The Evolution of Madeon, ‘Adventure’ and Hugo Leclercq
It’s an hour to sunrise on the island of Koh Pha Ngan in Southeastern Thailand. It’s November 2013, the day after the full moon and the island’s monthly hedonistic carnival, where atop a winding staircase cut into the cliffside mushroom shakes were dispensed liberally from a bar overlooking a curving stretch of sand shimmering with stage lights and littered with the speed bumps of fallen party-goers. As the remnants of the Full Moon Festival are washed from the shores of Sunrise Beach, Typhoon Haiyan is climbing Westward and the island’s few boats are stuck at port. The jungle at my back is making some rather unsettling noises and though it’s still too dark to see the ocean from the sand, the sound of the waves lapping at the shore is lightly reassuring. Through the screen on my lap Hugo Leclercq, better known by his stage name Madeon, has just arrived in his childhood home in Nantes, France.
It’s just before midnight there and he’s fresh off a flight from London, where he was recording some of his first studio work on what would become Adventure. He’s excited about the last two days he spent working with Jimmy Napes, the man behind Disclosure’s “Latch” and “White Noise,” and who would go on to co-write Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be.” These studio sessions with Napes would become the second single off Hugo’s album, “You’re On,” an ebullient synth-pop groove featuring the vocal stylings of Kyan.
As we talk through his ideas for the album it becomes apparent that he’s striving for something beyond a series of pop hits, it’s a concept album in development. It’s the first time he has been asked about the album on record and he’s reticent to set anything in stone. He takes a sip of coffee and pauses:
“What’s that sound?”
“That’s awesome, so awesome. I can answer to you off the record but you can’t publish this until once I get a chance to look at it closer to the release. I conceptualize music a lot and I sit down and listen to the album in my head before I make it — in an abstract way. I sit and think ‘These are the parameters, these are the ingredients, this chord, these kinds of drums.’ I have this all in my head and I put it together and try to listen to it in full. Every time it gets a little clearer and then I write those songs. I have a clear structure now:
Open with an instrumental then into an explosive of three pop songs with vocals. Urban environment, lights, people, overwhelmingly technological. This character that walks away as the album gets simpler and instrumental and narrative, streamlined and bigger in scope with slightly longer tracks. It’s like he’s walking away from this big sparkling thing into the desert, the grand canyon. Progressively drift away from a soulful, clever pop album - not top 40 you know what I mean — to something musical and fast-paced in structure and sparkling with production elements, then a little darker as it progresses towards a more epic undertone.”
A year and a half later it’s the morning after Adventure’s release in March of 2015. That initial idea remained a powerful framework through to the finish, it’s prevalence in the polished record affirming the strength of the artwork’s initial character. True to my word his ideas have sat on my laptop the past 18 months and when I read him back those initial tendrils of thought he lights up:
“That’s really interesting... That intention I described very enthusiastically is still in the end product. When I talk about the production getting simpler, that manifested in the song “Innocence,” which is a much less bombastic production. It’s nice to be brought back to the intention before I started writing a lot of the music, and seeing that I stuck to that blueprint. The main difference between that first blueprint and the final product is that I added a tunnel between the beginning and the end, “Imperium” and “Zephyr,” which is a harder section that has a different sound than the rest of the album but is a necessary transitional step.”
Despite being the first single off the album in October 2014, “Imperium” was written quite late and only after an intense series of attempts: “That was an emotion I had been trying to capture for a while, I wrote literally dozens of tracks to fit that place in the album until I wrote that one.” The result, thick with kaleidoscopic textures punctuated by scintillating synths, is a prime example of his precision to detail, a meticulousness that is similarly infused into the album structure: “It’s liberating having the album format: one specific song will have a very different impact whether it’s at the beginning or the end of the record, and that’s something you can’t get with a solitary release.” Pop tracks like “Pay No Mind” have a clear radio accessibility, yet within the greater format of the album it’s many layers begin to unfold.
The more I listen to the album the greater my appreciation grows. It’s a record that deserves to be listened to in its entirety without distractions, something I had been doing less and less prior to this release. Maybe it's our generation’s desire for immediate gratification, or the music industry’s increased emphasis on singles, but going over to a friends flat to hear a new record is beginning to feel like a fading pastime in a digital world. Perhaps it’s that the universal mobility we’ve enjoyed since we first put 1,000 songs in our pocket has brought music everywhere into our world, and in turn the world has invaded our music.
An album, like any artwork, is experienced in relation to its setting, and thus the album’s mood is colorized by the environment in which it is played. Sgt. Pepper is best shared on a hazy Sunday afternoon while pouring over the vinyl sleeve and liner notes with close friends, while the atmosphere of Miles Davis’ painterly Kind of Blue feels most at home when the trumpet is muted by the late-night smoke of a jazz club. Hugo sets the ideal environment for Adventure in the backseat of a moving car whilst gazing out the window, tracing the album’s trajectory from a glittering pixelated city out into a vast expanse of desert. “There’s also an element of nostalgia of your parents taking you on a long drive, you’re listening to music as you watch the landscape go by. It takes so long that you melt with the music.” These themes are apparent in more than just the songs — this epic journey away from the city towards a sweeping landscape tinged with youthful nostalgia reiterates itself through new mediums in the artwork and videos that accompany Adventure.
In his initial brainstorming process, Leclercq collected images and colors as reference materials. These shine through in tracks like "Pixel Empire,” whose lush textures and glinting synths he wrote after binge-watching Miyazaki films. Now that process reverts in on itself as he uses the songs to create a saga of three music videos that began with "You're On" and "Pay No Mind.” He’s been working with a video team to translate his scripts into a visualization of the album in not only its narrative of escaping the collapsing Pixel Empire for the contemplative expanse of songs such as “Innocence,” but as well in the songs’ very construction through the repetition of intertwining patterns and sparkling skylines that reflect floating elements of fractalated glitch. The album’s progression from it’s early symmetrical design in songs like “Isometric” towards more organic progressions is hinted at by the appearance of a bird, seen swooping through levitating slabs from the distance of a city devoid of natural elements. Astoria picks up a feather and begins to plan her escape with the films’ other protagonist, Icarus.
Though the trio was initially set to end with “Home,” he’s decided that the as-of-yet unannounced final video will be for a new song instead: “It felt too much [with ‘Home’] and editing the video to ‘Nonsense’ felt cooler and more casual and captured the optimistic spirit of it much better.” With characters name Icarus and Asteria, the Grecian tragedy nearly writes itself, but he says this final video will be left open to interpretation: “You’re not going to see a massive Icarus fall but I do kick myself for not doing that now.” This Greek reference first appeared in morse code at the end of “Technicolor,” one of many clues leading to an eight-line poem that hinted at the album’s song titles and the meaning behind them.
This immersive and multi-faceted return to the concept album melds emotions and mediums: the songs blend with the language he invented, the album artwork he created, and the music videos he wrote. Yet with all the elements he introduces, and in a scene dominated by DJ personalities, his visage is notably absent in this world, appearing only once in silhouette on the cover of “Technicolor,” (which he is quick to note has since been changed). He describes his relation to his work as distinct from himself - he holds it in his hand rather than it revolving around him:
“I still see Madeon as a project, with some distance between it and me as an individual... It feels like a wasted opportunity to have your own face on an album cover. I understand artists who see it differently, who are selling in part their identity and the excitement of their live performance, but for the type of music I make I remove myself and let it breathe a bit.”
Yet at the same time this initial relation to the work is changing; the appearance of his vocals on tracks like “Home” introduce Hugo Leclercq into Madeon’s storyline, hinting at a first person narrative:
“The songs I write on the album and their lyrics relate to me quite directly, but they’re not meant to be written as intelligible or for me to communicate that way. Going forward that will be something to explore, I broke a barrier where I can music to express myself, it’s no longer a game or puzzle or technical challenge. Before it was an aesthetic pursuit that was disconnected from life experience. Now I make music to exist and express who I am.”
There’s another artist who’s music is part of a fully immersive experience, one that integrates art, fashion, and music. A key distinction is that Lady Gaga’s artistic creations revolve around her stage persona rather than in a world of their own. Madeon worked with her to produce three of the tracks on her chart-topping studio album Artpop and toured with her on the “Born This Way Ball Tour.”
While the two seem at first glance to be vastly different, they connected closely as friends and Leclercq draws further artistic similarities: “I think she saw herself as a canvas, and through that involvement she modified herself so much that in a way she became her own piece of art. I think realized she wanted to be an icon and a cultural vision and that she needed to capture that in her own. She had a similar creative process [to me] but she happened to use herself as the canvas.”
In his work with Lady Gaga he splintered from the Madeon persona and came to see his career as three sided: the producer, the solo recording artist, and the live show. Though these three elements often overlap he was careful to keep them distinct: “While the live show and recording are intertwined, the production side is really separate. For me it was not Madeon producing Gaga, but rather Hugo Leclercq. I was producing her album, not releasing my production under her name, using my skills to enhance her vision.” When he first told me this, he had just wrapped up his work on Artpop and would be entering an intensive period of recording for Adventure, at times spending 24 hours in the studio without stopping or sleeping (a resolve that lead to the creation of “Home” and the decision to sing the lyrics himself). Now with the album finished, he sees Adventure Live as the third side of this artistic plane:
“That’s the reason my voice is so hoarse, I’ve been up all night working on this... I love working on shows, I love the geekiness of it, I love exploring all the technological challenges and seeing what we can do to create an immersive live experience that’s trying to introduce new concepts and allows me to interact with he music in ways that are meaningful. One of the things I love is the feeling that I’m able to compose a new song live on stage and change an existing track, playing new chords and melodies and re-inventing it every night.”
Rather than a narrative visual backdrop a la Worlds Tour or pulling from the music videos, he’s designing the live show to be more abstract: “I think video in live settings should act more as a light and a visceral, basic, primal thing where it’s flashing with the music. It’s meant to augment the music but still let the songs lead the way - visuals are so powerful that once you start having video that is narratorial and complex it completely drones out the music and becomes a movie. Every color scheme I use for a specific song is how it exists in my head and how I want people to perceive it. I want to exploit that atmospheric connection with the music and let that lead the way.”
The way he relates his music to expansive multi-colored landscapes2 in the videos, album art, and this new live show resembles a connection between two senses that has been echoed by great musicians from Aphex Twin to Tyler the Creator to Duke Ellington. For Pharrell, music appears as “seven basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet... White, which gives you an octave, is the blending of all the colors.” Chromesthesia, or involuntary sound-to-color sensory relation, is the most common form of synesthesia, and is twice as common in musicians as the average population. While the diagnosed medical condition is rare, mild forms of synesthesia are in fact far more common than you would expect: 5-15% of the adult population have experienced some form of synesthesia and its affects can range from scarce — occurring during extreme moments of pleasure or from an induced synthetic experience, to stimulating to those such as Pharrell who describe it as a gift that he would be “lost” without, to those who live in a paralyzing social atmosphere of constant over-stimulus.
This is a sensitive subject and Leclercq is careful not to stake claim to an undiagnosed condition or offend those who suffer from it: “It’s an actual medical condition that I thankfully do not suffer from... but there’s definitely a big connection and I visualize it that way very strongly. That’s the first thing I talk about when I’m writing down references is the color, for example ‘Imperium’ is blatantly red for me.” His enjoyment of relating the visual and aural extends beyond his own music; he creates new artwork for albums such as Passion Pit’s Manners whose cover he felt didn’t quite fit: “I know I won’t be able to fully appreciate it unless I have the right artwork to go with it.”
Visuals enter further into the songs themselves: when you look at “Innocence” and “Pixel Empire,” through a spectrogram, a halo of the album’s emblematic diamond appears. This sonic watermark continues a series of puzzles he’s been creating for listeners since Madeon’s inception: “I like making that connection between the two worlds, I think it’s an interesting sound in itself and if you can see it you’ll see its connection to the visual world.” The symbol further appears on the album sleeve and in the digital interface for the Adventure Machine, a reiteration of sound, design, and technology that allows you to build your own mix from Leclercq’s sample bank.
Few young artists maintain an industrious and multi-faceted drive in the way that Leclercq has, and when he talks you can feel the eagerness that persists despite the self-doubt that appears on tracks like “Home.” Ira Glass once described the plight of the young artist as a battle between seasoned taste and blooming talent, a stifling clash that ends many artist’s careers prematurely: “Your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” Leclercq uniquely addressed this creative hurdle by not having it in the first place. Not because he possesses some supernatural solution to the troubles of young creatives, but because his foray into production has paralleled his interest in music, rather than following it.
He hadn’t paid much attention to what was on the radio until he heard Daft Punk’s Discovery one day at the age of 10. He ran down to the nearest record store and spent all his saved up money, 15 euros, to buy the DVD for Interstella 5555. The music instantly transcended him: “It’s such an important medium, it’s so capable of producing emotion and being suddenly exposed to such a masterpiece was baffling.” He was already producing when he started listening to the Beatles, a period he credits to his obsession with structure, with songs that are meant to be played on repeat without becoming self-indulgent.
Because he began writing songs before building an appreciation, when “there was only one music I liked,” his artistic growth has been a reflection of his rapidly budding taste. Early in this process he cared about a creating a professional sound, and then as he began to conquer mixing his attention turned towards production details: “sounding good and complex and showing off a little bit.” Once he had mastered some tricks he delved further into the grace of innovative pop and beyond: “I began to appreciate elegance and simplicity. Every time I reach the next point it opens up new horizons.”
In addition to the music, he was dabbling in graphics and writing novels when one day he read a book with a line that struck him: “There’s nothing worse than being mediocre at everything when you can be incredible at one thing.” He decided to choose one medium to truly delve into: “I chose music because I wanted to pour champagne on girls all night at clubs, no no no that’s a joke. I chose music because it felt emotional and scientific. All the knobs and effects and software felt like a science to discover at the same time being a vein to express myself. I’m so glad I chose it because it feels like it really fulfills nearly all of my artistic aspiration and I can communicate so much. It’s a great, great, great thing to do - everyone should create music.”
It was his remix of Pendulum’s “The Island” that was his first break, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he found a way to simultaneously showcase his love for music production, visual design, and technical prowess, all the while encapsulating his now broadly varied palette of inspiration in a three minute video. The power of a sample is in its transportation of the listener back to the emotion that the original song imbued; by carefully selecting an eclectic range of pop samples and constructing them into a cohesive melody, Madeon connected with a generation that craved quick and easily digestible emotions, providing them with a wave-like crescendo of momentary, semi-conscious emotional triggers. “Pop Culture” went viral overnight.
He was immediately struck with the fear of becoming “that Youtube guy” and being forever pigeon-holed. He deliberately avoided creating a part two and buried himself in the studio for an extended period before releasing an instrumental. Once again worried of being defined as that “126 bpm electro-house indie hybrid” he succeeded “Icarus” with a 92 bpm arena rock/electro track and then went full-on pop-vocal with “The City” before disappearing again. When he broke the silence nearly a year later it was with the cinematic “Technicolor,” which he took eight months to meticulously develop in FL Studio from two songs into one. He’s extraordinarily conscious about releasing songs that use different formats, yet still sound like they’re part of the same universe.
A clear underlying thread ties through all of his production, from the chip arps and glitching melodic riffs that appeared in his “Raise Your Weapon” remix in 2010 to the glittering synths and youthful exuberance that define Adventure. In some ways his creation of distinct tracks that maintain a larger theme is reminiscent of Stuart Price14. When I mentioned “Confessions on a Dancefloor” back in 2013 his face lit up. The greatest thing he took away from that album is Price’s commitment to “a specific palette” he says, “Through the entire album one song segues into another and it’s a very fluid listening experience. I think it’s rare to do a massive Top 40 pop album that’s cohesive and is one concept explored over the entire course of the album. The consistency, the coherence are what amaze me. Obviously sonically it’s great, the drums are incredible, the pads are lush and beautiful and vintage-an and modern at the same time, the vocal processing is on point, the songwriting is great, the chords. Every element of it I am fond of - the most impressive thing I took away from it was ‘Wow this guy manages to make this album so diverse and yet feel like one thing. It feels like it’s an album.’”
Looking back at his own production he’s learned quite a lot as well. In regards to building a cohesive song from the splintered fragments of tiny samples, he says: “Silence is an incredible tool. That’s been one of my more recent discoveries, how much space and groove and emotion silence can lend to a song. Taking that as an example, it’s important that all these sections add up to a melody, that you can sing it. Even if it involves a timbre change and different instruments, if it all adds up to one melody then you’ve done it successfully. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of randomly chopped up things in the same key. It’s two dimensional composition, you’re playing melody and timbre. Take a vocal, you have both the vowel and the note, whereas when you play a lead it’s just a note and the timbre doesn’t change as much.”
The inwardly critical eye that held him to sporadic releases despite producing every day was similarly sharp in the studio: “Self criticism is a cure for self-indulgence. It’s nice to not make excuses, to realize what’s wrong so that you can fix it.” Every time he thought he was finished with a track he would render it and sit outside the studio with his iPod, scribbling down tweaks, from notes as broad as “this mixing sucks” to details as precise as “the first snare on the 55th bar needs to be 10% velocity lower because that will sound thunkier.” He’d rinse and repeat until there’s nothing to change and then come back two days later to repeat the process with fresh ears. This production style that borders on the compulsive shines through in the album on tracks like “Pay No Mind,” an intricate marriage between Passion Pit’s indietronica nostalgia and a Madeon’s cheery synth-pop.
Through this process he realized that where he used to construct songs like they were deeply layered puzzles, playing what he calls ‘Madeon production jokes’ such as transforming vocals into wobbling synths, now he was starting to focus on “incredible chords and melodies and touching performances,” becoming “less excited about complex songs as much as precise songs where every note counts.”
Perhaps the most aesthetically crucial moment came in the 18th hour of one of his taxing 24 hour studio sessions when he began recording his own vocals for “Home,” a song that turns the album’s focus inwards on Hugo Leclercq, rather than Madeon: “Afterwards I felt like I’d unlocked something new in creating music and the spectrum was wider. Though that was an amateur first step, it still felt meaningful so I put it on the record as the start of something interesting to me.”
That first step appears a bit worrisome from the song’s opening verse: “If I could try a little harder I would succeed / I’d rather give up and be happy.” It wasn’t just the late night delirium talking either, his relationship to his artwork is tumultuous: “It matters so much to me and it defines so much of my identity and is so meaningful that sometimes I feel like it’s poisonous and I never feel like I’ve tried hard enough or I’m good enough. I was starting to feel that making music was more painful and hurtful than anything and the only way I would be able to find proper balance would be to let go of that thing that was venomous and taking so much room. I had those thoughts frequently, I used to think that music was more dangerous than anything to me.” But he’s quick to assuage any doubts about his future in music: “I think it’s quite clear that it’s more a desperate complaint than an actual feeling. It’s not just music, the chorus widens things and draws a parallel between the experience of music and all life experiences.”
By the time we’re done talking it’s late in the night in France and the sun has risen over Thailand. A year and a half later, Hugo’s being rushed off to a whirlwind of creative challenges: from the final polishes on the live design to the start of his first ever North American headlining tour including a Coachella headliner spot. One of the last things he told me in 2013 was that he wanted this album to become a resolution of a sound and style of execution that he was exploring, that his work needed to “reflect the evolution of [his] sensibility,” and that he hoped Adventure would open doors for the next direction. With all the tricks, sounds, and styles of his production career to date finally wrapped in Adventure's glimmering bow, he has a fresh canvas now. I ask him what’s new and exciting and ready for fresh experimentation and he references his vocals on tracks like "Home": “I’m excited by songwriting because that’s new to me and I like being a beginner and finding a new layer. As time goes on the less I care about dance music and the more I care about songs. To create full songs alone is exciting to me so I’m going to explore that some more.”
We can’t wait to see what that sounds like.
See you on the dancefoor,
You can read more articles by Jesse Wheaton here.
Endnotes and Sources:
1 These three artists (Jimmy Napes, Sam Smith, Disclosure) collaborated together with Nile Rodgers for one of my favorite tracks: https://soundcloud.com/methodrecords/sam-smith-x-nile- rodgers-x
2 Regarding expansive kaleidoscopic landscapes and synesthesia - in 2004 Daniel Tammet memorized pi to 22,000 places by picturing it as a brightly colored landscape.
3 Aphex Twin on his Synesthesia: http://www.clashmusic.com/feature/aphex-twin
4 Tyler the Creator on Chromesthesia: http://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/read/youneedtohearthis-
5 "I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”
- Duke Ellington, as quoted in George, Don. 1981. Sweet man: The real Duke Ellington. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Page 226.
6 Pharrell on his Synesthesia: http://respect-mag.com/pharrell-talks-synesthesia-with-
7 Synesthesia is a scientific phenomenon that is still not fully understood. For those whom hearing sounds automatically and involuntarily evokes an experience of color on a regular basis, chromesthesia is explained by a few hypotheses, the most popular one attributing it to a reduction in the pruning back of neuronal networks that are initially bound together during the first few years of childhood, causing ghost images to be sent between partially tethered auditory and visual nerve endings.
8 Synesthesia in artists: http://link.springer.com/article/10.2478%2Fs13380-012-0007-z#page-1
9 5-15% of the adult population have experienced some form of synesthesia: http://
10 Extreme Pleasure and Synesthesia: http://www.drelist.com/synesthesia-orgasm-color 11 Pharrell on Synesthesia 2: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sensorium/201203/
12 Synesthesia’s atmosphere of over-stimulus: http://drholly.typepad.com/synesthesia_interview/
13 Though he decided to remove some of the puzzle elements from the song because he found them detrimental to the sound, this isn’t the end of the puzzles: “On the CD itself I hid something, a physical object.”
14 Stuart Price produced Madonna’s 2005 Confessions on a Dance Floor, which is a pretty awesome album. You should listen to it again.