Six Questions for ... Nouvelle Vague

nouvelle vague

(Thanks to special guest contributor Fritz Hahn, everyone's favorite adult beverage drinking hero, for this piece.)

Nouvelle Vague burst onto the scene in 2004 with a concept that seemed custom-designed for hipster cocktail parties: Covers of classic new wave songs by Joy Division, the Cure and the Clash, performed in a swinging '60s bossa nova style by a cast of French and Brazilian women. (Imagine Brigitte Bardot purring "Love Will Tear Us Apart" over stripped-down acoustic guitars and percussion and you're starting to imagine the irony.)

A second collection of songs arrived two years later, along with an international tour that brought the French band to Washington to the first time, where they performed in an overcrowded auditorium at the French Embassy.

Nouvelle Vague returns to D.C. tonight for one of four concerts on a short U.S. tour, even though its most recent album, "Nouvelle Vague 3," hasn't been released on this side of the Atlantic, and probably won't be available until September. (You may not be able to buy a CD, but some tracks are streaming on Nouvelle Vague's official Web site, while others appear on its MySpace page.) If you haven't surfed over yet, be warned: This is a new Nouvelle Vague.

(Interview after the jump.)

Oh, there is still a cadre of chanteuses alternating on lead vocals -- eight singers feature on 13 songs - and the track list includes well-known '80s favorites such as "Blister in the Sun" and "Road to Nowhere." But what will confound most listeners is that the sunny tropical rhythms have been eased aside in favor of a sound steeped in country and American music, from the easy shuffle and bottleneck slide that lead "Road to Nowhere" or the steady boogie of acoustic guitars on Depeche Mode's "Master and Servant."

Raising the stakes even higher, four of the songs feature the original artists -- including Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen and Martin Gore of Depeche Mode -- dueting with Nouvelle Vague's female singers.

Not everything is unfamiliar -- the acoustic guitar and shaker-and-woodblock rhythms on the Psychedelic Furs' "Heaven" could have fit on either previous album, and Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi" is reimagined as an uptempo 2-Tone ska track.

If you're heading to the French Embassy tonight, you'll be among the first Americans to experience the new material. "I think we are doing 25 tracks, and probably half are our new tracks," explained Nouvelle Vague founder/arranger/producer Marc Colin earlier this week when I got him on the phone to talk about Nouvelle Vague's new direction and the awkwardness of asking a singer to appear on a drastically reworked version of one of their hits.

The new album is different than the first two -- there's less bossa nova and it seems more like an Americana album. What's behind the new style?
We moved from bossa nova to something new with the second album, playing some blues, reggae, and with this album, too, we wanted to do something different, not just like this recipe "new wave into bossa nova." So we thought that this time, maybe we would take it to America and try new arrangements in a country and western style, and also other styles, like blues.

What's even more different about this album is that you're working with some of the original artists, like Martin Gore (of Depeche Mode) and Terry Hall (of the Specials and Fun Boy Three). You'd covered their songs with Nouvelle Vague before. Had they heard your versions? (Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" and the Specials' "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" both appear on Nouvelle Vague's debut.)
Yeah, that's why we contacted them. When we were touring in America with the first album, in Boston, I remember we were reading an article where [Martin Gore] was interviewed and he said that he was in love with Nouvelle Vague and all these things. We were really pleased, firstly, and afterwards, when we got this idea to ask some people to do duets with the Nouvelle Vague girls, naturally we thought about asking him. So we just wrote to their agent and got in touch with him, and he said that yeah, he would be pleased to participate.

How do you ask someone to record a new version of one of their famous songs?
It's really strange, I know. It's very strange to ask people to re-record their songs 20 years after in a totally different way. But actually with Martin Gore, it's a bit different. It's like Barry Adamson (of Magazine, who sings on "Parade" on "NV3"), because they didn't really sing the songs originally. They wrote it, but this time they performed it, so it was a way to do something new and different. So I think that's part of the reason also that they accepted to do this -- I think it's a cool thing for them, to sing and give a new life to their own songs.

And it's interesting with Terry Hall, because he wrote "Our Lips are Sealed," but the version that's best-known in the U.S. isn't the one he sang with Fun Boy Three, but the version by the Go-Gos.

That's why I chose this song. I discovered the song in France with the Fun Boy Three version, because the Go-Gos weren't that famous in Europe. But I knew that the song was famous was in America, so the idea was to do a little game with the song. Also, there were Specials songs where he does a duet with a girl singing a long song with him ("I Can't Stand It") so the idea was to ask Terry to do the same thing. And I tried to do an arrangement that reminds people of what he did afterwards, with the Colourfield. It's kind of a game between all the things that Terry Hall did.

Thinking back to the first two albums, are there any songs on them that you think would been fun to do with guests? I'm trying to imagine a duet with Jello Biafra (of the Dead Kennedys) singing "Too Drunk to ****."

Oh, that's a good question! Yeah, yeah. Ah, for sure. Maybe "Marian" [by the Sisters of Mercy] -- that would be nice. Maybe Modern English's "Melt With You" because it would be good to have the voice of the guy. Unfortunately, we didn't think about it then, and second, because it was the first album, I don't think anyone would have answered our requests. We needed to have this success, I think.

It seems to me that when the first Nouvelle Vague record came out, people thought it was just a clever bit of kitsch, and then the second album came out, and they thought oh, this is pretty good, it's not just a joke after all. What do you think the response will be like this time?
I think that it's true what you said -- the second album changed the minds of a lot of people, and they realized that it wasn't a joke. Also, the live part was really important, I think. With this album, that we have worked with the original singers will bring a kind of credibility, of course. We can't say it's cheesy or a joke if people like Terry Hall or Martin Gore said that this is good. I think that it's unique that we're playing all these festivals in Europe -- we're a long way from the lounge.

By David Malitz |  June 18, 2009; 11:28 AM ET Interviews
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