The Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist uses the Satospehre – a high-tech planetarium – to perform his audio visual project. Gigwise meets him backstage
Cai Trefor
22:15 4th July 2019

Gigwise has this week decamped to Festival International De Jazz De Montreal in Quebec to be immersed in this life-affirming festival for its 40th anniversary, and for our third year in a row. There’s a strong lure: the city’s an incredible history of being an epicentre for jazz music and misbehaviour, dating back to the prohibition years. And this vitality seems to still seep into its pores. Montreal is buzzing tight now.

And with hundreds of concerts happening all around, picking it right is most of the fun, and most of the challenge. Luckily, on the first show we saw we struck gold: On Tuesday 2 July we saw Arcade Fire member Richard Reed Parry’s show titled The Quiet River of Dust. It’s in residency for the Montreal jazz fest and it runs daily 7pm until Saturday 6 July; with a late show on Friday at 11pm featuring Patrick Watson. It’s also on its way to a similar space in Hamburg in August (16 - 18).

Held at SAT (Société des arts technologiques; 1201 St. Laurent Blvd), the show this week uses the world’s first permanent immersive modular theatre, a planetarium of sorts. The 350-cap space has eight powerful projectors and 157 speakers. Ultimately, it’s an awesome space for Richard Reed Parry to lead a six-piece live band who play seductive folk music plucked from Quiet River of Dust Volume 1 and 2 in tandem with artistic experimental 3-D visuals he’s created.

It’s not premiered here at the festival per se – the 360 projection dome performance for Volume 1 did debut at the above mentioned SAT in autumn. But now he’s back with an updated set thanks to the recent release of Volume 2 and had come back to the same venue for the presentation of the music because there’s only a few places in the world it can possibly be shown in this way.

Quite simply, it’s a show that takes a space usually reserved for more scientific programming or film features – seeing an indie band concert unafraid to embrace this technology is incredible.

The words immersive; transcendent; mesmerising may be thrown around a lot in music journalism but we can tell you now: there’s no such thing as too much gush for this show – it is stupidly good.

A case in point: on ‘Song Of Wood’ we feel like we’re in the forest thanks to trees projected right down to the floor – you can almost touch them. The visuals respond to the changes in the music, beat bubbles time in with certain section. And, occasionally, the visuals act as a cue for the band. Handled by the excellent Christelle Bellin, who’s a strong background in motion graphic design, the flowing feel you get for both audio and visuals aspects interacting is stunning.

Given our appreciation for it, and the fact some of our friends can go and see it in Hamburg later this year, we wanted to know more.

So we meet Richard Reed Parry backstage, shortly after his sound check, ahead of his show the following night (3 July). Here’s the wonderful Parry in conversation with Gigwise...

Gigwise: I think my intention is merely to tell people about the show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in that context. As in, it’s contemporary arts music in a planetarium. It’s not really done before in that same intimate environment.

Richard Reed Parry: I mean, I haven’t seen it. I can’t say for sure it hasn’t happened before but I’ve definitely never seen it. And it’s something I’m very happy to be doing blindly not based on a model of something I’ve seen.

So, the style of performance stretches back to the first record?

RP: Yeah we did the same thing but a different version of it in the fall when we put out Volume 1.

Where was that?

RP: It happened here [SAT]. It’s going to be in Hamburg in August.

So it’s not been to Europe yet?

RP: No. There are not sadly not many venues like this.

What makes this particular venue unique? What is this style of venue?

RP: It’s a 360 projection dome where the visuals stretch right down to the floor. It’s covered in speakers so there’s no centralised PA. It’s just around you. So the sound is really amazing and really full without being super loud. And, it’s got this incredible projection ability to just fill this entire space with image in a really beautiful, gentle, and immersive way. And you can still see the musicians playing but the visual emphasis is taken off the players and put onto the whole surface of this environment that we’re all in. It becomes more of a thing about the visuals taking the audience inside their own internal world whilst being surrounded by this beautiful environment.

A lot of people speak to me about the amazing visual shows they’ve seen, and, I don’t normally get that blown away, but with yours it feels like a whole different genre of visual art – I’m into it.

RP: Is think it is! It’s not background visuals for a live show that complement the music. Instead it’s creating an environment for the music to exist within that feels like it was meant to exist that way.

There’s a lot of nature imagery – pebbles, trees – a natural aesthetic as opposed to brutalism, or something else. Why is that?

RP: Because I wanted the music to exist in a visual world that looked untouched by the hand of man. To me, brutalism or anything architectural immediately puts other humans’ brain into the field of vision. I don’t want other humans’ brains perceivably within the field of vision here. I want people to see something in a way that feels like they’re seeing it for themselves with their own eyes – they’re out in it: they’re out under the ocean getting battered by seaweed; they’re having waves breaking over their faces; they’re walking thought the forest themselves.

Because these are all meaningful things to you because you travel a lot?

RP: Not because I travel a lot. It’s more places that would stimulate, or prompt, of the writing of a song in the first place, like a really stunning environment. But it’s not writing a song and just talking about the beauty of nature or whatever. It’s more creating this human free world around the human subjects of the songs.

That helped you to write in the first place?

RP: Yes. It all comes from a place of feeling directly intertwined with and inextricable from nature itself. And a lot of the topics of the songs are about the dissolution of the body into ash, that gets thrown into the ocean, that gets absorbed by the clouds, that rains down on the land, that grows a tree, that falls into the river that goes down into the ocean. This endless cyclical natural themes. The intertwinement of everything and oneness of everything. And the kind of beautiful and liberating and terrifying forces of nature that we are a part of, and we emerge from, and we go back to. And then it’s how that all intertwines with memory and place – a sense of place and a sense of spirit attaching to place. And a sense of spirit emerging from place in the first instance.

Which makes me think a little bit about what you were saying at the end of the set that a dollar from every ticket of your show goes to a charity supporting First Nations people in Canada. Were you informed through indigenous nature or indigenous art in a way that helped write the record?

RP: Sure...

Do you have an affinity you have with indigenous art?

RP: As far as that goes, it’s more about having a direct, lived experience of nature and of land as living breathing environment which is not separate from humans. It’s literally what humans are made of and it is literally made of humans. And I think a lot of indigenous and First Nations folks come from a culture, you know, which is not divorced from that idea in a way that a lot of… Perhaps colonial nations are perhaps divorced from that idea. Capitalism and industrialisation have run amok and completely severed some of the ties that are outside of a for profit structure.

What does it feel like to rehabilitate yourself in nature in that way? And did you go thorugh a particular process or particular place during the writing of this records that was actually a galvanising factor?

RP: Yeah, I was in Japan when I started writing the records. Japan do a good job of preserving the wild, natural beauty of their own landscape, and it’s such a contained place being an island nation. And they do magnificent job – even within the cities they have little patches of forests and little prayer fountains. In quiet space in the middle of downtown there will be really tall cedar trees. Not in this ecotopic way. And you don’t see as much urban sprawl in japan. As soon as you’re outside the city you’re like way into greenery, everything is lush and green and beautiful.

Did you film anything there?

RP: No.

Where did you collect your 360 camera footage?

RP: All over the world.

Did the process of recording the visuals happen after you finished the record?

RP: The records were done before I started working on this show.

What was this process of getting this final part of the visual of the project down?

RP: I shot the whole thing myself. But I had friend video director who co-directed it with me. I shot everything and he would help me assemble it and make it make sense and deposit things and tie them together and take care of the pragmatic side of things as well as put in ideas and make his own bits of it and create certain scenarios. But it, just from the get-go... When I started looking at the footage I was filming it felt like it connected intrinsically to the songs and felt like a world the songs could live in and that belonged to the songs. I really just followed my nose. And from the moment I set foot inside of this room [Satosphere] I knew I wanted the album to get performed in this room.

Did you take this footage with this room in mind? Knowing you could have it in a 360 environment like that?

Yes. Just having access to this space and having a camera that translates directly into this space really well has helped.

Are there any patterns or shapes projected that start to represent people or a story in it?

Not represent people, exactly. But the kind of flow between environments, the going from above land to underwater and kind of dealing with some mythological aspects of the story and stories that tie all the songs together, that fit into the umbrella of what the songs are about, it all kind of comes from the same source: It is all a prismatic fluctuating view of the same world and the same story. I see the albums as being one world, one set of songs that are from a perspective that shifts angles in a prismatic sense. It looks at the same world.

From one song to the next?

RP: Kind of, I think it’s all one song, the two albums. One story explored over the course of many different songs that takes slightly different angles and the story slightly changes depending on which angle you’re looking at it from. But not in a way that’s super didactic or hitting you over your head. But it all kind of feels like a story told from a semi lucid and semi unconscious mind.

Is there a beginning middle and an end?

RP: Yeah. It starts song one on Volume 1.

Has anyone every got close to understanding the story in the way you conceived the story yourself in your head?

Probably not but that’s ok. I don’t mean for it to be super didactic. It’s not supposed to be The Wall. It’s not supposed to be this concept album that reveals it all.

Thanks for introduction to me it and I endeavour to dig deeper to find what that story might be.

RP: You're welcome.
Richard Reed Parry is streaming on Spotify now.
Find tickets to his Montreal Jazz festival shows here

Photo: Sébastien Roy - Société des arts technologiques (SAT)