Inmitten dieser Sommer waren wir Schatten,
die aus Schatten traten, Schritte setzend,
die aus Schritten folgten,
Schritte, die zu Schritten wurden,
und zu Schritten wurden,
und zu Schritten, Schritten…
– Wolfgang Hilbig
I’m only satisfied with my music when
it can bring me to an inner space which
is rich and mostly egoless,
recalling […] feelings of childhood.
This is definitely what I can call home for me.
– Axel Kyrou, Vox Populi!
by Benedikt Eiden
It seems to me the older you get, the more you perceive casual music listening as acoustic irradiation. Not that music necessarily has to be always something personal, cerebral or meaningful (on the contrary) but even as background noise, it works less and less in my case. I am not speaking of the collective reception of music here, like going to clubs or the like, whose – at best – visceral experience along with the feeling of bass has always been too much of a crucial component in order to perceive it as incidental. It is more about the moments that you spend with yourself. Especially when being at home or on train journeys, it strikes me particularly: there, I sometimes find music even disruptive, detrimental to my mood. When travelling alone, for example, I’d much rather look out the window, sink into meaningless thoughts, maybe read something or watch people, but trying not to flood my head too much with culture. Often an idea of certain music is enough, which I then follow, and which in its absence inevitably wanders in my memory. In this liminal zone, it seems to me, the music of French underground legends Vox Populi! is dwelling. Recurrently their melodies lingered on me. Often, I could not pinpoint their exact source, yet they seemed so familiar that I couldn’t tell whether I had heard them just recently or if they were wafting back to me from the shadowy past.
Quite a lot I have listened to their records over the years, sometimes more or less consciously, yet to this day, I wouldn’t know where to put it; the only evident thing is they cannot be assigned to any real genre. Driven by an urge for irregularity and spontaneity (aimed at “surprising the listener”, with “the total absence of rules”, as bandleader Axel Kyrou says), their songs move along a line whose marks are those strange manifestations or things of which one cannot say whether they’re advanced ideas or some musical shenanigans. Of course, assuming any work has the potential to resonate with any listener, it is obvious that each person will react differently. The best way to do them justice is to grasp them in their approach, which might go beyond conventional listening habits, as wondrous, naive expressions of a generation that was socialised with the DIY idioms of punk, then overpowered by the radicality of Throbbing Gristle and shortly afterwards discovered Fourth World Vol. I, Possible Musics by Jon Hassell & Brian Eno. Not dissimilar to the work of Hassell, their leitmotif seems to be this imaginary place (a sense of place, culturally and metaphysically) and the juxtaposition, the overlapping of technology and tradition. Hassell, who in the late 1970s, with his heavily treated trumpet, must have opened a space of possibilities and utopias for lots of left-field musicians and post-punks, who saw some of their idiosyncrasies as well as tendencies in improvisation and exoticism further legitimised in his records.
Reference points aside, in the end, one is left with the impression that the work of Vox Populi!, from their first minimal wave sketches (including an Ian Curtis vocal impersonator) to their cassette-only psychedelic collages, to their sinister ambient vignettes, to their later more spiritual tones and exotic-pop-funk interludes, remained in some ways a sole fleeting dream texture. Subconscious music; Aither music (as their last album is titled). It thereby doesn’t really matter if their cuts are often sketchy and sometimes ambling along – it’s more about the sum of things, the experience (here this worn-out trope seems to fit for once). Beyond that, one element seems to haunt and hover over almost their entire œuvre: the airy-elegiac voice of Mitra, who with her Persian heritage and lyrics in Farsi, which often draw on folklore songs and nursery rhymes, gives the music, at least to my European ears, something completely enraptured. These, if you will, ‘non-Western’ aspects could hardly be seen here as a bland pastiche in order to ‘capture a vibe’; it’s a conjuring of the cultural heritage of her home country from the pre-Islamic revolution years: poetry, pop and folk music overlay with the memory of the desolate yet wondrous landscapes of northern Iran. Saturated with childhood memories of, as she states, “Troubadors and nomads crossing the village of my grandparents, the sweetness of a stream bordered by cypress trees, the majestic mountains of Tehran, the Caspian Sea”, her vocals are thus invoking a profound emotional depth and intimacy within the listener. It is as if the group imagines itself into a more arcadian scenery, a place of longing perhaps. These, if you will, cyphers of a past life are most beautifully realised in songs like “Kachalestan”, “Golpari June” or “Chirine”. At this juncture, also German director Edgar Reitz with his extensive Heimat trilogy comes to mind. Reitz, who fled from Hunsrück to Munich as a teenager in the early 1950s, explores here a good 30 years later, in a kind of personal memory work, his underlying feeling of nostalgia that periodically struck him. He, who could no longer stay in his first home had to leave the confines to make his own fortune elsewhere. Whether some leave of their own free will or others are forced to leave for political, economic or existential reasons, this place will probably haunt their memories for the rest of their lives.
Vox Populi! was founded in the early 1980s by a Parisian named Axel Kyrou. Kyrou was enlightened before by one of his visits to England. There in the underground clubs of London, one could regularly catch bands like This Heat, 23 Skidoo or SPK, who were busy changing the idea of what a rock band could be through their intuitive, non-musical approach, including improvisations, effects and tape manipulations. Quasi of ‘experimental descent’ – Kyrou is the son of Mireille Kyrou, an early musique concrète composer, who was part of the legendary GRM (Groupe de Recherche Musicale) in Paris in the late 1950s – these methods must have struck a nerve in him. Back in France, in his rudimentary home studio, he began recording his first tape together with the help of his brother and his mother Mireille called Introduction À La Théorie De La Subjectivité Relative. Soon afterwards, this still somewhat uneven minimal wave sound seemed to be enriched when Kyrou met Iranian émigré siblings Mitra and Arach in 1984, who soon afterwards joined his project on vocals and percussions. As a mainly three-piece band now, they generated a number of smaller releases over the next year, including the cult classic Myscitismes, whose traces can still be found today in post-industrial groups such as Nový Svět, German Army or Brannten Schnüre. Mitra and Arash were also the ones who brought the oriental folk element (and with it, the melancholy) into the mix. Arash played the percussions or the santur. Mitra sang and occasionally played the flute. Axel handled everything else; rhythm box, tape manipulations, field recordings, synthesizer or organ. Over the course of the decade, the three of them, with the help of numerous musicians and friends, thus brought together a variety of cultural backgrounds in often spontaneous studio sessions – creating a (seemingly selfless) conglomerate of imaginary and concrète music.
On its surface one could detect quite a few things: there are reminiscences of the quieter passages in the music of German electronic legends Cluster, of the mystic dubs of UK’s African Head Charge circa Environmental Studies (without the sub-bass swagger, though), of the lofty tones of early 1980s Popol Vuh (before they further slipped into new age hell) or of some half-remembered Cocteau Twins melodies. And although they were only active for basically a decade, their discography can be a bit unwieldy to browse through, as it’s filled with minor releases, compilations, live tapes, splits and re-issues. On Half Dead Ganja Music, perhaps their best-known album, the group’s work, however, blends in the most seamless and successful way: released in 1987 by German cult label Cthulhu Records, this record remains a surprisingly coherent, atmospherically extremely dense half-hour, relined by a more noctambulant, gothic feel (in the nostalgic, fuzzy sense of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu).
After the 1989 release of Aither, an oceanic, dark shimmering ambient record with a fair amount of percussion, scattered free jazz saxophone and manipulated field recordings, the idea then gradually fizzled out. Although the band was still moderately active until the mid-nineties, Kyrou reflects in hindsight: “We came up in ’91, ’92 with an album for which we did not find any label wishing to release it. I believe that, by this time, we were not industrial, experimental enough for our early followers, and not enough upbeat, techno to appeal to a new audience. The arrival of Techno changed a lot of things for post-punk bands like us. This lack of support from the labels also coincided with the band losing most of its regular musicians.” Aither should also remain their last full-length until this day. The music they made after this last hurrah – a logic consolidation of their increasingly melodic approach, far removed from the experimental habitus of their earlier days – is indeed hard to imagine next to the hip, acid-laden electronic music of the time, released on Warp or Touch. (Although, in its best moments Vox Populi! has always been very much danceable. Just listen to the slow-brooding, heavy kick of “Tchi Tchi Vox”, “Radio Téhéran”, or the erratic electro bounce of “Funk Off”. Cut Chemist, DJ of the once-celebrated, now almost forgotten rap group Jurassic 5, has even dedicated a whole compilation of the same name, Cut Chemist Presents Funk Off, to the group’s beat-heavier tracks.)
I think it wasn’t until 2007/08, when some of their earlier material was made available on CD for the first time, that Vox Populi! were slowly being recognised and written about again. Over the next ten years, several more compilations followed, providing an overview of their later phase as well as some of their unreleased and non-album material; among, the excellent tranquil pop of Alternatif Réalisme or the harsher tracks they recorded for their split-EP with German absurdist collage maestros Hirsche Nicht Aus Sofa.
The fact that many of their tracks were erring on the shorter side, their methods relatively sparse, could also be the reason the group’s work is still eminently listenable today, perhaps even more so than some of the supposed classics from the industrial/cassette underground of the 1980s. For all their melodic tendencies of their later phase, I assume that the music of Vox Populi! never was intended to be particularly profitable; it still seemed far too fleeting and sketchy for the majority to ever keep it in their consciousness long enough to thoroughly grasp and admire it. At its core, they seemed more concerned with the search for something elemental anyway, an imaginary place, a childlike joy perhaps. “Avaze Djodayi” from the aforementioned Myscitismes is a proper example of that. This dreamy little minimal synth vignette with its soft pounding beat and hazy melody tentatively reminds me of the first musical sounds I heard in my childhood – transporting me back into some vague images. Into the diffusing memory of glowing summer and blaring car radios; of holidays in the Mediterranean, in the south of France in the early 1990s, of which I remember nothing but glaring, bright images, luminous, flickering colours, agate blue water and smashed car windows. Through their music Vox Populi! seemingly want to return to this innocent place, a time when there were no thought-out words, no rational dissection, no overlooking reason. They revel in their musical and ideological freedom, in their naivety and nostalgia. Yet, in doing so, they never came across as overly sentimental or dogmatic, but rather suggestive, vibrant, free-flowing. Vive la cohorte mystique!