Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Georges Brassens Comes Alive in English – An Interview with Pierre de Gaillande of Bad Reputation

One of the great songwriters of our time, Pierre de Gaillande plays in more great bands than maybe anybody else on the planet. In addition to fronting the poignantly multistylistic chamber-pop band The Snow, he’s recently resurrected his popular, fierily anthemic art-rock band, Melomane. Yet his current focus is a new project, Bad Reputation, the first American group dedicated to performing English-language versions of the songs of iconic French anarchist chansonnier Georges Brassens. In between rehearsals and the media crush of an upcoming cd release show for its debut on Barbes Records (June 12 at the Bell House), de Gaillande managed to find the time to get a few words in edgewise:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Let’s see if I can get this right: you’re American-born, French ancestry, bilingual in English and French – and speak Russian also, I believe – and according to the PR stuff I have here, your introduction to the work of the iconic French anarchist songwriter came via your professor father, as something of a literary exercise. And for that reason you weren’t particularly fond of Brassens as a kid, is that right?

Pierre de Gaillande: No. I was born in Paris, France to a French father and American mother. I was born with dual citizenship – we lived in Paris for the first seven years of my life. My first language was French, but my mother spoke English to me as a child and I could speak a little English when we moved to the states.

LCC: When did you start listening to Brassens purely for pleasure?

PDG: Brassens was always on in my house when we were growing up. It was part of the musical landscape of our home like the Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, the Dubliners, the Kingston Trio and a multitude of other French singers. I always liked listening to Brassens. What I didn’t like was my father’s didactic and proprietary attitude towards everything French in general, and Brassens in particular. Which has changed, by the way: Brassens is a topic we definitely connect on these days.

LCC: The work of some French musical icons has insinuated itself into American culture: Piaf and Gainsbourg for example. Is there an explanation for why Brassens never caught on here, or anywhere else in the anglophone world as far as I can tell?

PDG: There are two reasons for this as far as I can tell. One is that the pleasure in Brassens is primarily lyrical. Without an understanding of the lyrics, at least half the point is gone. The other reason is that unlike Brel and Gainsbourg, Brassens never explored any new musical territory in the arrangements of his songs – he kept his arrangement to an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, his voice, and occasional lead guitar. He only used a lead guitarist live on certain television appearances, never on stage. Just an aside, Brassens’ guitarist for the last ten years of his career was Joel Favreau, who has agreed to come to New York in November to do a Brassens festival at Symphony Space, for which Bad Reputation will be the house band with a bunch of French singers. So this is an extremely proud occasion for me and a chance to come full circle.

So unless you really love this kind of folk guitar music, if you don’t speak French, there aren’t many other points of entry into Brassens’ music besides very catchy melodies and his rich voice. By contrast, Gainsbourg explored all kinds of musical territory, like rock, reggae, funk, and disco, and he pandered to an English-speaking crowd by dropping English in his lyrics constantly. Brassens just didn’t pander. You had to go to him, he wasn’t coming to you.

LCC: What is your motivation in putting out this record? It’s not like you’re riding a wave of Brassens success, or tapping into some vast cultural resonance, at least in this country…

PDG: It’s a lot of fun. And I think it is extremely culturally relevant. This country can definitely use some voices championing what Brassens stood for; a deep love of poetry, history, literary and intellectual achievement, a disdain for consumerism, fanaticism, and the sheep mentality in any form, and a morality based on humane common sense, not religion.

LCC: What would you say was the biggest challenge in translating Brassens? Contemporizing dated slang? Or attempting to maintain both the same rhyme and meter as the original French lyrics?

PDG: The biggest challenge was translating very specific French slang, and deciding when to make the meaning gibe with the original time period, 50s through the 70s, or when to make it sound current. And of course all of it had to rhyme and fit in the same number of syllables if possible. One little example: in the song Penelope the first line is “Toi l’epouse modele, le grillon du foyer.” I chose to translate that literally as “You, the cricket of the hearth; you, the ideal spouse.” As far as I know, “the cricket of the hearth” is not an expression in English, but to me it is such a graceful way of saying “housewife” that I chose to translate it literally. There were scores of decisions to make, and on many occasions I used a current English expression, sometimes I didn’t.

LCC: Brassens was kind of gangsta, he went for shock value every time. I know at least a few of his songs were banned in France. How much of that shock value were you able to maintain – or does any of that still have the capacity to shock, in the era of Fitty and L’il Wayne?

PDG: Brassens was a punk. He just didn’t care what “‘the public” thought of him. If you listen to the song The Pornographer on my cd, you’ll see I tried to leave in all the words that might get bleeped on the radio these days. Does anything shock anymore, I don’t know. What’s more shocking in Brassens is the subject matter; a 13 year old girl who tries to seduce a much older musician (Princess and the Troubadour), a nun who warms up a man’s penis because he has no arms (Don Juan), a marquise who gives a man crabs (Trumpets of Fortune and Fame) and on and on and on…

LCC: Brassens loved double entendres, and he was very good at them – as you are, in your own songwriting with the Snow and Melomane. In translating these songs, did you ever find yourself having to choose one level of meaning over another? How did you handle that?

PDG: Good question. Sometimes I had to compromise or improvise. Bear with me while I give you an example. There is a moment in Penelope where he says “Il n’y a vraiment pas là de quoi fouetter un coeur/Qui bat la campagne et galope” which literally means, “There’s no reason here to whip a heart/Which beats a path into the fields at a gallop.” It’s actually a triple entendre. The first level of meaning is a play on words for “here’s no cause to whip a cat [fouetter un chat]” which basically means there’s no reason to freak out, you need to relax, but he changes it to “whip a heart” so that it fits with the next pun, which is “beating a path.” Now the heart is beating, and it is galloping like a horse in the fields (la campagne.) But “battre la campagne” also means to go on a war campaign. So there are three levels of meaning densely packed in to two lines.

So what I did was keep the heart beating motif, but instead of whipping a heart, I used “swinging a heart” as in “there’s not enough room in here to swing a cat.” This then connected nicely with the beating heart in the second half, “Beating a path to distant fields.” I sacrificed one expression (whipping a cat) and substituted an English one (swinging a cat). The whole project was full of these kinds of verbal gymnastics. It’s a game, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

LCC: Above all – and I think this is the key to his success in France at least – Brassens is hilarious! But a lot of the humor is in the wordplay – it doesn’t translate. Literally. Or does it?

PDG: Some does, some doesn’t. I did my best to capture it. Brassens had about 200 songs in his catalogue, and some of the best ones are untranslatable, but there are many that do work, and that’s my mission. I think there are tons of hilarious moments on this CD.

LCC: The press release here says you’ve deliberately avoided trying to make rock music out of these songs, even to the extent of not utilizing drums on the album. I know that Brassens was not an enormous fan of rock, and that you’re trying to be purist about this. At the same time I can’t help thinking, this guy was pretty punk. You know, the eternal refusenik, he wouldn’t let anybody fuck with him. These songs would kick ass if you turned up the guitar, added more of a beat, brought the vocals up in the mix, don’t you think?

PDG: First off, the vocals are way up in the mix, just as they are in the original. I deliberately did not want to make a rock or “modern” version of Brassens. There is a great band in France called Brassens Not Dead that does hardcore thrash punk versions of Brassens, and they do a fantastic job, and they capture his punk spirit to a tee. There are also tons of crappy “modern versions” of Brassens in France, they are embarrassing and wrongheaded, at least to my ears. The best versions of his stick to the gypsy-jazz folk vibe that inspired him. I wanted this introduction to Brassens for English speaking people to be all about the lyrics. The music is there, and it is artfully executed and arranged by my fantastic band, but it just felt natural to stay away from the drums. The last seven albums I have made were rock albums, and once you start layering sounds and adding instruments, there’s no turning back. I needed to explore having the courage to make my voice the most prevalent sound on the album.

LCC: Can I continue playing devil’s advocate? Where do you get the idea that most Americans – who can’t even find France on a map, let alone have any awareness of who Georges Brassens is or why he might be worth discovering – would have the slightest interest in these songs? Or is there something here that might resonate with at least a cult audience?

PDG: Americans, or anyone else for that matter, can take it or leave it, it’s not up to me to make them like it. I’ve never made music with a concern for how it’s going to be received. Like all of my music, this started with me playing guitar and scribbling notes frantically, by myself in the middle of the night, completely absorbed in a fascinating pursuit. I think there are a lot of people out there who like a good melody attached to some really smart lyrics. They will enjoy this music if they want to, I can’t control that.

LCC: Your new album includes a cynical song about celebrity worship – talk about Brassens being years ahead of his time, huh?; a very funny one about being pussywhipped; a defiant, punkish one about staying true to oneself; at least one and maybe more that were banned in France; and the poignant outsider anthem Bad Reputation, the first song Brassens ever wrote, from which you take the name of the band. Do you have a favorite? Or is it one that’s not here, that you haven’t covered yet?

PDG: I have translated 23 songs, 13 of which are on this album. There are 3 or 4 that were really hard to leave off the album, including Poor Martin (Pauvre Martin), The Bistro (Le Bistro), and The Old Man (L’ancetre). They will be on future albums or singles. I also have two favorites that I’m beginning to simmer in my brainpan for future translation: “La Rose, la bouteille, et la poignee de main” (The Rose, The Bottle, and The Handshake, which is about how all three of those things are abandoned and then adopted by the narrator) and one called Hecatombe which is about a group of irate women murdering some policemen at an outdoor market.

LCC: I’m curious – besides you, does anybody else in the band speak French?

PDG: Quentin Jennings, who plays keyboards, charango and xylophone in Bad Reputation, is British, but speaks French and helped with some translation problems when I got stuck. Christian Bongers, our bassist, is German but has a pretty good handle on French.

Pierre de Gaillande and Bad Reputation play the cd release show for the album on June 12 at the Bell House at 7:30 PM.

June 7, 2010 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: The Snow’s CD Release Show at Joe’s Pub, NYC 1/16/10

Lucinda Black Bear open the night. They’re not bad. It’s always good to see a band start to realize their potential. They start with a couple of quiet 6/8 ballads that could have been ELO outtakes. The songwriting is getting closer to the level of the musicianship, which with all the strings and a killer rhythm section, is pretty stupendous. The bass player is doing all kinds of interesting things but he’s so low in the mix that you have to watch his fingers, which is a crime in a space like this. Quentin Jennings, late of Melomane, contributes some incisively memorable piano. The crowd seems have a collective case of cabin fever, just glad to be out of the house for a few hours. They love the band.

The Snow take the stage for the cd release show for their new one I Die Every Night with a three-piece reed section including Tony Jarvis, from main songwriter Pierre de Gaillande’s other project, Bad Reputation, playing bass clarinet. Hilary Downes, who will prove to have pretty much taken over fronting the band, is on piano. The first number is lush, artsy, with a funky rhythm and a bluesy horn break after the chorus. The lyrics are characteristically smart:

There’s a hole in the ice

There’s a hole in your heart

But the hole is greater

Than the sum of the parts

They play their signature song The Silent Parade, the band’s big 6/8 epic about the snowstorm to end all snowstorms. It’s more restrained than usual: that they resist turning this into gleeful grand guignol is impressive. There are sarcastic la-la-la’s and then some faux-blithe off-key whistling by Gaillande at the end.

Downes sings Undertow with her usual inscrutably sultry precision. It’s a clever, sarcastic narrative about a drowning. They follow that with Fool’s Gold, which welds an oldschool soul verse to a darker, more European chorus. And then a rather haunting, low-key number on which Gaillande switches to accordion, which as it blends with the horns enhances its noir cabaret plaintiveness.

Handle Your Weapon is pulsing and insistent – encouragement, maybe, for a would-be suicide to keep going. It’s hard to keep track of all the metaphors. “Soon it will be daylight.” Then they do Shadows and Ghost, by Downes and bring out every bit of its understated phantasmagoria, Gaillande tossing off a casual southwestern gothic guitar solo.

Moral Debtor, by tenor sax player Dave Spinley, is a tango. Long and Strange pulses along on a rumbling latin drumbeat. The guy/girl harmonies are gorgeous; Gaillande adds another twangy noir guitar solo that ends all too soon. They close with a darkly swinging Serge Gainsbourg-inflected pop song. The sold-out crowd wants more but the room has to be cleared for the next act, Bassam Saba of the NY Arabic Orchestra and his ensemble. The line outside grows longer and longer – no surprise, they’re really good.

After a show like this you need a drink to reflect and take it all in and remember the finer points.The party starts at Lakeside where Tie Me Up, the world’s only Spanking Charlene cover band are about to play all the hits: When I’m Skinny, Where Are the Freaks, Stupid Stupid Me (actually it’s really just Spanking Charlene playing their own stuff). And then vodka catches up with one of us and we end up missing the band – too bad, they sounded good from outside the bar.

January 17, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Trouble in Tribeca, Part One: Bad Reputation, Rana Santacruz and Pistolera at the 92YTribeca, NYC 1/8/10

Friday night was Trouble Worldwide night at the 92YTribeca, part of the annual booking agents’ convention with sets from a mix of the best Barbes bands along with a couple of ringers, Rana Santacruz and the Cuban Cowboys. The Snow’s frontman Pierre de Gaillande opened the night with his latest side project (this guy seems to always be in about five bands at once), Bad Reputation, whose raison d’etre is English versions of the songs of iconic, often bawdy French individualist Georges Brassens. Guillotinings and the Bastille aside, the French typically allow for a greater freedom of expression in song lyrics than has traditionally been the case here, so it was as striking as it was amusing to hear Gaillande deadpanning about “the nun who defrosts the penis of the amputee” in the ribald Don Juan. Guitarist Tony Jarvis lit up that one with some casually intense tremolo-picking, then switching to bass clarinet for most of the other numbers as the band gave them a swinging noir cabaret feel. Gaillande has obviously put a great deal of effort into making Brassens’ wordy, argotique narratives flow smoothly in English – and with rhymes! – and this paid off immensely in the curmudgeonly but sweet 1953 song Public Benches, the blithely cynical 95% of the Time (a hilarious tale of a woman who won’t settle for anything less than sex with love), the minor-key waltz Philistines (a tribute to teenage delinquency), the O. Henry-esque Princess and the Troubadour and the first song Brassens ever wrote, a defiant outsider anthem probably dating from 1940s. Bad Reputation’s debut cd is due out auspiciously on Barbes Records sometime this year.

Backed by a boisterous band including rhythm section, violin, accordion and banjo, Mexican songwriter Rana Santacruz delivered a wry, quirky set that brought a brisk Celtic edge to traditional Mexican folkloric styles. A characteristically tongue-in-cheek number, Noche de Perro reminisced about an affair gone sour, the howling of the dogs in the night a vivid reminder that “they were more faithful than you were.” They wrapped up a very well-received show with a punked out – or Pogued-out – cover of a Vicente Fernandez ranchera number and a drinking song.

In their micro-set, Pistolera sounded like the Mexican Go-Go’s with their playful, sunny, sweetly melodic janglepop. The songs – from their forthcoming second album which transplants New York to the desert – included a bouncy ranchera rocker about the New York subway, a reggae-flavored vacation song and the swinging, effervescent, minor-key Todos se Cai (Everybody Falls Down). Then they switched gears and proceeded to play as their alter ego, the children’s music group Moona Luna. 99% of the time, children’s music is smarmy, condescending and patronizing, obviously as a selling point for the yuppie moms who buy it regardless of the fact that they too were once young and hated that stuff. But just when it seemed that like every other children’s band, this group should be exiled to the lowest circle of hell, they played the most anti-parent song of the night, which goes something like this, in both Spanish and English:

I like to jump on the bed
I like to jump on the couch
I like to jump on the floor
More! More! More!

Pistolera frontwoman Sandra Lilia Velasquez’ two-year-old daughter inspired that one. Obviously, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe someday the two can share a stage and do that together.

The second half of the show, with Chicha Libre, the Cuban Cowboys and Slavic Soul Party is reviewed here.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment