It’s 2006 and a music scene emerges in Paris. Les Shades – Benjamin, Etienne, Victor, Harry, and Hugo – are part of the hype. Much to their dismay, the French press labels them “Baby Rockers,” a generation of Parisian teenagers inspired, predominantly by The Strokes, to start their own bands. Yes, they’re young; Harry is barely 15. They’re cute, and they’re eager. Also, they’re everywhere – on TV, the radio, playing around the country, co-headlining the renowned Olympia.
Today, many of the leading bands have faded. Still, some have maintained a good amount of attention. BB Brunes’ new single currently dominates French MTV, Les Plastiscines, who were featured on Gossip Girl, are signed to NYLON Records – and Les Shades, who are recording and will soon be preparing for the release of a new EP, have two rather well-received records under their belt.
I met with 4/5 of Les Shades on a sunny winter afternoon in Paris. I found the guys to be candid; they spoke freely – But the coolest, most unexpected thing? Their last video was inspired by Walter Hill’s The Warriors.
BYT: You formed in 2004. How did it happen?
Benjamin: There’s my brother in the band, Etienne. We started playing music together. I met Victor in middle school, and we listened to the same music. Then, we were looking for a drummer and met Harry in high school. We started rehearsing and playing a few concerts. We added Hugo shortly after that.
BYT: Two years later, two of your songs are featured in Paris Calling (“Like I’m A Man,” “L’Enfant Prodige”), alongside other young bands (The Parisians, Les Plastiscines, Second Sex). The French press dubs you all “Bébés Rockers.”
Victor: It was great to record two songs, because we weren’t signed. We didn’t bother with that whole “Bébés Rockers” thing.
Benjamin: It was cool being enlightened by the media. There were journalists at every concert. We were signed thanks to Yves Adrien, supposedly a legend of French rock journalism. In the 70s, he had written many articles about the punk scene in France. He talked to our producer, Bertrand Burgalat, about seeing us play at Pop In. So, it was useful for us, because it allowed us to meet a lot of people, but we weren’t thrilled about the expression “Bébés Rockers.” It’s a bit pejorative.
BYT: You don’t get the feeling that France is very open to youthful bands. While in the States, being young is more of a positive.
Hugo: In England, it is too.
Harry: Here, it’s not only that way in music – it’s in everything.
BYT: Whatever your job is in France, you study it early on, and then, you spend years mastering it. The older you are, the most respect you have…
Benjamin: And to be admired, you have to be dead. Now, everybody’s talking about Serge Gainsbourg, but when he was doing music, other than the 80s, he wasn’t famous at all. He was an outsider for the majority of his career.
The novelty thing struck me this one time, when I was reading things people were writing about NME. They were saying, “They always put new bands on their covers. It’s ridiculous.” It’s called New Musical Express. It’s supposed to promote fresh, new, young musicians. So, it’s not shocking. It’s their purpose.
Victor: The covers of [French magazine] Rock & Folk are always of Jimi Hendrix or The Rolling Stones…
Benjamin: They don’t want to take the risk of having a current band on the cover.
Hugo: They’re afraid that people won’t buy the magazine.
BYT: So, how do you overcome that?
Benjamin: We found our label Tricatel with Bertrand Burgalat, who is also a great artist. He has made three wonderful albums. He’s believed in us since 2006, when we recorded an EP. He didn’t know us at all, but we got along really well. He practically finances our career, found us a rehearsal studio. He was building a studio in the South of France in a house he bought recently, and we were the first band to record in it. We were really lucky to have met him and the label. That’s how we’re still here today.
BYT: “Le Prix à Payer” was in that EP. It seems that it was the first song to get you heard.
Victor: It was our first single.
BYT: Benjamin, you write the songs? How did the song come along?
Benjamin: Yeah. I don’t remember how it came. I remember writing in class these, sort of, punch lines, listening to my teacher speak…and then it, kind of, came along by itself.
BYT: What was the recording process like for your debut record? (Le Meurtre de Vénus, 2008)
Hugo: It was chaotic. We were young and wanted to add everything. There was a guy behind us trying to channel the songs – We were really excited. Now, we’re more afraid, you know?
BYT: Are you analyzing your sound more?
Harry: It’s a problem.
Hugo: It’s a bad way to do music.
Victor: That’s not always true. Well, it’s dangerous, because you don’t have that spontaneous approach anymore.
BYT: How would you describe the way your sound has changed between your two records? (5/5, 2010)
Benjamin: There’s a lot more space now for everyone to express himself. In a song, we used to all play together like on every part – chorus, verses. We wanted to be present in every part of a song. Now, we are listening to each other more and letting a lot more air into the music…to make it sound more powerful.
Harry: The change came from the producer. He changed the sound completely on the second album.
Hugo: We produced the first record. With this second LP, we listened to the producer more.
Benjamin: It was a learning process. The producer of our second record, Frank Redlich, was trying to get the structures of the songs fit for more of a popular audience.
BYT: It sounds more radio friendly.
Benjamin: That was one of the goals of the producer…to make it more accessible.
Victor: At the same time, there are weirder sounds on certain songs. Maybe, it’s a bit schizophrenic.
Benjamin: I really think it was a learning process on how to write a song and kept the essential in it – not being too complicated. It’s like you said earlier, you have to master something. Maybe learning to do simpler things pushes us, now, to do songs that go further away.
BYT: “A L’Horizon” is your newest single. Why that song?
Victor: We didn’t really choose. It was the managers’ and label’s decision.
Benjamin: They thought it was the most accessible song. We kind of lost our original, maybe more rock, specialized audience.
BYT: Who came up with the concept for the video? Victor, you’re the one hitting the bat with the face paint?
Hugo: It’s like The Baseball Furies. Did you see the movie “The Warriors”?
Hugo: It’s like that…The director of our video is a friend of ours. We told him he could do what he wanted.
Benjamin: It was cool to do it with a friend, because he’s our age and in school. It was exciting for him to have a budget from the record label. He had already made two videos for us – one for the first EP and another for “Orage Mécanique” on our first album. But we didn’t have any money then.
Hugo: It was a lot of fun. Perhaps, for this second record we forgot to have fun. We were working, working, working…Cool things happen, when you’re enjoying yourself.
Harry: You can hear that we weren’t smiling, while making the record.
Victory: I liked it…
Harry: I mean, it doesn’t smell of sweat and alcohol.
Hugo: It’s not that. But, you do sense it’s more serious.
BYT: What do you think of French bands singing in English?
Victor: Without being radical about it, I don’t think it’s natural. For an English-speaking person, it may sound ridiculous.
Benjamin: Studying English made me realize that it’s a very complicated language. It’s much more poetic than it appears. I think the fact that a lot of people in France sing in English is a symbol that people don’t listen to lyrics anymore. It’s sad, because French is a great language – You realize when you hear French singers like Jacques Brel, Gilbert Bécaud, Yves Montand. The problem is that not many have had the guts to adapt the language to rock music.
BYT: You list bands like The Velvet Underground as an influence. What about your guilty pleasures?
Hugo: Lil’ Wayne.
Benjamin: You’re embarrassed about liking Lil’ Wayne?
Hugo: Well, his new stuff.
Victor: Kylie Minogue.
Harry: For me, it’s Jamie Cullum. [Laughs] He’s not completely a jazz singer or a pop singer. He’s in the middle.
Benjamin: The pro at listening to shitty music is my brother, [Etienne].
BYT: He’s not here, it’s too easy for you to say that.
Victor: He likes everything.
Benjamin: One or two years ago, he decided he would be a specialist in French variety and started to listen to Veronique Sanson and William Sheller. He’s a pro at listening to shit and saying it’s cool. Like, he really loves BB Brunes.
BYT: So, BB Brunes is shit?
Benjamin: They’re friends of ours.
Victor: It’s not real shit.
Benjamin: I prefer Ke$ha to BB Brunes.
Victor: You’re crazy. It’s because you don’t listen to them.
Benjamin: They’re doing karaoke. They’re taking the sounds of The Last Shadow Puppets, The Libertines…and copying it. They don’t just copy the sound, they copy the structures, attitude. It’s a shame that the young rock band that has the most success is a band that copies all the Anglo-Saxons that have success. People like it, because they seem to hear something that they have already heard. It just proves how light people’s expectations are…but they’re friends of ours.
BYT: What about [the all-girl group] Les Plastiscines?
Hugo: I like the Plastiscines.
Victor: They are so nice that it’s difficult to hate them.
Harry: They’re charming.
Benjamin: It’s become a sort of joke for us. The worst thing is now they have a really cool sound. We went to see them, and they have this amazing guitarist, but we know they didn’t find her by themselves. It makes me laugh so much seeing them in Gossip Girl or seeing their tour videos.
Hugo: They wrote a really good song. “Barcelona” is a fucking cool song. I saw the video clip on YouTube, and there are two million views.
BYT: If someone in the States knows of any one of the bands that was part of the “Bébés Rockers,” it would be them.
Hugo: Yeah, they sing in English.
Benjamin: They played Coachella.
Victor: They’re not a French band anymore.
Victor: I don’t think they even speak French anymore. On the YouTube videos, they’re only speaking in English. “Beers! Burgers!”
Benjamin: I prefer what they did with their first album. It’s so bad, it makes me think it’s genius.
BYT: So, what do you like? What have you been listening to lately?
Hugo: “Under Cover of Darkness.”
Hugo: What? It came out two days ago…oh and Funeral Party.
Victor: The Kid Cudi album, it’s surprising.
Benjamin: I’ve been listening to a lot of French rap. The first Doc Gynéco album is a masterpiece.
Harry: My problem is that I don’t listen to present music, ever. I’ve been listening to Stevie Wonder…and classical music.
BYT: When are you coming to the States?
Benjamin: We want to.
Hugo: Very much.
Harry: It would be cool.
Etienne joins us when the interview comes to an end. I give him the chance to defend his “shitty” taste in music. His response? “There’s no bad song. There’s always something good, even in a weak song.”