Non Serviam: An Interview

Non Serviam are musicians from Paris, France.

In their own words, Non Serviam call their work ‘electronihilisme, sludge industriel, anonymat et misanthropie'. They have a busy 2021 ahead with new releases coming out on Code666 and on Trepanation Recordings. I had the chance to chat with two members of the anonymous collective — indicated here as ‘X’ and ‘Y’.

Weirding: Your music has a feel almost like a collage or a mosaic. Could you describe your process for writing and recording music?

X: You are right to note it. We took the decision — and that's what makes our music so strange to almost everyone — to compose most of our songs the way we would compose electronic music, but while keeping and playing with the usual structures of black metal and punk-hardcore. Our composition process is deliberately not set like clockwork, which makes it somewhat difficult to describe. Everything always starts with an idea — a riff, a piano line, a vocal or instrumental sample, a trap beat, a wild recording or a phrase, or a poem, or the will to express a particular emotion or lyrics. So the process can start with anything and everything, but it is then structured by adding what is missing. It depends on the type of proposal we want to make with each piece.

Weirding: Proposals?

X: We have at least two hundred of these proposals already written, or recorded, or just thought about. We come back to them in successive steps.

Weirding: Describe that a bit more.

X: When a feeling of accomplishment is born in me as I listen, we enter the finishing phase. From then on, the structure will no longer move and we proceed to what we call the "ornaments". It is a concept that is a little complicated to explain, and to understand it, it is not necessary to know anything about Baroque music, but only to be curious about it.

I discovered Baroque music very late, thanks to my partner in Non Serviam, who has been a Baroque harpsichordist since she was a child. I had already heard some interesting things and I had a very theoretical and Apollinian look on the matter until I heard her play Padre Soler's frenzied Fandango on a spinet — a kind of half-harpsichord with a specific sound — during one of our musical masses. Her virtuosity was my Dionysian gateway to the sensations and games so particular to Baroque music. The delays, the continuous basses, the slow, full and articulated arpeggios, there is something proto-doom about it. So to come back to what I was saying, our "ornaments" are those tangled tangles of artifice that, by force, are no longer there. You can hear that in our improvisations, I think. But though between us we call it "ornament", well it's much more and something else than ornament.

Weirding: How did you get into playing music?

X: I learned to play drums at a very young age by listening to Dave Witte play. And guitar a little later by getting into the first Isis records. I’ve spent my life always tinkering with electro and noise with whatever I could get my hands on and playing percussion on my environment… including people who consent to it, as I have never yet tried to play musical percussion on the bodies of my enemies.

But the last thing I can't omit is my inclination for rupture in music, which often produces in our music a kind of orgy of jumps from one extreme to the other that seems to produce in the listener what in hip-hop, electro, or deathcore are sometimes called drops.

What comes close to collage, or perhaps rather fresco, is that it is certainly a composition in successive layers and that each layer is born both from the previous layer — sometimes against — and from various interventions, be they instrumental, vocal, or idealistic.

Y: It is precisely by inserting myself in these successive layers that I intervene, either to realize an idea that is proposed to me or to make instrumental or vocal proposals that more often go in the direction of a more or less ornamental development, through forms of variations according to methods that most of the time come under what are called diminutions in baroque music. Meaning that they are improvised variations that somehow proliferate the harmonic structure generally rather simply at the beginning. They proliferate through melodic and ornamental lines that are more and more voluble. The very slow pieces are particularly suitable for this type of filling which keeps the original structure solemn but adds splendor to it. What is exciting for me is to see how the instrumental — on all types of keyboard, be it electric or acoustic with accordion, piano or harpsichord — or vocal proposals that I can make to my fellow musician are then treated by methods and in compositions that are a thousand miles away from their own musical framework.

Weirding: So it gets back to that idea of ‘proposals’.

X: Regarding our composition process, I would say that anything can be added at any time. I mean we have no musical or moral barriers — only intuitions. That's how our music can sound at the same time like trip-hop, grind, black metal, or breakbeat. It's not by ultra-conscious choices, it's the product of everything I've listened to with the obsessive character for music that is mine.

Y: But what is striking is that certain permutations allow this misuse — or this disrespect. There are very deep threads that link eras and styles beyond their obvious differences, and these threads touch on a very primitive, wild and fundamental relationship of the heart to music. From Baroque to sludge or doom, even to black metal itself, the horizon can remain fundamentally the same: plunge into melancholy, make the cry of the creature heard beyond the tomb. This is at least personally what interests me most in the musical experiments we conduct, even if they can also take quite other directions.

Weirding: You have a new album of improvisations coming out. Talk to me a bit about your approach to improvisation and what makes it unique as an art form.

Y: Improvising is for us another way of composing. We no longer work in layers that are superimposed and reworked one after the other. It's the relationship to deployment in time that is different: we continue what we've started and we won't go back on it. It's a question of listening and playing from what the other proposes in a kind of immediacy that unfolds, and that in this process, variations of intensity are created that will finally give structure to the piece without it having been decided in advance.

Weirding: So, walk me through that a bit.

Y: Concretely, until now we start most of the time from a riff that we like, having decided on a tempo and rhythm with which we are going to start. We then repeat it, or "turn" it in the manner of the obstinate Baroque bass, until the spreading out in time produces its own dynamic and something else begins, continues and ends, each return of the bass offering new possibilities that we try to unfold. Sometimes a text is added, usually with less elaborate vocal work than in the songs.

We can say that our improvisations so far have been primarily instrumental. Following this way of doing things, our improvisations are always very long because it takes time for the possibilities opened up by the initial ideas to unfold, for others to be born and unfold as well, and so on. Sometimes the possibility that it never stops seriously exists and tempts us, but the body has its limits.

X: I would add that with improvisation we seek to produce a maximum of climaxes — to produce the possibility of emotionally strong moments while pursuing patterns.

Y: When we improvise, instrumental composition allows the musical roles — bass, harmony, top or lead — to be variable according to the moments without the need to institute rules of alternating solos where everyone would be in turn lead. One can take the place of the other, go far away from the other, even cut each other off if one thinks one has something more important to say at that moment.

There is no rivalry or regulation of musical time.

For my part, I find that this way of making music is nourished by the freest aspects of what is called improvisation in the various musical styles that I have been able to practice — each of which has its own rules but also its own spaces of freedom. We didn't need to make a thousand theorizations and predictions to find our way of functioning because I think we find ourselves in this freedom.

Weirding: The second improvisation on the album of improvisations features a rendition of a text by Sully Prudhomme. Now, he was a later 19th century poet known for bringing a philosophical or scientific approach to poetry. Do you see Non Serviam as bringing a philosophical or scientific approach to its music?

X: On the contrary, it is a question of transforming philosophy and science into barbarism — into savagery. The proposal of this poem is not there to pay a literary or philosophical or scientific homage to Sully Prudhomme, it is rather a respectful borrowing of a few verses that we found magnificent and conducive to accompany the melancholic and dying heaviness of this improvisation.

Y: What this poem may have brought to the music we were making is perhaps that above all this mixture of desperate realism and dreamy symbolism is something that starts from a dark melancholy and rises towards the stars. These are its truly poetic aspects, not the philosophy behind it.

We can really say that this time words did a lot to bring the music to where it went. I think we get along well in a common attraction for the literature of that era that ended Romanticism and brought it towards modernity, even if we also have other very different and more resolutely modern sources of inspiration.

In fact, to answer the question of Non Serviam's relationship to science, in my opinion in many ways we are the opposite of that direction. In any case very far from the positivism or scientism that still informs the most sinister aspects of our time. We do not treat music as a science or a knowledge that we need to acquire or have already acquired. Our approach allows what is known to circulate, to be contradicted, and to be displaced — in a way, one could even say that we are working against science.

Weirding: You bring up Baroque conventions a few times and there are certainly elements of that opulence in your work as well as in the artwork that has graced your album covers. Baroque art tends to be so unabashedly full of movement and violence and a sense of movement and things moving from the past through the present and into the future. Tell me more about your thoughts about what Baroque means for you and where you see Non Serviam's music going in the future.

Y: Your question is very interesting and important, it opens up a lot of possible answers that I will try to develop a little. First of all, I completely agree on the fact that there is something baroque in the aesthetics of Non Serviam in the sense that you define it. Therefore, minus the precise link with a specific period in the history of music, it is something that goes towards an abundance — a search for the sublime including in the subversion of the “beautiful”. In music obviously above all, but also effectively in the various artworks. It is the opposite of a more Classical work that seeks perfection through purity. The work of composition, for example, is done by successive additions — by multiplication. The detail, the superfluous, the ornament, can have a part as primordial as the more structural elements — and generate themselves as part of the structure.

There is of course also something baroque in the visual productions that accompany the music, album covers, or music videos. They have that same accumulative and protean generosity that can be seen all at once or be almost infinitely detailed. I find that this approach, which is not necessarily of its time, imagines and proposes a very beautiful relationship to its reception. Of course, these elements rub shoulders with others and do not sum up the aesthetics of the group — many other styles run through Non Serviam much more than the Baroque itself. Many more contribute to its generous heterogeneity.

I have a background in Baroque music. I have played the harpsichord since my childhood. In the beginning, this was the door that opened up for me to enter into this music — which at the time of "Un petit peu d'amour pour la haine" had nothing immediately baroque about it, at least in the strict sense of the term. This is also what gave my collaboration with the group a kind of evidence — beyond the styles. This was in the ways of speaking or the more technical vocabulary, which are obviously very different. From there, more specifically "baroque" elements were integrated into the music of Non Serviam in instrumental terms, with harpsichord and spinet, but also in ways of developing and varying the riffs or improvisations on what I would call for my part “obstinate basses”. Except that instead of the theme of the Folies d'Espagne, we start with a metal riff. Playing together, finding a common musical language was really not a problem.

It's a particularly interesting and moving experience for me because my love for Baroque music has often been disappointed by the settings in which this music is played and listened to. Playing in icy churches in front of an audience that is only looking for the accuracy of the rendition — and having to submit to these constraints — leaves a very disappointing and really discouraging aftertaste, even though the music is beautiful. What happened then always seemed very limited to me. I tried more experimental projects, but was not able to subvert these frameworks. It may be illusory or anecdotal or even non-existent for most listeners of Non Serviam — and there's really no need to delve into it to appreciate this music. But for me something very faithful to the essence of the Baroque is taking place there — while pursuing musical ideas that come out of it completely outside the realm of accuracy.

Everything I detail here has of course not been planned or thought out as rationally as I'm saying. I can see that now, a posteriori, is that above all what we did was music — based on what we were, on what we liked, and above all by letting the music we were making unfold. I don't know if Non Serviam will have the opportunity, but I imagine with pleasure and curiosity the idea of going back to an icy church to play Le Cœur Bat. To enjoy the resonance of the church’s vaults and to fill it with the distortion of the guitar and with an energetic and very arpeggiated harpsichord. Yes, I think it would take on a whole new meaning and it would be worth a try.


Names : X & Y / Band: Non Serviam

Recent release: Improvisation 3. Take 1. : Un Rêve (Il était nuit) @ CVLT Nation Live
Upcoming releases:
Le Cœur Bat, 23 april 2021, CD/2xLP (Code666) & cassette (Trepanation
Work/ Live Improvisations - Vol​.​1, May 1, 2021 2xCD Trepanation
Recordings and

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