Raving Madly At The Sky: Rockfort Interviews La Terre Tremble!!!
, November 30th, 2012 07:24
In this month's edition of our French music column, David McKenna speaks to La Terre Tremble!!! about the multiple meanings behind new album Salvage Blues
When I started craning my neck to check out what was happening in Nantes circa 2009, what particularly stood out was the work of two collectives. On the one hand, Valérie, an association of producers and groups like College and Anoraak with their interest in and deployment of 80s US pop cultural references, sheen and nostalgic texture, global networking, the 'party' - a vision that has since broken out via M83 and the Drive soundtrack, which featured a track by College (Valérie's founder David Grellier). On the other, Effervescence, the rockist, more ascetic pole focused around local hardcore heroes Papier Tigre.
Naturally, the latter was never primed to meld with the zeitgeist in the same way but what emerged from the ashes, Murailles Music (label, management and booking agency), is (to these ears) proving to be musically much more fertile. In previous columns I've already featured Stranded Horse and L'Ocelle Mare, and Hoquets are also on their books. And just recently, they've assisted in the release of the excellent, Battles-y maths-dance of Electric Electric's Discipline album, and Salvage Blues, the latest from La Terre Tremble!!!
About seven years ago, the latter group quit their home town of Clermont-Ferrand, a city that was declared the new capital of French rock by the Le Monde newspaper in 2008 (mostly through weight of numbers - the paper had counted 800 groups apparently) to set up base in the north-west and Rennes specifically, from where they hooked up with Effervescence and released their previous album, Travail. Already that was a more focused take on their turbulent post-rock/math-rock/folk-rock than they'd previously delivered, but it was clear they wanted to go further.
So Salvage Blues arrives with a wallop; it's somehow the trio's fiercest yet poppiest and most confident release to date. The guitars land serrated but precise blows, or roil and roll, but there's also the harmonic sensibility of early Floyd, The White Album, Nirvana, twisted around on itself even further, and opener 'Elements' slams in with a sound almost like vintage glam rock. I spoke to Julien Chevalier and Paul Loiseau from the band about the blues, the genesis of the album and being impatient to reach old age.
The first time I read the album title, I thought it was Savage Blues. I wondered whether that was a misinterpretation you would encourage?
Paul Loiseau: Ah, finally someone who's made the connection! Actually, there's no real wrong interpretation, since the word 'salvage' contains many. It comes from old French but if you look further back in time it evokes the forest, sage (the plant that 'saves'). So it gave birth to two parallel meanings. On the one hand rescue, health. On the other hand, the savage. All that it one word, it's fascinating...
The title came to us at a point where we needed it, we were even ready to call the album 'Joie' ('Joy') but the word 'salvage' contains something fierce and devastating as well as something positive. Like raving madly at the sky, to gods who mock you. Which takes us quickly to the word 'blues', of course.
More generally, what are your feelings about 'the blues', and how do they link to this album?
Julien Chevalier: We're naturally great fans of old blues in its most primitive and raw form, which is sometimes incredibly violent and has very little to so with the way it was reappropriated in England and then America in the 60s. My instinctive reaction is to talk about music, but your question is very open and really for us the term 'blues' doesn't apply uniquely to a musical reference. You can find the blues in a film, in a town or just in someone's personality. At a certain level, it becomes almost religious, or simply ineffable but that was the original aim of this music: shouting and stamping your feet to make the gods hear you. I think it's more this idea of an oral tradition linked in some way or other to something that is beyond human beings and their condition that we've tried to get across on our album.
PL: People have a tendency to think that the blues is music in the first person "I woke up this morning, bla bla bla." Not at all! For us, the blues is more this something hazy that was transmitted from generation to generation. Ancestors and ghosts who speak through you. Robert Johnson was certainly the first to have put some of his self, of his intellect, into his words, in a way he's the first 'romantic' bluesman. But we find Charley Patton or Howlin' Wolf more affecting, in the way they responded to the traditional framework and who, in spite of themselves, transmitted this invisible, intoxicating, magical thing. But don't misunderstand us, we're aware that La Terre Tremble!!! isn't a blues group. What we're interested in is the aura of the word.
I interviewed you in 2009 after the release of Travail. You talked about becoming more song-focussed and percussive. On Salvage Blues it seems you've taken that even further.
PL: We agree 100%. We've always tried to write songs – and we've often failed. We've never aimed specifically to deconstruct or sabotage our music, we've never consciously tried to create knots, ruptures, dislocation or difficulty. That shouldn't be an end in itself and I think – listening back to Travail – that the cut-up and kaleidoscopic structures of certain tracks came about more by default than through any strong plan on our part. Before, the singing was just laid over, almost dumped, onto the music. This time we really wrote 'with' the singing. On most of the songs on Salvage Blues, the voice is really the central thread, the other elements revolve around it, the music feeds on it. I'm not saying that a 'song' has to be something straightforward and simple, I would even say the opposite, that we are trying to make pop songs that are as vast as possible, with dizzying depths, that can be looked at in a number of possible ways. Something that you can't take in fully in one go but which you can grasp the general mood of.
The sound has a new confidence. Did you come into the album with a specific aim or did you surprise yourselves?
JC: We did definitely want to have as much control as possible over the eventual sound of the album and we had known for a long time that it would be very different from that of Travail. Our main aim was to make an album that was more dense and teeming, maybe dirtier as well. We didn't want the production to restrain and smooth out our songs, but rather that allowed them to charge like wild beasts from your speakers. It wasn't always easy to maintain that direction during the mixing of the album which was a real face-off between us and our engineer. But it was worth the struggle and we're very proud of the sound of the album. Another novelty compared to Travail is the use of deeper-sounding instruments like the tuba and the piano. The dread invoked by these instruments is inimitable but that's nothing new. We also used slide guitar more faithfully, Taal Tarang – an Indian drum machine – synths, harmonica, a cornet...
What's your approach to writing the different parts or sections of each song and bringing them together?
JC: We do use cut-and-paste to develop a song but it's much less automatic than it used to be and certain tracks on the album don't really follow that idea at all. When we did use the technique our principle desire was to retain the particular feel of the song. We don't mind breaking up the melody or the rhythm or the mood but in the end we still want to preserve the identity of each song on the album rather than creating a patchwork album where the songs are so fragmented that they all end up sounding alike.
I gather the album was recorded in two weeks, so how much preparation was done before that?
JC: Before recording, we shut ourselves in the Chaudelande studio (near Cherbourg) for 30 days. It was difficult to get back into the writing process after having basically done nothing else but play live for two years. The experience of playing gigs teaches you to control the sound and the energy created by the group but it also shuts you into a fairly well defined role. Once we found ourselves back in the studio, we were all still trapped in our roles, and the hardest thing was finding the freedom to escape certain established codes. We recorded hours of improvisation, really bad 'space jam rock' to the point of exhaustion. We tried everything to put ourselves in unfamiliar positions, changing instruments, torturing a poor Korg MS20 without really understanding how it worked... In terms of morale it was one of the most difficult periods in the making of this record. Then we listened back to the sessions, we cried, then we laughed, and finally we found some hidden gems in this swamp of sound. That was the raw material that we used to make the songs.
Does your harmonic approach come very naturally to you now or is it still something you have to work hard at achieving?
JC: We've been making music together for more than ten years and we're starting to have a pretty good idea of what we're capable of, both the best and the worst – above all what we'd never be capable of. We don't really have a compositional style but we try more to put ourselves together in situations that favour 'beautiful mistakes.' The biggest difficulty is being able to recognise them and then being able to play them again with the same naïveté. Of course, sometimes you can drive yourself crazy looking for the right chord, the best rhythm, which is all very admirable until you realise that nothing can surpass the sheer violence of a mistake that completely overturns what was there before and puts the song in a whole new light. So I wouldn't say that our approach is necessarily 'natural', it's more about learning to harness chance, which is much more exciting in itself than just 'playing music.'
PL: Yes, there's never been anything 'natural' about the way we make music. In fact, it's rather the only place where we can escape nature without it rushing back in uninvited.
Despite the lyrics being in English, I find them pretty cryptic. It's not an expectation I have of lyrics, that I should be able to decode them easily, but are they mysterious to you too?
PL: Yes, they are! And I work at them being like that. There's never anything autobiographical in the words. I'm not looking to express myself, I'm not even looking to communicate something in particular. If I wanted to do that I'd be a teacher, or a priest! People who claim to be offering up their soul in their songs irritate me. Same goes for artists, dancers and actors who feel they are communicating harmoniously with people. When I say something in a song, it's definitely going to be the exact opposite of what I thought I was saying, and someone listening will understand the reverse again. For me, one of the best lyricists in the world is Jim O'Rourke on Insignificance. He pushed the logic of the pop singer to its limit: basically a fantasist passing himself off as an honest, generous guy, allowing you access to his private thoughts, his ego, his states of mind. That album is a perfect account of compulsive lying.
In my songs, there aren't any real situations, or narrative and very little in the way of metaphor, and there is definitely no "I". You don't really know who's speaking, where the voice is coming from, or who it's addressed to, and definitely not if it's telling the truth. It's just a voice that's trying to make itself heard, because it exists. So it picks out its path towards a conclusion, an end, its own end. Beckett's 'The Unnamable' has haunted me for many years! I'm also thinking about Scott Walker's lyrics, on Tilt or The Drift, which evoke a thousand things every second, but which are pretty obscure – and he's got a new album! Seriously, when you see that people like Scott Walker, Alain Resnais, Michael Gira and Terrence Malick are still putting out work like that, it almost makes you want to hurry up and get old. Young people are lagging behind...