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Serious, Perilous Friendship: Rockfort Interviews Aquaserge
David McKenna , September 19th, 2014 13:14

Continuing his investigation into the French axis of psych, David McKenna talks to Julien Gasc of Aquaserge about this year's À l'amitié LP, and picks out efforts from NLF3 and Powerdove as required listening this month

The Quietus is having a pretty psychedelic month, what with this European psych round-up and Liverpool Psych Fest coming up, so it seemed as good a time as any to revisit a subject I tackled in the first ever, seminal Rockfort column - France's experimental/free rock/psychedelic axis. It also just so happens that there's a cornucopia of spacey, Kraut-y, psych-y, proggy etc pleasures to sample right now.

Crucially, though, this is also a moment in which mainstream France is waking up to a strand of musical activity that had previously been decidedly (sometimes determinedly, perhaps resignedly) marginal. A lot of this seems to hinge on Moodoïd's rapid emergence. For those who don't know, Moodoïd is the brainchild of Pablo Padovani, formerly touring guitarist with Melody's Echo Chamber. Like Prince of late, he has surrounded himself with a terrific all-girl group - two Lucies, Clémence and Maud and, following last year's debut EP, has just dropped a hugely impressive debut album, Le Monde Möö. The comparisons with Prince don't stop there - Le Monde Möö is perhaps not always as funky as the Minneapolis maestro in his own psychedelic phase (circa Around The World In A Day) but it has a similarly polymorphous, polysexual and pantheistic aura, its raptures are both wide-eyed and very ripe indeed. It also allayed any Kula Shaker fears I had due to the cod-Indian vibes of 'De folie pure'. All this (minus the Kula Shaker-related relief, I think that was just my problem) is going down very well in France and is drawing attention to other practitioners of opulent, structurally complex, ornately arranged guitar pop. I'm also happy to say that the best of these groups are also less ploddingly derivative, or at least have more melodic and/or sonic verve, than putative UK counterparts like Temples.

I mentioned Orval Carlos Sibelius, who's at Psych Fest with Moodoïd and Zombie Zombie, in the European psych rundown, while a recent French article on the Villa Schweppes site posited Toulouse as a particularly vibrant hub, with Toulousain group Hyperclean as clear precursors. A few years back Padovani was apparently a habitué of Electric Miami (and recently described Hyperclean as "my Beatles"), a farm-turned-studio around there, and members of Hyperclean peeled off to form Aquaserge, whose À l'amitié ("To friendship") album has also been gathering admirers, me included, since its release in May. I find Hyperclean themselves less appealing than the groups they have birthed or inspired, but as a point in their favour they do have a lovely, Gainsbourgian song called 'Pénis' (and generally these Bandcamp-based Mostla compilations are worth digging into if you want to get a feel for more of the extended Hyperclean family, centred around the Almost Musique label and publisher).

Aquaserge includes Julian Gasc, who played keyboards for Stereolab for a time ("It was great, when I found myself in a rehearsal with them I could scarcely believe it, I was such a fan of the group") and Tame Impala drummer Julien Barbagallo alongside Benjamin Glibert, sister Manon, a clarinet player, and bassist Audrey Ginestet.

Julien Gasc takes up the story: "Benjamin, Julien and I were in Hyperclean, we decided to record in January 2005 and the group really became official in the autumn of the same year. We made two albums that year, Aquaserge I and Tahiti Coco. Then we made our third album in the new studio set-up, we were all living together in the country with the Electric Miami Studio at our disposal. We did the work and built the studio ourselves little by little. In 2007 to 2008 there were leaks in the roof and we froze in winter. Audrey and Manon came to give us a helping hand from 2008, and now we play with a drummer, Lucie Antunes, who also plays with Moodoïd."

Just to get even more French Rock Family Trees for a second, Benjamin and Audrey are also members of superb, Acid Mothers Temple-affiliated avant-rockers UEH, whose Pataphysical Overdrive To My Cosmos collaboration with the latter's leader, Kawabata Makoto, was released back in 2004.

À l'amitié, Aquaserge's fifth album, is a quite different beast from last year's April March collaboration. That felt gagged and bound by genre clichés, a mere catalogue of psych-pop and yé-yé tropes, but here it feels as though the band's music is no longer circumscribed by its inspirations - it has gathered them up and taken them, as one song title suggests, 'Travelling'. From the sleeve (an architectural drawing for the front of a supposed 'palais de l'amitié') inward, it feels like a work deliberately conceived on a grander scale than before, as though the band said to themselves, "OK, time for the big one."

Julien Gasc disputes this.

"We just said to ourselves that it was time to make a new record. We're not the type of people to say, 'Let's build a new Sistine Chapel', we keep to our roles and we work together, we all stay focused."

Despite the freedom the band appear to have given themselves on the album, the results are deeply impressive, at times there's a mood of stony, monastic concentration that can be leavened by, for example, the "Aquaserge!" burst of massed voices emerging from the roiling riff in 'Serge singe'. "We weren't in a particular mood," Julien maintains.

"The idea was to make something other than a concept album. It's a reflection on the idea of friendship, of the everyday experience that can sometimes shift into unreality, of sex. We tried new things, working with Aquaserge is always full of humour and new challenges. I would also add that Aquaserge is like a family with its joys, its dramas, you have to love and accept each other. Friendship is something serious and perilous."

The album is genuinely ambitious and surprising, as much prog or jazz-rock as anything - and 'For Bob', as Julien confirms, has a hip-hop-inspired beat - but do the band ever worry about the risk of relying on what by now are signifiers, effects and approaches that merely stand in for 'psychedelia' in the mind of listeners?

"We don't really care about how we'll sound. The good and weak point of the band is that we do music to please ourselves. We don't really pay attention to genres, sounding psychedelic, or something. We sound like Aquaserge, we have a sound that's particular to our records, certain sounds and harmonic progressions that are in evidence and that recur in our recordings."

Was it difficult to record?

"We worked in fits and starts over a year. It was always a different line-up every time we got together, it was two or three of us, sometimes four or five. We had to work around each other's availability and the commitments. Some of us also prepared things, working alone in our own corners. Audrey spent a ridiculously long time working on the 'Sillage' sequence of songs, she made some rough mixes, we had an unbelievable number of tracks on Pro Tools, then she deleted some, she replayed some of the parts, it took her months to put together and mix."

I'd picked up a strange accent in the singing on the album's title track and read that it was supposed to be Occitan, a language of southern France. "No, we're just rolling our 'r's, Benjamin suggested singing the whole album with rolled 'r's like the old music hall and cabaret singers, or in the style of people who perform classical French pieces like Debussy. But Manon and Benjamin are Belgian with Italian roots - they lived in Belgium, then their parents moved to the Pyrenees. Me, Julien and Audrey were born and grew up in the Tarn region, in the South-West of France."

Outside Aquaserge, Gasc rarely sits still - his other "commitments" have included Momotte and a solo project.

"Every project is different, the working methods are never the same from one group to another. In Aquaserge there is no leader, we all multi-task, we're all leaders. Momotte hasn't been active since 2007 but I released by first solo album, called Cerf, Biche et Faon on 2000 Records in 2013, then it was re-released on Born Bad for Record Store Day."

While in Momotte, Gasc recorded a song with Laetitia Sadier, 'La Nouvelle Chanson Française', which was a very dry look at the new chanson scene in France ("I don't give a damn about the music, I just like singing out of tune"). Was it the absolute privileging of text over music that bothered him most, or was there more to the criticism than that? "It's a song that criticises the awfulness of the 'new' French chanson style [NB it's worth pointing out that there have been several 'new' chanson moments in French pop history, this particular one came in the 90s, one could posit Benjamin Biolay as its figurehead] which was really painful to our ears. It was a 'nonsense' song in a way. We took the subject seriously but deep down it wasn't that serious, there's a lot of humour in it. We were just trying to combat the mediocrity and moroseness of that type of music from the small platform we had."

Nouvelle chanson aimed to invoke a certain mythic past of the country's popular music. Gasc and his extended family are taking their inspiration, at least in part, from a different current in French music, one that's harmonically rich, progressive, more texturally adventurous - the obvious examples are Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier's 70s peaks, Histoire de Melody Nelson and L'Enfant Assassin Des Mouches, but also the likes of Lard Free, Alpes, Heldon, Catharsis, the freakier yé-yé sounds, Jacques Higelin, Michel Colombier, 70s jazz and much more besides.

"I think we try to give something different, to write in another way, we spread the work between ourselves, one of us will try to build on a notion or something proposed by another member. The richness of Aquaserge is there, in the fact that it's a team effort that allows room for humour and self-criticism."

Rockfort also recommends this month:

NLF3 - Pink Renaissance

Speaking of spacey, Kraut-y pleasures, the venerable trio featuring the Laureau brothers and drummer Mitch (and touring the UK with Andrea Balency from the end of this month) also happen to be returning with what's probably the most enjoyably seamless, unfussy album of their career. Billed as something of a musical reboot for the band, there's a subtle lusciousness that's bound into its neat, interlocking grooves, and numerous mini bursts of pleasure that come to the fore over repeated listens. The title track below is a great, canny example and, elsewhere,'Kalimba Song' demonstrates their knack for laying out a simple, nagging hook before shading and colouring around it.

Powerdove - Arrest

And another trio, of Annie Lewandowski on voice, piano and accordion, Deerhoof's John Dieterich on guitar and Thomas Bonvalet on handclaps, metronomes, harmonica reed plates and more. I last wrote about them here and they've picked up where they left off. From the burst into violent life in a reedy, rattling tangle on 'When You're Near', to the cover of Arthur Russell's 'You Can Make Me Feel Bad' and the streamers-round-a-maypole whir of 'Paper Tiger', it was all laid down in a day. Lewandowski still sounds dazed and glazed, as if in a post-traumatic state.