Bring on the Excess:
Conversations in Space with Lyonnais
Lyonnais doesn’t rhyme with mayonnaise. The word is, however, synonymous with a few things. For one, it’s a historic province in France. (What, you’ve never heard of it?) But for our purposes: It’s an Atlanta-bred outfit that crafts complex, pedal-dependent, brooding songs that are more contemplative than catchy.
The band hopped on Hoss Records to release a debut LP, Want for Wish for Nowhere, on October 4. Of the album’s six tracks, some cuts come close to 10 minutes long, though one’s just short of two. Post-punk is the bedrock for Lyonnais’ sound, but there’s touches of glitchy electronica, some new wave, a dash of no wave and art rock, too. A live performance from Rhys Chatham, a French-dwelling New Yorker who reigns comfortably over the less than populous guitar orchestra genre, served as the stimulus that flipped the music-making switch for Farbod Kokabi and Farzad Moghaddam, the longtime chums and founding core of Lyonnais.
Do you smell the foul stench of pretension yet? Well, plug your nose and remind yourself of the precise definition of pretentious. It doesn’t mesh with Lyonnais, because there’s nothing fraudulent about this group of guys’ modus operandi. They’re too well-versed in and too earnest about all the ingredients of their artsy-fartsy musical concoction. You’ll never call their bluff – because they’re not conning anybody.
“Me and Farbod saw [Rhys Chatham] a number of years ago. It was an amazing experience,” Farzad says of that critical event. “He performed in this church in Austin. It was just amazing. We were both really, really inspired.”
Farzad’s reminiscing is news to Lee Tesche, the vocalist and guitarist who wasn’t there for that Texas epiphany, but was “drafted,” as he puts it, to play in Lyonnais shortly after.
Lee, however, is who arranged for both he and Farzad to be interviewed simultaneously. They used the Internet – Skype or something like it, I assume – to call me in Atlanta, while they were separated by the Atlantic.
“I was doing school [in London] and I’m here, living and working at the moment,” Lee explains.
Farzad’s current base is California while he attends dental school at UCLA.
“It’s a really good program here,” he says. “There’s only one school in Georgia. UCLA is like the number one or two dental school in the nation.”
The rest of the band – Farbod, who handles bass, synth and vocals, and drummer TJ Blake – are still based in Atlanta.
“I was [in Atlanta] as much as I needed to be this year,” Lee says. “And Farzad has done the same. It’s really not a factor.”
They must be accumulating plenty of Frequent Flyer miles, because the band certainly hasn’t been AWOL from the Atlanta scene. Lyonnais even toured from D.C. to New Orleans in the month-and-a-half before Want for Wish for Nowhere dropped.
A few of those dates were opening slots for Cymbals Eat Guitars and Hooray for Earth, two New York-based acts that, though they share a penchant for complexity, are set drastically apart from Lyonnais by a heavier reliance on melodies and head bobs. A Kentucky date was with Atlanta’s Deerhunter, but the hometown factor doesn’t necessarily make for a more likeminded pairing.
Given the structure of Want for Wish for Nowhere – the lengthy songs and short tracklist – and the album’s elaborate, artsy and dark-tinged tracks, each with a grandiose name (“Transitive Properties of Youth” and “Modern Calvary,” for example), Lyonnais can’t squeeze into any lineup without standing out. It’s not a bad problem to have, except that when, with only a fleeting once-over, the gist is a bit self-righteous. There’s a somewhat smug, highbrow air enveloping Lyonnais, like they’ve catered to the lungs of Rhys Chatham’s sharpest-dressed fans.
And though Farzad and Lee speak more eloquently and generally appear a smidge more intellectual than the average musician, in reality, they are by no means pompous. They make do with what they’ve got, just like the rest of us.
Farbod and Farzad worked for 88.5/WRAS, Georgia State University’s radio station, in 2008 when the band first began to develop. At the time, they didn’t have anywhere to practice.
“In the middle of the night, we’d haul our equipment down and just set up shop in the office and rock out,” Lee recalls.
They later moved to a proper space at Thunderbox Studios, where they created what would later be Want for Wish for Nowhere.
“We had it finished quite a while before it was actually released,” Lee says. “It was something that we’d been playing so long.”
It was about four years, to be more specific, before the band released the LP with Brooklyn’s Hoss Records, a nearly 10-year-old label with an Atlanta expat at its helm. Want for Wish for Nowhere fits nicely among Hoss’ mostly experimental offerings. Tracks can stand alone, like the faster-paced, rattling “Dusted at Mount Sinai,” for which there’s a black-and-white video that focuses on a blank-faced TJ drumming for more than half of the song. But the best results, like with most experimental-leaning works, are awarded by a thorough sit-down with the LP, from its softly sinister beginning to its increasingly intense and sometimes ghostly middle to its chaotic finale.
“We just wanted to make a cohesive record,” Farzad says. “It just kind of fit like that, I guess.”
“Obviously, we put a lot of thought into it when we were crafting it, because we had the better part of two or three years to kind of develop a lot of the music that made its way on there,” Lee adds. “By the time we actually recorded, it was quite realized. We kind of knew what we wanted to do.”
Despite the lengthy preparation, however, Lee notes that recording and mixing shifted the album’s feel. Malleability of that caliber isn’t a red flag that they’re impressionable or unsteady. Instead, it makes sense for a band that dips a mere toe at a time into likeminded but intrinsically different sounds – shoegaze, post-punk, no wave, electronica and experimental, the all-encompassing vague label they’re often dubbed with.
Lyonnais has a second full-length already tracked that was recorded in New York, Farzad and Lee say, but it’s been shelved while Want for Wish for Nowhere makes the rounds.
“Now that [the debut LP] has come out, we can kind of turn our attention. In the next month or two, we’re going back [to New York],” Lee says. “It’s more of the stuff that we’ve been playing live in the last year, I guess. It’s a little more post-punky.”
“We haven’t mixed it, so it could come across differently,” Farzad reminds.
He’s right: Weakening the distortion on “The Fatalist” would have put Lyonnais closer to sounding like Labradford, the idle post-rock ‘90s-era band they name as an influence; adding vocals to “Repeat Sunset” could have landed the song in a Deerhunter-esque territory.
In January, they’ll adapt their sound purposely for the closing of Synthesiz, an exhibit by Ben Worley (you know, Atlanta’s favorite, always-smiling Pabst rep) at Get This! Gallery. Farbod said it will be a more “ambient set.”
Had one of their early ideas for a band name – Knife Hits – stuck, such a set might be harder to convincingly pull off. They’d probably register for most, by title alone at least, as a metal band.
“There ended up being another band [called Knyf Hyts] in New York that also had two Persian guys in it. It was a weird coincidence,” Farzad says. “So we had to drop that name.”
So why Lyonnais? It’s not exactly easy to pronounce, and then there’s the nagging potential turnoff from radiating self-righteousness. But neither Lee nor Farzad show much concern, and they didn’t take issue when the subject arose.
“We get that a lot,” Farzad admits.
All that the members of Lyonnais could be faulted for, at worst, is taking themselves a little too seriously. That approach has worked to this point. Maybe there just isn’t much room for hysterics in the exploration of experimental post-punk, and that’s just fine. That doesn’t make them pretentious.
(It’s Lee-on-ay, by the way. Now you know.)