Growing up, Sébastian Akchoté’s brother wasn’t always around. Noël was 12 years Sébastian’s senior and a successful jazz guitarist. If he wasn’t in the studio, he was on the road, but he would visit their mother’s house from time to time and play the younger Akchoté records.
“He was always interested about very different and alternative music,” Akchoté remembers. “He would bring me to some different concerts — very different kinds of styles. He played a role for me to discover and be curious all the time, trying to find new things, new scenes.”
Now 38 years old, the young Akchoté has earned a reputation for fierce conceptualism. SebastiAn (stylized with capital “A” in defiance of the classic French spelling “Sebastien,” which often marked his mail) hit the scene in the mid-2000s as the dark prince of Ed Banger’s French touch 2.0. But he’s also well known as the voice of Frank Ocean’s “Facebook Story,” the producer of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Rest, and the composer of the score to Yves Saint-Laurent’s 2020 Spring line.
In interviews, he is soft-spoken, while his music and performances are often loud, frightful affairs. It’s been said his remix of Daft Punk’s “Human After All” is the duo’s personal favorite, and his 2011 debut LP Total is essential listening to understand the pre-EDM zeitgeist.
Fans have waited eight years for a sophomore release, and today, Akchoté quenches that thirst with 17 moody, glitchy and richly-layered tracks. With features from Gainsbourg, The Internet frontwoman Syd, Mayer Hawthorne, Gallant, Sparks and more, Thirst attempts to connect everything SebastiAn has been with everything Akchoté has become.
“When I started, it was more adolescent,” he says, “When you are 23, you just want to explode everything, as I did with the first album. Now, I am not calm, but I’m more able to show a different part of myself.”
Akchoté is known as a Parisian artist, and while he was born there, he moved to his mother’s native Yugoslavia when he was about two. His father had just passed away, and his mother, having moved to France without friends or family, needed support in raising her youngest child. Growing up in Belgrade (now the capital of Serbia), Akchoté was exposed to a very different sort of culture. His music celebrates these roots for the first time on Thirst single “Beograd.”
“When you go there, it’s like going back into the ’90s,” Akchoté says. “People are not obsessed about health or security. Not everybody who ends up taking their motorbike uses helmets. They sometimes smoke cigarettes in a car. They are not already scared about everything… It’s maybe not safe, but it’s kind of free for the common lives, and also the culture is… not hysterical, but they are full of life.”
For the “Beograd” video, Akchoté and director So Me (a longtime friend and collaborator) walked the streets of the city running a “savage casting.” They picked people off the street or in the clubs and filmed them dancing. One man with a big belly and distinguishable head nod turned out to be late chess great Bobby Fisher’s lawyer. Another was a street-dwelling “gypsy” who proudly proclaimed “in the ’80s, everybody was calling me king of the disco.”
“I just wanted to show what is exciting me when I’m there,” Akchoté says, “This is not something really intellectualized, it is just a feeling, and I wanted to show this because I did the track there, and I’m coming from there. I grew up with this kind of people who are funny, who are excited. Everybody had this craziness, but the little craziness that we love, because everybody has a little craziness inside.”
Forever in love with Paris, Akchoté’s mother returned with her teenage son. He was now a bit of a beat freak, and as the technology of music became democratized, he started making hip-hop beats. He wanted to be like DJ Premier, but always striving to be different, his music took on a harsh and rowdy energy. Disco samples were manipulated to hit like heavy metal to a hip-hop beat, and someone told him to give this guy Pedro Winter a call.
As Daft Punk’s manager, Winter was a seasoned character of the French Touch scene. In 2003, the group was between albums, so Winter started the label Ed Banger to stay busy. He loved Metallica, Chic and the Beastie Boys equally. Maybe he’d understand SebastiAn’s noise.
“I just knocked on the door,”Akchoté says. “I was quite sure he was never gonna open, but finally he said, ‘Yes, come. I want to listen what you do.” I showed him the tracks, and he told me, ‘The first one, the second one and the last one. You finish them, and next weekend, I’m gonna sign you.’”
Some 17 years later, Ed Banger is still the home of all things SebastiAn. Winter, who releases music as Busy P, never forces a schedule on artists. If it takes labelmates Justice five years to release an album, so be it. If Mr. Oizo wants to make a few movies between EPs, all the better. Akchoté learned a lot when he helped the latter soundtrack his 2007 surrealist film Steak, followed by his solo effort in 2008 to soundtrack Romain Gavras’ film Notre Jour Viendra.
“When I’m producing for myself, I have no pictures in the head,” he says. “When I work for people who make movies, they oblige you to structure it yourself …to intensify what you see … The only influence on Thirst I took from the movies was keeping a tension. They probably taught me to have some pictures in the head or to create some ambiance.”
When it came time to announce Thirst to the world, he worked with another film director; horror’s debauched and deviant maverick Gaspar Noé. “It was natural for me to call him,” the producer says. “He is a good guy to open the party with.”
Noé’s films (Irreversible, Enter the Void, Climax) are notoriously hard to watch, because they present viewers not with fantastical monsters that lurk in the dark, but with too-real horrors of life’s darkest possibilities. The pair worked together on the music video for Thirst’s titular track and lead single. An ode to Taxi Driver, one of Noé’s favorite films, it’s composed of a single shot and centered around a cocky young man and the violence his actions incite.
“[Noé] is not knocking on the door,”Akchoté says. “He’s just flooding the door open, and that’s what I love in him… He told me ’10 years ago when you put out your album, you were in clubs all the time. If you come back, you’re going to come back by the clubs, and or you’re going to make something in a club.’ I said, ‘What is the story?’ And he told me, ‘There’s no story, just I’m going to destroy everything.’”
It’s a striking video, but the album version of “Thirst” features introspective, emotional vocals left out of the promotional clip. “Wake up/ Go out/ Sun’s up/ Stronger/ Than ever before/ You should leave/ This dark meadow,” it hums. The quiet moment is sandwiched between aggressive synthetic roars, and as the opening track of the album, it signals the first real taste of emotional vulnerability for the SebastiAn project.
There’s a softer side to Thirst, dark as it might be, than there is with 2011’s Total. It’s a headphone album, full of wild sonic textures and layers to get lost in. “Thirst” melts into “Doorman” with Syd, a bass-heavy tune that blends mechanical glitches with soulful piano chords to create a sensual but industrial brand of R&B. “Sober” mixes French singer Bakar’s wistful topline with sci-fi disco arpeggios, hip-hop rhythms and a mid-aught electro breakdown. “Sev,” with Iranian singer Sevdaliza, creates a brooding, cinematic atmosphere from orchestral strings trip-hop technique.
“Better Now” is a nearly six-minute epic that reunites Akchoté with “Love In Motion” collaborator Mayer Hawthorne over Beach Boys-inspired melodies and tense emotional anticipation — matched in grandeur only by the incredibly theatrical “Run For Me,” with Gallant. The album is hilarious and cheeky like ’80s synth-pop on “Handcuffed to a Parking Meter” (featuring Sparks), then immediately melancholic on “Devoyka,” which features strings composed by Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire, Her) whom the producer met when working with Gainsbourg.
“I love when you don’t know where you are exactly,” he says. “I’m not obsessed [with] putting out something every year. I am into proposing something new, and at this time … [it’s] this strange structure to find a bridge between hip-hop, rock, French Touch, all the things together. When I’m in this position, I really love to produce for myself.”
Just don’t expect the live performances to be a sit-down affair.
“I already started to rework everything,” he says, “because I still love my first love in life; really hard and strong tracks … I’m not obliged to make a copy of the album for live. I prefer to make something that I really like to do in live, which is something you can dance to, [something to which] you can screw everything.”
The album cover is the final, albeit ironic bridge between Thirst and its bombastic predecessor. In 2011, Total depicted an unforgettable black-and-white image of Akchoté kissing himself. It was inspired by the time he saw Prince rock Paris for three hours, only to finish with the words “I wish I could kiss myself right now.” The self-loving image also stood as a comment to social media’s growing influence on an evermore self-involved society.
On the cover of Thirst, Akchoté is now pictured in color punching himself while he’s down.
“It’s the consequences of loving yourself too much,” he says, likening it to British humor. “They are making jokes, but they’re not laughing … [The title] could be Thirst because I drink a lot, but it could also be the thirst you feel for having one million people following you on Instagram. I love when words mean many things at the same time. With the cover, they are fighting and we don’t know why. It was a feeling of the moment, of what [is happening] now. People look thirsty – about what I don’t know, but they look really thirsty to me.”
Thirst is out now on Ed Banger and available on pink vinyl. Sebastian will support the release with three live performances in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco this December. Listen to the sophomore LP in full below.