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Nouvelle Vague have been reinventing post-punk classics since the early 2000’s, keeping their melancholy sound while infusing them with bossa nova air, and in the process revealing singers that have become symbolic, such as Camille and Pheobe Killdeer.

 

The new album features hits like ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’, ‘This Charming Man’, ‘You Spin Me Around’, ‘Rebel Yell’, ‘Only You’ and ‘Shout’. All these songs have been reinvented to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary, and two exclusive reissues of Nouvelle Vague and Bande à Part are out too!

Singer Marc Collin did not expect to find himself making a fifth album by Nouvelle Vague, the project he started in Paris with the late Olivier Libaux in 2003. It’s not just that he initially didn’t want to make a fifth album, although he didn’t, not until he met vocalist Alonya at a party and invited her to his studio, where she proceeded to perform an “amazing” version of The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’, the song that gives the new album its title. Enthused, Collin realised he wanted to record more with her, “so that’s how it happened”.

 

As he points out, most of the musical projects he has been involved in over the years had been short-lived: have the idea, make an album, move onto something new. Nouvelle Vague was not supposed to be any different. “It was just an idea – OK, we should do a tribute to the songwriting of the post-punk era, and it would be really cool to do it as bossa nova. It just an album. I didn’t think that it would take up so much important space in my life.” He laughs. “I didn’t think I would be talking about it with you 20 years later.”

And yet, here he is, talking about the latest Nouvelle Vague album, 20 years on from a debut album that unexpectedly became a phenomenon: a hit that spread from France, where it spent the best part of a year on the album chart, across the globe until it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. Collin can remember the exact moment he realised that it had spiralled completely beyond whatever expectations he might have had.

 

“We went to America, and we were doing five shows a day – for radio, for iTunes, for the public. It was like a kind of craziness, all the shows, all the press pictures. We thought “something is happening”, and we weren’t prepared at all, we didn’t plan anything, it was really a surprise. We arrived in America with a big naivety. We did everything with a big naivety, but we had two really, really good musical elements, Olivier and Camille [Dalmais, one of the vocalists on the debut album, who went on to a platinum-selling solo career], and that really helped us to do anything.”

Nouvelle Vague’s latest single ahead of the album release was Tears for Fears’ song ‘Shout’, a highly successful song with a timeless message, skillfully transposed to a reggae-ish rendition by Nouvelle Vague in 1970s Kingston, like
a protest song from that time.

 

Watch the video for ‘Shout (Feat. Bijou & Marine Quéméré)’ here:

play video

If you perform it in a style that keeps the melancholy, it reveals the song

Marc Collin

Understandably, Collin has had a lot of time to think about what brought about Nouvelle Vague’s unexpected success.

 

“It was really good timing to start talking about post-punk music,” he suggests. “In the 90s, everybody wanted to forget about it – they were really into the new thing, the drum n’ bass, trip hop, all that stuff, nobody was talking about The Cure. It was one of the first albums that said “we love post-punk music, those bands are great, those bands are important”. Of course, now it sounds obvious, but it wasn’t then: even Joy Division, the movie Control wasn’t released yet.”

 

In addition, he notes, improbable as the idea of post-punk bossa nova seemed, it just worked. “My sensibility is that I like melancholy music. There’s a melancholy in The Cure, and bossa nova is a melancholy music too – it’s not samba, it’s different. The first idea I had was to do ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, it’s just a sad song, and if you perform it in a style that keeps the melancholy, it reveals the song, it shows it in another way. I think people were touched by that, I think it appealed to people who would not have listened to Joy Division or Tuxedomoon because they didn’t like that 80s sound – if you take that out and just keep the melody and the lyrics, they will love the song.”

we’re taking the skeleton of the song and doing something completely different

Marc Collin

And Collin suggests there might have been another, non-musical factor in their success.

 

“I think that to be French is maybe 50 per cent of the success of the project. First, you have to dare to do what we did with bossa nova. To take a song and just do what you want, you know, a lot of people tell me only the French would dare to do that, because… most people in France, they don’t listen to the lyrics. I didn’t know what ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was talking about, you know, I didn’t know the story of Ian Curtis. So you just say “OK, let’s do it” – it’s not so sacred, it’s only music. And, of course, the French girls singing with the accent, people love that everywhere in the world, so it was really part of the success as well, I think.”

 

Their interpretations of the 80s post-punk catalogue even reached the ears of the songs’ original authors: 2009’s 3 featured guest appearances from Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, Ian McCullough of Echo And The Bunnymen, the late Terry Hall and Magazine’s Barry Adamson, all of them apparently delighted to perform on reworkings of their old tracks, a state of affairs that led one journalist to call 3 “the most meta covers album released this decade”. “If you’re an artist, you like people to be creative with the song,” says Collin.

“Most covers, they’re just doing the same sound, the same arrangement so this is not very interesting: ‘yeah, OK, they’re trying to copy us’. But with Nouvelle Vague, we’re not trying to copy at all, we’re taking the skeleton of the song and doing something completely different. So Martin Gore or Terry Hall, they loved what we did, they said we had given new life to the song, we had brought a different meaning to it, we had interpreted their lyrics in a different way. But it was incredible. I was a big fan of The Specials and to have Terry Hall in the studio, listening to me saying ‘OK, do another take’, all that stuff – it was like a dream coming true.”

 

At least part of their longevity might be down to the fact that Nouvelle Vague seldom repeat themselves. They long ago expanded their remit to take in different styles of music, different types of song. There have been albums of French new wave artists, there has been original material, there have been departures into new realms: a jazzy acoustic take on the Cocteau Twins’ ‘Atholl Brose’, The Stranglers’ ‘Get A Grip On Yourself’ recast as a country and western strum.

I’m not following a recipe, I’m always trying to be creative

Marc Collins

“It’s not really a band, I do other projects, I’m not dependent of Nouvelle Vague, so I can take all these risks – to change, to do something personal. I never felt that people liked the bossa nova feel so I should just keep doing the same. I’m not following a recipe, I’m always trying to be creative, I’m depending on the singers, because they’re very inspiring with arrangements and ideas.”

 

 

Accordingly, Should I Stay Or Should I Go? shifts things on again. This time, there are more songs that lean towards pop, albeit with their roots in the post punk era – Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ reimagined as a noir-ish film theme, a 60s soul ballad version of Dead Or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round’, a version of ABC’s ‘The Look Of Love’ indebted to the song of the same name by Dusty Springfield. There’s also a return to the catalogue of The Specials, this time the version of the band that continued into the mid-80s, under the name The Special AKA.

20 years on, he sees no reason to bring Nouvelle Vague to a close: after all, the audiences they attract live are getting younger.

 

“Because of streaming, your music is always alive everywhere. It’s not like a forgotten CD or vinyl from 20 years ago in a second-hand shop. It means that there’s a lot of people listening to the albums nowadays, and when we’re touring, they want to come to the shows. I always said that if we’re suddenly playing to 100 people instead of 1000 or 2000, of course I would stop. But as people are still interested in coming, why should we?”

 

“In a way, we have invented this genre, making a cool lounge thing with post-punk songs, which is funny because at the time, I really didn’t think about lounge music, it’s not my culture, I didn’t know how to do it. But somehow we did it. And I always love it when people say [dismissively] “yeah, this is the music you can put in an advert or in a very chic hotel”. Because, yeah, maybe it is. But that means those people in that chic hotel will actually be listening to ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, or ‘Too Drunk To Fuck!’, so, you know…”

 

Listen to Should I Stay Or Should I Go? here:

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