I DISCOVERED Hyperculte’s first album while browsing the racks of the in-house record shop at the super-organised and consistently inspiring Zoro squat venue in Leipzig, left there, no doubt, when the hard-working Swiss / French duo (or one of their other musical projects) played a gig in the former vinyl factory.
I can’t think of anywhere better.
I don’t recall what particular section the self-titled album was filed in but, in truth, it could have been any of them. Avant-garde jazz-punk? Pre-kraut post-disco? Trance pop? Take your pick. Hyperculte seem pretty relaxed about genre, categories and boxes.
What I do remember is being struck by the cover image for the album, which featured the duo wearing decidedly un-ironic and bizarre out-size furry costumes by the side of a misty, fairytale lake.
It doesn’t look like they’re having a laugh. The pair of them look like they’re deadly serious, unrepentant, defiant even.
If these hairy chimeras came from some kind of fairy tale, it was clearly one that was infinitely darker, earthier and more primal than the cuddly, sanitised morality tales parents send kids to sleep with today.
In fact, Diego Sanchez’s hugely evocative photography hints at the kind of ancient, amoral, pine-scented central European folklore upon which all that Disney shit is ultimately based.
You can sense a stillness that has sustained for centuries.
It was mysterious, elegant and beautiful. And weird as fuck.
Reader, I bought it.
It turns out that Simone Aubert is from the Swiss alpine region and Vincent Bertholet from the French, and the costumes they wear on the cover are actually from a pan-European folk tradition of weird, scary peasant costumes.
They met when living in the same squat in Geneva, and they began working together in 2014 after Vincent was offered a short-notice support slot with their friends and comrades, the Ex. Inevitably.
Simone played guitar in another band, Massicot (and still does) but switched to the role of singing drummer for Hyperculte, joining the hallowed ranks of Karen Carpenter, Catarina Bornfeld and Josef Porter (let’s not talk about Phil Collins, ever).
Vincent played double bass in another band, the Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp (and still does), and, lazily, stuck with it for Hyperculte, thus remaining within the hallowed ranks of Arthur Russell, Sting and – does that bloke out of the Electric Light Orchestra count?
Vincent also sings. More of this later. And yes, I know Arthur Russell played the cello. And I’m joking about Vincent being lazy.
Two weeks after they began, they’re onstage, playing loud and shouty, noisy and intense looped punk psyche-jazz jams, everyone loves them, and they decide to record an album, just like that.
“It was very quick,” remembers Vincent over Skype from Geneva. “We were just meeting and very quickly it sounded good to us. Because it was so new, we didn’t know what to do when we started to play together.
“We had no idea of what we wanted to play, what kind of music, it was just what happened, happened. We were very surprised, just with duo of double bass and drums, and not everything was good but it was acceptable.”
In fact, the resulting album is more than merely acceptable. With so few elements, it seems like everyone – all two of them – has to work harder and every instrument has to do more, and Hyperculte somehow end up producing a big old noise for just two people.
But there’s a subtle playfulness alongside their shouty passion and discordant repetition, and while the album is definitely big on syncopation it is equally about melodies.
While the music is very much their own invention, the album’s lyrics are taken from/inspired by the work of people like Shakespeare, doyen of the French musical avant-garde Brigitte Fontaine, Dada don Tristan Tzara and Douglas Adams – yes, that Douglas Adams – on Le Feu, featuring the repeated exclamation “I want to fuck the fire”, only in French.
Other bands could learn from this. As a confirmed hater of shitty lyrics – life’s too short – I definitely approve of the Hyperculte approach here. I like it very much.
Their new album, Massif Occidental (like their debut, released by Bongo Joe), is recognisably the same band who recorded the album I found in Leipzig last year but they have moved on somewhat.
Most immediately noticeable is the fact that, though the album is not exactly lounge music, the intensity has been dialled down several notches from their debut. But I like this one very much too.
Vincent tells me it took them much longer to compose the second album than the first.
“We wanted to go further in this direction, so it was much more complicated. Very often we were following the same ideas and we were making the same kind of song [as on the first album] so it was hard to find new ideas. Much harder than the first time.”
Are they pleased with it?
“Oh yeah, a lot, yes,” says Vincent. “Much more than the first album. Personally, I feel much better about it because the first album was the first time I have been singing with a band and actually, I cannot listen to it. It is just too bad for me. It is very strange to hear yourself when you are not used to it.
“Anyway, for the second time, I was mentally prepared. And actually, it was nice to do that again.”
What appears to be one of Massif Occidental’s key messages, often attributed to Albert Einstein, comes in Tot ou Tard, with the line “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change”.
“It’s very important for me to change, I do not like every day to be the same,” says Vincent. “To play every day in the same kind of venue, to me it’s always the same kind of people. I don’t like when people always listen to the same music, I dunno. I like differences between people, between places.”
You don’t seem half as angry on Massif Occidental as on the first album – what changed there?
“Yes. I think we’re getting older, maybe?” he says with a laugh. “The first one was just improvisation – very rough improvisation – and we were just excited to play together. There was no concept and we didn’t think about what we wanted to do.
“It was totally different to the second one. We were talking a lot about what we were doing, thinking about what is good and what is not good. The first one was more punk in the approach.”
I tell Vincent that Hyperculte seem to be very political but in terms of talking about ideas rather than specific issues. I could not be more wrong.
It turns out that many of the songs on Massif Occidental originated in a show mixing live music and theatre the duo worked on with playwright Jérôme Richer, initially at a squat venue in Geneva.
La Violence de Nos Rêves – The Violence of Our Dreams in English – examined the life of Red Army Faction golden girl Ulrike Meinhof to ask questions like, how do you assert a divergent discourse of the majority discourse in a world more and more complex? And what remains of the idea of revolution?
It’s not exactly Mamma Mia.
“I would say half of the songs come from the work we did for the theatre show,” says Vincent, “so when we recorded the album there was no emergency, it was very comfortable. I guess you can hear it.”
Once again, most of the lyrics of the songs on Massif Occidental are written by other people.
“Yeah, we are not very good at writing lyrics actually, that’s why we steal lyrics,” says Vincent, although, as he points out, ‘stealing’ is probably not the right word as the duo do not hide their sources. Everyone gets a credit.
I wonder what makes them sing songs in particular languages. Siamo Tutti, for example, sounds like three different languages in one song. Are you just showing off? Because if you are, I am totally impressed.
Or is multilingualism just a function of being based in Switzerland?
“It could be,” Vincent says kindly. “Originally, we wanted only to sing in French. I think there’s only one that is in English though, and it is Simone who sings The Measure of Intelligence. My accent is so bad that I don’t want to sing in English. I always like to sing something that has a message and it makes it obvious if I sing in French.”
He tells me that some bits of Siamo Tutti are in Italian because it celebrates the solidarity of longstanding local activists and new supporters opposing the construction of a high-speed TGV rail line through the Valle de Susa in northern Italy.
In the face of these No Tav (“no high speed”) protests and occasional act of sabotage against plant and equipment, the local government had sought to drive a wedge between older local protestors and younger, more politicised activists who had been drawn to the protest from big cities.
Local protesters were now, it seems, ‘reasonable’, in contrast with the ‘unreasonable’ Black Bloc anarchists.
“I talk about how the old people who started the resistance 30 years ago have now been joined by young punks and anarchists from towns like Turin and Milan, and they fight against the cops and the engines etcetera.
“And what I say is that the Italian authorities try to divide these people, the young demonstrators and the old. But in the villages in the valley, they all sing the same song, We are all Black Block, we fight together, there is no difference.”
We are all unreasonable. What a beautiful sentiment!
It calls to mind the graffiti of Paris in 1968: Be realistic. Demand the Impossible.
Similarly, the title of Temps Mort is taken from the Situationist rallying cry that heralded the events of 1968: Live without dead time and enjoy without restraint. Its crazed, fuzzy motorik groove somehow manages to bring to mind Joy Division, Hawkwind and the UK Subs all at the same time.
Vincent makes his bass sound like a theremin at one point. It’s mental.
Tot ou Tard, I shit you not, starts off like Fight War Not Wars (Vincent says Crass are “a big influence”) before launching into a fast n furious, feedback-drenched jam. It’s shouty. It’s discordant. It’s intense. It has a clankingly obtuse interlude with what sounds like bits of metal being smacked with other bits of metal. It’s thrilling stuff.
I’ve tried to identify a UK equivalent and the best I can come up with is Wham Rap. Or Happy Talk. Or World in Motion. I haven’t actually got a clue.
“It’s very famous,” says Vincent. “Simone is Swiss and when I wanted to do this cover, she did not want really to play it because it is a bit cheesy…”
Simone later messages me to set the record straight on this important matter:
“I never said the original Eisbär was ‘cheesy’!” she protests. “It is a very, very important song for the punk / electro / new wave movements in the very early Eighties! It is just such a perfect song that it was strange to pick it for a cover for me.”
“I love the original version,” continues Vincent. “But in France it’s not famous at all. And it was the same in Germany, in Hamburg, where we recorded, the guy was saying, this song is cheesy – but it’s just a nice song. And it’s about a polar bear.”
It’s a shame I don’t speak to Simone more because, from what Vincent tells me, she seems to have an interesting musical journey up to this point – and, obviously, I need to authenticate their punk credentials.
“There was some people from Bradford called Headache,” Vincent tells me. “It was in the 90s, and these people moved to Lausanne and then they played with Simone in a band called J’m’en Fous, like Celtic disco punk.”
Consider Simone’s punk credentials authenticated – and that’s not even mentioning her other band, the “dark and experimental” Massicot, who toured with Sleaford Mods last year, and are just about to go on the road with the Ex.
And what about you, Vincent? How punk were you?
“For me, it was more noisy pop than punk,” says Vincent. “I’ve played in punk bands but not that much. I was playing before, in my hometown in France, with a band called Robotníčka.”
Discogs describes Robotníčka as an electro / glam rock / jam band. Hmmm.
Either way, you get the impression that Vincent is all about the here and now.
“With Hyperculte, I think this is the first time in my life that I am actually playing music that I really like, dance music, that I want to play, with a very political message,” he says. “I used to play in punk bands for a short time but the music was not really my thing. Hyperculte is a good mix, with good lyrics and music that I really like.”
Your stuff has a real groove to it. Do you like dance music?
“It’s not my culture, it’s more Simone’s culture,” decides Vincent. “She’s been to a lot of raves, this kind of thing. Me, I have been to raves but .. actually, I am discovering electronic music more since we have been playing with Hyperculte. I come from more from the rock, punk, experimental music – but I love to dance.
“Originally, I listened to a lot of African music – of course it is dance music – but electronic music, I dunno. For the release party in Geneva in May, we have invited Larry Gus from DFA Records, he’s Greek, from Athens. He’s a solo guy and is totally crazy. He plays machines but also dances a lot. He’s totally crazy. You should see him.”
Was krautrock a big thing for you and Simone?
“We love Can. I started with things like Can and then I discovered African music.”
While he wouldn’t describe himself as a jazz fan, Vincent says that he loves “free jazz – Charlie Mingus, Charlie Haden, William Parker, all these bass players”.
He tells me that, in his 20s, he decided that he wanted to play double bass, “so, I started to learn jazz just to learn how to play the double bass”, and ended up at a jazz-focused music school in Paris.
“I had this picture of jazz as liberation music, you know, political music, and it was not that, at all,” he remembers. “It’s like new classical music – people just want to sound like old guys. And it was quite sad. But it was a very good school for technique.”
I’ve not yet seen Hyperculte live and I wonder how the sound on the record translates to their gigs. Making such a big noise with all the loops and effects, with just two people – even musicians as skilled and accomplished as Simone and Vincent – it must be very hard work, no?
“Yeah, we have a lot of equipment,” he replies. “It’s quite complicated. Everything is played live, we don’t have pre-recorded loops. Everything is made on the stage. Me, I prefer always the live version. It’s more punk, more energetic, more .. I dunno, I prefer it playing everything live.”
Does that complexity limit what you do? Do you have to be more selective about the gigs you play?
“No, we are not selective,” says Vincent. “We like to tour. We like to play in very small places, like squats or a farm in the countryside, or we play in big festivals. What is good for me is that I like to change every day.
“I love to play music and travel, I love meeting people, drinking etcetera. I am obliged to do recordings because it helps us to find concerts.”
Ultimately, it seems, everything is just simpler for a duo.
“Ah yes,” says Vincent. He points out there are now 14 people in Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp. Enough said.
What’s also become clear over the course of our conversation is that Hyperculte are all about promoting positive messages and realistic alternatives rather than just moaning about stuff. How important is to be optimistic?
“Very important,” Vincent tells me. “Basically, the balance in the band is that Simone is very pessimistic and I try to stay optimistic.
“When you look at the news, it’s quite bad what is happening everywhere. And what is happening in France – I am still connected with France – with the gilets jaune movement, and the repression. It’s very bad. It’s a fascist country at the moment in France, the government, and it doesn’t make me optimistic.
“But I find there are some reasons to stay optimistic,” he adds, after some thought. “Like, there was a squat in Geneva, which opened seven months ago. There was a big squat movement in the late 90s, early 2000s, and it totally disappeared. It was where Simone and I met. And it disappeared, because of repression and whatever.
“And, last summer, some very young people, who didn’t know this earlier movement, opened up a new squat – and they won the right to have it just this week. So, that’s the kind of thing that makes me optimistic.
“But it’s a very small thing.”
I am very taken with Hyperculte, and I could talk to Vincent all day.
As a liberal but also, in many ways, a typical Englander – ie almost totally monolingual – I am enthusiastic about what I regard as refined, sophisticated European culture without, I suspect, ever fully understanding what’s actually going on, and what little I do understand is only because everyone else’s English is so fantastic.
The thing is, having no Portuguese does not lessen my enjoyment of bossa nova. I can usually get the gist. And, half of the time, can anyone even tell what language Damo Suzuki is singing in? My JA patois is probably a bit out of date too. Should I not listen to reggae?
Similarly, I may not immediately understand Hyperculte’s lyrics, but then again, I don’t really listen to lyrics, most of the time. I don’t even know whether the title of their album is a pun on the Massif Central region of France, another name for the Alps, or maybe even just an ornate style of Gothic church façade – and I’m not sure how much it really matters.
What I do know is Hyperculte have a solid, unstoppable, repetitive groove but with a proper uninhibited punk rock edge. While their music is often very sparse and minimal, it is also complex and expressive, dense and discordant and edgy.
They have some great tunes and, even though it is absolutely dependent on technology, their stuff still sounds wonderfully warm and organic.
Their enormous, throbbing motorik three-chord thrash even gets a little bit psychedelic and trippy in places but, crucially, Hyperculte sing about real life, thinking globally, acting locally, all that stuff – and usually in French.
They tick all the boxes.
Could they be any more perfect?
Hyperculte may be the band I have been waiting for all my life.
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More info on Hyperculte and Massif Occidental here.