Combining spoken word with elemental drum loops and primordial, electronic arrangements, LAVASCAR (a portmanteau of Michèle Lamy, Nico Vascellari and Scarlett Rouge) is a sound like no other. Its unique, anachronistic feel derives from its members, none of whom are musicians in the strictest sense, but who utilise their plethora of divergent interests to forge experimental, multidisciplinary music.
Poetry is key, with their debut album A Dream Deferred (released in 2017, the year LAVASCAR was born) inspired by the rhythmic words of Langston Hughes, while the follow-up, Garden of Memory, takes its cues from Lebanese-American poet, Etel Adnan. Anthropology is also central – both Vascellari and Rouge share an interest in primitive forms of creativity which they explore in their capacity as artists. These investigations are fed back into LAVASCAR which, since its inception, has embraced the visceral sounds of man’s earliest musical intuition – the kind of music we might have once played to ward off predators, or summon collective strength against the dark.
Michèle Lamy: The story started when I was asked by the Red Bull studio to do an album. Out of the blue. I didn’t know there was a Red Bull studio in Paris, but they found me. I had no clue. Anyway, I was thinking of doing something with my new rappers and poets and they were giving me all these producers.
This guy here [points to Nico] was doing this big installation performance at Palais de Tokyo and he asked me through a friend, our good friend Jefferson Hack, if I could participate in his performance. Which I did of course, and like a sign, he told me three weeks before, “I’m going to send you the text.” When I arrived for the performance he had not written it but it went well. He was writing music and he had a band, Ninos Du Brasil, that he made me listen to. Because how could I imagine that big guy could be a Nino of Brazil?
Scarlett Rouge: [laughs]
ML: So you know, I was not looking for that, and then I said immediately on the spot, “Do you want to do this record with me and cancel everything that was in the plan?” And at Red Bull, Guillaume Sorge [music and art advisor for Red Bull France] said, “Do you still love Langston Hughes?” And I said, “Yes!” And here we went to record an album. That’s the story. This little Scarlett of mine, who was on stage singing when she was five, with music written by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, or was it four?
SR: Four to eight.
ML: She has a voice that is the opposite of mine and was very interested, so I asked her and she said yes. And Nico has a producer, Rocco [Rampino], that is always with him and so we didn’t need another producer that they were proposing to us from Red Bull. We recorded [the first album] in five days and learnt some texts from Langston Hughes. In the middle of it, Nico and Scarlett said, “We have a band.” And then which one of you two found the name?
SR: You did.
ML: LAVASCAR. So these guys forced me into a band.
Nico Vascellari: Me?!
SR: Yeah, that guy.
ML: So that’s the way it happened and we’re very happy with what we did. When it started I was thinking of Langston Hughes but being together there is a big participation of them [Nico and Scarlett] also. The music side with Nico, that was, especially for this [album], a very cooperative thing with Scarlett. It was choosing words for the stories, because for me, even if we don’t use all of the poems, I like to have that mood. I feel it as I say it. But then it’s like composing music, those two were picking up on some words that could, I don’t know, what would you call that? Nico?
NV: Well, in a very classic way we were cutting and pasting from the poetry that you brought. Trying to create something new out of pre-existing words that somehow didn’t change the content of the poetry too much but made it a little bit more our own.
“It was choosing words for the stories, because for me, even if we don’t use all of the poems, I like to have that mood. I feel it as I say it.”
ML: Exactly, that’s what is important. I mean you have the thing in your head and in the mood you are really…
NV: When you first proposed this idea of creating music together I contacted Rocco, as you said. Rocco is always there because he interprets very rough ideas and concepts of mine. When I spoke to him for the first time about LAVASCAR, I told him I wanted to create something very primitive and very much based on vocals with some sort of technobeat, just beneath the song. Beating and drumming was the first way for humanity to create sound and even communication.
I always fantasise about this idea of humans living in caves and having to find a way to protect themselves from the animals that were attacking them. I think humanity had to find a way to scare the animals off, to kick them out of the cave, so they started to bang with rocks and sticks on the walls of the caves. By doing that together, in order to make it more noisy and more scary, I think they started to create combinations of sounds and to me, that’s the beginning of music.
ML: We are a noise band, aren’t we?
NV Yes, especially on the first album I think you can say that.
ML: But the voice is important to be your animals. Scarlett, you are the one who makes all the noises of the animals.
SR: Yeah I’m the ornamental animal, I’m the animal you’re trying to get out of the cave. I won’t leave because I have a screech that will pierce your eardrums!
NV: I wanted a very basic sound because I wanted the three of us who were going to sing on top of it to be at peace with the sound, if you see what I mean? I wanted something that could feel immediate, not something that was too complicated and too elaborate. It’s a rather minimal album [A Dream Deferred] in terms of sound, yet the interesting thing to me is that it’s still not a cold album, it’s very emotional. Both the albums are very much driven by the words Michèle has chosen. So I think the idea was somehow to work in contrast but also to have a very emotional way of approaching sound.
“I think humanity had to find a way to scare the animals off, to kick them out of the cave, so they started to bang with rocks and sticks on the walls of the caves.”
ML: And then I can say something Nico, because whenever it was, Les Deux Café or even before, if I said those words of Langston Hughes that have accompanied me all my life, it’s because they were not written as songs, they riffed on the blues. When I was performing some of those at Les Deux Café or some other place, it was always getting into this sound and I wanted to push it. So it was fantastic that we could translate it to something new but at the same time there is the emotion, I’m sure, of the blues.
So that was very interesting and then we were composing another album and we were already, I think, adding text from some other Langston Hughes [poem] and I went to Morocco and discovered what I should have known my whole life: the poems of Etel Adnan. This changed the whole thing. It was a big break in my love affair with Langston Hughes, not that I don’t want to go back to it, there was always this background of Langston Hughes that I would go back to, but in this instance, there was a break-up and I think the music also evolves from the first album, perhaps because of the text. What would you say, Nico?
NV: The musical evolution in the second album is way more harmonic and complex. It goes somehow into what I feel is a little more folk territory with hints of pagan music perhaps. So it’s still deeply, if you want, in a sort of ancient kind of music.
ML: We went from animals to the creepy story.
SR: We’re evolving slowly.
NV: I think we were picturing images of people dancing around the fire, sort of cliché if you want, humanity in nature I would say. But it’s a way of experiencing sound together, like a gathering of some sort.
SR: A ritual.
NV: Yeah some sort of ritual, for sure. To me it’s an album that feels ancient in a way yet it’s frankly not a sound that I have heard before. There’s a very peculiar sound in LAVASCAR, which I wouldn’t really be able to describe if not with images, you know? I think it’s easier to describe the music of LAVASCAR with images than it is with words. I think it has something to do with evoking a time that is no longer. Scarlett: The origins of humanity, kind of.
“I went to Morocco and discovered what I should have known my whole life: the poems of Etel Adnan. This changed the whole thing.”
SR: And I think with the Etel Adnan lyrics, that’s kind of stressed, because her words are a little more political. She’s talking about the state of humanity and we’re evoking going back to when we were maybe more natural, or more primitive.
ML: But there is also romance in it. To me, it was the first time instead of just talking I was singing. Rocco told me you have to sing and I was not afraid anymore to quatsch [laughs]. We had a chance to perform at the Fondation Galeries Lafayette and that turned out great because we really understood what we were writing and I felt we were really ready to be on stage now, all of us.
SR: Now we’re supposed to be making a LAVASCAR opera. I think Michèle lauded it out to someone in a meeting, she was like, “Oh I’m making an opera” and they’re like, “Oh, you are?” [laughs] News to me. So now we have to make it happen, you know? She’s promised somebody an opera so we have to make it.
ML: We want to also start seeing what the sets could look like. Even if it’s just hidden, I want to see what it feels like. And we can have guests in an opera of course… We are starting. We can start it right now [laughs]. I want to do something that is longer, because we don’t need to do it all, but I think with this kind of music and everything that we have to say normally, even if it’s so abstract as it is now.
I used to go to the opera a lot with my parents and I still like to see it now, even if I leave after Act I or go for part of it. But I think this is about the staging, this is the next step, even if we record in advance we are on stage…
SR: She wants bigger sets, she wants bigger costumes and more lights. We’ve got a lot to build.
NV: What’s interesting to me, besides the admiration and friendship that by now connects me to both Michèle and Scarlett, is some connection to what I do normally. Again, this way of investigating the course of humanity, there is a kind of anthropological research that I’m using as a way of discovering primitive aspects of our existence but, on the other hand, what’s very interesting and rather new for me is the use of words.
In my work, even if you take the experience of Ninos Du Brasil, we have lyrics but they don’t mean anything, they are just pure sound. So having to pay attention to the words that are said, the way they’re said and how they combine with the music, it’s a very peculiar thing that I’m happy to investigate almost for the first time in my life.
“Now we’re supposed to be making a LAVASCAR opera. I think Michèle lauded it out to someone in a meeting…”
ML: But you and Scarlett are very close in that animal thing. Death, life and also cabaret, I think this is important.
SR: I guess I could say the same about my artwork, it’s also anthropological. I make bas-relief and I use a lot of caveman styles of making art, and like a caveman I like to paint directly on the wall. So I kind of share that with Nico, investigating a similar place and then again the music is always very primitive, LAVASCAR is a primitive band. So there’s that connection, for sure.
NV: [singing] It’s the animals! The animals! [Everyone laughs]
ML: I’m trying to drag them all to Tangier, at least not to record but there is a metal band there that I think we should experiment with. I would like to start singing a few words in Arabic that go well with my voice. I’ve been trying to learn Arabic for twenty years and I’m still really a learner. I can write it, and I can make it sound right but I can never remember what it says.
So anyway, I thought we could do some experiment there and see where it goes. I don’t know if everybody wants to, I think Nico has been thinking about wanting to do the single that was going to make us rich. Nico: I’m not sure I can but I’m honestly trying. I would love to go but there are those little creatures we spoke about before that I have to take into consideration [Nico recently became a father to twins].
SR: I’m in the process of moving country.
SR: Oh you don’t know yet? I’m moving to Beaune, to Burgundy.
ML: Will we have a studio there?
SR: Yes we’re going to build our LAVASCAR recording studio there. During lockdown we were all stuck at home, freaking out, we were like, “Let’s start an art factory, let’s build, let’s have this and that.” So my boyfriend and I decided OK, let’s do it. He does construction and builds furniture, so I said, “Of course, you’ve got to be on board otherwise we can’t do it.” He said yes, so we started packing up and we started moving and it is such a mess. So I don’t know whether I’ll make it to Tangier but we’ll see once I get everything together. But yes, soon we’re hoping to invite everyone to our own recording studio.
Originally published in HEROINE 14