Julien Racine

Racine, from the underground up

Montreal experimental electronic musician Julien Racine has launched Amitiés, released by the au courant Swiss label Danse Noire.

New Release Day during the physical music industry’s heyday used to be a big deal. Record store managers would receive lists of forthcoming albums weeks, sometimes months in advance. Label reps would jockey for positioning of their CDs in stores. They’d upsell. Everything was the next big thing. Until one day, nothing was. Unless it was gigantic, everything else got small. In today’s virtual rush of data, small things are easy to miss.

Still, small things planted in the right soil sprout roots and grow into something unexpected and unique. And New Release Day still is a momentous time for every artist, so I’m pleased to be speaking with Montreal experimental electronic musician Julien Racine on the auspicious occasion of his album’s launch. Titled Amitiés, it’s the bold first recording released in 2022 from the au courant Switzerland-based Danse Noire imprint.

Astute dance music authority Resident Advisor featured Danse Noire as Label of the Month in November 2021. One of the dangers of being labeled Label of the Month is that, by next month, you’re last month’s label. But partners Raphael Rodriguez, Niels Wehrspann, Samuel Antoine and Aïsha Devi continue to curate a Swiss pocket knife full of arcane sonic weaponry. That’s largely because of their keen collective radar for artists, like Racine, forging radical aesthetic trajectories.

“This record has been pretty weird,” confesses Racine, slipping over Facetime between French and English. “It was miles away from what it is right now. At first, I did stuff that was more delicate and ambient, but it didn’t feel quite right at the beginning. A lot of introspection. It kind of took a life and a form that wasn’t expected, and that’s when things got exciting for me.” 

There’s a genuine sense of excitement about this album, too. “It makes sense still releasing on a label,” says Racine. “The reach you can have if the label is doing its job really well. It’s been amazing. The first album, I was amazed how much reach I had so quickly.” 

2020’s Quelque Chose Tombe attracted significant critical attention. Writing for A Closer Listen, Richard Allen called it “a mirror of modern anxiety, laying forth fear and anguish in equal measure.” William Paulhus at Panm360 described “a disconcerting calm, joyfully forging long digital sculptures illustrating the disarray of modern times.”  

Amitiés, Racine’s sophomore release for Danse Noire, reflects a more mature, confident musicianship. With Rashad Becker as mastering engineer, its sound is precise, croquant. Amitiés reveals a game-like structure, one piece jump-cutting to the next level, jarring, a pristine field recording of crows, cacophonous explosions subsiding suddenly to cool moments of melodic repose, then back again. It’s postmodern times.

Though introspection was a necessary imposition, relationships most inspired Racine. “It’s always coming back to this friendship thing, quite frankly.”

The recording was conceived and produced in isolation under the first lockdown. But, of course, Amitiés means friendships. When no one could socialize, Racine relied upon virtual calls with his labelmates, as well as close compatriot Justin Leduc-Frenette (aka Keru Not Ever) with whom Racine formerly formed the local outfit Corporation. Leduc-Frenette also authored the text on Amitiés’s cover art.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from conversations,” Racine explains. “To build a more profound way of thinking, of art-making, music making, philosophy — stuff like that really inspires me. This album in particular was all about this inspiration, because I was missing this part.

“The first few months, I saw no one at all. I was just isolated in my place trying to make this album because I always do music. That was a bit hard because I was missing this proximity with friends and all those conversations. But after a couple of months, we got used to communicating on Skype and Facetime. I don’t think it’s lost for good, we’ve just shifted how we deal with friendship in a different way. The tracks were written fast, but what was really long was the back-and-forth with people I trusted, and knew that I could get this record to another direction if I continued to make sense out of it.”

This new direction has its roots in Racine’s diverse musical influences. His father was an electronic musician in the 1990s, and Racine is part of a generation that trained classically and practised on the world’s most popular 1980s synthesizer. He divulges: “One of my all-time favourite synths is the Yamaha DX-7, and my dad had one. I started playing piano, but we didn’t have a piano, so I did the lessons on the DX-7.” 

That groundbreaking electronic instrument’s various iconic patches and sounds meant that Racine could explore timbres well beyond one instrument, one genre: “I’ve just always had this fascination for all different types of music: classical, jazz, prog rock, of course, because we are from Quebec. All my parents’ CD cases are broken because of me.” 

Genre, however, is difficult to pin down in Racine’s style. It pulls from all of the above, processes and spits them back out as textural sound design of the highest order. It’s pure laine electronic roots music in the tradition of Kara-Lis Coverdale or Roger Tellier-Craig, something that some future Eric Fillion-type might place in our national canon.

Despite having the backing of Danse Noire, as well as international gigs lined up in February through London, Athens, Berlin and Prague, Racine still finds the Montreal scene somewhat of a foreign country. “It’s really a lot harder getting booked in my own city than in Europe or any other part of the world. Here, for some reason, it feels impenetrable.” 

It’s a curious Canadian condition. Venerable local musicians like Tim Hecker or Marie Davidson for instance, have always had to prove their worth elsewhere before being accepted here at home. “That’s the norm in Montreal at least. The scene here is really tough. But it’s great. Every show I’ve done here has been so fun, so I can’t wait to play here again, that’s for sure.”

Much of today’s electronic underground is steeped in overt politicism, and Racine is embedded in an international community that, for better or worse, has made it its mission to oppose and resist oppression, often perilously, and to build and maintain the virtual and infrastructural networks necessary to sustain itself. And yet, Racine’s message isn’t visibly political. 

“In the world in general, there’s a lot of injustice. But for me, I can’t come up with ideas if I have a closed concept,” Racine says. “I don’t want to be political in my work, it’s more about feeling. It’s about emotions and spontaneity. Sometimes a mistake is not a mistake. It’s about trying to create something that’s living. It’s not political, it’s just a way of being, trying to express myself in music. I love having conversations about politics, but not in my art.”

Instead, Racine tends to focus in both art and life on subtle emotions, nuance, rather than blunt force — and ultimately, upon creating something approximating a good friendship, something enduring. 

Gone are the halcyon days of CDs stacked to the rafters, high-octane, fast-talking label reps, the next big thing on a weekly basis. Press releases arrive in a gentle whisper. Yet with each new release, major or minor, whether or not we take notice, we must acknowledge it as something special and revere it. That’s another kind of politics entirely.

It takes tremendous courage to make anything at all and put it out into the world. There’s a real risk here in Montreal that our best and brightest artists will feel a sense of erasure, especially now, and instead make their mark elsewhere. Let’s hope that Racine isn’t among them, that his music isn’t rediscovered at a later date only to be rightly placed where it’s always belonged. 

“Of course, like any other artist I know, I have a fear of being erased,” Racine admits. “That’s a fear, but I don’t think I’m driven by it. My friends and I are not always on the same page. But we are able to communicate and get along because we are friends, after all. My biggest hope is to deal with other people like they were your friends. Care about people.” ■

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on Racine, please visit his Soundcloud page.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.