Clément Belio is one of the names most people haven’t heard of, when they really should have. Whether it’s his solo endeavors or his band Itzamna, everything he touches seems to turn to solid gold. Channeling diverse musical backgrounds into his works, he began his recording career with the release of Proxima, a five-track EP, in 2013. After the release of Itzamna‘s latest record Chascade (read our glowing review here), we had the opportunity and distinct pleasure to chat with Clément about the album’s writing process, the relationships within the band and much more.
It Djents: First things first: what meaning does your band name, Itzamna, hold?
Clément Belio: If I remember well, Itzamna is the name of a Mayan god, sort of the creator of the Earth. For us, it became a word that doesn’t make sense anymore, and is 100% of the time mispronounced by everyone. Which is the only reason why we are going to keep it as the band name.
ID: So it’s kind of an inside joke by now?
CB: Yes, it is. We’re still amused when people try to read it or review it on radio. We heard ‘Itarzan‘ (like a new Disney movie featuring a new Apple product) or ‘Itzaman’ (a Mayan superhero I guess?). Still, we also like it because you can’t guess what it’s about, what kind of music it is, etc.
ID: That’s pretty cool, not gonna lie. So where did you guys first meet? How was Itzamna formed?
CB: We are very close friends first. Almost everybody went to high school and college together, Adrien is an old friend of my girlfriend and also happens to be my sister’s boyfriend. Samuel and Benjamin know each other since they are 5 or 6 years old, Armand took part in my first EP back in 2012.
We are friends before being in the same band, so when it came to music, the creation of the band was pretty natural.
ID: Does that mean you’re also hanging out regularly outside the band?
CB: Exactly, except when our studies bring us far from our hometown. But yeah, we hang out together almost every time, with a few close more friends.
ID: Do any of your members have a formal education in music or are you all self-taught musicians?
CB: We are all self-taught in the sense that none of us had a ‘formal education’. We had instruments and music theory lessons but none that can be considered as formal like you would have in a conservatory.
ID: That’s very impressive, especially considering the broad scope and wide range of influences your music displays. Have you ever wished to attend a conservatory or something comparable?
CB: Me personally, yes. I studied 2 years in a French school called MAI (Music Academy International) to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, but unfortunately I didn’t get enough scholarship and the program is obviously too expensive for me. 36k just for the tuition and fees is ridiculous.
ID: Looking at it in retrospect, do you think it would have helped or maybe even hindered your own compositions?
CB: Definitely not, I think my ‘style’ is what it is especially because I’m self-taught. But getting out of a school like that is often playing the music life in easy difficulty. You have the contacts, the means and the legitimacy to easily achieve your goals. And make a living with music! Which is definitely not the case for any of us.
ID: But you’ve worked as a producer before and have composed for animated movies before. Weren’t those jobs lucrative enough to call it ‘making a living’?
CB: Nope, most of the time it was free, and when it wasn’t it was definitely super cheap. Student projects and all. These days I start to earn money through those services but I don’t have enough clients to make a living. Same story for everyone, you got to start somewhere.
My real focus right now is my own music and Itzamna‘s, we’ll see how it works but as long as I stay passionate I have no reason to stop.
ID: Okay, let’s talk about Itzamna‘s new album a bit. Chascade is a portmanteau of the two words ‘chat’ and ‘cascade’. How did that play on words become your album title?
CB: Same kind of stupid reason as the band’s name. We love cats and waterfalls, we make jokes about it and a big bunch of photos (or clips, see the “Duet” music video) everytime we can while on tour or vacations. Then there was the actual process of finding an album name, nobody agreed on anything and we just didn’t find a ‘serious’ title that represented the album well. The only title we agreed on was the silliest one, it made us laugh, and while it’s arguably not representative of the album itself, it’s very representative of the band and our friendship, so why not ?
ID: ‘Why not?’ is sometimes the best reason to have! So in your press kit, you mentioned that Chascade was composed in the two years after your first EP, Metnal. Please tell me more about the actual writing process.
CB: When Metnal was released, Samuel and Benjamin had already started to write new riffs. All of Itzamna‘s tracks start like that, they jam together and find cool melodies, harmonic progressions and rhythms. Sometimes it’s just basic ideas and rough structures, and sometimes it’s more elaborate since Benjamin, besides being the pianist, is also a great drummer. So he can easily write for piano and drums, which becomes the bulk of the track.
Armand, the bass player, has a little home studio so in 2015 they recorded those ideas, programmed drums, added guitars, bass and sometimes more, while I was in Nancy, another French town, studying at the MAI.
In July 2015 Armand sent me the pre-productions, it was just around 4 or 5 tracks per sessions, just to get the basic ideas done.
Then we went into the studio to record all the piano and drums parts. This time I was there to conduct the session with the help of the other guys. And from August 2015 to August 2016 we recorded at my place the guitars, basses, acoustic instruments, guests and final mixing/mastering stuff.
The main reason why the post-production took that much time was because I went back in Nancy to study at the MAI, and managing to do both was quite challenging.
One thing that’s cool about this band is that they trust me enough to act as if it was one of my own solo track. Deleting stuff, adding, changing, recording more instruments and guests, basically just arranging and producing all the tracks to my taste, and ‘to my taste’ happened to be ‘to their taste’ 99% of the time so it’s cool to have that freedom and still get everyone on board with me.
ID: That sounds like you’re basically the band leader, while still keeping Itzamna a democratic process. Was that your experience as well?
CB: Well I don’t see it like that. I am the producer, which means I have the skills that legitimate my choices. They trust me as their producer because 1, they like what I do and they know my value, and 2, they couldn’t make it themselves.
So yeah, I’m the band leader when it comes to production, but outside this little world, like on tour or just in real life, we’re all equal, as friends, and every single decision about the band is concerted, and voted if needed.
ID: Within the songs on Chascade, you guys display a myriad of different styles and influences, ranging from math rock over jazz to film music. Was that planned or did it all come naturally?
CB: Both, it was planned and came naturally. We truly love every of those influences. So when you listen everyday to a big bunch of very different artists, it has to influence your ideas and writing process somehow. We always had those influences in mind, even in the studio to see ‘how they did something’ and it inspired us 100% of the time. Even during the rehearsals we don’t refer to the sections as ‘A or B’ but as ‘the Tigran like riff before the Meshuggah like groove’.
We want to get from our own songs the same emotional affect as when we listen to those artists. It is impossible, but still we try. And well, when you cook, you are more likely able to make an original meal if you have 50 ingredients than if you only have 3.
ID: You’ve mentioned Meshuggah and Tigran Hamasyan as influences on Itzamna‘s songwriting. Were there any other major influences, both from the musical realm as well as from the outside (for example literature)?
CB: We have very carefully listed every major influences we had during the making of the album, it’s on the digipack and on the bandcamp page but I can copy paste here if you want!
(Author’s note: He actually did! Here they are: Agent Fresco, Alexandre Scriabine, And So I Watch You From Afar, Animals as Leaders, Between the Buried and Me, Britney Spears, Daniel Mille, David Krakauer, David Maxim Micic, Elaquent, Ennio Morricone, Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Estradasphere, Explosions in the Sky, Guillaume de Machaut, Hiromi Uehara, J Dilla, Jizue, John Zorn, Joe Hisaishi, Justin Timberlake, Kneebody, Laço Tayfa, Lars Danielsson, Lite, Marc Ribot, Meshuggah, Mouse on the Keys, Mr. Bungle, Nerve, Nomak, Nujabes, Plini, Secret Chiefs 3, Socalled, Tigran Hamasyan, Toconoma, Toe, Uneven Structure, Valaam Brethren Choir).
Each and every one of these artists inspired us during the process whether it would be about some micro detail, one type of harmonization, something about the mix or generally about a global feeling. And this pretty much resumes what Itzamna is, or at least what we are.
ID: On the album, there were some very surprising songs. As much as I enjoyed your rendition of the medieval song “Je Vivroie Liement”, I think the song that caught me off guard the most was “Red Dragon”, featuring Uneven Structure‘s Matthieu Romarin, since it’s the heaviest, darkest and most metal track on Chascade. How did that song and the collaboration with Matthieu come to be?
CB: “Bagdad” was the name of the track which contained “Nuées” and “Red Dragon”, with “Nuées” being the introduction of “Red Dragon”. It’s kinda slow but the needed transition between the happiness and epicness of “Buakaw” and the darkness of “Red Dragon”.
That track was written by Benjamin and Adrien in probably 10 minutes during the preproduction, they wanted to have at least one track lost between Tigran Hamasyan and Meshuggah. So the basic session contained 2 little tracks of piano and drums and it’s the perfect example of how the actual production can give life to a real song. The heavy character was really given by the bass and guitar, and it grew bigger every time I added something.
At some point we thought it might be cool to add vocals to it, metal vocals, and as we really love Matthieu’s vocals in Uneven Structure we thought it could be him. I met him back in 2015 with Igor and Benoit (also from US) at a Tigran Hamasyan show near Montpellier. What a coincidence, right? He knew me and my music so he gladly accepted.
The lyrics were first extracted from the ‘Apocalypse of John’, the section with ‘the great red dragon’ and Matthieu added a few ‘Hannibal’ references in it, with some words about Francis Dolarhyde’s disturbed personality. Turned out great, and even more violent than before.
ID: Most of the songs on Chascade are based on stories/personalities, like the Apocalypse of John in “Red Dragon” or the utopian experiment of “Shalam” in the eponymous three-part track. Where did you find those stories?
CB: Every track has its own story, a mix of inside jokes and stuff we can tell, like for “Red Dragon” or “Shalam”. I don’t remember well how we found the Shalam kids experiment story but I know Samuel brought it to the table, so it’s very likely something he encountered during his research or studies (philosophy).
ID: Where do you see the differences between your first EP and this new album?
CB: I see differences in 3 aspects. Firstly the production, obviously. 2 years separate those releases so I got better at turning knobs and all. The fact that we went in studio to record the drums and piano (which represent the bulk of each track) changed a lot of things too. Chascade is more organic in every way, better controlled and more consistent.
Secondly the music. With the album we had the necessary length and time to ‘tell everything we wanted’, be very picky about little details and mature enough every tracks to comprehend it better as a whole. I think the result is more clever and subtle than Metnal. The fact that many genres are represented is more revealing about our influences rather than the simple ‘being eclectic for the sake of being eclectic’, and that eclecticism is more assumed on Chascade than on Metnal. Plus, we all got better at our instruments, I guess.
Thirdly our writing process, collaborative effort and roles inside the band. This has been our most collaborative effort while being my most complex and intense project. Those 2 years were full of surprises, joy, pain, frustrations, expectations, and all of that made us closer than ever.
ID: For the artwork, you’ve got none other than the wonderful ShePaintswithBlood. How did you get in contact with her?
CB: I think it’s because her boyfriend contacted me and I made the link between him, her, and the person who did David Maxim Micic‘s artwork. And it was exactly at the time when we just didn’t know what we wanted for the artwork. We spent around 1 month proposing ideas and not be satisfied with anything (Haha).
So I contacted her, she knew my music and Itzamna’s and I think she liked it so she agreed to work for sure despite her very busy schedule. I sent her a few pictures we liked, a few ideas and concepts we discussed within the band and the album, and her first answer was amazing. In one mail she found a solution that was perfect for everybody. You know, that kind of ‘Ok, that’s it. That’s it.’ situation haha. I guess that’s her job, and she’s good at it.
And well, you’ve seen the result, it wasn’t a bad choice at all.
ID: No, absolutely not. Her work is always a sight for sore eyes. I take it from your answer that you all had some input on the artwork, or did all the different aspects and cultural references in the art come solely from her?
CB: The same way Benjamin and Samuel gave me the basic material to work with and make a track with it, we gave her the very basic material she needed to make an artwork. We sent her a few pictures of landscapes in autumn/fall, some Japanese art, some pictures of cats, some random abstract art with colors we liked. We explained her the album title, cats and waterfalls, and we sent her the album so she could imagine stuff. That’s all we did.
I don’t what happened next in her head but she came up with tons of detailed ideas and concepts that were the missing link between our own ideas and something actually concrete. So I don’t know which part we exactly played, but she started from us and bring it to the next level.
ID: As my last question, I’d like to know what you see in the future for both yourself as a solo composer and Itzamna as a band.
CB: Well the future is unclear for both (Haha). This kind of music doesn’t get attention at all in France, and probably in the rest of the world, too. Our respective studies might separate us at some point if Itzamna grow bigger, but for composition and production duties I think we’ll be there, all of us. We don’t have any shows booked, we’d like to play some after the album release. We might have something in our hands to look for places to go and bands to play with.
In the meantime, the only sure thing is we will continue to make music whatever happens in our life, no matter how shitty is our job or how busy is our schedule. The best would be getting this music out of the studio and play, obviously, we look forward to it (Haha).
And as for me, I’m already doing a lot of different things. Working as producer for other bands (local or via internet), as a demo composer for companies like 8Dio (to test out their new products, vst, sound libraries), as a teacher with private lessons on production, drums or guitar (irl or Skype), sometimes as a composer or sound designer for shorts, web series, student projects, animated, whatever. And beside all of that, I’m sharing music on a regular basis, for free.
For next year I plan to make a lot more videos (full covers of my tracks and tracks of artists I like). I also have another release to come, probably mid-2017, and a few collaborations and guests going on right now.
Music every day, every hour, I don’t see myself doing anything else!
ID: Well, we at It Djents certainly enjoy your music and wish you nothing but the best for your future endeavors. Anyway, thank you so much for your time! Is there anything you’d like to add or something you want to tell our community?
CB: Thanks a lot for having me, Dominik!
The only thing I can add is an obvious and big thanks for the support, ItDjents, alongside with a few other webzines open minded enough to spotlight some ‘soft’ bands like us despite the fact that we barely ‘djent’.
I hope to catch up with you in the future!
If you have yet to check Chascade out for yourself, you can either stream it on Itzamna‘s YouTube channel or get a digital copy on Bandcamp. Physical copies are available there as well, or here. To keep in touch with the band, make sure to visit them on Facebook!