Words by David Mckenna
Image courtesy of France
If not a unique challenge, a lengthy piece about France is one of the tougher writing assignments I’ve set myself. This is France the band - a drums, bass and hurdy-gurdy trio comprised of Mathieu Tilly, Jeremie Sauvage and Yann Gourdon who have released numerous albums on labels like Standard In-Fi, Desastre, Ana Ott and Almost Musique over a 13-years span, and though there are albums of theirs I haven’t listened to (they are rare), it’s a fair bet that they sound, in some pretty fundamental ways, exactly like the ones I have heard. What happens on a France album is what happens at a France live show, since the albums are recorded live, and that is: boom-boom-boom-tchak.
Well that’s what the drums do anyway, almost without exception. Steady, mid-paced, unceasing. The bass goes dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum, the same note throughout. Together, they provide the bedrock for the droning and keening of Yann Gourdon’s amplified hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue in French). It’s a deliberately tight framework for improvisation, an exercise in sameness that could be dismissed as a purely conceptual wheeze. Better, though, to enter into the contract, take the challenge. Because although the concept itself is pleasing, even amusing, the sensory rewards are considerably greater.
It’s that sensory aspect that makes France’s music so difficult to write about. The exercise in sameness is really an exercise in microvariation, in the space of the same performance and across all of them. External parameters change, like the duration of the set and the acoustic properties of the space – the Do Den Haag Church album, for example, places them in a much more reverberant context than Live À Metamórfosi, recorded in the 200-capacity basement of Olympic Café in the north Parisian Goutte D’Or quarter. The environment, and the band’s response to it, is a key factor in France’s sound on each occasion. Beyond identifying those parameters though, the challenge is in describing how France’s music acts upon you, since trying to focus on individual moments is not even so much like dancing about architecture and more akin to sculpting fine sand. Even in stripped-back dance music where you may not have lyrics, chord changes and song structures to latch on to, you can still home in on a variation in the beat or a bassline kicking in.
This article in itself is in lieu of one I had in mind, in which I would review every France release in order (perhaps one day). To a great extent France’s music disables the critical faculties. When I try to think about their music, I don’t really think about much at all, it doesn’t call up any pictures or associations. Even for a firmly underground act they keep a decidedly low profile – releases are very limited edition, and even taking into account the basic challenge to online searchability that their name presents, their website (http://www.lllliillll.fr), is short on even basic detail like a biography, or even a discography. Their name has always struck me as being almost entirely neutral, a blank slate, aside from the quirky coincidence (perhaps…) that, as someone who has a particular interest in France generally, they should be one of my favourite bands. I have heard of friends of friends thinking that they might have far-right leanings based on their name, and I try to imagine a UK band called England or Britain and how that would be received (have there been any?)*. But really the curious thing about France is how that name, allied to their musical practice, appears shorn of any nationalist connotations.
It’s worth taking a moment here to look at France’s relationship to French folk tradition though, since I’ve been tempted to refer to the band’s music as ‘drone folk’ in the past. That link resides largely in the presence of the hurdy-gurdy; despite crossover in personnel (particularly hurdy- gurdy player Yann Gourdon), France’s music falls outside the purview of the La Nòvia collective, which in its explorations of the links between folk and minimalism is already oriented much more towards psychedelic reinvention than an obsession with terroir**. Antecedents for La Nòvia are the likes of Valentin Clastrier, who in 1984 released an album called ‘La Vieille À Roue De L’Imaginaire’ – ‘the hurdy gurdy of the imagination’. The album’s sleeve notes, by a certain Alain Saron, feature an English translation and describe Clastrier’s music as “an irreverent provocation aimed at the hurdy-gurdy players who restrict themselves to interpreting the traditional repertory.” The same notes also give a wonderful description of the way the hurdy gurdy - “the only instrument in the whole history of music to be started by the turning of a wheel (akin to a never-ending bow)” – was viewed in France during different periods, “at times sought after and at times despised.” The 18th Century “with its fashion for ‘shepherdesses’ adopted it as part of the snobbery of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie” while in the 19th Century it was “left to the people.” Back in the 17th Century, meanwhile, it “was rejected by academic music and known as the beggars’ lyre, the instrument of the tatterdemalions.” Tatterdemalions! Any ‘tradition’ the hurdy-gurdy belongs to is in itself a story of competing socio-aesthetic framings.
But with the drone as a point of connection, France have allied the hurdy-gurdy with a lineage that has nothing to do with French folk at all – it’s the path that extends from New York’s Downtown minimalists, La Monte Young into The Velvet Underground via John Cale, and which winds its way to East Kilbride (among other places), to guitars wailing like distant bagpipes through a fog of static on The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Something’s Wrong’.
My third live France experience, in early April this year, situated them in another family again - that of French post-war experimentalists. The Saint-Merry church, near Hotel de Ville and, of course, Notre-Dame de Paris, was the venue for the penultimate night of the Sonic Protest festival (which over the course of two weeks every year plays host to a mouth-watering selection of underground acts from France and beyond). When it was first built, Notre Dame was a new technology, a giant reverberant chamber that played its part in the birth of polyphony. Saint-Merry is somewhat smaller but lends itself beautifully to a different (and perhaps even opposed) musical approach.
Drifting into the dimly lit nave on a warm Friday evening, eyes and ears adjusting, we realised that Fréderic Blondy’s organ performance of Éliane Radigue’s ‘OCCAM XXV’ has already begun. Barely audible at times, it seemed to colour the space more than fully inhabit it. In between that and France were the brutally brilliant Bégayer, a tumble of North African rhythms and wired, wild folk.
So what could I say about France in here, on a stage situated below the shrouded organ? The drums sound fantastic (not the easiest thing to achieve in a church), clear and just a little clacky. There’s a little halo of reverb around each beat but real heft as well. The hurdy-gurdy’s buzzing bass drones, however, don’t come through as clearly as I’ve heard other times, it’s the trebly tones that really dominate, like sparks flying off a circular saw. I try to take notes and quickly give up – apart from anything else, stopping to tap at your screen takes you out of the flow. But in any case, firm impressions elude you, the shape you thought you saw shifts before you have a chance to fix it in your mind. All I’m left with is a transcription of that rhythm – ‘boom-boom-boom-tchak’ – and something about a clarion sound breaking up into a multitude of banshee screeches.
What makes it more difficult still is that France scramble your sense of time. They have supported Sun O))) on several French dates, and the bands undoubtedly share common ground. Metaphors of flight and ‘taking off’ are very common in descriptions of music. But what happens when you see France and Sun O))) live, once you’re past the “buckle up, here we go” moment of anxious excitement as the band strike up and plunge into the drone-stream, is that you quickly reach a point of feeling as though you’re simultaneously - and continually - taxiing for take-off, cruising at 35,000 feet and coming in to land. I saw Sun O))) live recently for the first time, and I remember feeling that if anything there was too many changes for them to achieve quite the same temporal slippage. With France, this sensation has actually become more pronounced every time I’ve seen them, and, on this last occasion, there was genuine surprise when they came to a stop and I realised that an hour had passed.
Other than that, what remains are impressions of a thickening and thinning of the flow, and the fleeting auditory hallucinations. These are the key to the paradox of France, though – earlier I said that their music acts upon you, and in a way it does, submitting you to its will, locking you into step with a rhythm from which there is no respite. In April, many people in the church, myself included, were caught in the same motion, compulsively rocking backwards and forwards on their feet. But within the collective zoning out there’s always also a deeply individual response, the mind zoning in and attempting to interpret the stream of sonic matter, sometimes mis-assigning information and telling you that there are blasts of heavenly brass and other, impossible instruments in the mix. When you can’t tell the difference between the real and the imagined, how you can you really convey what it was that you heard deep inside France’s ever-changing same?
* There was a 1970’s progressive rock group called England, but their Wikipedia page shows no mention of either nationalist views, or backlash.
**Terroir is a term normally used in reference to wine, to talk about the environment something grew in.