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Equally at ease crafting tortuous club tracks, building celestial soundscapes and producing for other artists, Sébastien Forrester has always had a recurring obsession with traditional and idiosyncratic sounds – his very first encounter with music as a child was with Bwiti ritual drums while living in Gabon, Central Africa, with his family in the early 2000s. Formerly known as Holy Strays, which saw him release music on labels like Not Not Fun, he has since released on imprints such as Superpang and collaborated with artists including Brodinski, Lafawndah, Slikback and Coby Sey.

Can you talk about your background? Your first encounter with music as a child was while you were living in Central Africa with your family. What was this first encounter, and how do you think it influenced you?

As a kid growing up in the southern suburbs of Paris, I was mostly exposed to the usual blend of international pop, French chanson and rap, but my parents moved to Africa when I was five, we travelled quite a lot on the continent and spent two years in Gabon and Sao Tomé-et-Principe when I was seven. It was a life-changing experience in all possible ways, and the music – Pygmée singing, Bwiti harp, ritual drumming – with which I was confronted during that period shook me up forever. I still think and dream about it a lot. I am forever grateful I could participate in that trip at such an early age.

One memory in particular has haunted me over the years: while going down the Ogooué river, we reached Lambaréné and witnessed a ceremony at night. I cannot remember what kind of event the people were celebrating but the power of their chants, the distant, thunderous echoes of the drums and the intensity of the way they danced and reacted to the music struck a deep chord with me. I started taking percussion lessons as soon as we got back to Libreville, the capital of Gabon. I was eight at the time. 

The drum has become your primary instrument of musical expression. What is it about this instrument and the process of playing it that attracted you? 

In a sense, I would almost say that drums chose me. It was just so organic; I spent my early years trying to hit things to produce sounds, dancing or moving to music and reacting to all types of rhythms. I was absolutely blown away, like any child that would try to drum with everyday objects, in a very genuine and chaotic way. I would not say I was attracted to the instrument in itself, because I now also dislike several archetypes inherent in the drum kit, but I was simply fascinated by the gestures and the vibrations it can spontaneously give birth to. It has such an immense cathartic power. Playing truly helps me to manage my emotions, keep my inner balance, and kind of guarantees my sanity in these troubled times.

Are there any particular drummers or drumming traditions that have influenced you? 

My first real obsession was the tambour, either played with the hands or with a wooden mallet, as in many different West African traditions. Even though I studied jazz in a more conventional way afterwards, my approach to playing percussion is quite raw, almost visceral, and very much rooted in traditional and ritual drumming. Joining big amateur ensembles in Gabon was eminently influential for me; I always try to recreate that particular feeling when I make music.

Back in France with my mother and young brother in the early 2000s, I started taking jazz drum lessons from a master named Frédéric Firmin, who is now almost like a father figure to me. He comes from both Martinique and Guadeloupe, and spent most of his career trying to rediscover his musical roots, so he taught me not only how to play bebop and other subgenres of jazz but also afrobeat, West African djembe polyrhythms adapted for the drum kit, as well as Afro-Caribbean riddims such as biguine, calypso, soca and many more. He introduced me to the notions of groove, trance, and silence, and never ceased to focus on the link between sound and dance, which is something that is still extremely important to me today. Even when I approach the most abstract, non-formulaic, off-grid piece of music, I imagine how much it can impact the body. 

I briefly learned how to play classical percussion at the conservatory but got bored and preferred to play free improvisation with some of my jazz teachers, who were also fed up with some of the limitations imposed by the academic course. Then I started contributing to several punk, sludge and hardcore bands when I was in high school pursuing my studies.

You have various musical guises and collaborations under your belt. For instance, you were part of the cult label Not Not Fun around 2010-2012, when this LA-based imprint was at the heart of the psych-electronic-dub-influenced underground, with your project Holy Strays. How do you remember this period? 

For me, that was the golden age of DIY music. I was 19, studying literature at the Sorbonne, and I wanted to explore the Paris jazz scene, but I quickly realised it was way too narrow-minded and elitist for me; people would come to jam sessions just to show off and get hired as session musicians, which was something I truly hated. I decided to take the opposite path, to unlearn and embrace roughness, and I started making music as if I were a kid again, as if I knew nothing about technique. I ended up recording raw sketches on Audacity that somehow sounded like lo-fi ambient krautrock. 

I sent a few demos to Amanda and Britt of Not Not Fun and they immediately decided to put them out as a debut cassette. It is called ‘Hyperion’ and can still be found online, I guess. It sold out so fast; it was such an unbelievable surprise. Amanda and Britt both definitely opened new doors and helped shape a whole new relationship to sound for me. Meeting them and even getting to tour and share stages with them in the early 2010s felt like such a relief. I can never thank them enough for that. 

Your project ‘Orpheus’ Pipes’ on SUPERPANG explored your relationship to trance and medieval percussion instruments, as well as the special timbre of the bagpipe. This project is also quite personal, as it alludes to your British and Occitan roots. Can you talk about this specific project?

While making electronic, sometimes even dance-infused music, I have always aimed at trying to find and develop my own language and vocabulary, borrowing from many kinds of musical legacies, more or less subconsciously. My solo project is all about going down, exploring the different facets of my identity, seeking some kind of revelation. I often compare it to speleology! It is a proper long-term investigation, almost like an aimless, infinite quest.

I found out a few years back that there were striking similarities in the way in which my French elders, who came from Aveyron and Cantal in the Auvergne, and my British ancestors approached, played or even just absorbed popular music. The bagpipe and the hurdy-gurdy are two instruments that have been played for centuries in both the Auvergne and in the UK, and both sides of my family have ties with them. This realisation was a real epiphany and I started collecting records and field recordings, not only for the sake of getting to know the repertoire and its links with dance and trance, but also to process, transform and incorporate them into new compositions. I had never sampled before, and I decided to create ‘Orpheus’ Pipes’ – released on the Italian experimental label Superpang in November 2022 – using nothing but manipulations of 78rpm records of bourrées, a form of traditional song and dance from the Massif Central and Occitania, and highland bagpipe music dating from the 1910s to the 1930s. 

I quickly felt the urgent need to write for those instruments, too, and, thanks to a mutual friend, was able to connect with two players based in the countryside around Poitiers. They were open-minded enough to be willing to experiment with the craziest possible ideas I could suggest to them, and provided a lot of raw material to sculpt afterwards. I also developed my own FM patches to try to emulate the timbre of the cabrette bagpipes. Both ‘Bouôrgxo’ and ‘Nèplo’, the last two pieces I released on Superpang, were born out of these sessions and are a mix of live drumming with pipes and FM synthesis, improvisation and spontaneous composition with additional sound design.

Your work with sound is interesting. On the surface at least, it seems to embrace the free, physical, buoyant nature of drumming on the one hand, and the analytical, more sound design approach you employ on the other. Could you talk about these two sides of your work?

The two steps of the process are so complementary that I would absolutely not be able to separate them in any way. Playing live and improvising are the core of my work. I either compose a piece of music and improvise on top of it or improvise and then edit, restructure, and use the material as the backbone of a new composition. I do not have a clear routine, but those two perspectives are absolutely fundamental to me. 

Concerning sound design, I try to be as free and naive as possible, and have a tendency to cherish mistakes and accidents. I am always seeking unpredictability. I have kept it minimal over the years; when it comes to hardware, I rely solely on my 11 year-old Elektron Octatrack and my Roland SPD-SX drum pad – as for software, I use Ableton Live and have a few favourite plugins such as iZotope Iris. I have also gathered many Max/MSP patches that have helped refine my sound a lot. 

You have collaborated with a wide array of artists, including Brodinski, Lafawndah, Slikback, Coby Sey, Ehua. Can you talk about these collaborations, and whether you have a favourite one? 

As with the different sides of my solo work, balance is absolutely crucial, and I could never consider my musical career without collaboration.

Yasmine Dubois, aka Lafawndah, and Coby Sey are both family now, I love them and am infinitely inspired by their practices. Playing as part of their bands has been a real honour. I met Brodinski right before covid, and when the pandemic started and we all went into lockdown, we started talking about making tracks and our ‘Swap 1’ EP was born. He introduced me to a broad community of artists and producers, including Modulaw, Slikback and Shapednoise, who have become friends and who I have been working with for some time as well. Celine Angbeletchy, aka Ehua, is a good friend. We first met when I was co-curating the Gqomunion parties with Amaury Ranger between 2018 and 2020, which provided the opportunity to invite gqom artists to DJ or perform in Paris. I am super passionate about her sound and feel blessed that we had the chance to work on a track together as part of my ‘Turmoil’ EP.

What have you been up to recently, and what about your upcoming projects?

I have been experimenting with idiophones, gongs and metal percussion a lot since last fall, finding new ways of expression and resonances and incorporating those tones into my research. I have also been writing for the pipes and the hurdy-gurdy more, and I can also say that two records have been shaping up over the last few months, so there will definitely be new solo releases in the near future, including a project with Paris-based label Promesses, for instance. I am playing a few shows in Paris, Brussels and Clermont-Ferrand this spring and will aim at taking the material to new sonic territories.

In the meantime, I have also been collaborating a lot. Brodinski and I have a second record coming out next year. A couple of weeks ago, I was in the studio with a new project called IVM Trio, comprised of Mika Oki, Apulati Bien and myself, which was created as part of my SHAPE+ residency, supported by the Schiev Festival in January 2024. I have been working with Pyur over email and have done many sessions recently with my friends Trustfall, Variéras, Apollo Noir, Paulie Jan and Alexis Delong. I have also started composing for dance a bit more and have just begun a duo with a brilliant dancer named Mathilde Lin. Some of these will materialise sooner or later; I am extremely excited by what is to come despite the general gloom.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova

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