Gaspar Claus: ‘My career is like a monster chasing me, instead of me chasing a career.’

Gaspar Claus is a cellist.
But it isn’t going too far to also call Gaspar Claus a surveyor. A geographer. Even, why not, a cartographer: a drawer of lines and tracery. It is this questing spirit which sees him running the “Les Disques du Festival Permanent” label, a warm inn at whose tables you’ll find a plethora of other adventurers: Sourdure, Borja Flames, Marc Melià… His debut album, Tancade, will be released in September via InFiné.

Excuse me if I start the interview bluntly, but a few weeks ago you performed with the pop star Katy Perry. How did this happen and what were your impressions? Especially since you’ve worked with the likes of Keiji Haino, Jim O’Rourke, etc., some would say it’s a meeting or clash of two different music worlds. How does the modus operandi differ for instance, if you work in a pop context vs the underground / avantgarde?

Haha, yes this was some kind of extreme surprise for me, I still don’t really understand why they came to me. A long-time friend of mine works for the company that was in charge of this very private event. Katy Perry’s team wanted a cello to play four songs in acoustic versions. They had actually never played with a cello before. They asked for a Parisian cellist, and I guess I am the only one that my friend knows so she asked me if I was available (three days before the show) to play with Katy Perry.

The thing is that I have always enjoyed visiting completely different musical planets. When I received that text message about Katy Perry, I was in a very small but important music festival in Brittany (called ‘Bordures’). I was on stage with Beñat Achiary and Mathieu Pruall, two great improvisers, they are like gods to me. Three days later, I was with Katy Perry, and three days after that, with 20 musicians, holding an A note for eight hours… I love those contrasts; I think I would be very sad if I found myself stuck in one of those worlds.

In the end, I often work with radical people, who defend their practice against other practices who they have to consider as “the enemy”.  Some make dark and rough music, and hate it when the music is light and superficial, and those who make happy music don’t understand why some people waste their time on sad music. I find myself very moved by all of these. I don’t think there is a good or bad musical style. When somebody tells me “I don’t like reggae” it feels to me like hearing something like “I don’t like black people” or Arabs, or Chinese people. It makes no sense. There is beauty (and ugliness) to find in any music genre, any musical approach. But on the other hand, I appreciate the radicalism of my friends. It helps them to dig deep with their proposition and to go very far in their research.

As for me, I am the last specialist. I don’t know how to play jazz, I don’t know how to play pop music, I don’t know how to play flamenco, but musicians seem to enjoy playing with me. I guess it is because I don’t know the rules, so I break them, and for this reason I often push them off their rails. And strangely, I play with their enemy (Katy Perry could be considered embarrassing for most of them) but nobody seems to blame me for this.

I guess this is why my friend thought of me to play this show. I play cello and have friends in every musical field. And I am lucky enough to have met the best of them – Katy Perry, as a pop star, is among the greatest, and I had great pleasure working with her and particularly her two musicians, Devon & Casey.

Cello is at the centre of your work. You define yourself as a cellist. In your biography, there is an interesting statement, can you perhaps elaborate on it: “That is to say, all that he weighs of the world surrounding him, he compares to the weight of his cello, an instrument to be hugged, stroked, and pinched, but also carried far on one’s back.”

Oh, I didn’t write that, you know. It is a vision from the outside. In reality I don’t spend so much time with my cello. I would say, on the contrary, that I tend to accumulate life experiences as much as possible, and those often give me the opportunity to play my cello, because I meet people, and they invite me to play, or to record.

Maybe the feeling behind that description is that since I started to play cello when I was five years old, the instrument could be considered to be like a natural voice for me, that when I play it, I don’t need to think about how it works. So maybe the “world surrounding me” is never as familiar as my cello is. But no, I definitely don’t see cellos everywhere I look… that would be a nightmare.

I am not obsessed with my cello. I have the very great luck to be the son of a musician, and did not have to fight to become a musician myself. I have actually always had the feeling that my career is like a monster chasing me, instead of me chasing a career. I am always surprised to be asked to play here or there, I don’t understand how I’ve got there. And I try to do my best to accomplish my duty as a musician in the best way I can, and to invite a maximum of friends to enjoy all this with me.

How does one become a cellist?

I guess there are as many ways as there are cellists. First, how does one start to play cello? That is a weird choice for a kid. Piano, singing, drums, guitar are so obvious, so everywhere, so easy to get access to… I myself was “playing” some guitar, as my father is a guitarist, before I was five. At five I went to see a concert with a string quartet, came back home, positioned my tiny guitar vertically and started scratching it with a wooden stick… that was my start. Then there were years of struggling to manage school time, music school time and home practicing, when friends were outside, playing football or later on drinking coffee and beers…

And the orchestra, where I started to feel how competitive this world was. I decided soon that I didn’t want that, and I quit music school when I was 16. I had more interest in coffee, cigarettes and other pleasures, I guess.
I didn’t touch my cello for six years. And felt bad about it.
I have no idea how I became a musician after that.
I remember I tried again, after all those years with no playing, I remember I’d lost it all, couldn’t get a nice sound out of it. I cried. And tried again and again, reading scores that I had no memories of. And at one point, I played one of those scores, a study, it was like my hands knew precisely how to play it, while my brain had no idea of what was happening.

From there I found my sound again. But added a lot of fragility and curiosity to it. I think my father invited me to play with him and an actress in a very simple programme (he was so happy to hear I had gone back to my cello!) and I improvised something. After that I was asked to play here and there, more and more, and now I am a cellist… I have to say a little word about all my teachers. I’ve had so many great teachers, and learned everything I use today from them, and everything I decided to go against (which would not have been possible without first learning it).

Another quote from your biography calls you “a surveyor. A geographer. Even, why not, a cartographer: a drawer of lines and tracery.” What lines and traces do you explore?

As I said earlier, I love to cross boundaries that are not usually crossed (particularly in France, where everything is very partitioned). So, I don’t see myself as a traveller, or even a musical explorer, as some around me really are. What I understand in this second quote from my biography – which I didn’t write – is that I kind of create territories by connecting fields that are usually unconnected.

For instance, I have this “One-night stand” project. It is very simple: I invite a dozen musicians that I choose for a one-shot show, with no more than two days of preparation. I ask each of them to come up with a proposal of something to be played by the rest of the ephemeral group and so we go through 12 musical universes with the same musicians involved.
The last one was in Paris, and I simply invited my favourite musicians to join. None of them knew any of the others! So yes, in this sense I may produce lines. On the other hand, I think I also tend to provoke collisions (instead of fusions; I don’t like this word when it is about culture) with the intention of seeing a third dimension appear from the encounter of the two first dimensions.

Can you talk about your label “Les Disques du Festival Permanent”?

I created LDFP five years ago for two reasons. That year I’d been recording too many albums and didn’t want to deal with so many labels, so I decided to group them under my own label. Also, in the French music industry people were reproaching me for being hard to pin down, for being involved in too many projects. They were telling me to calm down, to focus on one project. My response to this was to label all my activities. Haha, I even started to produce projects that I am not involved in. And it kind of worked. After I created LDFP I was no longer asked to reduce my activities.

Now LDFP is a nice little house, with an extremely versatile catalogue. It is not big, and I mostly lose money on it, but after all those years, I am happy to still have this tool working. I hope to slowly continue growing and be strong enough to defend homeless music that deserves to be defended and for there to be a home for that 🙂 It also allows me to understand how my industry works, and to have a bit of a political approach to my work, which is important.

After working with and for others for many years, your debut album via Infiné called ​​Tancade is out in September. Can you talk about it?

This solo album was something many people around me were pushing me to do for years. I guess I was scared, I don’t really know about what. Maybe to discover that I have no proper music, nothing in me that can write music without being activated by others.

Also, I didn’t want to make a rough solo album, dry, difficult to access, made for purists. I kind of hoped to find a way to gather all the techniques, all the genres that I have approached through the years and use all these to invent a music that would be open enough to be listened to by some of my friends, or family, who have never really got to listen to my projects, because they were too “avant-garde” for them… And frankly, I wasn’t sure at all I was capable of doing it. I am not at all a pop song writer, and mostly I am bad at following any structural, or harmonic, or rhythmic rules. So, I tried, several times, to isolate myself with microphones. Felt very lonely, was frightened by the silence, and started recording little gimmicks, just to do something. After five years of trials and errors, it felt like the basic material to finish those little pieces was there. That was when I asked the record label InFiné to co-produce it with me.

They jumped in in a surprisingly intense way; it all became very ambitious, and from my lonely situation I ended up being surrounded by a group of people who were very involved in my work and this felt so good.
They sent me for two weeks (ending up as three weeks, because of the lock-down situation) to a studio in Normandy, on my own. And after that (I was depressed because I knew I was close to the end of this work, and hated it at this time, it felt boring, pretentious, crude…) I went to finalise it for an intense week of work with my friend David Chalmin, who has the most impressive and beautiful studio in the country, and ears and sensitivity that feel extremely close to mine. Working on the tracks, re-editing, mostly cutting but also adding a few lines, the point came when we tried out a track list, pushed play and the album was there… I myself love it now, thanks to David. He also made the mix of the album.

This is a big change, kind of a new path for me. I will defend that project in a way I have never defended any of my other projects. I never worked according to – nor was I attracted by – the classical “album recording – album release – promotion – two years touring and then the next album recording etc…” logic. It has always been way more chaotic than that for me and I enjoyed it so much. “TANCADE” feels like me finally accepting that I didn’t become a musician by chance, and that I can carry music on my own, after all these years.

You’ve travelled the world: both literally and figuratively (in and through your music and musical encounters). Is there any particular encounter or memory that sticks out?

No, sorry, no particular encounter, or soooooo many.

Maybe this is the place to make an homage to my godmother, Angélique Ionatos, with whom I’ve been touring for four years and who passed away last week, after a long and sad illness. She was an incredible singer and musician. She learned it all by herself, and her music was extremely sophisticated and tender and beautiful at the same time. When she invited me to join her on tour, I was very young and had a lot to learn about everything. She is a great part of what I am today. And I feel extremely lucky to have been invited to share time and music with her. Her voice is one you really have to listen to, again and again.

Interview: Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Jeremie Bouillon

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