RAMZi: A World of her Own Design
Like the best electronic music, Phoebé Guillemot’s creations take you very far away indeed. While there may be plenty of genres stuffed full of soundalike producers working to a formula, Guillemot’s work as RAMZi truly has few counterparts. On paper the description of tropical forest sounds, lopsided percussion, delirious synths and autotuned vocals may sound unfamiliar, or perhaps even unappealing, but such is the unique nature of RAMZi it’s hard to put across just how exotic sounding this music is. While some artists vaguely allude to music from distant lands or even thoughtlessly appropriate sounds from other cultures, Guillemot is busy creating entire worlds of her own design.
Exotica is in fact the driving theme behind RAMZi, but this is far from the marimba-inflected lullabies that would transport western listeners to the Caribbean, South Pacific or Latin America back in the 1950s. Instead we can consider exotica here as an amalgamation of influences from all over the world filtered through a singular approach to production, winding up in a non-specific place unbound to the Earth’s geo-political boundaries.
“I’ve always been into exotic music since a very young age,” explains Guillemot. “‘Tropical’ clearly refers to what it means, but ‘exotic’ for me is more evocative. It implies the idea of the strange and mysterious, or the discovery of new untouched territories you can only imagine.”
Beyond the kitschy cultural mutations of early exotica, the meaning of the term in music could be readily applied to many an artist and musical movement across the ages. As well as being influenced by the new age sounds of Iasos while in the womb and growing up on her dad’s love of Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane and all kinds of African music, Guillemot also namechecks Jon Hassell as an influence. Hassell’s pioneering work in the 70s and 80s drew on his ethnomusicological studies of traditional musics from different parts of the world, elements of which he fused with jazz and other Western experimental practices to create what he coined “fourth world music,” a concept that takes a more informed and culturally sensitive route to the imagined land of exotica.
“I feel I’m doing a new wave of exotica somehow, or pushing to the fifth world!” Guillemot jokes. “It sounds pretentious, but I don’t care!” It’s no stretch to view her music in this way though. There is an undeniable feeling of the new and unknown that comes with listening to any of the RAMZi releases that have appeared on tape and 12” over the past four years. It’s a dense, sometimes claustrophobic sound full of strange, distorted noises that all seem to move in an organic harmony despite the complexity of the mix. Occasionally a sound or motif might remind you of a particular place, but it’s soon waylaid by another less familiar tone that leaves the mind spinning in a delightful limbo between known locations.
It’s no surprise to learn that Guillemot has been a globally-minded music lover for a long time. When she was 19 she spent four months in South East Asia and soaked up the pop music she was hearing in the markets of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Elsewhere, she fell in love with Somali music. More recently she cites a fascination with Moroccan music from the 80s as well as 80s and 90s pop from the Ivory Coast and 80s minimalist composers from Portugal and Italy. At the other end of the scale, she places a great importance on the influence of jazz fusion in all its diversity, and the structural complexity of prog in the composition of RAMZi songs.
“I guess my taste for music from all over the world creates this fusion style in my music,” Guillemot muses. “I feel my music is coming from a long process of distillation of diverse influences.”
“People sometimes say that my music is collage work, which I disagree with,” she continues. “It’s many layers of rhythms and melodic lines. The instruments are sounds that I sample and then play on my MIDI keyboard. There are a few songs that I sampled and made a loop with, but most of the time it’s a lot of individual samples being put into Ableton’s Simpler, re-pitching and adding effects to them.”
Guillemot readily acknowledges that her varying phases of musical interest feed into her music. The early RAMZi productions came together at a time when she was fascinated with Caribbean music and dancehall, and so she turned to that as a source material, but she stresses that her method focuses on taking individual sounds and repurposing them as her own instruments, rather than sampling wholesale sections of music. “There’s a guitar sound from Durutti Column I keep using,” Guillemot reveals, “or some Larry Heard synths. I usually don’t spend much time choosing my sounds. It’s really spontaneous.”
While the melodic and atmospheric sources may evolve over time, the foundations of the RAMZi sound are built on specific drum kits that Guillemot has been using for many years. She had been exploring production privately for a long time, keeping her experiments to herself while she searched out the method she needed to build a distinct musical identity. “It took me time to find a sound that I wanted to develop,” she admits. “As soon as I played with some Latin percussion and grain delays and some birds, I felt comforted and wanted to hear that all the time.”
Indeed, you can hear those motifs throughout Guillemot’s music, and their frequent use provides a thread of consistency to her ranging, wild sound. As well as Latin percussion, she used samples of African percussion passed to her by friends and built them into drum kits – developing rhythmic loops with these key sounds (and added bird calls for good measure).
“I have 'mother' sequences of rhythms I built a long time ago that I kept just the audio of, it’s what defines RAMZi,” she explains. “I always find a way to have those loops as a layer among 20 others. I always go back and re-use layers of those slow organic rhythms, like a foundation that I can always adapt. They help to give a constancy to the sound.”
These roots of the RAMZi sound were established many years ago during a summer Guillemot spent on her own in Victoria, British Columbia. She points fondly to tracks from her first two albums, cassette-only efforts entitled Dezombi and Bébites as being prime examples of these typical RAMZi rhythms. The first was released on Canadian label Los Discos Enfantasmes in 2013, while the second was a self-released venture on Pygmy Animals. While the Etwal Timoun 12” on Total Stasis was a big leap forward, it was with the release of the HOUTi KUSH tape on 1080p in 2015 that the sound of RAMZi broke through to a wider audience, and Guillemot considers it a turning point in her sonic evolution as well.
“I think HOUTi KUSH represents the new RAMZi,” Guillemot states. “Houti is an apparition in the RAMZi world, bringing a more feminine and romantic ethos to the music. You can hear her singing on the album.”
As has already been suggested, effects processing plays a big role in Guillemot’s creative workflow. As well as the sheer spread of sounds at play at any one time in a RAMZi track, there’s a lot of movement and variation that lends a decidedly psychedelic quality to the overall sound. “I like to use a lot of effects in my tracks,” Guillemot admits. “One of my discoveries on my track “Dezombi” was to put a Grain Delay on the master. It really makes my rhythms all dubby and trippy.
“I minimally use effects on almost all my tracks,” she continues, “to set a sort of standard to my sound. It’s all intuitive. The Beat Repeat is on a lot of my rhythms. It adds an organic aspect to the beats. I also really like the Corpus. It’s what makes my sound wobbly. I just tune it to give my sound more deepness. I play with the LFO, the tune function and the decay, and I feel the sound becomes more alive, like a breathing movement.”
Aside from the heavy effects processing and layers of sonic fauna, one of the other stand-out facets of the RAMZi sound that gives it that striking quality between organic and alien is the use of vocals. Particularly on HOUTi KUSH and subsequent releases on Total Stasis, Rvng Intl. and Mood Hut, you can hear all manner of mutant speech sending strange incantations through the soundscape. Of the many different approaches to processing Guillemot takes with vocal elements, there is a noticeable distinction between low pitched chatter and also a more melodic, auto-tuned style of voice.
“There’s a big difference between RAMZi playing live and in the studio,” she explains. “Live I use two voices altered with the Grain Delay, one slightly high pitched and one low. They are like entities in the RAMZi world that interact together, but on my albums you don’t hear them much, just some snippets here and there. Many of the voices on the records are samples.”
Much like the musical matter that Guillemot slices up to repurpose as her own instrumentation, these vocal samples can come from all kinds of sources. On her most recent release, Phobiza “Noite” Vol. 2, the first two tracks feature speech from Pedro Costa’s documentary-fiction crossover film In Vanda’s Room. Elsewhere on the record, “Messiah” features the aforementioned voice of Houti. The record ends with “Male Heya”, featuring an auto-tuned vocal Guillemot describes as a “middle voice” as opposed to the “big voice” she uses for live performance. Where a ‘middle’ voice is pitched down to -4, the ‘big’ voice is pitched twice as low, and the ‘small’ voice is pitched up two or three semitones.
“I see auto-tune as an instrument in itself,” Guillemot explains. “I like the in-between note modulations you can reach with it. There’s something alien and emotive about it. It’s also so common now all over the world, even on traditional music, it becomes addictive to listen to I think.” The vocals are of course just part of the puzzle. It’s not always easy managing a lot of sounds in the mix at any one time, and with all the dense layers of sound occurring at any given moment in a RAMZi track it raises the question of how Guillemot handles such a lot of sonic information playing out at the same time.
She points out that her tracks often run around the 70 bpm mark. “I discovered that low tempos give me way more space in between the sounds,” Guillemot explains. “Then I can add more rhythmic layers that can be fast on top. If everything was fast it would be too much to handle.” As well as running beats in double-time in this slower environment, Guillemot also professes a preference for loops and musical phrases with contrasting polyrhythms in her quest for a more natural sound.
Aside from her own explorations into sound and music, one of the key inspirations for Guillemot’s work comes from collaboration and her day-to-day interactions. In Montreal she has a range of friends she can musically spar with, while remotely she works with the likes of rising Vancouver producer D. Tiffany. “Much of my influence comes through the people I meet,” she states. “Just making music with friends helps so much. I’m trying to do that more.”
However, while RAMZi may be continually inspired by the world she encounters, the project also provides Guillemot as much as her listeners with a means of escape. In her richly defined sound world, RAMZi is a non-gender-specific being on a continual exploratory expedition, an accumulation of life situations and obstacles, or as Guillemot puts it, “a stubborn child”. HOUTI provides the counterbalance to this domineering force, representing the feminine side of this vivid audio construct. The constant between both sides of Guillemot’s creation is nature in all its untamed, root-spreading, overgrown glory.
“I like feeling like I’m on a quest,” says Guillemot. “My music is most of all about the spiritual qualities of the natural world and the emergency for its protection. RAMZi is a warrior and its music is a weapon.”
Keep up with RAMZi on Facebook and Bandcamp.
Photos by Martha Goncalves