Benoit Pioulard's hymns of isolation

Thomas Meluch agonizes over structure and harmony

Assuming the guise of Benoît Pioulard, Seattle by way of Haslett, Mich., native Thomas Meluch creates dusted, ambient folk excursions guided by sunny pop melodies and frigid production that blends found sounds, textured drones, and washes of acoustic guitar. Over the course of several albums for Chicago's experimental indie rock label Kranky Records, fostering a timeless and deeply personal sound, Meluch has created a singular niche for glowing melodies that come shrouded in field recordings, effects, and ambient tones. While en route to his first Atlanta show since performing with Windy & Carl in 2009, Meluch took a few minutes to talk about his latest album, Hymnal, and the past, present, and future of Benoît Pioulard.

The name "Benoît Pioulard" establishes a sense of exotic mystery. Why go with such a foreign pseudonym for your recordings?

It was something that showed up in a dream almost 10 years ago, at a point when I was taking four or five French-language courses at once. It must have been a collision of a few different words that got jumbled in my mind, because evidently "Pioulard" is not a real surname. It felt appropriate as a barrier between the musical output and myself, since most of the time I don't feel totally in control of what I'm doing. It's more like there's a weird guiding hand that helps carry out a given process like songwriting or recording, and I just paint by numbers. That, to me, is worthy of its own name.

When did you start recording your own music?

Sometime in 1996 or 1997 I recorded my first original composition on my old Tascam four-Track cassette recorder. That followed lots of noise making, field recording, and really bad instrumental "cover" versions of Hum and Sonic Youth songs that were mostly just drums and guitar. Lots of fun to make at the time (I was 12), but absolutely unlistenable.

There's still plenty of subtlety at work with Hymnal, but everything is a bit more outgoing. What changed with this LP?

A couple friends have said conflicting things about the sound of this one, but I think that's nice that each person should hear something in a different way. The person who mastered it said it sounded like it was coming out of a 1950s radio, but I took that as a compliment. The primary difference, and driving force, with these songs is the fact that I was in almost total isolation on the southeastern coast of the U.K. while writing and recording.

Was the isolation a self-inflicted creative challenge, or one that happened by chance?

It was primarily circumstantial, but I've always been a pretty solitary individual, so I certainly didn't mind the opportunity to have a little monastic retreat for a while. Nico, my wife, was getting her MA in clocks and automata conservation at a tiny college in the U.K. countryside, but they didn't offer couples' housing ... so the rest of the time I was in Ramsgate, writing and recording. It was immensely peaceful and productive in terms of creative output and self-examination.

Where else do you find inspiration for sounds?

I've always had the habit of carrying around a tape recorder and, more recently, a digital recorder almost everywhere I go — lots of interesting things come from those and end up in the background of songs, or are sometimes arranged rhythmically by adding in something that may otherwise be missing. I also love natural resonance and the idea that every object has its own frequency. It can be fun just to collect things from the kitchen and find ways to make them musical.

There's a dusty elegance embedded throughout Hymnal. Do you write certain pieces or melodies knowing how textures or effects will fall into place?

When I first approach the recording process for a given song, I typically only have the guitar and vocal parts worked out. Sometimes a harmony or backing melody as well, but the development of those things into a proper song almost always occurs on the spot. I just try to fill in the blanks after listening back a few times, trying to create something that sounds full but not overflowing. A lot of my production is accidental, too, since I'm kind of a dilettante when it comes to most technology.

How do your collaborative efforts come about?

The few that have come to fruition are all based on some mutually recognized spark, and are always with people that I get along with firstly as friends. Like with Praveen; he was making beautiful solo stuff that I loved, and we discovered that we got on famously as people before beginning any work musically. That shared respect engendered a really good working relationship, and the same has always been true with Windy & Carl. Plus, we're all proud Michiganders — and that follows with [http://irisarri.org/|Rafael Anton Irisarri] as well.

Do you collaborate at all with Benoît albums?

Collaborations on my own songs only arise when there's some missing element that I can't pin down and need to outsource. However, those additions by others have been some of my favorite moments to listen back to. On the final track of Lasted, a friend from Portland played some wonderful, breathy saxophone that I edited into harmonic waves which complemented the track just perfectly, for example. On Hymnal, I took advantage of my proximity to my Kranky labelmate Lucinda Chua aka Felix in London and she graciously wrote and arranged some cello for two of the songs. I also asked for a little textured guitar from Kyle Bobby Dunn, who might be my favorite living musician, and he obliged.

The writing process varies but almost always begins with a melody. From there I fit words to the cadence, agonize over structure and harmony, and sooner or later, a song emerges.

What's next for Benoît Pioulard?

There's another ORCAS album in the works, as well as a full-length collaboration with Kyle Bobby Dunn, both of which I hope will see release before the apocalypse comes.