Canadian artist and musician

Interview: Elena Savlokhova
Photo: Grisha Burtsev

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Get the new LP 'L'Exil' - HERE

What’s it like to be you?
At the moment, I’m just trying to survive with my little family, and adjusting to my new adoptive country here in France. The hope of our exile was to find some inner peace, to step back from committing to anything, and to leave many of our financial problems behind us. Perhaps it sounds bizarre to have chosen Paris in search of feeling secure and mentally stable, but I do feel safer and much more relaxed than I was in Montreal. I felt I was poisoned by another self there, but also delusional and constantly shooting myself in the foot by remaining in Canada and trying to make things work. I love Paris because it’s a desperate city. I don’t follow trends which is simultaneously my greatest force and weakness. 

What is the juxtaposition and dualism of Bernardino Femminielli as an art entity and your normal life self? How do the two work together and balance each other out?
I think I’m both of these things at the same time: one helps to understand the fear and the other tries to shape the anxiety into something productive. They are both sides of my existence that rationalize each other. I’m permanently in survival mode. I never chose to have an easy life or a hard life, I just took the path that made sense. I understand my struggle and why the struggle is good for me. 

What truths have you discovered about yourself while working on the ‘L’Exil’ album?

A wise man wastes no time with emotion or outrage when it comes to dealing with the devil.

L’Exil, and the tryptic I’ve been working on for the last 3-4 years have been critiziced for their ambition and risk. A triple concept album about a showman and a clown/slave going places, seeking success is alienating. In fact, this project was supposed to be a double album accompanied by an auto-fictional feature film (which is finished). The positive and negative criticisms (or ghosting) from labels, musicians, journalists, curators, affected me a lot and then I started to take the concept elsewhere and break it up. I had to make several edits on this trilogy which gradually deteriorated as it progressed because I couldn’t find anyone ready to follow me. I was destroyed and very frustrated! I went crazy. I was afraid that it would end in nothing at all. The rage of being constantly misunderstood yet alienating them on purpose. And all this happening while travelling around and watching my restaurant go under… Anyways, L’Exil is finally out!

‘L’Exil’ is a fictional and satirical tale about an exiled showman. To what extent is this a reflection of your experience as an artist?
I’m talking about myself 100%. It’s pure ego being shattered into little, tiny pieces. I had many opportunities in life which have all failed. I’ve been tricked because I lacked wisdom and experience and got fooled by too many clowns around me. The failures have re-shaped me and my life has taken a strange turn and led me to France.

What are the main themes you’ve tried to explore in this concept album?
L’Exil is a paradoxical anthem for the unsuccessful. An elegiac and lyrical autofiction in the form of a concept album. A satire of show business, a tribute to society’s outcasts and heroes— a story which tells of the financial, artistic, and spiritual failure of the exiled American showman. I made this album by the frustration of being rejected and misunderstood by the music industry. The literary and cinematographic borrowings are here violently diverted from their proper meaning to tell the story in their own way. Pasolini’s Italy, Fassbinder’s Germany, The Years of Lead, Macronist France, police terrorism, paranoia, obsession with the double, substance addiction, money, and marriage are all subjects touched upon with humor and despair. But also about mental issues that any artists, musicians, and human beings can go through in their lives.

You’ve noted in one of your interviews that you aim to provide a feeling of euphoria for your audience, for people to forget and dive into a personal trance. Do you see it as a therapeutic process or is it rather escapism and temporary delirium?
This is deep because it is all of those things plus much more. Before realizing that my work was tied to some Brechtian aesthetic form, I was just doing my performances to provoke my destiny. It’s a long process of repetition of the same act which alienates my audience and forces them to level with and understand me. I mean, that’s always my goal anyway. In reality, a promoter just hired me as a crowd-pleaser, expecting a performance of something they heard or saw online. But they end up getting this weird looking guy yelling at them and offering them an unpleasant, awkward, bang for your buck striptease. It’s like juggling a black comedy and abject tragedy. I adapt my monologue differently to each audience every night. Something I’ve noticed, and what I enjoy about being in France, is that French is a language where explicit discourse predominates. Whereas with Latin American languages, French Canadian or English favour implicit discourse. So every concert is special and plays directly with local mannerisms and how I perceive my audience. Marx aptly said that alienation is necessary before the desire for change can arise. I take a similar approach.
I address the audience directly as myself and as my character. It’s a very dense performance/story and I make sure to break the passivity when confronting the listener. Whatever the style of music is playing, it is always hypnotic and about the climax.

I play with grotesque stereotypes of the pathetic macho oppressor vs. the wasted gigolo dancer who can’t even tie his shoes. The audience is being invited to laugh at these characters and ultimately condemn what they stand for. It is important for me to explore the character from the outside-in.

I like to bring the double act style in my performance: the grotesque contrasted with the sympathetic, grounded characters where both are making political and social statements to the audience and one shows the other, even if I’m alone on stage. I use illusion and symbolism when I interact with the audience. Music helps create distance with the audience by not reinforcing the text, but also provides a counterpoint to the action on the stage. The message must be clear so the audience can remain critically aware. But there’s the wobbly side of my work, full of mistakes, approximations, grace and sincerity… and maybe Epic Theater in a way. You gotta be warm and blunt wherever you go.
I’m using the same weapons as the crowd. I judge them and loathe them when I need to, and it can generate very strange outcomes.

Performing is the perfect moment for projecting my fantasies on the audience, surprising them by not respecting the rules a performer is expected to follow. You need to force them to intellectualize your work even if it’s in a club full of douchebags, or in a humid basement of a bland cafe.

Again, it all depends on where you are. I channel the energy of the room and try to go beyond the audience’s expectations.
The most important part of the performance is my personal story that re-attaches different types of music/aesthetics. It helps bridge the gap between my past and present mental states. I try to forget what has been the cause of my distress. I take the stage and start my show with something precise in mind that rolls on and builds up until I reach the place of no return and embrace the unknown. The accidents and errors in such shows have caused me many ups and downs afterward. I guess why I’m doing this is to give hope to people who crave honesty and directness. My performances are extremely personal. 

What was the weirdest or most memorable question you were ever asked?
The most annoying request was from a Canadian promoter asking me “Can we put a trigger warning on your event page?”. I was astonished that this person had so little faith in her audience.

Never underestimate the depth of an audience.

Why book me in the first place if you have already seen my “unsettling, triggering performance” before? My performance is no easy pill to swallow, but I think the balance of violence and fragility is human and a valid, adult discussion. I think shielding people from these kind of topics is intellectually humiliating, and if an adult is offended by my performance they have the right to leave if they need to. My performance is about celebrating the life and death of masculinity, mental illness, and the toxic behaviour that I’ve experienced within myself. I want to be as transparent, as raw as possible, and show how similar we are with each other. I don’t do warning labels. I canceled the show!

What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life?
When I was 3 years old, I innocently dropped my little brown bunny from the balcony of our 8th-floor apartment building. The beautiful thing is seeing my shocked grandmother, who was babysitting me, going down the stairs to retrieve the poor rabbit. She wasn’t even angry with me! She came back to the kitchen and immediately butchered the bunny in front of me to prepare it for dinner. There was a lot of fur and blood. A very deep cosmic moment about life, quick death, and food. I miss my grandmother, she was a tough one.

Your art has been described as an ‘absurdist theatre’. Would you agree that life is absurd in one way or the other?
Haha! I think we can say a lot of things regarding my performances. But you know, absurdist theatre is having a sinking restaurant run by artists, surrounded by a bunch of artist clientele and wannabe artist parasites sucking the blood of all the artists. We had to improvise with zero cash and did the impossible to survive by organizing web tv-show performances during food service as an effort to attract customers. It was beautiful. It definitely helped to alleviate the awful stress of not being able to pay 2 years of back rent to our landlord. We had to do a lot of sweet-talking with gangsters and take an unhealthy amount of humiliation from the police, and when things became a little bit stable, we had to go back to square one and repeat this loop. It was hell! Imagine a crooner who self-sabotages himself like that! It has more in common with a bad comedy act on a lonesome Sunday night than hospitality. Well, I decided to exploit this card and frankly, it remains my primary means of making money. My motto? Hustle. Grind. Integrity. But don’t forget the people who helped you out! Shout out to Éditions Appærent, Mind Records in Paris, Dominic Vanchesteing and my Montréal crew! 

What would you choose between sex and music for the rest of your life and why?
I mean for a lot of musicians, music is the key to getting laid. So I’ll leave it there. 

Some time ago you’ve said that you are addicted to chaos. If that’s still the case, what’s the allure of chaos for you, and do you think it’s better when it prevails over structure?
Addiction doesn’t mean loving or liking something or someone. It’s necessary to break the rules that haven’t been kind to you, and that are past their expiration date. Extreme chaos helps one to reach a mentally and spiritually end. It resets you. But I wish I had the privilege to destroy the idea that you have to be constantly working or grinding in order to be successful. I got brainwashed by the system. 

You’ve also said that it’s a good thing when something goes wrong. What was the last thing that went wrong for you that ended up being beneficial?
Being banned from the US two years ago was incredibly beneficial. It helped rip the bandaid off and pushed my wife and me to move to France. 

As a storyteller, what fictional narrative holds a special place in your heart, and why?
I’ve been working for the last 3 years on this story between “The Entertainer” and his sidekick/double “Johnny“. The double persona was created to help me survive the hard times on the road, but also to escape the financial devastation of my sinking restaurant. The Entertainer and Johnny are a synthesis of myself and many other wicked people that I’ve encountered in my life at some point or another. The story has a miserable tone but I’m not exoticizing it. It was the reality.

In a 2013 interview, you mention that you don’t always reveal what you really think for reasons of fun and adventure. Did you ever get into predicaments because of that? Could you share some bizarre tales on the matter?
It really depends. I’m quite simply a voyeur. I like to listen and enjoy what is being offered to me and then pull a fast one. But I’m the voyeur who enjoys seeing a crowd having fun and then horrifying them with anti-climatic turns and ruining their moment. I like creating a sense of enraged confusion in my audience. You know, there’s a difference between laughing at me or laughing with me. I got into a fight once because of this. My mind shifts all the fucking time when I’m performing.

Back then you’ve also described the time that we live in as superficial and that it’s stimulating from a metaphysical viewpoint. Would you rather it be the other way around? How do you foresee the development of this ‘human race’ in the near or far future?
There’s definitely no hope for the human race if we keep trying to compete with each other. My parents always had a nice view regarding the future: “Whatever you do Dino, try to be better than us and don’t become a cop!

Oppression is what kills the soul.

Both of my parents were exiled from El Salvador during the war. Both are extremely different and self-sacrificing people. I was raised by a baptist mother and a communist father and they really did their best. I try to deprogram myself everyday, to decolonize my view by remaining open to people’s stories and taking the path less travelled. As an artist, we must always unlearn what we’ve been told or shown. It’s a very painful process and it’s for life. But it feels great!

Things you can’t unthink (things that are constantly on your mind). 
Well, a lot comes into my mind. Systemic racism is something that has been there for so fucking long. It isn’t healthy being raised to tolerate racist jokes, hatred, or violence toward immigrants, minorities, or indigenous peoples and communities. So many deaths of black trans people detained in prisons for not being granted their health checks that are required for prisoners held in solitary confinement. Let’s call it murder. US concentration camps (ICE) destroying families and letting children die in cages. Canada attempting to elevate itself above the failings of the US but neglecting to process the deaths and disappearances of thousands of indigenous women. Internalizing all that shit is very toxic. I’m enraged seeing young, fertile white supremacists in Paris during a Black Lives Matter protest being escorted out by cops so they can protect the vigilantes of their “motherland” from the crowd of peaceful protestors. From the right-wing private facebook groups of police officers who don’t cover their faces anymore to the right-wing gay media demagogues of the LGBTQ+ who divide communities and create more intolerance and hatred. My hope in humanity is tested. Attempting to search for humaneness will become absurd. These ridiculous applauses for the health workers in France every evening were just pure fascist propaganda. The state doesn’t care about their health employees! The state has been beating up these health workers at protests, for simply protesting their dangerous working conditions. While they risk themselves for saving the people of this country, we take them for granted. I’m talking here, in France, but this problem – it’s everywhere. We are at war. We are all becoming disciplined, harmless, confined, and desocialized citizens by believing in the state. Oppressed by the oppressors, our cannibal mechanics are often precipitated by financial devastation. Self-destruction becomes a means of self-preservation.
But I also reject this self-centered vision of mine because I still believe in justice and equality. This massive awakening, thanks to the protest from Black Lives Matters, Black Trans Lives Matters and many others have really lightened things up in my heart. There is hope and I want the world to be better. There’s no reason to remain a lazy bigot when there are endless ways of de-programming ourselves and helping each other. Sometimes we don’t belong, or we are tied to an insular community but every action, every word counts. It’s important to talk and then listen and to put things in perspective regarding privilege. Support and donate as much as you can. It’s a fight for the rest of our lives.

What’s the wisest thing you’ve heard?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions! 

What question would you like to be asked in an interview and what would your answer be?
“Who is this character Johnny, Bernardino? Why did you choose that name?”
I chose the name Johnny, because it’s a very classic, random name. It’s a troll name. And it’s a reference to Johnny Hallyday, the French rocker of the proletariat! Johnny manipulates people to create The Entertainer’s fantasies. He is his double. But all of my works, in their different forms, are attacks against the failures of my own real relationships. There, in the horror of my alienation, lies the difference between him and I: a self-critical view is what the showman tragically misses. Johnny is, in a way, the tortured realization of the Entertainer’s private hell.