Friday, 23 January 2009

feature: sébastien tellier part 1

I need to write this before I forget. In the anglophone press, there isn't time for huge detail on Sébastien Tellier, as a lot of the detail wouldn't be seen as that important to audiences outside of France. My favourite UK article was this Stool Pigeon piece and this OMM piece.

Not exactly light reading. Anyway, here's my take on six months in Paris working for Sébastien Tellier and his label, Record Makers. By the end I'd translated so many interviews, it felt like I knew how he would respond to most questions.

I'd already messed up one interview with a prominent Parisian electro house. They were moving offices, they said they'd call. Well, I wasn't gonna wait around. The big man never called, I was grateful for the soirée at Elysée Montmartre though. I found it really hard to say what I'd be able to offer given that I couldn't really speak the language and I had no idea what they wanted me to do. Still, the perpetual donkey on my back led me to prepare hard for the interview chat for my stage (internship) at Record Makers.

Fumble my way out of J-Joffrin and find the converted boulangerie/office that is Record Makers HQ. Had a chat with Marc and Audrey in the side room with the sofas and the sound system. Records, sound systems, DAT tapes, posters, fashion magazines everywhere. We spoke in French, I refuse to compromise as what would be the point in that? They like the noises I make. I like how welcoming they are.

First task, give Sébastien some English lessons. The métro strikes put paid to a meeting in the office so I'm handed the door code and off I go. Ten minutes walk down Lafayette and a few twists and turns. Up a few stairs and it's eerily calm despite our proximity to the busy streets of the 8eme.

Sébastien opens the door and introduces himself. Incredibly normal guy were my first impressions. Down to business and I want to help the guy. Help him express himself how he wants as that is seemingly what he's worried about. His English is not bad at all (beat my French hands down at that point) but when you want to express an artistic vision, you need to have confidence in what you're saying. It doesn't want to come across too serious because the guy knows how to enjoy himself and have a joke.

Essentially, that sums up the two sides of Sébastien Tellier. A man at home in front of a Big Mac as well as a piano. You have an artist, clearly dedicated to his craft, composing since adolescence. He's capable of great emotive pieces. At the same time, he isn't pretending to be Mozart and likes to have fun, sometimes he gets out of control. Isn't that what people want from their rockstars though? This first part will give you the background on Tellier, as the way he's developed as an artist is unique. It's quite factual, so if that ain't your thing go read Pitchfork or something.

The story as far as I'm going to tell it begins in the late 90's. Touched by AIR's music, the young Tellier sets off for the office of their label, Source, and demands a meeting with the artistic director. He gets it and sticks on his music. They like it. They like it so much it ends up on Source Rocks, the successor to the Source Labs compilation that first showcased the likes of Daft Punk and AIR in '96. The tune in question is Fantino, the melancholy highlight of debut album, L'Incroyable Verité, also featured on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

That debut came out in 2001, on Record Makers, a new venture behind AIR and their buddies Marc Teissier du Cros and Stéphane Elfassi. A record filled with dense compositions, mostly instrumental songs revealing rich textures in an eccentric manner. Hugely promising but hardly accessible, rewarding the patient listener. It's certainly not the finished article, but does it need to be? Every artist should be given the chance to figure out what they want to be and what they want to do. At this point, it's fair to say Tellier saw himself principally as a composer, you couldn't get much further away than the pop personality you now see in 2008.

Two years down the line, Tellier emerges with La Ritournelle. If you listen to this song and feel nothing, you need to stop taking that medication. I asked Sébastien what it was about it and he said it was about a girl who he was in love with, but she wasn't in love with him. At the time of writing, he still thought everything was possible and it might work out in the end, it never did though. I find this amusing in a sense, as the whole thing is unrequited. It's intensely happy and sad at the same time. Almost as if Sébastien knew it was never gonna work out, but still couldn't help but write one of the most beautiful love songs of all time. Or that the most powerful, desperate types of love are the ones that are just doomed to fail.

Either way, add that emotion to these ingredients and you have one of the best songs written in the modern era. A repetitive piano line that is to die for. The percussion skills of Tony Allen from Afrobeat pioneers Fela Kuti (way before Afrobeat became cool guys). Strings from the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra scattering an epic quality all over. Lyrics and a vocal that match the emotion whilst floating above it in a carefree daze. A declaration of love forever consumated on the grass under the moonlight. Mixed by Phillipe Zdar of legendary French touch outfit, Cassius. It sold 4000 copies on import alone in the UK and continues to send a shiver down my spine every time I hear it and ripples of electricity through every crowd. Widespread recognition occurred as the word spread around La Ritournelle. The Sunday Times Style section described it as an "epic, gorgeous dance track we can't, can't, can't stop playing".

The definitive version to own is the 10-inch remix vinyl - it features the full length original, the Mr.Dan's radio-friendly mix on one side. The flipside is a sprawling, throbbing trip of a remix, laden with typical Parisien insouciance, from labelmates Turzi. buy it here.

The album you find this behemoth of a track on is Politics. A more cohesive effort than L'Incroyable, thematically as well as musically. It's at this point that the intentions underpinning each album become clearer. For Sébastien, every album revolves around a theme, the theme he considers the most important thing in the world at that time in his life. This serious intent is backed playfully, to take himself too seriously would be committing to these themes in a way that would undermine his next regeneration attempt. On Politics, there is no sloganeering or attempt to convey some kind of message to the masses, just surreal social commentary. One example is Mauer, a portrait of the plight of a girl upset at the downfall of the Berlin Wall as it means she can no longer play tennis by herself. It's one of the highlights of the record, others such as Benny and Wonderafrica evidence of the confidence and personality starting to emerge from the maturing Tellier.

It's important to consider the timescale at this point. La Ritournelle first emerged in '03. Politics in '04 then it all got re-packaged for the UK audience. Artists don't just pop out new records every year like they used to, caused no doubt by the long promotional cycles that just didn't occur previously. Whilst this played out, Tellier managed to fulfil the ambition of any serious French musician, scoring a film, with NARCO in 2004. At this point, he was well on his way to becoming an established, important artist. It built the profile of Record Makers as well and helped them emerge from the shadow of AIR.

His next step was to take a step back. Tone things down and let the next personality emerge. On the 30th December 2005, Sébastien stepped into the studio and set about recording his entire repetoire with the help of Simon Dalmais on piano. An album to reinvigorate, his most intimate moment to date, as he's not hiding behind an album concept or a specific theme. The result is an album that really gets to the heart of what the man is about - rich, timeless, emotive music. Songs from L'Incroyable Verité like Black Douleur and Fantino sit perfectly with cuts from Politics. It also gave a hint to the direction he was headed in and the growing confidence befitting a man with such tunes behind him. He developed a look, the modern crooner in designer suits with a cigarette a la nez. One of the main influences for this style was classic French singer, Christophe. The tenderness he brings to his version of La Dolce Vita in comparison to the original would pave the way for the gentle careeses that run all over Sexuality. Sit back and let it wash all over you. I listened to this on repeat for ages at work in March after it suddenly clicked.

Tune in next week for part 2 - the lowdown on Sexuality and the live show this weekend in Shepherds Bush. Get your tickets for tomorrow here.

Visit the Record Makers webshop


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