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Watchdog’s Animals That Don’t Exist Take to the Opera Stage

Interview of Pierre Horckmans

16 January 2020

Over the last 10 years, the Pince-Oreilles (Earwig) collective has brought together 20 or so local groups that focus on jazz and improvisation, and it was from this eclectic pool of talent that Watchdog was born.

It all started with the meeting of two musicians: keyboard player Anne Quillier and clarinetist Pierre Horckmans. And also a meeting of instruments: a Rhodes piano, a Moog synth, octavers and clarinet effects. Watchdog is bewitching electronic music, the soundtrack to a mystical universe that flirts with both jazz and contemporary music. In this abstract world, animals don’t exist. But maybe they can express themselves, in part thanks to the voice of actress Maud Chapoutier, guest artist on their new album which previews Friday at Opera Underground.

“Les animaux qui n’existent pas” (Animals that don’t exist)… when we first heard about the new Watchdog project, the question that immediately sprang to mind was: What are these animals? We met up with Pierre Horckmans, who plays clarinet and bass clarinet in the group, to prepare ourselves for this extraordinary dreamlike journey.

People talk about Watchdog as being a group that’s a bit out of the ordinary, both in terms of music and backstory. Is it true that you got together because you were fed up of playing on out-of-tune pianos ?
(Laughs) Yeah! In fact, it all started when we first met at music school in Chambéry. It was during this period that we set up the Pince-Oreilles collective. Anne had an idea for a sextet project which I joined.

Then we formed the Blast trio. And while all this was going on, Anne and I decided we wanted to start an acoustic duo. Just piano, clarinet and bass clarinet, but we quickly found ourselves playing on clapped-out pianos or sometimes with no piano at all …
So we saved up and bought the famous Rhodes! Then a Moog. And once I added effects pedals, fuzz, etc … I was able to start distorting the sound of the clarinets. This mix of sounds and colours, a sort of musical confusion, gave rise to Watchdog.

Why Watchdog ?
In automated systems, a machine that monitors another machine on the production line is called a watchdog. This appealed to us because our duo is out there on show and there has to be a connection between us. As soon as one of us starts down a musical path, the other has to follow, even in improvisation. So we see a real parallel between these mechanical watchdogs and our music.

What’s the link between your pop, jazz, and contemporary influences and the improvisation and electronic aspects you mentioned ?
The core idea is spontaneity. That’s what guides us, improvisation. Obviously, we have a very detailed writing process, but then we like to wander off the path we’ve created through improvisation. We love it when people lose themselves at our concerts, when they no longer know who’s playing what, they’re simply swept away by whatever mood we’re creating at that moment.

This new project “Les animaux qui n’existent pas” seems to be a logical follow-up to your instrumental album “Can of Worms”, but with lyrics this time, thanks to Maud Chapoutier.
Yes, exactly. We felt an instant connection with Maud Chapoutier, so we decided to merge our two worlds to create a new repertoire. With lyrics, which is a new thing for us.

The idea came about after one of our concerts from the previous album. A few days later, Maud sent us a gift, a text she’d written that was inspired by one of the songs we’d played that night. And two years later, here we are, working together.

Maud both speaks and sings the text, while the music varies between improv, waves of sound and special effects. Is the world you want to take us to inspired by our current reality ?
“Les animaux qui n’existent pas” is a strange group of beasts. It represents our view of the world. Through this project, we examine the inner life of human beings, their feelings. This can also be translated into a multitude of landscapes that are difficult to describe. It’s bigger than all of us. This abstract aspect means listeners can imagine whatever they want. It’s also a way to switch off and let yourself be guided by the emotions conveyed by the music.

Is Opera Underground the ideal setting for this music ?
Yes, we’re grateful to Olivier Conan, who helped us a lot with this project. We were also lucky enough to do a residency in the auditorium which allowed us to get the lighting just right, thanks to Benjamin Thielland. And also the sound, notably thanks to a fourth musician, who is not on stage but whose involvement has been essential. I’m talking about Adrian Bourget, whose artistic vision and knowhow brought an interesting perspective on how to use the space and live effects.

There are lots of effects, different musical textures and a strong 60s and 70s influence
We’re very attached to that period, we were raised on that music. And above all, we can’t give up our Rhodes. It has a unique sound that no digital keyboard can match. We work on analog systems, just like they did back then, it processes the sound in a particular way, sparking an emotional response and we find that inspiring.

If “Les animaux qui n’existent pas” were musicians, who would they be ?
A lot of people ! (laughs) For a start, all the artists who have touched us in some way.
Composers of minimalist music who’ve influenced us, like Arvo Pärt – we’re big fans. There is also Ronin, our friends in the Pince-Oreilles collective, Dur et Doux and notably Chromb whom we love!
As musicians, we’re pretty much omnivores, we’re very interested in any music that inspires us without belonging to any specific trend or movement.

 

We’ve seen the video for the track “Il y a longtemps que nous marchons” (We’ve been walking a long time), it’s like the soundtrack to a mysterious musical journey with a lot of messages, can you explain it to us ?
There’s this huge list that Maud recites about her perception of the world.
I then transpose this mass of words into music by gradually adding effects.
During the monologue, the music begins with a bass clarinet solo which develops to a theme that will be taken up in the improvisation. At the end, we all disappear into our own world, overwhelmed by sound. This reflects both the light and dark aspects of the universe that surrounds us.

Is there a way to protect ourselves ? Is that the advice Maud is giving us on the track “Meubles Cage”?
Yes, that’s it, it’s about building our own personal mini-fortress to protect ourselves from the harmful things that surround us. But at the same time, it’s also a kind of cage, so we must be careful not to let ourselves be confined by it. Musically, we came up with something light and joyful but added some disturbing undertones. We like the contrast! I particularly like this kind of unusual structure.
This “cage” is also a refuge, an inner safe space where we come to terms with the world.
To sum up, it’s a text influenced by Belgian writer Henri Michaux played over a mix of jazz and hip-hop.
That’s the essence of Watchdog, a lyrical and powerful theme over an improvised electronic groove.

Will we find this “refuge” at the Opera on Friday ?
Absolutely ! In any case, we always feel good when we play there. It will be the perfect spot to convey emotion.

Convey emotion and get people dancing ?
Because there’s a part of this project that seems perfect for the dancefloor.

By Mathieu Girod