It’s Wednesday 2nd May 2012. Inside Sotheby’s auction house a crowded audience sits silently before one of four versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, its tumultuous orange skies visible even from the back of the room. The auctioneer steadily counts the bids. At 99 million dollars there’s a moment of hesitation. “I have all the time in the world,” the auctioneer jokes and a rumble of laughter ripples through the crowd. At one hundred million the crowd begins to clap. In less than twelve minutes the hammer falls and the painting sells for a record-breaking sum of $119.9 million to a mystery bidder on the phone.
In the press coverage running up to the auction, an image of two gloved Sotheby’s employees posing with the 1895 pastel glared out from news pages all over the world, their arms symmetrical as they delicately held the frame of the iconic trope of momentary psychological terror.
Six months later and I’m listening to Arthur Ashin gush about the photo, which was recreated on the artwork for his forthcoming second album, Anxiety. For Ashin, who goes professionally by the name of Autre Ne Veut, and who has a masters degree in psychology (“it’s nothing, well it’s not nothing, but it’s a huge pain in the ass to finish”) the image encapsulated the modern day mindset of capitalist America.
“We couldn’t use the original image, it would be too expensive,” he explains over Skype after a back-and-forth of pleasantries about the freezing cold weather both here and in his home of New York. “When I saw the photograph I thought it was so perfect. I’d already titled the record and knew where it was going, and it felt like the perfect icon of this type of anxiety that we all experience in the capitalist, postmodern, structuralist world.”
The image has since been removed from the album cover, leaving a black empty space in its wake, and whilst many have been quick to cry copyright claims, the image is actually widely available within the public domain. After speaking to Ashin again more recently, he stated that “there’s actually a long history of theft and return amongst the four different iterations of The Scream”, and further confirmed that the image had in fact been “stolen” from the frame on the cover leaving him, “hoping to have it returned at some point in 2015.”
Regardless of where it is now, the image is somewhat different to the artwork that graced the front of his 2011 EP ‘Body’, a 12cm x 12cm square of pink fleshy mass that has been misconstrued by many as an image of lubricated female genitalia. In actual fact, it was a close up of an oiled hand. “It’s sexual for sure,” he elaborates, later explaining that the image was inspired by the work of David Cronenberg.
“It was an homage to eXistenZ. I like Cronenberg’s early work, his ’80s films had all these weird amorphous flesh objects in them. There’s something weird and gooey and uncomfortable, but also bright and in your face on another level. He’s always been a big influence on me in terms of trying to recreate a sonic version of what I really love about his early films.”
Anxiety, Ashin’s second full-length since releasing his self-titled debut in 2010, embraces a cornucopia of personal subject matter: life, death, relationships, all encapsulated within a full-throated syrupy falsetto. Moving on slightly from the unconventional pop sensibility of previous work, Anxiety borrows more obviously from R&B influences, with Prince-esque vocals seeping over warped synths and sluggish basslines, and the occasional tittering of hi-hats. It’s simultaneously contemporary and classic, Ashin’s impassioned vocals timelessly grazing on an innovative stream of production to create a soulful post-club sound.
Ashin worked on the album with Software Label founders Joel Ford and Dan Lopatin, long-time friend and the man behind Oneohtrix Point Never, and despite the ‘bedroom producer’ epithet that hounds him in every online blog post, the album was actually recorded in a studio. Its lyrical process was something of a spontaneous one, drawing from the depths of Ashin’s subconscious mind. “I’ve never written lyrics. I get up in front of a microphone and I just sing what comes to the top of my head,” he says.
For Ashin, singing has always been an integral part of his life, beginning in choral groups at a young age and starting a band in his late teens. At college, he took enthusiastically to karaoke, a subject he warms to even now: “It’s great, it’s just this amazing moment where you just feel like you’re magical for a second, and then, you’re drunk…” He breaks off and laughs, before continuing, “I love bringing people who’ve never done karaoke before in to sing and like they always have this transformative moment.” His go-to karaoke song? “I’ve been doing TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ a lot lately,” he laughs.
Talk descends through the group’s potential reunion tour and into the current state of the manufactured pop scene. He teeters for a second, seemingly unsure of how to congregate his thoughts.
“I have a lot of respect for Dr Luke and what he does. He has this factory of beat makers and top-line writers, and it’s really weird, like this kind of Andy Warhol-style factory. I find it fascinating. Is it a little insipid, and possibly dangerous? Yeah maybe, Katy Perry definitely is. [But] some of it I think is really cool, and a catchy song is a catchy song is a catchy song. I appreciate pop music on that level.”
His enthusiasm has led him to begin working on an experimental pop mixtape, singing over samples of iconic electronic composers. “I’m trying to use people like Meredith Monk and Philip Glass and Terry Riley as the backing tracks for new pop songs,” he says. “It’s really hard trying to use the format and write a pop song on top of avant-garde music, so we’ll see. It could be cool or it could totally flop.”
Autre Ne Veut's Anxiety is out now.