Is that a jazz ensemble playing in the pocket, or talented studio wizardry? For the aptly-named Anomalie, the answer is often “both, and then some”. Born Nicolas Dupuis, Anomalie emerged from the fruitful Montreal music scene, where immersion in jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music all informed his unique style. He can play a pop stage, but his chord progressions are decidedly jazzy. He can impress jazz cats with his improvisation, but his recorded pieces are all definitely songs – concise and packing an arranged emotional punch.
Known for his viral solo performance videos, engaging live ensemble, and EPs – the latest of which, Métropole Part II, makes for excellent and cozy listening while reading this feature – Anomalie took a break from his busy and ascendant life of music to discuss chord progressions, influences, and working with laptops and acoustic instruments with David Abravanel.
Anomalie performs “Notre-Dame Ouest”
Your performance videos are a great way to see how you write songs that incorporate improvisation. I’m curious as to how you strike the balance in the studio and performing live between arrangements and improvisation?
Performance-wise I do improvise from time to time when I go to a jam session, or when just practicing at home and trying to come up with ideas. So improv is definitely the foundation of the earlier stages of my creative process, but then as soon as I dive into the arrangement process or the actual Anomalie live shows, it's like the total opposite end of the spectrum, it's extremely prepared. Whether it's a solo or a specific part, I want everything to feel like it was arranged and prepared to be like very, precise, I guess.
I also noticed that you perform with your keyboard tilted forward, which gives the audience a great view of what you’re doing. Do you find that it makes a difference in how you play – does it make things more difficult?
For the playing part it's actually pretty similar. There are maybe a couple of key runs that I have to try at that angle to make sure I'm able to play them as well, but it's still very minor, so it's not a huge technical challenge. For the audience it definitely makes a very big impact, so it makes it more entertaining. There are no vocalists in the band and I'm not able to really move around, so for me it's a way to make the show a bit more entertaining and it's definitely a very good compliment to the few crowd interactions that I place during the show.
As to when I started doing it - before I released the first EP Métropole and before I started touring basically with the current live band I was playing as Gramatik’s keyboard player for a year. He performs in a variety of different EDM festivals and he DJs, but always brings an instrumentalist with him; now he has a really good guitar player touring with him, and before me it was also a guitar player. The first show I had with him, I was basically playing over his tracks – there were no elements that were taken out of his tracks to make room for me, it was purely improv or just sonic textures or sometimes open piano jams in between tracks, but it was really just to compliment what was already going on. And at that point, especially in a festival setting where you don't really see what the people are doing on stage, the people are not coming to see a band perform, they're mostly there to listen to what's going on. I personally felt like the keyboard instrument was a bit confusing for the audience, and I actually got called out online for faking because it was hard from an audience point of view, I guess, to understand what was going on. So I started tilting the keyboard immediately after that to sort of prove what was going on but also make it interesting and allow people to make this more mental connection. Even if there's a lot of sounds involved, and not necessarily everyone knows synths very well, but they can still think, “alright I hear this sort of melody and a sort of reverb kinda sound, and then I see the fingers moving,” so they can make a connection - it makes it more entertaining and obvious.
Highlights from Gramatik’s 2017 tour, featuring Anomalie.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re comfortable using a laptop on stage – more than one, even. How does that fit with your live band?
The only person who doesn't use a laptop [live] is the drummer, and even then the drumkit is a hybrid kit with a drum pad and triggers, so there's a lot of electronics involved. Then for everyone else – me, a second keyboardist and bass player – all of our sounds are coming from a laptop where we have Ableton Live sessions opened up. Mine is running backing tracks and all the patches are automated so I have various instances that are turning on and off. And for the other guys, it's the same idea but they're manually changing the patches. Whether it's an effect rack, a specific synth patch, virtual pedals for the bass player, everything is done through Ableton sessions on the computers.
And how do you keep in sync – are you using Link?
We're actually not syncing them together because there was no need so far for tempo-synced effects or sidechain on effects patches. The sidechain that is occurring or anything that really needed a click reference is happening on my computer. We might try Link eventually, but for the moment it's purely independent and three computers basically serve as the source of the sounds.
When you're playing, are most sounds coming from the keyboard or plugins or samples, or does it switch up?
Which ones are you using?
I've been a very solid Spectrasonics user for a couple years, so most of my patches come from Omnisphere's synths. For pianos and Rhodes and all keyboards, Keyscape from Spectrasonics as well. I've been using a bit of the new Wavetable synth recently for the newest tracks, which I brought to the live show as well. And then almost all effects are Ableton effects, so like reverb, chorus, delays, EQs, compressors. All of that is Ableton stock.
How do you move between effects settings?
Everything from patch changes to effect changes to Effect Racks that are loaded, it's all there through automation. I make very heavy use of the Chain Selector in MIDI Effect Racks, VST racks, and Effect Racks that are activating and deactivating when they're called upon for a specific track or specific section of a song.
All three of us are entirely in Arrangement view. The locators are basically to change songs. So let's say I go from Song One to Song Two, all of the patches from Song One are deactivated and the patches from Song Two are loaded. And then on my computer specifically, once I press play and follow the backing track, all of the patch and effect automation for that specific track is occurring on the related tracks.
Please note: In order to replicate Anomalie’s controller mappings, we’ve added Patch Selector Macros to each of the green MIDI tracks. Be sure to move the locators to the different track markers in order to activate the respective devices. This Live Set includes a number of Anomalie’s Wavetable patches and requires Live 10 Suite.
Shifting to the studio, is it you solo or you with a band on your releases?
The EP it’s strictly me overdubbing.
Interesting – there are some horn parts on Métropole Part II. Do you also play horns?
I play clarinet. So for the song "Madison" where there's more horns and woodwinds, there's several overdubs of clarinet, sometimes there's an Effect Rack that makes it sound a bit different with pitch shifters and stuff to make it sound a bit more like a sax. But all of the trombone chords and all of that, those are mostly VSTs but then I double them with clarinet to make it sound a bit more organic.
When you compose, is there usually a part that you start with, or does it sometimes start with drums, sometimes with keys, sometimes with strings?
If I have a specific idea that comes to mind it'll usually start with a piano, or if I'm practicing then while I'm practicing and doing improv I come out with something cool, I record it, like either a piano or Rhodes sound. Most of the time it's that for the melody or chord structure, but sometimes when I open a Live Set with the purpose of starting an idea I'll usually lay down a drum loop and start building over that. That's most of the time, but then on some specific occasions, let's say I'm working strictly on trying to come up with cool patches to save and use later on, sometimes I start playing with the sound and then a riff comes out if it. So in some cases it starts immediately with the synth patch.
Do you find that those mindsets kind of mix, so it's not that you're necessarily exclusively working on sound design or exclusively on melody or riff or chords?
Exactly, because the way I separate the creative process for me is there's the initial idea stage and then there's sort of like the arrangement phase that kind of overlaps with production, but then there's an actual dedicated step to production, mixing, and finally mastering. For me whether it's all of those steps in the creative process or actually just having moments in the week where I focus on one or the other, in the end they all end up combining and forming a song.
Your songs are often concise in length, but feature chord progressions that appear more often in longer jazz exercises. How does your background inform your chord choices?
Before I dive into the chord progressions, I find it interesting that you mention the lengths. Let's say that, compared to some of my contemporaries that are more in the jazz or jazz-fusion worlds, I definitely use song structures that are closer to pop; you have verse-chorus, maybe a bridge, verse-chorus, and it's definitely like patterns and melodies that come back, as opposed to A-B-C-D-E-F and a song structure.
For me, using the different chord textures that come from various influences, it could be traditional jazz - some movements come from more traditional classical inspiration – or it could be from an orchestration technique or reference I have. I still listen to classical composers on a regular basis. My all-time favorites are Brahms and Stravinsky, but for me it's basically just the progressions I've had through my musical education since I was kid, so it's just the way that I create on a piano.
Every idea will start from the piano, and then I will sort of arrange it and choose the synth sounds that I want to use afterwards and build the whole song around that original idea, which will consist of a chord progression and/or a melody or lead part.
Interesting that you mention Stravinsky, because of course we know that when he first premiered "The Rites of Spring" it was not taken well. Did you find any resistance to what you were doing in terms of merging these worlds?
Definitely not, I was pretty fortunate in that sense. Basically my timing was pretty good where the whole neo-soul movement was catching up pretty quickly and now it's pretty big, and I kinda fit partly into that world as well, so the idea of having these more like Dilla-esque or hip-hop drums but then with synths, production and different chords that are derived from either classical or RnB and all that is already something some people are already used to.
I had a very small core following at first. They were pretty receptive and very encouraging with my original material and then it just kept on growing, specifically through social media, so yeah of course there's the occasional negative comment, which is just a part of life, but I wouldn't say there's been a huge backlash or a very precise criticism of the mix of those worlds.
Who were some of your other influences? J Dilla is a big one, as you’ve stated previously.
When it comes to drum placement, especially in a couple of key tracks such as “Velours”, or “Le Bleury” from the first EP, J Dilla has been a huge influence not only for me but for tons of musicians and producers alike. Hearing Robert Glasper's Black Radio was definitely a big influence 'cos he definitely marked a time in the whole music world with that release where I feel a transition after that coming from several different artists.
Everything that's been done after that and today, like Moonchild, I'm a big fan, Tom Misch, Jordan Rakei. But at the same time as Robert Glasper and way before Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, all of those, whether it's from the 90s, early 2000s or today, all of those are kind of part of the same universe. I guess what changes as we move forward in time is there's an even greater mix of various influences and of course, production is more present today in this sound in general with a lot of artists.
There are a number of thriving music scenes in Montreal – how did that environment influence you?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It's a very nice environment to be in. Just as a city, I really love Montreal – I grew up here and it's the main inspiration and theme for both of the Métropole EPs. Musically, culturally and socially I really like the bilingual reality where pretty much everyone speaks both French and English, which makes for some really interesting projects and just meeting people in general. You'll have say, both scenes, you'll have the Francophone singer-songwriter, typical artists who mostly get more coverage on media in general on the scale of the province, but then the actual Anglophone scene will be a bit more underground, strangely enough, since they don't get as much coverage on the Quebec media. I really like that dynamic, heading to small club, whether it's jazz, hip-hop or just a pop show, it's very inspiring to know this
A big game changer for me was becoming a part of this house band for our weekly jam session here called Le Cypher. It's a hip-hop jam session every Thursday, it's all going on, it's a really awesome night. And I was a part of the house band for that event for two years, so pretty much every two or three weeks I would go spend the night there to play 90s hip-hop with some amazing musicians, vocalists, MCs, and that has been very inspiring for me.
Follow Anomalie on his Soundcloud and on Instagram, and catch him on tour