic sound like a full moon over a mist-wreathed field.

Even before Callahan wrote the song “America,” he always struck me as an artist who couldn’t have come from anywhere else. His countless exacting portrayals of stunted masculine characters who prize work or personal interests over emotional engagement, his easy lapses into country and western sounds that are as authentic as a cowboy town built on a Hollywood back lot, even the way his loser protagonists get high in the bathtub or feel awkward as they put a jean jacket on over a tie — it all feels as nastily American as Bukowski or Harry Crews. Chauveau doesn’t sound American at all, but he doesn’t use the difference between his vocal accent and the songs’ lyrical accent to overtly transform them. Instead he tweaks their persona by easing up the babe-I-gots-to-ramble quality embedded in Callahan’s voice, so that the songs’ protagonists seem smaller. In Callahan’s voice they demand to be taken seriously, even when they’re objectively pathetic and subjectively drowning in self-pity. They’re creeps who could wreck your life and not care that they had; after the break-up, you’ll want to leave town and not provide a forwarding address. Coming from Chauveau, they become the blues of a pretty guy that you wouldn’t want to date twice.


Pascal Savy spoke with me about Schwebung, you can read the interview here