French Music Column: dÉbruit’s Breton Groovy

In the latest edition of our French music column, David McKenna chats to dÉbruit about the hyperreal funk of his new album From The Horizon, and casts an ear back over reissues of music by France Gall and Jean Rollin

Remember wonky? Back in 2010, dÉbruit was one of the artists to be blessed/cursed with that rather unloved tag. "If my music was wonky, I would fix it," he retorted. Actually, retort seems too strong a word for the supernaturally good-humoured Breton Xavier Thomas, who only meant it as a joke. When I spoke to him subsequently at a festival, Les Vieilles Charrues, in his hometown of Carhaix, I challenged him to come up with something more suitable.

"Maybe there’s a word that people don’t use because it’s not cool anymore, but ‘groovy’? Sometimes I try to say "My music is fun and groovy" and people are like "What?" It doesn’t sound very cool. UK groovy! Or Breton groovy!"

In his schooldays, Thomas learned the saxophone and then progressed to playing in bands and recording at home. His grandfather is also a musician, of a more traditional Breton folky variety, and once, at a dÉbruit gig, came to look at his grandson’s machines and inquired "So if I understand well, you just play all the instruments…?" After a stint living in Glasgow, Thomas decamped to Paris and, despite co-founding a label, Musique Large, was less than impressed by the closed mentalities of bookers (the French electro sound ruled) while he was being fêted by Mary Anne Hobbs, Benji B and MistaJam over here. With that, and a signing to UK-based label Civil Music, a transfer to London seemed the obvious move.

Given the success of the Sis Sürpriz, Spatio Temporel and Let’s Post Funk EPs, as well as the money-raising Heartbeats for Haiti release (following the 2010 Haitian earthquake), Thomas certainly hasn’t felt the need to make any serious repairs to his music; new album From The Horizon is simply the first long-form recorded document of his hyperreal funk. Although Heartbeats for Haiti was his most focused record in terms of sourcing samples, the other EPs saw him notionally explore certain roughly-defined global regions, like Turkey and the Middle East for Sis Sürpriz, for example. From The Horizon is all about Western Africa – music that has developed out of Benin, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria. These musics are integrated with Thomas’s familiar arsenal of citrus-tangy synths, super-elastic basslines, vocal snippets used percussively and beats that are both highly finessed and wonderfully loose. It’s not quite wild – too poised, even classy, for that – but it does feel incredibly unforced. There’s no murk in the mix, or in Thomas’s agenda, with the "rise and shine" refrain on Ogene Udu a good indicator of where his head is at – giving out generously rather than trying to draw you into a mystery.

That’s not to say, though, that there’s no work involved in arriving at something that sounds so free and easy. From The Horizon has been three years in the making – although asked about this time-period, he admits freely "it wasn’t three years only focused on this… I played a lot of live gigs everywhere, making music, releasing EPs, remixes, travelling, hanging out with friends as well as meeting new people. Setting up a studio, playing basketball, football, watching films, listening to music, special projects…"

He also gives an account of how he absorbs various styles so that they become part of his own vocabulary. "I make music for fun mainly, thinking of my own fun and the fun that people could get while discovering the stories I tell, the surprises I place carefully in a track. So on From The Horizon, I focused on West Africa, from tribal field recordings to modern styles. I don’t always sample, I get very deep in the styles, I do micro sampling when I listen to tribal drums for example, and I tell myself it has to be this hit and then a melody. A lead comes easily in my head when I’m immersed in that music, I just have to choose a sound and write it down then, all naturally. The melody might be African but with my own synth sounds, or the opposite."

He also draws on memories of childhood trips as well as clips from African VHS and other archival sources. "A trip to Senegal as a kid might have triggered that passion of things from elsewhere that came out years after. I remember the jumbé and acrobats, the culture as something so different to me, loud and energetic…

"I find digital files from VHS," he continues, "some TV footage of African bands playing on black and white African TV channels, amazing quite funky costumes, good dancers, massive bands of 12 people, all introduced in French by the singer as being the ambassador, the duke, the general, the flamboyant very cool names going with their instruments. I access archives of mainly tribal things, not so much in terms of modern music, I sample a bit of percussion but rarely use it as played in the recording – I sample one hit, one roll…" A logical continuation of this approach found him doing a special project at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, who opened their sound archive to enable Thomas to create a special performance based on what he uncovered. "It was incredible," he enthuses. "The museum is near the Eiffel Tower, I played in the park, with the nice architecture and surreal mood and with all these tribal sounds that I bent in my directions."

‘Learning’ the styles and being a trained musician means that Thomas can also play instrumental parts – whether guitar, percussion or talkbox – rather than simply relying on samples. This has also allowed him to put together a live band, Intergalactic A/V, which he describes as "a vector to play my tracks in a different way with a special visual show. It isn’t playing at all on the album, it’s a way of translating my music in a big scenic way, a more psychedelic way due to the visual madness, I trigger samples that trigger lights on us." But there’s nothing noodly about From The Horizon, no extra fat. After reading about the album’s gestation period and the variety of sound sources, I found I was expecting something sprawling, self-indulgent even, but it’s tightly focused and pretty much all ‘up’ (there’s a hint of melancholy in ‘Ouest Wind’s Seagulls’ but, tellingly, the track is rather brief). These are dance tracks for a summer that hopefully hasn’t already been and gone. Not too loose, not too tight; right in the pocket, where groovy happens.

"That’s how it came out naturally," says Thomas. "A lot of West African music is quite energetic and repetitive so it has the dance feeling. I guess it comes from the excitation I had working on it."

I usually avoid reissues and compilations for this column as there are plenty of spaces already devoted to old psych, soundtracks, yé-yé and the like, and I’m keener on sorting the wheat from the chaff with newer artists, or at least old artists with new albums out. But it seems stingy to completely deny myself, and readers, the undoubted pleasure of delving into this territory every now and again.

RPM International, a label specialising in anthologies of global freak folk, psych and garage rock (and presided over by Kieron Tyler, who contributes to the Rockfort website on a regular basis) has previously done justice to 60s icons like Jacques Dutronc and Sylvie Vartan. He even, with the Le Roi de France compilation, made a case for Johnny Hallyday at least having had an ear for good collaborators (Jimmy Page, The Small Faces, Big Jim Sullivan) in his 60s heyday. 1965 Eurovision winner and vehicle for several Serge Gainsbourg ‘poisoned apples’, as the film Gainsbourg – Vie Héroïque would have it, France Gall is the latest subject to get the treatment.

60s Gall is the archetypal ‘baby-woman’, as Tyler likes to call them, (or "one of those barely pubescent popettes the French are still so fond of" as Sylvie Simmons put it in her great Serge biog A Fistful of Gitanes) of French pop, caught between childhood and adulthood at a time when the view of teenagers as a consumer demographic that could have their desires stimulated and catered for was just starting to come into focus. The tension inherent in this role would eventually prove too much for Gall – it took until her first collaboration with husband-to-be Michel Berger in 1974 for her to find her feet again with more AOR-y material – but is the motor behind her run of recordings from ’63 to about ’68. It’s there, first of all, in her voice, which slips from exuberantly approximative stabs – the actual live performance of the Eurovision-winning ‘Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son’, with its attacking, staccato melody, is particularly shaky – into a surprising and more sophisticated mellifluousness on longer phrases. The material she was provided with covered the gamut of girl-pop tropes – wistful evocations of a childhood that is only just drawing to a close, teen beat anthems, idealised, chaste evocations of first love and heartbreak, and fancy-dress fantasies of being more sophisticated and authentically grown up, like ‘Nefertiti’ and ‘Chanson Indienne’, on which Gall is placed in the shoes of a poor Indian woman.

The Gainsbourg songs are naturally the best known over here, particularly the ones where, with more than a little relish, he forced the unpalatable undercurrents of baby pop – paedophilia, ventriloquism and the looming scrap-heap – up through the surface of the poupée de cire (wax doll) he’d helped to mould, and watched it crack. And she did indeed crack, at least for short while, when she grasped the implications, but Gainsbourg would get to pen further hits for her. Actually, though, thinly-veiled hymn to blow-jobs ‘Les Sucettes’, ‘Baby Pop’ and ‘Teenie Weenie Boppie’ (young girl overdoes it on LSD and sees Mick Jagger drowning in the Thames) are my least favourite songs here because, in order to make their point, they overdo it with the facile melodies – and once you’ve ‘got’ ‘Les Sucettes’, you’ve got it, haven’t you? ‘Poupée’, also appearing here sung in Japanese, is better, cold and statuesque, and the rest of the Serge contributions are gems: stomping tunes with zig-zagging hooks like ‘Laisse Tomber Les Filles’ and ‘N’Ecoute Pas Les Idoles’, the exquisite ache of ‘Attends Ou Va-T’En’, and the anthemic ‘Nous Nous Sommes Pas Des Anges’. The arrangements, mostly provided by Alain Goraguer but also, as on ‘Chanson Indienne’, by our own (and, sadly, recently departed) David Whitaker, are splendidly vivid.

Outside those most famous Gainsbourg tunes, which already come pre-conceptualised for your consumption, there’s another kind of darkness here that’s equally enduring, and more universal. It’s almost impossible to approach something like ‘Quand On Est Ensemble’, a sun-dappled vision of seaside romance, without a Lynch-ian filter – "How lovely the beach is/especially at the end of the day/I found a shell/in which you can hear the sound of love" sings Gall and, well, what if she’d picked up a severed ear instead of that beautiful shell? The scene’s too perfect to not be precarious; in the sunset and a "last sail" on the water there’s an intimation of death.

Hopefully that’s roughly the right note to lead into another compilation, The B-Music of Jean Rollin, and two soundtracks issued in their entirety on Finders Keepers a little while back: Fascination and Requiem Pour Un Vampire. Like Dario Argento, Jean Rollin (who made about 60 films in his lifetime, including several porn films, amongst which is an instalment of the Emmanaelle series) is firmly ensconced in that cinephile avenue where you tend to find the words ‘sublime’, ‘beauty’ and ‘horror’ throbbing suggestively. Now, for a while, I’ve considered the Associates’ ‘Bap De La Bap’ to be the supreme popular-musical expression of the horror of sublime beauty, the sublime beauty of horror and the beauty of sublime horror but Philippe D’Aram’s work for 1979’s Fascination, even without the images it’s supposed to accompany, absolutely hits the mark, although in a different way; it’s less about vertiginous ramps of petrifying realisation and more evocative of an intemporal and inhuman stillness, blending waltzes with buzzing drones, cold breath-on-the-nape-of-the neck synth-choirs and bowed saws. With the images, you get pretty much the same effect – time dilated, dream-time.

It’s probably the pick of the bunch for me just because it’s the least expected but that’s not to take away from Requiem Pour Un Vampire, from seven years earlier, and the other cuts on the compilation, which fall into the vein of less electronic François de Roubaix soundtracks, full of swinging psych rock, spastic jazz and other spooky refrains. The albums are all beautifully strung together with dialogue and clips from the various films and, D’Aram aside, Pierre Raph’s ‘Gilda and Gunshots’ lingers in the memory particularly as a kind of punishing S&M cousin of Gainsbourg’s ‘En Melody’. Sweet dreams!

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