There are respiratory qualities to Julien Racine’s music. By splicing samples of humanity via live instrumentation with synthetic sound design, he negotiates a balance hinging on an organic sense of motion rooted in digital tools.
Defining experience in creative pursuits is never easy. Labels like ‘newcomer’ or ‘debutante’ serve little or no purpose for artists who have, in many cases, been crafting sounds and styles for years (and in some cases decades). Quelque Chose Tombe is not the first album by Julien Racine, but it is the first one released under his eponymous moniker and the first on Aïsha Devi’s Berlin-based Danse Noire imprint. It follows exhibition sound work, like his 2017 project Cavité, as well as his Corporation project with collaborator Keru Not Ever (who also features on the Danse Noire LP). For Racine, a Francophone Canadian (who prefers Quebecer), the album’s reception was another indication of how different places react differently to art and how that, over time, affects what’s produced of and within them.
Throughout Quelque Chose Tombe, there are moments of dense sound design that transcend to calm, yet fluid, soundscapes. As a producer who spends much of his time designing sound for films by directors like Emmanuel Tardif as well as other media, Racine’s music details an audible comfort with space, silence and the presence of an imminent transition. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. But for all the digitalism of Racine’s work, there remains a rhythm that is hard to articulate in terms that aren’t bronchial.
“I am always trying to find a place where I can breathe better, maybe not literally, but figuratively. I think there are silences and really dynamic parts in my music. For me, it’s trying to transpose this idea of taking a small break to breathe, and maybe to think about what will come next. Instead of trying to connect parts together, I will just leave the silence, then move to another song, but it will still be the same song because there is a connection between them that I feel is powerful.
This idea of transition is interesting because I didn’t think about that. There was a transition from my hometown to here [Montreal]. My music really changed when I moved here, for sure, because I had other opportunities, I met other people. My music is always influenced by the people I meet. That’s my main influence: friends, dinner gatherings. For me, the transitions transposed into the music this idea of taking a break and breathing.”
Some moments in Racine’s music contradict the calm, relaxed manner he affects while speaking to him. It’s natural that those instances of physical sub-bass, noise, and jammed frequencies appear more exaggerated when bookended by ethereal pads and soft chord changes, as they do when presented between “Sans Titre” and “Sujet Perdu,” on Quelque Chose Tombe. It’s those instances that might be the album’s most honest, even if they don’t necessarily mimic a desolate desire to expunge hidden anger for Racine.
“When I [make] music and make super intense parts, it’s not me just wanting to do an intense part, it’s just natural to do those parts. Sometimes I have to let go of some angst. Music is also, for me, a room where I can experiment, where I can let go of some emotions, some bad emotions. Maybe there is a lot of aggressiveness in my music sometimes. I have this aggressiveness inside of me, but I will never communicate, or manifest, this aggressiveness in my daily life, that’s for sure, because it’s just not me. But in my music, I feel like there is a room where I can do whatever I want, where I can let go of some emotions and where I can experiment with some emotions as well, like violence, for instance.”
Not unlike his heritage, the balance elicited in Racine’s music was not always something he spent much time thinking about. Being influenced by artists like Polmo Polpo and Tim Hecker left him in a position aspiring to the beauty of surgically synthetic electronic music. Listening to Quelque Chose Tombe, however, will continuously present slices of live instrumentation, or perplexing sensations of humanity, suggesting that something other than a computer is at work.
“When making music with samples and instrumentation, it’s always jazz or classical music that I will sample. It forces me to listen rather than to perform. Doing that really helps let go of my ego a little bit. It adds random events into my music that I love because when you have random events, it feels less dull and really human. It can be a little disorienting, this simultaneous, random event, like adding a random ingredient into your dinner recipe.
Many people don’t like to be obvious about the fact that they are making music on the computer, as if it were a crime, or that it’s not real music if it’s super synthetic, so they will put some kind of human-like grooves to their percussion, for instance, something like that. It doesn’t interest me at all, because I just think that it’s just trying to hide something in plain sight, you really feel like you’re trying to hide the fact that it’s electronic music. I want to have some kind of human feeling in my music, but it mostly comes from using samples. I don’t feel like it’s super interesting to try to hide synthetics by adding some kind of tremolo or effect to add a sense of a live instrument. For me, it doesn’t really make sense.”
The dubious feeling toward music that resists honesty helped craft a sound that’s since found a home on Berlin-based Danse Noire. It’s still a bit of a cultural trip for Racine, though, who grew up near Canada’s capital of Ottawa, in the small city of Hull, Quebec. Originally taking interest in music through experimental hip-hop beats in the small border town between English and French Canada, Racine began to find his musical and personal voice before relocating to one of Canada’s three big cities in Montreal.
In general, it’s the kind of multiplicity found in a metropolis that actually helps define music for the Montreal-based artist. Although the city itself can be cold and clique-driven, it affords a great environment to work in, says Racine. As one of Canada’s cultural capitals, the bilingual city has seen the crest and fall of several musical movements. At the turn of the millennium, it was host to iconic alternative acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Silver Mount Zion, most of them recording and performing and the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal’s Mile End. While the studio remains, it’s since become home for many other businesses, too, often pushing out creative citizens in the process.
The city, however, is far from reclusive. Popular venues like La Sala Rossa, Casa del Popolo and La Vitrola (all owned by the same collective) still operate and program much of Montreal’s experimental music offerings. Yet, for all that the city caters, it rarely offers occasions to see the host of alternative electronic musicians who have lent relevance to the city’s name abroad, like Tim Hecker, Sarah Davachi and Kara-Lis Coverdale. Montreal does offer opportunities for collaboration though, the most notable of which being offered through Racine’s work alongside his friend, colleague, and often co-producer Justin Leduc-Frenette (a.k.a. Keru Not Ever).
“We have this project named Corporation. It’s a total collaboration without any compromise; it’s messy but super stimulating. We will hang, drink wine, and then make music together both on our own laptop and record everything. So you would guess, there’s not much we can do when the session is done. No mixing, no micro editing, it’s just a single master track of over thirty to forty minutes. For me, there’s no better way to have several people simultaneously work on the same project. It will get messy, but in the end, what can you do about it. It is what it is: perfection!”
The same organic-minded approach filters through Quelque Chose Tombe in the form of Racine’s French-speaking heritage. It may not initially appear decisive, but for Racine, who speaks English as a second language, titling the album and its tracks in French was an effort at maintaining a sense of personal character and identity in the face of societal tendencies to do otherwise. While it might be unconscious, it’s present nevertheless.
“I have never been super proud of being a Quebecer or French-Canadian. I prefer to say Quebecer. French-Canadian is old, I don’t feel like a French-Canadian, I really feel like a Quebecer. It struck me when I was travelling, how much I love speaking French. I love this language, and I love everything that is French, I think, but mostly, Quebec French. So, of course, I missed home, I am always a bit homesick when I travel. But it’s not just missing a place that struck me. It’s part of my identity, and I actually never thought about being a French-speaking Quebecer or thought about what it means for me.
I used to do a lot of titles in English. For my second album, Eve, released on the label Dream Disk Lab , I started to pay attention to this and started to try my best to communicate in French. I don’t sing, and I don’t speak on my music, so the best way for me to communicate in French while doing an album with no words, was to write in French. It’s not even to be political, it’s just unnatural for me to speak in English. So why would I put an English title that doesn’t make any sense?
You see a lot of German artists that put German titles to their music. So why in Quebec do we always feel like we have to put English names like we were super influenced by the USA and Anglo-Saxon culture? I think we have our own voice, so why not just speak it and speak French and try our best? My English is not perfect, I have this huge accent, but instead of being ashamed of it, why not embrace it and just go full-on big accent and speak about it? I didn’t really think about it before, but my name, also, Racine is such a Francophone name. It’s actually a French name. It just makes sense, and everything should be in French when I’m titling my music and putting words on my music. Maybe if I started to sing, I would sing in French, too. But I don’t sing.”
Now, after the release of Quelque Chose Tombe on Devi’s Danse Noire imprint, which also hosts LPs by the founder herself as well as Narcissi and Meuko! Meuko!, Racine is already ready for another.
“I finished this album a long time ago. I’ve done a lot of music in one year, so I already have a couple of elements and concepts that I’m working on for my next album for Danse Noire, that’s for sure. I wrote to Raphael (the label manager) that I could make and finish another album in the next month. Maybe I’m super impatient, and I just want to make music. I feel anxious having some pieces sitting in my hard drive and doing nothing. You can also lose momentum by just having those pieces sitting there, but it’s ok, I can wait. I can be patient. This [coronavirus] situation forces us to be patient, as well.”