The Penelopes: "In Paris, a lot of people thought that The Penelopes were Daft Punk's side project!"
© Ivan Shaw
Let us introduce you to the electro/pop/rock band
The pEneLOpe[s], a duo composed of Axel & Vincent, now from Bethnal Green, London; but originally from the northern suburbs of Paris.
Hello The Penelopes! So first, when you started your band in France, your name was pronounced The Penelops. Is it still the way you say it, or have you switched to The Penelopeez now that you are in the UK?
A: Yeah it's The Penelopeez in the UK, but it's still The Penelops for the French…
V: And for the South American it's Los Penelopess…
A: Yeah, it's funny! Even though we're not big fans of Los Penelopess… Last time, we were in Bogota doing an interview on the radio, and we were being called Los Penelopess, it sounded a bit like Los Lobos, as if we were going to start playing La Bamba!!!
You know each other since you were kids, you grew up together, you make music together, you live together… You do EVERYTHING together; are you never tired of each other?
V: Well you know… Whenever we're tired, we go to bed!! No but more seriously, we're like brothers really…
A: Actually, it's a bit like old punk bands such as The Cure, real friendship you know… It seems like it has kind of disappeared in rock music, now the guys are mercenaries! It's a bit sad because some bands release something, and if it doesn't work they split… It's weird! This year, we met The Cure, our idols, and you can tell that these guys are real childhood friends basically… We also met Tom Tom Club (Talking Heads) at the 100 Club and they are the nicest guys in the world!! I remember watching them on VHS and then on DVD with Vince, but we never imagined we would ever meet them you know, and now Chris texts me whenever he’s in France!! He’s the nicest guy!
So you started playing music in Paris, and you said that you’ve always been influenced by post-punk and new wave music from the UK (Manchester mostly) because it reminded you of your neighbourhood, which was grey and industrial. Yet your first album The Arrogance Of Simplicity is rather colourful and refreshing, it has French electronic sonorities, it reminded me of Air (Demian) or Etienne de Crecy (In a storm) at times, was it on purpose?
V: No, they were never references to us, we probably share a lot of influences with those musicians, but they didn't influence us really…
A: There's a funny story actually, at the beginning when we were in Paris, a lot of people thought that The Penelopes were Daft Punk's side project! But since we’ve started travelling in foreign countries, I realised that the French have a very weird way of mixing electronic music with pop and other genres, and we do it quite naturally… I think it's very French as we don't really do indie pop since the English do it much better than us, and therefore we kind of mix indie pop, disco, techno… And Etienne de Crecy or Air have probably done this too, we all make this kind of muddle!
You're second album Priceless Concrete Echoes is a side project with DJ Morpheus that was released in 2008, it's quite eclectic in terms of sound, it goes from new wave to hip hop influences, it felt like you were still exploring…
A: Yes, it was done on purpose, and all the critics picked it up in their reviews too. To me, it sounded a bit like a New Order album, without being pretentious! You can have a rock track, followed by a new-wave track, and then a rather disco track! New Order is a big influence actually.
It’s not until your 3rd release Never Live Another Yesterday in 2012, that we can hear your new wave and disco influences throughout the whole album, and that you've developed a real identity and homogeneity in terms of sound, does it have a link with your moving to London the same year?
A: Actually we wrote the entire album in France, but we recorded it in London because we wanted something more compact. We were in quite a good mood when we wrote it! It was produced here, so it's much more solid, the structures sound more like pop. Before, our structures were a bit weird! I mean, our music in France was destined to a very few amount of people, whereas in the UK, everybody knows New Order, your friend's mum knows new order!
© Ivan Shaw
So you left Paris because you sang in English and there was not much gigging there, but did London affect your music, not only technically but in terms of style as well?
A: London influenced our music technically but not really stylistically, we had already written the melodies and everything before we moved here. There’s just more of a pop sound to it, and it would probably have sounded a bit weirder had we recorded it in France! We learnt a lot here in terms of production. Now we do the remixes ourselves thanks to everything we’ve learned in the studio. Actually, the first time we were going to record in London, the guy knew we were quite stressed because we were foreigners and new to the city, so he just told us "come down to the studio, here's the address" so we went to Covent Garden (where we had never been before), and we ended up in Nigel Godrich's studio! He hadn’t told us beforehand because he didn't want to stress us more than we already were! The level here is quite different here, in France we recorded in our bedrooms!!
By the end of the same year you've supported the Human League's UK and Belgian tour, was it a dream come true? How was that experience?
A: To be honest, we couldn't believe it! Especially the fact that they chose a French band to support them, it literally made us cry! Even though we didn't hang out with them really, they travelled on their own "Four Seasons" tour bus you know, and us… we travelled on a van!!!
V: Most of the time you're not even supposed to see them, a lot of supporting bands don't actually meet the main band…
A: We've had a few chats with them, and the singer came to thank us personally when we were in Newcastle; they're cool but you know, we didn't really party together or anything like that… Actually, we went to a party once after a gig in London, but it didn't last long. They're professionals, they play a gig and then they go to bed! I mean, that's the reality of a tour, you have a gig every night for 3 weeks, you got to bed quite late and you're woken up early in the morning to do interviews for the local promotion, sometimes in the car or wherever! For us it was already very tiring so I can't imagine for a punk band, vocally it should be pretty consuming! It affects you a lot basically, but it's still amazing!
It was the first time you supported such a big band, what was the most important thing you've learned during that tour?
V: To stay consistent and focused. Not only it was the first time we supported such an iconic band; it was also in a very influential country, in front of 3000 to 4000 people every night, so it was very stressful!
A: Yes, you have to be good every night, you're playing in front of people of a certain age who've seen a lot of bands… Human League's audience has seen all the great bands!
V: Manchester for example was a very difficult gig to play, because you can feel that the people have attended heaps of gigs, so it adds up to the natural stress you already have! We've played the Royal Albert Hall too, that was incredible!
A: They wrote an article about it in Le Parisien actually, because suddenly the French woke up! Funny thing how the French always wake up last second! It reminds me of Phoenix or M83; when they were doing the same music and nobody wanted them in France, but here in the UK they digged it straight away… And then the French started being proud of them, pretending they knew them before they became famous, when they didn't obviously!! But anyway, supporting the Human League was a great opportunity and we've learned a lot so we'll be more relaxed in the future!
You worked on quite a few fashion shows too (Agnes b., JCDC), how do you see the relation between your music and the world of fashion?
A: We do not have a clue to be honest, people see that relation, we don't! But yes, we work a lot with Agnes, and more recently Prada as well. They liked our music and we find them very cool, they're real gentlemen and they have a lot of class.
Your music was also used for a few advertising campaigns such as Perrier, how did this happen?
V: Actually it was the boss of Perrier France himself who chose it, he liked the tune and they went with it. It's pretty rare because usually these companies have music advisors who suggest different tracks for an ad, but in our case, the boss just had our album and liked that tune so he contacted our label directly!
© Ivan Shaw
On top of creating music, you do a lot of remixes too. You even won the Turntable Lab Remix contest's Grand Champion Award for your remix of The Cure's Just Like Heaven. Is it harder for you to remix a tune knowing that you want to be careful with someone else's work - especially when it's one of your idols - or is it more challenging to write your own music from scratch?
V: We hesitated a lot before remixing The Cure…
A: Yes, or even when Tom Tom Club asked us a remix, we were thinking "no way, we don't want to mess it up" you know! It took us some time to take the leap, we wouldn't have done it 3 years ago, but when we felt ready, we did it! And actually The Cure's remix was not even commissioned, it was just a bootleg originally, but for some reason it became a sort of underground hit, especially in the US! Then, a big brand (which we can't name yet) asked us to use the track, and therefore we had to contact Robert Smith's lawyers to make it official, and they've endorsed it.
So what do you prefer between remixing and composing?
A: Well, it was good to have a year of remixes because it taught us many things, and you're a bit washed-up after an album too. It takes less time to remix than writing your own music of course, because you already have a base to work on, but it's still a good exercise.
V: The only thing that's important to us when we do a remix, is to work with voices. We're not very interested in remixing instrumental tunes…
A: That's the reason why we didn't do a lot of remixes in France actually, we were mostly asked instrumental ones, the French prefer that kind of stuff…
And can you sometimes be influenced by the songs you remix?
A: Not really, but on the other hand, we've done some other kind of weird things with remixes. For example, our second remix of Lana Del Rey (Brooklyn Baby) was originally a tune I was working on for The Penelopes, but then I realised it could work out well if we made a few changes! So we've integrated her voice to it, changed the harmony and the tonality, and that's pretty much how it was born!
So, who usually writes the lyrics in the band?
V: Mostly Axel!
A: Well basically, I do the "nonsense", and then after we work it out. But people always think our lyrics are quite light and positive, whereas it's not the case! Most people don't seem to pay attention to the words really, even though a few critics already noticed our songs are a bit quirky most of the time, we like telling apocalyptic stories and things like that… It's a bit like New Order, kind of depressing stories on a joyful tone! I was actually surprised when I've noticed that the English didn't listen to the words that much, I remember being with a manager trying to understand the lyrics of a song we were remixing, and he was there, trying to figure it out too!
At the moment you're in studio working on new tunes, is there a new album coming out anytime soon?
A: Well we've been writing quite a lot of songs these days, but we prefer to release only singles rather than an album, so we can be freer. It's a more organic way of working; we'll just release a song whenever we feel like it. We could release a bunch of tracks at the same time, but we'll see how it goes… Basically, even if an album is the format we prefer, it involves too much pressure to release one nowadays. It's kind of sad, but people don't really listen to a whole album anymore, and if it doesn't sell well in the first two weeks, the labels drop their artists… Same thing the other way around; if the singles don't sell they won't release the album, so it can be very stressful. But these days you can still tour despite that you've released only singles, even in a country as big as the US, you can start gigging as soon as you’ve got enough tunes, and we're happy with that.
Are you going to stick to the sounds we heard in the previous album (disco/pop/new-wave) or are you exploring different things, withholding surprises?
A: I think you'll be quite surprised actually!!
V: The first single will probably not surprise you because it's going to sound quite disco, but the other ones will be darker… The overall will be pretty dark basically!
A: Although the pop construction will remain!
© Ivan Shaw
Could you share one of your recent musical discoveries with us?
A: I like Future Islands, it's 3 guys, but there are actually 4 of them on stage, they've just been on Letterman, they support Morrissey and they're from Baltimore… It's quite grandiloquent, the choruses are rather over the top and the guy dances like Bruce Springsteen, he looks super weird but he has a lot of charisma!! He turned Letterman’s set upside down!! And there's another band - rather old - called Destroyer, it's really good!
V: Future Islands are pretty good… M83, they're not new but they're really solid! Phoenix as well, they're quite good.
A: Yeah, I really liked Phoenix’s first singles but then I stopped listening to them for some reason, and I took up again since they’ve released Liztomania… I think they're just amazing!
And overall are you happy in London, are you here to stay?
A: I think we might move to LA by the end of the year… I mean, I personally love London, but at the moment we feel like moving, we want to go to LA and see what's going on out there!
V: Yeah we've been thinking a lot about it lately…
A: London is where my heart is, I feel at home here! But we come from such a crap area in France; we feel like experiencing new and weird things, we want to go on a kind of an anthropologic trip!! Get a car, and change of scenery…
V: Yeah, I prefer to live in London, but it's just for the experience…
What is the weirdest thing that happened to you since you moved here?
V: We've seen quite some strange stuff around here! Actually, we went to an 80’s themed party and there was a guy wearing a sort of card box, with some other painted card boxes stuck all over it, and the whole thing was covered with strings of fairy lights!! It was very funny, we were wondering what it was, and it was actually a Tetris piece! It was the best costume we've ever seen!
A: Yeah and it was super bulky too, he had chosen the weirdest Tetris shape - you know the one that looks like a Z - and he was dancing with it and all! If it was a French guy, he would have worn it for half an hour and then removed it, but this guy kept it all night!!
V: And it was a nightmare for him to go through doors and all, but he kept it!! The English like to persevere in the craziness!
My last question is for Axel, I don't think if have actually ever seen your eyes, so I was wondering if your sunglasses, like a beard, hide something? Are you shy or what is it?
A: Exactly, it's just because I'm a shy…
V: And a little bit autistic too!
A: Actually that's more accurate, I'm rather autistic and a bit shy! Basically, I'm sometimes scared when people talk to me if I don’t know them… Even though I think I'm a cool guy, it's really not by pretension or arrogance, it's mostly because I'm shy!