How Not To Run A Record Label: Bertrand Burgalat On 15 Years Of Tricatel
, May 20th, 2011 09:58
David McKenna talks to Bertrand Burgalat about the trials and tribulations of French record label Tricatel
July 2006, before a performance at a night called French Disconnection, Bertrand Burgalat is crouched close to my microphone in the parking area behind the now sadly defunct Luminaire venue in Kilburn. He is animated when it comes to talking about music that inspires him, waxing lyrical about Britney's 'Toxic' in particular, but becomes more downcast when the discussion turns to his label, Tricatel. He says he is going to write a book about how NOT to run a record label. I suggest Tony Wilson could write the foreword. "At least Tony Wilson had a 'Blue Monday'," he replies.
"I expect so much from music that every time I find it very disappointing and I think 'OK, let's find a normal job and do music for the joy of it'. I'm in a period now that... it's not dark - it's just that I love making music but I'm tired. I'm 43, and I'd love to find a way to do it more smoothly and not struggle all the time. It's not towards the audience but it's an industry which, even if you're in the margins, is very competitive and I don't know how to put myself into that."
Now Burgalat is 47 and Tricatel is celebrating its 15th birthday. Is the struggle the same?
"Yes," he says.
What does it mean to have kept Tricatel going for 15 years?
"Not much really - I am not good with numbers. I'm starting to realize that I may spend the rest of my life doing the same things: struggling to finance projects and to release them, getting discouraged then trying again."
How have you responded to changes in the music industry over the past 15 years?
"The situation for Tricatel is much better now than 15 years ago. The crisis in music industry has been an excellent thing for people in the margins like us. Now that record sales are disappointing for everyone and not only for us it's more useless than ever to be calculating. You have to do the music you'd like to listen to - even if your music is super opportunistic it may fail too. A lot of people are not used to making records with low budgets while paying musicians and technicians decently, whereas it has always been our main concern.
"In fact, the only thing that I don't like here in France is that most records that sell are not catchy, they are more fake quality for bobos [bohemians], and I have always preferred a good song from Britney Spears to a boring album from Björk."
Modelled more on él Records (which in the 80s was a home to Momus, regular Burgalat collaborator Louis Philippe, Shock Headed Peters and Marden Hill amongst others) than Factory, Tricatel was set up, in Burgalat's own words, as a "fantasy" label with its cast of backroom boys, muses (American singer April March, French comedy actress Valérie Lemercier) and even a proper house band in the shape of AS Dragon. Undoubtedly a post-modern project, it seemed as though it was trying to establish an alternative variété: an idea of what modern mainstream French pop could be if it was Boris Vian, Yé-Yé, Pierre Henry, Gainsbourg, Michel Polnareff, cool 60s film music, uncool 70s MOR, Marc Cerrone, the soundtrack to La Boum and French Touch all mixed up.
"What you describe is not far from what I was into 20 years ago before doing Tricatel," says Burgalat. "I think influences always say more about the person who finds them than about the author. In the 90s people were rediscovering the good songs of Gainsbourg or Burt Bacharach so they would see this influence under anything I would do though I was more into northern soul or French singers like Léo Ferré or Pierre Vassiliu."
It also felt as though Burgalat was embracing a foreigner's-eye view of what constitutes 'Frenchness' in pop (something like that list above), rather in the manner of Air, with whom Burgalat, a superb bassist, toured and who put the label 'French Band' on the sleeve of their debut Moon Safari.
"We are all the products of our environment, so there is probably something very French in our music. I dislike folklore; I feel France is being destroyed by fake authenticity, hence I have always tried to avoid the French clichés, though they could have been very useful for exportation. For instance, at the beginning of the label there was a warm welcome in Japan, but it was linked to a fantasy of Paris, the idealised Parisienne that Valérie Lemercier was supposed to be. It would have been rather easy for us to push that - make sleeves with the Eiffel Tower and write songs about café au lait in Saint Germain des Près. I had too much respect for the Japanese to do that."
Still, from the sleeve onwards, Valérie Lemercier Chante, (catalogue number TRICCDFR001) does appear pretty knowing, with its heavily 60-stylised picture of the actress posing with a trumpet in a figure-hugging, bright yellow dress, playing on precisely those associations. It's worth bearing in mind, though, that there was a point in the 90s where the embrace of lounge and library music and exotica – and with it, groovy French sounds from the 60s and 70s, not least Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson – was one of the more stimulating alternatives to Britpop in the UK, and to a sclerotic mainstream and fastidious chanson revivalists in France.
It was there in the likes of St Etienne and Pulp, Stereolab over here, Air, Kid Loco and Dimitri from Paris in France and J-Pop artists like Cornelius and Pizzicato Five (also influenced by él Records). Now that there is almost no style from the past that is taboo and playing mix-and-match with sounds from different eras is simply the norm, it's maybe harder to see how this reframing of sources previously deemed too cheesy or un-rock & roll (Bacharach the paradigm) as avant-garde was so different from the straighter revivalism of much Britpop, or why 'ba-ba-bas' might have been (tastefully) transgressive. There are moments, as with Blur's 'To The End' - which they recorded versions of with both Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier and Françoise Hardy - where it's hard to tell the difference. And we also suffered Space's 'Female of the Species' and the Mike Flowers Pops. Perhaps the key is that, as with Ghost Box more recently (incidentally, Moon Safari is an under acknowledged precursor to the GB sound, particularly of Belbury Poly), it's the difference between picking up the trails of unfulfilled futures and attempting to resuscitate the 'official' glory days.
It's possible to discern that a good proportion of what has been released on Tricatel has been more potent than pastiche. You might cite St Etienne as kindred spirits of Burgalat, but whereas there has always been a hipster taste and restraint in Bob Stanley and co's musical Venn diagrams, Bertrand the producer/arranger has pillaged the past, as well as contemporary electronic sounds, with a greater recklessness and added more individual quirks. It's not the most effective weapon in his arsenal (he can sound like a drunken child) but somehow fitting in musical settings where garishness and airy beauty go hand-in-hand. The overall results have felt less poised and posed; Burgalat's productions are beautiful-ugly chimeras that frequently reveal a taste for disquieting chord-changes and dissonance. His first production job was one half of Laibach's album of Beatles covers, Let It Be, but with Tricatel he concocted a sound - as celebrated on the 2000 Bungalow compilation The Genius of Bertrand Burgalat - that was somehow both loose and live-sounding, especially in the recording of drummers like Richie Thomas (some early Burgalat tracks like 'Kim' and 'Jalousies Et Tomettes' are basically jams) and rather rigid, plasticy: a kind of plastic psychedelia.
"I can't theorize about music, for instance everytime I try to read an orchestration method or a music theory book I cannot follow what is said after a couple of pages, it's like reading mathematics. So if something is dissonant it's not particularly sought, I just try to do the music I'd like to hear. I can't think in terms of scales and keys or chord names (D7m then Bsus4 and so on), when I write a score I never write the key on it otherwise I am blocked, I write the sharps and the flats as they occur. When I was a kid I heard once Arthur Rubinstein on the radio saying that there is no wrong note, what matters is the note which is going to come next. It confirmed to me that you can play any note on anything, if it sounds good to you, it's the next note or the next chord which will make it interesting or not.
"So apart from that harmonic innocence I don't know really what has defined our sound. I think we have always had wonderful drummers: Richie Thomas, then Larry "Toby Dammit" Mullins, Hervé Bouétard, Julien Barbagallo. We have also had great lyricists: Pascal Mounet, Elinor Blake, Matthias Debureaux, Elisabeth Barillié and many more. In terms of production and sound there's a modus operandi, a way of recording closer to free jazz than to pop, trying to make recording a game."
The Burgalat treatment was given to remixes of Ladytron, Air and Renegade Soundwave and work by Bad Seeds Nick Cave and Mick Harvey as well as albums by Tricatel artists like April March, AS Dragon and Count Indigo, while the label provided a home for French oddballs like Etienne Charry and more than one writer. Michel Houellebecq's 2000 album Présence Humaine is surprisingly effective, with the author's monotone readings of his poems set to some mostly lounge-y but occasionally more frigid vibes that work well with his images of the consumer-business classes 'enjoying' their leisure/travel time. Jonathan Coe has also released an album, 9th and 13th, on the label in collaboration with Louis Phillipe and bassist Danny Manners.
Coe recalls that "what was so refreshing was the spontaneity with which he [Bertrand] committed himself to this uncommercial project. He heard Louis, Danny and I performing at a concert in Paris, had the idea for the record that evening and a few weeks later we were making it. After that he left us entirely to our own devices, until he had listened to a rough version: then he emailed a handful of very astute and specific suggestions, all of which we took on board. The very model of what the relationship between a producer and his artists should be. Of course, what makes all the difference is that Bertrand is an artist himself, and a very brilliant one."
Burgalat himself is particulary proud of April March's Triggers from 2002, a full-on plastic-psychedelic fantasia that he says "may be my most personal record, though (or maybe because) I'm not the singer nor the lyricist." Homme Fatale, by Count Indigo, from the same year "was extremely premonitory, and still is. This record has been our biggest failure (though most of our other releases have failed too) and it was an attempt to do a contemporary soul album, avoiding the RnB clichés as well as the revival ones." The label has clearly provided opportunities to make music with heroes like Louis Philippe and Robert Wyatt – not only did Burgalat sing a duet with the latter on 'This Summer Night' but Wyatt's wife Alfreda Benge has written lyrics for him – but also to bring the work of admired artists to a new audience, as with compliations of work by composer-arrangers like André Popp and our own David Whitaker or the German band Donna Regina.
Bertrand's contributions to the label under his own name probably peaked with his debut, The Sssound of Mmmusic that came two years later than Moon Safari and, in a similary nouveau-easy vein, is as at least twice as good. Its successors are patchy, and the Tricatel discography does hit some bum notes with releases from Les Shades (a pretty standard-issue group of bébés-rockeurs – the name given to young, Libertines-inspired French guitar bands). It's also difficult to know what to say about the 2007 Popodoms EP by Allegra, a teenager born in Sao Paulo but studying at an English boarding-school at the time, singing songs with titles like 'Burger and Fries' and 'Chunky Monkey' as well as a cover of Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold the World' (although that one does benefit from a grotesquely quirky arrangement).
Nevertheless there has been a consistency of vision and aesthetic that was certainly rare in a French labels when Tricatel arrived, and there's still nothing else quite like it on the landscape now, even if French music is in far ruder health than it was 15 years ago. There's still some way to go though as far as Burgalat is concerned:
"The musical level in France is probably the best we have ever seen for at least 30 years. Young musicians have excellent technique and taste. It used to be like that in England but in France you had either musos playing fusion scales, or inhibited esthetes unables to play and express something without a sampler or a turntable. Now there are a lot of young musicians with a broad musical culture but you still don't see this change in who record companies sign. The scene here has been moulded by a bunch of amazingly mediocre A&R men, radio programmers and festival promoters who always encourage the worst. And these guys in their 40s don't like the old and the young. There are a lot of wonderful musicians and arrangers here like Mickey Baker [legendary American jazz and blues guitarist who has lived in France for many years] who will die without any TV programme having interviewed them fo 40 years, and a lot of brilliant teenage musicians and bands completely ignored by the rock institutions."
The struggle goes on but BB does have some ideas about, and for, the future.
"In a way we were sad in the 90s because we felt alone here, but then we were sad in the 00s because the same people who had been contemptuous started to do the same kind of thing, usually with much more success. I want us to take the lead again, so I have asked everyone doing music on the label to look into three directions and the results will be published on an album by the end of the year, featuring new signings like the amazing Christophe Chassol, La Classe, Louis Bona and many more.
"Do music you'd like to hear on the radio (not music that would get played now but idealised hits).
"Do danceable music without clichés (like a kick on every beats)
"Do the music you imagine (or you fear) people will listen to in a hundred years."