Three Imaginary Girls

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Do you remember meeting the first person who loved the Cure as much as you did? Can you image that same feeling, occurring again twenty years later?

"When we met, it seemed like we knew what we were going to speak of," Olivier Libaux claims of his first encounter with Marc Collins. It was almost as if their shared aesthetic had already existed, as an ontological essence before they stepped into a relationship.

They did know of each other. Libaux had been playing music since 1990, in the band Les Objets (which had collaborated with the visionary Michel Gondry on tours and videos) and crafting quality pop by artists such as Katerine, Helena, Arielle, Jean-Francois Coen, and others throughout the next decade.

Libaux met Collins at a friend's apartment in 1998. Collins was a musician and a producer, too, starting with Ollano, which was a Francophone trip-hop/jazz-fusion band, and then he did club music for a UK label (Paper Recordings), continuing on with assorted bands and soundtracks — the latter which he would include Libaux's sensual guitar and bass playing on.

"He had a very good thing, he knew his music by heart," Libaux says of Collins. "When we talked, we talked about pop music — after a while I found out that he was a big fan of new wave music. He was the first guy I met who was as big a fan as I was. We were both very much into the Cure, Wire, the Stranglers, and the Clash. We still had this love, twenty years after they'd recorded their music."

This passion makes the Nouvelle Vague album more than a novelty affair, though some critics have tried to dismiss it as one. There is more going on between these two men in their early forties, and the quick and on-fire collaborations they create with the eight different female vocalists involved, all in their mid-twenties.

Sometimes passion and collaboration got in the way of the project.

"The irony is that I am a huge Stranglers fan, and Marc is really into Madness, but we were not able to record a Stranglers or Madness song that met our requirements for the record," Libaux complains. "We worked on 'No More Heroes' (the title track to the Stranglers' second album) — but oddly it turned out being too close to something else we'd recorded — I can't remember what that is right now, but they were too similar. Quite a shame, because that band was my favorite when I was a teenager."

I tell Libaux that the album seems unexpectedly cohesive, as if it's the journal of a young cosmopolitan — starting off with oblique heartbreak with Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the inappropriate levity of which is an actual moment of real irony on the record, and ends with Josef K's resigned epilogue "Sorry For Laughing" (a bonus track on the American version).

"That feeling was all in the concept, really," he says. "When we recorded this the past couple of years, what was originally the idea, simply, was to cover some new wave songs. To try any way, would be daunting, because we truly felt that these songs were considered timeless. We started very quickly on each track, agreeing that if a song was working, then it was a classic. I have to say that these days, people talk about this music, but they don't talk about the songs, just the bands. The sound of the bands. We tried to find out what was classic about the songs themselves.

"It's quite funny, but people misunderstand the project sometimes — we are not playing 80s music, but 80s songs," he insists. "We are quite eccentric in a way. We listen to that music, then try to produce it our own way. These are timeless statements — in our western world, these songs are everywhere. They are in the modern way of living." I ask Libaux if he thinks the album is being greatly misunderstood as a work of mere kitsch.

"I think that yes, some people are getting the reality of this album," he replies. "Sometimes they only get the ironic thing. People listen quickly to the album — there is love for the music on this album. But it was our pleasure and satisfaction to make this more than the concept thing. It really is something very deep — "

I tell him I think that it is actually post-ironic. I'm not sure he understands what I mean by that term, due to our language barrier, but then he explains that term the way he understands it:

"When you listen, if you first hear a song when you are twenty, then over the years keep hearing it, it becomes a part of your life in different ways, and then twenty years later it is different. There is melancholy with most of these songs that we recorded, and we are not twenty years old again. There is something even more melancholic now, something very deep. The lyrics are very fantastic — which being French, we didn't understand back then.

"We are French, when I was nineteen listening to the Cure or the Stranglers, we didn't know the lyrics, we didn't know English!" he asserts. "Also, the girls we worked with didn't know the songs, so that's the first time we really looked at the lyrics — 'What is this about?' We didn't know that that was what they said — and we thought, 'This is fantastic. These songs transcend words — I understood them and loved them somehow when I was nineteen, though.'"

Another aspect of the album that seems to disturb some people is the treating of some dark, techno-heavy classics in what is considered a light-hearted, acoustic-based medium — it seems flippant to them, as if it was meant as a "lounge joke style."

"There is a definite need for having a sense of humor about music," Libeaux says. "We want to have pleasure with the material. You don't expect that sort of performance — say, on 'Too Drunk To Fuck,' for example. We just played the chords on the guitar for the girls, so in our small, dark studio it was an interpretation from us — we were really, really surprised how each of the eight girls brought her own thing.

"Our generation is a bit more ironic about things," Libeaux tells me. "Especially about pop music — I have forty years of pop music memories. We're older, and know that rock came from the blues, we have a different attitude about the distance of things. There has been a misunderstanding about how the album was recorded — it was actually pretty much recorded chronologically, that is, in the order that the songs appear on the album.

"So there is a story — the truth is that the album is telling a story. Though we are French, I remember that we picked the songs in the order for a mood to tell a story," he says, in spite of whatever the lyrics may have originally intended. "Especially in England, when we finished the album, it was like we were finishing a very sad book, a sad novel. We are in our own universe doing this album. In you're mind, like a writer, you're in your own world.

"All the songs, all the meetings with the girls — they were mostly twenty-five, twenty-six years old. So in a way we created something new. We really respected the originals, but there is creation on its own. We were so surprised at the consistency of the record as a whole. With our English label, when we listened to some songs, we wanted to make a deal, but first we finished the album. Later the manager of the label was like, 'Your singer is fantastic!' And we were like, 'There are eight of them.'"

Libeaux laughs and says, "The girls were not very happy when they found out people thought there was only one singer." The favorite seems to be Camille Dalmais, who profanely
but seductively giggles her way through the Dead Kennedys' hardcore gem, the gender-reversal making it even more subversively taunting of failed machismo than the grinding original.

"The consistency is because of the production — bringing the girls into our world," Libeaux continues. "There was an approach in the vocals, based on 60s styles, but everyone thinks — when they hear the record — there is only one or two singers for the whole thing.

"Now I admit that I am personally not passionate about bossa nova music myself — Marc is," Libeaux says. "When Marc and I started on the project, we were like, 'We are not professional bossa nova musicians, we are going to be killed!' But then we played a large concert in Rio in June 2004! I was a little bit afraid. It was outside — but we were made very comfortable. We've been playing this material for almost two years now, though, playing everywhere in the world, Moscow, Rio, and currently the States.

I ask Libeaux about what material didn't make the album.

"I must tell you that we tried 'Happy House' by Siouxsie and the Banshees, but found out that the song itself is just not that great. It's great with the production of its time, but not with just a singer and a guitar.

"It doesn't always work. You have to create a proper and interesting new arrangement. You have to find a good performer, and a good singer for the song. 'Happy Hour' just wasn't that great. We also considered Magazine's "The Light Pours Out Of Me" — but that didn't make it because Marc and I didn't have enough time.

"And even though I am a big Stranglers fan, we couldn't find an interesting arrangement of the Stranglers' 'Golden Brown' or of 'Strange Little Girl' either," which seem tailor-made for the project — particularly the former, which is a bossa nova. "There was something strange happening with the Stranglers."

"The songs that DID end up on the record — 'Love Will Tear us Apart,' which opens the record, both Marc and I brought in. I selected Killing Joke's 'Psyche,' 'In A Manner of Speaking,' and 'Guns of Brixton.' We made that last one quite Nick Cave, anti-war. We also wanted to use that Clash song to focus on the spectrum of new wave, including the message song.

"We do think our version of 'Too Drunk To Fuck' is very strong — we did it in half an hour!" Libaux exclaims. "Very quickly, Camille came up with her part. She read the lyrics, and was very talented . I listened back to the original recently, and realized that the Dead Kennedys were one of the best bands ever. One of the most crazy bands, very good music.

"The Dead Kennedys and the Stranglers were more clever than a lot of other bands," Libaux says. "The humor, and being very good at what they did. The humor in the violence. You can't write a song using both so easily."

It's just this love of paradox, and the conveying of it, that makes Nouvelle Vague so irresistible.


More About The Stranglers, by Olivier Libaux

I bought "Black and White" for the first time yesterday. I am very deeply into their art. At 41, their music is still very important to me.

I had an older brother into all sorts of music, like Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple. At 14, I snuck away to England and bought some records. Some were like my brothers': Queen, "Live Killers," and the first Motorhead album — which I listened to once, and never again. But I also bought the first Stranglers album, because they were playing a little of it in the store. I went home and became excited about their new albums, collecting them as they came out, usually — and the singles, the t-shirts. I was also listening to the Cure's "Seventeen Seconds" all the time on my first Walkman. I was seventeen when I heard "A Forest" — incredible. I think I heard it on French radio — but I was more influenced by English television, more than French TV. All my friends were getting into new wave music. We chose who was going to buy what record and then we'd all share it.

I liked the Stranglers because they were violent with their music. I didn't know the lyrics. I was very impressed with Jean-Jacques Burnell's bass playing — and these four personalities creating something totally unique — and the organ! Then I saw in the magazines that the Stranglers were not a "good band" — most French critics didn't like them, critics loved Led Zeppelin, the previous generation.

I was so angry when I found out the critics were saying they were influenced by the Doors. The sound of the bass was so unusual, it wasn't like the Doors at all. It's very dark, very violent. Fascinating.

I saw them three times live. It was quite dangerous! You had to be careful — there were naughty boys who wanted to fight. It was like "A Clock Orange." I was fascinated by that. It struck something deep in the human minds. Humans to me were more like the Stranglers, than what people said they were like. The Stranglers was what it was like to live in the western world. We are not cool and protected. They said we are not protected — the outside world was much darker than they told us.

Marc had a conversation with JJ. It was all business. He wanted to ask him to help out on a compilation, got in contact from Jean Jacques' solo album, about the authorization. But he wouldn't be personal with him.

I think that the Stranglers had a very strong sense of humor. I think that they knew what they were doing.

It was about blood because people like blood.

The girl we worked with for the album made a very strange interpretation of "No More Heroes" — she was not very happy with our ideas.