Stepping up to The Big League: The Penelopes Interview

23 Nov

Throughout history, the relationship between England and France has been the very essence of Love/Hate with both nations falling in and out with one another at the drop of a hat. We are like friends whose primary form of communication is taking the piss out of one another. Both admire and enjoy aspects of the other but equally dislike and mock many others. One recent export from France that we are really enjoying at the moment is The Penelopes.

Originally from just outside Paris, much less glamorous than it sounds evidently, the duo moved to England just over a year ago to flee the stagnant music scene in France and to establish themselves as part of the vibrant indie-pop culture in London. It is obviously working for both Axel Basquiat and Vincent T as, following the release of their latest album, Never Live Another Yesterday, earlier this year, they are about to embark on a UK tour in support of The Human League. When we caught up with Axel last week, he was in the middle of programming lighting sequences for their sets and understandably excited about the chance to play with one of his childhood heroes.

While it may appear that their success and burgeoning reputation have come about quick smart, it has been a long journey for the pair who lived two floors apart, ” I was living on the second floor in the council estate and Vincent was living on the fourth floor”, in a depressing, industrial suburb just north of Paris. Friends since childhood, Axel and Vincent have known each other since the age of two and have pretty much hung out together ever since. ” We grew up together we were listening to the same music together; we were neighbours, and good friends you know. We are almost brothers”, Axel explains, his English spoken perfectly through his thick French accent.

”We want to make people dance”

Their love and appreciation of English music, specifically the music of New Order, The Human League and Depeche Mode, has been well documented. It was born in part from an affinity they felt with the grey and depressing industrial nature of northern English cities, particularly Manchester and Sheffield, and the ”working class heroes” of these bands. It was the kinship they felt and their fascination with the English that led them to start playing music, that and a significant amount of ennui.

“It’s a kind of common story in rock and roll, because we were just bored, you know?” Growing up with ”nothing to do in our city”, the pair turned to music and started copying and playing like their new idols. Soon though their horizons were broadened and they cast their musical net further afield, no longer happy just to sound like the records they grew up with or tell the stories they had told. We started to investigate, we started to listen to more music, disco music, dance music as well. We started to put these influences inside the music because for us, it’s silly to repeat exactly the same thing. You know it’s really silly, The Pioneers, we love them but we didn’t want to do the same thing. We just wanted to incorporate new electronic things in this, referencing the older influences [but] we don’t want to be revival (sic)”.

The references are certainly there but not as overt as you might imagine. There is a lot of bounce and energy to their music, ”We want to make people dance”, while retaining the sometimes dark and melancholy undercurrent in the words, ”I like when the lyrics are a bit twisted”, Axel explains. He likes to counter positive and uplifting music with a darker message, ”People maybe don’t realise at the time […] in fact it’s more about loneliness and revenge and this kind of thing.

“I don’t like when things are black or white. You are dancing but there’s something a bit melancholy inside, it’s a bit weird. I like that”.

In France on the radio, they only play shit

The pair found that recognition came early for them, they were named 2007’s Best Discovery at the French Qwartz Electronic Music Awards, but they still didn’t feel as though they were connecting or that they fit in the French scene. It is a subject that many would be wary of discussing, for fear of causing offense. Not Axel, he speaks freely and with a refreshing honesty, as if we were old friends catching up after a long time apart. We are talking on the phone but it is easy to imagine him speaking with stereotypical French nonchalance, offering a dismissive shrug of the shoulders as he assesses the French music scene, ”[In France] on the radio, they only play shit you know?”.

The move to England came as they felt their options and opportunities were limited by the conservative nature of the French music industry. While they were liked and revered by the ‘hipster’ and ‘taste maker’ community, it was never going to be enough to provide them the success they craved. ”We want to be more popular” and in France, it was not going to happen. According to Axel, ”for 30 years, the music on the radio is the same” and for all the popularity of the likes of Depeche Mode, there was no French equivalent as they could not break through. The likes of Air and M83, he argues, have had to leave France to become successful. So they set sail for England, where they already felt like they belonged having grown up on our music and where the chance to cross over may be increased as”the frontiers between the underground and the mainstream is a lot [smaller]”.

Since arriving in London, the pair feel their sound has evolved further. The writing, Axel says, has become more structured and precise and the sound is better than ever thanks in part to the higher standard of studios in England. Mostly though, it is the way we work and write that has helped the most. ”It’s in the DNA of the British. How to write good songs, how to write the harmonies. We don’t hear this kind of thing in France, you know? We don’t have that in our DNA. For you guys it’s really natural”.

There are, says Axel, ”a lot more professional people” in England. ”In France a lot of people pretend to be able to do things but we are, you know, we are a Mediterranean country, so [there are] a lot of big mouths” He is keen to stress that his negativity towards the music industry in France is not symptomatic of how he sees the entirety of his homeland mind you. ”I love France, I love the French food, and the wine, but in terms of production they are less good, that’s obvious”.

One of the ‘professional people’ the pair has been working with recently is Alphabet Bands favourite, Laura Kidd, aka She Makes War, who provided backing vocals on the album, features in the video for “Now Now Now” (above) and is joining the band on tour. Like us, Axel is smitten, “She is incredible. She’s just perfect. She works fast, faster than me; she is a lot more professional than us.”

“Laura is very important for me on stage, in terms of the energy that she brings; I’ve learnt a lot with Laura”.

On stage of course means supporting The Human League, which came about entirely by surprise. Axel still isn’t entirely sure how it came about, he believes that a producer in Sheffield thought they would be a good fit for the band and sent some material in. The Human League and their management liked what they heard and soon after an email dropped into The Penelopes inbox, inviting them to join the tour.

For Axel, whose sentences tend to trail off as if his mind can speak English a lot more quickly than his mouth, talking about it makes him giddy and excited. ”When I was in my suburb in France I never think that I would… I’m a fan, you know? It’s the kind of band I love, they are modern you know, they were avant-garde, that’s the point. I like the fact that they reinvented pop music, I love this thing, so yes it is a huge honour for us to… When we received the email we were literally crying, to tell you the truth! You know…. it’s impossible! We are fans. They are in our top six or seven bands you know? We love them!”

It is quite the story. Two kids from a poor, depressing suburb north of Paris who grew up listening to, empathising with and loving The Human League. They start to play music of their own, broadening their horizons and experimenting with their own sounds but never forgetting those bands they loved as children and they let their influence seep into their new sound. Excited and desperate for greater exposure and recognition they cross the sea and work to become successful. Then, as they strive for the big leagues, their wildest dreams come true as another league entirely comes into view and now they begin a new journey in support of their idols, The Human League. They may now be adults, professionals, making their own music to entertain audiences across the world but deep down they are still those two excited kids from just outside Paris, having fun listening to the music that they love.

The Penelopes tour, supporting The Human League, begins tonight (Friday 23 November) in Brighton and culminates in Norwich on 11 December. Dates and ticket details are available at The Penelopes website.

One Response to “Stepping up to The Big League: The Penelopes Interview”

  1. Name not supplied December 28, 2012 at 21:39 #

    I loved these guys when we saw them, Vincent is very tall and French 😉
    I liked them better than the main act!

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