Interview: Birds In Row on the Color of Depression

French melodic hardcore band Birds In Row are a force to be reckoned with. Over multiple worldwide treks, a handful of releases that only seem to be growing in power, and a striking anonymity in their identity. Their newest album, Gris Klein, is an emotive explosion of frenetic guitar work and fiery percussion that brings their level of catharsis to a new height, examining the intricacies of depression.

We got to speak with members B and Q about all the work and feeling that went into the new record.

What does the title ‘Gris Klein’ mean? What do you hope listeners take from it?
B: ‘Gris Klein’ is a French term with an English translation of “Klein Gray”—It is a reference to “Klein Blue,” which is a color invented by a French artist, Yves Klein. The record itself speaks about depression in very different aspects, so the title is supposed to summarize it by comparing depression with being colorblind, being that when you’re very depressed or in a deep state of melancholia, it’s very hard to see the good things or the colorful things in your life, the same way that, when you’re colorblind, you can’t see certain colors. The title is a way to say that just because you don’t see the colors doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and you still have to speak to them.

You leaned heavily into more of the guitar effects that sound like electronics production, delays that sound like synths, and stutters that sound like arpeggiation. What inspired you to work with that kind of sound palette; was there any conscious decision for it?

Q: I think it was just along the way for the composing process. For example, I had a lot of time to spend on YouTube and be a nerd checking out new pedals during the lockdown of COVID and everything. I bought three or four pedals for different projects, and one definitely ended up as a huge part of the Birds In Row record, which is the one I am making a loop with on my guitar amp but using my bass. So now you hear two guitars because one is played by the bass and one is the one that B is playing.

All the leads that you think sound a bit like synthesizer is actually a different guitar-like sound. B also added some stutter effects and an organizer pedal is almost always on on B’s guitar and there’s also a layer that you do with granular delay that freezes the sound on almost every song on this record. I think we liked it because it was changing from what we did before, but at first I don’t think we thought about it before. It was just natural during the composing process.

B: For me, because we were composing during lockdown, normally we go into a practice room and we play whatever we can and see what comes of it, but because we were so isolated, we were thinking like, “Oh, what’s a new thing or sound I can bring to the band.” And, as Q said, there were times I was like, “Oh, I really want to try out this new pedal” and, for me, I know that discovering Radiohead during lockdown – which is very late in my life – helped me challenge myself to make new sounds. I come from punk rock, so it’s usually like I need a guitar and an amp and that’s it, and since we started Birds In Row, I started bringing in more pedals, and listening to different artists like Radiohead helped me push myself a little bit further to the dark side of the pedalboard, haha.

It’s great because we had the same feeling and the same wish to evolve in the sound together but isolated. When we came back to the practice room, we were like, “oOh yeah, let’s do this!” and, “I can do this while you do that,” and it was fun.

Q: There was also a song that we composed way before the others, and that was “Grisaille,” and for this one, just to challenge myself, we composed it without the bass. So I took my guitar and my pedalboard I have for my other project and used that, and that made me think, “Oh, well I want to do this but with my bass, so how can I do that?” It was very playful to try to think of a solution to do that. And, finally, it’s cool because we can do it live. The whole record except for the vocals, we recorded it live, so everything is done at the same time, so there is no adding parts later so it’s doable. We might mess it up at a few shows, but normally it’s doable.

In information about the record, and in the content especially, it was written from places of a lot of desperation both personally and in the world, with a lot of feelings of loneliness and depression during low points of quarantine. Do you feel like there are any specific moments that directly relate to tracks on the album that you’d like to share?

B: Actually, there’s a song called “Daltonians” where the lyrics have been written in a way that is very chaotic and, when you read it, it just seems like a bunch of sentences altogether but you don’t know the link between them. Actually, that’s a wish I had for the lyrics when I wrote them to reflect how chaotic the world was at the time when I wrote them. What I had in mind was when the Black Lives Matters protests were happening, it had a very large impact on the world, and in France we had a very similar, very sad story of another white police officer killing a black man. Then, you know how people are on social media; it seems like everyone has the answer, and then you’ve got COVID, and everyone has the answer, but no one really knows. People end up being not very helpful and don’t act in solidarity at all.

So, this song specifically has been written about all this because we saw so much brutality. Physically by the police, and with the gilets jeunes movement in France, for example which was very, very shocking. Then, at the same time you had COVID, where people were very brutal toward each other, and you had the Black Lives Matter movement that was the same thing, so it was a lot of brutality but on different topics. That’s why this song is so messed up in terms of lyrics; it was like going onto social media and trying to talk to strangers about so many different topics, and you end up losing the sense of it, kind of. It’s like, “I’m trying to give answers to everything, but I don’t know shit,” you know what I mean?

This song is very easy to relate to something precise, but most of the songs, when we write lyrics, we don’t want to direct people to an answer. We want to help people come to their own conclusion. We’re not the type of band to be like, “Fuck this; fuck that.” It’s not really what we want to do, but I think that people who listen to our music have the same type of sensibility that we have so they come to the same conclusion of what we want to say.

It’s kind of hard to just say this song talks about this, or one song talks about that. Like, I can say that one song speaks on how my mom would go to work and come back crying every night and how it affected me and my vision of work, for example, but that’s not really it because the sense of the song and the meaning of the song comes from when someone reads the lyrics and appropriates it to get whatever they want from those lyrics. I know, when I wrote a song what I wanted to say through all those metaphors, but I don’t think that’s the proper meaning of the song; the meaning is what you as a listener take from the song.

You leaned into a lot of titles referential to visual art for the record, what inspired that? How do you feel it relates to the subject matter?

B: I started learning more about art history recently, and I owe it to my partner. We met about seven years ago, and since we’re together, I go to way more exhibitions than what I used to do, and so I have a bit more culture in art history now than I did before. When you write a song or when you do anything, the rest of your culture pops up like, “Oh, I have this idea, and it makes me think of this exhibition I’ve seen or this movie I’ve seen,” and it just came pretty naturally to me to use those art elements in all the songs.

I don’t know exactly when I realized it, but I had two or three songs with lyrics, and all of them were using those elements, and I thought maybe that could be some kind of common line to the whole record, and I started willingly putting more of those elements. That’s why almost all of the titles are art references and that in a lot of metaphors I try to use art references also.

It totally made sense also for this concept of comparing depression with colorblindness because how can you enjoy art the way the rest of us see it when you can’t really see it? And it’s like how you can’t see the same color I see. Every eye is different, and what you call carmine red is not the same as the one I would call carmine red. For me, it made a lot of sense for me to inject that meaning in the record.

With that meaning, did you all come up with the concept for the artwork, or was it a painting you had seen previously? Where did the artwork come from, and how does it relate to that subject matter?

B: So usually we all talk together about the artwork, and the hard thing about this one was being so isolated, so it made it certainly harder. I came up with the concept for the artwork because I actually started painting during the lockdowns. Usually if it’s me or Q or T, if we hear a song, we have an idea of a visual. It could be a music video or just the artwork, and for me, when I was listening to the songs we had, I really pictured this person being oppressed or put in a box but trying to see hope in the situation.

For me, that’s what the state of depression looks like. You are facing so many issues and so much sorrow and suffering, but at the same time you know it’s also due to something that has nothing to do with you so you’re trying to escape from that depression. You try to reach some colorful moments, or things, or places, and that’s what this painting is. It’s a person actually feeling oppressed by the frame of the LP itself but trying to look at the color of the flowers that are the most colorful part of the cover in hopes that I will see the color someday and feel happy again.

Q: I have never seen it like that, what you are explaining, but I see it now. I think it’s funny that the person looks down at something hopeful instead of looking up. I never thought about it like that.

B: That’s also in part due to the composition itself. I felt like it would have been weird to have them looking up. For me, the most important part of the artwork is, you have to feel the depression in it, so looking down and being pressed by the top of the cover is feeling the depression in it. It’s everything you feel when you’re depressed, but then there’s a small part that is very colorful, like a bit of flowers, and they’re nice, and I bet they smell good.

Q: It makes sense, what you said earlier. Like the colors are here right in front of our noses, so it makes sense. I was like “hey, it’s a good painting, B, we should use it!”

B: We have had this painting for a long time but we never really had time to discuss it together because of all the separation that we’ve been through with the lockdowns. Also, we recently saw that, with Q and I, we live, like, 100 meters from one another, but because we’re so used to touring together, we don’t really see each other in our town because it’s like our private moments when we are at home. We do not need to see each other because we are going to go on tour together for a month after that, but the thing is, the tour never came, so we haven’t seen each other much recently.

It’s kind of a weird thing to put out a record in the world in these kinds of conditions. I just discovered that we didn’t talk about the artwork that much because we usually talk about it when we’re in the van or in the studio together, but with this, we didn’t, so it’s kind of weird.

You have such a strong sense of melody with your music and it’s stretched over your whole discography, from songs like “Cottbus” to the entirety of We Already Lost The World. What draws you to such strong melodic elements in heavy music?

B: I think it’s just part of what we do and what we listen to. Like I said, I come from punk rock and folk music and stuff like that, so for myself, the bands that really reached me the most were the ones that had those special melodies that were maybe sad or brutal. When you take a band like Envy from Japan, it’s typically so brutal, but when you listen to the guitars it’s like a symphony.

Q: I think back 10 or 12 or 15 years ago when we all got into screamo and post-hardcore, it was this bringing together of a wall of noise and violence that we really liked when we were younger, but it’s pushed by the melody behind it that people who don’t listen to this kind of music will not see at first. Like our parents when we first get into it, they’re like, “Oh, that’s just noise” but when you get this type of music, you get it. That’s what we like about this type of music, that the shape and the essence of it is from the melody behind it.

Maybe if it’s just violence, it’s not something I would listen to, so maybe it’s all the music we listen to now. I don’t think I listen to this kind of music we are doing with Birds In Row at all right now, but I like to compose it and play it, and it’s really cool to do it. I think it’s because we have three different inspirations.

B: I also like noise bands, like there are a lot of things that I like. It’s gonna be weird to talk about Daughters with everything that happened, which I can’t not acknowledge, but when they put out their new record, it was the perfect mix of coldness and almost industrial ambience; there’s this melody that pops up in the third song or so if I remember well, and you’re like, “Whoa, that’s the first melody of the record,” and that’s the part that I enjoyed the most. When you have, like, a shit ton of melodies or a shit ton of noise, you just listen to it, but there’s nothing that makes you think, “Oh, I like this part a lot; what makes me like this part so much?”

Usually, I like noise bands and think noise is cool, but that part made me think specifically that melodies are so important to me in music. It could be just three notes, but it changes everything in my mind in how the music reaches me. I think it’s just that your ears are shaped in a certain way because you grew up listening to this band or that band, but I can’t listen to a band without melodies; it’s really hard for me. Like harsh noise, it’s really hard for me to just listen to harsh noise and not be like, “OK,” like I get it but I don’t get it.

Q: And when you think about it, the softer parts and the most violent part of this new record are on the same song. It’s “Trompe l’oeil” where the beginning is the all quiet, and all the end is the most dissonant and aggressive part.

B: You know when you compose music and you don’t have lyrics, you name songs maybe with inspirations you had for the songs, and “Trompe l’oeil” was called “Dark Thief” because we thought it was like a darker version of Big Thief because we wanted it to sound like Big Thief at first, but then it went weird.

Are there any plans for touring the rest of the world after touring with Cult Of Luna? How do you feel about touring in such an uncertain time with visa issues and a still-prominent pandemic?

B: We really want to go back outside of Europe, but there’s nothing booked yet. We’re kind of taking the counterstep to the previous record where, when We Already Lost The World came out, the two first tours were U.S. tours, and it took us almost six months or a year to tour Europe which is weird. We wanted to do it differently for this record and tour Europe sooner than what we used to do, but we’re definitely gonna go wherever we can. We really want to go back to Japan because it’s Japan.

Q: Another thing is, when we got our visas, it was already stressful, so I think it’s gonna be pretty much the same after COVID. For us what’s changing a bit is for the U.K. because now it seems we’re going to need a working visa to tour there as well. It was pretty easy before to take an hour and a half boat to play in London and come back, but we’ll see about that.

B: Yeah, we’ll see about that. I will say touring in the U.S. is very stressful for visas, like I think when you booked us in 2016 we didn’t have visas.*

Q: Yeah, I think we did three tours without.

B: But the last three tours we did we have to have visas, and now we’re in the files so we’ll have to do it from now on. We can’t just go up and be like, “No, we’re just tourists!” That’s definitely going to be something I’m not looking forward to because management of it is just a pure nightmare. I’m not even aware of all the changes because it kept changing during the Trump era. It was getting worse and worse and worse, but then it got a bit clearer and better but I’m not even sure what’s needed now.

Last time we toured the U.S., we needed a letter from a local artist saying how useful we were on the U.S. territory and that kind of bullshit. This is the kind of thing that we’re facing when we’re touring the U.S. or certain countries, but we’ll do it. I think we have people working with us now who can do it for us now. Wink wink, Benoit.

Benoit (Manager): You wish.

You have been a band for quite some time, through a lot of intense points of time. How do you feel about the current social climate in the world around you? 

B: It’s explosive. In France and the rest of Europe, the extreme right wing has never been as present as right now. And all the debates you have, like the new laws in the United States about reproduction rights and everything like that, it affects other countries to because when the Supreme Court decided it was okay for U.S. states to decide whether it’s legal or not to have an abortion in France most right-wing politicians were like, “Maybe we should debate about abortion,” and it’s like, what kind of world do we live in where you go so much further backwards?

You know, it’s the same with Black Lives Matters where a lot of discussions were so out-of-this-world. And the same with the death sentence, for example. People started asking, “Is it racist to kill a Black man?” and there were the weirdest discussions happening, and you have to ask, “Have you learned anything from history? Have you learned something at all?”

That’s why the songs on this record are probably the bleakest in terms of lyrics because times have been so bleak lately. It’s so hard for me to keep up with the news because it’s so fucked up. It’s all so fucked up. I can mostly talk about what happens in France, but we have a president who says he isn’t from the right or the left wing at all, but he’s actually very much from the right wing, and he deals a lot with the Eastern right wing and makes a lot of decisions that belong to them.

Police brutality has never been this big, also. It’s really bleak, and it’s the same everywhere in Europe. When you look at Poland with abortion and gay rights and LGBTQ+ rights, it’s been terrible. There are LGBT-free zones in Poland right now, like there are places in Poland where you are not allowed to be gay. Imagining this in 2022 is just like, “What the fuck?”

Then, on top of that, you have the war in Ukraine. It’s a huge concern for the rest of Europe, of course, but it’s also mainly for the Ukrainian people. It’s hard to not feel empathetic at all; you see so much suffering everywhere. Then the climate’s fucked up too.

You know, being a kid today must be so fucked up. I’m super happy I’m 36 because I can start thinking about my death more than growing up in a fucked up country. It’s so stressful, and I can’t wait to go back on the road to express all that, but it also feels like what’s the point?

What’s the point of making music in a world that’s sinking and where people are going crazy and with all this Nazi shit? It’s a question that we talked about, me and the guys maybe once or twice, but it’s so weird to compose music. Or, for example, I’m a tattoo artist; what’s the meaning of a tattoo in 2022 when there’s so much shit going on around? What’s the point of music; do you feel like there’s some change you can bring like this or not? There are so many questions like this that are so difficult to answer, and it’s a huge weight, but there’s only one thing we can do and that we know how to do, which is make music, so we’re gonna do it.

Q: And we’re so closed off to our lives as musicians. Some things we believed in or some strength we got in this music scene we are into was basically shattered the two past years. In France, there have been discoveries in sexual harassment scandals and things like that on a different level, and we could see a lot of friends take sides so it’s been very heavy in France in our social bubble of musicians in France regarding this as well. I think about that when I think about going back on tour, and it’s not gonna be the same. Maybe for the better, we’ll see, but it’s definitely going to be different.

B: There’s been a huge Me Too movement in the music scene in general, but in France it really shook the punk scene. Also because the reactions you expect from punks didn’t happen in France; it was more typical cis, white male reaction, so people started taking sides. For example, we’ve been harassed for sharing people’s statements or callouts. We’ve been harassed just for wanting to listen to the victims, so that’s how divided the French scene has been for the last two years. And it’s scary going on tour and thinking like, “Oh, I’m going to see tour friends, but which side are they on?” Are they on the boys’ club side or on the victims and empathetic side? It sounds biased when you put it that way, but I’m very biased about this particular concern.

That’s an issue I’m super passionate about, and that’s an issue even my band has taken a super strong stance on, and we’re very against the whole boys’ club mentality. It’s such a shame to see people who you think are your friends have this strange attachment to bad people. It’s frustrating.

B: Very frustrating. I don’t know how it is in the American scene, but what we see from here, a good example is what happened with Neurosis recently. It looks pretty decent when a band says, “We don’t want our singer to take all the credit with his statement. We want to make sure the victim’s respected and make sure we think about the victim and that the abuser doesn’t control the narrative,” and this is not something we see in France. At all. When we say most of the responses we see are fucked up, we really mean most of them are fucked up.

It’s like, “I didn’t do anything because I didn’t do it! And that’s it, and now I’m going back on tour!” And it’s like OK, but that’s shit. You didn’t address anything; you didn’t apologize; you didn’t really do anything, so nothing is really cleared. It’s just, “Whatever, I just keep doing what I want, and that’s it.” Well, I guess we’re not gonna do it together.

What would you like to change immediately if given the chance? This could be anything from government policy to a societal belief; what would you want?

B: It’s really hard to think about this question. I think I would make Clif bars free. I think I should take very important measures like that. You know, when you ask something like that, no one can be on every battlefront at the same time. Some people will be more interested in veganism; some will be more into women’s rights or LGBTQ+ rights, but you can’t focus on everything at the same time. For me, it’s really hard to just pick something.

Obviously, there’s this huge sword above our head that is climate change. That is something that needs to be changed very quickly, and I think numbers are really depressing about that recently. I’m not gonna get into details, but I saw so many things saying the end of the world is already here. That would probably be my choice because it concerns everyone, even the bad people. A couple of songs talk about that on the record like, “You know, you’re rich, and you pollute and do all the shit, but actually when the end of the world comes you’re gonna die too.” You’re not gonna be protected by anything, your fortune is not going to protect you, so you better be smarter about what you do, not taking private jets and shit like that. That’s what I would pick.

Q: Right now, maybe that, too.

B: You know, I would love for a woman to feel safe anywhere she is. I would love for a trans person to feel safe anywhere they go. I would love for people of color to be safe anywhere they go. There are so many changes that need to be brought. If I were to make a joke, I would say something like bomb the rich but that’s brutal, and I think is closer to dictatorship than proper solution. It’s just a joke, but it does look like it would be a solution but don’t take it too literally.

My last question is about how you think the world could benefit from more understanding, but I honestly feel that you may have already answered this question. You have a desire for people to feel safe and for people to have a little bit more empathy.

B: And everything we do, we do it to feel part of something and make people feel part of something, too. It’s really hard to have these kinds of feelings today, everything is so huge and you have access to so many people and access to so many communities. I’m not the type of person to say it was better before because I don’t really think that, but before there was the internet your community was very local. It was friends and family and people who lived around you, but today you have access to so many friends and so many people that you can feel part of an identity but not a community really.

The good thing about a show or concert or live performance or concert is, you are physically with people. You are in the same crowd; you’re in the same room, and you know that the person on your right or your left are probably here for the same reason as you, and you probably have a lot in common.

I remember watching the band Fever 333 because Stevis, the guitar player, is a good friend of ours, so I saw them in London, and I remember watching the guitar player do a weird frontman trick like, “Alright everybody, close your eyes now. When I say something and you relate to it, just raise your arm,” and he was starting with very easy things like, “Have you ever felt bad in your life? Have you lost a kitty or something?” but then people would open their eyes and see everyone with a raised hand and he would say, “So now you see that everyone next to you has the same feelings that you have, and if you feel disconnected and lost and isolated, you can talk to this person because you probably have way more in common than what you think.”

And even though the concept felt maybe a bit cheesy to me, even though he was totally on-point, I think it really sums up how we feel about live performance. We always wanted to talk to people in the crowd, back in the day when we started the band; we didn’t want to play on stage so there was no division between us, but now there are so many people that it would be unfair to play on the floor where only the two first rows are seeing you. Now we push people to come talk to us because we want them to understand that we are part of the same thing.

When we play, and when they listen to it, it’s just this common energy we have together, and that’s why I personally play music, and I think that’s what people listen to music and go to shows for because people need to feel like a community, even if it’s just for one night. Even if it’s just like, “Tonight in Paris, I was next to a lot of strangers, and we all cried at the same song,” and that’s a feeling that a lot of people need today because most of the social issues are because people are divided for weird reasons to me.

Q: And what we said earlier about people feeling divided and stuff, it gets even worse with social media. For me, the more accounts I follow, the lonelier I get. It doesn’t make me part of something; it feels like the opposite. Doing shows is the opposite of social media.

B: Dang it, bro, we’re boomers. That one hurts.

Photo courtesy of William Lacalmontie

You can preorder Gris Klein, out October 14 on Red Creek, as well as check out all of their upcoming European tour dates here.

* = I booked Birds In Row a show in Jacksonville, FL on October 5, 2016

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