An achingly beautiful and redolent mash up of doom/classical/70’s rock sounds, Sans Soleil’s debut ‘A Holy Land Beneath a Godless Sky’ [reviewed here] captures an atmosphere not ordinarily associated with the band’s Texan home, yet is still deeply immersed in the essence of the Lone-Star State. An expression of disaffection and yearning, the band’s experimental meshing of doom metal’s bleakness, sun-baked and iridescent composition, and delicately haunting viola lines produced an album dramatic and downcast in its ebbs and uplifting in its flows, evoking a transformative pilgrimage both musically and conceptually.
While ordinarily you might expect such an achievement to be the goal of a well-plotted musical course, it seems ‘A Holy Land Beneath a Godless Sky’ blossomed organically from Sans Soleil’s sheer musical eclecticism. The work of musicians coming together from sludge, post-rock, and classical backgrounds, ‘A Holy Land…’ was destined to take an emotionally vibrant and evocative route, yet the path trodden on the album traverses all these genres while favouring none, becoming all the more captivating for it. After spinning the album to death, Unholy Noise had to get in touch with Sans Soleil to find out about the impact Texas has had on their sound, what experimental French cinema has to do with the band, and just how they came to bring viola and doom metal together.
Thanks for the interview! To get started, can you give us a brief introduction into the band, and how you got started?
Elle: We began in Denton, Texas in 2009 with myself, Eva, Dustin, and a couple of friends going towards more of a post-rock/chamber rock feel. Much quieter, much more composed and reserved. As time passed, the same core of Eva, Elle, and Dustin has been consistent; the rest of the band has shifted as folks have come and go (all of them immensely talented!) and we’ve moved to a bigger, heavier, darker sound. It’s been a fairly organic progression, and Zach and Theron have come from heavy, doom/sludge/stoner metal backgrounds, which brought a lot of weight and low-end to our sound.
In spite of being an instrumental band, ‘A Holy Land Beneath a Godless Sky’ seems to evoke a concept of a journey or pilgrimage, not just through the song titles, but the pacing and atmosphere of the record. Is this something you aimed to express?
Elle: When we wrote the songs on this record, we weren’t exactly writing from a script or a strict conceptual framework, but I think we’ve always had tendencies towards longer pieces with strong dynamic shifts, sections with different tones and intensities, all of which lend to the feel that this is a narrative composed of several events and scenarios. As we were working on fitting everything together as a cohesive whole, we discussed what the songs were to each of us as we were playing, and a conglomerate of those images helped to form the concept of the album. We arrived at a narrative centered on a nameless, faceless wanderer on a journey through a desolate, long abandoned place, attempting to affix meaning to their journey and what they find along the way. We felt this also somewhat mirrored our song-writing process; we write and create music through collaborative work and try to sort out where it came from as we look back.
Eva: I feel like our conceptual element comes through by way of necessity – I’m a really visual person and it’s hard for me to conceptualize or understand anything without diagrams either written out or arranged in my head. When writing music with this band I seem to always refer to the visual or emotional action I think the section is invoking. It’s hard for me to talk about how parts are working without talking about what feels like is happening in them. I’m also really into ancient history and comparative mythology and when we were talking about the themes that were coming out of the songs it was hard for me not to assign classic archetypes to them.
Although Sans Soleil have a doom metal foundation, stylistically the band is very eclectic, with drone, space rock, and classical elements forming a major part of your sound. What musical backgrounds do your members come from? Was the experimental sound of the band something that you planned from the beginning, or that arose naturally?
Elle: I was heavily into post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperior, Mogwai, and Mono when we started the band, which definitely informs my approach to music. I don’t think we set out to be experimental so much as we’ve all pushed our own ideas and influences through our contributions. We’ve never made music with the intent for this band to be a doom metal (or any other specific sound) project. We write songs organically and parse out what feels right for each song, and Sans Soleil is our end result.
Eva: I, obviously, have a classical background, but I’m probably more than anything drawn to things that are grand in scale – whether it’s like Greig, Saint-Saëns, Mussorgsky, or like King Crimson, Aphrodites Child, Hawkwind, Arthur Brown, or like Nadja, Earth or Neurosis.
Sans Soleil is also the name of a renowned documentary by French director Chris Marker. Is there any connection or mutual inspiration between Sans Soleil the band, and the themes that are covered in the film of the same name?
Eva: Yes! We started in 2009 as “Ghostlights” but it wasn’t right. Elle proposed the name – it was beautiful – and it seemed to be a perfect parallel of what we were seeking to create. Additionally – piece of music I draw continual inspiration from is Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and the movie was named after his song cycle of the same name, which to me personally is a sweet touch.
Do you believe that being from Texas has had any impact on your sound? The drone elements of ‘A Holy Land…’ especially are reminiscent of Earth’s sun-baked approach to melody and song writing – is a regional influence something that you’re aware of, or that you aim to evoke in your music?
Elle: Texas may be the closest you can come to experiencing a real-life apocalyptic wasteland, especially outside of its major metropolitan areas. For me at least, the social alienation that I felt as a kid, the end-is-nigh protestant Christian culture, the unrelenting sun, and the goes-on-forever Texas sky all shaped the way I look at the world, and consequently the way I write and play.
Among the more traditional doom-centric sections, ‘A Holy Land…’ has moments that feel very liberated, and almost jam-like in their structure. How do you approach these different structures when you are writing your music, and how does the overall song-writing process work with Sans Soleil?
Elle: We strive to piece everything together in a way that feels “natural,” sometimes it feels like one part of the song should be a funeral dirge other parts may need to be a bass-driven gallop. We hammer out what does and doesn’t work for us a riff or measure at a time.
The viola proves to be a haunting, sorrowful presence throughout ‘A Holy Land…’, and becomes both a primary source of melody and a leading force within the music, especially given the lack of vocals. Was the intention always to do something different by replacing vocals with violin, or is this a result of experimentation?
Eva: We definitely didn’t set out with the intention to replace vocals with viola. There was definitely a lot of strong suggestions for me to play more textural – like washes of arpeggios and upward and downward movement – but the viola isn’t really played like that, the viola traditionally only stands as a harmonizing element in an orchestra with long sustained tones. So like, I had only played solo material and these harmonizing drones. When I came into this group I couldn’t ever wrap my head around assuming the role of the violinist. I think I did my best to kinda combine those two experiences and I just kept doing what I was doing and eventually I think we figured out where I fit in.
The album evokes a sense of loss and isolation, yet musically reaches a climax on the final track that expresses a more hopeful atmosphere. It’s an emotional ride that suggests that more than simply creative urge spurred the song-writing. Is there an element of dealing with personal emotions that inspires Sans Soleil to write music?
Dustin: I’d like to think that all of our songs are personal. When I hear a song that makes me feel chills on my arm, anger, or joy then it becomes personal to me. That’s what I want when we write songs, is to feel that in our music.
Elle: There’s definitely some melancholy in what we’re writing, and I think part of the intent in getting it out, in lamenting those losses and opening up through music is that we hope that it will be better, that we won’t always feel that sadness. There should always be a little hope at the end of any ordeal.
Thanks again for your time! What are Sans Soleil’s plans for the future, and do you have any final comments?
Eva: We’re making plans to get out on the road later this year, and we’ll be committing some time to writing new songs soon.
Dustin: I’m glad people like the record, that’s all I would hope is that people can relate to the music we make and appreciate it.
Elle: Thanks for listening!