Water on Mars (band)
Water on Mars is a psychedelic rock and electronic music group from Quebec City, Québec, Canada. The music trio is led by Philippe Navarro, guitarist, vocalist, arranger, producer, principal lyricist, and music composer.
The founding members of the band, to which have been added many collaborators, are :
- Sylvain Harvey, drums
- Benoit L’Allier, bass
- Philippe Navarro, guitars, vocals
The learning years
Born in Labrador City, Newfoundland, Canada Navarro spent his childhood in a mining town he would later describe as "a lunar base". His parents settled North after his father obtained an electrician's job. The bare landscapes and the infinite skies were an unmistakable inspiration. Navarro, an autodidact, learns the guitar as a child and builds his first electric guitar from a gutted open-reel deck.
In 1989, his exile "down south", first brings him at the Cégep de Jonquière, then, in 1994, to Université Laval, where he obtains a post graduate degree in political sciences. He becomes a speechwriter for the government of Quebec. He penned many speeches on the "cultural diversity" issue for the Parti Québécois government. He also works for André Boisclair, then leader of the official Opposition. The acute polemist he is publishes many op-ed pieces in the Montreal newspapers. Meant as a political hara-kiri, a particular stand against his former boss the very day of the announcement of his candidacy to the leadership race of the PQ, stirs the political scene.
From 1995 through 1998, Navarro pursues his career as guitarist from Bathurst to Vancouver. Fully living a "musical expedition" (Dylan), he explores the americana palette with his Fender Stratocaster in short-lived bands : Jakes and the Snakes (blues-rock), Aon (Celtic), Anasazi (funk-prog). He was also a busker and jammed with bluesman Carl Tremblay. For the sheer fun of the experience, but also out of respect for Syd Barrett and Roger Waters's band, he plays with Silence, Quebec's longest running arena-size Pink Floyd tribute band. However, already marked for life by Bob Dylan, it is the discovery of Nick Drake's repertoire that will inspire the next step.
A solo album
In 2001, Navarro's acquired versatility finds its way in a solo effort titled Stereo. Not without weaknesses, the album yet showcases a fine melodist, an original lyricist and a bare, nuanced acoustic guitar player. Recorded direct in a week's time, without post-production, the album explores the vast territory of roots music: Québécois and Irish traditionnals (Je me souviens, an original composition diving deep into the collective soul), delta blues (Le Gigueux, a piece that blends the myth of the crossroads with the québécois traditional of the Chasse-galerie), bossa nova (La cancion del inmigrante) or Appalachian folk (Cool Waters and Western métaphysique). A future member of Water on Mars, Benoit L'Allier plays acoustic guitar and electric bass on the album. At the time, l'Allier and Navarro shoot a short film, Route 389, on the theme of the Nordic experience (the piece Trois-89 opens the film).
The band's first album : Mannah
Navarro leaps from the roots territory in September 2002 by founding, with two friends, after a jam session at house party, the group Water on Mars. The drums, between jazz and krautrock, are played by Sylvain Harvey, an ex-member of the obscure Québécois band Les Fantaisistes. Benoît L’Allier, on bass, played for the Swedish-Canadian act Tuesday as Usual (featuring Bruno Rouyère, future leader of world music group Malade Mantra) before joining WOM. With his two partners, Navarro craves a newfound passion for electronic music.
A first album is released in the spring of 2004 on Quebec City's avant-garde label, Statik. It is released in Japan in August 2005 by Plop. Of ambitious facture and inspired by french house (Air, Bertrand Burgalat et St Germain), Mannah obtains critical acclaim, notably at the French CBC, where all of the 11 pieces were broadcast. Over half of the tracks ended up on the playlists of Catherine Pogonat, Alexandre Courteau, and of the acclaimed DJ Claude Rajotte (sort of Quebec's answer to John Peel).
After exploring the dimension of time on Stereo, Navarro now explores space. Mannah is a complete deterritorialization (Deleuze)  with regards to the first solo effort. It results in a blend of space rock, techno-funk and post-rock instrumental eyeing on trip-hop, spiced with drum loops and samplings that squeeze between tracks — eerie tracks that are often buried deep in the sonic lasagna.
The CD booklet — vents cordes eau farine / trouvent sens lorsque mixés / le troubadour est boulanger / la musique est sa manne  — well resumes the esthetics at work. Simple elements, blended and cooked by the obsessed « chefs » of the Digital Audio Workstations (on Digital Performer, a DAW software similar to Pro Tools), can result in a gestalt that transcends the original score sheet. The goal is to create a desincarnated music, a music of robots so to speak, but somehow robots affected by spleen, seeking the elevation of their ghost in the shell. The guitars, clearly influenced by Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour, spank the blues with the same psychedelic whip as that of the masters, but also with a new twist, that of the electro. Melancholic keyboards (on The eerie oort cloud amongst others) provide impressionnist voicings that evoke Satie or Debussy, as a Roland Juno 60 synth traces out atmospheric landscapes.
WOM's official site notes: «Recorded in a church on analog equipment, Mannah is the result of hundreds of hours of subsequent digital editing and mixing. The purpose was to blend the warm vintage tones of yesterday’s recording techniques with the precision of modern day computerized editing. » Without ever falling into some prog excesses, the concept of the album revisits space exploration, pushing further acoustic imaging techniques, seeking a sonic New Frontier.
The DJ Raphaël Simard scratched live and took care of the numerous electronica ornamentations. Many other musicians, since 2004, joined WOM for live shows : keyboardist William Croft (Québecissime), saxophonist Lyne Goulet (Interférences Sardines), and flutist Anna Kowalczyk.
A science-fiction novel titled Delphes, published in 2005 by the composer, confirms the unity of his inspiration. On board a spaceship light years away from Earth, an organic computer suffers from the "halian syndrome" by identification with a cybernetic character of an obscure 20th century book of the "Old Era" titled 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968). The crew's mission is to listen in real time to 20th century history, since a form of instant displacement makes it possible to go faster than the original radio waves. Time and space are hence at the core of a metaphysical quest: I don't really see the difference between writing science-fiction of composing space rock, says Navarro. I am convinced that WOM fans will have lots of fun reading Delphes, which is packed with cross-references to Mannah, our first record..
At the same time in 2005, Water on Mars podcasted the single Rojo y Blanco (Red and White), a dance effort in which Latin samplings complete words inspired by Carmen, with a phrasing that evokes Serge Gainsbourg in his L'Homme à tête de chou period.
Although a true analog freak, Navarro promotes free downloading of music on the Internet, recycling Luciano Floridi's neologism of ’infosphere (Dan Simmons) inspired by the concept of noosphere (the web of human minds that spawns the surface of the Earth) as put forth by Teilhard de Chardin. In an interview with Alain Brunet of Montreal's La Presse, evoking the inevitable and necessary dematerialisation of musical supports, he states: the infosphere […] will absorb the noosphere. It will become the depository of knowledge and creation. (cf. external links).
Meanwhile, the band does the opening show for the Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada of Duchesnay, that names two of its cocktails in honour of two of 'Mannah's tracks : the Earth Juice and the Sensual Confusion.
A second album : Delta
In the fall of 2006, WOM prepares the release of its second album, simply titled Delta. It is announced as a new mutation and a of the group's growingly complex electronic music, whilst the composer returns to his primary roots inspiration. Pushing further the exploration of DAW production potential initiated on Mannah, Delta's esthetics yet returns to the lush and organic sound of the blues, of folk and of psychedelic rock, primitively initiated on Stereo.
Conceptualized with the help of philosopher Sophie-Jan Arrien, the new album explores the myth of Faust in Goethe and in popular music, a theme already present on Stereo. Delta revisits the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to acquire the new knowledge of the urban blues in its infancy. The famous phrase of a critique on Jimi Hendrix's music – another modern Faust – springs to mind: « Jimi played delta blues, but his delta is on Mars ! » One of Navarro's ideas for this new opus is to capture the idiom of the delta blues, revisited by hendrixian electricity, while confronting it esthetically to the new techniques of audio editing –an alchemic operation if there ever was one. Said otherwise: Delta is pushing the exploration of music as permitted by the new tools offered to today's musicians, but not without abandoning the subject that haunts modern culture for over a century, that is, black music issued from primitive blues.
Delta has on its roster soprano Sabrina Ferland, DJ Raphaël Simard, as well as folk singer Judith Perron. Daniel Gaudreault (fender rhodes), Dominique Paré (minimoog), Lyne Goulet (saxophone), Anna Kowalczyk (flute) and Marie-Ève Legendre (back vocals) took part in the recording.
After its release, January 22, 2007, Delta obtains great critical success. The track "Gizeh" hits number one on Bandeapart.fm’s interactive charts, and number 5 on the Baromètre charts (Quebec indy radio network). ‘Gizeh’ is chosen on the compilation CD of DJ Marco G. The track ‘ole man’ was selected on the yearly compilation CD ‘Québec Émergent 2007’ as well as on the TEA South yearly compilation.
The DJ Claude Rajotte makes a great review of the album on Radio-Canada (radio). According to Réjean Beaucage, of Voir Magazine : « How refreshing ! Someone capable of evoking the myth of Faust through references to Robert Johnson, while spicing it all with Pink Floyd 21st century style and bits of Holger Czukay, certainly deserves our attention ! » (4/5). For Isabelle Bédard-Brûlé of Impact-Campus, Delta is an album « to discorver for its organic vision of electro, that goes to the end of the possibilities » (4,5/5). For the Journal de Québec, « Delta is all about postrock and ambient sound, with a clear genius for a concise, discrete, and efficient adaptation of some of the best pages of psychedelic garage rock. The results are stupefying with regards to the limited means of production. Our choice of the week » (3,5/5). According to Alain Brunet of La Presse, Delta denotes « a wide musical culture and a vast knowledge of hi-fi […] that denotes assumed ambition. » (3/5). According to poet and critic Tony Tremblay of Bandeapart.fm, « That’s Delta : a strange psychedelic trek in a sweet and intense musical dream. An excellent second album that confirms Philippe Navarro’s immense talent as songwriter and arranger » (7,4/10).
Water on Mars was invited to the Festival d'été de Québec with Millimetrik as special guest. Delta was nominated at the ‘07 Gala de l'ADISQ for electronic music album of the year (with Jorane, Numéro#, Ghislain Poirier and Maxim Robin).
A third album : Labrador Skyline
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- The Water on Mars name is not without reference to Roger Waters : Mannah was recorded exactly thirty years after The Dark Side of the Moon.
- A pure coincidence, the very day Mannah was launched on March 24, 2004, the world media announced that, according to Nasa, presence of past water was confirmed on the red planet.
- Like his hero Jimi Hendrix, Navarro is a southpaw that plays a right-handed guitar with the strings reversed.
- Sylvain Harvey was President of the Carnaval de Québec in 2002.
- Benoit is the son of Quebec City's long-time mayor, Jean-Paul L'Allier.
- Philippe Navarro, Delphes, Québec, ESH, 2005. p. 262.
- Québec Info Musique (www.qim.com)
- Alain Brunet, "De l'eau sur Mars, de la musique dans l'infosphère", in La Presse, Montreal, January 15, 2006.
- Philippe Navarro, "Un candidat tiède", in La Presse, Montreal, June 17, 2005; Michel David, "Le spectre de PMJ", in Le Devoir, Montreal, June 18, 2005.
- Roger Drolet, "Navarro, Stereo" (critique), in Québec Scope, January 2002, p. 10.
- Mylène Moisan, "C'est arrivé sur Mars !", in Le Soleil, Québec, April 11, 2004.
- Sarah Lévesque, "Dans une Galaxie près de Chez vous", in Paroles et Musique (SOCAN), Winter 2005.
- winds strings water wheat / make sense when mixed / the troubadour is a baker / music is his mannah
- Joël Champetier, "Delphes" (critic), in Solaris, no 159, p. 147.
- Serge Drouin, "Un écrivain chez Water on Mars", in Le Journal de Québec, February 21, 2006, p. 42.
- New Ice Hotel Virtual Features : Free MP3 downloads. PRWeb press release, January 5, 2006.
- Serge Drouin, "Le fils du maire l'Allier lance son premier disque", in Le Journal de Québec, April 30, 2004.
- Water on Mars on Myspace
- WOM on Québec Info Musique (French)
- Official website (access to many interviews and press clippings on the band)
- "La Mort du CD", an op-ed from Philippe Navarro dans Le Devoir (Montreal)
- Alain Brunet's article on Philippe Navarro (French)