On July 16, the Polaris Music Prize unveiled the 10 recordings on the 2019 Short List for the Canadian Album of the Year, the winner of which will be determined on Sept. 14, at the Polaris Music Prize Gala in Toronto. This year’s nominations included a big surprise: Le Mal, the FET.NAT quartet’s first full-length release, after six EPs spaced over the past decade. “This is something we hadn’t anticipated at all, and even being on the Long List was astounding to us,” says multi-instrumentalist Olivier Fairfield.
“In fact, we’ve never really operated with that objective in mind,” he continues. “We’ve now been releasing recordings and performing live for almost 10 years, we’ve got our own fan base, and everything is working fine. But it seems that since the release of our latest one, it’s… it’s as if the reality surrounding the way we do things had changed. All of a sudden, people are fascinated [with our work], and not just the fans and those who like this specific type of music. Everything has suddenly become larger, and that’s something we really hadn’t seen coming.”
The fact is that the Hull, Québec-based musicians have always produced their music primarily for themselves, and their own way, without trying to “fit the mould” – an expression that’s anathema to FET.NAT’s four do-it-yourself advocates: self-taught musicians Pierre-Luc Clément on guitars, Linsey Wellman on saxophone, lead singer/lyricist JFNO (Jean-François Nault), and Fairfield on drums, onstage synths, and studio production.
Describing their sound is a challenge, and that alone should be a good reason to listen to Le Mal as soon as you can. Imagine punk attitude and energy, set against intriguing sound collages, contrasting textures, while electronic rhythms belch out free jazz, thanks to the improvisational style that’s an integral part of the band’s approach. “Every time we set a concrete goal for ourselves, and agree that we should explore such-and-such esthetic, or musical direction, it’s a complete failure,” Olivier laughs, underlining the imprecision of their open-minded approach. “What ends up happening in the studio is that we pick up scraps of ideas, generally improbable, and follow them. And it ends up producing interesting results.
“So trying to delineate our style, or the kind of method we use, is a bit difficult,” says Olivier, who, besides his duties in FET.NAT, also works as a producer (for Medhi Cayenne Club, among others), and as an accompanist (for Leif Vollebeck). “What we can say, though, is that we’re open to everything, even to styles that make people laugh, and that’s the fun part of it. The very bad, strange, and zany ideas we come up with can become serious pretty quickly.” A regular feature of the Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville and of the Suoni per il Popolo festival, FET.NAT produces blatantly free and experimental recordings that wouldn’t normally end up on the “best of the year” short list as, say, the latest Jessie Reyez album.
FET.NAT’s compositional work is powered by that same instinct, and that same will to go where the band has never gone before. Everybody pitches in, but JFNO deals primarily with lyrics, “although the others contribute also,” says Fairfield. “For instance, here’s one of the ways he writes lyrics: he opens a private Google Doc where he puts what he’s writing, so we can access it. I select some of these lyrics, and put them through a text-to-speech application that reads it aloud. I could then modify the flow velocity, the computer’s voice register, stuff like that. Bringing that tool into the creative process generates new ideas.” Some of the synthetic voices were kept on the album, or as JF re-performed the lyrics in the style of the vocal synthesis.
The band’s inclusion on the Polaris Short List has shaken FET.NAT to the core. From day one, the Ottawa-area musicians have identified with the Rock in Opposition movement of Fred Frith’s avant-garde/experimental and militant anti-capitalist British group Henry Cow. Rock in Opposition was created in the late 1970s to protest against the music industry, which was turning its nose up at their uncompromising music.
“Since the first days of FET.NAT, we’ve been doing things to please ourselves, but we’ve also been self-producing everything we do,” says Fairfield. “We’ve never applied for subsidies – we produce everything ourselves, from the recording sessions right up to the record pressings. Among others, this is one reason why we’re astounded to have been considered for the Polaris Music Prize. This said, our identification with Rock in Opposition doesn’t mean that we loathe everything that’s different from what we do ourselves. It’s simply that we’ve always insisted on doing things our own way. It’s part of the band’s nature, and above all, it’s part of the nature of the personality of each one of the band’s members… for better or for worse!
“The Polaris Prize therefore places us in a funny situation. In fact, it forces us to take a look at ourselves, and to ask, ‘What is it that we do, and what’s our place in the scheme of things? Are we still “Rock in Opposition”?’ We’re going through a minor identity crisis – but we’re still taking it lightly…”