Interview by Jonathan Wingfield
It’s hard to appreciate the sheer visceral nature of the Balenciaga runway experience until you’ve been physically immersed in it.
Thunderous techno, twisted electronica, anxiety-inducing industrial goth rock, and a cinematic orchestration that makes the soundtrack to the average Bourne chase sequence feel like a Disney score. Anyone who’s felt the Balenciaga show soundtracks (the volume’s always turned up to 11) will attest to the inimitable pounding that the music impresses on both body and mind.
All are the work of French musician BFRND. As the husband of Demna, show composer and model (thanks to his pitch-perfect, on-brand look), he occupies a unique place in the modern-day Balenciaga landscape. His physical and cultural proximity to Demna’s world allows him to embed his highly emotive sounds deep into every show’s concept and meaning.
BFRND sat down with System to discuss death metal, Hans Zimmer, and how his and Gvasalia’s shared life in rural Switzerland provides the most fertile conditions to compose his next ‘conceptual mindfuck’.
Press play to enter the world of Balenciaga. With a System playlist by BFRND.
Can you remember the first music you discovered for yourself, which wasn’t just handed down to you from parents or elder siblings?
BFRND: It does actually come from my parents, because my dad used to listen to a lot of new wave, hard rock, electronic trance and techno. I just went harder! At
the age of maybe 13, I got into black metal and industrial cyber goth.
How did you discover that stuff?
I used to help a friend who had her own music venue, near where I grew up in the south of France, near the Spanish border. So I would meet a lot of touring musicians – from hard-metal bands to industrial electronica.
What drew you to these more extreme musical genres?
I think it was just the search for adrenaline. I was a frustrated teenager from a very small town and music was my only way to express myself. No one in the music scene questioned my sexuality or the way I looked. Frustration was definitely a big part of it: I always wanted to listen to or play or write music from morning to evening. I wanted to be on stage; I wanted to record albums. I wanted it so bad, and I found ways. As a teenager I started singing in a death-metal band and we played in the end-of-year show at our small Catholic school. We just tricked everyone into playing, and when the parents heard our satanic lyrics, they all left!
Were you also attracted to the image and style elements of the music and the artists you listened to?
For sure, especially when I got more into the super gothic style. I’d grab whatever I could find, steal stuff from my mum, find non-gothic dark clothes, use make-up, shave my eyebrows, just use anything I could. There were a lot of goth people at the time, but looking back, it just seems like too much of a stereotype, a kind of costume. I believe you should do your own thing, and these days, even though I still have this underlying goth vision, my look feels more modern, and unique to me.
How did you and Demna meet? What music do you associate with that time?
We met on Facebook in 2016. I didn’t know who he was, and my best friend was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to fall in love and marry him; you too are so similar.’ I was really excited, and about a week later we met in person in London, and we fell in love, and then a year later we got married in Switzerland. The prophecy came true! The Throbbing Gristle track ‘Almost a Kiss’ was the song that we were listening to that whole time.
Tell me about your first fashion-related project, the Vetements ‘Stereotypes’ show music for Winter 2017.
I had never done anything like that in my life. I was so scared, but I loved it because it was really the moment when Vetements became this conceptual mindfuck. Every look was so studied, with all the detailing on the clothes – and I was thrown in there among it all.
Let’s talk about your Balenciaga show soundtracks.
It is like a movie; you have to make the audience feel something. It is not just some random techno track playing while the show takes place: look by look, the show tells a story. You create a kind of movement, a journey, as the music and the looks change at the same time, to reveal a parallel story.
‘As a teenager I started singing in a death-metal band. We played in the end-of-year show at our small Catholic school in the south of France.’
At what point in the collection or show preparation does the conversation with Demna start about music?
Even before the concept is given to the designers. Demna does research at home, so we exchange about the format of the show, the mood of the music, and
about whether to take a more industrial, more electronic or more orchestrated approach.
Tension and anxiety are central to the soundtracks you compose.
That’s because tension and anxiety are the two things I feel when I walk in the street. When you have a strong look, like a Balenciaga look, people really react to it – in a good way, a shocked way, an angry way, many different ways – but you get seen. What you wear gives you a kind of emotion as well: a Balenciaga shoe makes you walk differently; the clothes make you feel different, like a powerful character, and not just a costume. Those are all the feelings and emotions I try to put into the music. And I think the audience comes to a Balenciaga show knowing it’s going to experience something different. The music helps the whole thing throb with
adrenalin and feelings.
Your soundtracks are perhaps best known for their thunderous beats, but there are also moments of beautiful cinematic orchestration. Where does that side come from?
Probably from industrial music, where you often have a cinematic intro and ending that uses orchestration, almost like in a science-fiction movie. Then you go back to something that hits your brain with really heavy, dark industrial sounds. The way the contrast works really triggers a lot of emotion.
What kind of film soundtracks do you particularly respond to?
For me, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s soundtrack for The Social Network is the best ever made. I also love Hans Zimmer because his sound is just perfect. People sometimes avoid investigating classical music because they think it is too old, but we all listen to classical music all the time, and most of that is through Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack work.
When you record the orchestration for Balenciaga shows, do you commission professional musicians?
No, I do it all myself. I actually bought a synthesizer created by Hans Zimmer – he has a keyboard made of his own orchestra recordings, which is then synthesized, which he uses for his first drafts – so I have that, and it’s like having Hans Zimmer’s orchestra at home!
Let’s talk about the solo BFRND track you released earlier this year, ‘French Connection’. It’s definitely in that lineage of great ‘bedroom pop’ songs.
Yes, it is pop. BFRND is two different things under the same name. I do the soundtracks, which have a certain audience, and then I write my own solo tracks, which allows me to experiment in different pop or industrial directions. I am preparing a small live tour at the moment, but not in standard concert venues; I am a bit bored of the traditional ‘black box’. I’d rather perform in a church, in the woods, or by the pyramids in Egypt; there are so many places where people aren’t used to going to see a show. That is what fashion taught me. Vetements once did a show in McDonald’s, so why not a concert in McDonald’s, or in the Paris metro?
And lastly, at what point was the decision made to present Demna’s debut couture show in total silence?
It was quite clear from the very first conversation Demna and I had. We had been for dinner in Paris and there was a live pianist, although I didn’t know it was live to start with. Suddenly, while we were eating, the pianist stopped playing and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s it.’ I only realized there had been music once it had
stopped, and there was this amazing silence. For the show, we put this kind of loud obnoxious jazz music before it started. Then we shut it down and the first model came out. The audience didn’t even realize; they were still talking among themselves until the first model walked past. It was a strong emotion, like it was for the models, too. I was walking in that show, and hearing people react – saying ‘wow’; things you’d never hear when loud show music is playing – was a unique experience.