We catch up with the latest from our favorite purveyors of French Revolution(s per Minute)
Is Les Sans Culottes for real? It’s a question that fans of America’s greatest French rock band have struggled with since the group’s creation.
Depending on who you ask, Les Sans Culottes’ story starts either on the hard-scrabble streets of Ménilmontant, Paris, or in the back alleys of Brooklyn, New York in 1999, with frontman Clermont Ferrand assembling a gang of francophone rockers to become the USA’s premiere (and at the time only) French rock and roll band. 12 years, 7 albums, and an enormous amount of personnel changes later, the current band of francophonies – Kit Kat Le Noir, Courtney Louvre, M. Pommes Frites, Geddy Liason, Johnny Dieppe, and Jacques Strappe – have mastered their own brand of funky and heavy, yet sugared and frothy Gainsbourg-ish rock; firmly anchored in the majesty of the 60’s French pop renaissance, but cut with a searing sense of humor that invariably hits the spot.
Their latest album, Pataphyiscal Graffiti, finds the band traveling further down the road charted on their previous release, 2007’s Le Weekender; with honeyed girl vocals, crackling guitars, and song topics as diverse as the selling out of democracy, breakfast as consumerism metaphor, and Jean Paul Sartre’s love for a lobster. And did we mention it’s all sung in “Franglais”, the Culottes’ trademark blend of English and French? Oui.
It’s not often I get to interview an artist in their home, so I was charmed when Ferrand suggested Rocker pop round to visit with him in his cozy Brooklyn maison. It was there I found answers about how very real the Culottes’ penchant for creating some of the finest rock music this side of the Arc de Triomphe is, but as for answers about the enigmatic Monsieur Ferrand himself, the jury remains mercifully out.
Rocker: When preparing for our interview I was thinking about the trajectory of French rock, and about how in the Sixties, there was an enormous amount of very well respected French pop music, but now there is much less
Clermont Ferrand: We had a great ski team at that time, also. It was a great time, it was a confluence of great French skiing and rock and roll. Now the rock and roll is back and it’s up to the skiers to do their part.
Rocker: In reference to the name of your new record, I tried to look up what pataphysics is, but I became completely confused, so I thought maybe you could describe to me what it is and how it relates to your music.
Clermont Ferrand: I was surprised to learn that Americans don’t know much about the science of pataphysics, which is mostly a French science, which is why we feel close to it. Pataphysics is to metaphysics as metaphysics is to ordinary physics, and we feel that as a French rock and roll band, in many ways, our relationship to French rock and roll is as pataphysics is to metaphysics, and French rock and roll is to American rock and roll as metaphysics is to physics. So it’s pretty simple, really.
Rocker: Is there anything particularly pataphysical about the new record?
Clermont Ferrand: For one thing, there’s an English band called Led Zeppelin which did an album some time ago called Physical Graffiti, and that was a long album, with 15 songs. Ours is actually 16 songs, and it’s in French, so it’s like a double record, if such a thing existed anymore.
Rocker: Did you feel with this new record you were challenging Led Zeppelin?
Clermont Ferrand: I think it’s unfair, because they don’t sing in French, so already we have a leg up on them. And also they don’t exist anymore.
But yes, I think we’ve thrown down the gauntlet against the British rock and rollers. Actually, I think it’s not really fair, it’s really the Americans who are our main rivals, not the British.
Rocker: Despite that, on the new record, two songs have English titles, does that represent a new direction for the band?
Clermont Ferrand: That was our marketing strategy for the Americans. And one of the songs was important, actually, because that was a song that is very much about New York, it’s called “If You See Something, Say Something,” which they have on signs all around the city.
So many New Yorkers are going around and looking at their plasma phones and whatever, so they’re not really looking at where they’re going, so it’s telling New Yorkers, “Hey, wake up and look where you’re going,” and we thought that was a good idea. [the actual campaign is about preventing terrorism: http://www.mta.info/mta/security/ – ed.]
Rocker: So is this a nationwide problem or just for New York?
Clermont Ferrand: I think they are distracted, but they don’t have a campaign telling them to wake up. So we’re having an official wake-up campaign here, which hopefully, like Occupy Wall Street, will grow to the rest of the nation to look at what you’re doing.
Rocker: Your songs also were used not just to wake up New Yorkers but also to sell cell phones
Clermont Ferrand: Yeah, well, that’s our management. For me, I’m against any idea of using our songs to favor capitalism, to keep capitalism going. I was hoping a few years ago that it was finally collapsing of its own contradictions, and I said, “It’s time for a fresh start,” and they started up again, and at that point, we were pretty much forced to sell our songs to them.
Rocker: The new record has a lot of subjects you traditionally cover, romance, stuff like that….
Clermont Ferrand: Romance is in our French Rock and Roll Wheelhouse.
Rocker: But a few songs are particularly angry, like “Le Biz”.
Clermont Ferrand: Well, that was our denunciation of the absolutely corrupt French rock and roll business, and it was an expose of it. It’s not just talking about French rock and roll, but about all of the great martyrs of music, like Kurt Cobain, Edith Piaf, Karen Carpenter,… across the spectrum of music.
Rocker: … and “Hypermarche” really struck me as nearly a punk rock song.
Clermont Ferrand: It’s also a swing song. It’s swing and punk. Punk swing. What we call a mash-up of these two musical styles. We’re blending them. That was a denunciation of consumer capitalism, so we had to talk about that. And breakfast. It talks about breakfast. Breakfast is good, we’re not against breakfast. There’s no anger in breakfast. Breakfast is how we think everybody should start the day, with breakfast. Kids, if any kids are reading this: Children, eat your breakfast.
Rocker: Would you recommend a continental breakfast or full?
Clermont Ferrand: I think that’s one thing about the Americans, they’re having a big breakfast, and over here in New York, they’re crazy about the brunch. Brunch is like two meals in one meal, which they’re having all the time in New York, and I’d say maybe it’s better to go continental. A croissant is nice, a big coffee, a bowl full of coffee, and some butter.
Rocker: There’s seems to be a new group of Culottes that have come along, some during the recording of your new record and some just after. You’ve been through many many line up changes in your time together, what provokes these many shake-ups?
Clermont Ferrand: I think that because being in Les Sans Culottes is such an intense experience that a lot of people can’t handle it. It’s too stress. They have too stress, and they burn brightly and they implode.
Rocker: How do you screen new band members?
Clermont Ferrand: It’s very much like the foreign legion, in a way. We’re almost foreign legionnaires. We’re like this French rock and roll beachhead, not in Algeria, but we are like the French brothers and sisters in a desert with the Bedouins surrounding us and they want to get at our supply of wine and cheese and stuff. So yes, it’s difficult. You have to do training. You have to go to the ashram. They have to think about French rock and roll, what it means to them. So I think because of all the training, it’s something that they’re here, they do it, and hopefully this makes them stronger to go forward in life and do what they have to do.
Rocker: If Les Sans Culottes mission was accomplished in America, how would we know?
Clermont Ferrand: Well, I guess there would be more French rock and roll on the radio, our song the “Hot Bird” would be a big dance craze, and we’d have more people singing in French. I guess we’d like to bring the language and the culture to the rest of the world. So I guess in the sense that you have Americans, who are famous for cultural imperialism, if we could return the gift to them, then I think it would be a success.
As for the new record, I just think that “Pataphysical Graffiti” is really a chevre d’or. A masterpiece. It’s now our seventh Les San Culottes record, and I think it’s not just the biggest, but it’s the best. So for that reason, I think people would benefit; it would be to their advantage to listen to this. For myself, it’s probably my favorite record. I listen to it quite often, so that’s my endorsement.
Rocker: Finally, should people drink wine and smoke cigarettes while listening to “Pataphysical Graffiti”?
Clermont Ferrand: I think the experience can be enhanced if you’re drinking wine. Don’t smoke cigarettes, but smoke the cigarettes that are just nicotine and mist, the electronic cigarettes. That’s what I want people to do.