By John Armstrong, Rock At Night Manchester Correspondent and Columnist
Rock At Night chatted with Gabriela Giacoman the lead singer in distinctively smooth Parisian retro pop band French Boutik :
RAN: As a US citizen how did you end up singing in a band based in Paris?
GG: I consider myself at least half Parisienne now as have been in Paris for 14 years, have permanent residency and awaiting my French citizenship, and no plans to move ! I love it here and feel very much at home. Being in a band is pretty new to me though, I ended up singing simply because my boyfriend Serge had this band and their singer quit ! I was recovering from a foot operation as had been concentrating on dancing so figured worth a shot to try it, I had enjoyed singing in choir in school and really liked the band. So I signed up for badly needed singing lessons.
I was also on a bit of a campaign to get his group to sing in French vs all in English, which seemed very strange to me as a couple of the band members couldn’t even understand the songs they were performing without being translated. Also of course the group spoke in French to each other and with me so it seemed a bit fake when they all of the sudden switched to English for the song. Although I should note that the English lyrics were quite good. Zelda, our drummer who wrote those lyrics, grew up speaking English as well as French as her father is from India and she’s also an English teacher. But still, the others are not the same, and it was a good opportunity to insist on singing in French, as well as Serge singing lead on some songs which ended up working out too.
RAN: So French Boutik already existed before you joined them?
GG: Yes, per above, they had played a few shows in France, and already had quite a few good songs. There was no record out but they had done a demo and were definitely off to a nice start. We’re still recycling some of the older songs actually, quite a bit changed but the same basic structure. For example, on Front Pop, the two English language songs Hitch a Ride and The Rent are both from that period as since then we’ve been composing in French.
RAN The LP credits don’t have a single songwriter or even a dominant team, it seems to be an assortment of writing partners within the band: What is the writing process for the songs?
GG: The music for the songs is almost always originally composed by Serge, who proposes chord structure and melody. Sometimes he envisions the arrangements too, and other times we just work that out together the whole way. Then someone volunteers for the lyrics (unless he already has them), and usually the lead voice melody gets changed then, and of course everyone works out their musical parts individually and as a group. In other words, we try a lot of things and argue a lot ! 😉
There are a few songs which end up recorded as basically unchanged since the first rehearsal (Pousse au Crime is one that springs to mind), apart from adding harmonies and things like that. But most go through a lot of changes and sometimes end up with a very different melody and feeling when we are through with them.
French Boutik perform in English as well as French; how do you decide which language a song will be?
It’s been pretty easy since all of the new songs are in French, there was already such a nice backlog of older songs that Zelda had written in English to play with and update. I think we may be almost out of those though and as we do like to have at least one or two on each record this may be an issue soon !
RAN: The songs on the Front Pop album are new, how long a period did it take to put them together?
GG: We had been in a rhythm of an EP or 4 plus an extra song for a compilation per year, so had to step that up a bit when we decided to try for an album, I would say about a year to get them all together, the last couple of months were really intense though ! As mentioned, we really work on all of the songs together, and also we try lots of different things, and we only rehearse once a week for two hours so it takes us a long time. Plus, we crowdfunded the record and didn’t want to disappoint people. At one point we had to change from our usual volunteer system and force everyone in the group to write lyrics with a deadline as we were behind. That ended up working out really well, our bassist Jean-Marc wrote lyrics for the first time and the result, L’Expert, is excellent.
I can’t understand how the groups that have a new album every few months or even every year do it with full time jobs ! I don’t like to even try a new song at a show and definitely not record unless we’ve been working on it for at least a couple of months, the songs get richer and more interesting in a way I don’t think we could push even if we had more rehearsals.
We don’t really do demos and can’t afford lots of studio time so we try to work out as much of the “extras” like harmonies and 2nd guitar parts ahead of time. Of course, in the studio, especially when we work with Dennis of Yeah!Yeah!Yeah!, there are some nice additions but that is icing on the cake.
RAN: What is the alternative music scene like in France, and mainland Europe as a whole?
GG: It’s a big disconnect really : There are lots of great bands doing interesting things but a total lack of interest and support by the industry, even the “indie” labels. And that, coupled with people going out to see live music a lot less, makes it pretty hard for the bands to keep going. Less clubs to play in, hard for those clubs to stay in business, fewer labels that are also struggling because people aren’t paying for music anymore. But I hear great bands all the time, just may be one of only 10 people in the audience and not many more buying the record !
I know the UK is already difficult, but France is especially bad. People are scared to follow their instincts and do a lot of copying of UK and US groups, and most people are scared to take a chance on anything that hasn’t already been proven – and you can’t really blame them given how difficult it is for clubs, magazines, radio, etc. So the original groups are there, but have such a small audience that they end up giving up. When we had our first demo, we tried contacting all of the French labels we could find, and had absolutely zero response. Luckily Michael from Time for Action records in Germany suggested trying CopaseDisques or we never would have had a record out.
If it were not for that, and for the UK and other foreign gigs and radio, we definitely would have broken up a long time ago, it was so discouraging at home. Although it is getting a bit better lately, we actually have some French journalists and radios interested in the album which is very nice.
RAN: French Boutik have gigged in quite a few countries do you think you will be back in North America again?
GG: We would love to, we had such a great time both trips over, but honestly I don’t see how we can, we had a generous radio sponsor for the Modtreal weekender (thank you Maximum Rhythm & Booze !) and the time before in San Francisco was thanks to frequent flyer credit card miles. The problem is the tickets are so expensive it’s impossible to pay for them without months of touring, which means we lose our jobs ! Europe is already difficult but we almost always manage to offset travel costs with gig payments and selling records and other stuff, and of course playing mostly at weekends.
RAN: How did you end up recording at Yeah Yeah Yeah studios in Hamburg? And did that involve another language or did you all use English?
GG: That was at the suggestion Alex from our label, CopaseDisques, as we had recorded and mixed the first record ourselves and it was a total nightmare. A bit like people lost in a foreign country arguing over directions, we have a rough idea of where we want to go but no idea how to get there ! We wanted a real warm live garage band type of sound, without “corrections” (we like guitar squeaks and breathing sounds), but with the openness for more sophisticated arrangements – lots of voices as we like can be complicated, and someone who already knew had to do that. We listened to some Yeah!Yeah!Yeah! recordings and thought we’d give it a shot.
As tickets from Paris to Hamburg are cheap and the lodging is included, it was not more expensive than at home, and we could concentrate totally on the recording for a few days vs doing in bits and pieces. Dennis Rux, who produced us at Yeah!Yeah!Yeah!, doesn’t speak French but we all have enough English to get the musical points across and have a wonderful time. It worked out fantastically for our 2nd EP, Ici Paris, so we’ve stuck to that since then as much as we can.
We do now have a nice studio at home, Studio Cargo in Montreuil, who have a fantastic engineer, Antoine Demantké, so when we can’t afford to travel, we record there and send to Dennis, or in the case of Hitch a Ride, to Gavin Kinch & Graham Lentz at Rocket Studios London who also did a great job.
RAN: Yeah Yeah Yeah studio had a serious flood at the end of last year, have they recovered?
GG: Not yet but they are on their way now ! They just finished a successful crowdfunding, to which we contributed as while they are awaiting rebuilding Dennis will come visit us in Paris to record with Antoine at Studio Cargo. We need to do a song as will be contributing to another Specialized Compilation for the Teenage Cancer Trust, as we have done for Madness and The Clash : This time it’s The Jam which is quite intimidating (although Madness and The Clash already were of course), so we want to make sure we do the best job possible.
RAN: Where is the best place for people to buy the Front Pop album ?
GG: You can get it directly from the band here : http://frenchboutik.ecwid.com/
We’re thrilled wherever you get it ! On vinyl is nicest (with poster inside) of course, but cd also has the nice illustrated lyrics sheet!