A guy that guzzles the blood of virgins at the dinner table–that's what I expected when meeting Arnaud Rebotini for a few mid-afternoon drinks.
Why? The imposing but intriguing BlackStrobe frontman could pass for a biker or convicted felon; not to mention, the considerable amount of dancefloor havoc he and former production partner Ivan Smagghe have wreaked over the last 10 years, releasing bloodied and bruised electro-techno tracks like "Chemical Sweet Girl" and "Nazi Trance Fuck Off")–their sepia-toned sleeves and living-dead cover art guarding music that shows an unhealthy obsession with black metal, Afrika Bambaataa, and the darker side of Deep Dish. (Yes, Deep Dish. Rebotini un-ironically namechecks the mega-club-dwelling Washington, DC deep house duo as an influence.)
Death Becomes Him
"I'm tired of people saying Black Strobe is dark," says Rebotini, smiling as he genially sips a tall glass of ginger ale in D.B.A., a dimly litmicrobrew paradise on New York's Lower East Side. "Neil Young is dark; Johnny Cash is dark. We've got more of a melancholic feeling."
He's half right. Rebotini doesn't appear melancholic or dark at the moment. You might even say he's playing the part of the polite Parisian–a calm and calculating intellectual as likely to listen to Norwegian black metal band Mayhem as he is to controversial composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a noted favorite of everyone from Sonic Youth to Kraftwerk to Coil.
He's not just trying to look smart either. Turns out Rebotini spends his spare time writing commissioned compositions for France's Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), an esteemed music research organization founded by musique concrète pioneer Pierre Shaeffer. His fully orchestrated pieces include an early crack at mixing "Aphex Twin and DJ Vadim, with a bit of a Detroit techno influence" and the acclaimed, synapse-singeing "Grindcore." In case you didn't grow up cracking skulls at Carcass and Napalm Death gigs, the latter's a reference to the post-crust punk subgenre that gets by on little but gun-turret drums, shrieked vocals, and speed-freak songs as short as 10 seconds.
"Think of 'Dead' by Napalm Death, where the reverb is longer than the actual track... only written in a classical context," he explains. To emphasize his point, Rebotini–the former frontman of a death-metal outfit called Swamp–growls like Cookie Monster on the brink of starvation, holding a sinister note for 10 seconds as if he were Whitney Houston singing "I Will Always Hate You."
"Fashion papers always talk about the trendiness of punk, but metal is the real punk to me," explains Rebotini. "If you go to see Slayer, you can feel the music; you can see the broken bottles and the white trash. I'm not even a fan of proper UK punk like The Clash. It feels like party music to me."
Since the title of Black Strobe's long-awaited debut LP, Burn Your Own Church, could be misconstrued as a blunt reference to black metal, I ask Rebotini his thoughts on the genre's theatrical and sometimes deadly serious reputation; with its sordid history of hate crimes and cold-blooded murders, corpse paint and Medieval Times costuming, Satanism and church burnings. You know, everything but actual music.
"I thought it was ridiculous at first," says Rebotini, adding that he considers convicted murderer/arsonist Varg Vikernes a genius due to his genuinely twisted, classical-inspired work as Burzum. "Eventually, though' thought, 'They may look like crazy boys in corpse paint, but the music they do is very different and, well, very good.'"
Um, what was that comment about Black Strobe not being dark again?
The Denial Twist
"I didn't expect to be making a black metal record with them," says Burn Your Own Church producer Paul Epworth (The Rapture, Bloc Party, Phones), "but I think the result we got is a step forward for the band and a challenge to their audience. It took a lot of refining to give the record focus, though."
Mixer Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, The Jesus and Mary Chain) agrees, adding, "I was very surprised about [the black metal direction]. One of the reasons I was excited about doing it was because I thought it was going to be totally electronic."
The reason for the rock guitars and Rebotini's seemingly sudden frontman status was much more drastic than an aesthetic decision. It had to do with the somewhat amicable departure of Ivan Smagghe, Rebotini's longtime production/remix partner, and a close friend since the pair's days shilling 12-inches at Paris' Rough Trade record shop. Considering it's taken 10 years for Black Strobe to transition from their debut single ("Paris Acid City/Funk Is Not Always What You Think" on Source Records) and a stellar string of Output sides ("Innerstrings," "Me and Madonna") to a cohesive album, Smagghe's punch-out time seems rather strange... or perhaps the byproduct of excessive bickering.
The way Rebotini explains it is much simpler: "I am too much and he is too less." In other words, Smagghe knows when to stop and stay focused in the songwriting process, while Rebotini begins at the edge of a creative cliff and immediately piles on sawtooth synths, bombastic basslines, and Jack the Ripper riffs until we're all freefalling.
"The problem wasn't with Ivan so much as confusion between his DJ sets and the music we make," explains Rebotini, as I press him further. "I was really tired of seeing fake live electronic performances, so I decided to do a real album with some classical [influences], a slow song, stuff with different tempos–like a Neil Young album, only with a Black Strobe feel."
The album approach succeeds, but it's quite jarring initially. Especially if you're expecting 11 variations of "Chemical Sweet Girl," a classic Black Strobe cut that mixes filthy EBM with the more menacing side of Depeche Mode. Depending on whom you ask, that very rug-pulling transition may have been one of the reasons Smagghe left Black Strobe; that, and Rebotini's insistence on molding the mysterious duo into a pelvis-thrusting touring band.
"I am not sure it was a 'rock/dance' division," says Smagghe. "It was more of a 'ambitious/simple' one. I also hate being onstage."
While the final Burn Your Own Church recordings were cut with a four-piece band, Smagghe wrote Rebotini's lyrics, helped produce everything but the robotic b-side ballad "Come Closer," and co-wrote every song but "Buzz Buzz," "Blood Shot Eyes," and the banging metal/techno instrumental "Brenn Di Ega Kjerke." Because of this, he finds it hard to listen. "[My] leaving made this album 'not mine,' so let's just say I do not have a strong emotional link to this record anymore," says Smagghe. "It is a bit sad, but I am being honest. Not that there weren't good moments but I am the least nostalgic person you'll ever meet. The best is yet to come; at least I'm trying to convince myself of that."
As for the man with the slick smile and massive black-metal collection, he's looking forward to Black Strobe's first music video, a clip for the Bo Diddly cover "I'm a Man."
"It's going to be me walking down the street, slicking my hair back–all that manly, 'The Boys Are Back in Town'-type stuff,'" he says, before doing a 180 back to the darkside. "It's harder to shock people in France, you know? You can burn the Bible and people say, 'Go ahead, you cunt! It's your money.' Maybe I'll piss on the Bible next time I'm in the U.S."
Shot on location at Hospital Productions (Hospital Productions) and 151 Rivington, New York, NY. Special thanks to Joey and Derek at 151 Rivington.
Sounds of Summer 2007
Black Strobe's Arnaud Rebotini is a little bit country, and a little bit rock 'n' roll.
1. The Horrors "Gloves"
A new, fresh band with an old-music feel. This reminds me of The Fuzztones and Birthday Party.
2. Dolly Parton "Traveling Man"
Love this groovy country music, especially if we tour the U.S. in July.
3. Slam "Azure"
The perfect summer techno track with beautiful, Detroit-derived harmonies.
4. Mayhem "Anti"
The lords of chaos are back in full force. The black-metal blizzard from Norway is refreshing in the summer.
5. Neil Young "Don't Let It Bring You Down" (From Live at Massey Hall 1971)
This song is just a pure wonder. Use it by the fire this summer.