Thomas Meluch began making field recordings when he was just 14, crushing sticks and rustling leaves into the built-in microphone of his tape deck. As a teenager, he continued making drones and instrumental folk figures that reflected the icy forests behind his mother's house in Michigan. In 2001, Meluch started releasing music on CD-Rs, under the name Benoît Pioulard. He experimented with bringing those folk and drone ideas together and adding melodies and vocals on top. Things progressed: By 2006, he was signed to Kranky, a Chicago-based experimental label that's home to quiet icons like The Stars of the Lid and outsider rock bands like Deerhunter. He was soon invited on tour with fellow humming-folkies Windy & Carl.
Meluch's walking a tightrope with live shows these days, but that's the way he likes it. He wants to create something more spontaneous but no less mesmerizing than his records. He keeps a pool of loops and tapes for texture, and builds from there. "The point with my current setup is to sidestep any kind of replication of the things I record at home," he says. "I know there's no way to arrange the 20 to 25 parts that go into a song for a solo performance. Whereas on my first tour I had everything organized and sequenced, I can now go much more off-the-cuff."
Instead of musicians, Meluch first lists filmmakers Harmony Korine and Terrence Malick as influences. But he warns that the parallels between his work and theirs are never explicit, and those connections are best left teased out by the listener. "There is a deeply strange, empathetic quality to Harmony Korine's work, and the very honest treatment of his subjects is something I haven't discovered in anyone else. I don't aim to share any readily identifiable qualities with him; it's more that I exalt in the singular way that his aesthetic is instantly recognizable, yet his approach originates from so many different angles."
The latest Benoît Pioulard record, Lasted, is Meluch's most fully formed to date, often bringing the warm, bucolic sounds and glacial noise together in the service of his surprisingly catchy songwriting. Perhaps like Korine's work, Lasted approaches sound from several different, though interconnected, vantages. While it's still very experimental in construction, the music that results only sometimes betrays those roots. That might have something to do with his 2007 move to Portland, Ore., and the community that thrives around him.
"Everyone is excited about their friends' bands and all 20 of their side projects, and you'll always see the opener cheering on the headliner, and vice versa. [There's a] sense of both adventurousness and mutual support," Meluch says.
Again, Lasted, doesn't always sound so warm and inviting. On opener "Purse Discusses," a lonely train and disintegrating foghorns drift over the traffic and wind through a withered aural landscape of drawn-out tones and bass drones. It's music to get lost inside. For Meluch, that process is as crucial to the composer as it is to the listener. "Mystery," Meluch says, "is in the veins of what I do. I remember reading that John Denver had no idea where his songs came from but exalted in the intangibility of it all. I feel similarly, in that there are certain days where I can't stop myself from grabbing the guitar and just slipping into a space.
"Music ought to be revelatory to the artist. I'm positive I wouldn't be who I am had I never written a song or learned an instrument. The things I've made over the past 10 years have been integral to my identity, how I view the world, how I resolve problems and get over emotional bruises. I still find that I can surprise myself from time to time, which is something to be seriously cherished."