Interview // Bonbonvillon’s Eugene Hayman on his new debut album

Cape Town Shoegaze / Post-Punk Artist "Bonbonvillon"

For the better part of five years, Eugene Hayman – who records under the moniker of Bonbonvillon – has stitched together scattered beats and synthesisers, replete with reverb-drenched guitars and hazy vocals, creating soundscapes that feel at once intriguing and intimately familiar. Following the release of debut single Television’s on but there’s nobody home last year, Hayman has released his full-length self-titled debut, a soothing and melancholic exploration of memory, nostalgia and isolation, which arrived on streaming platforms on 17 July. Glitch Culture spoke to Hayman about the album’s development, his creative process, and the unfamiliar world into which he has released his first album as a recording artist.

Cape Town Shoegaze / Post-Punk Artist "Bonbonvillon" Album Art

We’ve been eagerly following your work since your first release, but have never seen you give a live performance. Is that something you had planned before the lockdown began? How do you see the musical landscape changing in that regard, as artists are forced to rely entirely on digital media to release their music and perform?

Thanks for following. I’m not a huge performer. Or a great one for that matter! I get pretty bad stage fright and I’m introverted, so performing has never really been on the cards for me. It’s not something I like doing. I enjoy the creative process of songwriting and tinkering in the studio (that is, a small room in a house) a lot more than performing. So this album was not created considering performance at all. I’d probably need about eight people to pull off all the layers of sound!

I really feel for performing artists who are reliant on performance as an income. Currently, live digital shows seem to be the only option. I’ve watched a few shows myself during lockdown and enjoyed the stripped-down, less-manicured, raw performances that came as a result of the limitations of the situation. I love the humility and honesty in that. I’m not sure if it’s enough though for local artists with smaller fanbases to sustain themselves, if that’s their only source of income. It’s a tough one to solve.

This album has been a long time coming, and despite being recorded intermittently and in three different home studios, it feels remarkably cohesive. How did that extended recording period influence the sound and the themes that can be heard on the album? Did you find yourself revising old songs and recordings as you explored new ideas and sounds?

Thanks, I’m glad it comes across that way. It was a big concern of mine that it all needs to sound cohesive and work as one large body of work that has a distinct sonic identity. The production and mixing side of things kept me busy for quite a long time. It was tricky juggling learning about recording, sound engineering and mixing (as I’m not a trained sound engineer) while also working on songwriting and getting things done on the creative side. It was sometimes frustrating but also rewarding in a way that I had total control of how things came out.

What was problematic in terms of the lapsed time period is that, as I progressed on the technical and creative side of things, some songs weren’t working as well later on in the process and had to be left behind. As a result I have quite a large bank of songs that didn’t make the cut. I also listen to a lot of different kinds of music, so inevitably some of it filters through in what I come up with in songwriting. Some of it more electronic, some more organic and guitar-driven. So the challenge was also finding a middle ground in sound where it all works together in terms of genre.

One or two songs on the album are older ones (Sometimes and We’re Something Else Now) that went through many different iterations and ended up being quite different to their starting points. And then some songs, like On The Other Side Of A White Picket Fence, which is the last song I wrote on the album, came easier and the song seemingly knew exactly what it wanted to be from its inception. I guess getting more skilled at writing helped, but then some songs just come easier than others I’ve learnt. Like you’re channeling something and afterwards it doesn’t feel like you who made it. And then other songs you have to really dig deep and rework a lot. I generally work on multiple songs at the same time so that I don’t get tunnel vision only being focussed on one song. It also makes editing easier because you’re less precious about losing bits that don’t work. Sometimes that’s the whole song. Songwriting is a strange process, but I love it.

Your songs strike a balance between melancholy and comfort, between dreamy withdrawal and grounded exuberance, and address somewhat universal and timeless themes. How do you feel about releasing the album in the current climate, when many people’s experience of time seems to have changed dramatically, and we’re all finding new ways to overcome physical distance, loneliness and isolation?

I did wonder if I should hold onto it instead. If releasing it now, in a tough time, where much bigger things are happening on the world stage, would be a selfish thing to do. My music doesn’t come across as hopeful or overly optimistic at first glance. So would I be adding to a pool of already murky emotions out there and make things worse? But on the other hand I figured it’s something to connect to emotionally. And I generally find a release through listening to so-called melancholic or dreamy music, so maybe this could be a worthwhile distraction or release for a few similar others too, for a few minutes. I don’t know, the jury’s still out…  

There are themes of isolation, connection and memory in there, and they’re relatable subjects. Hopefully it means something to someone.

What would you say were the major influences in your writing this album? 

The album was influenced by a mixture of personal experiences as a starting point, but also by mixing it up with fiction along the way, so it became its own thing. I know that I always want to know if the ‘I’ in the song was really the artist or if it’s a character that’s being channeled. I like that ambiguity of not knowing. I also like the idea of having a painful personal experience inspire something new, and have its essence transformed into something positive in a song or an artwork.

The album kind of wrote itself along the way, with these things in the background. I didn’t plan on hitting certain subjects or moods. It happened naturally along the way.

How has your work in the visual arts influenced your musical career? And what is the nature of your work as an art director and designer?

Working with design principles in mind has helped me a lot with song arrangements and construction. Having light versus dark sounds. Having a focal point with support elements. Having contrast. Dense arrangements and layering of sound versus stripped down minimal sections to create forward momentum. If you use this colour or sound here, you have to repeat it elsewhere for balance, and so on.

I’ve worked with ad agencies and in corporate, but at the moment I’m freelancing again. I’m lucky in the sense that I can create all the supporting visuals for my music myself as a result.

I think working as an art director and designer has also given me the ability to approach concepts in a holistic way. To see how things can go together to support the whole. To know what to edit out and what to focus on, to keep the essence of an idea and lose the unnecessary detail. To distinguish a good idea from a less inspired one. To think critically. To curate in a way. So in that way I think it’s helped me to shape my sound. To almost think of my sound as a visual in a way.

Thinking critically is a double-edged sword when it comes to making music though, because it’s also made me overthink things a lot sometimes. And it doesn’t help with the inner critic that in instances holds one back and makes you doubt yourself or your execution of an idea

Cape Town Shoegaze / Post-Punk Artist "Bonbonvillon"

Sonically, your work draws on many familiar sounds, but with a light enough touch to avoid easy categorisation by genre. Nevertheless, one could say it fits broadly among the kind of more dreamy and psychedelic sounds that we’ve seen embraced by a lot of Cape Town artists in the last few years. How would you position yourself and your work in relation to the scene that has emerged around you?

Yes, I’d say it’s mostly shoegaze and post-punk with bits of new wave. They’re the sounds I grew up with; bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Cure, Joy Division, New Order, Sonic Youth. And Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark! Not a very fashionable reference I know, but I love synthy eighties sounds, and they wrote some great melodies.

I’m not sure where I fit in, in terms of the scene. I’ve tried to put a contemporary spin on the sounds that have influenced me, but I’m not sure to what extent it’s successful, or maybe too derivative? I’ve made friends with a few bands in Cape Town and enjoy their music and go to their shows. Well I used to. It’s nice having fellow music-makers who paint with similar brushes as a sounding board. I played some of my demos to Lucas from Dangerfields, and to Ellenie (Elle E), and they gave me very valuable feedback. They also helped me with some of the behind-the-scenes inner workings that go with releasing an album, which I hadn’t been through and didn’t know much about. I’m very grateful for their help. There seems to be a nice camaraderie between bands in town, helping and supporting each other.

Without giving away too many secrets, could you tell us a bit more about how you achieve that distinctive sound? And in working with both analogue and electronic sounds, how do you normally go about turning ideas into songs?

I guess not really being a properly schooled sound engineer has inadvertently shaped my recording sound in a certain way. Luckily in a seemingly pleasing way? I’ve probably done some mixing and recording things that would make a proper sound engineer have multiple heart attacks.

But I believe limitations and boundaries in creativity are a good thing. Your limitations become your unique voice.

I guess a lot of my sound is also due to the gear I’m using. I use mostly Mustangs, Jaguars and a Jazzmaster. And they have quite a distinct sound. I also love my little  Five-Watt Swart Space Tone Atomic Jr. There’s just something about valve amps.

I don’t use MIDI. I’m not a purist, it’s mostly because I’m too tech-challenged to figure out how the hell it works. Synths I use are my trusty old Microkorg and a Korg Monologue, which I think are model analogue synths, but not technically analogue. The drums are an old drum machine and random percussion made with sometimes unusual objects. I like mixing up bass synths and bass guitar on the same track, which sometimes give an interesting bottom end.

In terms of process, generally the music comes first, then lyrics. I have a tough time solving lyrics. Something may look great on the page and have awesome metaphors, but then when you try and sing it, it simply doesn’t work. It sounds forced. So coming up with meaningful lyrics that also sing well as pleasing sounds is a tough gig for me.

I find inspiration in small moments, in what’s happening in my own life around me. In overheard phrases that pop up randomly, usually when I’m not thinking about songwriting. I have a bunch of notebooks with scribbles, attempted bad lyrics and ideas. Loads of super dodgy voice note recordings on my phone of riffs or melodic ideas, to keep as a base to work from later.

I also try to always start writing songs differently. Sometimes I’ll start fooling around with a drumbeat, sometimes it’s synth first. Sometimes a guitar or bass line. I find mixing up the way I start sometimes results in a nice new direction I haven’t been down before.

Cape Town Shoegaze / Post-Punk Artist "Bonbonvillon"

Elle E features quite prominently throughout the album, and her vocal input is an inspired contribution. How did that collaboration come about?

I’m a huge fan of her work. I met her at one of her shows last year after I’d released my first single and we started chatting and we got on really well. We bumped into each other again at Endless Daze last year (which feels like a decade ago) and she talked about possibly collaborating. So we recorded for a day in December last year at her place.

It was great fun. I loved working with her, and it flowed quite easily. I think we share a similar ethos in our DIY approach and we’re both self-taught players. Her voice added such a nice and much-needed bright, dreamy touch, and counterbalance to my droning voice. She also showed me a studio trick or two with regard to recording vocals which have helped me a lot going forward.

The album has been out for less than a week, but where do you see yourself taking Bonbonvillon in the near future? Do you have any particular plans in the wake of the release?

For now I’m just enjoying that I finally got it out. Four years after the deadline, it’ll never really be finished to me. I’ve made a point of not listening to it at all again; I know I’ll hear something I’d like to change. The response has been fairly good so far, and I’m glad it’s out there now, doing its own thing without me.

I wrote a few new songs while I was supposed to finish the final mixing and mastering on the album. I’d like to work on those and maybe release them as separate singles. I’m also considering maybe releasing an instrumental EP of tracks that I’ve already done but need mastering. But for now I’m giving my ears a break for a week or three.

Bonbonvillon is currently available on all streaming platforms.
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