French Band Ulan Bator Finally Makes It to America

Kickstarter gets most of the attention—and with it some flack (Zach Braff, WTF?)—but it's not the only crowd-funding platform around. For all the guff about everyday people giving their hard-earned money to the well-connected and wealthy through these websites, most of the campaigns benefit lesser-known entities. Ever hear of Mr. Milk, Galapaghost, or Ulan Bator? All three music acts solicited funds through the European site Musicraiser, and the latter band raised enough to release its new album and even prep for a U.S. tour.

"I think it was a good experience," Ulan Bator head Amaury Cambuzat writes in an e-mail from Paris, where the band is based. "At the end, it's something real that allowed you to see who is ready to follow you on this kind of adventure. These days, with social networks, it's so easy to say I ‘like' or I support something, but then what? What's next? With Musicraiser, I was right to think that a minimum of 100 fans would support us. Not that much, maybe, but okay, I would say. Also, we wanted to release CD, LP, DVD, T-shirts, etc., and without this funding, it's too expensive to manufacture all those things since the record business collapsed."

Cambuzat formed Ulan Bator in 1993 with bassist Olivier Manchion, adding drummer Franck Lantignac before they recorded their self-titled debut. That album was a largely instrumental affair, made up of heavy, repetitive riffs and plodding percussion, with industrial-style noises scattered throughout. Recorded in an abandoned salt mine outside of Paris, it caught the ear of Zappi Diermaier and Jean-Hervé Péron of Faust, who invited the band to collaborate with them, beginning an association that has lasted to this day. (Cambuzat says he learned an important lesson from the krautrock legends: "If you have something to say, just say it. If not, just shout your mouth.")

On its next two albums, Ulan Bator toned things down a bit, adapting a fairly mellow post-rock sound. But 2000's Ego:Echo signaled a bigger change for the band. Produced by Swans' Michael Gira and released on his Young God label, it showcased a more dynamic band, and finally brought Ulan Bator some attention in the United States. As a specimen of the more guitar-centric side of post-rock, Ego:Echo fits comfortably within its era alongside releases from Mogwai, Mono, and Tarentel, but the album's combination of aggressive noise rock, slower piano-based tracks, and studio experimentation has aged better than many of its contemporaries.

A planned U.S. tour to capitalize on the attention brought by Ego:Echo never happened. By 2001, Lantignac and Manchion had exited, and various other members came and went over the years, leaving Ulan Bator as essentially Cambuzat's band. Recently, he recorded an album with an entirely new lineup, and is ready to launch Ulan Bator's first American tour. A few tracks from En France/En Transe, scheduled for release later this month, are available on the band's website; they point to a rawer sound reminiscent of Ulan Bator's debut album, which Cambuzat says is a result of the band members getting to know each other during the recording sessions.

"It was very intense in the recording room, something ‘magic' happened," he explains. "We just improvised, our friend Julien filmed everything and the feeling was like being at home. This new lineup is six months old, but already there are such good vibes between us."

You can see footage of the sessions on Vimeo, including conservatory-trained Nathalie Forget playing an Ondes Martenot, an early electronic keyboard that has added a whole new dimension to Ulan Bator's sound—which is fortuitous, considering Forget's contribution was a last-minute addition to the sessions. If Cambuzat's story of how Forget joined the band is any indication of how the album was made, or how other members were recruited, he is definitely feeling improvisational these days.

"I met Nathalie while playing with Faust," he writes. "She was a guest for a show we had in Paris, and asked me, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?' My answer was, ‘Starting to record a new album with Ulan Bator.' ‘Can I join you?' she said. ‘Of course!' I answered."

Other European countries have exported rock bands that have garnered some clout, but, depending on your feelings about Magma and black metal, France isn't as well known for its contributions to the rock canon. Unlike, say, Scandinavian psychedelia and metal or German krautrock, when most Americans think of French bands, they're likely to think of pop groups like Phoenix and Air, or the EDM of Daft Punk and Justice. Where does Ulan Bator fit in with all of this?

"We have (of course) nothing to do with the electro-pop French scene," Cambuzat insists. "I think that we are a European band more than a French band, but also there's nothing in Europe like Ulan Bator. I always wanted to make something original and universal. My first idea was to mix the Stooges with Serge Gainsbourg. We try to reach a kind of trance that can be associated with the work of bands like Can, Popol Vuh—primitive and repetitive music. We never really made money with our music, so there's no fashion to follow. We only want to make something particular that I named Ulan Bator 20 years ago."