By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- While the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed live performances and touring for bands across the globe in 2020, the year also saw some spectacular albums released. French psych trio Slift has already earned a substantial European following with their first EP and album, but the group's sophomore release last spring Ummon found the band earning accolades from around the world.
Guitarist/singer Jean Fossat and his bass-playing brother Remi -- who grew up in a town in southwestern France, near the border with Spain in the shadow of the Pyrenees -- had played in punk bands together as teens, but it wasn't until after high school that they teamed with drummer Canek Flores and started exploring psychedelic sounds inspired by Jimi Hendrix.
After playing locally and establishing a following, the trio relocated to the town of Toulouse and began to develop it's high-energy, expansive style of psychedelic rock in earnest. Adopting the name Slift, the band released its debut EP Space Is the Key in 2017 and its first full-length album La Planète Inexplorée (which translates as "The Unexplored Planet") the following year.
That recording was mastered by noted producer/mixer and Detroit garage-rock icon Jim Diamond and at times recalled the muscular modern psychedelia made by Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees and their Australian counterparts King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard. The trio expanded its European following, touring extensively in France and Spain which establishing a reputation for explosive live performances.
Just over a year ago, Slift released its second album, a sprawling, double LP epic concept work entitled Ummon. The effort garnered the band its best reviews yet, but the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic derailed plans for extensive touring to promote the release, including its first trip to the U.S. A live performance posted on the YouTube channel of famed Seattle radio station KEXP shortly after the album was issued has garnered nearly 800,000 views, introducing the band's kinetic psych sound to a whole new audience.
While Slift was forced to mostly stay home for much of the past year (though they did manage a couple of concerts under COVID-19 safety protocols), the band has stayed busy. In addition to working on new material, Slift reissued its first EP and album in a special gatefold vinyl version that quickly sold out and started planning its next moves once pandemic precautions become a thing of the past, including a recently announced European tour supporting acclaimed U.S. psych outfit All Them Witches in the fall.
CBS SF recently sent Slift guitarist Jean Fossat a series of questions via email about the band's origins and development and the process behind recording Ummon and what the trio has planned for the future.
CBS SF: I understand that you and Remi played in bands together when you were younger that they've described as "Green Day punk" before Slift started. Where and how did the brothers Fossat meet Canek and how long was it before Slift came to be?
Jean Fossat: We met when I got to high school. Near to our school there was a small classical music school, and Canek was taking music theory lessons there. We just wanted to play our instruments, but the theory was imposed. We were sitting at the back of the room and he introduced to me Jimi Hendrix and to The Doors through his Walkman.
Thinking about it, I realize that Canek was already listening to psych stuff back then. He's the one who guided us towards that and towards the various things that you also discover in high school when you start listening to Hendrix jams! Later that year, we wanted to start a band with my brother Rémi, I called Canek and the next day we played our first jam.
At that time, we also listened a lot to these pop-punk bands, especially Green Day. I was a huge fan. I liked their pop sensibility that reminded me of the Beatles, and the fact that they were a power trio.
Another important band during this period was Rancid. Our neighbour René was our "punk guru" back in the day, and at a party he showed up at 2 a.m. with ...And Out Come the Wolves. We listened to that all night. And all that year. Then René told me one day that Green Day and Rancid were good for doing the dishes (ha ha!). If I wanted some serious stuff, I had to go to The Ex and Fugazi! I took his advice.
CBS SF: Do any recordings of those pre-Slift bands exist, or did those punk groups just play live?
Jean Fossat: Mostly live, but we have some recordings lost in the abyss of MySpace. It is dangerous to go and look for them. They must be very, very far in the depths. Maybe one day they'll come to the surface.
CBS SF: Jimi Hendrix is referred to as a cornerstone inspiration for the band's move into more extended psychedelic exploration, but there are elements in your music that echo a few modern garage-psych touchstones like Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees/Osees and King Gizzard. Were you familiar with those acts as you first started writing and recording?
Jean Fossat: We are truly disciples of the Hendrix Electric Church. He changed the way we play and think about music. The years after high school, we got a bit fed up with playing punk stuff in which we couldn't express fully. We wanted to jam and to be able to play songs in a different way each time. So yes, Hendrix was the key at that time precisely. I guess the idea was to keep the energy of punk music, cause that's the way we've always played together, and add the freedom of writing and improvisation.
The first time we heard about Oh Sees, it was when a guy at the end of a show came to us and said "You remind me Thee Oh Sees. You should check this band, you'll like it!" We weren't even playing under the name SLIFT yet, and I didn't have my short guitar strap yet haha (which turns out to be infinitely more comfortable and practical; it's a cool jazz tip).
So, of course we knew these bands, and they influenced us, among many others. John Dwyer is one of our heroes. We quickly fell in love with this psych scene which at the time reflected 100% the music we wanted to play. We grew up close to the Pyrenees [the mountain range between France and Spain]. There aren't many rock shows there.
When we arrived in Toulouse (which is the big city in the area), we went to shows all the time. Psych bands that came from all over Europe and even beyond! We learned a lot. That's when we started to really think about our sound.
Today, I confess we are no longer listening to these bands, and personally I don't think we play garage music. We listen to a lot of different stuff. I don't get it when people try to absolutely categorize the music. The only thing that matters is the emotions, feelings and visions you get while listening to an album. Everything else is useless talk.
Our heart has always belonged to the heaviest side of the psych scene. At the moment, I'm listening to Neurosis a lot. I love the emotional power and the elemental brutality of this band.
CBS SF: I read one interview that mentioned seeing another psych band with ties to the San Francisco Bay Area -- Moon Duo -- also helped spur you to record and tour as Slift. Do you remember specifically what was it about the concert that inspired you? Were you drawn to the music of other modern psych bands connected to SF like Wooden Shjips or Comets on Fire?
Jean Fossat: We saw Moon Duo in a museum in Toulouse. It was sold out and they were playing with a drummer. A life-changing show, 'cause right after that, we had a beer and we decided to record some sounds so we could put on a tour. Best idea of our life!
Moon Duo is all about repetition and guitar improvisation. How can you not love that? There is something very Neu! and Suicide, two bands that I love. Ripley Johnson is a great guitarist and Wooden Shjips -- according to Canek (he saw them playing in Belgium) -- are phenomenal.
CBS SF: How did the band connect with Jim Diamond to master La Planète Inexplorée?
Jean Fossat: He ran Ghetto Recorders, where he recorded this garage masterpiece Watcha Doin' by The Go. I used to play this LP a lot and I knew he lived in South of France, so we contacted him for the mastering. It was a pleasure to work with him, and I hope one day we'll meet him.
CBS SF: In an interview I found, you mention finding inspiration from "Amon Dull, Can, Hawkwind, all the 70's German scene, 70's Miles Davis, electronic and prog stuff" -- which explains a lot about why I immediately fell in love with the album, because that's all music I obsess over. You also mention that you listen to a lot of soundtrack music. Is there any particular film soundtrack or composer you'd single out as an influence or favorite?
Jean Fossat: Thank you for the kind words! With internet today, we can discover forgotten gems from all eras every day. So I hang out a lot on YouTube channels like "Terminal Passage" or "The Saturn Archives" among others (but don't forget to buy the records at your local dealer!).
I love Nobuo Uematsu, who is the composer of Final Fantasy OST. Ennio Morricone is an absolute master. I really enjoyed the Interstellar OST too, very progressive. When I listen to Tangerine Dream and close my eyes, I can see a different movie every time.
CBS SF: You did your first two recordings with local engineer/musician Lo Spider at his Swampland studio, but Ummon was recorded with Olivier Cussac. How did you end up working with Cussac and how different was the experience on the latest record?
Jean Fossat: I met Cussac during a visit to his studio in Toulouse, Condorcet. He's an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and composer of film music. He's also crazy about old synthesizers and his studio looks like a museum. I immediately knew that I wanted to work with him, he's extremely talented and humble, always the good advice, he puts himself at the service of music. I have mad respect for him.
Our first two records were recorded and mixed in 3 days in a very small studio. It was such a good experience, we had to get to the point as quickly as possible. Ummon, the recording and mixing/mastering took a month. We recorded the foundation -- bass drum guitar -- live in a large room, then we added the vocals, synths, guitars and other instruments to create the soundscapes we were searching for. Probably one of my most beautiful musical experiences, one month in this wonderful place with Olivier, building this album.
CBS SF: It sounds like Ummon was also the first time that the songs weren't written collectively by the band through jamming, but the tunes still have the same organic feel as the earlier material. Did you bring in basic sketches that the band would flesh out together, or were the songs on Ummon essentially finished when he presented them?
Jean Fossat: I bring sketches and we flesh it out together. We spend a lot of time jamming the riffs that I bring, it often ends up not sounding at all like the idea I had at the beginning, and that's where it's most interesting. It's a collective effort above all.
For Ummon I had a fairly precise idea of the record's chronology, even if the songs had not yet been created. It was like, "After this violent part, we're going to have a chill atmosphere! Let's compose the chill atmosphere, which will take us to another more trance passage..." It's like reading a book or watching a movie; each part introduces the next.
CBS SF: I've read a bit about how Ummon was conceived as a concept album. What inspired that?
Jean Fossat: The starting point was Homer's Odyssey. We also borrow several references to Hyperion from Dan Simmons, to build Ummon's story. Sides A and B tell the birth of the Titans and their departure for the outer reaches of Space in search of their creators, in their white stone Citadel perched on an asteroid.
C and D tell the return of the Titan Hyperion to the original land. But you are free to see whatever you want there! The best is to let yourself be carried away by the sound, artwork and lyrics, and then you can imagine your own epic Space tale!
CBS SF: I'm sure you had pretty extensive touring plans to promote Ummon that were put on hold by the pandemic. How did the band spend its time during the last year? Were you writing and recording more?
Jean Fossat: Indeed, we cancelled or postponed many shows and tours ... But we stay busy! We are currently working on our next album and some little surprises for this year.
CBS SF: I also saw on your Facebook page that it appeared you managed to play some dates in the fall. How did those go?
Jean Fossat: It's a very special atmosphere... People were masked and seated, but they were very attentive and were so happy to be able to attend to music shows again!
CBS SF: Were you planning to visit the U.S. to tour for Ummon? I know it's difficult to foresee where things will be in the coming months, but what are the bands current plans for 2021?
Jean Fossat: It's hard to plan things right now, but yes, we were planning to tour in the U.S. this year. I don't know how the situation will evolve. Our booking agents keep us posted every day and we'll come as soon as possible. We can't wait! And until this day we'll sharpen our riffs!
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