The MAINE Thing: Creating Synthetic Sounds from a Human Place

There’s something about the synthesizer-driven compositions of Michel Dupay and his popular project, MAINE. It’s not just the Paris-based auteur’s minimalist and radically organic-sounding recordings — it’s not simply his and album producer Secondson’s use of real drums and analogue synths.

It’s the sparse but intricate compositions that concurrently sound extremely tight and on the cusp of unraveling. As a listener, you’re caught up in the tension of being utterly engaged in this: the often beautiful, sometimes dark, always melodic and delicate interplay of instruments defy your typical experience with electronic music in 2017. There’s no cavalcade of a hundred instruments marching in lockstep with a computer program’s impeccable sense of order.

“There’s a natural purity to the synthesizer, even though it is a completely fabricated machine.”

In French, “noon” is “le midi” and afternoon is, therefore, “après midi.” You could say that universal synth standard MIDI is like le midi, serving as the halfway point between musical temperament and modalities in the machinations of time. In this case, Dupay is strictly pre-MIDI.

Pre-MIDI was the only way before the 1980s, when the standard allowing synchronization between synths and computers was introduced and never left. But like Kraftwerk of the 1970s and, as I’ve heard, Glass Candy of the mid- to late-2000s, Dupay makes electronic music without the safety net of MIDI and easily manipulated virtual (read: software) instruments.

MAINE is the fusion of humanity and synthetic expression.

Dupay’s choice to forgo the trappings of modern electronic music is both practical and philosophical.

“I don’t know how to use MIDI or virtual instruments,” Dupay told Vehlinggo in an email interview recently. “Everything I own is pre-1982… everything is analogue [and] played live.”

The Dupay-Secondson approach is in full force on new MAINE album V, which comes out on Sept. 1 on 180g double vinyl (Burning Witches) and cassette (Spun Out of Control) — and later, digital, on Oct. 1 (Editions Montmartre). You can pre-order the physical versions today from either Burning Witches or Spun Out of Control (beginning at 1 pm Eastern Time).

The challenge of writing and playing in such a precise manner is the most challenging yet rewarding aspect of the process,” Dupay says. “Because if even a single note or drum hit is a millisecond [off], it will always sound out of time and I think that comes down to the fierce programming that pervades the genre, generally. So to create something so precise, live — that is something we visited more this time around.”  

Montmartre

In Paris there’s a Right Bank neighborhood called Montmartre, that takes its name from the hill that overlooks the beloved city. This is a timeless place that fostered the artistic boom of the Belle Époque of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even today serves as a window into the artistic ideals of Paris, despite a rush of tourists.

During the Belle Époque, artists like Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Suzanne Valadon, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, and Vincent van Gogh had studios in Montmartre — it was the perfect place for artists because rents were cheap. The infamous Moulin Rouge was also there. In the 1920s, Harlem Renaissance leader Langston Hughes spent time in the neighborhood. Much later, many films would use Montmartre as a backdrop, including 1998’s Ronin and 2001’s Amélie.

Rue des Saules, Montmarte, Paris, October 2012. Photo Credit: By alans1948 (paris-1030480) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Rue des Saules, Montmarte, Paris, October 2012. Not specifically where Michel Dupay lives. This is just to give you an idea of the cool neighborhood he calls home. Photo Credit: By alans1948 (paris-1030480) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Dupay lives in the neighborhood, surrounded by the legacy of those giants. It’s the space in which he wrote and demoed the 12 cuts on V (although later he’d take his work to Wales, recording both in Secondson’s studio and at nearby Bywyd Studio).

In that beautiful realm, with Basilique du Sacré-Cœur sitting atop Montmartre hill looking out over the neighborhood and Paris at-large from the city’s highest vantage point, Dupay’s mind is a musical entity with the occasional non-musical expression.

“I’ve always had music in my head — always loved listening to music — loudly, I admit,” Dupay says. “I spend a lot of time with things going through my mind or I can just be humming to myself, whilst vacuuming or showering and that just sticks. That becomes a part of me — of what makes me me — so I need to get that out or it can just build up inside you, driving you nuts.”  

“So when I get some of this stuff out, it’s like I’m squeezing a sponge out,” he continued. “I have it in me… I feel it’s something to give. If people acknowledge it, that’s a bonus, but it’s not why I make music. I make it for me. It’s necessary for me to move forward.”  

“You can be a person in life that gives or takes,” he said. “Taking is selfish, therefore I prefer to give.”

A Changing Landscape

Dupay has given us four MAINE releases so far that, believe it or not, only date back to November 2015. All assigned a Roman numeral, regardless of EP or album classification, each release is an evolving study in his fiercely analogue approach to electronic music, making music using methods of those practitioners who were active when he was barely alive.

Take “On Le Pleure Mort,” from I. It comes off as Giorgio Moroder interpreting Vangelis’ 1976 LP Albedo 0.39. It’s a blissful cut that’s part of a blissful collection.

On II, there is “Tout Chemin Mène à une Fin.” It’s a darkly uplifting number with a glassy synth pad in the lead, bolstered by sharp arpeggiations, fuzzy pronouncements, and a pulsating drum machine that sounds like a CR-78.

III’s “The Landscape Has Changed” couldn’t be a more appropriate announcement for the start of an EP or album. MAINE’s compositions began sounding fuller and bigger — more alive — even as Dupay stuck to his economical approach toward arranging.

Earlier this year, Dupay released MAINE – IV via boutique London-based label Spun Out of Control, the cassette home of well-respected synth score composer Wojciech Golczewski. IV included new versions of some past songs, in addition to triumphant expressions like “Sauvette” and “Journal D’un Siècle,” an understated, multi-modal masterpiece that could serve as a master class in dynamics for the greener synth producers out there.

Through the release of three EPs and an album in less than two years, Dupay has given us plenty. As we prepare for him to give us more with V — his most realized work yet — let’s try to get an idea of just who this generous guy actually is.

Death Metal on the Loire

Dupay grew up in the west coast town of Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, which as its name suggests is a seaside village. It’s located in a region called Pays de la Loire, the capital of which is Nantes, the hometown of the Valerie Collective (David “College” Grellier,” Maethelvin, Anoraak, Forgotten Illusions, and so forth). Saint-Marc is located on the estuary for the Loire River, which lends its name to the region.

Waves breaking on the rocks by the pier of the Mr Hulot beach at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer (Saint-Nazaire). Photo Credit: Demeester via Wikimedia Commons.
Waves breaking on the rocks by the pier of the Mr Hulot beach at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer (Saint-Nazaire). Photo Credit: Demeester via Wikimedia Commons.

Pays de la Loire was only formed in the 1950s, and 20 percent of it is carved out of the historical, Celt-influenced region of Brittany. There’s a local language called Breton that shares a language family with the likes of Welsh and Cornish. So you could say that Dupay is truly playing into his roots with his cross-channel method for recording V, but that’s only the start. Dupay was born to a French father and a British mother. But not only that.

I went to a bi-lingual school, so there was a lot of British influence there, especially music,” Dupay says. “I remember hearing such crazy bands like Terminal Cheesecake and Extreme Noise Terror and I remember thinking back then, we didn’t have anything like that in France.”

The Dupay family wasn’t particularly musical, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one evangelist of tunes. His older brother bought Dupay his first drum kit when Dupay was 14 and for a long time the boy-who-would-become-a-respected-synth-artist was very much into death metal — which he still enjoys — and hip-hop.

“… and that was it, my mind was blown.”

I love drums. I love beats,” he says. That drum kit he convinced his brother to get? He lied to his brother about having their parents’ permission to buy it.

“But to this day, I cannot thank him enough, because I could have gone down a completely different route,” Dupay says. “… but I played and played and perfected my own way — my own techniques if you will.”

His older brother was also the synthy one: He was into pioneers like Jean-Michel Jarre, The Human League and Yazoo.

“He liked the songs; I liked the sounds,” Dupay says. “So I started exploring my dad’s record collection and was finding the odd stuff in there like Can, Kraftwerk, Ashra, Tim Blake and Tangerine Dream, and that was it, my mind was blown. I could hear some real bizarre stuff.”

Synthesizers intrigue him.  

“You’re essentially playing music with electric voltages — getting the modulation rate up enough that you can then tune it and actually play musical notes with it,” Dupay says. “That blows my mind. There’s a natural purity to the instrument, even though it is a completely fabricated machine.”

Although his music centers on expressions of voltages, there’s something else that centers Dupay in all of his musical compositions. In the absence of software to synchronize everything too effortlessly, Dupay has those rhythmic experiences from early adolescence from which to draw.

“Drums teach any musician impeccable timing, which is the most important part of music: keeping it in time, flowing, consistent,” Dupay says. “Always start by learning drums first.”

And maybe even learn it all yourself. At least, that’s what Dupay did.

“I’ve never had a single music lesson in my life; I can’t read or write it,” Dupay says. “I play by ear and by touch. I’m glad I went about it that way, otherwise I’d just have learned like everyone else and then sound like everyone else.”

Maine V interview Michel Dupay

Embarking down a musical path has lent itself to some surprises for Dupay.

There was a time, when he got his first four-track recorder, he was getting good enough to play a few instruments. He recorded the various parts, and then he played them back. Each of his contributions was synchronized and worked like a real, cohesive song. Seems routine now, but that first time was another story.

That blew my mind that I was essentially a full band to myself,” he said.

Later on, Dupay and colleagues had booked what was likely their first commercial studio recording time. When the moment came to head to the studio, they didn’t have a bassist. Not wanting to waste an opportunity, Dupay hunkered down in the back of their van and learned all the required bass parts on the trip over to the studio.

He also ended up becoming a session guitarist after only a couple weeks of studio time messing around on an axe. He was pleasantly surprising himself.

“So to know that you’re capable of just getting an instrument and getting to a level with it in no time at all… That’s the best feeling in the world. Having no fear of any instrument. I feel like I don’t play any of the instruments I have, they all play me,” Dupay says.

The Making of V

Sounding like everyone else is certainly not Dupay’s strongpoint. Sure, it’s clear that his father’s records influenced him, but it’s what he did with what he learned from listening to those forebears that counts. This includes some back-to-the-basics modalities and even getting out and incorporating the world’s sounds.

Maine V cover

“It’s necessary for me to move forward.”  

And while he and Secondson have their tried and true methods for production — strictly analogue, pre-1982, lack-of-virtual-instruments is still a governing philosophy — for V they decided to do some things differently.

maine v tape art
From the liner notes of the cassette version of MAINE’s ‘V.’

“I… only wrote this time on a piano,” Dupay says. “If I sit down at a polyphonic synth, the sound of that particular instrument can influence how you write, so I wrote absolutely everything on the piano. Then, once I had the music, we… looked to reinterpret and mould that on the synths or whatever instruments we used to achieve the sounds I or my producer wanted.”

Dupay loves combining two complementary sounds to create a whole new one — think of how a flute works with a vibraphone. He also used layering — sometimes up to seven synths on top of each other to create a new synth sound — but given the strictures under which he works it doesn’t have the same conventional sound you typically hear.

“A synthesizer can produce almost any sound if you know how to tweak them, so with them being so versatile I try to use them in such a basic way, and not be influenced by the instrument itself,” Dupay says.

Everything is played live — another must in Le Monde de Michel. Either Dupay himself or Wales-based producer Secondson tackled instrument duties along with drummer Jacques Feeney. Megane Hinault and synthpop vocalist Nina contributed vocals.

When they Dupay and crew play, they keep things simple but interesting.

“I never use filters sweeps,” he says. “I prefer to create a sound through intricate tweaking and fine tuning, then I prefer to use fades to bring things in and out of a song.”  

Everyone uses filters with synths, he says, comparing that arrangement to how everyone seems to run their Les Paul guitars through a Marshall stack amp, crank it to 10 or 11, et voila. But for Dupay, such bombast is anathema to what he’s trying to accomplish in his art.

“To hold back — I think that’s where the skill lies in music,” Dupay says. “Less is always more and self-control [makes] for intelligent songwriting.”

Dupay and Secondson also did more field recordings for this new album. Take a cut called “Below the Landslide,” which features Nina. That was recorded in a medieval church in the heart of the Black Mountains in Wales, a peaty expanse with fairytale overtones.

“These things really get to you and bring the best out of you,” Dupay says. “I wanted to make a song that started all synthesized with the EMS Synthi A and that slowly morphs into the church organ that was in there. Unless it’s pointed out to you, you don’t even realize that is actually happening in the song. When Nina heard that church organ, she loved it.”

What Will You Get Out of V?

Dupay puts everything he has and is into his music, and as he mentioned earlier, he has these musical thoughts he has to give to us. Such beautiful expressions are a welcome force in this chaotic world.

“…  There are a lot of intricate details and nuances that I think once realized, can be rewarding,” Dupay says. “I also like to create songs that can be re-interpreted by the listener — that they can be simple enough sometimes for people to hum their own melodies to them. They then become part of it.”

To reach everyone he could with V, Dupay has retained Spun Out of Control to release a cassette version of the album and Burning Witches Records to release a “lavish, double-vinyl, limited numbered edition.”

“That was important to me, to have something physical, analogue,” Dupay says. A digital version will come in early October.

Ultimately with V, Dupay hopes to capture a certain moment and connection with his listeners.

“It’s like discovering something you didn’t expect to find, that split second of euphoria that can wash over you at times, when everything for a brief moment makes sense,” he says. Then there’s the point where Dupay effectively hands off the music to you. “… I know it’s right then, right to let go of [the music], because it becomes yours at that point; no longer mine.”

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