I have been a huge fan of the French P.H.O.B.O.S. since first crossing paths with the utter monstrosity that is the Atonal Hypermnesia album four or five years ago. The colossal, hypnotizing blend of industrial, doom, and black metal is something that was simply unmatched for me by any other band at the time, and I still haven't heard anything quite like it since. Reviewing the band's latest album from this year, and being informed they were up for an interview, I seized an opportunity to talk to Frédéric Sacri, the mastermind behind it all. As far as I can tell, this is the first online interview with Sacri in well over a decade, and as he implied in the conversation that ensued between us, it could very well be his last. I simply cannot express what an honor it is that he has chosen Metal Storm for this rare, possibly final exposé of his work and inspirations.
Greetings Frédéric. Thanks a lot for this interview, as well as the top notch, crushing as hell jams. Let's dive right into it then. Although the sound of P.H.O.B.O.S. has always come across as though it's being made at exactly the right moment, you've actually had this beast around for a good while, starting in 2000 or there around, I do believe. Could you touch upon the overall origins of the project?
Very old stories, a bit tedious to go backwards, as this has been already documented in past interviews and archived in www.phobosdrone.org. One can just retain that I gave birth to P.H.O.B.O.S. early 2000 in Paris, France, by hiring people for the miscellaneous positions of keyboards, drums and bass players. After being a guitarist/singer in amateurish metal and electro-metal bands in the 90s, my new purpose was not to play music for the sake of playing music in front of an audience, nor to go to rehearsals like going to the gym; but to compose dark, slow and hypnotic 'songs'. I did not precisely know where to head, but I was sure about what I did not want anymore: fun, posture, melodies, harmony, conventional songwriting. At our most numerous, we were five guys practicing as a standard metal band. But my vision and temper were so radical at that time that finding like-minded musicians fitting to my high standards prove to be impossible, even in a major city like Paris, where too many unbeatable clichés were at work when discussing music with 'underground' people. The band quickly reduced itself to a duo with machines, then to my studio project. P.H.O.B.O.S.’ effective formula really came out with the pre-production of “Tectonics” in 2003.
P.H.O.B.O.S. blends multiple genres together, but boiling down to it I personally think it’s your industrial spirit that really shines the strongest. When do you recall first taking an interest in that type of music? What attracted you to it?
I am an open-minded compulsive music lover. As surprising as it may be, I was at first addicted to bass music like dub and reggae. After the death of Bob Marley, I dived into hard rock, before it was called ‘metal’ or ‘extreme’. And from the early eighties, I’ve been witnessing the evolution of distorted guitar with fanaticism, whatever the trends, be it thrash, prog, hair metal, doom, punk, death, grindcore, etc. And I found out that metal’s creative peak was achieved in the early nineties, with the second wave of black metal (the Norwegian one). Hopefully at that time, early records by Godflesh, Treponem Pal, Pitch Shifter or Scorn, opened the metal frame towards new horizons, by carrying a kind of ‘post-nuclear’ or 'dystopian' feeling. I was overwhelmed by their repetitive, oppressive and chaotic ambiences, full of reverberation, feedback and dissonance. Weird vibes that I was unconsciously looking for, somehow reminding me the atmospheres previously touched by Voïvod. Digging from there, I was blown away by the source of it all: Swans. No need to force myself, my mind was naturally prepared for this music. I was immediately connected to it and looked for every subgenres related to it, old or new. Call it "industrial spirit" if you wish, this strong bound lasts to this day.
In P.H.O.B.O.S., from what I understand, you handle a lot of different instrumental duties. What was the first instrument you ever picked up though, and what really made you go from that to others?
I started with electric guitar, without classical phase or music theory. This is the instrument I am the most confident with, when included in a chain of countless effects. Afterwards, I was subjugated by the hypnotic power delivered by sound generators and samplers when going to drum'n'bass and hard techno free parties in the mid-nineties. Kicks were stomping, snares were clanging, acid loops were drilling my mind, multilayered waves and alien frequencies were hurling me to other dimensions. It was my first encounter with the force of synthesis technology. I decided to embrace it and was obsessed with the Kurzweil K2000 series, which drumkits banks were awesome to build an original - and obedient - drummer, among other editing possibilities. Despite being of old standards and tiresome to domesticate, these were high end and reliable machines, used and abused by masters like Skinny Puppy or Frontline Assembly. They were my best partners during a long period. For the recordings of "Tectonics" and "Anœdipal", everything was produced and sequenced from these workstations, except guitars and voices. My arsenal got larger with external loopers, effects processors, analog keyboards (for basses and drones), drum machines, etc. My studio equipment and composing methods are continuously evolving. Even the tunings of my guitars - which were switched from 6 to 8-string years ago - are changing. My creativity needs to be fueled by technological variation of my musical tools. I just point out that I love to handle machines, but I hate computers, even if they are unavoidable in some final steps.
Glancing over P.H.O.B.O.S. cover art, as well as past album and track titles, it seems as though the band takes a heavy thematic interest in geologic events, plate movements, and really the planet as an almost living, sentient entity. Would you care to elaborate upon this vision?
More than a vision, this is a profound feeling soaked inside, and explained by my birth and childhood on an island of the Indian Ocean, which is actually an emerged active volcano. I have witnessed eruptions many times over there, with both fascination and fright for flowing lava, tephra projections, suspended ashes, smelly gases, basaltic landscapes, etc. Those experiences, combined with my profound anguish, led me to consider each area of Pachamama (Mother Earth) as a potential vengeful disaster, waiting to unleash its inferno over mankind. Things put in perspective, I am haunted by the vision that we are just insignificant colonies of parasites on a thin spherical crust floating over an immense ball of fire that regularly spits its anger. When I compose for P.H.O.B.O.S., low frequencies, drones, cracks or noises, are naturally translating these fears, and stay coherent with my psyche, without calculation or mimicry.
Very interesting. Do you think then that industrial music does something that other genres can't as far as capturing that concept, sort of channeling like… some sort of primal hum of the Earth's energy?
It is not only a matter of reproducing terrestrial energies. Industrial allows to evoke any phenomenon, natural or technological, immense or tiny. I do not like to subdivide music into categories, but let me share my acceptation of industrial music, which I consider close to musique concrète: This is the art of molding disturbing atmospheres from 'non-musical' sounds. From there, we may separate it into two main trends: one being 'true' industrial, pioneered for instance by acts like Einstürzende Neubauten or Throbbing Gristle, with an interaction between man and physical tools or instruments; the other being 'electro/techno/industrial' with man generating electronic music through computers, samplers or other analog or digital machines. I use both methods, not only to grab an intrinsic geological feeling out of P.H.O.B.O.S., but also to erase any 'living' presence from my music. Distorted cords must not sound like guitars, percussive effects must not sound like played drums, voices must not sound like singings, etc. Effects must create a space between the emitting source and the receiving ears, to let the imagination function. Musicianship is not welcomed in the industrial dominion; it must be corrupted as much as possible.
Continuing on the geological question, did you ever study any sort of Earth science, or have any type of formal background in it?
No strong university background, but a quite consequent knowledge in geology and volcanology, thanks to my early interest in scientific writings or documentaries related to these topics. I am also keen on astronomy, especially topography and mineralogy of the other celestial bodies of the universe. In addition to theory, I often maintain this primal link with our sacred soil by walking volcanic plates and calderas, and by exploring subterranean caves and lava tubes.
When did the decision really come in to go at an industrial doom type direction? Those are two genres that are pretty rare to see combined, especially in the way in which you’ve combined them. What gave you the idea?
In the early 90s, when metal mixed itself with goth, industrial, noise or electro-industrial, I was expecting for something really slow and low, but could not find those vibes on metal records, whilst keeping them imagined in my head. To live a trance-like and appealing sonic experience, allowing me to approach my primordial 'Om', the perfect music has to be fat and idled, but aggressive and authoritarian as well. P.H.O.B.O.S. is my answer to this quest. Of course, elaborating a relevant style right from the start was a bit complicated, especially due to line-ups instability. Nevertheless, melting doom with industrial noise was the first intent, right from the "Proto" mCD (which was actually a demo). It must be known that I had recorded industrial parts or each track. Unfortunately, my production wishes were simply ignored by the 'engineer' and those parts were lost forever. This explains why "Proto" is frustratingly sounding so 'metal'. When I took all duties with "Tectonics", my original vision was at last totally materialized.
And there was no turning back from there, clearly. Another thing I've noticed you explore a bit with P.H.O.B.O.S. is Eastern mysticism, or something of that nature. I'm thinking of that track from Atonal Hypermnesia called "Transonic Mahasamadhi," the little EP you put out a few years ago with the Hindi title, things like that. Where does this interest come from?
Like for the geological and volcanic allusions, the spiritual and religious references in my music are authentic fragments of my personal background; not calculated like it is common in metal when simplistic satanism or paganism are used to fill a thematic void. Partly being from a distant Indian heritage, I am pretty familiar with Hindu and Tamil mysticism. At an early age, I was exposed to miscellaneous impressive ceremonies, in the family circle or in temples: offerings and prayers for the close dead, for the ancient ones, for many deities, in Indian dialects I did not understand, surrounded by bells, percussions and trance-inducing chants. I often witnessed some extreme services like animal sacrifices, devotees self-mutilations or walks on incandescent coal. These practices seemed natural to the child I was and surely led to the recurring visions of fire, redness, blood, smoke, etc. that will dwell through my creations. Not to mention that I was also baptized and raised in Catholicism - to follow several religions is customary on the island. And I also turned myself downwards the Adversary in my teens... From this past, I assume that a protean spirituality is guiding P.H.O.B.O.S., but I do not want to decipher it too further. Better to let this peculiar inner syncretism express itself through the magick of psychedelia.
Let’s talk a little about the newest P.H.O.B.O.S. album. Phlogiston Catharsis. Where do you really see it sitting in relation to your other releases? Do you feel as though you accomplished something with it that you hadn’t previously?
Almost six years have passed between my new full-length and "Atonal Hypermnesia", but P.H.O.B.O.S. kept on being active with the recordings of one split LP and one EP. Like before, the design of this new album was driven by the current material conditions. For my two former albums, I felt a bit inhibited when recorded by a sound engineer in his studio. For the third album, I was on my own for recording and production, but still could not express myself in total freedom with enhanced equipment. Then I spent more than one year to design and build my new studio (Sapel Lomor) according to professional standards. More than ever, I was in total seclusion for the composition, the recording and mixing phases, which allowed me to be fully focused on my inner feelings. New machines have helped me, but the real novelty was the spontaneous inspiration and writing of the 'lyrics' right before the vocal takes, getting rid of too much outside literary influences like before. This time, the 'vocal' parts were unexpectedly coming from deeper. I also spent a lot of time to learn and practice mixing techniques, to improve the album production with confidence. I think this is the most noticeable progress, which surely has an impact on the artistic rendering.
Previously it appeared as though you were the sole creator behind P.H.O.B.O.S., but recent promotional pictures attached to the new album appear to show three members. Was there a lineup expansion, and if so what really prompted it?
When starting the composition process, I have been contacted via e-mail, almost simultaneously, by two people I did not expect: one being Mani Ann-Sitar, a long-lost mate from my childhood, whose musical skills impressed me back in the day. The other being a 'retired' veteran of the early Swedish black metal scene, gone into black industrial afterwards - and who wants to remain anonymous under the moniker of Magnus Larssen. Both of them revealed to be great fans of my work and insisted on participating in some recording steps. They were so enthusiastic and persuasive with precise ideas - something I had never felt even in the 'band' days of P.H.O.B.O.S. - that I could not refuse their fresh inputs. We spent some intensive sessions working at my studio, and they went back to their respective home abroad afterwards. Even if I was in total command of the job and the decision-making guy, their involvement has proven to be important enough to consider them members of P.H.O.B.O.S.; hence their names on the album credits. Considering the distance issues, time will tell if we will make this collaboration durable, but we are seriously talking about it.
It appears as though the recent signing of P.H.O.B.O.S. to Transcending Obscurity has come with a bit of heightened sense of publicity for the band. That is to say, you appear a little more vocal and out in the open than previously. Was this a transition you were looking to make for a while, sort of stepping more out of the shadows?
As P.H.O.B.O.S. is supported by a committed label for this release, one of my contractual - if not moral - duty is to help the company in his hard work by also getting involved in the PR job. Which includes answering to interviews, something I was not often asked for, except during the "Tectonics" era. Strange to observe that when some of my records were self-released through Megaton Mass Products, with zero advertising budget, almost no one was interested in doing interviews or reviews, whatever the quality of the albums... Anyway, having told all that could be unveiled in details throughout this one long conversation, I can now state that this interview might be the last one. Sound is preferred to do the talking.
Do you feel as though exposing yourself more compromises the obscurity and secretive nature of your music or that it will better help listeners to understand your vision?
I hold back too much exposure of my personality, or other topics evolving outside of my art. I am a rather introverted individual and I have contempt for the visual or verbal overuse of our times, at every opportunity. A lot of musicians, even if they often refuse to admit it, put the flattering of their ego through promotional videos or pictures at the same level as their musical work - if not over. When turning P.H.O.B.O.S. into a studio project, I have taken an oath with myself: my inventiveness, strength, depth, vision - whatever artistic part of myself deserving to be transmitted - will not disperse itself through another trick but music. No animation, no visuals, no spectacle. Only frequencies and volume destined to an intelligent audience, culturally opened and educated enough to catch the essence of sound, and gifted to go beyond the pathetic vision of a human being. I say it over and over, but I am forever branded by the impact Bathory had on me back in the day of "The Return..." and "Under The Sign...": there was no band posture, no hundreds of pressing versions, no fucking "likes" or "tweets" to cloak the essentials. Only the name of Quorthon and his sonic work were sufficient to accomplish the mission. The magick was so strong and suggestive that I begged Bathory to remain in the shadows and to never play "live". Mystery of the genesis and imagination are the keys.
I’ve read around that the first and only P.H.O.B.O.S. live performance was way back in 2003. What’s your take on that set, and would you ever consider bringing the project back onstage in the future?
This scrap of the past does not deserve to be exhumed once again. It just confirmed that my self-expression with P.H.O.B.O.S. is not intended to satisfy people’s visual curiosity. Not every form of art has to finish as entertainment.
Totally agreed, and I respect your commitment to that ideal. To what degree are you involved in the rest of the French underground scene? Even if you don't perform live with P.H.O.B.O.S., have you played with any other bands, contributed as a guest on albums, anything like that?
The only "French underground scene" I am in touch with is the Lutecian Dub Mafia, a remote realm to chill, under another nom de guerre.
Also related to work with other artists, you did that Triunity split EP with Blut Aus Nord a few years back. Do you think you'd do anything else like that again in the future, or even potentially a full on collaboration between P.H.O.B.O.S. and another band? If so, who might you like to work with?
If a project sounds innovative, pertinent and originates from a common spiritual ground (which is more crucial than the musical intent itself), like how it happened with Vindsval, then I am up for collaborations, on a split album or as a band. That said, I am a too much fanboy of many artists to drop any wished names. And sometimes, working with an unknown musician can be more creative than with an admired influence.
As far as influences and similarities to other bands are concerned, I most often see other people comparing the sound of P.H.O.B.O.S. to Godflesh and Blut Aus Nord. That’s a bit of an easy line to draw though. What other artistic influences, musical or otherwise, have factored into your vision that might be a bit more subtle?
That recurring shortcut (guitars+machines=Godflesh, then P.H.O.B.O.S.=Godflesh) comes from intellectual laziness. I do not deny the admiration I have for Godflesh, especially when I started the band. But if people were a bit more cultivated, it can easily be found that the rhythmics I have in common with Justin Broadrick, Mick Harris, Kevin Martin or cEvin Key, to name a few, is not their own trademark, but they all come from dub. What I share with those guys is a worship of bass culture, ranging from Jamaican roots reggae to urban digital dubstep. Our beats sound more punishing and cold, but the rhythm frameworks come from the science of dub, as teached by old masters like King Tubby or Lee Perry. Once the groove skeleton is solid, muscled riffs, black metal textures or droning basses can be introduced - which is a different modus operandi than in rock or metal songwriting
As for other influences, I could drop the names of zillions of composers, painters, musicians, writers or producers who surely have left their input into my musical path: Hans Ruedi Giger, Trey Azagthoth, Steve Reich, Syd Barett, Mike Sifringer, Iannis Xenakis, Jimi Hendrix, Antonin Artaud, Michael Gira, Thomas Forsberg, Granmoun Lélé, Masami Akita, Emil Cioran, Uli Jon Roth, James Graham Ballard, Stephen Priestly, Zdzislaw Beksinski, Jesse Pintado, Carl Gustav Jung, Thomas Gabriel Fischer, Dennis Emmanuel Brown, Malcolm Young, David Lynch, Tommy Lee, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Fredrik Thordendal, Martin Lee Gore, Denis D'Amour, Chris Witchhunter, Dwayne Goettel, Robbie Shakespeare, Dave Mustaine, Diamanda Galàs, Øystein Aarseth, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Richard David James, Buzz Osborne, Krzysztof Penderecki, Adrian Thaws, Roli Mosimann, Gyorgy Ligeti, Christian Vander, etc, etc
But to do it simple, we can also summarize P.H.O.B.O.S. as the deformed child of Swans and Bathory in dub, slowly howling.
Your band name is typically written with periods after each letter, almost as though it’s an acronym. I’ve always been curious: does it stand for anything?
Indeed, it does, but mystery and imagination are the keys.
Do you feel as though P.H.O.B.O.S. is a sufficient outlet for your passions and interests at the moment, or as though you might expand down the line with some other side projects, perhaps even some non-musical work?
When I am a bit fed up with creating sounds with P.H.O.B.O.S. or other projects, I'm also into drawing sketches, and mainly into oil painting on large canvas. This is my necessary discipline to run away from technology and cleanse my spirit.
And do you have any idea of what the "next step" may be for P.H.O.B.O.S. from here?
As usual, when an album has just been released and does not belong to me anymore, long mandatory silence is the starting point before working on the blank page of the next chapter. As explained, inspiration will come - or not - with material changes, without pre-conceived ideas. At the moment, I am discovering some new cold and dark sound generators, and I am testing some Eastern string instruments as well. I'll maybe try to free P.H.O.B.O.S. from guitars, to let the basses take the power. Nothing is decided so far, with or without the new line-up. Exciting times.
Exciting times, indeed, and I know both myself as well as many others eagerly await whatever else comes from you. Any last words you'd like to send off with for me and the rest of the Metal Storm audience?
First of all, thanks to the Metal Storm crew and readers for being supportive of my work for years. Your musical open-mindedness inside the metal community is one of the most noticeable, and I would like to take advantage of this interview to finish with one manifesto: with progress in production and broadcast means, we are given the illusion that music is still marching on. But sound may change, genres may blend themselves, to my ears almost everything has been explored as far as human performance is concerned. If new musical territories are to be discovered, synthesis will be the leading parameter of the process. Even if it is conceived and controlled by us, synthesis allows to give birth to an infinite palette of non-human ambiences, thanks to non-academic tones, micronotes, pitches, ruptures, atonalities, etc. Synthesis stand strong and above your traditional LesPaul plugged into a JCM800, driven by a laborious drumming, which only comforts us in our longing for 'authenticity'. Don't get me wrong: death metal riffage or fuzzy leads are awesome to play or to be listened to. But the tightness of synthesized sounds is perfect to create rich and complex musical journeys, with subtle electric messages being directly transmitted to our neuron receivers. One may argue that this process is not music anymore, because it is not 'played' by visible musicians. Fuck that. What is the most important thing during an immersive listening experience? Is it the process used to reach the listener's mind? Or is it the sonic rendering itself?
And so Frédéric left us with those final words to ponder over, before retreating once more to the industrial caverns from whence he came to momentarily tell his story. The warmest thanks go out to him again for this whole thing, and if you're reading and haven't yet heard the colossal, AOTY status-worthy new P.H.O.B.O.S. album, the time has come to smash that damn play button. Thanks a bunch for this again!
- Che “Apothecary” Cunningham
metal stom interview - dec 2018