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Image courtesy of Gareth McConnell

Inside the rockabilly techno world of It’s A Fine Line

The electronic duo of Ivan Smagghe and Tim Paris discuss their kaleidoscopic new video with director and visual with artist Gareth McConnell

It’s A Fine Line are two Parisian artists who have been residing in London for the best part of a decade. One is Ivan Smagghe, the DJ and producer who approaches techno with a punk’s attitude. The other is Tim Paris, a staple of the Parisian party scene in his early years and a producer of analogue house and deviant disco today. Together they run club rhythms through the seedier end of funk, rock‘n’roll, and psychobilly music. Singers Alex Kapranos (of Franz Ferdinand), Olivia de Lanzac (of Quad Throw Salchow) and C.A.R. (formerly of Battant) all contribute to Smagghe and Paris’ self-titled debut album, while artist Gareth McConnell provides visuals that speak the same language as their music.

It’s A Fine Line’s connection with McConnell came after they discovered Close Your Eyes, a book of his photography. Close Your Eyes saw McConnell use Joachim Schmid’s manifesto (“No new photographs until the old ones have been used up”) as a starting point to rephotograph his older images and the work of others, including low-resolution photos of sunsets and stills of ravers. The shared infatuation with rave, montage, and self-referentialism was obvious, and Smagghe and Paris asked McConnell to create their album’s kaleidoscopic, spiritually psychedelic sleeve art and direct its music videos.

Here, McConnell, Paris, and Smagghe discuss their individual and shared approaches to art. Read it and watch McConnell’s new video (featuring model Hayett McCarthy) for the Alex Kapranos-featuring “The Delivery” below.

Gareth McConnell: I feel like my creative breakthrough came when I started collaborating with others. Making art can be such a solitary practice; it’s possible to go a bit mad with isolation and self-obsession. That’s my experience anyway, and I’ve certainly seen it happen to others. So when I finally let go and started involving myself with others and their own work, things more or less instantly changed for the better – whether that be editing a book (gonna plug Horse Latitudes by Chris Wilson here), or curating a show, or shooting a fashion editorial, and of course what we’re discussing today – making a video. Did you two have similar experiences? Did you make a conscious decision to come together as a partnership, or did it happen organically, or what?

Ivan Smagghe: I personally almost always work with other people, musically or not. For practical reasons, as you say, ‘isolation and self obsession’ can deviate you from your work. That said, you can become isolated and self-obsessed even when working as a duo. This is almost a case study here: it took us almost, what, eight years to make this record? But this isn’t a bad thing necessarily. People have been asking for the last two to three years about this record, but the only pressure we had was ours. That’s it. I mean, there was some convolutions and hesitations, but there's always one of us to break these moments. Tim and myself ended in London from Paris ten years ago – ‘artistic exile’. The process of getting together and making music was quite natural. But slowly – people are in a rush these days; we obviously were not.

“Making art can be such a solitary practice; it’s possible to go a bit mad with isolation and self-obsession” — Gareth McConnell

Tim Paris: Actually, the It’s A Fine Line project comes from that desire to move forward as a combo. As Ivan mentioned, we were in some sort of exile in London, and working as a pair was a relief. You cannot work on your own in a basement for years and still get the same excitement. London is insanely competitive when it comes to music; it’s probably the same with any other artistic occupation. It’s A Fine Line allowed us to argue over music and lay down our own vision, with its absence of limitations and timeline.

Gareth McConnell: Following up on that, can you tell me a bit about how things work for you – this album, for instance? Can you give me a potted history?

Ivan Smagghe: I can’t even remember the decision to make an album. We must have about 67 versions of every track, all with different names. I suppose getting people in – Olivia de Lanzac, C.A.R, and Alex from Franz Ferdinand – working with others was the real click. And then obviously meeting you and starting on the visual concept. It was very dear to me since the beginning, the whole imagery that would go behind/in front of the record. Your book Close Your Eyes was like an epiphany. This is what we needed. Luckily we got along – fate I suppose. I could not begin to imagine (what it’d be like) if you’d been a posh idiot. Your psychedelia fitted our psychedelics.

Tim Paris: The idea of an album started years ago, maybe 2008. We’ve been compiling music and ideas since then, but only in the past three years have we really start to put everything together and reach some form of completion. There was a point where we needed to focus only on the record, and we refused any music job other than this album. Once we kind of ‘sacralised’ our moment together around this record, things started to really shape up. It was time to look at the whole picture and contact you.

“It was very dear to me since the beginning, the whole imagery that would go behind/in front of the record” — Ivan Smagghe, It’s A Fine Line

Gareth McConnell: The video follows a methodology that I have been developing that involves a lot of remixing and reconfiguring my own past work, but also that of others. Is that something you relate to in your own practice? I wouldn’t ever go as far as to say that I have a manifesto or a set of rules that I try and follow, but there are certainly some themes that have emerged.

Ivan Smagghe: I nearly always function with references. Mostly musical, if conscious. That probably comes from listening to so much music that’s not ‘functional’ (meaning not the music I play out when I DJ), (but) just strange stuff, obscurities. There’s a couple of our tracks that had someone else’s song as a starting point, then you melt it down or diverge from it. Then there’s the It’s A Fine Line manifesto that’s actually a non-manifesto: It’s a fine line, all that is in between does not fit boxes:

it’s a fine line between reference and cliché
it’s a fine line between moody and dark
it’s a fine line between obscure and abstruse
it’s a fine line between passion and obsession
it’s a fine line between ambiguity and confusion
it’s a fine line between principles and rules
it’s a fine line between simple and easy 

Gareth McConnell: I’m gonna pick up on the It’s A Fine Line non-manifesto (the contrariness of which I love – I’ve often toyed with marking my work ‘anti-copyright’).

Tim Paris: I really see similarities between our methodology and yours, Gareth. It’s a word that I hate, but the term ‘montage’ is probably meaningful here. We’re constantly layering, remixing, adapting, chopping, colouring with sounds, as I imagine you do with your images. Our song “Greasier”, for instance, comes from a 50s rock song that we discovered thanks to The Cramps, who did a cover of it. We just got inspired by the style of the bassline and then reconstructed a completely new tune around it. Bringing that 50/60s rock sound into electronic music was one of our first achievements with It’s A Fine Line, since this style is completely overlooked in electronic music. Most of our tunes can relate to a genre or a pre-existing idea that we developed within new territories. Another track from the album, “Disco Cluster”, is clearly an homage to French Library Music from the 70s – a bit of an obscure reference, but the music isn’t at all.

“Making music is such a dull and unglamorous activity” — Tim Paris, It’s A Fine Line

Gareth McConnell: About Close Your Eyes, which started all this. So one reading I am alluding to is closing your eyes in the ecstatic state – you know, losing yourself to the orgiastic rite that a good party can be, really loosely paraphrasing Erich Fromm, the idea of symbiotically joining with your fellow man in an orgy of music and drugs and pyrotechnics and proximity and losing yourself as an individual, transcending your earthly bonds to rise up and become the whole – to become God. This is an ancient experience of course, but maybe our generation and the one that very slightly preceded it were, I believe, the first to enjoy such an immediate and effective shortcut. I’m of course referring to the ‘first E’ story that I’m gonna assume we share. It’s a moment many of us have chased with greater and lesser degrees of success, and one that’s endlessly mythologized, and how in this context it’s been exploited. I have been interested in how that has been exploited.

And then there is closing your eyes to the horror. Closing your eyes as an act of self-preservation. Gonna sound like a sixth former here, but you know that one when Nietzsche breaks down when he witnesses the flogging of a horse in the street? That act of shutting down on a daily basis just to be able to cope with the suffering that we all witness, whether that be some lost soul sleeping in street, or the media’s endless projection of war, or the endless parade of YouTube cop-on-citizen murders, or whatever. The list is fucking endless. Anyway, I’m interested in how these two ideas (the desire to transcend and the desire to look away) cross over and feed off each other in the sense of hedonism as a philosophy of escape and denial, and how that can be cultivated for rich rewards. Fear as an economic model – keep them scared, keep them distracted, keep them pacified, keep them amused. This paradox or sick joke of the holy ritual becoming spectacle. Maybe that’s so obvious as to be embarrassing, as it’s always been as such I suppose, but that’s what gets me – how that desire to realize and explore ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) becomes commodified and controlled, and used as control.

When I met you both together for the first time, I got the sense that you had known each other for a very long time – perhaps even from childhood? I don't know whether you even think that’s a relevant question, but if so could you tell me a bit more?

Ivan Smagghe: That may come from the fact that you had us not sitting still for four hours (laughs) since you shoot with film and natural light. We had to fit your frame hence being very close. Tim and myself do not know each other from childhood, unless you count your formative party/music/drug years as ‘childhood’. Let’s say late 90s – this period is a bit of a blur for me, probably due to those common shared drug experiences you mentioned.

Tim Paris: We met in Paris by the end of the last century. The club scene wasn’t very big at that time and we ended up DJing the same parties. But yes, I suppose we have some sort of matching personalities. We don’t need too many words to get ourselves understood by each other.

Gareth McConnell: Let’s end on an anecdote: how did the collaboration with Alex Kapranos come about?

Ivan Smagghe: Ah. I suppose I'll have to tell the truth. About four years ago, my old and kind of bizarre neighbour died. He was living alone and the house was sold. Very quickly, quite heavy refurbishment started, which was... a bit of a nuisance. It lasted for about a year I'd say, maybe more, to the point where my girlfriend got up one morning and asked the (pretty useless) surveyor for the number of the owner. She had a bit of a talk with him, shouting a lot less than expected. She told me ‘the guy’ was very sorry and (had) a very sweet Scottish accent. A couple of days later, a person I was working with let me know that it was Alex from Franz Ferdinand that was moving in next door. I think we laughed as we’d imagined this real pest, and there it was. He was truly sorry, bought us some wine, etc. Up to the first meet where he asked me ‘Oh, is there anything else I can do for you?’ Well... there was. But you know what, he did such a great song – a real song, not a five-minute job. It was actually the hardest track to finish.

Tim Paris: Alex came back to us with such an amazing song, we spent ages on that tune. We tried several versions, several tempos, several arrangements, to the point where we could have done a whole new album around it. But it’s something pretty systematic in our workflow. The original idea is very often the best one, and the song you shot the video for is more or less the first intention from us and Alex. That’s the magic of music: you spend 100 hours on a song which actually existed in two hours, but you needed these 98 hours to scratch your head and finally realise the right idea was there since the very first minute. Making music is such a dull and unglamorous activity.