Name: l’ocelle mare aka Thomas Bonvalet
Occupation: Composer, guitarist, producer
Current release: Thomas Bonvalet latest release as l’ocelle mare, Sans Chemin, is out via Shelter Press and Murailles Music.
Recommendations: The other side of the mountain by Michel Bernanos; The other side by Alfred Kubin
If you enjoyed this interview with Thomas Bonvalet / l’ocelle mare and would like to stay up to date on his work, visit his homepage or the profile page on the website of Murailles Music. He is also on Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I discovered punk at the age of 11, at the end of the 80's, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones ... it was exactly what I needed and I was elated. Skateboarding was also very important to me and the independent music of those years was very present in this environment, Hardcore, certain Metal or Hip Hop influences ... all this music present before the Grunge explosion.
As my anxiety grew, as I entered adolescence, I felt the deep urge to create too ... I got an electric bass on my 16th birthday, it was fretless and left-handed because I chose it without ever having taken a bass in my hands, it was just good looking and cheap ... I immediately formed a band with childhood friends, I composed, sang and played this bass.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Attempts to emulate, when you are very young, without technique, without adequate material and living in a context quite other than your references are doomed to a certain degree of failure. Moreover, when these references are multiple and come into tension with each other, the forms produced can be rather grotesque. All this, in addition to your own inner energy and nervousness, can already lead, to a certain extent, and without being able to control it, to a singular path.
Beyond the desire to reproduce this much loved music, I immediately had the need to express personal things, I had the need to write and sing in French when all my influences were English-speaking and when rock with French lyrics was often mocked at that time, at least around me and in the circles that interested me. I gave up the voice because I was ashamed of it and ashamed of my words and all my creative needs were then focused on the instrument ... the bass became too limited, I switched to the guitar, then the guitar itself was no longer enough ...
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
There is a need to create a kind of territory, a kind of tension-free refuge zone. I hate rivalry, I want to be able to be quiet in my small domain, extracted as much as possible from social tensions. It also requires a kind of perpetual movement, always moving to remain as free and detached as possible.
And then I need to be surprised and amazed by the surge of things, we have to create free spaces to allow these things to happen. If I am too much in the common area, my engine somehow turns off, nothing animates me to create shapes, there is no need.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The creative difficulties are much stronger now. Everything was relatively easy and in the proliferation in my younger years, the feeling of deadlock is growing but there is a kind of detachment that is taking place lately, an ever-present desire to create music but a need for appeasement, dispersion and distance.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
At the start of my solo project, l'ocelle mare, there was a desire to make an illusory clean state. My previous band, Cheval de frise, was very amplified and I was starting to feel a sort of distaste for certain forms of rock. I wanted purely acoustic music ... centered around classical guitar, feet tapping, harmonica and a mechanical metronome.
It was in reaction to a context. The first records were recorded only by a couple of microphones and mixed in mono. This music gradually became more amplified, first to meet the needs of performing in public, then as an extension of my instruments. Instruments and uses have varied and the playing device has become more and more complex, requiring a different approach to recording. My previous record, "Temps en terre", was the first to be recorded in a studio. The choice of instruments was only guided by the need to get out of the creative impasse, I avoided repetition and systematic uses.
For Sans Chemin, the choices were motivated by other things. 4 years ago I started to suffer from hyperacusis, a lowering of the threshold of sound tolerances which is very painful. I was no longer able to play my usual set up without strong hearing protection and it affected my creativity considerably. I started playing electric guitar without amplification and gradually developing things around it, using paper tape on the base of the strings to make a kind of soft resonator, then using very small bluetooth speakers as guitar amps, by multiplying them and putting them at a distance to avoid to have my head too much in the sound, then putting tambourines on them as timbre. I stopped using percussive elements that were too strong and painful to favor electronic pulsations in my phone ...
I gradually created a whole set up that unfortunately turned out to be just as loud as the previous one. My hyperacusis has deteriorated over the past few months and I have to reconsider all of this.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Not really, I'm always on the move and never very attached to an instrument.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
My collaborations have indeed been very varied, ranging from free improvisation to songs.
With Powerdove for example, it's a very determined framework, the songs preexist, but I'm very free and I can make profound changes on another level than the structure. I like to have a kind of parallel unfolding, my own domain in a way. It's like looking at two separate objects and seeing how they communicate between each other. I find that more interesting than a conscientious work of arrangement.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
The current period would be a bad example, hyperacusis has puts music at a distance for a while. I don't play much, I almost don't listen to any recordings. My life is generaly very fragmented, with a lot of shifts and context changes.
But I would love to have a routine, a more structured life, something more continuous.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I don't think anything like an isolated work or event has ever been dramaticaly determining to me.
I have the feeling that there are two levels in my creative path, an apparent irregular and fractured surface and a immutable continuity in depth. I would quote Charles Fort in the book of the Damned" "all things that seem to have identity of their own are only islands that are projections from something underlying, and have no real outlines of their own."
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Nights are often more favorable, the absence of solicitation, a deeper loneliness, the feeling of stretched duration without deadline frees me up a lot. I'm sometimes more elated in these hours, anxiety and sadness may be present but they paralyze me less, they can even nourish me generously.
But all this is not systematic, things can arise in a more constrained context. I am irregular and I have no method ... I am very punctually creative, it is almost an accident every time.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I don't believe that music can heal, but it allows us to deal with what we carry, to live with it and to flourish despite it all. As a treatment for chronic illness, it helps maintain balance. Social anxiety, existential angst, depression ... music is a kind of raft.
My hyperacusis is the direct consequence of my long, repeated and loud exposure to sounds. The sounds that brought me soothing ended up harming me. The only effective therapy for hyperacusis is controlled exposure to sounds, usually white noise. I did months of therapy with white noise generators in the ears, up to 4 hours a day ... it seems that controlled (dynamic, frequencies) and progressive listening to certain music could also be an approach.
It is rehabilitation and the process is long. It's a balancing act between exposure and protection.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I have always been very attentive to that and very embarrassed by this kind of uninhibited appropriation.
At a time I was listening to a lot of extra-european traditional music and I sometimes produced forms or sounds that could evoke certain traditions. These things could happen accidentally or unconsciously, especially when my music was exclusively acoustic and I was looking for new timbres. But I have always been very vigilant, I have always made sure to find a rightness and that the evocation remains subtle.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I'm looking for a kind of physicality in sound, something that touches, something in contact with the nervous system, a kind of sound acupuncture. The gesture is also very important, the contact with the instruments, the tools.
Music is a complete sensory experience, a tensioning, the whole body is involved.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My musical practice is quite abstract from the world in a way. I don't have an artist's place in my immediate community, people know more or less that I'm a musician but they don't really know what I'm doing and aren't interested in it.
We have a shared garden in my small village, some common activities, I share other things. I have always avoided performing in concert where I live, my family has never seen me in concert. I express myself very rarely in the context of music, I never speak to the audience when I'm on stage except to say "merci" and I never share my opinions on social networks for example. I make sure to leave this music as free as possible.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
This is not the first time that I'm quoting Clément Rosset on that subject:
“Music is not representational, it imitates nothing, speaks of nothing, it is somewhere else (…), free-form, floating, adrift by its very origin, as one would say of a bottomless surface or clothing without a body.”