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Alto Arc: the unlikely supergroup merging avant-garde with fantasy

Deafheaven’s George Clarke, PC Music’s Danny L Harle, Hundred Waters’ Trayer Tryon, and make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench have teamed up on a spellbinding debut

Like opening up an old fairytale book, listening to Alto Arc’s eponymous debut album feels like embarking on an epic journey. The four-piece ensemble, composed of Deafheaven’s George Clarke, Danny L Harle, Hundred Waters’ Trayer Tryon, and the makeup artist Isamaya Ffrench, is an unlikely supergroup. But their music is a theatrical and heady listen that borrows on ye olde melodies and theatrical production to conjure heady dreamscapes where beauty and despair clash in constant battle.

Featuring Clarke and Ffrench on vocals, the five-track EP mostly takes the form of duets, where Ffrench sings with a glassy cadence that flutters between soft melodies and hushed whispers – and Clarke’s death growl cuts through the ambience like a battle axe. As for the production, melodies twist and turn, and the lines blur between what is voice and instrument. There are moments where Ffrench’s voice is pitched-up to cyborgian proportions, acting as a piercing remedy to Clarke’s unearthly vocals. This is sometimes traded in for ethereal dreamscapes, like in the opener “The Model Gospel”, where Ffrench’s voice, light and airy, floats around Clarke’s harsh lament that he is “the sea of longing”. On single “Nocebo”, first debuted on Euphoria last year, Clarke sinks into a low spoken word punctuated with pixelated shrieks, as he asserts, “There is sadness in your sincerity” against the crunch of static.

“We are dealing in theatre,” he tells Dazed. “I think that it’s such an important thing to know about this project. It’s archetypes and melodrama...” Ffrench interjects: “...and romance”. This is best seen in the track “Bordello”, where quasi-medieval melodies tell the witchy tale of holy ghosts and sorcerers. In the Elizaveta Porodina-directed music video, Ffrench is a fortune teller in red who casts a spell on Clarke to a backdrop of black metal screams and heroic synth stabs. It’s visceral stuff, especially when the music itself already triggers such rich imagery. “‘Bordello’ is instantly red,” Ffrench explains. “The whole thing feels like a very claustrophobic, oppressive and heavy environment.”

Below, vocalists Clarke and Ffrench share with us Alto Arc’s origin story, working together with Harle and Tryon, and the enduring appeal of extreme music.

When I first heard that you were all forming a supergroup, I almost couldn’t believe it. How did it all come together?

George Clarke: I know that Trayer and Danny were working together previously. I think they collaborated through production for other artists prior to this, and Danny had certain sections of tracks that he'd been working on. I know that by the time I had met Trayer, they had already tried a couple vocalists who were more traditional, and said that whatever it was that they were aiming for just wasn’t happening. I opted to do my version of it. This is for “Nocebo”, which is the first track we worked on. Him and Danny seemed to agree that they liked the direction. And, really shortly after, I assume because Danny and Isamaya were already working together, Danny brought the idea of having Isamaya join – and it was a natural fit. I think we got like one track over and maybe had a conversation, but we were kind of immediately like, yeah, this makes total sense.

What about you, Isamaya?

Isamaya Ffrench: I was introduced to Danny through Sega Bodega, because we’d been talking about doing something the three of us and then this was in the forefront of Danny’s mind. He just invited me to do like a session with him, a free for all type thing, and it seemed to make sense. Like, my voice definitely not lend itself to pop – and, luckily, this isn’t very popular music. It all came together quite naturally. I couldn’t believe that George was singing. In no capacity could I ever imagine working with him. So, I couldn’t say no. The voices work quite well together.

Yeah, I find the way both your voices play off each other is almost like Isamaya is life and George is death, with the two continually crashing and colliding against one another.

Isamaya Ffrench: I think there’s definitely something about there's an intellectual, subversive character. And then there’s the in the clouds-higher consciousness

And where did the name Alto Arc come from?

George Clarke: I came up with the name. To be honest with you, I just really liked the way that the two words worked together. I had been thinking about a short, interesting wordplay. And something about the Alto Arc was interesting to me. And it doesn’t really go beyond that. But it leaves us to be very open ended due to its kind of mysterious nature.

The track names are equally mysterious. “Nocebo” and “Yeva’s Lullaby” really pull you into the album’s world.

George Clarke: Danny and Trayer had come up with that title (‘Nocebo’)  before. And that actually helped inform me more on the project when I approached it vocally as a sort of malevolent character. And in the way that you said, this sort of birth-death dichotomy, I view that in the same way, this sort of benevolence-malevolence dichotomy, where sometimes we're together, sometimes we're against each other, it's sort of how the listener interprets it. 

For the other titles, I just wanted to evoke some kind of emotional response, I think. The entire time, there had been this overarching, quasi religious theme. So for something like “The Model Gospel” and parts of “Bordello”, which had this kind of early Christian feel, I wanted titles to lend themselves to that sort of medieval-ness. I was reading a lot about Julian of Norwich, and a lot of Anchorites, and a lot about ascension through isolation. And I think that that kind of filtered itself in so it's all those sort of ideas. And then we were going on about so much Soviet-era imagery at the same time, which is kind of where “Yeva's Lullaby” comes from.

It’s interesting that you mention the Soviet imagery. What parts of it exactly?

George Clarke: It's just something that I was interested in, propaganda imagery. We were working with Elizaveta Porodina, who did all of the photography and the “Bordello” video, and she had a great handle on it, because she’s Russo German. She just has a plethora of knowledge. And I think that it really helped with it too. And so she was kind of on the same page really early on with that type of thing. It’s more aesthetic exploration. When Isamaya and I were first brainstorming over what we wanted this to be or look like, there was a lot of brutalist imagery. Over time, all those little elements kind of creeped in, to make the character of the music more interesting.

Listening to the album has a really visceral quality, like it brings up all these rich images and narratives. What was the thinking behind it?

Isamaya FfrenchIt’s a very visual project, almost as much as the music. We were talking about it the other day, and it's all very theatrical and it's very avant garde. Each of us are avant garde artists in our own world and our own work. Like there's a huge element of theatre in it all, like, really over the top. I think we don't want to shy away from that. It's very helpful to go full force with that kind of approach.

With regards to lyrics, the majority come from George. But I know that when I approach them Alto Arc, which is quite different from what I've done before. I write from a place of like sitting in an imaginary world and like writing about my surroundings there. It's a very visual way of interpreting something. For example, in "Yeva's Lullaby", I was imagining George and I as characters in this field, maybe a 1950s Russian cornfield, and what that might look like, and how that might feel. For example, “Bordello” is instantly red. The whole thing feels like a very claustrophobic, red and oppressive heavy environment.

There’s parts of it that feel distinctly medieval or fantasy, like they should accompany a Chaucer story, or the Green Knight.

George Clarke:Absolutely, yes. Fantasy was a very early keyword that we were tossing around. There's an intent for it to be fantastical. And there’s an intent for it to be magical. Something Danny had mentioned really early on is that he wanted something that we could enjoy as much as like a 10 year old or an 11 year old could enjoy. This really broad fantasy world that of course he's he's already very much into and so knows a tonne about that that's the other thing is that I've been able to get more into like this English history and and kind of delve more into this world working with these two then you know, then I ever would in the states.

Isamaya FfrenchThere’s a Bronte feeling of like the sublime that underpins a lot of this stylistically and a kind of Old English or old European feelings. For me, it feels like a very European-like sound.

The sounds are also very extreme and that makes me think how all your artistry is extreme in one way or another. What attracts you to it?

Isamaya Ffrench: It's really hard to talk about this without sounding wanky. But, for me, there's a lot of the internal epic, the unconscious, the instincts and all of that. For example, The Wicker Man, the very archetypal and animalistic and ritualistic impulses that drive a lot of those characters. For me, it's the internal conflicts and the nitty gritty subconscious. That’s what I’m more interested in exploring and then how that looks on the outside, how that manifests itself in lyrics or visually. I think there's just so much power in a really simple melody or really simple vocal. But the twistedness comes in the duality of that.

What is it about The Wicker Man particularly?

Isamaya Ffrench: It’s something that seemingly sounds and feels so pure, but actually, there's a real underlying sense of malice or evil or horror or something. I say Wicker Man in a way because you've got all this like horrible stuff happening. But then the soundtrack’s very kind of, like beautiful and quite feminine and pure and instinctive. I’m just using that as an example because that, for me, is where like, the sweet spot lies. And so if I can try and give the music, something, you know, it will tie in with all the kind of the dark stuff that Danny and Trayer and George does.

George Clarke: My attraction to the Extreme, and why things need to be extreme, is what Isamaya is saying. I want the listener to feel an emotional response that comes from this abstract thing that we've created. So, in order to do that, we have to go into the internal and to do that you have to reach these pinnacles of emotional states, these real intense highs, you know when things really hit these crescendos and what that does is it allows the listener to go beyond the lyrical language what's happening.

I think about people that are like non English speaking listeners, like what there, then in an English speaking listeners are not going to necessarily connect emotionally with the words that are being said – they’re going to connect with the delivery, it’s going to go beyond the language. To go beyond the language and to go deep, and to take that inside, and show what it looks like on the outside, you have to reach these levels of extremity. And I think that that's the attraction is like digging and pulling out and seeing what it looks like.

I‘ve noticed a general shift into harsher, more extreme sounds since the beginning of the pandemic. Do you relate to this at all?

George Clarke: I think it's great and I see why. I think that we’ve all been submerged into the mundane for two years now, and I think we need to wake up. And I still feel largely in a pandemic, you know, New York isn't really feel post pandemic, necessarily. And I think that there’s this restraint. And I think that there’s this kind of malaise. And I think that music like this aims to break that. And I think that people do gravitate towards more extreme things in situations where we’ve all been kind of forced to be docile.

What are you most excited about with this project? 

Isamaya FfrenchI just absolutely love what George does. And Trey and Danny. Because they really showcase their own individual talents in in such an incredible way. I’m like, wow guys, you fucking know this. It’s just so nice to be part of something where I really respect the people.

George Clarke: I think something Isamaya said earlier really rings true, which is that everyone in the project has so much trust in each other that we really allow room for everyone to individually create and bring to the table. And it does it works. It always works no matter what it is in some way. It's such a strange beast that we can kind of manoeuvre it in any direction we see fit.