Parisian modernist new wavers FRENCH BOUTIK release their debut album, 'Front Pop', on Friday the 21st [on vinyl via CopaseDisques and CD via Detour Records]. Here singer Gabriela talks about the band and album.
- How did you get together?
It’s all about soul nights really. Our guitarist Serge met our drummer Zelda when he was DJing. He had been composing music for the first time in a while and she was interested in writing lyrics. They liked the resulting demo ['Kinky Allumette', released on the Ici Paris EP] and decided to form a band, recruiting original bassist Elian and singer Flora. The latter left due to musical differences after a few shows so Serge asked me to give singing a shot, and a couple years later Jean-Marc, who had been a fan of the group and taken beautiful photos at our Paris shows, joined on bass. As our original organist Iky has left we are constantly recruiting guests for that - mostly Olivier Popincourt, who played on the album, but also Emer O’Hanlon from Trambeat and Susanne Shields who is a jazz artist here in Paris.
- You have many influences going on, from the mid 60s to the mid 90s. Given the divergent sounds, how easy was it to shape the French Boutik sound in your early years?
It was a really natural process. In the very beginning there was an obvious Kinks and Britpop thing going on, but with the move to singing in French, the native language for most of us, the songs became much more original and interesting. We do listen to lots of French music (Burgalat, Dutronc, Hardy, Salvador etc) but the base of the music is probably much more heavily influenced by English speaking bands (XTC, Costello, Everlys, Bacharach, Who, Undertones, Blur, Prisoners, lots of powerpop, soul and jazz too) . So when the band switched languages it really helped to get us out of copycat mode and thinking of songs as our own thing.
The lyrics are very important to us, and we cannot decide on a final melody or even the arrangement until we have those, and actually all four of us now write lyrics, so we end up mixing things up a lot more to create a final song that is much richer and purposeful to try to get the point across. It makes a huge difference even if most of our fans don’t actually understand the lyrics, and I think this has ended up spreading to the English language songs too.
- Where and when was the album recorded? You were against the idea of doing an album at first…
Apart from the two crowdfunding singles - 'Hitch a Ride' and 'Le Mac' - which were recorded in Paris and then mixed elsewhere, the album was recorded in April of this year at Yeah!Yeah!Yeah! Studios Hamburg with Dennis Rux. Rocket Studios in Croydon did a really cool mix for 'Hitch a Ride' which is also on the album. We were really happy with both the music and the experience of recording the last two EPs in Hamburg with Dennis, so when we decided to try for an album we wanted to go back there. It’s quite intense as you sleep in the studio and it’s a bit out of the centre, so you really do not much else but recording, and we love working with Dennis and he knows what works well with us now. Plus we like his combination of authentic sounds (he has a great collection of older instruments and equipment) without being stuck in retro-ness, just whatever works best for the song. Yes, we really didn’t want to do an album for a long time. We are all working and as we go absolutely crazy over each individual song it takes us a long time to work out the final arrangement. We have a horror of recording any throwaway tracks and did not want the quality to go down as the quantity went up. And also there was the practical problem getting time off and paying for it! But people kept asking about an album so we finally thought that if they were so enthusiastic and were willing to sponsor it why not give it a shot. With the sample two songs, the crowdfunding went really well so we had no choice but to work really hard. We’re really pleased with the result so glad we were pushed into it.
- The album is real tour de force, combining all the best of various mod sounds from beat and jazz, to revival/new wave, to Britpop. It sounds effortless. Is it?
Thank you. Effortless is definitely not the right word though ! We almost lost our minds trying to come up with enough quality new songs (and totally rework a couple of other ones). We had about six months to get the nine new songs together before the recording and for us that is a lot. For each song not only is there a big effort for the right lyrics and key (the latter frequently changes from the original idea), but it takes us a lot of trying out and discarding various ideas for the final melody, harmonies, instrumentation, over a longer period of time. Each song usually requires at least a month of trial and error before we are ready to record and we do prefer a bit longer. Once we have the plan worked out, the more fun part is recording, even if it is hard work. We had only seven days for nine songs which is not much for us. That means keeping to a schedule.
It is so satisfying though hearing the songs in a nice studio (we don’t do demos really - so just have terrible phone rehearsal recordings to judge from before this) and Dennis always has great ideas to make them even better, so it was a huge pleasure despite the intensity.
- The band usually sing in French, but on 'Hitch A Ride' and 'The Rent' on the album this switches to English. Tell us about this.
We do try purposefully to include at least a bit of English in there: the good part of that is that as most of our fans are not French speaking it gives them a way to better connect to the music, and also just to change things up for fun. But we don’t want to follow the general trend in France of singing in English most of the time. It’s not our native language (apart from one of us), so it’s less personal for everyone, and also we are frequently singing about very specific topics which may be local vs general love themes. It would be bizarre to have a song about a French politician (Le Mac) or other local political and societal themes in English. For example La Chemise Déchirée is about the Air France layoffs scandal and l’Expert is talking about popular media pundits who pose as expert journalists. And as mentioned I think the lyrics and the fact that everyone contributes to them is really important for the richness of the songs, which even non-French speakers can pick up on. We would lose this if we only sang in English.
- London has lost a little of its magic in recent years: big housing costs, music venues closing. How has Paris fared in these changing times? Does it still inspire?
We actually have a song exactly about that, called 'Ici Paris'. Unfortunately it’s the same here, apart from that Paris started with less than London as far as live music, so there is hardly anywhere to play with a real drumkit now. All of our friends bands are just like us, always playing the same few places which are constantly in danger of shutting down because of neighbours or financial problems. And the bigger venues are very closed, with industry-only bands.
Chasing everyone out except rich people and tourists and losing the heart of the town is happening at a slower pace here thanks to more legal protections, but it is definitely happening. It’s still a beautiful city but one that is leaking out its soul as the top richest concentrate even more wealth and power and all the nice places to themselves. And those people, even the ones who sincerely want to contribute to the city, aren’t invested enough locally to care about the neighborhoods and traditions. They want everything clean and don’t know enough about the history to appreciate the wonderful things that are still here. This does sadly appear to be a worldwide phenomenon though - London, Paris, New York, San Francisco - all losing their culture by pushing out the non-rich residents who created it. But of course, all of this while not very pleasant is definitely inspiring since we write a lot about politics and society. We’d prefer to have a bit less negative material though.
- Which of your contemporaries strikes a chord with you, that you think we should check out? Unfortunately our favourite group and good friends The Riots from Moscow seem to have disbanded, but despite the lack of clubs here there are lots of great new bands right now if people are interested in new Paris sounds: Popincourt (guest organist Olivier’s project that several of us guest with regularly), All If, The Wave Chargers, Les Kitschenettes, Jon & The Vons, Les Darlings, Os Noctambulos. Also a group that Serge played with years ago, Les Soucoupes Violentes, just reformed with a really great new album.
- Do you know much about the 100 Club?
Probably not as much as English people, but enough to be very excited to play there! Friends used to travel over for the soul nights, and there are so many legendary groups that played there it is a real honour for us. Probably the closest thing here with such a great longtime musical tradition, and that is still going, is the Olympia Theatre but that is much bigger and shows there much more expensive, so it is fantastic that a place which is that legendary, but has more underground sounds, is still going.
- Can you describe the vibe at your live shows? You've built a real following in the UK, so you must be doing something right.
The vibe is always great for us in the UK, we are so happy to be there that we always have a really fun time playing and checking out the other bands and meeting people and I think it shows and spreads to the audience, who may be expecting us to be much more standoffish. And of course now that we have a bit of a following we get to see friends each time.
One really nice thing for us there is that we are now pretty confident there as since our very first shows there we go down really well, even with people that are there to see other bands and have no idea who we are nor any interest in French music. I would guess that besides the fun vibe, a big plus is actually what is a minus for us at home and in the music industry in general, our originality. For better or for worse despite the obvious mod/60s influences we don’t really sound like anyone else, and while that puts off the industry types who have a problem figuring out how to talk about us with the right buzzwords it seems to be really appreciated by the audiences.
- What was the last album you bought?
Group Survey time! For me, I just ordered the new Fay Hallam album and haven’t gotten it yet so can’t say too much except I have heard it is very good and I am a big fan so looking forward to it. Serge just picked up 'Contrasts' by Toots Thielemans, it came out in 1966, a mix of modern jazz and west coast style, very rich harmonically with original orchestration and a light touch. He knew 'Bluesette' from the radio a bit but not the rest and is really pleased. Zelda didn’t buy her latest album but a gift from her brother: 'High' from an Australian group called Royal Headache, it’s garage punk with a soulful male lead vocal that she really loves.
- What plans do you have for after the album?
Hopefully lots of shows to support it! We don’t have a manager nor touring contacts so pretty much wait for invitations to play, we have some coming in from the UK as well as Spain and Italy so just waiting for those to work out. We even miraculously have a few French shows coming up after the Paris Mod Weekender, we’ll have a presentation of the record in Gilbert Joseph, a famous record shop here in Paris, and then our first time in the South in Nice in February.
Honestly we don’t anticipate another big recording for quite a while, it means another crowdfunding and all the time to compose and getting time off. We’d love to have horns and maybe some other guest musicians on the next one which means more time recording too. Luckily we love all the new songs so we won’t get bored of playing them anytime soon :-)
French Boutik play with Lack Of Afro at the 100 Club in London on Thursday November 3rd. Tickets
BY PHIL ISTINE
A blog to pontificate upon music both new and old: mostly reviews, some news, interviews, thought pieces, and exclusive content.