Now ten years into its rule as one of Athens, Georgia's best-loved party bands, Je Suis France has broken out its most professional album ever in Afrikan Magik. But don't worry that they're turning into squares -- the big hit is still an eight-minute space-rock epic... about a whale's erection.
The Line Between Brilliance and Ridiculousness
It takes a certain kind of bravado to start an album with a 16-minute, almost entirely instrumental track... bravado, or orneriness. And, clearly, Athens, Georgia's Je Suis France has a fair helping of both. For ten years they've made homemade tour CD-Rs and slightly better-produced full-lengths that sound exactly like they want them to. If that sound incorporates abrupt genre shifts, jokester lyrics, crowd noises, and people audibly slurping down beer, well, that's the France.
Yet somewhere along the way, this ramshackle collective has accumulated the skills to make an extended psych-rock odyssey like "Sufficiently Breakfast" work, and not just work, but also bridge the gap between outsider enthusiasm and a decade’s worth of musical skill and collaboration. Like a lot of what Je Suis France does, the cut started as a goof and ended up a triumph.
"We'd had that song forever. We played it live. We recorded it, but we never quite got it right," says DJ Hammond, who plays guitar and other instruments in the band. "So we went into the studio one day and we were like, 'All right. Let's do this.' We put a clock up and we decided that we were not stopping until we at least got to the 15-minute point. And it just... it worked."
The track became a pummeling juggernaut of two-man drumming, wah wah guitars, and psychedelic keyboards. "The song had had all these different forms, but the day that we sat down to record it, it was just... I hate to sound trite, but it was magical," Hammond continues. "We were so excited because it was sounding perfect. I mean, I think there's one mess-up in it somewhere, but in our eyes it was perfect. When we finished it, we were like, 'This is it.' We were so happy about how it turned out. So we decided to put it up front."
Spilled Beer and House Parties
Je Suis France’s eclecticism may come, in part, from the fact that its members all met at WUOG, the college radio station for the University of Georgia. A shared love for standard indie bands like Archers of Loaf and Polvo, as well as non-standard world and funk, drew the original four members together -- Hammond, Ryan Bergeron (Ice), Ryan Martin (Darkness), and Chris Rogers (Croge). Talking about music turned to playing music, which led, rather quickly, to playing shows.
“The first show that the France ever played, ever, was at this place called Buckhead Beach, which was an old video game warehouse where somebody had bought it and stored all these old games in there,” Hammond recalled. “Basically, a friend of ours snuck in there and set up a place to play, and they used to have regular house shows there. So I think the first couple of France shows we played were just all at places like that. Just because we sucked at our instruments and we just thought it would be cool to play with the 25 friends of ours who were drinking beers.”
“I don't think we actually got a club show until the fourth year we were playing together,” said Hammond. “It was always at our friends’ houses. We’d just go in and blow it out. We actually recorded a couple of these shows. It's some of the funniest stuff you'll hear ever, on recording, because it's literally the sound of people talking over and drinking beer over a band in the background playing.”
And while Je Suis France now plays regularly in actual clubs, they haven’t drifted far from their house party roots. This year, as always, they’re playing “Twilight Delerium”, an unofficial sidebar to the “Twilight Criterium” bike race that Athens put on every year. “As soon as the last bike race was over, about 9:30, we all jump on our bikes and ride straight over to the house we were having the party at,” Hammond said.
The band has become modestly more professional over the years, drawing more members from Athens’ heavily cross-referenced musical scene, including Jeff Griggs and Sean Rawls from Masters of the Hemisphere, Jeremy Wheatley from the Low Lows, and John Croxton of the Wee Turtles. They have put out a steady stream of CD-Rs, which the band sells on tour, as well as four full-length albums (on four different labels). Their latest, Afrikan Majik, is an exuberant hodge-podge of styles and sounds -- and quite clearly the band’s most professional effort yet. Still, Hammond bridled at the term “polished”, saying “If you heard the songs that got cut from the record at the last minute, that almost made it, you definitely would not think we were polished at all.” He added, "We've never been a band that's about being pretentious or wondering what other people would think about our music. It's pretty much anything goes.”
This cut, “Never Gonna Touch the Ground”, is actually part of a trilogy, Hammond explained. The series started with “I Can’t Believe I Can Fly”, a Gang of Four-referencing cut from the first album. The cut was re-recorded for 2003’s Fantastic Area with a dub ending, which through live performance turned into a sort of reggae vamp. Then Sean Rawls, by this point relocated to San Francisco, sent the band a CD-R, with the instructions “Play this before you guys go on stage” (for that year’s Twilight Delerium). “We didn't really even listen to it before we went on stage,” said Hammond. “But we blasted it through the speakers, and it's the chords from the... the end of that song. He'd written ‘Never Gonna Touch the Ground.'”
Even a casual listen reveals the album’s diversity, but what, if anything, ties these songs together? “Maybe just the craziness of it,” Hammond speculated. “Nobody can put a label on Afrikan Majik, and that kind of encapsulates our band, because nobody really knows what to do with us.”
Total Absurdity... and Whales
Because of the record’s style diversity, Hammond said he expected the same sort of local, in-joke-filled press for Afrikan Majik that the band’s other CDs have received. He was as surprised as anyone to receive favorable notice in a major online publication for “Whalebone”, a song which is, among other things, about a whale in a state of sexual frenzy.
“I was recording the keyboard part to ‘Whalebone’, and as I was recording this part, I noticed that my cell phone was going off, and I felt like the take was going well and I just needed to keep going and not answer the phone,” said Hammond. “So when I finished everything and saved the song and checked my voice mail, and it was Jeff Griggs, our drummer, and he said, ‘I've got this brilliant idea for the next song that you need to write.’ He had just left happy hour, maybe. He's very serious whenever he has a few to drink. So he was telling me about how I needed to write a song about a whale... a gigantic whale boner. And about how this guy who had this thing was just totally, totally inhibited by it... because of its size.”
It’s a funny story, but really, only the title came out of this drunken bout of inspiration. The lyrics came later, in a group session. “We were sitting down getting ready to record the lyrics and, literally, we were sitting down trying to outdo each other with what kind of crazy lyrics we could come up with -- just total absurdity,” said Hammond. “You'll get stuff about wild dogs going into stuff about putting on a swim suit into, like, gripping the comet's tail. How does that line go... if you were to just read them on a piece of paper, it's just totally stupid.”
Stupid, maybe, but in a smart, self-referential way -- a way that makes it hard to say exactly where the line between brilliance and ridiculousness actually lies. Maybe the fault line runs through Je Suis France’s obsession with a certain massive, free-throw-missing basketball player, whose unsanctioned, not-quite-recognizable image adorns Afrikan Majik and whose name is included in the single line of lyrics from “Sufficiently Breakfast.” “We're gigantic, humongous, the biggest fans of Shaquille O'Neal,” explains Hammond.
Yet alongside goofy lyrics and pop-culture references, Je Suis France has made a dent in indie rock’s credible side by cutting a split 12” with Acid Mothers Temple. Their half of the single, out now on the band’s own Nokahoma label, is an extended romp through multiple styles. “It goes from a Tuvan throat-singing part to a digeridoo to an Indian tabla to acoustic campfire, to vocodered... it's just alien music,” said Hammond. “But it all flows together." How did they hook up with Acid Mothers Temple? Hammond said a combination of email and staking out the band’s Athens shows caught Acid Mothers’ attention. “I talked to them a couple of times when they were in our town, and he gave me an email address, and I just emailed them and said, ‘Hey, let's do this.’ And so, we did it. They were so nice about it. That's definitely inspired us. Because they're just consummate musicians and so talented.”
Je Suis France will be touring the East Coast starting in July, bringing along Afrikan Majik as well as the band’s 18th tour-only CDR. For dates, check the band’s website at www.jesuisfrance.com. Absurdity may come easy, but brilliance does not, so take avail when and where you can.