Pain Well Captured: A Conversation With Johan Girardeau of Celeste

Behind the lens of Mira Nedyalkova's intense cover photograph and visuals for 'Assassine(s)'.

celeste nuclear blast records

Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):


Just before the weekend, Nuclear Blast Records welcomed a post-black metal gem worth basking in by way of France's Celeste, who recently joined the talented Nuclear Blast fold. This gem, titled Assassine(s), follows the black and white photographic pattern that defines the band's visual persona, a persona that leaves much to the imagination of the viewer. Assassine(s) is a comprehensive world that tantalizes from the opening Des torrents de coups to the melancholic closer that is Le cœur noir charbon. Multiple listens through and it still offers much to uncover, encouraging repeated visits to the haunting hymns they craft. Mira Nedyalkova's striking cover photograph is only the start.


We welcome frontman Johan Girardeau to a discussion on all things Assassine(s), including their approach to establishing a visual identity, creative mindsets, their photographic path, and more:

 

'Assassine(s)' is fresh on the record shelves and though it could be categorized as an avant garde black metal record, it’s truly boundless and allowed for you all to roam free in terms of creativity. As we’ll discuss today, this extends into the visuals. With this record being a testament to your growth as a band, in what mindset did it find you?


Johan: Well, the main word that would fit best to this record is “open mindedness”. Not that we consider ourselves as close minded, but we’ve been so focused on developing our own sound for more than 15 years that maybe we’ve forgotten that other things were happening outside our own microcosm. Writing this album was the opportunity to think outside the box and develop new ideas. We even felt like we could work on things that don't normally sound like Celeste, but in the end, we’re still what we are, and even when we experiment things, they are always tinted by our souls and tastes; you can’t fight it. The most important thing is to be proud of yourself. We definitely think that this album is a huge step for us and it totally reflect our current mindset.


It truly is. 'Infidèle(s)' was already a standout record to strive for, but this meets if not exceeds that. You worked with an assortment of great photographers in the past and now, Mira Nedyalkova takes on ‘Assassine(s)’. What drew you to this collaboration with Mira, and what were you looking for as far as visual interpretation for the record? You mention you came across her work a couple of years ago.


Johan: The process is always the same for me. Right after I finish an artwork, I start to think about the next one and I feel like the last is the best every time. I always fear I’m going to fail to improve my work, but it doesn’t stop me from gathering ideas or thinking about the upcoming concept, etc. It usually takes me a year or so before an idea stands the test of time. When the first step is done, I try to find the best people to bring this idea to life and I start to seek for this person on the internet. I spend countless hours trying to find the perfect match and I’m quite picky, so I have to admit that I feel very unstimulated during this period.


Fortunately, perseverance always pays off. Each time I finally stumble upon a gem, it instantly clicks. That’s what happened with Mira, I immediately felt that we had common interests and tastes. It wasn’t that simple because she first told me that she didn’t do any commission works, but when I explained to her what the whole project was about, I think she understood that we could do a great work together, hence she agreed to do those pictures for me. In the end, she was super involved and I’m very pleased by the outcome. I’m grateful that I’ve worked with her. I’m also super grateful for Victoria as a model, whose determination and open mindedness helped the shooting session be a stimulating and appeasing experience.

celeste assassine
Photograph by Mira Nedyalkova

It says something about the record for her to want to collaborate. There’s subtle power in black and white cover imagery and the cover of ‘Assassine(s)’ is no exception. It’s mysterious even, evoking a great sense of curiosity amidst the emotion it radiates. To what do you attribute the decision to rely on this color palette throughout the Celeste discography?


Johan: It’s really important for me that my work looks atemporal. I don’t like when you can relate to temporality when looking to an art form. In my opinion, it loses a bit of essence and its sense of universality. Also, I hope that what I’m working on is going to last for a while and feel still fresh and interesting as long as we stand as a band and even further. B&W seems like an obvious choice to reach that goal, in my opinion, but honestly, if someday I’m in a mood for a colored picture, that’s something I could definitely feel comfortable to work on. I don’t want to impose anything, but it's actually an option we’ve considered for the artwork.


The B&W color palette is definitely a defining characteristic, so it might be in the best interest to keep it consistent. Expanding on the previous point a bit further, you have great faith in photography being the ideal representation for your music. It’s of course the norm for covers to be illustrated in contemporary metal, but you opt not to go down that path. Is that a conscious decision you all made to keep since ‘Nihiliste(s)’?


Johan: Actually, even our first EP, 'Pessimiste(s)', was made out of pictures. It’s different because there are no characters and it already reflects my taste for photography. That’s definitely a conscious decision. Since we started up the band, I had a vision about how our artworks might look like and it was obvious for me that it had to be accomplished through photography. That’s an art form I enjoy and practiced and I also felt that it was a way to stand out from the mass of metal artworks. To be honest, I had difficulties in the beginning to have the other guys in the band understand my point, but with time, they got used to my ideas. It actually happened quite rapidly. Right after 'Nihiliste(s)', I had some kind of white card to develop the artworks by myself, which is a very comfortable thing creatively speaking. Being that free lets me express myself fully through these artworks and it’s also convenient since I can work on the artworks and the lyrics at the same time, which helps me be at my best to make both make sense as a whole.

celeste assassine
Photograph by Mira Nedyalkova

Your involvement in both elements of a release speaks volumes of the integrity within the Celeste formula. ‘Morte(s) Née(s)’ is a fan favorite with the protagonist staring right in the viewer’s eyes, transmitting sorrow or even helplessness, in my opinion. Though the black and white photographs remain a constant, each cover is unique in their own way. Is the approach to visuals distinct for every album cycle, or is it a matter of just finding the right image to fit the album’s themes?


Johan: As said before, it’s pretty much the same process every time. The only difference is that the more I’ve worked on those artworks, the more I tried to develop them as fully genuine projects. For instance, from 'Pessimiste(s)' until 'Morte(s) Née(s)', I was seeking and working with existing pictures and trying to make them as iconographic as possible. After 'Morte(s) Née(s)', I was seeking for photographers to work with to shoot ideas I had in mind, which is a very immersive and rewarding process, but consistency over our discography was probably my main goal. It’s not only about finding the right image for each new album. Whenever the project stops someday, I really want to look backward and have a full discography that visually is perfectly consistent and hopefully could be open to many interpretations.

celeste assassine
Photograph by Mira Nedyalkova

Six albums in and you've definitely built that for yourself. Of course, there's more to come but there's much to be proud of thus far. For those unaware, there’s an additional photograph within the gatefold LP option of ‘Assassine(s)’ that shows the woman being held by the hands that come from the shadows. Of course, the hands could symbolize many things and that’s for the viewer to interpret in their own ways. How important was it for you all to create an expansive visual identity for the record beyond just the cover itself?


Johan: Actually, there are many other pictures than the one you’re mentioning. Of course, the main picture is the most important one, but I always thought that having many other photos around it could help people understand it better and give more emotions to our audience. Also, since the very beginning, I had a strong interest for the vinyl format and how we could use it as a medium of artistic expression. I’m always thinking about our fans and how they would be inclined to buy physical copies if the object itself is a decent collectible by its own. I know people who are buying our LP even if they don’t own a player, but only because they want to have theses artworks in a big and deluxe format. That’s very rewarding for me.

celeste assassine
Photograph by Mira Nedyalkova

Interestingly, your audience has grown to have an interest in your cover artwork time and time again. It’s as if a discussion on art is created every time you announce a new record, as we saw with ‘Assassine(s)’. What does it mean to you all to have created this level of engagement among your listeners?


Johan: With such a growing amount of metal bands popping on a daily basis, you need to create a real connection with your audience. Of course, the music is the most important thing, but the “little” extra hint of creativity and meaning can definitely come from the artwork. And yes, we definitely capitalize on that. That’s the first thing we’re unleashing for every new release and we know that there are great expectations about it. That’s a bit stressful, but also highly rewarding. Sometimes, we even feel like people are more excited about the artwork than the music, haha, but to my opinion it’s just a great communication between two mediums and the idea is that they both make each other shine even more. To my opinion, an album is made out of music, artwork, the album title, and the lyrics. If you find a way to make everything make more sense altogether, I’m pretty sure that the piece of mixed medium art you’re trying to build is going to last for much longer than just great music with a random artwork.


I agree, and those who understand that concept have excelled time and time again at delivering exquisite audiovisuals. Putting ideas down on paper and seeing them evolve into music and art isn’t always an easy process, but do you feel that it has gotten easier over time? There’s a great deal of emotion and heart invested into every one of your efforts and I’m sure you’ve found it difficult at times to express exactly what you’re looking for to a photographer.


Johan: It’s actually getting exponentially difficult over time. Finding new ideas is a very challenging process by itself. When you do it for 15 years, it can almost become a nightmare. The only things that still give us the fuel to work on such a difficult task is that we know we’ll enjoy being on tour thanks to that hard work. We’re still proud of what we do and we actually enjoy listening to our music, which is very important.

celeste assassine
Photograph by Mira Nedyalkova

Absolutely. How significant was it for you all to surround yourself with creatives that shared a like minded interest in the release? Mira’s photograph was perfect, Grégoire Orio’s video for ‘Des Torrents de Coups’ was exquisite, and overall, it seemed everyone was on the same page.


Johan: To be honest, we’re not usually so open to collaborations. I couldn’t really explain why, but we always feel the need to manage everything on our own. We’ve developed strong relationships altogether and Celeste is kind of like an asylum for us, so it’s hard to let people get in it. I was talking about open mindedness at the very beginning of this interview and part of it was to let go a little bit and let a few people interact/interfere with our vision. All in all, it was a great decision. Some people master their art better than us, so they helped us improve our creativity in these fields. As long as it’s a collaborative work, it’s going to always be a positive thing for us in the end, I guess.


It's definitely difficult to let go, but the results speak for themselves. ‘Assassine(s)’ is a high mark in the Celeste discography, visually and of course, musically. In closing, was the record created as an insular experience? Or is there a very direct intention behind it, as if to encourage listeners and viewers to feel a particular way?


Johan: I like to think that people can take what they want in our music and feel it however they'd like. The most important thing is simply that they care about it. Of course, we have some intentions behind the album, such as this being the album of renewal and experimentation: to make it a breakthrough for our discography, to develop the melodies as much as we can, to make it be very intelligible, and to express a feeling of melancholy, etc. If some people understand any of that, we’d be the happiest people on earth, but if people totally get it wrong, as long as our music means something to them, we’ll be almost as happy.

 

Assassine(s) is available now via Nuclear Blast Records. Order your copy HERE.

celeste assassines
Cover Photograph by Mira Nedyalkova