In the dark – An Interview with Ténèbre

Paul Ténèbre effortlessly perpetuates the mystique behind his artistic nom de plume. Ténèbre, which translates to “darkness” from French, is something of a nominative determinate for the oppressive and raw Techno that we’ve come to know over his short, yet efficient dance-music career. It features an artistic pre-occupation with the sounds of a metropolis, in which they are allowed to embody a unique aesthetic uninhibitedly. Paul’s French accent is immediately obvious when I call him up. Drawing out the vowels and softening the harsh edges of the consonants, he greets me in a soft-spoken voice from somewhere in California. “I work between France, South Korea and the USA”, he says, but when I ask him about the work that accommodates this much travelling, Paul is reluctant to divulge the information. The mystifying and harsh sonic landscapes he works in are the most perfect embodiment of the secretive character behind the music, which is quite appropriate, given his name. “It’s the first time I could use my name and I didn’t have to hide behind an alias.” It’s quite the serendipitous match between the music and the image of the man behind it, but for Paul, and what I came to realise over our conversation is that there’s so much more to the music than the just the mystique of the man.

Five releases in on his Ténèbre Audio imprint, the artist has set a tone for the exclusive label in the form of uncompromising Techno releases that are steeped in his experience of working and living in Seoul, South Korea. “I noticed the environment inspired me differently, and the music I ended up making was way different.” The city became a creative pool for the artist, in which his music as Ténèbre could gestate in amongst the “endless streets and buildings” that vastly contrasted that of Europe and the USA. “There is a kind of entropy in the city. You’re far from home and in Korea I felt very isolated.” It’s a very exotic image to a western mind, one that hardly encourages any associations with Techno, but for Paul this is exactly the kind of stereotype he’d like to avoid in his music. “Even though there is a scene and the city is very dynamic, I’m not a tourist guide.” Paul wants to particularly eschew the attractive postcard impression of the hustle and bustle of the eastern hemisphere city in favour of objective music that will work on every level. It’s not particularly a curiosity he’d like to capture in music, but rather a way towards creative enlightenment, making the best out of a strange situation. “It’s a sort of labyrinth and you do your best inside of it. I think somehow, it’s probably a defensive mechanism. If I want to see the city as an art project I can make it mine.” In this way Ténèbre “embraces the environment” by making it the “subject of the project”, and while the subject is quite a loaded one it’s not Paul’s intention to use it as an evocative novelty, but rather a starting point to find an expressive outlet as Ténèbre.

The Ténèbre project is an isolated one for Paul, one that is crafted from the inspiration that comes from the city, but at the same time not beholden to it. He very rarely indulges in the nocturnal activities of the city and if there is a scene there, he is not at all affiliated with it. As a result his sound doesn’t have its roots in the city in which it was created, but rather more reliant on the influences closer to home and Europe. “My background has always been rooted in the UK. I started early with jungle when I was a kid. I always had this attraction for breaks and UK garage.” Although Paul hails from a suburb in France, he’s always found an affinity with the UK sound and it’s something that effectively comes across over the course of five releases. Ténèbre’s productions often features a break beat alongside sounds that occupy the heavier end of Techno, a sound palette closer to the hardcore of the early nineties. The productions are swathed in oppressive layers of distortion and the minimalist arrangements of the tracks take on a maximalist form through brutalist sonic landscapes. They grind and temper under the force of the accelerated pulse of the beat, but refuse to let up and there’s always something alien to the productions – something that is not quite born of the same spirit, but is very much at home in the execution. Listening to a track like Donggul (The cavern), the live drums and the pace of the tracks are elements far more familiar in rock and when I ask Paul about this, he reveals a glimpse of his musical roots. While still somewhat obscure and mystical, I’ve come to realise Paul comes from a world of Metal. It remains a closely guarded secret how he arrived at Techno, one that I’ve not been able to uncover, but there’s certainly no coincidence that Ténèbre shares a natural affinity with the darker, more oppressive side of this other music.

It’s an element to Paul, the man that forms part of the voice of the artist that is Ténèbre, and demystifies some of the darker elements in his music. He appropriates these influences for Techno and applies it to the genre’s strict parameters and protocols. “What I like to do, is use a grid, because there are a lot of codes to respect in Techno.” The grid might be the starting point, but like everything in Ténèbre’s sound he manipulates it to suit his esoteric style and shies away from the traditional 909 or 808 when his productions start taking form. “Most of what I do is on Drums. I work on the MPC, so there is a hip-hop feel to creating the music.” It comes together in Techno that feels stark and barren; yet sounds immense in its presence, much like the abandoned factories they will most likely make an appearance in. Ténèbre’s latest 12”, Meta/Hydra is no different, and the listener easily falls under the spell of the repetitive music as it stomps forward through eleven minutes. The hypnotic effect again references Paul’s penchant for Metal. “I’ve always been interested in slower Metal, like Stoner and Doom. It’s very hypnotic, the repetition and I like big heavy sounds, way more than technical metal. I like simple, good riffs, with good progression in the sound. It’s probably something I like in Techno too, because it’s very hypnotic and very repetitive. There’s a similar aesthetic between Techno and extreme metal.”

It’s clear there are more significant influences to Ténèbre, but it does little to deflect from what ties all these influences together – a city. It’s a city where any westerner is likely to feel like a “total foreigner” according to Paul, but it’s exactly in that isolated situation where the artist feels most comfortable to express himself as honestly as he could.” It’s a great place to work, very inspirational.“ Paul clearly respects the city he works in, and it comes across even when he talks of the logistical details of settling there and learning about the culture. He clearly doesn’t want his music to achieve some exotic otherness, and what is also obvious, is that he doesn’t want to be some ambassador for western music in the city either. “You embrace the environment because you make it the subject of your project and I think it’s more interesting than going out and playing as a DJ. It didn’t make sense to play out as a foreigner, bringing music from Europe to the locals. That’s why I prefer working on my own label and my own imprint and then later, get the recognition in Europe.”

There’s certainly nothing in Ténèbre’s sound that would suggest he is trying to exploit the fact that the music is made in Seoul, but it’s very difficult to ignore it either. It’s especially complex when he mentions that about half of South Korea’s population live in the city and its agglomeration, and it’s only 50km away from the North Korean border. When I ask whether he thinks if that’s significant to his music, especially considering there’s an oppressive element to his music, he says: “This is also one topic I don’t think is important to the music.” It’s a response I’ve heard a few times during our conversation and it’s part of the reason we are talking in the first place. He refuses to do Q&A’s over email because these are the typical questions that plague him and he ends up doing a Vice-style city guide to Seoul rather than talking about the music which resulted from it. He admits the ”political topics are quite interesting”, but refrains in going into too much depth on any one particular topic. “Everyone has their own problems. South Korea is very tough for workers and the social pressure is pretty high already. In addition you have North Korea sending a missile over every so often.“ There’s certainly a lot more to the complexity of the city, more than one man can express through a simple melodic riff or polyrhythmic beat.

These elements do however conspire in minimalists Techno arrangements of brutal force and thus the music is always very loaded, literally and figuratively. Upon listening to it, it stays with you, and it’s something you’d like to peel back the layers of in order to reveal more to the objective music, and yet it wont let you. The thrilling pace of the tracks and there metallic percussive assaults are pure Techno in some regards, but there’s always something behind them, some mystery to be unlocked, some element they refuse to let up, and in the 5 to 8 minutes they take to conclude, you’re left with the same nothing you started off with. And that’s what it feels like when my conversation with Paul ends, a mere dial tone, and no much the wiser about the man than before we started talking. At least his music is more succinct and the influence he draws on has certainly put some things in to perspective, but I feel like it there is much more to be uncovered that lies beyond this moment in time.