Photo: Antoine Delaporte

“Come With Us, Go Where We Go”: A Chat with Caravan Palace’s Hugues Payen

Three albums and one decade into its career, Caravan Palace continues to wow audiences in its native France and abroad. The secret? "We have a beautiful singer who dances very well," says co-founder Hugues Payen.
Carvavan Palace
(Robot Face)
Le Plan

“You’ll have to forgive me, it’s been several months since I’ve done an interview in English,” says Caravan Palace co-founder and violinist Hugues Payen. He’s at home in Paris, speaking on a remarkably clear transatlantic line. A few days after our conversation he and the rest of the band will land in Canada and begin a major North American tour. No doubt the success of the seven-piece outfit’s 2015 release 2015’s ≤|°_°|≥ (also known as Robot Face) helped paddle the boat that brought them to these shores. And no doubt Payen will be conducting more English language interviews soon as his band’s star continues to rise.

Caravan Palace has been on a collision course with success from the start. Its 2008 self-titled debut spent more than a year on the French album charts and became a favorite among Swiss and French audiences rather quickly. Payen says that the group’s blend of gypsy swing and contemporary electronic music hit at the right time. Though, he adds, he didn’t initially think it would take off. “At the time we didn’t think anybody would be interested in it,” he recalls. “But when you are in the flow there are a lot of signs you don’t see. Our first show had so many people there,” he continues. “Everybody wanted to come. We had people hanging off of the balconies because there were too many people in the venue. It was a very weird moment.”

More than a year would pass between that gig and the release of the first album but there were more high-profile concerts in between. Songs such as “Dragons” and “We Can Dance” demonstrated perfectly the direction the group would take on future releases while “Ended with the Night” paid closer attention to tradition while enveloping the listener in a blanket of almost hallucinatory sounds. Payen, guitarist Arnaud Vial, and bassist Charles Delaporte had struck upon something with a deeply theatrical twist that didn’t compromise musicality.

“We were serious musicians at the beginning,” Payen says, “and we never forgot about this. It’s most important for us to focus on playing our instruments as much putting energy into the show. We just wanted to play good music, although that’s something very subjective,” he says, “sometimes you think you are playing good music but you are not.”

That dedication to musicianship, he adds, caused some consternation. The second LP, 2012’s Panic, had a particularly labored birth. “It was very difficult,” Payen notes. “It was music for musicians.” The hallucinatory qualities of the first album’s “Ended with the Night” became more pronounced on pieces such as “Glory of Nelly” and “Clash”. It’s hard to imagine an audience that would be disappointed with such a record because even with its complexities there’s still room for joy and positive expression.

The more esoteric tendencies would be jettisoned when it came time to write Robot Face. The group was determined not to make a new version of the debut and everyone agreed there could be no Panic II. “There was some stuff that we found annoying,” says Payen of the first record. “But we wanted the same energy.” The band wrote and recorded with precision, tracking multiple versions of each tune, weighing the merits of each iteration and casting aside ones that adhered too much to the past or departed too wildly from it. Its creation was nearly three years from start to finish and one detects more than a little relief in Payen’s voices when looks back on the moment that the final mix was settled.

“The problem with taking so long,” he says, “is that every morning you can wake up and say, ‘No, it’s not a good way to do that!’ So having a deadline is good thing, otherwise we’d spend 10 years per album. Once you hand it over to the record company it’s no longer yours.”

This time around, there’s a clarity and definition to the compositions indicative of a more fully realized vision. The stranger tendencies sit better beside the more familiar ones and the record as a whole progresses from one end to the other perfectly. It’s dreamlike at times as the listener floats from one track to the next, fully immersed in the experience.

Then, of course, being done with the record didn’t mean that the band was done with the songs. “We knew that we’d have to play those songs on stage for two or three years so we’d have to re-learn to love them,” Payen says.

Caravan Palace first arrived in North America back in 2010 with a performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Since then there have been returns to a variety of markets in the U.S. and Canada. Given the paucity of French acts that have broken on this continent the band’s success seems all the more remarkable. “We’re very proud of that,” he offers, “but there are people who don’t know that we’ve been there. We played Coachella [two] years ago and nobody in France knew it — not even other bands. They think we’re French and that’s where we stay.”

He continues, “We have been happy to go to some amazing places and some people say that the live part of Caravan Palace may be the best. I don’t know if I agree but people seem to like that we all play different instruments, from violin to synthesizers to vibraphone to clarinet. And,” he adds, “we have a beautiful singer, Zoé Colotis, who dances very well.”

Some cite the band’s relentlessness on the stage as one reason the group has become successful in the live arena. “We never let the audience take a breath in an hour-and-a-half,” Payen says. “We want them to come with us, to go where we go.”

One of the highlights of the band’s travels to the States so far has been Coachella, which, Payen says, was “a dream come true,” though he describes it as “a big machine”. “It’s a beautiful place with an incredible audience and organization,” he notes, “But we played there twice, of course, and the first performance was not very good. We had technical problems and even had a little fight within the band. The organizers were a little embarrassed, a little sad that we were having a fight. It was cute.”

Payen is the first to agree that Caravan Palace has come a long way since the group was first asked to score a silent porn film. That the group would continue and become a sensation across Europe, he admits, was unthinkable. “People told us early on that we would play for big audiences and very soon we did. I don’t know how it happened but there we were,” he says. That success has been hard-won even if not everyone around him understands.

“Sometimes friends don’t realize that this is hard work,” he points out, our conversation winding down. “It’s fun but it’s a job and some mornings you wake up you don’t want to go to work. It can be like that. And when you have success you have different problems than the average musician.” But, he adds, those problems are somewhat alleviated by his family. “I have two daughters who don’t understand exactly what I do but they know that I give joy and love to people. I think that is good for them to know.”