Interview: DRINKS: "Nonsense is a good reaction to everything that’s going on"Thu Sep 27th
DRINKS are set to return to Le Guess Who? with a fresh batch of offbeat psych pop vignettes. We linked up with eternal nomads Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley via FaceTime to talk about living off the grid for a month in rural France, saving fledglings from a cruel fate, giving curator Devendra Banhart a new set of tattoos and well, a lot more.
This year, Cate Le Bon and White Fence’s Tim Presley made their second album as DRINKS: 'Hippo Lite'. The duo’s joint project is often described as a blithe escape hatch from their many other creative endeavors. Upon closer inspection, however, there is something very immediate and intimate about their latest record, even more so than predecessor 'Hermits On Holiday'. DRINKS’ playful, perfunctory recordings often give the illusion of casually eavesdropping in the middle of a conversation.
Opening cut ‘Blue From The Dark’ is a gorgeous weirdo folk gem, evoking the innate melancholy of dusk, when the crickets and frogs seize the ambience from the birds and bees. A track like ‘Real Outside’ confounds the listener with a totally different approach: jeering guitar stabs and slapstick string curls repeat until they pass that threshold of annoyance to a barely-suppressed hysteria. It’s the kind of asinine joy you get from watching cartoons like Road Runner or Wacky Races; the brazen repetition is part of its charm. Then you have the ad hoc delight of ‘Leave the Lights On’, which sounds like the duo frantically making up a song on-the-spot on a campfire dare.
Indeed DRINKS’ month-long stay at a rural farmhouse, near the French town of Hippolyte, inspires you to devise your own outlandish storyboard of what transpired there. In-between recording sessions of Hippo Lite, a gullible romantic would envision prolonged stretches of sweet ecstasy and shared silences; two bohemians becoming more and more oblivious to time’s unbroken arrow.
A DRINKS record listens like a series of abstract fragments, random snapshots of something bigger. Considering all the time they have spent working and living together, you get the sense Le Bon and Presley still rejoice in each other’s mysteries. Their chemistry has a sort of unspoken, bovine charm to it, as they appear at a loss themselves on why their wayward talents and personalities coalesce so organically.
Suffice to say, it is clear Presley and Le Bon enjoyed the pastoral surroundings of Hippolyte on multiple levels. With no phone, no Wi-Fi, no messages and no news feeds to distract them, both musicians rekindled a sense of wonder and ingenuousness, thought to have been evaporated by the strains of adulthood. “From the moment you get up you are constantly reminded of the time because of the obsessive checking of the phone,” Le Bon explains. “But when you just completely turn off to that, you start getting clues about the time of day from nature. When the bats start to come out, it's time for supper. Nothing else exists or matters, apart from what you are and where you are. It feels innate.”
Right as Le Bon wants to elaborate on this, our FaceTime connection briefly cuts off. Once we get our tiny electronic gizmos to reconnect, Le Bon quips: “We just said some pretty profound stuff. Sorry about that.” Inadvertently, this stir up the whole apprehension of missing out on things, and how this feeling actually blindsides you from being present in the moment. Presley: “(Hippo Lite) is so much the cliché of ‘Let’s go back to nature, let’s throw our phones into the river’ kind of trip. But it was interesting to realize something so real can be so easily consumed and overtaken.”
Amidst their captivating cacophony, Presley and Le Bon both open up about other arts and crafts they practice, as a means to enter a different headspace. Over the past year, Le Bon has been honing her skills as a furniture builder and designer. “I just needed a break from that cycle to readdress a lot of things, re-prioritize things. So taking a year off to do something like furniture design building, it’s very meditative, a complete break from music. And later you find one discipline informs the other in a way.” Le Bon shows me one of her designs, a small wooden chair. It is, as Presley puts it “very free-spirited, but there’s a technical side as well” to which Le Bon acknowledges she still has to find her footing. “I don’t think I’ve been able to employ complete freedom yet, but I’m currently designing a piece that works in tandem with my upcoming album, with one informing the other completely.”
As White Fence, Presley has been churning out hazy psych pop gems lickety-split. Painting, however, unlocks a different part of his own creativity – a more personal, hidden space. He is currently selecting artwork for an exhibition in New York City, plus a book of paintings he made during a period when his life was obscured by darker clouds. When asked whether it was exciting to revisit those works, Presley is dead honest. “It’s been a nightmare actually. Because (a lot of it was made) when I moved from LA to San Francisco, when I wasn’t doing so well mentally and physically. So I would just paint every day. I have about five to eight hundred paintings, so to choose from all that… well, that’s what I meant by ‘nightmare’.” Though his unhurried, easy going demeanor might make it seem otherwise, Presley admits to feeling “vulnerable” and reluctant to go through with it. Because up until now, the act of painting was more “like a diary of the past two years.”
Le Bon offers strong words of encouragement: “But because it’s so personal, it would be amazing thing for people to have a window to.
‘Armadillos are giving us leprosy’
Even in the seemingly carefree scenario that conceived Hippo Lite, no sane person is immune to lapses of boredom and escapism. Amidst deft strokes of paint and backstrokes in sun-simmering river tides, Presley and Le Bon watched the first three Jurassic Park-films on a laptop screen. Now here’s a franchise that makes a gaudy point of humanity’s futile attempts to control and transcend nature. Dinosaurs dominated ‘our’ earth over the course of millions of years. And now, these formidable beings have evolved into a flock of helpless fledglings dropping from trees left and right, just as Le Bon and Presley were chilling in the yard.
“It was so hypnotic,” Le Bon recalls. “There was one fledgling schooled by his dad to learn to fly. Then, just as it was just about to take off, the next door neighbor’s cat just ran in and ate it.” There was nothing Le Bon and Presley could do to stop it. “I swear, the birds all cried,” she then deadpans.
Oh, the cruelty. Werner Herzog once aptly crystallized nature’s harsh indifference, insisting that birds likely just “screech in pain” when they “sing”. But DRINKS prove indifference doesn’t always have to be such a downer: Le Bon and Presley’s ‘the first thought is the best thought’-M.O. is indeed super infectious. In endearing fashion, both artists indiscriminately splurge the canvas with mundane and profound reflections alike. Creating without filter or parameter sequesters the full gamut of humanity: its dullness, its hilarity, but also some unexpected emotional depth.
“Nonsense is often a good reaction to everything that’s going on,” Le Bon weighs in. “When we landed in France, Brexit had just happened. But there was just this complete disbelief. Then, going in a tourism office, and there was this man behind the booth laughing at me. And you’re telling him: ‘No I didn’t vote for this.’ But you still have to wear that stinky coat. It does make you feel like nothing is sensible. You get exposed to twenty-four hours of news constantly; reporters are going on about an absolutely abhorrent matter, with hundreds of casualties. Then the next moment they go: ‘Armadillos are giving us leprosy.’ And the tone is all the same, just this constant bombardment of stuff that people have become immune to.”
Presley shrugs his shoulders in typically bemused, trying-to-play-it-cool fashion. “Lyrically, we tried to pepper in the beautiful absurdities too, so it won’t be a complete bummer.”
Chairs in the dark
DRINKS’ free-spirited approach aligns very logically with the man who curated them at this year’s Le Guess Who?: Devendra Banhart. Unsurprisingly, the duo has had some memorable run-ins with the renowned freak folk pioneer in the past. Presley and Banhart attended the San Francisco Art Institute together. Presley: “We must’ve been in our very early twenties, and I was already in a band. And I will never forget — he worked at the cafe at the time. I went in one time and he asked me if I would ever want to play music with him.”
Unfortunately, Presley never got back to him: sigh… the roads not taken. “Months later,” he remembers, “everyone at school was like, ‘Did you see Devendra play last night?’. And I was like ‘What, the guy from the cafe!?’ People wouldn’t stop talking about his shows; he would play this small venue and get totally naked, run around the venue with an acoustic guitar. It was almost like a performance art piece.”
Though he regrets not taking up on Banhart’s initial offer, Presley reconnected with him “pretty much” through Le Bon. She first got to know Banhart when he turned up at the LA studio where she was recording Crab Day. Most artists tend to bond with peers through music. But Banhart isn’t ‘most artists’: he instead asked Le Bon to cut his hair. “I was doing a terrible job,” Le Bon reminisces, “because I only had a fork and a pair of scissors. But someone took a photo of me cutting his hair while he squirms to make people believe I was hurting him.”
Maybe it was all part of some sort of wacky initiation ritual, because down the line, Banhart asked Le Bon and Presley design tattoos for him. Or, better put, make them up on the spot. “Cate gave him these amazing spider chairs,” Presley enthuses. “One day, he had me over to his house and he put three pieces of paper down. They all had words on them, and he said: draw the first thing that comes to your mind’ And so I did. And he was like ‘Cool, I’ll tattoo that on me.’”
If this was anyone other than Devendra Banhart, this gesture would probably slightly weird you out. But in truth, allowing artists you respect and admire to tattoo your body is probably the biggest sign of reverence one could hope for. And even when looking at Banhart’s curated program, with artists like Rodrigo Amarante, Vashti Bunyan, Sun Foot and Jessica Pratt in tow; all of them overlap somewhat in their overall sensibilities, influences and interests. It’s not so far-fetched to say that Le Bon and Presley live by a similarly open-minded maxim – to allow the figurative chair from being pulled from under them, just to see in where gravity allows them to plummet. The hungry house cats of the world will always prowl about, but fortunately, this world has plenty of sanctuaries to escape to, once you know where to find them.
Presley just made an album with former Le Guess Who?-curator Ty Segall, whereas Le Bon just finished recording with Deerhunter in Texas. The latter collaboration was incentivized because Le Bon and Bradford Cox were set to do a performance together for the Marfa Myths festival. It once again goes to show that festivals can play their own part in stimulating creativity and bring forth vital new connections, stirring up these deep inward kinships on a much larger scale.
Le Guess Who? in that sense, is no different. Another sanctuary, like Marfa, New York, California, The Lake District and whatever place Le Bon and Presley have once called home. A nice evocative painting or a sturdy, stylish chair can be enough to bring familiarity to unknown pastures. Le Bon: “I think that wherever you go, it’s like you’re heat-seeking for certain things. You gravitate to a certain kind of people you love anyway, and take towards the same daily routine. You can find that in any environment really. I guess we found it in Hippolyte in a way. You just indulge in the lovely routines that suit you.”
Presley: “We also had a purpose.”
Le Bon: “You’ll probably do the exact same things in New York City. You wake up, find a good cup of coffee... “
Presley: “I think the key sentence is ‘gravitate towards what you need’. We can still be romantic about Hippolyte, even if we never go back there…”
Le Bon: “Oh, I’m going back!”
Interview by Jasper Willems. Thanks to Cate Le Bon for the lovely photos.