France's Revolver on Learning English From the Beatles, and Why It's Tough to Cover Elliott Smith
Ambroise Willaume, Christophe Musset, and Jeremie Arcache just learned English a few years ago, after memorizing nearly every Beatles song and developing a liking for Elliott Smith. Guitarist and vocalist Musset recently spoke to us through a heavy French accent about the band's unique style, how it blended two opposing genres for a chamber pop sound, and how being scared of noise complaints influenced Revolver's development.
Not many bands use the cello. What made you guys want to incorporate it into your sound?
I used to just play with Ambroise, just the two of us on guitar. When he was a kid, he had been studying classical music and choir in Paris, and there he met Jeremie, the cello player. Ambroise and I invited Jeremie to join us to add the cello in the place that a bass guitar would be. It was just two acoustic guitars and a cello, it came together quite naturally. It immediately became more balanced. Then once we got a drummer we had to work a lot on the sound. The cello is not designed to be played with the drums, so we had to fix that up.
You guys have categorized yourself as pop music, but initially you don't really sound the way I'd categorize American pop. Why do you think that's what genre your music falls under?
When we first started, though it was very acoustic, it was already pop music. The artist that ultimately inspired us to write songs was Elliott Smith. Even if it's mellow, acoustic, we still have the harmonies and melodies of pop in there. When we first started playing in Paris, we couldn't play loud because we were living in such small apartments, and we had no basement or garage to make noise in. So we had to keep strumming and singing softly, and that sort of determined our sound in the beginning.
You guys have called your music "chamber pop." What exactly does that mean?
That was after our very first gig as Revolver, we were mostly playing at friends' apartments in Paris [to] about 20 people. At the end of the gig, a friend came up to us and told Ambroise our songs reminded him of chamber music, but also pop, so we just called it chamber pop. I think the expression might have been used before, for bands like Belle and Sebastian.
Elliott Smith's lyrics are pretty dark, would you say you guys are attempting a similar sound, or similar lyrical content?
I really feel close to Elliott's songs, and Bright Eyes. We don't try to necessarily do that. Once we tried to cover an Elliott Smith song and it just felt awkward to sing his lyrics with three different voices. It was too personal to recreate. I think John Lennon's lyrics are awfully depressing, but at the same time, it's very catchy, it's pop music. I think it's a good balance to be able to make pop music personal, catchy, and also dark.
Why do you think you haven't broken out in America yet while you're pretty big in Paris?
We just started here, we've had a little success for the last two years in Paris. In America we really had to start from scratch. It's been a completely new experience. The album was released around Fall here, and it came out in June 2009 in France, so there was over a year in between the releases.
Some of the harmonies on your album reminded me of the Americana groups from the past. What inspired that type of vocals?
A lot of the more modern artists we are inspired by had influences from the '60s, like the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Nowaways, bands like the Fleet Foxes, Bright Eyes, a mix of happy and dark.
What is it like creating such a full sound with only three band members?
Well, technically when we perform we have a fourth member that plays drums. Most of the time, one of us will come up with an idea, and present it to the others. Sometimes we are all just jamming and a song will come up. Most of the time it's Ambroise or I that comes up with a new idea or direction for a song. When we first started touring, I had to play tambourine with my feet and harmonica in my mouth and guitar in my hands. It was ridiculous.
Was French your first language?
French was all of our first. We just learned English a few years ago listening to songs. Mostly Beatles songs.
Do you ever plan to sing in French?
French has a very different musicality. It really depends on the style that you want to play. They don't usually sing harmonies -- most French songs are best suited for one single voice. Sometimes it's even more about spoken words versus singing. We've never really talked about it too much. We just knew we wanted to sing the songs in English. It came naturally -- we never had intentions of coming to the U.S. and singing in English because of that. That just happened later.
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