How Autre Ne Veut Turned Internet Obsession Into An Unruly Pop Record

With his ambitious new album The Age of Transparency, Arthur Ashin explores what it means to be a performer in a world where everyone shares themselves online.

“I think I’m addicted to control,” says Arthur Ashin, aka singer-producer Autre Ne Veut. His third album The Age of Transparency, out this week on Downtown Records, is full of contradictions, and this is the one at its core: it’s impeccably controlled chaos. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter started the process by recording with a jazz band, instructing the players, “No, weirder! More! Push it!” He then took these recordings and spent an intensive few months in his home studio contorting the unruly instrumentals into some of his most out-there material yet. The result feels both manic in its explosive emotion, and minutely precise in its attention to detail, weaving Autre Ne Veut’s recognizable anthemic pop structures through trails of jazz flute, scat vocals, and blasts of distorted noise.

Just as his previous record, 2013’s Anxiety, dealt with neurosis on both an individual and systemic level, The Age of Transparency—the second in a trilogy—is both deeply personal and not. It’s as much about Ashin’s own struggle to be transparent and honest in his life and art as it is about the transparent mindset that rules our social media-obsessed, post-Wikileaks world. The title song is an anthem about Ashin’s own experience of internet addiction, and the title itself is actually marketing jargon, referring to the fact that brands today stand to gain more by being transparent with their customers, even if that means revealing flaws (it’s from the same school of thought as the grossly intimate idea of relationship marketing, with brands now believing they should be our best online friends).

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Ashin is, like most of us, always glued to his phone. “Transparency is about tackling those ideas, of being addicted to Twitter and the internet,” he explains. “I’m a pre-internet baby, meaning I lived the bulk of my youth in the ‘burbs, like, riding my bike to my friend’s house. So I know there’s another way to live, a way to not be accessible by cell phone, and yet here I am accessible by cell phone at any point.” Particularly for an artist in his position, that dependency distorts his sense of self. You can see that pressure in the video for his bombastic single “Panic Room” (below) where Ashin performs the track acapella in front of a panel of reality TV judges. With their wrinkled noses, they dismiss his painfully heartfelt, sincere performance: it’s a small insight into what it must be like to live in a social media bubble where perceptions of your art and public persona are constantly and unrelentingly beamed back to you.

In 2015, we want to know everything about everyone. But on the unwieldy, volatile, at times uncomfortable Transparency, Ashin asks: is that even possible? While he was eating breakfast and getting ready to rehearse his new live show with a jazz band, Ashin chatted over the phone to The FADER about how his—and the world’s—internet addiction translated into a sprawling record that’s gut-wrenchingly honest about being gut-wrenchingly honest.

What’s your relationship to jazz—when did you start listening to it?

AUTRE NE VEUT: Very, very young. I was really excited about my parents’ record player, but not their record collection. They had a lot of kids’ records, and I was never really interested in children’s music. But my grandmother had a huge collection of vinyl that she and my grandfather had collected over the years, and it was primarily jazz and classical. So I just started going through their record collection, and discovered Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane; they were pre-Beatnik, bohemian types that listened to a lot of jazz. I was excited about the idea of music that didn’t pander to the listener...When you’re comparing Ornette Coleman to Ace of Base or whatever, it seems so alien. Like, ‘Wow, this is music too.’

I was about 15 when I read Lester Bangs’ review of Astral Weeks, and just had to buy the record. This was pre-internet, so there was no streaming or downloading; I went and bought the record and I was like, ‘What the fuck is this? It’s so weird.’ But I was so dedicated to the words that Lester Bangs had written about it that I just listened to it over and over until I started finding the beauty in it. It’s kind of become this album that has been at the center of my listening practice from that age on. I don’t think I’ve gone a month of my life without listening to Astral Weeks at least once.

I’m interested in psycho-acoustic spaces and the different ways that the listener can be lured into feeling like they’re in one sonic space, and then get whipped into a different one. It seemed like an exciting, intellectual process for me, but also [I wanted] it to work as pop music on some level. So I ended up using my voice as an anchor.

The Age of Transparency has that volatile feeling.

This was really just an instinctive album, even though it was super studio-heavy. I wanted the jazz to be the kind of jazz that I would listen to. For me what makes jazz exciting is the chaotic aspect of it; that feeling that you can’t plan this, you can’t meditate this out, you can’t contain it temporally even if it has an underlying skeleton of straight time. The players themselves are pushed to find the chaos within.

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Tell me about this marketing idea of “the age of transparency”—what does it mean to you?

What’s interesting to me about the idea, is this notion—in the way that the Beyoncé documentary will have all these shots of her holding her webcam up to her face like, “I’m just waking up in bed! This is me first thing in the morning, I’m stressed about the rehearsal!”—on one level [it's] a really compelling insight into what’s it like to be Beyoncé in the morning. But as somebody who’s considered taking a morning selfie, just the very idea of doing that is already considering the presentation...We’re in this era where both corporations and us as individuals have this shared objective of trying to expose ourselves to the world so that everyone can comment on us and give us feedback on us. We’re echo-locating or something, like a bunch of bats in the dark, echo-locating and trying to find meaning and space and lack of space through these weird pings out into the distance. So the idea of transparency to me is this funny-slash-not-funny, terrifying impossibility.

There’s this quote from Mark Zuckerberg about how more transparency would make for a more tolerant society, because we would accept that everyone does bad and embarrassing things. He makes it sound so utopian.

I think the utopian fantasy behind transparency—initially, before corporations figured out how to monetize transparency—could have implied that, and I think that that fantasy is what keeps us sharing ourselves, in the hope that by sharing ourselves we’ll be understood. It becomes a pragmatic capitalist feedback loop where we’re somehow selling things to one another. Instead of relying on corporations and their marketing teams to design the system of sales, we’re actually doing it ourselves. We’re teaching corporations how to sell to us, to our actual behaviors and our expressions of wants and desires being perpetually presented.

Where does all that leave you as an artist? If you’re striving for transparency and honesty as an artistic aim, and that in itself is desirable as a marketing tool or a brand, how does that impact on you?

I’ve ended up presenting myself, slash being represented through the media, as a dude who bares it all and really wears their heart on their sleeve...New New Romantics, or whatever. With Anxiety, I was trying to be as honest as possible—as with my self-titled. So I think that notion of me trying to do that is the reason that I’m thinking of the inevitable failure of that [on Transparency]. Because then I see myself, having represented myself in a certain way, having people perceive that representation that I was intending, and then telling me that that’s who I am. Those bunch of pings going out into the ether from different media sites or different fans then come back to me, and I see them and I’m like: “oh, I’m this. I have to go onstage every time and writhe on the floor because that’s what I do.” So all these things that initially were natural and felt like expressions of me, then became my own personal tropes that I felt obliged to perform in order to fulfill other people’s expectations of who I am, do you know what I mean? But I’m still gonna writhe on the floor. The next time you see me, I will be writhing on the floor.

Downtown Records will release The Age of Transparency on October 2. Pre-order it here.
September 29, 2015
How Autre Ne Veut Turned Internet Obsession Into An Unruly Pop Record