Mathieu Bernard Ball & Robin Wattie elaborate on the band's latest arrangement.
Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):
"It all started with the album title, which translates to 'still life' or 'dead nature' in French," says Big | Brave guitarist Mathieu Bernard Ball as he details the creation of their new album's lyrical and visual identity. "It can mean many other things depending on how you look at it or translate it into different languages, but for us, 'still life' was really the starting point."
On February 24th, the virtuosity of Montreal's Big | Brave hit a high point with the release of nature morte via Thrill Jockey Records — a staggering feat for the trio's already grand scope of work. It's ethereal from the serene opening that is carvers, farriers and knaves through its cathartic conclusion, and it all begins with the creative artistry of Mathieu at the forefront. building the album's musical and conceptual persona into one comprehensive entity. "We've never started from an album title before. The artwork is always directly related to the title because it has to make sense together conceptually, but they kind of come together abstractly in different ways. For this one, we just said 'Fuck it' and had a still life image for the album cover."
Beyond its surface level interpretation of it being a dead bouquet of flowers, there's profound sentiment in its symbolism, which came to be quite creatively at the hands of Mathieu himself. "In choosing the image, we were just going through a lot of ideas. With it meaning 'dead nature', I started thinking about what I could use for 'still life' and I ended up using plastic flowers because there's no greater metaphor for death than the plastic they will use." Through a trial and error process of melting the plastic flowers with a heat gun and photographing the decaying sculpture piece he made, nature morte came to be. "The cover is a lot like what I've done with photography in the past. I've always made sculptures with the intention of photographing them and that was my way of presenting the work. The actual piece we used for this album does not even exist anymore. I was taking the photos as it kept breaking apart, seeing how it would look under different angles, different compositions. We took a look through all the photos and we ended up going with the one we're seeing now."
With nature morte being a raw and visceral record involving plenty of personal investment, capturing snapshots of the gradual destruction of the bouquet is right in line with album's thematic scope. That said, there's a definite feeling of relief upon unveiling it to the world, watching as audiences engage and experience the material for themselves. "There is a great sense of release upon seeing it circulate everywhere," adds singer/guitarist Robin Wattie. "We had been sitting on it for a while before it was even announced. When Thrill Jockey sent us the photos of the CD and the the LP printed out, I got teary eyed because it was really beautiful. Mathieu's work is amazing and this is honestly my favorite album cover that we've ever had. It's quite moving as a visual piece on its own."
It's a bit difficult to decipher what the cover is or represents at first glance, though that's not by design and more so a byproduct of their creative expression. Like their music, it unfolds new layers upon repeated visits, encouraging immersion. "With either the music or the artwork, we've never tried to shove anything down anyone's throat. We kind of want to leave it up to interpretation," says Mathieu. "Music can speak to different people in different ways, and the same with the artwork. I mean, I could have made it more clear that it was melted plastic flowers, but then that would get a little too literal with the title. If you look closely, you'll see a bit of the metal that's poking through the plastic. There are tiny hints, but it's not obvious. I like spending time with records that I like, going through the liner notes and with every time you listen, you dig deep and discover something else. I really like that process, so I aimed to do that with this record."
The act of sitting and truly indulging in a physical record remains as significant as ever, and Big | Brave hold on to the custom despite the fast-paced, streaming-centric state of the industry. "I would just devour the CD jewel cases or vinyl sleeves, as well as the accompanying liner notes and imagery. You do have to spend time with these things in order to fully decipher what it is," says Robin. "Second to what Matt was saying, we don't intentionally set out to make things that are hard to digest immediately. A lot of thought is put into most aspects of how anything will be received. The album cover is like old Dutch paintings, old Dutch still life paintings that are as dark and gloomy. There's mood to it." There truly is, and Mathieu's photograph is quite painterly in and of itself. "I think that was a happy accident that just sort of happened. Musically, you can't really listen to us once and 100% get it. We're hard to digest immediately, so sometimes it does take a few listens and it's fun that our album art reflects that in a way. I didn't even really think of that."
nature morte is best felt in solace as it absorbs and slowly grows on you, especially with the emotional depth it holds. With multiple records in, Robin mentions it doesn't actually get easier to invest yourself within a body of work's lyricism, despite having done it for years and multiple full-lengths. "I like to use a sports analogy of having to clear your mind before a big game. A few years ago, I was watching a Canadian hockey player on television after a game and he was talking about not thinking about what he just did. You have to clear your mind of that in order to be fresh and start something new. You can be happy, or sad, about what went on, but you then have to clear your mind, and that's what I do with albums. Otherwise, you get bogged down by what has been and it then informs what you could potentially do or will do, which isn't necessarily conducive to creating." As a musician and painter herself, it's a process she practices routinely. "A lot of the times when I'm in the middle of a drawing or a painting, I have to reset my eyes by way of putting the painting away for maybe just a couple of minutes or an hour or a couple of days. This is what we do with with our music, too. I have to forget what I'm looking at or with music, what I have been listening to, and then approach it with fresh ears and no expectations. It helps gain perspective. Going back to the question, it never gets easier because I reset. If anything, we become more vulnerable."
Big | Brave are not one to stick to a formula, as one could see given the expansive nature of their discography so far. From the cover artwork to the compositional development, every album challenges them differently and nature morte found the collaborative process between Robin and Mathieu stronger than usual. "We'll typically all be in the same room together, jamming, and whatnot, and then I'll go off and do artwork while Robin will do lyrics," mentions Mathieu. "We then check in before anything is finalized and throw ideas back and forth if we feel something needs work. We're always building together because there are so many aspects involved throughout the whole process, which is very collaborative. This album has a lot more moving parts, so we found ourselves working together a lot more than before," Robin adds, "The way we both work complements each other, too, because whatever I might be working on or whatever Matt is working on is just one element of the work. Even though either one of us might have most of a complete idea, we always have feedback and suggestions, even if small. Our rule is that we never say no. We try it first because there are always things that can develop from there. some really beautiful interesting things. This is very integral in everything that we do."
In hearing both musicians build off one another's answers enthusiastically, it's clear that camaraderie played a very strong role in the album's development process. Thrill Jockey's Deep Digs video on the band speaks further to that, showcasing the relationship between the trio, which is honest and heartfelt.
"We don't want to work with anyone that we don't care about," says Robin. "No one's just a hired gun in this band. Seth (Manchester, producer/mixer) is practically the fourth member of the band. Tasy (Hudson, drums/percussion) is integral as well, playing such a special part in the songwriting process. Even the people we want to go on tour with are all really good friends and I'm very happy that it works out that way. You hear of a lot of bands that are just tolerating each other, which is understandable of course, but we don't want this to simply become a job we go to. For this band, if we weren't friends and had a lot of respect for each other, it wouldn't work out."
To remain as cohesive as they have a group is an achievement to aspire to given the commercial, personal, and overall myriad of issues that arise when traversing through the battlefield that being in a band can be. nature morte is a testament to the band's continued dedication to their craft and a culminating effort of boundless musical layers waiting to be felt. It may not be the easiest listen, but it's a rewarding one that pulls on heartstrings and lures you in with ethereal melody, towering atmosphere, and profound lyricism. Let Mathieu's perishing flower sculpture be your guide.
nature morte is available now via Thrill Jockey Records (Order).