“When You’re Truly Dedicated to Your Art, You’re Not Gonna Stop”: An Interview With ascendant vierge

Michael McKinney speaks to the hardcore duo about metal & industrial influences, working together during COVID, French club music and more.
By    July 7, 2023

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Michael McKinney understands the cultural importance of Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.”

Hardcore will never die, but it will never stop being reborn, either. The appeal of fast-and-heavy club music is, at first glance, obvious: lace a kick drum with enough heft and you can level mountains. But to stop at sheer weight is reductive. Even the most stone-faced gabber tracks frequently carry a devil-may-care sort of glee; the skyscraping synths of hard trance can threaten to crack heaven in half; sometimes, a wall of drum machines is a fast-track ticket towards dancefloor euphoria. Once you get acclimated to the tempi and energies of hardcore—which are frequently, but not always, cranked into the red—the style opens up, revealing all sorts of beauties between its chest-cratering percussion.

ascendant vierge understand this. The duo, composed of art-pop maven Mathilde Fernandez and gabber mastermind Paul Seul, first met when Fernandez asked Seul to remix a track from her 2018 EP, Hyperstition. In its original form, “Oubliette” is a reverb-drenched piece of synth-pop, Fernandez’s voice tracing out a spare melody atop a bed of organs, MIDI string sections, and a bare-bones drum machine. It’s slow and a bit Gothic, so Seul’s edit lands as a gut punch: he speeds things up quite a bit and chops up Fernandez’s vocals, beefing up the rhythm section with a steamrolling kick drum and mile-a-minute breakbeats. Critically, his edit retains the high-drama energy of the original, even as it reimagines Fernandez’s music as a soundtrack for dimly lit warehouses.

While this may read as a bit of a left turn, it has plenty of precedent. Seul is a founding member of Casual Gabberz, a Parisian club-music collective that has been pushing gabber and hardcore into parts unknown since its founding in the early 2010s. In Casual Gabberz’s music, hardcore dance music is more of an aesthetic approach than a specific sound: gabber mainstay Von Bikräv evokes old-school hardcore heroes Rotterdam Terror Corps; Krampf finds the space between new-school gabber, hard techno, and hands-up trance; and Paul Seul pushes things into ever stranger territories thanks to his frequent dives into breakbeat and psychedelia. This is hardly a crew of traditionalists, in other words—Seul, in his own work and alongside affiliates, has long been working to push hardcore into new spaces, reimagining the sound of hard dance along the way.

It should come as little surprise that Fernandez, who grew up on industrial music and metal and has a similarly transgressive approach to songwriting, sought out Seul’s music in the pursuit of sheer weight. Seul’s makes a natural sparring partner for her: he has worked with plenty of vocalists in the past, and in that work, he has helped to broaden the spectrums contained in hardcore. ascendant vierge’s music doesn’t offer a one-to-one comparison with many names in contemporary dance music, but that makes their alchemy all the more thrilling. In their work, Seul and Mathilde have drawn up a kaleidoscopic vision of the hard dance continuum—early-’90s breakbeats, turn-of-the-century psytrance, hypermodern techno—without fitting neatly into any specific portion of it.

One collaboration beget another, and since then, ascendant vierge have gone on to release a handful of singles, a pair of EPs, and, in April’s Une Nouvelle Chance, a debut LP. Their discography, although trim, runs deep. This is the sound of two dance-music lifers exploring the style’s umpteen nooks, crannies, and mutations while proposing new forms along the way. With Une Nouvelle Chance, they take their operatic hardcore to another level, angling towards pop-radio ubiquity even as they offer a survey of hard-and-fast dance music: hardstyle, gabber and vocal house; hard trance, acid and straight-up pop belters. It’s a sprint through an entire musical continuum that imagines it as something that could take over the world, or at least the charts.

Ahead of their performance at Primavera Sound Barcelona, we got a chance to catch up with the duo, touching on the history and possible futures of hardcore music, the importance of uncertainty, and the power of underground club-music communities.

Good afternoon. How are you doing?

Paul Seul: Pretty chill. We’re in Spain right now—it’s been a week.

Mathilde Fernandez: Tonight, we’re playing in Primavera, and tomorrow, we’re playing for Boiler Room in Paris.

Paul Seul: It’s the end of a really short holiday. [laughs]

Before the two of you connected back in 2018, what initially drew you towards hard dance and pop music? How did you get to the point where you formed ascendant vierge?

Mathilde Fernandez: We both had solo careers before all this. Paul is a producer; as Paul Seul, he works with Casual Gabberz, a gabber crew. I’ve been working under my name since 2015.

I’ve always been fascinated by hard music. I used to listen to a lot of metal, industrial, electronic music, things like that. I discovered Paul’s music in 2018, and I immediately fell in love with it. I was working on an EP then, and I’d been trying to make hard dance without the tools—I’d been pushing kicks and hard dance in my music, but I didn’t quite know how. I’d talk to the producers I was working with, saying, “Please go harder!” And nobody really understood it.

I found Paul, and Casual Gabberz, online, and I thought, “This is so cool.” So I contacted him and asked him to do a remix—I was finishing up my EP and I wanted to include some remixes. He replied the next day, and the remix was done 24 hours later. I played it, and I went [gasps] “ohhh!” It was literally the best song on the EP. We met in real life 10 days later; I live in Brussels and he lives in Paris. We were very happy with that collaboration, and we both thought that we needed to keep working together. Not long after—maybe our second meeting, maybe one month later—we decided to create a band. Everything went very quickly.

Paul Seul: For about 10 years, I worked with MCs; I love working with vocalists. I like to leave space for vocalists and compliment their lyrics. I like producing techno, but for me, it’s more natural to work with vocalists. So I was looking to collaborate with vocalists for a long time. I was super happy when Mathilde contacted me; it went super fast from there.

Mathilde—you mentioned that you were into metal and industrial music. How did you initially find that material?

Mathilde Fernandez: I’m from the south of France—the country around the city of Nice. So there wasn’t much of a scene for that music. But even this very small city had a library where you could borrow CDs and videos. And one of the guys who ran the library was a huge fan of metal and hard rock. There was a lot—a lot!—of metal and rock there, and I was fascinated. At first, it was the images—they were a bit goth, and I was a teenager, and I was very drawn towards them. And then I discovered Nightwish, Rammstein, Marilyn Manson: all things that were already a bit old; older than me, and of a previous generation.

I’ve always listened to music on my own in my bedroom; that’s the case for all this hardcore that I’ve been discovering lately, too. I prefer to experience music like that, or maybe with some friends.

Paul Seul: She’s not much of a partygoer. [laughs]

Mathilde Fernandez: Otherwise, I want to be on stage or DJing; those are cool because you’ve got space around you.

What about you, Paul? How did you find your way into hardcore music?

Paul Seul: It’s been a long journey, with different phases and different people along the way. It started when I spent two or three years in Holland working with a branding agency. We met with the people from ID&T—the brand behind Thunderdome—to work on another festival. So I had easy contact with them. I knew I was going back to Paris, and I was listening to this movement—this culture of dance music. It was amazing and avant-garde. I think people underestimated it. I said, “I want to do an event around this gabber culture—an exhibition, a party, a series of talks.”

I came back to Paris, and I pitched this idea for a while. And a friend of mine, Esteban [Gonzalez, a.k.a. Claude Murder], who formed Casual Gabberz with me, said that now that another guy, Maxime [Guénégou, a.k.a. Aprile], who also founded Casual Gabberz, wanted to do a gabber party. I was like, “this guy has to be my friend or my enemy!” Then we met up, and that’s how the first Casual Gabberz party came to be.

For two or three years, we played this hardcore music without really knowing the rules; we’d mix it with trance and happy hardcore, but we learned a lot. We also worked in our own influences, especially with rap music. At this time, trap was really big, especially with big lead synths, so we were working in that direction. It was kind of a laboratory for this kind of hardcore. Then Evil Grimace put out a track on SoundCloud, and we were like, “what the fuck?” He synthesized everything we’d been doing for the past three years in one song. So we got in touch with him, and he joined the crew. Then we started the label, and Von Bikräv arrived, and then Krampf. It really started with the compilation, Inutile de Fuir, but we had already been doing parties for years at that point.

What was your headspace when you were putting together your latest record?

Paul Seul: It was a weird period for everyone, because it was during the days of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Mathilde Fernandez: We first got together to work on the album in January of 2020; a few weeks later, things got a bit complicated. At that moment, though, we had a very bold vision for what our year would be like. We said, okay, let’s start to work on the album. At that point, it would have been tour, tour, tour—we had big festivals lined up, that kind of thing. And, at that point, we had only released—

Paul Seul: Two or three songs.

Mathilde Fernandez: Not even the EP, I think. And then all the shows got canceled, of course. We had only performed three shows at that point—in August and September of 2019. So that was a very strange moment. It was like, finally, something is working out from all this music and passion and hard work! The shows were coming, and we were going to play festivals. And, suddenly, that all disappeared.

Paul Seul: Those moments—when you’re questioning yourself, when you’re sad or uncertain—are good moments to make art. So we created and exchanged a lot of ideas at that point. It was a weird moment to do an album, but…

Mathilde Fernandez: That’s the best moment, too.

Yeah. It went through a few different phases. At first, we were like, [gulp] “what the f*ck?” And then, the second phase—”creation is wonderful!”

Paul Seul: We took a long time to finish it, too—we had the demos done for a year and a half.

Mathilde Fernandez: Or two years, even.

Paul Seul: We took a long time to re-record some vocals: we worked with Lucien Krampf, from Casual Gabberz, on the production, and Geoff Swan helped with the mixing. That was the first time I’d pushed my music that far: at the stage we were at with Krampf, I was already super happy; I would have released it that way. But he pushed us to work with Geoff Swan, and the work he did was simply amazing. It’s such a challenge: Mathilde’s vocals take up a lot of space, but so do the beats. It’s a technical challenge to make all that pop.

You started this process when clubs were in a kind of freefall; everybody was in lockdown. Did that impact your approach at all?

Paul Seul: No. It’s gonna sound arrogant, but when you’re truly dedicated to your art, you’re not gonna stop. Sometimes, I was a bit happy about it: “let’s get all these people who aren’t here for a good reason out of the clubs, and let’s just keep the crazy ones and work a bit harder.” So that’s where I was at during lockdown. I was also thinking about artists who work all their lives and only get recognition after their death.

Mathilde Fernandez: When you create music—and this is true of art in general—you’re fully dedicated to what you’re creating. When you’re in that period of work, you don’t really think about what’s next or what your art’s life will be, because it’s not released yet.

Paul Seul: And our music was still getting played: in illegal raves, in house parties. also like we were after also being played In giving old parties in the house parties, so like this club vibe was still getting.

Mathilde Fernandez: And in a very interesting way! We felt very lucky to see our music living its life like that.

During the recording sessions, did you notice your approach to songwriting or production shift at all?

Paul Seul: From the start, we didn’t want to make some complicated techno-et cetera kind of thing. We wanted to make something pop, something easy to get. We want to keep it efficient and understandable, but with other layers, too—musically, but also in Mathilde’s lyrics.

Mathilde Fernandez: It’s all a bit faster, too, at least compared to working on my own.

Paul Seul: We approached this album in a very old-school way. So we wanted to have the right ingredients. There’s a throughline, in the “Influenceur”-style trancy and euphoric vibe, but we wanted to add some spice, too. And at the end of the album, I said, “okay, we already have all that. Now we need to do something different.” So we worked in downtempo and dub; on one track, we’ve got a guitar and pedal steel. This was a bit of a challenge, to see what could be relevant as ascendant vierge while keeping things surprising.

That makes sense. When I was listening through the record, I caught all sorts of styles—trance, gabber, breaks, techno. It almost felt like a survey of contemporary hardcore styles. I’m getting the sense that this was an intentional move on your part—does that track?

Paul Seul: Yeah, for sure. I’ve got a toolkit that I know I can use, and then we bring over influences, like Mathilde’s voice, or melodies and harmonies that you don’t normally hear in this context. It’s breaks; it’s 909s; it’s ’90s rave culture.

Are you familiar with DJ Rashad?

Paul Seul: Yeah, Teklife! Absolutely.

At some points, this record feels a bit like a hardcore Double Cup—it’s taking a relatively insular sound and saying, “what if we made this deeply approachable? Can we imagine this as pop music?”

Paul Seul: I’m happy you noticed that move. I’ve been saying for years now that it’s going to happen. I think it’s very possible that, in the next Rihanna or Ariana Grande record, you’ll find a raw kick, or something that’s a bit hardcore, a bit dance-ish. I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen on a major level.

You think it’s that close to blowing up?

Paul Seul: I was thinking that five years ago, too. [laughs] I’m sure we’ll get there. A lot of people enjoy this music.

Mathilde Fernandez: When we created the band, I had a very strong vision that this—this fusion of toolkits—could be the next big thing. We could help take something that’s niche to something bigger. We also saw younger people going to parties; it’s not merely optimism.

Paul Seul: For me, it’s the continuity from Casual Gabberz to here; it’s not a big move. There are some hints in pop culture. I know Carnage has been playing some hardstyle in EDM festivals, and like I know Skrillex really knows hardstyle, too. It’s popular among producers. I think it’s going to come—maybe not in the way I was thinking.

Mathilde Fernandez: I think it’s already there.

What are you thinking of? I’m pressing this because I come from a U.S. perspective, where all this is still a pretty niche proposition. Is this something I can hear on the radio in Belgium or France?

Paul Seul: There’s a huge gap in France, and in Europe, I guess, between what the youth are really listening to, and what is on youth radio. The same is true for French rap, too. It’s the most streamed music here, but when you turn the TV on, you will rarely see popular artists being on TV or regular programming, and that’s a shame.

It’s something similar with techno: you’ll see gatherings of 4,000 people every weekend around Paris; these are people who want to listen to techno and hard techno. It doesn’t do huge numbers on streaming services yet, but it’s coming. There’s also the fact that a band like us had the interest of Sony. Sony offered us this deal, which is a huge move for them; we’re a bit of a UFO to them. We’re a bit alien.

Mathilde Fernandez: We’ve experienced this firsthand. We went back to touring after two years, and we’re performing at stages with larger and larger audiences. We’re performing for more and more young people, too.

Paul Seul: It’s fun to bring back some ’90s references in our music because of that—the people who are 45 or 50 go, “yeah! That’s the shit that I remember!”

Did you have any particular reference points, musical or otherwise, when putting this record together?

Paul Seul: I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but we talk a lot about old stuff. We watch documentaries; we love learning about the stories behind albums. It’s a good counterpoint for us, because we’re sometimes perceived as being futuristic.

Mathilde Fernandez: If you’re curious about specific names, we were talking a lot about Grace Jones’s Nightclubbing. I personally love Leila K, an artist from the ’90s who was topping the charts in Sweden. We also like new wave. I love film scores: Angelo Badalamenti, things like that.

Paul Seul: We’re most curious about game changers. Musically, I find plenty of inspiration in stuff from the past, but we love stories about the relationship between musicians, the industry, and the media.

Mathilde Fernandez: There’s this biography about Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre—guys who have been working very hard in two very different environments. They finally met up and did crazy things: working with Gwen Stefani and Eminem, the rise of Marilyn Manson. This fascinated me, and it made a lot of things clear.

Looking through the liner notes for the LP, I’m seeing a lot of names with deep roots in the Parisian club circuit: CLUBKELLY, aamourocean, Von Bikräv, Krampf—a lot of familiar names. How do you relate to the contemporary French club scene?

Paul Seul: I’m glad we’re a scene, but we’re also good friends; we’re family. When we started ascendant vierge, we wanted to take a step away from what we were doing before. Outside of my connection to Casual Gabberz, at first, the project wasn’t connected to that group at all. But when we started the album, I just asked the guys: “do you have any songs?” CLUBKELLY is a really good house producer—that’s how he started. I had this Calvin Harris-style house track, and the beat wasn’t that good, so I sent it to him. He did all the hi-hats and the details; he also did the vocal chops, which I would have never done.

Mathilde Fernandez: I remember when we first listened to it, we were, like—[gasps]—that’s a great idea!

Paul Seul: It makes me proud that you’re reading it as a scene, though.

Of course: it’s tempting to draw connections between sounds and artists. Look at what, say, Teki Latex is doing. He’s taking Bérite club and hardcore, incorporating them into other sounds and new spaces.

Paul Seul: Teki was actually one of the first to invite Casual Gabberz, before that first compilation. We’ve known each other for a long time.

How did that come about?

Paul Seul: We’re a very small city. I was a fan when I started in music; I was going to their parties, and when you play the same clubs, you meet people.

You can look at our relationship to Live From Earth [Klub]—we’ve worked with them. There’s Berlin, too, because that’s where our music first got played. If there’s something to be said for the music’s connections, it’s probably about that German-French connection.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

Paul Seul: We’ve got a music video coming up in June. But tonight, we’re going to play Primavera, and then we’re going to get on a plane for Paris. We’ll do a Boiler Room, and then we’re going to sleep.

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