There’s something unsettling about the Nouvelle Vague album. What if, instead of becoming New Order, Joy Division had replaced Ian Curtis with a Brazilian starlet and played a show on the beach in Rio? How about “Too Drunk To Fuck” accidentally (and obliviously) performed at the opening of a UN assembly? Mest with xylophones?
Nouvelle Vague do New Wave in a Bossa Nova style. New Wave, Nouvelle Vague, Bossa Nova, get it? When translated they all mean literally the same thing, but this project unifies their other meanings into a sexy, swinging whole. Unsettling it may be, but it makes for compelling listening. A post-modern revolution, or just Jose Feliciano for the ‘00s? PopMatters tried to find out by talking with Marc Collin who, with Olivier Libaux, founded the project.
PopMatters: I really enjoyed your album, especially the cover of “Too Drunk To Fuck”, but I still can’t listen to “Love Will Tear Us Apart” because of the absurd (and possibly pathetic) reverence I have for Joy Division. Did you worry that people would hold these songs as sacred, or did you deliberately set out to skewer the sacred cows?
Marc Collin: It’s difficult to answer because I am the biggest fan of Joy Division. The first idea for this project was to cover “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, because I really imagine this song sung by a Brazilian girl on the beach, etc., etc. So I just said to myself, “If I like it, I think that all the people, especially the New Wave and punk fans, will like it. It’s so simple. I didn’t have any problem with that, because I’m a big fan, it’s not like I took just any song like this. And for me to do a cover of the Clash or the Cure or Joy Division, it’s the same. And Joy Division and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” have already been covered by people like Paul Young, for example, so I think we can do it!
PM: Is there a particular philosophy behind this project, or did you just read a lot of Jacques Derrida and decide to form a group based on the relationship between the words Nouvelle Vague, New Wave, and Bossa Nova?
MC: No, it’s very simple. Just because I was a big fan of New Wave when I was young, and after that I’d listened to a lot of different music and became a composer and producer. And two or three years ago I just listened again to all these old songs and I just told myself, “Oh, sometimes they were great songs.” And it’s funny because nobody ever says this, they always talk about the song writing of other people, Burt Bacharach, that sort of thing, but never of the Cure or New Order. But I really think that Robert Smith and New Order wrote really beautiful pop songs. So I had this idea to prove it, in a way, and so do covers in a totally different way, which was just to have the roots of the song, just the harmony, the guitar, the melody and the lyrics, not a lot of production etc etc.
So it’s just an idea ... and after, because I read a book on Bossa Nova a few years ago and remembered that Bossa Nova can be translated in English as New Wave and in French as Nouvelle Vague. So I just said, “OK, so this is it, we have the concept.” It’s an album for the emotion of the song, like a fan’s album, a kind of tribute to all these bands. Because some bands are well known, but most bands—like Sisters of Mercy, or the Specials, or Tuxedo Moon—are almost forgotten…
PM: That’s one of the things that I enjoy about your album, the simple gesture of “covering” elevates some songs that truly deserve it to the status of a mainstream classic. On paper it seems like an idea that shouldn’t work, but the album is actually brilliant. What do you think saves it from being just an exercise in kitsch?
MC: I don’t know exactly. I think that if we have taken real Brazilian musicians and Brazilian singers, and said “OK, one, two, three, do it!” I think it would be totally different and maybe it wouldn’t work. But we are not Brazilian musicians, we are really pop musicians, so we decided to do something very strange. Because we are big fans of New Wave, we like Bossa Nova, and we imagine that we travel between Manchester in the ‘80s and Rio in the ‘60s, and try to play not really as Brazilian musicians and not like English musicians or New Wave musicians, but something really personal. And so I think we did a personal album, like an artist album, so we cannot say that it’s only a compilation, it has something more.
PM: You’ve answered my next question, which was going to be “Are you fan of the music you’ve covered, or did those songs just suit the project best?” But I guess another way of putting that is to ask if there was anything that guided the selection of these songs, other than just being canonical songs of the New Wave?
MC: It was really my memory. What was funny is that when I got this idea I called my friend Olivier to do it, because I know he is just the man for the situation, and so we just had a little chat and said, “Yeah yeah, good idea, what songs?”
“There’s London Calling.”
“No no, ‘Guns of Brixton’!”
“Yeah ‘Guns of Brixton’ is better.”
“Do you remember this song by the Specials?”
“Yeah the b-side of ‘Ghost Town’, it was excellent.”
And actually we didn’t listen to the songs again, we just started to work without listening to the songs. Because sometimes I didn’t even have the CD or the album at my studio, or it’s on cassette at home, or something like this. So we started to work only with our memory, and this is why sometimes we changed the chords. We even changed the melody. We just forgot how to sing the melody. We just said to the singer Camille, “I think it’s something like this!” But actually it’s something else. But it worked like that, and it was the same with the other singers, we didn’t play them the original songs. We remembered the bass-line and the guitars, and we took the lyrics from the Internet. That was it.
PM: Was it hard working with so many vocalists, as opposed to the usual one lead singer?
MC: No, not at all. At the beginning we were looking for one Brazilian girl, but the one we found in Paris, as I told you, didn’t know how to talk and sing in English, so we said, “OK, that won’t work for the next track.” So we said, “OK, we’ll try it with our French friend.” So as we worked on the songs we just imagined the kind of voice we wanted, and just called a particular girl, and she came, and that was it. A lot of people thought that there were only one or two singers, because I think that the voice is always the same kind of voice.
PM: That’s very true.
MC: It’s not true! If you take all the music that the girls are doing by themselves, they have totally different voices! In this kind of project they’re not so different. The problem we had after was how to do it live. We had to cut down the track selection and say, “OK, we will only bring two singers.” So we couldn’t do all the tracks.
PM: So it wasn’t a conscious choice, perhaps to diffuse the more usual centralised and focussed notion of a “band”?
MC: Originally the project was really like a producer concept; I got this idea and said, “OK, I will do it. We will have to take a name and it will just be a record, an album.” But it seems that the album can be promoted as an “artist” album, and people asked us to perform live, and so we say, “OK, it can be a real band.”
So we selected two girls and we started to tour around Europe and everywhere, the world, and we did a lot of interviews, so it became a real band, but that wasn’t the original idea. But after all I can say that it’s a strange idea to have a real band that only does covers. Because usually this kind of project is not really like ... like you remember Sergio Mendez for example? You know Sergio Mendez, no?
PM: So, do either of you miss the attention that is usually focussed on the central figure in the traditional “band”? Is it hard operating without that?
MC: No, no because we don’t know really even now when we tour. We have to do a lot of gigs, and so we swap the singers. So sometimes the singer who sang on the album won’t be the singer when we sing it live. So it makes something strange, but people just don’t notice it. What are they expecting? Just the songs. They already know the songs! Sometimes we have a lot of people telling us, “Oh I really like the project, the album, but I don’t know the original songs.” It’s strange. So they really like the style of Nouvelle Vague, the songs, but they didn’t know the original song. So I think that finally people like the project for doing strong and political songs with a cool Bossa Nova mood, and girls on stage. Or something like this.
PM: Probably a popular formula.
PM: Speaking of girls on stage, the design/fashion community seems to have embraced this music most quickly (at least in Australia), and seem to be attracted to the overall “package” or “concept”, from the artwork right through to the musical concept. Was this a deliberate move?
MC: Actually we didn’t have this idea for the cover, but people from this Frog label had this fantastic idea to symbolise all the girls with just one on the cover. People don’t recognise the girl, she’s like an icon. And the artwork was like a photocopy, so at the same time it’s a very festive, feminine image as well as this kind of “Do It Yourself” thing. But I don’t really know if the American cover has the same aspect.
I’m not sure if I understood the last question.
PM: Don’t worry, I’m not sure if I did either.