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Magickal Thinking: Jean-Sébastien Nouveau Interviewed
David McKenna , February 21st, 2014 11:21

David McKenna speaks to Jean-Sébastien Nouveau about the influence of Jacques Brel and Henry Darger on his new project as Les Marquises

'Les Marquises' is the title of a stately late-period song (you'll also sometimes find it as the title of an album) from Belgian chanson icon Jacques Brel. It takes its name from the Marquesas, as they're known in English - a remote group of islands in French Polynesia where both the painter Paul Gaugin and, later, Brel would conclude their lives, the former overdosing on morphine while ravaged by syphillis, the latter from cancer. Disease permeates the islands' colonial history, with imported illness devastating the population to the extent that, over the course of 100 years (roughly 1800-1900), it declined from nearly 80,000 to only 4,000. In his song-tribute, Brel finds a spirit of stoicism - “They talk about death the way you talk about fruit” “groaning is inappropriate” - in the face of nature's violence “the sea tears itself apart”, “the rocks have taken on demented names”.

Jean-Sébastien Nouveau took his time coming round to Brel. When I spoke to him about his first album under the Les Marquises name, 2010's Lost Lost Lost, he said “The song had a big impact on me. Prior to that, I didn’t really know his music that well, I even found it rather unpleasant... I hated that emphatic singing style of his! But I discovered ‘Les Marquises’ and that was a way into Brel’s world. During the recording of Lost Lost Lost I listened to ‘Les Marquises’ a lot, and his description of the islands in the song were definitely a big inspiration. Both the music and the words have an aura that is very ambiguous, almost supernatural.” Another key reference that time round was American outsider artist Henry Darger (“You can go from a painting where you see young girls living in Eden, and then in the next one you’ll see them having their throats slit. It’s this idea of a contained violence that can surface at any moment that I like a lot.”)

Put these together with Gaugin's primitivism and you have some of the creative co-ordinates for the Les Marquises project, at least for its overall vibe. On ‘This Carnival of Lights’, Nouveau imagined a community of people living on an island isolated from any other civilisation, where the people are gripped by a fear that ‘outsiders’ could arrive from the sea to slaughter them. (Maybe unintentional echoes of Lost the TV series?)

More specifically, Lost Lost Lost hovered in an interzone between folky songwriting and attention to sound-in-itself, hanging on circular chord sequences, jazzily played but tightly patterned drums (played by Jonathan Grandcollot), lonesome trumpets and decayed sounding keyboard parts and other scraps of sonic detritus clinging like barnacles on a shipwreck. A few songs were also graced with the quietly pained vocals of Minus Story/Shearwater/Hospital Ships' Jordan Geiger.

In the time between that and the release this month of the follow-up, La Pensée Magique (if one excludes a remix album) Nouveau has “done a bit of drawing”, put out a first EP of his Colo Colo electro-pop project with Martin Duru (they both previously played together in currently suspended group Immune) and, naturally, worked on the album “because it took me a long time!”

On La Pensée Magique, he drew again on the dramatic possibilities of an island setting but this time not from the point of view of an indiginous people - this time it's about those dangerous outsiders penetrating the unkown. “A very clear narrative came to me during the recording of the album. It would convey the impressions and sensations of a journey across the length and breadth of an island, with different stages. I could see the sequence of scenes quite clearly – scene one: coming ashore on a beach, scene two: entering the jungle, scene three: reaching a clearing... also films like Peter Brook's Lord of the Flies ('Night Falls On The Dale' opens with what might be a simulated conch-shell blast) and Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, The Wrath Of God by Werner Herzog were a great inspiration.”

It's the Heart Of Darkness scenario – the further inland or down the river, the deeper into the jungle you go, the more you lose sight of moral bearings and close in on man's (particularly western man's) folly, his will to conquer and despoil, and his death-wish. Correspondingly, gripping opener 'Les Maîtres Fous' signals that, despite its more tranquil passages, La Pensée Magique is going to be more overtly percussive, hallucinatory and tinged with violence that reaches a feverish peak on 'Chasing the Hunter'.

Nouveau concurs: “I love playing around with rhythms, creating things which are somewhat hypnotic. For this album I wanted something tribal, wilder and more primitive. Something that evoked the jungle, its power and oppressive nature, its madness.”

Clearly this is a jungle of the imagination; more than that, it's an idea of an idea, a distillation of how the meeting of the island or jungle with the 'civilised' mind have been represented in literature or on film. It seems to me this is the sort of trick that music, which can be as vague as a dream and fortunately is rarely held to standards of realism or even coherence, is ideally placed to pull off. “No, I've never set foot in a jungle, I've just seen films where they appear like the Herzog films of Coppola's Apocalypse Now. But the jungle appeals to me, I'm fascinated by the idea. But I'm going to Bali this year, so I have every attention of discovering it at least a bit.”

La Pensée Magique is also a record that seems possessed of the exploratory spirit of UK post rock, that dense, murky mix of played and sampled/looped material, the exploded song-structures, the prioritisation of groove – I'm thinking Bark Psychosis, Pram, Hood...

“I'm not at all a fan of Bark Psychosis but on the other hand I'm a long-term fan of Hood. There were key group for me for a long time, and it really took me some time to exorcise their ghost, particularly when it came to Rustic Houses Forlorn Valleys. I also really liked Movietone, Crescent, Third Eye Foundation, all that gang! I really loved that scene which seemed open to pretty much anything. I understand that they're sometimes defined as post-rock but for me it wasn't really that, because I don't see their music as being reducible to that genre. For me, post rock was Mogwai, Godspeed, Explosions In The Sky, and those groups generally bored me. To me that type of post rock is too straight, too formatted, too rigid, while the English groups we're talking about seemed freer, richer, more supple.”

Once again, Nouveau has opted not to sing, apart from on one song – 'Cassette (Hands of Fire)'. “Every time I consider it and then, no, I don't feel I want to do it. And also, I liked getting other people to sing, it enriches the project.”

I put it to him that, in his choice of collaborators, he's assembled something of an alternative/experimental French rock supergroup, even if nobody actually played together – alongside Grandcollot, trumpet player Souleymane Felicio and Duru, Benoit Burello of Bed, Don Nino (F/LOR's brother) and Johaness Buff (Tin Trails/DUBAI) contribute vocals while Etienne Jaumet (Zombie Zombie/The Married Monk and, um, himself) does some sax-wailing.

“It's not really a supergroup, more a series of collaborations with people whose music I like. I love collaborating with other musicians, and Les Marquises is the ideal project for these kinds of encounters. I'm the core but all these collaborators considerably enrich the project with their sounds and ideas.”

What else typifies Les Marquises, or distinguishes it from his other projects?

“Each Les Marquises album is a project in and of itself. My idea for each album is to create a new world with different aesthetic. Above everything else, I think in terms of the album. Then I choose to work with the people who I think can best serve the tracks I've written for it.”

And where does magickal thinking (la pensée magique) come into it?

“Magickal thinking is supposed to be a kind of thinking which has the power to lead to the accomplishment of your desires, to prevent events or to resolve problems without any material intervention – according to Wikipedia. It's what I practiced in a sense to have the album turn out this way, except of course I also worked hard to get it finished! But these visions of scenes on an island became real for me at a certain point because I willed them to be real and to appear before me.”

Also recommended this month:

Françoise Hardy - Message Personnel

Hardy is 70 this year and this is the first full album past the reissues post, in a deluxe version too with bonus instrumentals and more. Beyond the yé-yé period, the orchestral pop, the more psych-folk period and the spell-binding one-off collaboration with Brazilian guitarist Tuca La Question, 1973's Message Personnel finds the first lady of French pop entering her MOR years with Michel Berger, who would go on to write the wildly popular Starmania musical and marry France Gall, as producer/arranger. Nothing wrong with a bit of MOR if it's as plush as this, though, and written by Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier to boot.

Mondkopf - Hadès

Thematically, Paul Régimbeau may be hellbound but otherwise his music's on an upward curve. Hadès makes its predessor Rising Doom seem excessively polished in comparison. There's still plenty of enjoyable bombast but otherwise he's taken that album's sound and crispy-fried or just plain charred it. With every kick, more bits of track seem to crumble and peel off. Yum.

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