The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

French Letter


It's la rentrée, the return to school and work and normal life for the entire country of France. Your correspondent is back at his post in Paris, scouring la hexagone for the best tunes. And, first day back, we've found a cracker: if only it could always be so simple.

MataharieAnnecy is a town in the Alpine foothills of France and a candidate to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Its rivals are Munich and Pyeongchang in South Korea, neither city a winter sport stronghold.) But our interest is in cool music rather than chilly sports - Annecy is the home of a duo called Mataharie.

The pair, a girl called Bibie and a guy called Nico, used to be in a band called Goblins but have now struck out with this new project. Bibie writes and sings the lyrics while Nico writes and plays the music. We can't find any photo of them - just the rather pretty image on the right.

When a girl with a high, haunting voice sings enigmatic semi-electro songs called 'O Oak' and 'Lady Of Shallot', the reflex is to think of Kate Bush. Certainly the chorus rhythm of 'O Oak' tips its hat to 'Cloudbusting'. Fans of My Brightest Diamond, Bat For Lashes and the last Goldfrapp album will find that Mataharie's music fits nicely into their collection.

You'll find four tracks on Mataharie's MySpace page, and all four are wonderful. Our favourite is the Bush-y 'O Oak'... or is it the jazzy rhythm and soaring folk-inflected vocals of 'Diane'? And then 'Tambour' has an inventive mix of glacial electro-pop and traditional French accordion... We just can't decide. They're all so good.

No video for any of their songs yet - so head over to their MySpace page and be seduced by Mataharie.

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Bonjour from Ireland! Your French correspondent needs a break from French corresponding, especially after our action-packed weekend at La Route du Rock. So we’ve left the stale heat of Paris and headed back home to the wind and rain of Kerry.

But, as we pointed out during a previous trip home, it seems that France always follows us to the Kingdom. Here in Tralee there’s a French deli/café and this weekend a French market will set up in the town centre as part of the Rose of Tralee festival. (There’s also a France Rose, Melodie O’Neill from Brittany.) And there are plenty of French tourists around Tralee and Dingle and the rest of the county.

Jane BirkinThe weekend after this one, someone else will travel from Paris to Ireland. Jane Birkin (right), our erstwhile neighbour and France’s favourite Englishwoman, is performing at the Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire. Birkin will be at the Pavilion Theatre on Saturday 29 August, with tickets costing €30-32.

We’ve already written at length about Birkin and that duet, and it’s impossible to talk about her without mentioning Serge Gainsbourg, her late former romantic and creative partner. Since the great man’s death in 1991 she has curated his legacy by re-interpreting many of the songs he wrote for and about her. On stage she sings his songs and talks about him, as if recognising that he has defined her adult life and their relationship is now a cultural artefact in the public domain.

But it would be unfair to reduce Birkin to a mere supporting role in her own life - the woman is an icon in her own right. True, many of her acting parts have been as up-for-it sex kittens – but her intense and brave performance in the bleak Gainsbourg-directed 1976 film ‘Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)' remarkably prefigures her daughter Charlotte’s award-winning role in Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’.

And recently she has started painting a broader canvas of her pre- and post-Serge life. ‘Boxes’, her first film as a director, is a semi-autobiographical look back over her live and loves. (Before Gainsbourg she was married to another legendary musician, film composer John Barry.) And her latest record, ‘Enfants D’Hiver’, is her first to be entirely self-composed and continues the bittersweet nostalgic theme of her movie.

On a previous album, Birkin sang a song written for her by our own Neil Hannon. The track, ‘Home’, touches on Birkin’s momentous life and has her wondering about the other paths she may have taken. It’s a catchy little thing, relatively sincere for a Hannon composition, and while never the world’s greatest singer Birkin handles this song with a sure touch. The video, where Birkin’s native London blurs into her adopted Paris, is a smart and witty take on the long-term ex-pat’s complex and conflicting feelings when the heart is in two places at once. (Your correspondent knows the feeling all too well.)

Unfortunately we can’t embed the video, but it’s definitely worth a view and a listen – watch the video for ‘Home’ by Jane Birkin here. And if she sings it in Dun Laoghaire next weekend don’t be surprised if the songwriter pops up beside her on stage.

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We're back in Paris after a great weekend at La Route du Rock in Saint Malo. Check out our reviews of day one, day two and day three. Our highlights were St Vincent, Bill Callahan, Telepathe and Deerhunter. There were also good performances from Tortoise, Camera Obscura and Papercuts, but Grizzly Bear and My Bloody Valentine were a little disappointing.

Organisation-wise, we can't fault La Route du Rock. We laugh at how Irish festival-goers, having already paid hefty prices for a bloated line-up that guarantees time clashes and missed favourites, must then pay for a bus to the site AND a programme to find out what time the bands are on. La Route du Rock has a free regular shuttle service between the site and Saint Malo. The bus even stops at a hypermarket to allow campers stock up on provisions (i.e. booze). Speaking of which, the campsite seemed to be in neat condition (no rain this weekend) and we heard no reports of any trouble.

If you don't know Saint Malo, it's a large town on the north Breton coast that's famous for its cité corsaire, an old walled town surrounded by the sea. The cité corsaire is quite touristy, though - the old stone streets are lined with restaurants and bars, and on Saturday afternoon there were two stag parties doing the rounds. Yes, the old city is the Temple Bar of Saint Malo. In France, 15 August is a public holiday (La Route du Rock traditionally takes place around this date) and so a lot of shops and businesses were closed this weekend. We didn't find any local record store, and so had to do our music shopping on the festival site where small French labels had a marquee to display their wares.

There wasn't even one tricolour or GAA jersey to be seen in Saint Malo all weekend - it seems that the only Irish people at La Route du Rock were Kevin Shields, Colm Ó Cíosóig and the CLUAS Foreign Correspondent (Paris). And after MBV's anti-climactic run-out on the first night, we reckon your correspondent was all alone in representing Ireland for the remainder of the weekend. (Don't worry: we didn't embarrass you.) While it was certainly easier for the large numbers of UK indie kids to cross over to Brittany, Irish travellers can come by air to nearby Rennes, by ferry to Roscoff or even hit Paris first and then take a three-hour TGV ride directly to Saint Malo. And if you get homesick, there's even an Irish shop in the city that sells essential provisions like Barry's Tea and McVities Caramel Digestives. Mark it in your diary: mid-August in Saint Malo.

The attendance at this year's festival was down slightly on last year's turnout - about 5000 people for the Friday and Saturday night but only 4000 on a Sunday night without any big international act. Nonetheless, La Route du Rock will go ahead in 2010 for the festival's twentieth birthday. François Floret, the festival director, has spoken of how he wants Portishead and Arcade Fire to headline next year's event, but he admits that his meagre budget may not allow this. The wealthier Rock en Seine in Paris at the end of August this year nabbed Faith No More, an ideal act for La Route du Rock's target audience, so the battle for an attractive headliner is fierce. Even with just one big name to feed, Floret was complaining about My Bloody Valentine's proposed fee, which he claims to have negotiated down to a half of the original figure. Last year the festival's website featured an open letter begging for support.

How come La Route du Rock is always in such financial trouble? Well, it has a tempestuous relationship with the local government, who don't seem to be as generous or co-operative as those of other regions. The cost of bringing full festival gear to a remote and inflexible location is quite high - and this year the site had to be drained pre-festival at considerable expense. Indie music isn't as fashionable or popular in France as in the UK, US or Ireland, so there's less chance of persuading French businesses to hand over large amounts of advertising-revenue cash.

That said, La Route du Rock has an ambiguous relationship with the notion of corporate advertising. Traditionally the festival has been regarded by French rock fans as being independent of the business shilling, a last bastion of the punk spirit. But at the same time there were prominent concessions around the site this year to a certain soft drinks maker, telecommunications company, sneaker brand, French bank and French beer. And the telecommunications company even got to re-name the festival's secondary venue back in Saint Malo. We understand how many French people, especially young rock fans, are vociferously left-wing and anti-capitalist (in public at least) - but will we soon see the day when La Route du Rock is made financially secure by allowing one of those concessionaries to fly a banner over the site entrance or put their logo on the wristband? Or is François Floret's annual poor-mouth routine simply part of La Route du Rock's tradition by now?

We might have figured out a solution to both the lack of Irish and lack of money problems. La Route du Rock should advertise in Ireland, just as Sziget and Benicassim do in the Paris metro. As the success of Irish festivals and indie music media (including CLUAS) testifies, there's a considerable alternative music audience in Ireland. Many Irish indie fans also like to travel abroad on holidays, but the recession has nixed all those trips to Asia and South America. There are already healthy Irish contingents at Glastonbury, Benicassim and other European festivals - La Route du Rock may be smaller but certainly offers great value and acts to the discerning indie fans. The low cost of a weekend pass (under €90 to see an excellent line-up) offsets travel expenses which can be further reduced by booking the TGV from Paris at least two months in advance.

La Route du Rock could even look for partnership with a friendly airline. If there's sufficient interest (e.g. by counting online sales to Irish computers) the airline has a flight from Ireland to a nearby Breton airport, say Dinard or Rennes, that it promotes as a special all-in travel/festival package. (The Jersey ferry companies did something similar this weekend.) La Route du Rock gets an adrenaline shot of extra fans, who all spend their money in Saint Malo and thus sweeten the local government into writing a bigger cheque. With a bit of on-site advertising, the airline can attract young French people to Ireland. Et voilà: without having to support sweatshops or stockbrokers La Route du Rock can sell some extra tickets and look the bank manager in the eye again.

So, we might see more of you in Saint Malo next time.

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Welcome to La Route du Rock, France's best alternative music festival. We're at the site, an old fort about ten miles south of Saint Malo. To get here - and Irish festival-goers will love this - a free shuttle takes us from the town out to the festival location. And en route it stops at a hypermarket where one can get off the bus, load up on supplies (booze, mostly) and then hop on the next bus a half-hour later.

We've been struck by the number of English accents we've heard around us here - it seems that there's been a mini D-Day channel crossing and landing. Of course, the cheap tickets, easy accessibility and excellent line-up make this a great value indie-kid holiday for UK fans. With transport connections from Ireland to nearby Rennes (by air) and Paris, La Route du Rock is a secret that Irish fans would do well to discover.

Just like last year, festival director François Floret has been playing the poor mouth and telling the press about the financially precarious situation of La Route du Rock. That said, even he concedes that next year's festival is not at all in danger - a change in tone from the end-of-the-world sounds he made by rattling his begging bowl last summer. But the festival's unique venue is part of the problem - from a total budget of €1.3 million, a hefty €700,000 is spent on installing and customising the technical side of things.

And that leaves little in the piggy bank for paying rock stars. Floret singles out the expense of bringing the Irish headliners to the festival. "My Bloody Valentine proved to be rather demanding", he told local paper Ouest France. Eventually, he says, because of the festival's reputation "they accepted to half their appearance fee". Oh, but they're worth it, monsieur Floret.

Tonight's bill features Deerhunter, Tortoise, A Place To Bury Strangers, Crystal Stilts and headliners My Bloody Valentine - review to follow.

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Dateline early 2005, and the CLUAS gaffer has summoned your then Dublin-based correspondent to an urgent editorial meeting:

CLUAS gaffer: I have a hunch that the French indie scene is about to take over the world. As an Irish music webzine, we obviously need someone there to cover it. This would involve arduous hours of swanning around Paris with moody, hyper-intellectual French actresses who take their clothes off for art. As every other CLUAS writer is currently locked inside Whelan's, it'll have to be you.

Your correspondent: For the sake of music, I will make that sacrifice [*deep sigh, hand to the brow*]. And fair play to Art!

And so we landed Seine-side and settled into Chateau French Letter, official residence of the CLUAS Foreign Correspondent (Paris). As it happens, Chateau French Letter is near 5 rue de Verneuil, which was the home of none other than Serge Gainsbourg, perhaps France's only true great pop star. Gainsbourg lived there with his legendary partner, Jane Birkin, and their daughter Charlotte, herself known to make a fine record. The house has stood empty since Gainsbourg's death in 1991, but Charlotte lives nearby with her husband and children.

You can see what attracted Gainsbourg to the house and location. The street-side is a large wall with a double entrance, ensuring some privacy. And it's just round the corner from Saint Germain, where even today the wealthy and successful of Paris like to go clubbing.

Two bits of trivia: (1) Anecdotal evidence has it that despite his unkempt personal appearance Gainsbourg liked to keep his home scrupulously tidy and well-ordered; (2) the cover photo for his album 'L'Homme A La Tête De Choux' was taken in the courtyard of his home, featuring a statue of that name that once stood there.

There goes the neighbourhood: Serge Gainsbourg's home at 5 rue de Verneuil in ParisAs you'd imagine, the house on rue de Verneuil has become a place of pilgrimage for Gainsbourg fans. The outside wall (right) is covered in graffiti and there are tourists taking photos outside it on most days. However, there isn't a plaque or any official indication that a major figure of modern French culture once lived there.

But that may change. It's apparently the intention of his family to convert the house into a museum dedicated to the life and works of Serge Gainsbourg, with the high cost being a major stumbling block. To this end an exhibition on Gainsbourg last autumn at the Cité de la Musique in Paris helped to put the singer's legacy back into the spotlight - both Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg were prominent supporters of the show.

And the focus on Gainsbourg will continue next year with the release of a biopic on the man. The film has already garnered some tragic pre-release attention: Lucy Gordon, the English actress who plays Jane Birkin, killed herself on 20 May of this year, just days after the first private screening of the final cut.

There are two other must-see locations on the Serge tour of Paris - the metro station at Lilas that inspired his first hit, 'Le Poinçonneur Des Lilas', and his family plot at the cemetery in Montparnasse where visitors leave metro tickets from Lilas. (Across from Serge's resting place is the black slab of Samuel Beckett's grave, where fans leave bananas as a reference to 'Krapp's Last Tape'.)

So, in memory of our erstwhile neighbour, here's the fantastic 'Initials BB' and one of those days when Serge looked untouchably cool:

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Here's a tune that's on French radio almost as much as the traffic reports, and we figure there's a good chance you'll be hearing it on the Eire-waves very soon too.

Freddy McQuinnThe guy's name is Freddy McQuinn. Despite his Anglophone (almost Irish) name he's apparently a born Parisian, though he's spent many years in London. But you can hear the French phrasing when he sings.

McQuinn was a fairly popular DJ for many years, mostly as part of a collective called Marathon Men who had a soul-funk-electronica sound. (Think of Gilles Peterson's taste in tunes and you'll get the idea.) But for his first solo album, 'Exile On Brick Lane', he's become something of a jazz-soul troubadour, playing acoustic guitar onstage with a band.

Your blogger really isn't into jazz-soul-pop as anything other than aural wallpaper to have on when Chateau French Letter needs cleaning. But one of McQuinn's tunes, the one with airplay ubiquity, has us putting down the feather-duster for a closer listen.

The song is called 'Chasing Rainbows', and that rather bland title is a good indicator of the genre: coffee-table jazz pop à la  Jamie Cullum. But while this song's syncopated rhythm and be-bop trumpet line may sound familiar, McQuinn manages to put some personality into the track. His French phrasing gives the vocal line a slightly off-kilter feel, and the lyrics have an agreeable streak of arrogance in them, especially the chorus hook: "I'm better than the rest".

Anyway, it's a radio-friendly song - and McQuinn's English name should make it easier for him to appear on UK and Irish playlists. The rest of his songs are closer to funk than the jazziness of 'Chasing Rainbows', and calling your songs 'Bitch' and 'Sex Obsession' is really not good. (The songs live down to their titles.) But as we always say, one good song is one more than most acts have.

There's no video for 'Chasing Rainbows' yet, so you'll have to pop over to Freddy McQuinn's MySpace page to hear it.

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Well, it seems that all your correspondent has been doing lately is moaning and complaining. The new Phoenix album is disappointing; the new Air song is poor; the new Cassius EP is uninspired, and so forth. Some of you have been wondering if the Paris heat is getting to us, if some Parisienne had battered our coronary organ, if we just needed a holiday. All of that may be true, but those Phoenix, Air and Cassius records are tiresome nonetheless. If only there were a kindred spirit, someone with a fellow feeling for French music's current staleness...

RV Salters, aka General ElektriksEt voilà! Meet Hervé Salters (right), whose mammy is French and daddy is Irish (so he says in this interview). Born and raised in France, Hervé spent some of his teenage years in London before moving to California in 1999. (Continuing the Irish connection, he lives in Berkeley, named after Kilkenny's greatest ever philosopher.) Amending his first name to RV, he started making music and fell in with the likes of Blackalicious and DJ Shadow - indeed, his first album, 'Cliquety Kliqk' in 2003, featured Blackalicious.

Now Salters has released his second album, 'Good City For Dreamers'. It's a marvellous blend of loose funkiness and tight electronica, flavoured with jazzy progressions and Beatles-y pop hooks. The sense of fun and adventure is infectious.

So what's the link with your blogger's recent moaniness? Well, our favourite song on the record is 'Raid The Radio', where a soulful chorus declares war on the airwaves because "we're tired of hearing the same old song". Yes! That's us! We hear ya! (We also love it for the blissed-out groove and playful whistling.)

General Elektriks are currently touring around France - no upcoming Irish shows for the moment but perhaps he may have been there recently (visiting his family, for instance). Check out RV Salters' tunes on the General Elektriks MySpace page.

Here's a brilliant unofficial homemade video for 'Raid The Radio' that perfectly catches the spirit of the track - the sound quality isn't perfect but you'll get the gist. Under UEFA regulations this may well be both the best French song and best Irish song of 2009:

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The wider world’s perception of music from France is still based on a clique of ‘French touch’ electronica bands who’ve been around for over a decade. International audiences seem to be enthralled by anything French that goes ‘blip’ or ‘bleep’, flavoured with varying degrees of dreamy synths or skuzzy guitars.

But to our ears it’s all starting to sound tired. The new Phoenix album, ‘Wolfgang Amadeux Phoenix’, gives the impression of a band happy to consolidate rather than innovate. Air’s new track, ‘Do The Joy’, sounds like most Air tracks off their last two records – incidental music for some boho existentialist arthouse movie. And what have Daft Punk been doing lately?

Cassius‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ was produced by Philippe Zdar, Philippe Cerboneschi, one half of Cassius and another member of this clique. Perhaps less well known internationally than their peers, Cassius (right) can nonetheless point to two cracking singles in their back catalogue – the banging remix of ‘1999’ and the slashing guitars of ‘Toop Toop’ from 2006.

Now Cassius are back with a new song from a forthcoming E.P. ‘Youth, Speed, Trouble, Cigarettes’ is the title and complete lyric of the track. It starts with an air-raid siren and features a catchy ascending-scale figure duplicated on guitar strums and a thin synth line. The lyric is shouted by teen-sounding voices, recalling ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ by Justice, the most recent off the assembly line of French electronic duos.

All this is packed into the opening thirty seconds – but the whole thing just repeats itself for the remaining three and a half minutes. It all feels a bit laboured, as if that one decent hook has to carry the whole track. Perhaps a canny remix can breathe some life into it.

The B-side, ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, is as mundane as the title suggests – dancefloor electronic that bangs out one keyboard riff ad infinitum. Or maybe your correspondent is just completely bored by le French touch and yearns for something exciting and new to happen here in Paris.

Judge for yourself – here’s ‘Youth, Speed, Trouble, Cigarettes’ by Cassius, set to extracts from Harmony Korine’s ‘Gummo’:

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Saint Malo is an old walled town on the northern coast of Brittany, hugely popular with tourists looking for sun, sand and spectacular scenery. For three days every summer the ranks of sun-worshipping tourists are swelled by pale Parisian indie kids, here for France's best alternative music festival.

La Route du Rock 2009Our regular readers will remember that we featured last summer's La Route du Rock on two occasions - 'before' and 'after'. First, we reported on the festival's financial problems, potentially terminal at the time. Then we were happy to tell how the festival had been saved by a late rush of ticket sales, apparently due to UK-based fans of Sigur Ros making the short hop across the Channel.

La Route du Rock returns for 2009, in its traditional slot of the mid-August French public holiday. It features as main stagers the sort of alternative acts normally cordoned off in the tents of other major festivals.

That said, the festival can boast a headliner who's high in both indie cred and marquee-name attractiveness - our own My Bloody Valentine. G'wan Oirland! Kevin Shields and co. will play on the first night, along with Tortoise, The Horrors, A Place To Bury Strangers, Deerhunter and Mark Kozelek. Plenty of squally shoegazing there.

Saturday's headliners, The Kills, leave us cold. But Peaches will surely be good for a wild time. Also on the bill that night: Camera Obscura, St Vincent and Four Tet.

Sunday night offers the only big French name of the festival - chanteur Dominique A, who you might know from his appearance on 'Hyacinths And Thistles', the 2000 album by Stephin Merritt's side project The 6ths. More to our taste are Grizzly Bear (auteurs of the wonderful 'Veckatimest'), Andrew Bird, Bill Callahan and Telepathe.

Saint Malo is close to Rennes, where there are regular flights to/from Ireland, and the ferry at Roscoff - Irish music fans should consider hitting La Route du Rock for their summer holidays sometime. Your correspondent will be there: bucket-and-spading it on the beach by day, indie-ing out by night. Yahoo!

You can check out full festival details on La Route du Rock's website. How much will it cost? Well, it's €94 for a full three-day pass to the main arena and two smaller venues. But if you just want to stick to the main stage and don't feel the need to see Telepathe or Mark Kozelek, it's €74 just for the main stage.

Now, back to the packing: suncream, snazzy swimming togs... oh, and earplugs - here's 'You Made Me Realise':

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No doubt you’re all giddy with excitement about this weekend’s U2 concerts at Croke Park. Whatever about the quality (or lack thereof) of their new material, you have to admit that the show looks bloody impressive as a live spectacle.

The Biggest Band In The World™ played two nights at the Stade de France in Paris a few weekends ago, before heading down to Nice for a gig near their Riviera base.

They have a chequered relationship, U2 and France. You may remember the 1995 MTV Europe Music Awards in Paris, when Bono dismantled the atomic bomber and French president Jacques Chirac by calling him a ‘wanker’. Since then, though, he has settled into a holiday home on the Cote d’Azur and even written (with Simon Carmody!) a song for Johnny Hallyday.

And Bono can now speak French, sort of.

French pop radio station NRJ (pronounced ‘NRG’/‘energy’) has an annual awards ceremony, much like the MTV bashes, which takes place every January in Cannes as a curtain-raiser to the annual MIDEM conference. Cannes is close to chez Bono. In 2005 U2 were busy trying to shift units of ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’ and tickets for the Vertigo tour.

And so, in what was no doubt a coincidence, at the 2005 ceremony NRJ gave Bono a lifetime achievement gong – and the man himself drove down the road to collect the award in person.

Having accepted the mantelpiece bauble from Naomi Campbell (above right), Bono then pulled out a sheet of paper and began delivering a speech in French (at 4 mins 30 sec of the video below).

What Bono says is that he… well, actually, we’re not going to translate. You can try to figure it out yourself, what with the Leaving Cert French you no doubt still remember perfectly and practice fluently. If you have any witty suggestions, post them below:

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Nuggets from our archive

2002 - Interview with Rodrigo y Gabriela, by Cormac Looney. As with Damien Rice's profile, this interview was published before Rodrigo y Gabriela's career took off overseas. It too continues to attract considerable visits every month to the article from Wikipedia.