Knight of Troy // Troy VON BALTHAZAR

Interview en V.O (2021/22)
                    Since the early 2000s, Hawaïan Troy VON BALTHAZAR has been recording some magnificent albums on the sly, away from his band CHOKEBORE. Not only a means to hear those songs revisited with a band, a recent show near Lyon was the perfect occasion for one of our reporters to interview him.


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          Sundays are usually the perfect time for spleen and introspection. But it wasn't the case on November 21 as I made way to L'Epicerie Moderne in Feyzin to finally get back in touch with live music. Along with a solitary Shannon WRIGHT, Troy VON BALTHAZAR and his backing band from Angoulême completed the bill. This was the perfect occasion to interview this francophile whom bingO perfectly described as the natural heir to Mark LINKOUS' lofi rock. Despite the miles travelled during the day and the fatigue that comes with them, TVB didn't hold back after a stellar show, perfectly underlining the beauty of the Courage, mon amour ! songs, one of the best records from 2021.

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I N T E R V I E W     ////     I N T E R V I E W     ////     I N T E R V I E W
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"I write for my personal salvation"

- - - V i v e   l a   F r a n c e  ! - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

Troy, it's a real joy interviewing you some 18 years after the first time. It was right before you were about to play your first solo show ever. Do you have any memories from that day ?
I played here ?

No, it was in Rennes, in a bar.
You know, I think I do, I might remember that actually. Cause I remember playing in a small bar and then going to the hotel room after that being so happy. It was so cool.

Did you feel like it was some shift in your life because you were only playing with CHOKEBORE then ?
It was a dream of mine to try to tour with a bag and a guitar on my back and I got to do that.

I was wondering why is there such a strong link between you and France, you live here and you're on a French label, the CHOKEBORE live album was recorded in Saint Malo...
I don't know, when CHOKEBORE first came to France, we met some really good friends in Paris. Very very nice people, it was a group of 10 people. There were couples and music people, music fans. They were such sweet people and I just made a lot of friends here at the beginning and it just continued. We kept coming back to France and really enjoying it, seeing our friends and finally starting to work with a label here. It kind of just continued you know. We were touring a lot of different places, but France always seemed like that's where our friends were.

I specifically remember how respectful the crowd was during those two solo shows I saw you play back then. I don't know if everyone understood what you were singing about but they just let the music wash over them.
With CHOKEBORE ?

No, on your solo shows. I don't think you could notice people talking when you played with CHOKEBORE most of the time.
It's wonderful when it happens, you have those moments when you play a song and it's just quiet. Then you look out and you realize there's people listening and they're just inside of themselves. It's the best thing because I'm inside of myself in that moment too. It's a nice way to communicate.

Speaking of France, how did you get to do this EP with H-BURNS ?
We actually met through a friend, Adeline FARGIER (BLACK PINE, CAT POWER). We've been friends for years and she told me about her friend H-BURNS then we kind of just met through music. He was in L.A. and I did some backing vocals on one of his songs. He supported a CHOKEBORE show when we played in Paris. You know, friendly things like that over the years.

 

- - -  A   l e s s o n   f r o m   p r o f e s s o r    C O H E N - - - - - -

 

You guys share a common love for Leonard COHEN, there's even a song about him on your latest album. I recently learned that you lived in his place for a while ?
Yes, many years.

How did you feel about that ?
They're a really really nice family. He was a really nice man.

How long did you stay there ?
I lived in Los Angeles then I let my appartment go so I'd come to Europe for half of the year and during the winter I'd go back to L.A. because I have friends there. I would stay there each year for 13 years or something. Super nice people.

Wasn't it a bit intimidating being close to him ?
I didn't see it as intimidating, everybody's just a person and he was a really cool person actually. He was a really funny and smart guy so he was fun to talk to. He was an interesting person for sure. I wasn't intimidated and I liked it.

Did you learn anything from him in terms of songwriting ?
I remember I was working on a song and we went to diner. He said « Are you working on anything ? » and I said « Yes I'm working on something but I can't finish the lyrics, I've been working on them for a long time but I'm going to make some bullshit lyrics just to get through the song » and he said « You know what ? Words are important, just take your time ». Cause it was him saying it, I listened. I said « Aaah, ok ! ». Since then I've never let any sentence be just a throwaway sentence. Even if I'm in France and most people don't understand my words, it's important for me.

Do you have those people who don't understand English in mind when you're writing by working on the rhythm and the sound of the words ?
No, I don't. I don't write for other people. I write for my personal salvation.
 
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tvb6_500.jpg, by Bingo

"I need to make the songs super fucked-up, because I'm fucked-up"

- - -  L o f i ,   o h   o u i  ! - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

You mostly record your albums at home. Is it out of necessity or is it because you like it better than being in a studio ?

Basically I didn't have the money to record in a big studio. And also I was having a friend mixing one of my songs and I was so into detail I would call him all the time asking a million times to change things, driving him crazy. He said « You know what, Troy ? I think you should learn to do that by yourself because for your personality, that would probably make sense ». So I did. It was actually a good idea. I just got into it even more. Even with CHOKEBORE I was interested in that but I had nothing about the technical side. There were songs like Where Is The Assassin which is on a piano recorded on a 4 track at home, Days Of Nothing too. So we were incorporating that lofi thing into CHOKEBORE. But then the majority would be recorded in studios. But now I just love it so much ; When I write a song I'm recording it at the same time. It's a process where I sit down and press record and it becomes a song then. It's kind of fresh and most of the time I also play that piano part once and then it's there. Most of the time I don't even remember what I did. I have to go back and relearn it. The moment I recorded it is what you hear on the album, which is cool, I like that. It's a cool aspect because it's not perfect, as we all are.

I agree. It seems like you take pleasure in having things that are not polished. I would even say that sometimes you try to mess with the song.

Well, yes, it's a way of approaching music. This is just a form of expression, it could be painting or writing. For me it's music and I want to express those songs I hear in my head and I don't want it to sound like other people. I want it to sound like me. I'm not perfect so I need to make the songs super fucked-up, because I'm fucked-up.

Speaking about recording, when do you consider a song is finished ? I'm asking with that CHOKEBORE song in mind, Snow, that evolved into a much quieter new song on stage.

That's a hard thing to do, especially if you're alone. With a band you have three other guys, maybe four who you can ask if the song is finished. But when you're alone, there's no one to ask. It's what I realized when I started recording my first album. I was at a studio in a friend's house and I was like « Oh shit, I have no one to ask. Does it sound ok or bad, cause I don't have any idea right now ». But then what you do is you kind of grow a muscle that helps you access a feeling so you know when it's done. And once you get that feeling, you don't question that. You can go on and on, but you need to trust that feeling. I trust it and I know when I'm finished and that's ok.

There were also songs that you would rerecord with CHOKEBORE...

I still do that sometimes. You know, on the way over today I was listening to a song I recorded for my next album and it's just not good enough. I think I'm gonna have to take it apart or rerecord it in a different way. That's fine, and it's fun. I just don't have that feeling like it's done. The right emotions are missing.

Do you have people to ask about it now ?

I do sometimes but it's usually a bad idea. I need to ask myself. Again I'm just doing this for myself. It's just personal expression, I'm not trying to gain anything, become famous or gain a million euros. I'm trying to spend my life doing music because I love doing music. So I ask myself because it will get me closer to who I am.

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tvb11_salut_500.jpg, by Bingo

"Days are long when you don't speak to anybody
                                  and you're alone in the country"

- - - O n e   e y e   in   t h e   r e a r v i e w    m i r r o r - - - - - - 

 

How important is nostalgia for you ? The first song on your album, Black Black, is also the title of a CHOKEBORE album : do you like looking back on your past ?

I do. I do look back. It's not good to do, it's a bad habit.

It didn't keep you from reissuing old CHOKEBORE albums. Were you involved in that ?

Yes, we tried to reissue them into the world because people kept asking me. I just wanted to make them live again a little bit.

Are there any plans to rerelease the rest of the CHOKEBORE records ?

Yes, probably. I think we are going to try to do that and bring them to streaming sites. It takes a lot of time. We've done a few so far and it would be great to do the rest of them. It depends on a lot of things. Vicious Circle may get involved, I'm not sure. But it's always in the back of our heads you know.

 

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Back to your solo career, I feel like your last two albums are a bit more optimistic than the previous ones, would you agree ?

Yes, sure. I do think so. I wanted to express that I'm feeling better now because my albums are an honest representation of my inner world. Being in the country gave my music space and time. I wanted to express that musically. For Knights Of Something I was in a small flat in Berlin going crazy and you can hear it on the album. But then in the country, that lifted that claustrophobic feeling. I had wonderful moments, just enjoying the process of recording. And just having time.

You live in la Creuse, which is basically a vast deserted land so I was wondering what do your days look like when you're there ?

I would wake up thinking about a song I want to work on, literally sit up on the bed and look up at my recoring equipment and then I would spend the day working on one song. Some days I would spend the whole day on it and couldn't get anything. You can't really force it. And days are long when you don't speak to anybody and you're alone in the country. At 10.30 at night I would become so sick of the song, trying all day on the piano, so I'm just going to watch a movie. So I start watching some stupid movie and at 11.30 I get up to go to the kitchen and get some water and I just hear the song and I run to the piano. Because my mind was finally relaxed enough, it's just there. There's no pressure if I'm not forcing myself, it's just natural. It always shocks me but it happens a lot. But then other times I would just go for walks alone and I'd be working the lyrics, with the sole purpose of finding the words for this one line in a song. Sometimes I catch it. And then at bedtime, if I got one note recorded or one phrase recorded, I would go to sleep a happy person. I would lay down and say « I did what I was supposed to do today ». It's a wonderful feeling. I didn't want anything else. And then the next day starts, you know. I love living that way, I love it.

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tvb9_500_coul.jpg, by Bingo

"It's good to flex the long muscles but also the short muscles"

How did you find your backing band ?

I met them in Angoulême through some friends and I started thinking about some strings on my music and playing with some people. I'd been really isolated and I just kept hearing some cellos and violins and I couldn't get them via keyboards, because I feel like I've done that a lot and I wanted to go for some more organic instruments. So I looked around a bit and someone suggested those guys. The cello player suggested the bass player, they're incredible musicians.

Do you think that you could incorporate new people to your music when you're recording ?

You know I recently started mixing other people's music and that is really collaborative. You're asking what they want and I love it. I didn't think I would but I just love it, I don't know why. I don't judge it when it's someone else's music. I was afraid I would be working with bad music like « Oh no ! This is terrible, it's torture » and that's why I never wanted to have a studio because I thought one day a reggaeman is going to come in and the next day a metal band is going to come in and I'm not going to like the music. It would be kind of hell for me. But somehow when mixing other projects I don't feel that. I just don't judge, I try to make a beautiful mix. I love the technical side of music. So yes, I'm open to the idea of having other people playing on my records.

 

- - - - - - - - L i t e r a t u r e   Vs   S o n g w r i t i n g - - - - - - - -

 

How did you come about writing books ?

It is like putting a flashlight on the inside and you're alone, exploring your insides. It's very personal. It's a very solitary work.

Is it a different process than writing songs ?

I think once you learn how to write it's pretty similar actually. It's a skill and a desire. And that's it really. You work on your skills until you start to make good sentences. That takes a while. Just like everything, the more you do it the better you become. And the more you're focused the more easily you can use your tools.

Did you ever end up with a full paper asking yourself whether they were lyrics or a poem ?

Oh yes, it's interchangeable, definitely. There's no rules. On the last album there's this sentence on the song Jacob : “Jacob woke up hungry, he opened his strong and heavy eyes to a cloudy room around him” that's actually from a short story that I wrote. In the end they are the same thing. They're all usable and interchangeable. A good sentence is a good sentence. If it fits a piano line or a guitar line, that's great. But if it also splits in a paragraph it's sad to always rip them out because that's what you end up doing as a musician. You know, making a paragraph and then saying « How do I express all this in five words ? » . You just try to describe the world in five words in every fucking song so you get pissed off because you write this big thing that makes sense and then you simplify it. So it's good to practice both, it's a different muscle in your brain. It's good to flex the long muscles but also the short muscles. I mean I enjoy it.

Speaking of books, did you read the one about CHOKEBORE ?

No I didn't. But if I ever learn French I will try to read that book just to see what it says.

 

Interview by Eric F.

(january 29, 2022)

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tvbcourage.jpg, by Bingo
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TROY VON BALTHAZAR. Courage, mon amour ! (Vicious circle, 2021)
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Go further

Troy VON BALTHAZAR : Bandcamp
          Courage, mon amour !
sur Bandcamp

Troy VON BALTHAZAR : site web officiel
VICIOUS CIRCLE : Bandcamp

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In our radio archives :
Rock à la Casbah #744 (22/09/2021)
Rock à la Casbah #757 - Retro-best of 21, Vol. 2 (29/12/2021)

In our written archives :
À ses amours ! (14/12/2021)
Le cheval étincelant de Troy VON BALTHAZAR  this interview in French version.

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tvb4_500.jpg, by Bingo
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Photographies : Eric F.
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tvb10_salut_500.jpg, by Bingo
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tvb12_salut_500.jpg, by Bingo

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3a165183-3f06-462c-b6ec-35de1bf98131.jpeg, by Bingo