This episode features a wide-ranging conversation with Montreal’s Roger Tellier-Craig, known for his work with Fly Pan Am, Godspeed, Le Révélateur and others. In 2019, Fly Pan Am released C’est ça, their first record in 15 years, but their 2020 tour plans were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tellier-Craig discusses his fascination with music as a studio art, the unexpected creative opportunities presented by quarantine, and the hyperreality of our present in which our fragile sense of reality seems poised to collapse at any moment.
Episode 18: INTO THE UNCANNY VALLEY
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Interview recorded in Montreal, May 2020
Produced and mixed in Montreal, March 2021
SP* at Anchor
During the summer of 2020, Roger Tellier-Craig created an Instagram account consisting solely of behind-the-scenes photos of movie creature effects. These are photos that are jarring, even surreal, because they make the artifice of the medium plain to see. Tellier-Craig loves these kinds of moments. A favorite saying of his is “La réalité qui bascule dans le néant,” he explains, the moment when reality breaks down. This idea comes up multiple times throughout our conversation, a feeling exacerbated by the hyperreality of the ongoing pandemic. The contradiction, between the mundane normalcy of being at home and the ongoing severity of the situation, leads to these moments of recognition in which the ground seems to drop out from under us, like a waking hypnic jerk.
How else to describe the experience of a Zoom call, looking directly into dozens of faces at once? Or how to explain that my favorite streamed performance of 2020 was a quartet within the video game Animal Crossing? The term surreal has been victim of a gradual definitional banalization; it’s become little more than a synonym for weird or strange. These days we often hear talk of how our lives have become hyperreal, but in fact both prefixes, sur- and hyper-, mean the same thing, an experience beyond or above normal reality. The word surreal was first coined in French by the poet Apollinaire in 1917, to describe the Parade, a production which included libretto by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie, and designs by Picasso. Unsurprising that such an intermedial spectacle would require the coinage of a new word. Apollinaire recognized and celebrated that work’s ability to maintain an irresolution and coexistence of contradiction.
Tellier-Craig has been interested in hyperreality since long before the pandemic, and, like Apollinaire, he finds the coexistence of contradiction to be creatively generative. Throughout our conversation, various binaries are established only to be ignored and overcome. Studio vs Performance, Solo vs Collaboration, Improvisation vs Composition, French vs English. His interest in pop art and Hollywood is the source of one such tension. While he admits that when he was younger he was more interested in art house cinema, especially auteur directors such as Godard and Tarkovsky, he has since come to find the value in even the lowliest B-movies, contributing to a growing interest in sci-fi and horror. And that’s what I take away from his Instagram photos; he enjoys bursting the bubble of escapism while still being able to enjoy the films.
The discovery of Brian Eno’s On Land (1982) was an important turning point for Tellier-Craig. He had already been an obsessive music fan, but at the time couldn’t play any instruments. As for so many others, Eno demonstrated a path forward towards music as a studio art. Tellier-Craig had been more interested in visual art and collage, so approaching music as a studio practice allowed him to apply this same aesthetic to sound. When Fly Pan Am began, he didn’t even know how to play guitar, and a year and a half later he’d been drafted into Godspeed after the departure of Mike Moya. In our conversation, he describes diligently practicing scales for hours every day. And that punk amateurism still pervades his work today, even if the aesthetic has shifted. Tellier-Craig still prefers the studio to the stage, and his post-Fly Pan Am work has been marked by an emphasis on electroacoustic composition, the use of modular synthesizers, and techniques of sampling and signal processing that intentionally mislead and obscure, leading us straight into the uncanny valley.
Roger Tellier-Craig has released music on many of our favorite labels, including Alien8, Constellation, Dekorder, Dinzu, and Root Strata. With Godspeed, he recorded on Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (2000) and Yanqui U.X.O. (2002), arguably their two greatest albums. During this era he was also a member of Set Fire to Flames, the sprawling Montreal collective whose two LPs for Alien8 hold a special place in our hearts here at ACL. Following the hiatus of Godspeed and later Fly Pan Am, Tellier-Craig focused on other projects, including Et Sans with Alexandre St-Onge, Pas Chic Chic which also included, among others, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (of Jerusalem in my Heart). But his most significant post-Fly Pan Am work was Le Révélateur [The Revealer], an audio-visual project with Sabrina Ratté named after an experimental silent film by Philippe Garrel from 1968. More recently, he’s collaborated with Karl Fousek and Devon Hansen in a trio exploring improvisation using laptops and modular synthesizers.
In 2005, working under the pseudonym Edgar Olivier Charles, he produced a plunderphonic album of electroacoustic music in homage to the early music of the GRM. “I’m not anti-nostalgia, if nostalgia is a relationship to potential,” he explains. “Memory can be used as something that can help you build something new. But most people want to live inside a fake reality based on the past. That to me is problematic because that’s not a relationship to reality or potential. It’s an escapist tendency.” In contrast, Tellier-Craig is drawn to the messiness of emergent formations, the happy accidents that result from making it up as you go along. In this episode he argues that when genre becomes too codified it loses that chaotic potential that he recognizes in early musique concrète, punk, and post-rock. But after being named and codified, a genre tends to become reified and fetishized, loosing that initial raw power of potential and discovery. Hence Tellier-Craig’s abiding interest in hybridization, forcing the new out of unlikely combinations.
It’s fitting, then, that Tellier-Craig specifically mentions Luc Ferrari’s Hétérozygote (1964). The title of that work refers to having mixed heredity, something Ferrari plays with formally and conceptually with his concept of an “Anecdotal Music.” Ferrari cedes a level of compositional authority to the interpretation of the listener, even if that listener is just his own microphone. The author proposes some anecdotal correlations to be sure, with his titles and otherwise, but we the listener are free to accept or reject them. Ferrari broke with the orthodoxy of the GRM at the time, producing what Tellier-Craig refers to as musique concrète du pauvre, validating a pursuit of music made with the simplest available means. I’m not surprised when Tellier-Craig cites Jim O’Rourke as another foundational influence, given his own seamless movement between the worlds of pop, rock, and electroacoustic musics.
All this talk of self-taught punk spirit wouldn’t seem an obvious fit for conservatory training, but that’s where Tellier-Craig found himself, studying electroacoustic music at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal from 2017-2019. He was encouraged to apply by his future teacher, the composer Louis Dufort, and describes the experience as a dream. He already knew how to compose and produce electronic music, having been doing so already for two decades, but welcomed the opportunities this challenge would present. “I actually really love constraints,” he remarks. “Of course…if I’m setting them it’s better,” he laughs. But irrespective of their origin, constraints allow for increased focus and a more intentional expression. The Conservatory helped him to more clearly manifest his concepts sonically, and the focused study allowed time to discover poetic potential in the fine details. One of the results of this course of study was the aptly named Études (2020), released by Second Editions. Études is of a course a common title, but knowing Tellier-Craig I can’t help but read it with a slight wink. In any case, it is a clear example of the creative use of imposed constraints, as each of the four compositions was limited to only two sound sources.
Tellier-Craig has written about the history of “Early Electronic Music in Québec,” some of which has been documented on Tenzier, a label run by his Pas Chic Chich bandmate Eric Fillion. There isn’t a Quebec sound, but there certainly is a strong spirit of collaboration and exchange. It was while working solo at the Conservatory that Fly Pan Am reformed, in part because Tellier-Craig missed the experience of collaboration. Fly Pan Am has since been collaborating with Montreal-based dance troupe Animals of Distinction for Frontera. While their tour plans have been postponed, a recorded document of their musical contribution will be released on 21 May 2021.
Unable to tour, Tellier-Craig has been producing a solo record during quarantine, if only for the creative outlet. He describes it as aiming for the sound of Robin Guthrie produced by Christian Zanési, inspired by his love of shoegaze and early post-rock. What drew him to that music was the unconventional presentation of guitar sound, something he’s pursuing by composing with samples of guitar, rather than recording takes. In this he also gestures to the influence of Robert Hampson, whose Main remains a favorite. If hyperrealism reminds you of the artifice of experience, always on the verge of forgetting what’s real, then this is what he’s chasing with his exploration of sampled guitar, something early post-rock excelled at.
Fly Pan Am has always had a stronger sense of groove than their Constellation label mates, and their music is often downright fun. But their message is perhaps lost on many of their listeners, the use of French creating as much obscurity as allure. “At one point, I had to admit to myself that I just like English better,” Tellier-Craig states by way of explaining the dominance of English lyrics in the very French titled C’est ça. This is a bit surprising coming from one of Constallation’s most outwardly Francophone acts. But to Tellier-Craig, English feels more contemporary, catchier. It is the language of slogans, of pop, which gives it a stronger conative potential. Or maybe it’s just one more tension to be explored in a career of exploring the coexistence of contradiction. Outsiders often mistakenly view Montreal’s underground music scene as pretentious, but that’s because it can be hard to see the strong sense of humor from a distance. In fact, nearly everyone here is incredibly down to earth and welcoming. We may all be anxious and depressed for much of the year, but that is balanced out by the joyous carnivalesque public expressions that dominate the warm months. Until we’re able to gather and celebrate again, I hope this episode may offer some of that spirit.
Note: This episode features more samples than any other episode I’ve yet produced, including two pretty tightly edited montages, the first of Krautrock and the second mostly of work by Jim O’Rourke. Bonne écoute!
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
Roger Tellier-Craig – “Truth Mining” (Instantanés, Root Strata, 2017)
Fly Pan Am – “Mirror Cracks Seeking Interiority” [excerpt] (CST Corona Borealis, 2020)
Fly Pan Am for Animals of Distinction / Dana Gingras & United Visual Artists – Frontera (Live at CTM, 2020)
Fly Pan Am – “Mirror Cracks Seeking Interiority” [excerpt] (CST Corona Borealis, 2020)
Set Fire to Flames – “Rites of Spring Reverb” (Telegraphs in Negative / Mouths Trapped in Static, Alien8, 2003)
(fka) Lil’ Jürg Frey – Live excerpt from Animal Crossing concert (Lumpenradio Live, May 2, 2020)
Roger Tellier-Craig – “Soleil et chaleur dans le parc” (Instantanés, Root Strata, 2017)
Brian Eno –“A Clearing” (Ambient 4: On Land, EG, 1982)
Polvo – “Fast Canoe” [excerpt] (Exploded Drawing, Touch and Go, 1996)
Can – “Soul Desert” [excerpt] (Soundtrack, Liberty, 1970)
Neu! – “Isi” [excerpt] (Neu! 75, Brain, 1975)
Tony Conrad with Faust – “From The Side Of Machine” [excerpt]  (Outside The Dream Syndicate, Table of the Elements, 1993)
Luc Ferrari – “Hétérozygote”  (Hétérozygote / Petite Symphonie…, Recollection GRM, 2017)
Fly Pan Am – “Erreur, errance_ interdits de par leurs nouvelles possibilités” (Ceux qui inventent n’ont jamais vécu (?), Constellation, 2002)
Richard Maxfield “Piano Concert For David Tudor” (Electronic Music, Advance, 1968)
Bernhard Günter – “Untitled I/92” (Un Peu De Neige Salie, Selektion, 1992)
Le Révélateur – “Fakeway Haptics” (Hyper, Dekorder, 2014)
Fousek / Hansen / Tellier-Craig – “V” (No Sound Without a Misunderstanding, Spring Break Tapes, 2016)
Edgar Olivier Charles – “Au moment où Iannis, l’atmosphère tombée, s’exclama devant la fête des belles eaux” (Et ses apparitions, Squint Fucker Press, 2005)
Zappa Thing ( Daria, S02E05 – “That was then, this is dumb,” 1998)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – “Static” [Atomic Clock / Chart #3] (Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, Constellation, 2000)
Roger Tellier-Craig – [excerpt from film trailer] (La Contemplation du mystère, 2020)
Alexandre St–Onge – “…ici l’obscurité n’est pas absence de lumière (ou de bruit) mais absorption au dehors…” (kasi naigo, Squint, 2001)
Voice Crack – “With a Shot of Pink” (Below Beyond Above, Uhlang Produktion, 1998)
Roger Tellier-Craig – “Où s’inscrit tout indéterminé“ (Études, Second Editions, 2020)
Derek Bailey – “Where is the police” [excerpt] [written by Misha Mengelberg] (Solo Guitar, Incus, 1971)
Jim O’Rourke – “Bad Timing” [excerpt] (Bad Timing, Drag City, 1997)
Jim O’Rourke – “Half Life Crisis” [excerpt] (Simple Songs, Drag City, 2015)
Wilco – “Pot Kettle Black” [excerpt] (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Nonesuch, 2002)
Jim O’Rourke – “The Visitor” [excerpt] (The Visitor, Drag City, 2009)
Gastr del Sol – “The Harp Factory On Lake Street” [excerpt] (The Harp Factory on Lake Street, Table of the Elements, 1995)
Jim O’Rourke – “Shutting Down Here” [excerpt] (Shutting Down Here, Portraits GRM, 2020)
Jim O’Rourke – “The Workplace” [excerpt] (Halfway to a Threeway, Drag City, 1999)
Le Révélateur – “Vues Illimitées” (Extreme Events, Root Strata, 2014)
Cocteau Twins – “Cherry-Coloured Funk” (Heaven or Las Vegas, 4AD, 1990)
Fly Pan Am – “Bleeding Decay” (C’est ça, Constellation, 2019)
Main – “Spectra Decay” (Motion Pool, Beggars Banquet, 1994)
Disco Inferno – “Next Year” (D.I. Go Pop, Rough Trade, 1994)
My Bloody Valentine – “Glider” (Glider EP, Creation, 1990)
Roger Tellier-Craig – “Duelle” (Études, Second Editions, 2020)
Tomita Isao – “The Engulfed Cathedral (Preludes, Book I, No.10)” (Snowflakes are Dancing, RCA, 1974)
Seefeel – “Fracture” (Succour, Warp, 1995)
Duba/Sansome – “Limbo Sock” (Light Bulb Magazine Number Four – “The Emergency Cassette”, Los Angeles Free Music Society, 1981)
Fousek / Hansen / Tellier-Craig – “4:50” (No Image in Particular, Dinzu Artefacts, 2017)
Cabin in the Woods trailer (2011)
Set Fire to Flames – “Two Tears In A Bucket” (Sings Reign Rebuilder, Alien8, 2001)
Fly Pan Am + Tim Hecker & Christof Migone – “Trés Trés ‘Avant’” (Song Of The Silent Land, Constellation, 2004)
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro.