Interview by Barney McDonald
Images by Marta Armengol
“I always carried on playing and recording.
It’s just that I didn’t feel for a long time that I should make it public.”
Colder is the solo project of French dance musician and graphic designer Marc Nguyen-Tan. After a 10 year break following his albums Again (2003) and Heat (2005), he returns with Many Colours. Tan has mostly kept a low profile, working as an art director and managing his creative agency “le cabinet. paris.”
A New Zealand-based film and pop culture writer, Barney McDonald is former founder and editor of Pavement, a youth culture magazine that ran from 1993-2006 and consistently pushed cultural & creative boundaries.
New wave English rock band New Order was formed by members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris after the suicide of Ian Curtis, lead singer of their former band Joy Division. With the addition of Gillian Gilbert, they became a critically-acclaimed and highly influential band from the ’80s to today.
The Society of the Spectacle
A 1967 work of philosophy by French theorist Guy Debord, centered around Marxist critical theory. The text introduces the concept of the “spectacle,” or mass media and was important to the Situationist movement that took place from 1957-1972.
Singer and songwriter for legendary British band Radiohead, with whom he has released eight albums, Thom Yorke is also a multi-instrumentalist and solo artist ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest singers of all time.
Michael Heizer is a Nevada-based contemporary artist specializing in large-scale sculptures and land art, a movement in which the landscape of the earth and the artwork are inextricably linked.
Both Manchester’s New Order and Paris’ Colder have spent a decade between albums pursuing other projects, perhaps never destined to return to the musical outfit that made their name and their reputation. With New Order revving up Music Complete, their first album since 2005’s Waiting For the Siren’s Call, the lesser known though equally impressive one-man-band Colder, aka Marc Nguyen-Tan, has likewise emerged with his first album since 2005, just a month or so shy of New Order’s return. The timing couldn’t be better for both.
New Order has straddled several decades, lineup changes, the death of singer Ian Curtis when the band was Joy Division, the collapse of their record label Factory and countless shifts in genre, technology, popularity and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Colder put out two iconic, even laconic, albums in the early to mid-2000s then promptly disappeared in the wake of the collapse of Trevor Jackson’s label, Output, which had gently steered 2003’s Again and 2005’s Heat into a very credible position in the annals of modern music. Tan’s contract was in dispute so he wisely eschewed the music industry while it waxed and waned through the digital revolution, setting up camp in the mountains of Spain to make esoteric experimental jazz and cool his heels while the world around him remained in flux.
Fans of dark, sexy dance music—who grew up on a staple diet of Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Berlin-era Bowie, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, Throbbing Gristle and a host of other groundbreaking artists—were drawn to Colder’s compulsive melodies and yearning, mystical lyrics and vocals. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Tan lured his listeners into his world with the self-assurance of one who knows how to activate the mind while engaging the soul. Songs like “Silicon Sexy,” “Wrong Baby,” “Shiny Star,” “Crazy Love” and “To The Music” stopped you in your tracks and left no doubt that this music was made by a man with infinite insight, skill and integrity, which is why we’ve been without Colder for a decade.
Thankfully something changed in recent times, and Tan has decided to reactivate the project that brought him to the attention of a small but devoted following. Perhaps Colder’s third, eagerly anticipated album Many Colours will bring Tan the larger audience his music deserves. It’s the work of a mature artist, now ensconced in Barcelona, who had the courage and forbearance to wait till the time was right to re-emerge—not an easy ask when the imperative is to keep the wheels turning and momentum building. His thematic concerns have broadened and deepened too, giving Many Colours both a sense of hope and an undeniable honesty. It’s the album we need right now. Music complete? This is just the beginning.
Barney McDonald: The music industry has changed considerably since you released your last Colder album a decade ago. What changes have you noticed, and which ones concern or excite you the most?
Colder: I sort of like how the ‘market’ of music is getting saturated with new releases, live acts, ideas, recordings and production. And how this phenomenon is somehow killing the trends, the waves and the ‘genres’ by turning them into something more blurry, where boundaries are losing their definition. It’s probably not a good thing for most musicians because it means less money in most of the pockets. But in the meantime, I feel that the market is losing its grip on this essence, this creativity, and that this creativity is going to better places, for better uses and purposes. It’s a process that just started a few years ago. It’s going to last probably for another decade or much more, and majors are not dead yet. But there is some hope for the future, and I have faith that in the end this transition we’re going through will result in positive changes—in a more meaningful relationship between people and culture in general.
“This phenomenon is somehow killing
the trends, the waves and the
‘genres’ by turning them into something
more blurry, where boundaries
are losing their definition.”
BM: Is music the powerful form and force of social change it once was, or has it lost much of its currency through digital commodification?
C: I don’t think objectively that music has been this powerful form of social change that you’re mentioning. I think the contrary: that it has always served the purpose of what we call ‘the market,’ making it always stronger through a very gradual process during the last two or three centuries. To me it all goes back to Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.
BM: Have you considered forgoing music altogether in favor of other forms of artistic expression?
C: Not really. I always carried on playing and recording. It’s just that I didn’t feel for a long time that I should make it public.
BM: What other art forms engage you the most as an artist and consumer?
C: Every process that is the result of a strong personal questioning and lots of hours of work as well. Everything that’s the result of a global reflection on your particular position in this world and a quest for independence and singularity. It could be Thom Yorke. Even though I’m not fan of everything he’s doing, I like the strategies he’s been trying to develop over the last few years in order to push his work. And there’s the work of an American artist like Michael Heizer, and many others.
BM: What keeps you coming back to Colder and music?
C: Life, coincidences…
BM: How have you changed since the last Colder album, and how does this affect the music you’re making now?
C: I’ll tell you in 10 years!
BM: Your latest lyrics delve ever deeper into the human condition. What are you trying to explore or convey with each song?
C: Nothing in particular. However, on this record when it comes to lyrics, I’ve been trying to work more by association of ideas rather than proper narration. I found that it was opening more perspectives and bringing more depth to the songs, almost in a subliminal way. It’s really something I’d like to push on future releases.
BM: The single “Turn Your Back,” for instance, suggests a dissatisfaction with the world and life. Are you feeling the pressures of the modern world ever more acutely?
C: Yeah, and I think I’m not the only one. Besides, “Turn Your Back” is not really a song about an oppressive feeling coming from the ‘outside’ or the modern world. In a light way it talks more about symbolical death, this transition phase that one can go through in his or her own life that turns it into something else—in general something better, but in a difficult way that sometimes could feel almost like a ‘death.’ I can’t remember which French writer was saying in his autobiography that every accomplished or fulfilled being should have lived at least three different lives. So I hear “Turn Your Back” more as a positive song. The electronic part of the arrangement could sound threatening and dark, but the lighter piano floating on top brings hope in a playful way. So yes, there’s an end coming, but for a better start.
BM: You’ve collaborated on a couple of songs on this album. What drew you down that path, and were they each as creatively satisfying as you’d hoped?
C: I’m having fun playing and recording by myself, but I have a different kind of fun working with other people. It’s something I’m working on. What I find especially fulfilling in it is to look at how others are working and to learn new things from them. There’s also a natural bond with most of the people you meet when you follow a certain path in your life. Sometimes it can be very small and sometimes it can be extraordinarily big, challenging, inspiring, a compelling human adventure where the result—the music—almost comes second, resulting in a certain state of completeness. You come to make some music and instead you make some friends, which is in some ways even better, I guess.
“I’ve been trying to work more by association
of ideas rather than proper narration.
I found that it was opening more perspectives
and bringing more depth to the songs,
almost in a subliminal way.”
BM: You still write and produce all the music yourself then put a band together to tour. Any thoughts of forming a permanent Colder band and changing the way you work? How do you think that would transform the music?
C: Until now, working that way has allowed me to complete records or projects on a very small budget and in a very short time. So there are some practical matters behind this particular workflow rather than a strong egocentric wish to do it. However, in the near future I wish that I can step away from this process and open it to other musicians, open Colder as a project to other influences, people and ideas. How will it change this project? Let me give it a try and we’ll talk more about it!
BM: Have the equipment and instruments you like to work with in the studio changed drastically since the early days?
C: Since I started Colder—and by watching other musicians and sound engineers, and by listening to them—I naturally got to undestand better the whole composing, playing and recording chain. My studio evolved accordingly to this knowledge. It went through different phases; sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. Right now, I’m more down-scaling things as I prefer to focus my attention on a few pieces of hardware rather than on a dozen of them.
BM: Are you committed to continuing the Colder project now you’re back? And what might you pursue differently on the next album?
C: I’ll try to. This new album actually opened a lot of new perspectives to me: ideas of arrangements, productions, workflow, sounds, lyrics and vocal lines. Plus I should try to release all the extra material that has been produced during that time as a continuity, probably as a follow-up to this particular record.
BM: Any other projects underway?
C: There are many people I’d like to work with. Patrice Baumel, for instance, who worked with his girlfriend, Dutch photographer Ramona Deckers, on the whole art direction for Many Colours; the Danish producer and DJ Kasper Björke, with whom I’m maybe going to record an EP next year; Christian S from Comeme; Daniel Holc, ex-Ascii Disko; my friend Nas/Providence.