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Fly Pan Am interview: “Our presence in the studio became an effective part of our composition”

On the back of their fantastic LP, ‘Frontera’ we talk to Jonathan Parant and Roger Tellier-Craig.

Whilst Chicago has given us a plethora of exciting new sounds in 2021, it has to be said that Montréal has provided equally enthralling results.

With BIG|BRAVE spearheading the 2021 releases that have emerged from the Canadian city, stalwarts Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Suuns, and The Besnard Lakes have also produced some of their best work to date. So too Jerusalem In My Heart and Jace Lacek’s Light Conductor project (more on that very soon).

For decades Fly Pan Am (Jonathan Parant – guitar; Roger Tellier-Craig – guitar; Félix Morel – drums; Jean-Sebastien Truchy – bass) have seemingly played second fiddle to the heroics of their kindred spirits; the aforementioned Godspeed (of which Tellier-Craig was once a part of until amicably parting company in 2004).

This time though, it’s Fly Pan Am’s turn to bask in the sun, so to speak, with the four-piece returning with their sixth album, Frontera – a live score the band released in collaboration with Dana Gingras and her Montréal-based dance cast, Animals Of Distinction. The score was first performed at the Grand Théâtre du Québec in November 2019.

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Welding together the sweaty intensity of song-based structures and the kind of searing sound design that has taken electronic music to a new level over the past decade, Fly Pan Am are a band truly reinvigorated.

Harnessed by producer Radwan Moumneh (Jerusalem In My Heart), with Frontera, Fly Pan Am have not only given us the best of both worlds, but, indeed, the best of both of their worlds.

Following their comeback album, 2019’s C’est Ça, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Fly Pan Am haven’t sounded better, with a blinding intensity that sparks the senses like never before. The BPM panic attack of the opening Grid/Wall and Parkour. The surging bleeps of Body Pressure and the title track. The emphatic closing sequence of Frontier.

From beginning to end Frontera is a new force, brimming with a collection of warped shapes and burning colours, providing the sharpest reflections. We thought so at the time of its release and still maintain that Frontera is one of the finest pieces of work in 2021. It’s the band’s magnum opus.

Recently, we asked Parant and Tellier-Craig some questions about Frontera and the Fly Pan Am project.

Fly Pan Am

Sun 13: Before your comeback album in 2019, C’est Ça, what had you all been doing since the hiatus in 2006?

Jonathan Parant: “I can’t go too deeply into what we all did individually over the last two decades because I feel we were pretty prolific. But I can summarise the big line. During our hiatus, each of us has been busy.

“Félix played in the psychedelic no-wave band, No Negative. Roger released electronic music eponymously, and with Le Révélateur. He also got a certificate in electroacoustic composition from the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal. Jean-Sébastien became fully involved with his other band project, Avec Le Soleil Sortant De Sa Bouche, as well as founding a label called Los Discos Enfantasmes. As for myself, I became fond of performing art and dramaturgical theories such as theatre and dance so I mostly designed sound for that.”

S13: How did the connection with Dana Gingras and Animals Of Distinction come about?

Roger Tellier-Craig: “We met Dana back in 2002 while on tour. She had been in touch with me via email prior to us meeting and came to see us play when we stopped by Vancouver, which is where she lived back then.

“She ended up using one of the tracks off the Sédatifs en fréquences et sillons EP for one of her pieces with Holy Body Tattoo at the time. I ended up working on a lot of her pieces since then and we became close friends along the way, so when she heard that Fly Pan Am was getting back together she got in touch about having us write the score for her next piece.”

S13: Before the collaboration, how long did it take for these compositions to evolve?

JP: “Roughly two years give and take. There were a few different tactics, or strategies, involved during the process. It started with a playlist given to us and used by the performers during their rehearsals at the early stage of the piece. I would say, at the beginning, there wasn’t really a strong logic to our research other than keeping it open and observant. Our music started to materialise quite quickly out of the necessity that some of the material had to be on a specific BPM. I recall two major aspects of our efforts that became more conclusive.

“Firstly, we needed to go through a process of un-listening to the ‘the playlist’ that had a sort of tricked us a bit, as we were following some of the references a bit too much. Secondly, when we started rehearsing with the whole team. What I mean here is that we suddenly were surrounded by different media with different meanings. Our presence in the studio became an effective part of our composition. The fluidity of our art practices between all of us was a major factor in the end. Us meaning Dana as the main choreographer, of course, but very much indeed by the rehearsal director, the light designers, the dramaturge, the technical team, as well as the dancers themselves.”

Fly Pan Am: Frontera – “they really haven’t sounded better”

S13: Did you ever envisage getting in the studio and recording these songs, or was it a case of deciding that after touring with the dance company?

RT: “It was pretty much the plan right from the start. Me and Félix both have a thing for soundtrack records so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to indulge that desire. Working with Dana also meant that we wouldn’t have to steer too far off from what we normally do, as she wanted to work specifically with us since our music already resonated with her, therefore we could easily picture this as sitting quite well among the rest of our catalogue. It was also an opportunity to scale back the ‘conceptual’ side of the band and really just focus on ‘music’, which was refreshing and inspiring in a very different way.”

Fly Pan Am - Frontera

S13: I’d say Frontera is your best record, drawing from all the elements of your past. There’s a new found intensity, particular with songs like Grid/Wall, Body Pressure and Fences. What would you say to that?

JP: “Thank you. As I was mentioning earlier about the constraint of a certain pace and specific BPM’s requested by the choreographer, as I understand it, this is probably what you are referring as new found intensity. I would merely say that our composition became particularly entangled with the different coatings and the complexity of the whole work. It was a true sense of mix media, and of live performances. Obviously, it had a considerable effect on our music composition. The process of mix media that I refer to here can be broadly understood as letting some radical sense of outsiderness transform our input on the creative process of sounds.”

S13: From a production point of view, it really feels like Radwan Moumneh captured what you were aiming for with Frontera. How important was his input into the album?

RT: “As usual, very important. We tend to have a very dense sound, so we need someone like Radwan since he really understands how to sculpt this big frequency mess that we make in order to isolate and enhance all the little details that matter. We do a lot of the work on our own via computers but Radwan really knows how to put everything together with the stuff that is recorded in the studio, like the drums and most of Jonathan’s guitars.”

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S13: You were around in the era where physical product was the predominant thing. After having some time out and coming back into the music world, how much has streaming impacted on artists as a whole?

JP: “I can only speak for myself here. I do remember vividly when that occurrence happened. I have to say that I personally was very happy about it. I will only refer to the music world here to focus on the topic appropriately. I witnessed the digitalisation of all the records and objects related that I owned at the time. It got me thinking about the place of this object in the world and especially my relation to it. I impulsively sold my record collection at once. I used to be very critical about the rareness of things and its fetishisation before the dominance of the internet. To this day I do not regret doing so. So the impact in my view is a significant one.

“In terms of overall access and artificial space. The gigantic external memories that technologies brought aside with them felt like deep feeling of symposia that reverberated already in me. But just to be clear here: I am not passing a judgment of any kind or a sort of principle of living. It is very personal. Since that very same phenomenon of digitalisation of the early 2000, I often think about the place of an object in this nowadays world.

“There is a kind of paradox I would like to point out. Almost every song of the world is now saved somewhere as data but we cannot find it because we sometimes feel frozen by the immensity of possibility. That same immensity erased the symbols or the attitude that I remember feeling in front of a rare object. Like when I used to find a correlation between myself and a rare record in a remote record shop somewhere while touring. Here I mean rare as I would mean fragile.”

Fly Pan Am (photo credit: Yannick Grandmont)

S13: You’ve been a part of a scene that’s had a solid, almost cultish, standing in post-rock. But you operate pretty loosely in that genre. Is that something you think about?

RT: “Yes, in some way. For starters, we’ve never really identified with what the general public’s idea of the term ‘post-rock’ means, which quite often really just means ‘instrumental rock’. Speaking for myself, the initial idea of ‘post-rock’ as coined by Simon Reynolds back in the days meant so much more to me, as it referred to a more experimental approach, a kind of ‘cyborg rock’ as he says, where technology was used to expand rock tropes/instrumentation, bands like Seefeel, Disco Inferno, Main, Brise-Glace, etc.

“We started out as a pretty straight instrumental act out of necessity, since we were basically just learning how to play in our early days, but the more we got comfortable with gear, the more we’ve included technology in our arsenal. It isn’t a question of ‘genre’ for us but rather an approach to using technology as a means to generate different timbres and approach composition/structure in a different way. So much of our music is studio-based and our approach to composition is dictated as much by rock idioms as by electroacoustic composition and techniques. For me personally, making a record is more exciting than performing ‘live’ since this is where you can really explore timbre, virtual spaces, cut-up/editing, basically sculpting sound, density, dynamics and space.”

S13: The pandemic put a halt to your touring plans over here for C’est Ça. Are you planning on getting over here at some point next year?

JP: “No. I do not think so. Especially for C’est Ça. That record proposal was more like the result of an in-depth necessity for us to make the album we had always wanted to make, using a kind of shoegaze mutation as seen through electroacoustic tropes, which we had envisioned since forever. Fly Pan Am is not very keen on redolence of our musical material. The band prefers to move on to a new task force with brand-new concepts and alternative experiments. I mean, we did stop playing together for many years because we felt strongly that without new ideas there was no point in rehashing the former material ad vitam æternam for the sole purpose of being a band.

“Collectively, even before the pandemic, the band was already seeking a substitute way to perform live. And post-pandemic we are definitely going in that direction. What I can say about it is that we are thinking of a different future for us on stage. There is no need to rush the meaning of it at this moment. Plenty of time in front of us, and Fly Pan Am seems to work fine with that reality.”

Frontera is out now via Constellation Records. Purchase from Bandcamp.

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