Chandler Burr shoots from the hip. This is probably why I consider him a friend. Truth, you see, possesses that rare beauty that can cut like a knife, but still you end up admiring the scarlet track lines. Here's the interview he granted me for the launch of You or Someone Like You, the upcoming fragrant release from Etat Libre d'Orange. Fasten your seatbelts, darlings, it's a bumpy (but oh so effing good!) ride.
Elena Vosnaki: So Chandler...There is a certain path to follow in the realm of being interested in how a seemingly mundane thing can be artistic and can produce fascination. First comes learning about what makes a perfume lover interested in the first place (ergo The Emperor of Scent). Then comes learning about the craft (A Scent of the Nile). Then comes learning about the industry at large (The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry). Then come personal assessments of those mysterious smelly things (NYT Scent critic column). And there are scent dinners (how would it feel if we combined two complementary senses together?) and curating a "blind test" line plus an Art of Scent exhibition (how would it feel if we erased everyone's perceived memory with a magic wand like Men in Black and THEN asked them their honest opinions on Duschamps' Urinal?).
Does art directing a perfume launch feel anti-climatic in comparison?
Chandler Burr: Wow, you've synthesized my entire scent career arc into a frighteningly accurate dialectic. I actually have a very specific answer for you: It was not anti-climactic at all. In fact, art directing a perfume was quite difficult, more so than I imagined before I did it, and my view of whether it came at the right time or the wrong time in my trajectory is split exactly in two. In part I wish I'd done it in 2005, after Emperor, the New Yorker piece "Nile," and Perfect Scent but just before I joined the Times and prepared to become a critic. Why. Because not surprisingly it gave me a deeper, as well as a different, understanding and appreciation for the artistic, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical demands on a scent artist -- Caroline Sabas, in my fortunate experience -- in creating one of these fucking works. For the sake of my criticism, it would axiomatically have made it better. (I think every critic should at least try to create a few works in the medium of the critique. The result has to be humility and wisdom, even for those few who'd turn out to have talent.)
At the same time, for the sake of You Or Someone Like You itself, I'm glad it didn't come till after the Times and the Art of Scent exhibition because those two experiences made me think more about the pure aesthetics and the subtleties of scent art, and I put those into the work I did with Caroline.
It's an extremely strange relationship, creative director and perfumer. I think the closest analogy would be architect and builder. (Definitely not composer and conductor, that doesn't fit. Nor does author and editor fit, at all.) Studio executive and movie director is actually very good. I had a vision for a work that I had virtually no ability to make myself. I had to communicate it to Caroline. At its best, human communication sucks. The difficulty of telling Caroline what I wanted / didn't want/ liked/ didn't like/ wanted changed/ how I wanted it changed, plus asking for her opinion, which I found extremely valuable, and understanding her perception and the obstacles she faced. Jesus.
Elena Vosnaki: Did Etat Libre d'Orange approach you or you them with the spermatic idea? Have they read your novel?
Chandler Burr: Etienne had read my novel and loved the main character and narrator, an Englishwoman named Anne Rosenbaum who years before had married an American guy -he's now a studio exec- and lives with him in the Hollywood Hills. Also Anne is a reader-- literature is crucial to the novel. Etienne really liked the title as well. Etienne had mentioned a few times over the years our doing a project together, and I think his collection is arguably the single most creatively imaginative and risk-taking in existence today, so I was interested. But I sure as hell wasn't going to creatively direct a scent. I never intended to. I always told people that. I think Etienne would tell you that he found me somewhat frustrating to work with because, along with being a perfectionist, I was highly ambivalent and undecided about whether I should be doing that job.
Although interestingly none of my doubt was about what I wanted for the scent itself. My doubt was entirely, Was I saying the right things to Caroline or was I talking gibberish? Was I clear? And I know for a fact I sometimes wasn't. Seriously frustrating. Was I too demanding? Was I perceiving reality? Was I "projecting" or self deluding when I hit things I wanted changed or didn't like? Creative directing a perfume is like asking a painter to create Rorschach blots, but in a way you want them, and then making yourself interpret them, and then asking the painter to redo them… Actually, that may be complete horse shit and incoherent, but that's what it feels like sometimes. The scent kept evolving. The Givaudan evaluators, who were very serious and committed to the project, gave me excellent feedback. We finally let Etienne smell the thing, and he liked it, but he liked it too much for my taste, and I thought, "Oh, damnit…" Then went back to Caroline and asked for more changes.
Elena Vosnaki: Is the scent concept a meta-reading of the novel's idea of Otherness? It seems so to me!
Chandler Burr: OK, no. No. Wait, have you read the novel? If you did and told me you did, I completely forgot. [Elena: Yes, I have. No, I did not.] Otherness is one very good way to describe You's central theme. Or stupid, racist understandings of Otherness as opposed to serious, meaningful understandings of Otherness. Certainly it's about the fact that the Big Four, the largest four theological global conglomerates competing for market share, should be shut down and that we need to replace God, which doesn't exist, with good, which does, and that literature shows us this. Hell, I've gone off the rails now, but that's sort of the point, which is that the scent's concept has zero to do with any of this. It's incredibly simple. It's the scent that Anne would wear. No meta, no super. I thought: She lives in LA, where in my experience 99% of people recoil at the word "perfume" and anything heavier than Eau de Thé Vert is considered a fire in a coal mine. I get that. Anne would wear a post-perfume scent. (When people, normal people, not you and me and perfume shrine readers, say "perfumey" they mean aldehydic + heavy floral, which they associate, almost always correctly, with grandma. For ten years, Giorgio of Beverly Hills covered Beverly Hills like chlorine gas, and it cured everyone in LA of every wearing "perfume" in quotes again.)
I knew Anne's scent would be Luminist, the school Ellena both pioneered and uniquely mastered, it would be Naturalist/Realist, i.e. it would contain references to the natural world. Anne is a gardener, and her garden--I put their house on Macapa Drive above the 101 if you want to googlemap it--is a central location in the novel. And that's it. That's all Caroline and I did -- tried to make a perfume for this person who doesn't exist.
(By the way, you know what a dick I am about "gendering" fragrances. You was made for a female character, and as I've often said if you actually believe that means men shouldn't wear it, you don't know anything about scent.)
Elena Vosnaki: Well... We're both dicks then. But Los Angeles is semiotically a loaded place for several reasons. Some of which are described in your text about the inspiration behind the scent. Some others are added by the recipient of the smell depending on whether their associations come from the cinematic realm (glamor and/or decadence) or an actual visit to the place (physical sensations hitting the nose velcro). What was the single most important element that you thought that You or Someone Like You needed to focus on?
Chandler Burr: A culture, for lack of a better word. Ethos? Mindset? You focuses on contemporary Los Angeles, which is more a state of mind than an actual place. The LA sun creates a huge olfactory output. The smell of that hot, hot sun hitting the asphalt, the concrete, the hills of dry dust and palm trees, the ocean water. The eucalyptus, the morning overcast, which for me always focuses the scents like a magnifying glass when I go out to my car at 7am and everything is silent and coated in gray. Then it burns off by 10 and the sun is creating a different perfume. Sorry, I'm giving real world references when my point is that LA lives inside these scents and radiates its fabulous, insane, beautiful LA-ness through them.
I think I don’t know how to answer this question.
Well, here's something. The version of You we went with wasn't the one I myself was going to choose. We went -- and I don't regret this at all, I completely support this -- with a very similar but different one because there was an aspect of it that Etienne, Caroline, and the Givaudan team preferred for a reason. I don't want to be specific, but we wore and talked about them at length, I listened to them, and in the end I thought "You know, I'm going to trust them." So I did. As a journalist and critic, I hated the plastic creative director script, "OMG, it's my scent, it's perfection incarnate, my perfumer reached into my brain and put my neurons in a bottle, I love this scent more than my own lung tissue" etc etc. I think You is a good scent. I think people who like its aesthetic school will like it. It's not Drake (a bore), it's not Max Richter's Sleep (which I'm playing on my computer as I write this) and it's not Katy Perry (so fun). It's The Chainsmokers "Closer" meets a Satie tone poem. And that's exactly what I wanted.
Chandler Burr: I called Karyn Khoury just before starting to work with Caroline, and she gave me great advice, including "Be patient. Don't panic if you lose youself in the mods. Keep breathing, and they'll come back into focus." She also said, "I never suggest specific materials to the perfumer." That one I completely reversed on. I know I don't want birch tar or amyl allyl caproate. I know it. And I found that far from throwing Caroline, when I suggested a material, or specified one I didn't want, it actually helped her understand, it communicated what I wanted, even if the material I said I wanted wasn't, in fact, the best one for that job and she used a different one. I find it insanely helpful to know what I know about raw materials. Crazy helpful.
Because I hate the "So what are the 'notes'?" idiot reductionism that we apply to scent but would never apply to painting or music because we respect those mediums ("Well, does it have violas in it? I only listen to music with violas. The oboe? I'm not buying anything with an oboe!") I finally got Etienne to agree that not he, nor Etat, nor Givaudan, nor I, no one was going to talk about the raw materials in You. It's THE FUCKING WORK. Don't walk down the street with your headphones on second guessing the sound mixer on Frank Ocean's music. Just listen to the music. They thought I was crazy which is to say they thought I was stupid. Maybe. I've seen two pages of comments on my "Don't ask me about the materials" stance, and on both a majority of people said, "Burr is such a pretentious asshole." Whatever, man, you do, go focus on "notes" and buy something else. Or smell You and buy it if you like it. See, THIS is really cool -- I wrote this a thousand times in the New York Times, and now I get to put my money, or my no money, where my big mouth is.
Elena Vosnaki: This is the best test for anyone's inherent arrogance I suppose! So continue being honest: How many mods did it take for this to get finalised with Caroline Sabas? I hear 200-300 or more is not unusual for major releases and I do know of a few niche ones which took as many. Is it always better to try and try again or is there a fine point when you are destroying the soul of the creation? I find that constant editing really does work with writing (and this is why I'm asking you as your being an author informs your frame of thought and habit). It does not necessarily work with musical interpretation however. One cannot bribring back that rush of feeling that is new and "innocent" once we parse a musical piece to bits; our playing tends to become effortless but a tiny bit constipated (for lack of a better term?). How is it with perfume art direction? Does one know when to stop?
Chandler Burr: I can honestly say I have no idea how many mods Caroline made. And I really don't think it matters. You know, this "number of mods" stat they hand out, 99% of the time it's bullshit like everthing else in our industry that's given to the public. The more the mods, the closer to sainthood or some crap like that. Bitch, please. You can nail a perfume in two mods, and I know because Frederic Malle did (and fuck me if I can remember which perfume it is…?! Frederic told me this at lunch years ago, and I loved hearing it. He asked for one, very small, very specific adjustment of the first mod, and that was it. He agrees with me that The Award For The Most Mods is only coveted by numbskulls.
Elena Vosnaki: Is this project to be repeated in a second scent launch or has the circle closed on this and there's a different stop to the bus ride on that path we talked about in the beginning?
Chandler Burr: This is it. I'm working on several other projects, all connected to scent, none to creative directing another one.
Thanks Chandler for a fabulous interview. Best of luck with the perfume launch!