Dollars to Pounds: Breton

March 15, 2012

I have a thing for abandoned buildings. There's a creepy children's hospital near my apartment in east London that I've been dying to explore for years, so I admit what drew me to Breton initially was not their music, but the fact that the music/film collective had taken over a disused bank in Kennington, south London, turning the dank maze of rooms into their creative HQ and christening it BretonLABS.

Luckily the tunes on Breton's debut album Other People's Problems (out on FatCat Records on March 26) are inventive, by turns anthemic and eerie, layered and twitchy. The quintet combine glitch-tronics, distorted bass, fuzzed up synths, keening string samples (some courtesy of German pianist/composer Hauschka) and textural field recordings. But their vision goes beyond just music— Roman Rappak, Adam Ainger, Ian Patterson, Ryan McClarnon and Daniel McIlvenny conceive, produce and direct their videos as well as all their onstage visuals. Not to mention directing other artist’s promos and remixing cuts for Local Natives, Penguin Prison, Tom Vek and Esben and the Witch, amongst others. Read my interview with singer Roman Rappak and stream exclusive album track “2 Years,” below.

Stream: Breton, "2 Years"

I’m fascinated by derelict spaces. How did you find yours? Because of the Goldsmiths University/south London music and art school circuit and my ex-girlfriend, from a couple of years ago, whose band was rehearsing here. It was literally a drum kit in the corner of a 90 foot room with a tiny PA, and it sounded terrible. Obviously we completely fell in love with it. You can walk around here for 20 minutes and never see the same room twice. About a week ago out of the blue this guy emailed us and said, “Listen, we heard about this address you live at, you probably live next to this building in some sort of swanky studio, new build. I used to work in the bank in the ’80s and me and three or four people have started a Facebook group for all the people who used to work in the bank. Maybe look into one of the windows and take a picture, we’d love to see it.”

That’s nuts. So then what happened? I emailed back and said, “That’s really weird because we live in the bank.” My friend lives next door to the canteen, I live in what used to be the call centre, our mixing room is where the boss’ room used to be by the rows of secretaries. We said you send us a picture and we’ll send you a picture. He sent us two incredible shots. For a day and a half I was buzzing about these pictures. They must have been in their early twenties in the ’80s, working in Natwest [the bank], and both the photos look like a Christmas party. They’re there, in the vaults with millions of pounds. These pictures look like a kind of West Coast hip-hop phat stacks. The guys are just standing around, one of them is holding a beer can, just posing with the cash. One of them is propping a block of £250,000 on his mate’s head.

You recently directed an incredibly creepy and awesome video for Sinead O’Connor’s “The Wolf Is Getting Married.” How was the experience? It was pretty crazy. Out of the ideas we discussed the one [her manager] picked out was one of the weirder ones. It was shot in a room here in the bank. Originally she was going to be in it, but she had some kind of mental breakdown. We’d just come back playing in Paris and were filming it the next day and we heard on the news that she’d had this overdose/suicide attempt and was in hospital. When you see the video, you’ll realize why it would not have been a good idea to use her. It was quite demanding on the model we used.

Apparently you discovered music via post-communist pirated Polish mixtapes. Explain please. My dad’s Polish and my mum’s from Latvian-Irish parents. We went to Poland just after communism fell because my dad got work there and then stayed for a couple of years before finally moving back to London. Poland after communism was amazing. Lots of the crap stuff about capitalism came in, like Ikea and Burger King, but then there was loads of cool stuff, like none of the piracy laws had gotten through properly. People didn’t understand the idea of ownership of property, let alone intellectual property. At one point everything belonged to the state and you were part of the state, so you couldn’t say, Hey you’ve stolen my MP3, because the track belongs to the people. So you could buy tapes from these little Russian kiosks for 4000 zloty, which was 10p. They were taping anything they could find so you could buy really random box sets of Portishead and Wu-Tang Clan and Faith No More. So I devoured all this music. At that point everyone back in the UK was getting into cliques like you do as a teenager when you’re like, I would like to be in that group and they all listen to this, and we all hate those guys because they listen to that. I didn’t have any magazines I could read so I stuck a mix tape together with The Smiths, then put some NWA on it, then finished it off with some kind of horrific Jesus Lizard or whatever!

What’s the story behind “2 Years?” The lyrics are about this strange thing that happened to me a year ago the day before yesterday. I was seeing this girl, her dad had died two years before and it was the anniversary of her dad’s death. At this stage I didn’t realize that she was still as messed up about it as I later found out she was. Without going into too much detail I found myself in this awkward position where she wanted to go to the hospital where he’d died. And because I’ve never had to cope with a parent dying, it was one of those moments where you’re like, “Am I ever going to be qualified to deal with this in an effective way?” Not as in, I don’t want to have to deal with this myself, but I really wanted to help her. She ended up trying to get into the cancer ward in Guy’s Hospital in London Bridge. And I was standing next to her and suddenly thought, “What the fuck are we doing?” I got this singer called Py to sing on it. It’s the only bit on the record where I wanted to see what a slow song would sound like if I chopped up all the vocals and samples. The only people I’ve ever told the story of what these lyrics are Py and you.

From The Collection:

Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: Breton