You may know Joakim Bouaziz from his 2007 album Monsters & Silly Songs, a sui generis fusion of disco, post-punk and pop that became something of an instant cult classic. You may know him for his remixes of artists like Cut Copy, Simian Mobile Disco, Annie, Alter Ego, DJ Mehdi, Royksopp and Poni Hoax. You may know him from his years behind the scenes at Tigersushi, the iconic Parisian label at the crossroads between post-punk, dance music and the avant-garde. But whatever you think you know about Joakim, prepare to be very surprised by this, his third studio album.
Frankly, prepare to be blown away: the opening "Back to Wilderness" takes care of that with eight minutes of sturm-und-klang dirge that’s more Black Sabbath than Black Devil, more Sonic Youth than Sleeping Bag. And that’s just the intro. Over the course of a tidy 51 minutes, Joakim and his band mates fold together bits of psychedelia, old-school computer music, exotica, electro-pop, blues, new wave, New Pop, Krautrock and more into an expansive, remarkably coherent album that refuses to be reduced to a single genre, much less a single idea. This is no pastiche: these are proper songs, and the whole album follows the kind of overall arc that’s rare in a contemporary longplayer. "Spiders" is the first single off the album, with six delirious minutes of Italo arpeggios, fluid vocal harmonies, acid-house snares and an extended Afro-pop breakdown that perfectly sum up the record’s madcap, magpie spirit.
Where Monsters & Silly Songs reflected its tumultuous circumstances, making Milky Ways was a lot more leisurely. Having honed their act on the road, Joakim and his bandmates – formerly the Ectoplasmic Band, now dubbed "the Disco" – returned to the studio to jam and flesh out fleeting ideas into fully-fledged songs. Joakim spent the following year editing and arranging the songs and album into their final shape. A few tracks – "Travel In Vain", "King Kong Is Dead" – remain essentially unadulterated, capturing the live band in full flame. Others, with their complex, interlocking layers of guitars, synthesizers, beats and vocals, reflect Joakim’s role as architect – but the final form is as surprising to him as anyone. "Whenever I finish a record, I always think, Ok, this is what I don’t like, let’s do something different next time. This time I was thinking of doing something simpler and more direct than the previous album, but I don’t think it turned out that way. When I was doing the mastering, I thought, Whoa, this is quite intense. It’s like at one point the creation process escapes my control."
Much of the album takes its shape from the band’s experience as a live unit, having limbered up and liberated itself from excessive fealty to the recordings. "I never like to play the song exactly as it is on the record," says Joakim. "We try to have a way of adapting the songs that gives us more freedom to improvise, or allow us to improvise, depending on the situation. Most of the time the live versions are simpler and more rock – it’s quite noisy sometimes." That would explain the origins of "Back to Wilderness," whose flailing power chords sound like a tribute to Earth or Sunn 0))). What the squeals of feedback don’t warn you is just how tuneful the record is. Loping grooves give way to scraps of melody that recall Captain Beefheart or Durutti Column, and "Spiders," "Medusa" and "Little Girl" all feature billowing, ecstatic vocals that explode like dandelions -"Crystal choruses," Joakim calls them, citing his admiration for Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective.
"The basic inspiration for the album was the idea of youth and teen spirit in our consumer-based society," explains Joakim, "put in parallel with the idea of wilderness, or lost paradise. As if these two things – wilderness & youth – were mythical states." But the album – eager, starry-eyed, a little impish, stubborn and shy in equal measure – hangs delicately between nostalgia and its refusal. With his grounding in post-punk and disco, Joakim’s music has always made clear its debt to the past. Still, Joakim’s approach is almost curatorial, sifting through the archives to find inspiration in false starts and detours, outmoded methods and outdated technology.
"I think that most (young) artists today are like archaeologists, especially in graphics and contemporary art," says Joakim. "You can’t compete with history, with what’s been done. You need to use that, in a more or less disrespectful way, to make new things. You can’t just say, let’s do something new and forget everything before, it’s impossible and very pretentious. Especially when all that music is available everywhere all the time. I’m addicted to music and I listen to a lot of very different things, and whenever I hear something interesting in a song I think, Let’s try it, put it with something completely different and see what it does, like a mad scientist‚Ä¶"
He does just that, repeatedly – for instance, with the garish sample stabs of "Love & Romance & a Special Person," which recall nothing so much as Trevor Horn’s emphatic Fairlight vamps. But the results are always more than the sum of their parts.