Vera Clouzot - Interviews
The French group Vera Clouzot, which is named after an obscure fifties film actress, formed in Lille in the early nineties. It began playing concerts and recording music initially as a trio, and featuring Pierre Laplace on vocals and guitar ; Richard Hughye also on guitar and Nicolas Fahy on cello, first got together while its latter two members were still at school.
After recording an eight track demo in 1994 and then another four track demo in 1995, the group released an eponymous debut album in 1996 on a French label XIII Bis, and then self-released its second album 'The Moon When the Cherries Are Ripe' in 1998. Laplace, who writes all Vera Clouzot's lyrics, is a language teacher and is fluent in English, and as a result of this and also in tribute to the group's American influences of Mark Eitzel, the Red House Painters and Smog, the band chose to record both these albums in English. Each album received critical acclaim and 'The Moon When the Cherries Are Ripe' was given an excellent review in France's most influential rock magazine, Les Inrockuptibles.Despite this, however, as a result of Laplace choosing to sing in a foreign language, both albums unfortunately received little distribution in France and remain largely unheard.
The group's third album 'Kachina' was released to greater success on the independent French label, Spirit of Jungle in September of last year, and influenced by free form jazz, found Vera Clouzot both switching direction and Laplace also writing and singing in French for the first time.
In the few months since then , the group has also put out its first live album, 'Vera Clouzot 30/9/2000', which released on the new Parisian micro label hinah (the subject of a Pennyblackmusic interview last month), was recorded at a show played in Lille to commerate the release of 'Kachina' and also marked the recording debut of the band's new drummer, Peter Orins.
Vera Clouzot has also after that concert added a new bassist Francois Borne to its line-up.
With a fourth album due out next summer, Pierre Laplace spoke to Pennyblackmusic in Vera Clouzot's first British interview about the band's troubled history, and also its plans for the future Why did you decide to call the group Vera Clouzot?
I found the name a long time ago, even before I knew the other band members after seeing a movie called 'Les Diaboliques' which is directed by Henri-George Clouzot and which stars Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzot, who was one of Henri-George Clouzot's wives. She appeared in just a couple of movies in the fifties. At the time, I thought Vera Clouzot was a great name for a band, because it sounded good and I liked Vera Clouzot's part in the film. Today we still think the name sounds good (in French, at least), but I have to admit, with hindsight, that Vera Clouzot was not a good actress at all. Anyway, it's just a name, and it's neutral enough to allow us to do whatever music we want to do without having to change names. Vera Clouzot first formed as a trio in 1993. Both Richard Hughye and Nicolas Fahy are several years younger than you. How did you first meet and get together? Had any of the three of you played in any other bands before?
I'm actually eight years older than Richard and Nicolas. I met them in grammar school, while I was doing my first year's teacher training. I was twenty three at the time, and they were pupils. Richard was a particularly outstanding pupil, and I soon found out that for a fifteen year old boy he had interesting musical and artistic tastes as well. We started talking about music after lessons. Richard was beginning to play the guitar and by the end of the school year we started playing together, just for fun without any serious project in mind.
Some time after that, Richard got to know Nicolas, another pupil, who had been playing the cello since he was seven. On a couple of occasions, they improvised some stuff together, just the cello and guitar.
By the beginning of 1993, Richard and I had become good friends, and we decided to write songs together. Richard hadn't had any previous experience of playing with other musicians . As for me, I had recorded maybe five or six demos with Christophe, a friend of mine who used to play keyboards. Christophe and I weren't accomplished musicians at all, and most of the stuff we recorded together was rather naive, very much influenced by New Wave and post-punk bands. We actually recorded those demos too under the name of Vera Clouzot.
Originally Richard, and then a little while later later Nicolas, joined in with Christophe on keyboards, and me on guitars ad vocals, but Christophe, for personal reasons, soon decided not to be part of this project.
Richard, Nicolas and I, therefore, started playing music together, keeping the name Vera Clouzot, although the line-up was different and we played only new material . Maybe it was a mistake not to find a new name at the time, but never mind. The group's initial structure was quite unusual-no bassist and no regular drummer, but instead two guitarists and a cellist. Did you set out from the outset to do something that was "different" with your group or was this something which just fell into place, once you started working together?
I think the group's structure was rather unusual at the time we started out, but, as you also say, it was something which fell into place quite naturally. If one of us had played a different instrument, we would have probably played together anyway, but the results would have been different.
We quickly realised though, of course, that something interesting could be done with such a line-up. At first Nicolas didn't play on all the songs but then, little by little, he found his place in the whole musical process, the cello becoming an important element in the band's songwriting and "soundwriting", not just as a gimmick as was-and often still is-the case with many bands who use classical instruments. Your first two albums, 'Vera Clouzot' and 'The Moon When The Cherries Are Ripe', were recorded in English, which was unusual too. Why did you decide to do this?
That was all my fault, I guess ! I'd been singing stuff in English for a number of years before I met Richard and Nicolas. Until just recently, I used to listen almost exclusively to Anglo-Saxon music. I was also, as a student and then a teacher of English, able to write and sing songs in English without making a complete fool of myself. Both those albums were also self-produced by the band. Had any of you had any other previous experience of production work?
As I said before, I had recorded a few demos in my youth, but it was a limiting experience. I had never done a concert, and my musical abilities were poor.
Nicolas, before he met us, had had a classical training as a cellist and was used to playing in orchestras with other musical students, but he'd never played in a rock or a pop outfit before, and neither had Richard.
The three of us found out together that making an album was not an easy task ! The first 'Vera Clouzot' album was released on X111 Bis Records. Who were they?
They were, and still are, a French independent label with a very eclectic-and to be honest-very uninspiring catalogue.
In about 1996, a "pop" division was created within the label by Dominique Surlapierre, a guy whith whom we'd been in touch for sometime, and who liked our music. This division of the label was called Les Belles Promesses (Beautiful Promises !) and in 1996, two compilations were released, one which was acoustic and one which was electric, and both bearing the name "Les Belles Promesses" and featuring artists from the French underground pop scene. Two songs of ours featured on the acoustic CD, so it was quite natural for this label to also release our first eponymous album.
But, although Dominque Surlapierre did his best, the album wasn't well distributed. In fact it was very hard to find and an obvious consequence was it didn't sell. So we didn't renew our contract with XIII Bis Records, and decided to go back to Do It Yourself ! We decided to record a short album on an analogic 8 track tape recorder with a friend of ours that had a "folkier" sound, and the outcome was 'The Moon When the Cherries are Ripe'. 'The Moon When the Cherries Are Ripe' is once more something of an unheard masterpiece, featuring several great songs, and shows the Vera Clouzot on excellent form, but received no French distribution and despite a fantastic review in the influential Les Inrockuptibles was , as a result, unfortunately barely heard. Why do you think you received so little support from French labels? Do you think this was because the group was still singing in English at the time or do you think there were other reasons?
The fact that we were singing in English at the time was commercial suicide. In France, if you want to sing in English, you have to do electro stuff, be labelled "French touch" or otherwise, there's according to the music biz, no "market" for you. Our music also wasn't very commercial, to say the least, so labels were simply not interested. Our disgust with the music industry, as a result, reached an even higher level ! For your third album, last year's 'Kachina' you switched to writing songs in French. Did you find the transition easy? Did you switch to writing songs in French to make yourself more accessible to a French audience?
It was the other guys in the band who prompted me to at least try to sing one song in French. They probably felt that it would be an interesting artistic development. I wasn't too sure if I wanted to write and to sing in French until one day, for whatever reason, I sat at my desk and started writing lyrics in French and then, just to see what happened, we started working on songs in French. I began to enjoy it and to feel more confident about singing in my mother language.
When four songs were completed, we decided to make a demo of them with Maurice, the friend of ours with whom we'd made 'The Moon...'. As everybody was excited with the result, we decided to record a five song EP in the professional recording studio where our first album had also been recorded.
From then onwards, it was clear in our minds that I'd be singing in French because it felt more natural and sounded better. The aim was not to make ourselves more accessible to a French audience, but , at the same time, I enjoy people understanding my lyrics at last. Will you ever write songs in English again?
I don't see myself writing lyrics in English for the band again. We have moved onto something else and I am happy with this development. I think I could write stuff in English for some side project, but not for Vera Clouzot. 'Kachina' has been released on Spirit of Jungle. Who are Spirit of Jungle?
They are a French independent label based in Chambery. They're basically music fans who decided to set up their own structure because they felt that nothing was going on in their region. We like these guys because they really care about music and, even though they are a small label, they do a good job and are well distributed in France. The group has said in the past that it has been inspired by a wide range of influences-The Red House Painters, The American Music Club, Smog, Talk Talk, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and nearer home Serge Gainsbourg and JacquesBrel. The one thing that all these musicians seem to have in common is that they play music with conviction and from the heart. Do you see this as an essential component of the Vera Clouzot sound-to play music from the gut?
Yes, we do. Of course, at some stage or other , you have to "intellectualize" msuic and to think in terms of song structure, chord changes, sounds textures and that kind of thing. But if in the end if we feel nothing while playing the song, we simply drop it altogether. I like to think there is some degree of pure sensuality in what we do, something which has nothing to do with intellect. The lyrics for both your French and English songs are very literate, and could stand on their own as poems. In fact one of your songs 'Hunter Sing Your Song' has appeared in a book of French poems. Which comes first when you are writing songs? Is it the lyrics or the music?
Actually thie collection of poems and also songs is not out yet and up until now there hasn't been time to complete this project. I am hoping to collaborate on this with our friend, Francois Lelong, who did the cover for 'Kachina and would like it to be a mixture of text, sketches and various artwork, and something that is also hand made.
I would agree that there is a poetic element to some of my lyrics. but I definitely see myself as a songwriter, not a so-called "Poet". I always draw a line between poetry-writing, which is something I do in both French and English for my own pleasure, and lyric writing. I like my lyrics to make sense without a musical context, but I always keep in mind the fact that the words have to be sung, so they must sound good, and there must both musicality and rhythym involved.
Generally we all work on the basic music together and see what lyrics can be adapted out of the musical themes that we have found. While I'm the only one to write lyrics in the band, each one of us is involved in the songwriting process, the structures and the melodies, the arrangements and that kind of thing. Several of your lyrics seem to have been inspired by literature. 'Dalva's Dream', one of your songs, was inspired by the protagonist in Jim Harrison's books 'Dalva' and 'The Road Home', while 'La Valse de Chinanski' name checks Henry Chinanski, Charles Bukowski's alter ego in several of his novels. How much of an influence do you see literature having had as helping to develop your lyrics?
It is true that some of the books I 've read have had a direct or an indirect influence on a couple of my lyrics, but I don't want my lyrics to sound "arty" or pretentious though. I want them to make sense, even if people don't get the literary reference.
When a book has been fodder for my imagination and has moved me in some way, part of the emotion that is felt can be transcribed, even in an oblique way, in a song. . What else has been an inspiration on your lyric writing?
I'm inspired by the things that I have felt and lived. Most of the time there's some degree of ambiguity or "abstraction" to what I w rite, but there are also some "realistic" details and the occasional touch of humour.I like lyrics which are not too straightforward, but which are not too abstract either. The group has just released it first album 'Vera Clouzot Live' on the hinah album. In what ways do you see Vera Clouzot differing live than as a studio act?
I think we've progressed a lot recently as a live act. The hinah album caught us at one stage of this progression, but today, six months or so on, our concerts sound different, and have more dynamics and contrast and more tension. Ther's always also been some degree of improvisation in our concerts, something which is harder to achieve -and which is not necessarily very interesting-in the studio. Jazz drummer Peter Orins, who has played intermittingly with the group, for many years has now joined the band as a regular member. He made his official debut with the band on 'Vera Clouzot Live 30/9/2000'. What do you think he is going to be able to bring to the band's sound?
Peter is a very gifted jazz musician. He is very good at playing atmospheric stuff, working on the cymbal sounds, and at playing dynamic stuff too. Peter, as a person and a musician, has fitted extremely well into the band. With him on the drums, there's more dynamics to the the songs, and more contrasts. You have also recently added a new bassist to the line-up. Who is he? Again what do you think he will be able to bring to the group's sound?
His name's Francois Borne, and he's a good friend of ours, who has already played bass guitar with us as a guest musician on our very first demo, back in 1994. Francois is also a guitarist and a singer and has played in several bands. He also does some solo stuff.
We felt it was ncessary to have a rhythym section in order to have a warmer and more powerful sound. Now we feel good being a quintet and it's very exciting to have this new line-up. And finally what does Vera Clouzot have planned for the near future?
We're currently working on a fourth studio album. We have completed eight new songs which we are going to demo quite soon. If we and the label are happy with the songs, we'll then record a new album in the label's studio, next summer or autumn. We are also trying to find as many interesting gigs as possible for the months to come. Thank you.