BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM interviews Nouvelle Vague co-founder Olivier Libaux, in Wellington with the band for a quartet of sell-out shows at the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

Olivier Libaux, far left. Image courtesy of NZIAF / © Tim Knox

NOUVELLE VAGUE have been one of the hits at the New Zealand International Arts Festival, with their four shows selling out months in advance. The reports from the shows have been glowing too, with vamping singers turning some of the great songs of the 70s and 80s into sultry, swinging pieces. Their music is an unlikely combination, New Wave and punk covers played in bossa nova style, and it has proved a highly winning combination for Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux who formed the band back in 2003.

Libaux admits “in the beginning it was really a studio project.” Collin and Libaux had worked in the studio together, and had played music already – having both been in the French music industry since the start of the 1990s. “Marc was a great fan of New Wave music as I was, and the funny thing was people never talked about New Wave in the music business because New Wave music was forgotten in a way.” But they soon discovered a shared love and “decided to try [Joy Division’s] ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. But we had to try and make it good, otherwise that was absolutely pointless, useless.” Collin suggested bossa nova as a way of interpreting the song, “and we started a process from there”.

Bossa nova was an interesting choice, typically associated with lounge music or Bill Murray clips. “For us Bossa Nova was very classic, not a lot of instruments, classical rhythm, elegant. Marc’s idea was very clever. When we dove into that idea of making covers, we realised that was a good way to make that sort of covers. In New Wave, there was all the Western crises, the anger of youths, all this tension. There was also the grey weather, the dark background. If you were putting that against bossa nova, there was Brazil, sun, but also rebellion, of revolution, but in a completely different way.” They also wanted to celebrate bossa nova too. “In France bossa nova had turned into this music you hear on ads in TV. That was absolutely not the purpose of bossa nova. We were quite angry at that, because it was far more than that.”

They hadn’t planned to get so big, so much so that they hadn’t even planned about making a record. However Libaux admits that he wanted to push the idea further and pay homage to a number of their favourite tracks, a lot of which aren’t even really New Wave songs themselves. “In the beginning of this project, we were just choosing maybe the most important songs of this era, but not in terms of popularity or success. Picking [The Undertones’] ‘Teenage Kicks’ because it was John Peel’s favourite song [for example]. We weren’t thinking that much. We were just picking the songs.” They picked the brilliant ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ by the legendary San Francisco hardcore band, the Dead Kennedys, “because they were so in their world, they were very provocative.”

One wonders how fans of the originals will take this concept, especially given how dear people hold bands like the Dead Kennedys, the Clash, Joy Division, Bauhaus etc. etc. Particularly because for many people (myself included), this music is the soundtrack to angsty teenage years, and it’s the darkness, the energy, the frustration expressed that draw people to them. In relation to ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’, Libaux said “we loved our version – we loved their version too – but we thought something really exciting was happening. In a way we could have been scared, but we weren’t. We thought that many Dead Kennedys’ fans were like us, because we listening to the Dead Kennedys in the late 70s, as we were listening to Killing Joke and so on. So if we were happy with the record that means a big percentage of New Wave and punk fans would be happy too.”

And it has won them fans from some of the originals themselves. “We heard about Mick Jones (The Clash) listening to Nouvelle Vague, and Martin Gore (Depeche Mode) listening to Nouvelle Vague, and then some guys from the Cure, and the Undertones fan club. The response was pretty good. Mick Jones said on Swedish TV that he never imagined the Clash covered like that, and he came to our first show in Stockholm and had a very good time. A journalist went to Martin Gore and asked him about Nouvelle Vague, and the thing was: he knew Nouvelle Vague, he loved Nouvelle Vague and he was playing Nouvelle Vague each time he had a party at home.” Libaux also suggests that since Nouvelle Vague never really set out to make a lot of money, to not market themselves heavily, and this probably helped win a bit of acceptance. “We signed with a very independent electronic label in London, we were selling a few hundred EPs for a few pounds and that was it.”

“In New Wave, there was all the Western crises, the anger of youths, all this tension. There was also the grey weather, the dark background. If you were putting that against bossa nova, there was Brazil, sun, but also rebellion, of revolution, but in a completely different way.”

It probably helped Nouvelle Vague’s interpretations that the songs they were covering had such a strong melodic sense. In all the rush to talk about the angst and frustration about the music of that period, it was also a time of great pop songs. Even the pseudo-psychobilly ‘Human Fly’ by the Cramps, is a cracker of a pop song. “There was the idea of celebrating the quality of song-writing. Because in the 70s and the 80s, nobody ever talked about the song-writing. When you talk about Joy Division you don’t talk about the songs – you talk about Ian Curtis, Martin Hannett’s production, the bass-lines, the darkness of the music, but never the songs. It was the same thing with the Clash.” Libaux emphasises that ‘Teenage Kicks’ or XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ are also just pure pop gems.

However Libaux says the band tried to make the songs their own. “The great thing with the idea, and even when we were working, we were forgetting everything about the original recording. I’d just take my guitar, call a girl, a singer, and try the thing as if the song was written by us. We’d just get the lyrics from the internet, and we’d record.” He remembers his early bands as a teenager and how they ‘covered’ U2 and the Cure. “It was so bad, because we tried to imitate them, we didn’t have the song, their talent, or anything. In a while you realise the best way to cover a song is to change it, and try a new landscape. If you stay in the area of the original it will be very bad. It’s best to take another direction and do your own thing.”

This has involved hiring singers who don’t know too much about the originals, including his female vocalists who were easy to find given Libaux and Collin’s contacts in the Parisian music scene. “These girls were absolutely not concerned with New Wave music, 80s music was their parents’ music. Camille [Dalmais, who sang ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’] was like ‘Dead Kennedys, don’t know them.’ ‘You know they were a great band?’ ‘Who cares? I’m twenty-five.’ While such a cavalier disregard to musical history by Dalmais is a little disturbing, Libaux admits Nouvelle Vague do want people to go back to the originals. “We want to drive people to the originals, especially young people. I still get the impression that some people are listening to Nouvelle Vague and don’t know that they’re covers.” And in case anyone was wondering, they’re all covers.

Libaux also admits to being a huge Flying Nun fan. I suggest he cover a song by the Chills, the Bats or the Clean if he is, especially as there were parallels temporally, even if the form of music was a little different (but then again The Cramps are quite different to ESG who are quite different to the Buzzcocks). “‘Pink Frost’ [by the Chills] is just this amazing song. The Chills in my mind aren’t a proper New Wave band, and I discovered the Chills at the end of the 80s. A lot of the songs of the Chills are so good that maybe, perhaps Nouvelle Vague could play something. I must speak with the other band members.” And there is a third album in the works, something that neither Libaux nor Collin ever envisaged. “We were just supposed to make one record. It was an experiment. It wasn’t supposed to turn into a success. We made a second album because so many people asked to record some more material. After that, we had discussions together and thought we could make a third. In the beginning, we were recording in the morning when we working on other projects in the afternoon. We would record in the morning with the other singer sleeping in the next room, so we were playing quite softly.” Now it’s their primary career.

Their success has also gained them some fans within France, despite the fact they sing songs by predominantly English and American bands, and in English. This is also despite the fact, pop rules in France like everywhere, and it’s appalling stuff like Céline Dion. “If you sing in English you will have an opportunity only if foreign countries are interested in your music. You have to sing in French, because France wants to protect the French language.”

They’re also named after an archetypal aspect of Frenchness, the French Nouvelle Vague, one of the key cinema movements in the 60s and the 70s. However, it wasn’t their intention to be tied into film references, despite their second album being named after Godard’s Bande à Part. Instead, their name is also a translation of New Wave, and also a translation of bossa nova, which means New Wave in Portuguese. “The response in foreign countries was something we didn’t really expect. Because of our name, because we are so French, people talk with us about movies, which was not our purpose.” That said, he talked about the films of Jacques Démy (“the most inspiring thing in the world”), Godard and Truffaut (France’s “godfathers in a way”) and Rohmer, Kubrick, Fellini. He clearly knows his film too.

But that said, it’s their music which is winning fans the world over. If their sell-out shows in Wellington are anything to go by, and the ubiquity of their music at cafés, their 70s and 80s revivalism-meets-bossa-nova will continue to draw fans wherever they go. Hopefully too, they also continue to draw people back to the great music of the era to which they’re paying homage.