Photo: Florent Drillon / Courtesy of Score Press

Every Day Is a Miracle: Caravan Palace and the Joy of Performance

Caravan Palace are one of the most famed groups to come out of the electro-swing movement, but their reach is so much grander with streaming totals in the hundreds of millions. Caravan Palace are back with a new album and a fierce bout of independence.

Caravan Palace do not like chairs.

Having toured the world several times over, often hitting the same venues and cities multiple times because they sell out time and time again, their live shows have become something close to legend. While they are champions of the “electro-swing” sound, their sonic reach extends to a variety of pop styles and sounds. All are tied to Caravan Palace’s fun-loving aesthetic.

Those live shows are a spectacle in and of itself. Band members switch between at least two instruments throughout their show (and often more than two). Lead vocalist Zoé Colotis breaks out into a choreographed dance break with her bandmates. And all of this happens while their fans show up in zoot suits, bowler hats, and any number of ephemera to capture the group’s contemporary reinvention of Roaring 1920s-style tropes. Oh, and the audience dances. A lot. Caravan Palace don’t like playing venues where the chairs are built-in, no. They want their audience to dance and move right along with them.

And as time presses on, that audience grows. Caravan Palace’s third album, 2015’s <|°_°|> (often referred to simply as Robot Face), was a breakthrough for the band. “Lone Digger” become a genuine hit single, netting a quarter billion views on YouTube and even charting in their native France. The album started climbing the US and UK dance charts. Caravan Palace, having put their first album out in 2008 and using MySpace as a way to get to listeners, were finally turning into international stars.

The touring was constant, which explains the four-year gap between Robot Face and this year’s Chronologic. The new one is a slightly more chill record that nonetheless features the band’s trademark mixture of big-band samples, electronic dance elements, and live instrumentation. It all makes for a giddy pop concoction. The core band has been around for a while now, featuring Arnaud Vial (guitars and programming), Victor Raimondeau (saxophone), Charles Delaporte (upright bass and programming), Antoine Toustou (trombone and electronics), and Paul-Marie Barbier (percussion). The group started with Vial, Delaporte, and violinist Hugues Payen (who, this past March, announced he was leaving the group to focus on his family), but has grown and expanded over the years to become the distinct entity they are today.

In speaking with PopMatters, Delaporte reveals that the band spent “two years being in a studio”, so are primed and ready to take Chronologic out on the road. “Indeed when we tour, it’s quite intense, and for each tour, we play quite a lot of shows (approximately 150),” he explains. “When the touring period ends, we need a bit of time to hit the studio again to come up with ideas that all members are excited about, with our personal tastes evolving in different directions over the years. We never stop making music, but we have to constantly redefine what is eligible to become a Caravan Palace track and where we want to take this project to.”

These acts of redefinition lead the group to do something completely new with Chronologic: work with guest vocalists. One of the album’s preview singles “About You” showed Caravan Palace working with rising star Charles X. Meanwhile, “Waterguns” features French producer and multi-instrumentalist Tom Bailey, who scored a hit on the FKJ song “Drops” back in 2015. “For this album, we wanted to work with male singers to [compliment] in a different way Zoé’s vocals, in a more ‘soul music’ direction,” Delaporte tells us. “Our manager came up with some ideas of vocalists and introduced us to these guys (Tom Bailey and Charles X). We shared the tracks with them. They tried some ideas of melodies at home, recording it on their cell phones. Then, we invited them to come to our studio in Paris for the real recording sessions. Both are very professional singers, and very fun too, so we shared great moments together.

“We did the last three records without male singers except on samples, so I guess it was high time!” Delaporte continues. “We wanted to have male collaborations for the different sound it would bring to our music with a very clear sound, quite different from the vintage vocals we are used to. It gives even more contrast, which we definitely love in music.”

Part of the reason for the expansive nature of Chronologic stems from the band’s newfound sense of freedom. While the group had a three-album deal with Café de la Danse Recordings at the start of their career (with Wagram serving as a licensee), that deal is now over with, meaning that Chronologic came out on the band’s own Lone Diggers Recordings.

“Café de la Danse always let us do the music we want artistically. But we also wanted to be in control of the strategy, the marketing, the network of labels and distributors we work with, like Le Plan Recordings in the U.S.,” notes Delaporte. “So with Lone Diggers, it’s a whole new chapter. Our trustworthy manager has also become our label manager. And now we can be in control of everything ourselves, produce and release our own albums, music videos, merch, goodies. It’s also the opportunity to release music by other artists we like, in the (close) future. Of course, it’s more risky financially, but that feeling of trust, freedom, and being independent is priceless.”

A lot of this independence shows in the risks the band takes with Chronologic, which while still upbeat and undeniably fun, still has moments of real gravitas, such as on the stunning “Melancolia” and the brief, haunting instrumental passages “Fargo” and “Ghosts”. “We like to make albums that will take the listeners on a journey through different feelings from track to track,” Delaporte says when asked about these numbers. “We love musical paradoxes, and nostalgia or melancholia in music is something we really like. It’s not new. We always mixed positive, upbeat tracks with more contrasted ones like ‘Oooh’, ‘Lazy Place’, ‘Sydney’, ‘Cotton Heads’, etc. — and now ‘Fargo’ and ‘Ghosts’.”

It remains to be seen if these slower passages will make their way out to their tour stops. Having become regular sellouts around the world, one has to wonder whether or not the band considers, while amid songwriting, how a new track will come off in a live setting. “When we are composing, yes, we keep in mind what could be played live or not, but without making it a barrier in the creative process,” he explains.

“Sometimes, you write a very fast synth line. You know it’s gonna be hard to transpose live. But with enough practice, you can do it, working slowly first, then getting faster. We are all multi-instrumentalists, so when we go into the rehearsal phase, we share all stems that make the track and dispatch them between us. We like to play lots of things, even if the listeners sometimes can’t tell who plays what. But there’s got to be a bit of risk and fun in the performance!”

“What we like to do in this band is to mix vintage and modern — it’s not just about mixing swing and electronic music,” Delaporte continues. “Caravan Palace is a blend of multi-cultural references and we all like different genres, so on Chronologic, the vintage side of our influences also includes soul, rhythm ‘n’ blues, jazz, bossa, exotica, etc. And for the modern aspect, there’s hip-hop, house, trip-hop, future bass, etc. We like to mix our productions in every possible way.”

When the band finally camped out in the studio for their new sessions, one of the first songs that started coming together was also the lead single off of Chronologic: “Miracle”. Per Delaporte: “I remember the day when Arnaud (one the four composers) send us the first sketch of this track. We were all instantly very enthusiastic about its feelgood vibe, musically different from what we did, a disco bassline, a powerful groove beat, a ‘rappy’ voice with positive lyrics. This track definitely launched the creation process for this album.”

So now that “Miracle” has nearly 10 million streams on Spotify, the album is out, and the group’s tour is in motion, what is Charles Delaporte proudest of? What does he regret? “To be honest, we don’t regret anything!” he tells us, excitedly. “When we started this band, we were just hoping to put out one record, not four. We didn’t even think about that! Now we’ve released four albums, managed to make a living out of it without anyone telling us what we must or mustn’t do. It’s a rather rare and enjoyable situation, I guess. One thing we are proud of is that Caravan Palace isn’t huge anywhere. But we have a great and loyal fanbase on the five continents, and that’s very satisfying!”

Some would even say that that’s its own miracle.