Powerdreamcouple part 2. Director Elisha Smith-Leverock has been going back and forth between fashion and music.
Her fashion films collaborations with designer Fred Butler, scored by Benjamin Esser, have been both acclaimed and rewarded.
She made the first music video for Esser before directing for Cocknbullkid, Pixie Lott, Sunday Girl and now… Esser.
Interview by Filep Motwary & Antoine Asseraf.
Your new video for Esser is very strong, and seems to show more confidence, perhaps because of the success of “I Want Muscle” ? I would like to hear your thoughts on “I Want Muscle”, how the story was perceived and how difficult or easy it was working for the film.
I think the Esser video and I Want Muscle might seem more confident because they are both very personal projects.
Making ‘I Want Muscle’ was a great experience. I set out to explore what physical strength can mean for women and I also wanted to challenge and expand peoples ideas of female beauty.
Obviously there were some difficulties, especially trying to find clothes for Kizzy to wear. Some designers just flat out did not want their clothes to be seen on a bodybuilder and others were willing to lend but sample sizes are generally tailored to fit a very specific kind of figure, so they did not fit her.
The reactions to the finished film were overwhelmingly positive, from winning the ASVOFF Grand Prix, down to the number of people that watched to film and how they reacted to it.
A lot of people have said to me that they had never seen a female body builder portrayed in this way, without the fake tan and irony. But there was a time when people were more appreciating of ‘strong’ women and different body types, just think of Lisa Lyon for example.
I WANT MUSCLE by Elisha Smith-Leverock.
You made, if I’m not mistaken, the first music video for Esser, as well as the one for his hit “Headlock” – how is it working with someone you know intimately, to be simultaneously in tune with his world and able to step back to connect it to a bigger picture?
It’s the best and the worst thing at the same time. It’s amazing because you have great mutual trust and it’s really easy to communicate and yet it’s the scariest thing because you feel so much more pressure. You don’t want to let the other person down when they have done something so great and have worked so hard for it. You don’t want to let them down by not getting your end right.
When I shot Ben’s first video and successively the video for Headlock the approach was somewhat naive. These were also amongst my first experiments with moving image and it was really fun because Ben was just finding his feet as a solo artist so we both didn’t feel any pressure going into it.
The process for his new video was more conceptual which very much mirrors Ben’s approach to making the track.
What are your inspirational catalysts and how they help you form what you do today?
Most recently I’ve ben watching a lot of Hans Richter films, this has been a great influence for the ‘Enmity’ video.
How do you approach making music videos versus fashion films ?
I think generally making fashion films gives me a little bit more freedom so my approach varies. It will alway depend on if it’s a personal project where fashion aspect is a byproduct to the story or the visual idea or if I am working with a specific designer to actually showcase their collection. With personal projects the idea is more important to me than the clothes but obviously if working for a designer then you need to focus on showing the collection as well. I think this approach bares similarities to how I do music videos.
With music videos, the idea/concept always becomes secondary to how the artist is presented.
How do you see the future of fashion film ?
I’m not sure how the future will be but I know how I would want it to turn out.
I would love to see a stronger move towards actual content. Director-driven fashion films. Less ‘moving photographs’ as I like to call them. Whilst these type of films can be beautiful, I personally don’t find it very interesting to make them or to watch them. Seeing someone swishing around for 3 minutes gives me nothing.
I think its far more interesting to watch something more abstracted, a story or mood film that tells me more about the ideas behind the collection. A well crafted film that really brings you into the world of the designer and the collection rather than just straight up showing the clothes.
What is the last thing which stimulated you ? Charles and Ray Eames.
Musician Benjamin Esser & director Elisha Smith-Leverock are not just a dream couple, they’re a power couple.
She directs his music videos, he scores her fashion films.
Now as they prepare to release the first single/video from the upcoming second ESSER album, a radical shift from the first LP’s pop mood to darker synth pop, we talk to them about music, film, fashion, and what it’s like to work with your significant other.
Interview by Filep Motwary & Antoine Asseraf.
Benjamin Esser by Filep Motwary.
Since the release of your debut album back in 2009, what are the changes to the way you perceive your own music, and how it has evolved?
Benjamin Esser: I think the beauty in first records is naivety, which you can never regain.
But I feel a lot less pressure in a lot of ways with this second one, there’s a confidence that means I can let the music take its time.
I think people might immediately assume that I ‘discovered’ a whole genre of music that I’d never listened to before. But that’s not true, I’ve always been into bands like Cluster, Tones on Tail, Suicide, Add N To X (mixtape – coming soon!)…
What is inspiration for you ? Do you consider yourself as eccentric?
I find inspiration in repetition.
Inspiration for me isn’t about looking outwards its about looking further inwards – into the core of things.
No I definitely wouldn’t say I’m an eccentric, I guess I have my own ways of doing things. But everyone does.
People would tell you my views on organization and timekeeping are fairly abstract. I strongly disagree.
ESSER performing at Hyères 2012 Fashion & Photo Festival, with Stage of the Art.
What are you looking for in music? And how do you measure success?
I’m looking for complete submergence.
What does it mean to you to have an image change, beyond the need to convey a change musically?
Do you care about fashion or style?
Well I completely agree with artists like David Bowie. His concept of reinvention was incredible and the conceptual way he approached his records is a big influence for me.
Of course the amazing thing about fashion is anyone can become whoever they want to be – I could be a different person by tomorrow.
ESSER performing at Hyères 2012 Fashion & Photography Festival, by René Habermacher.
How is it to work with your wife – when she’s directing you around, when she’s making videos for other music acts or when you’re the one scoring her films?
I like it.
People always asume that you can’t be objective if you’re working with someone close to you, but I think it’s the complete opposite. We work together constantly actually and I’ll always ask her opinion on whatever I’m doing and vice-versa.
In fact we’re the only ones that can give each other honest opinions because we know each other so well.
As far as working on music for her films, she always has a really strong idea about what she wants. Which is great. It’s often a reinterpretation of a song (“I want muscle,” Donna Summers). So it’s always satisfying to do that.
What is the last thing that stimulated you? Charles and Ray Eames.
After wowing everyone last year with their acoustic concert set in the suspended gardens, The Shoes return to Hyères for a DJ Set, accompanied by their GUM label mate Esser, as part of Stage of the Art‘s special music line-up.
You’re playing at Hyères this year and you also played last year. What does the association mean to you? Is it important to associate yourselves with the fashion world?
We love the fashion world and the human size of the festival. The mood is just so great. We really enjoyed being there last year so we are more than happy to come back play at la Villa Noailles.
You’ve had quite a journey so far and you have collaborated with some of the more edgier and interesting names in music. How has all of that influenced how you approach your music?
It’s always really creative and interesting : we learn a lot about ourselves, and we have the chance to produce only for artist we like. Benjamin and i are not good for the same things, so depending on the project, it’s more him, more me or more us. Anyway, it’s always surprising. Concerning remixes, it’s different. We learned that we are more talented remixing a track we don’t especially love, because it’s challenging, it means creating something we love from something we don’t like. It’s exciting.
Nowadays the internet, social media, youtube etc play a big part and are often used as the main tools to build a brand/band and get musicians out there, has this been a reality for you ? How has it impacted your come-up ?
It’s been a reality for The Shoes, yes. Well, we are from the myspace generation : we were in several bands, we did a lot of different stuff, and one day we wanted to do something different, so we created a fake band account on myspace, with the first fake band name that came in mind and put some new tracks on. 3 months later, we were signed on Green United Music. It was in 2008. Now it’s 2012, we are about to play the Olympia in 2 months, which is the most famous venue in Paris, and it’s gonna be quite ironic and funny to see our band name in huge red neon letters as we still have this first fake band name that came in mind…
You’ve also done a lot of production for other artists, is this something you are going to continue with or are you focusing mainly on your own work going forward ?
Both ! We are always producing for other bands at the same time, it’s more healthy because if we were only working together all the time on our stuff, i think we’d kill each other !
How did your collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal come about?
Daniel Wolfe directed the video for Stay The Same, and we loved it. We wanted to work with him again, and he really likes our music. So we talked about doing a new video for Time to Dance, and he was really into it. Daniel is working a lot with actors, in Stay the Same it was with Johnny Harris (This is england), this time it was with Jake Gyllenhaal.
Would it be fair to see it as symbolic of a full-on cross-over to mainstream fame?
No, we don’t think so. We’ve never been more indie ! It’s about a famous british director doing a video for an indie french band with a mainstream A-listed american actor, and about this same actor who likes our music, playing a psychopath serial hipster killer in our video, because it’s far away from roles he usually plays.
And how has his presence in your video affected your popularity as a band?
Everybody was talking about it, about him and then about us. But we won’t play at le Stade De France like David Guetta because of that.
A lot of bands that are viewed as underground in the early stages of their careers often adjust their sound as they get popular, has your sound changed as you’ve grown? if it has, how has it changed? If not, then how do you stay true to it?
In the beginning our music was more electronical, but also because we just through out few tracks one day on myspace, and producing electro music at this time was a good way to become famous and produce for others. We have always been a pop rock band. So as we get popular, we also get closer to what we are really : a pop-rock band. We are just becoming what we trully are.
The imagery used in some of your videos is pretty dark, and all the way to gruesomely violent in your video for Time to Dance, what’s the deal? What is the narrative behind the Time to Dance video?
Ha ! This is Daniel Wolfe style ! We let him free to decide about his imagery because it’s his job. We won’t give him advices because we don’t ask for his opinion on our music productions.
We adore what he did the two times we worked together.
The songs I’ve heard from you are in English, why English over French?
Because English is internationnal, and pop music is english, rock too.
There’s an opulent and somewhat camp disco sound that comes across in your music, amongst other influences, and it has also been described as dark electro pop. Are these intentional influences? If they are, where do these influences come from for you? If not, what are your influences?
We have this common interest for pop music since forever, and separatelly we can say we are influenced by almost everything musical. Benjamin in more into french music, french rock, some folk music. I like hip hop, rap and electro music. We were in many bands, we had that drum & bass band when we were young, we then had a french rock band, we did some electro music too, we produced instrumental and classical music for Woodkid recently. So many things.
What is on your playlists currently?
You’re gonna laugh but i have a lot of my music label’s artists in my ipod, because some are friends too. Anyway the music is always good : Woodkid, Part Company, Rocky…
How important is image to you?
As important as music. Nowdays a great single has to come up with a great video.
What is the next step for The Shoes?
Holidays ! And maybe a new ep, or album, and many new collaborations
Can we hope to see you playing in South Africa one day?
We wish ! Please invite us we want to meet Die Antwoord !
They’ve produced Shakira, Sha-Sthil’ed, released a secret Japanese album, toured Europe, and now they’re preparing their big Paris concert, before continuing more collaborations with WoodKid, Aikiu and Philippe Katerine. Ladies and Gentlemen, take your socks off for…The Shoes.
Benjamin (left) and Guillaume (right) of The Shoes, photo by René Habermacher.
You guys DJ’ed at the Hyères Fashion Festival, then at Versailles for the end of Couture Week, are you infiltrating fashion ?
It was a fun DJ set, a bit camping/bar mitzvah, but well mixed.
We also played in Florence for Pitti, in a beautiful place.
Are you continuing to do production for other artists?
Benjamin: It’s a part of our identity we started and really want to develop, so we try to keep it going, in between festivals, concerts and other requests that come in. We’re working on the WoodKid (Yoann Lemoine) album, a track with Philippe Katerine, very different things as long as we like the artist.
Guillaume: With Yoann it’s a bit different, as he’s also a friend.
How long has your album been out – you seem to have a lot of different videos already ?
B: The album came out in March, I think like Mylene Farmer we’re going to make a DVD with all the videos… (laughs)
G: We’ve done 4 videos already, preparing Time To Dance for the fall. In the end half of the album is going to have videos.
The Shoes ft Esser, STAY THE SAME. Directed by Daniel Wolfe.
Is Cliché one of the tracks for which you’ll make a video ?
G: a lot of people have asked, it’s a track that chicks like a lot because it’s the only feminine voice on the record, but it’s not in the plans right now, we think Time To Dance will work.
B: We’ve seen people go crazy on that track even though it hasn’t been played much. It has an old-school, Underworld-style crescendo that lasts 2 minutes.
I’ve seen you at the Nouveau Casino the first time around…do you manage to get some of the singers from the tracks to come sing from time to time ?
G: that was really at the beginning! We have Ben Esser who comes quite often, Anita from Cocknbullkid came at Nouveau Casino. But of course the audience likes to put a face on the song.
It’s a bit unusual to have the lyrics pre-recorded with live instruments, usually it’s the other way around — live lyrics with instruments playback. Especially because you guys really are hardcore on the instruments, while the voice seems to come from nowhere…
B: that was the main criticism aimed at us at the beginning, and we hadn’t solved it when you saw us.
G: we were a bit shy, now we sing it ourself, it’s not perfect but it works more with energy instead. Now we’re starting to more or less control the singing.
The Shoes performing WASTIN' TIME with Esser at Hyères 2011, with Stage of the Art.
Do you sing it entirely live now or do you mix with the recorded lyrics by the singer ?
B: you’re getting into our trade secrets… we mix the voices actually.
G: we don’t try to hide it. it was a problem at first, but now we’ve worked it out – though of course when someone like Esser comes along it’s great, it gives it more of a band feeling and we can concentrate on instruments.
So how did you choose the singers and bands with which you collaborated ?
G: it happened by itself.
B: we were spending time in the UK, we met lots of people, making friends. It started with Primary One, we did the music for the track People Moving, he came to the studio in Rheims and we realized we could never have this kind of result with our own voices, so it became our first featuring. Then we contacted the people we had met with some demos, sometimes with lyrics sung in “yogurt”. No real name dropping.
G: none of the featurings are very famous people, it’s rather people who are at a similar stage of their career… since then we see a lot more Cocknbullkid and Esser.
Singing in French, is that something you’d consider ? I imagine the collaboration with Katerine is in French ?
B: for The Shoes, no, but for other artists we do it.
G: Benjamin does it more than me, but it’s not something for The Shoes yet.
The Shoes performing STAY THE SAME with Esser at Hyères 2011, with Stage of the Art.
What’s the current program, festivals ?
G: [this summer it was] festivals, the WoodKid album.
I’ve also produced the album of this artist called The Aikiu, which is a complete transfiguration of the initial project.
Is that the first real album by The Aikiu ? It seems it’s a project that has been on the verge of happening for a long time, I remember hearing a single at least 5 or 6 years ago…
G: They’ve had EP’s only so far, they asked us to come work on the album, we arrived and blew the whole thing upside down. We broke everything and started from scratch. I think Alex has a great voice, and that there’s great things to do with his voice — but that’s complete now and we’re working on WoodKid.
And working on WoodKid’s album brings some extraordinary conditions, we get to use unusual instruments. Yoann also puts a lot of constraints on us too, he knows what he doesn’t want, which pushes us to do things in different ways.
I was also very happy to discover that you (Guillaume) were behind Gucci Vump and the track SHA SHTIL which was THE track of the summer last year… Is that something you’ll continue or are you focussing exclusively on The Shoes ?
G: I’m focussing more on The Shoes, but Gucci Vump is a funny project, a bit shapeless, Louis (Brodinski) and I run into each other from time to time, we get commissions for remixes from time to time — like WoodKid’s Iron. It’s a dilettante project.
So after the festivals you guys are focussing on your own tour ?
G: Yes we have over 30 dates in the fall, the climax will be November 9th at La Cigale in Paris. We also hope to return to Japan.
You’ve already played in Japan ?
G: The album did really well over there, Japan’s the first country to sign us besides GUM, and they didn’t want to wait so long for the album, so we released an album just for Japan, with B-sides. People try to get their hands on that album, which is a bit of a collectors’ item, with demos and beta versions of tracks which later appear on CRACK MY BONES.
But we’re very focussed on our La Cigale date – with almost all the guests from the album, extra band members…
We usually have 2 percussionists, but we’ll probably go back to 4 – visually it’s beautiful and in terms of sound it doesn’t hurt. When you have 4 guys doing a sort of choreography, it gives something unusual.
The Shoes, photo by René Habermacher.
The last thing which stimulated you…
G: a DJ from a rap group called 1995, a French group, which made an amazing mixtape for the summer.
B: for me, it was the Solidays concert of Ebony Bones – I usually don’t listen to her music, but in concert it was impressive. It’s really made for a festival.
G: from time to time, you get groups that you don’t necessarily like that make a strong impression on you live, they transfigure their music. But you also get the opposite…
I had that with Gonzales. 10 years ago I liked his stuff, I went to see him live, and I hated it so much, I couldn’t listen to the music again for several years. And still now I like the music but I can’t stand his videos or his imagery in general.
G: it was really important for us to delegate the image to Pierre (LeNy), even if we have our ideas regarding what we like visually.
So far you haven’t appeared in any of your videos….but you’re not hiding either ?
G: You often see beautiful videos that fail as soon as the singer appears, the acting required from the singer brings the whole thing down. We want our films to be little bits of cinema – we’re not going to add anything to that feeling.
Special concert at LA CIGALE
November 9th 2011
Opening act: ESSER
STYLING: Michael Philouze
GROOMING: Tanya K @ B-AGENCY
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Fabien Campoverde
with special thanks to Pierre Le Ny & G.U.M.
Filmed by Jason Last & René Habermacher
Edited by Antoine Asseraf
Production Assistant Lynsey Peisinger
a THE STIMULEYE production