A New French Music Column: Turzi & Ray Bartok Examined
, February 18th, 2011 05:50
In the first of a new series looking at music from across the Channel, David McKenna talks to Turzi and explores the music of Ray Bartok
'Rock choucroute' is a humorous term but also a flexible one - a near-direct translation of 'krautrock', it serves both as the French name for German bands of a particular persuasion, and for their similarly minded French peers. Romain Turzi – or just Turzi, signed to the Record Makers label set up by Air just over 10 years ago - is something of a focal point for a group of contemporary French musicians that seem to suit that label. When it comes to the likes of Rouen's Steeple Remove, the link is tenuous (and they've been around for a lot longer than he has) but Zombie Zombie's Etienne Jaumet is a close associate.
When I spoke to Turzi, he seemed to have grown somewhat weary of the 'French krautrock' tag.
"I pee on krautrock," he said (in English).
"I’m bored of krautrock because everyone speaks to me about it. That was five years ago or maybe eight years ago that I discovered it, it was a big shock, I admit it, but now it’s time to do something else, to get over it. I’m not a tribute band, I have to do my own things – and this is the message of krautrock: forget everybody, forget what you know and start again on a new basis. If you listen to Can around 77, 78, they weren’t doing krautrock at all, it was like zouk or reggae. They broke their boundaries. I listen to techno music, mantras, African music, musique concrète, and the music I make is a mix of this."
He's happier to be considered part of a French tradition of free/experimental rock, one that includes groups like Catherine Ribeiro & Alpes, Catharsis and Heldon. The title of the the first compilation on his own label, Pan European Recordings, made that much clear - Voyage: Facing the History of French Modern Psychedelic Music. Now a second volume has arrived, with a title that makes the first seem a model of succinctness: Voyage 2: Mort Pour La France – French Underground Voodoo Music. Both feature a family of musicians that Turzi gathered around himself after his initial success with the mini-album Made Under Authority - people like Koudlam, Aqua Nebula Oscillator, Chicros, Kill For Total Peace and the aforementioned Etienne Jaumet.
The music on the first Voyage was sporadically excellent, often charming and occasionally splendidly ridiculous but also frequently derivative and sometimes just plain duff – and it's the same story with Turzi's own full albums, A and B. (Almost) all the tracks on each one start with the relevant letter and on B (released in 2009) the titles are also all geographical locations, from 'Bethlehem' to 'Brasilia'. However, despite these unifying concepts, there is no escaping the fact that the albums are desperately uneven – for my money, the more synth-heavy tracks on B where he recalls the 70s synth gods (Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis), as on 'Buenos Aires' and the shimmering, cyber-tribal Brigitte Fontaine collaboration 'Bamako' demonstrate a surer touch than toe-curling electro-rock workouts like 'Baltimore', which features a guest vocal from none other than Bobby Gillespie.
The latter's presence prompts a useful parallel, though – both Gillespie and Turzi pay lip service to the notion of rock as a musically and socially transgressive force, but both are really, above all, scholars. That triggers another thought: Turzi and friends are a bit like Creation Records (aside from continental experimental music of the 70s, "techno music, mantras, African music" and so on that interests Turzi, one thing he's obviously really big on is shoegaze; he's a fan of early Boo Radleys and Moonshake and cites The Jesus and Mary Chain's 'Reverence' as a key record. It's a taste undoubtedly shared by Pan European cohorts like Juan Trip, whose 'High America' on the first comp revisits that shoegaze-meets-baggy sound). The overall impression you get is of a group of musicians guided by a certain 'experimental' rock canon, often too in thrall to past glories to use them as a genuine jumping off point. The straight Velvets/Mary Chain pastiche 'Who Is The Weatherman' by Kill for Total Peace, probably the nadir of Voyage 2, certainly reinforces that notion and elsewhere, lyrical and musical psych-rock clichés abound on Juan Trip's offering this time round, 'Ping Pong' ("is this normal, is this odd?"). These come across very much as "tribute acts", to use Turzi's own words.
And yet (and this isn't unlike Creation either) there are enough anomalies and oddities on Voyage 2 to make you wonder whether you read the script correctly at all. Tracks that don't seem to be merely exercises de style, like the warm, flickering electronic pop of 'My Girlfriend Is Better Than Yours', 'Toro' and White & Sticky's brief and unnervingly pathetic 'Emile', or wonderfully melancholy analogue glides like Mogadishow & Mohini Gesweiller's 'Ordinary Shares', Etienne Jaumet's 'Tuner 2' and Jonathan Fitoussi's 'Cycle 500'. And, if nothing else, you can have a chuckle at the absurdly stentorian 'Russians' by Service (Turzi describes them as 'Sarkozy rock'!), or rock muthas Aqua Nebula Oscillator growling "I can see your dead soul behind your gypsy eyes."
I'm not 100% sold on the artist, but I'm definitely warming to Turzi the choucroute curator.
The eponymous debut album by Parisian duo Ray Bartok (aka Tino on vocals and sampler and Larry on drums), the follow-up to the excellent No Panic EP, sees them expanding on their compact, pulp-y, highly visual style while keeping things pretty succinct. 12 tracks are wrapped up in 40 minutes, and each song from these dapper gentlemen (suits are de rigueur on stage) is like a puzzle or a bizarre hybrid contraption of indeterminate function. They feature samples of classical music, jazz, film scores and the pair's own instruments - RB frequently pitch snatches of guitar upwards or downwards to provide the basis for their loping grooves - and Tino often croaks odd repeated phrases over them (the lyrics are usually concerned with femme trouble).
It's been mixed by ace producer Jean-Louis Morgère aka Norscq, who has also assisted Colder amongst others and used to be a member of cult 80s industralists The Grief. That latter's 'industrial jazz' EP Fycazz on Bananas is something of an antecedent, as is the 'fake jazz' of early Lounge Lizards but there's also more straight-up punk-y aggression on a cover of The Stranglers' ' Bear Cage' and a touch of Suicide. Unsurprisingly given their approach to sampling, RB are also hip-hop fans and Napoleon Maddox of Cincinnati rappers ISWHAT?! pops up on two tracks.
"It wasn't a case of making hip-hop tracks with him, though," Tino maintains, "but just of using his wonderful voice."
They're also highly danceable live, with the show often augmented by visuals from VJ Italovideo. Hopefully they won't be dismissed as merely 'wacky' – there's undoubtedly a lot of levity in there but it's deployed in the manner of someone trying to divert attention away from their twitchy, blood-shot eyes.
"Humour is very important in our music but it's underlying, let's say. There's musical humour, certainly. It's good not to take yourself to seriously, it allows you a little perspective. Humour creates a certain healthy discrepancy. But lunacy is equally important – we're ultimately drawn to musicians who are out of the ordinary, out of step, Raymond Scott, Moondog, The Residents."