Tahiti 80: "We're Not John Lee Hooker"

Xavier Boyer, leader of the blue-eyed soul boys from Rouen, talks to Rockfort about the group's punchy fourth album, 'Activity Centre', their home town, and his favourite chords.  


Rockfort: The drums and vocals on ‘Activity Centre’ are very up front and direct… 

Xavier: Really, what usually make songs for me are the dynamics and the melody, and for me the vocal line is the melody and the hook of the song. So I don’t know if it was conscious, but it was just trying to have harmony between the drums and the melodies, which is maybe why they’re so upfront. And on ‘Unbreakable’, for example, the rest of the music is really light touches of an organ, and the guitar is an echo, kind of abstract, which is what we intended. It is a very direct album… every album is usually a reaction to the last one, and on ‘Fosbury’ we spent four months in the studio, nothing was written before so we were jamming, but this time we had rehearsed, we had the songs, and for once we wanted to under-produce one of our albums. We were listening to The Band, just trying to get a chemistry between the players… it’s not like because you’re in a band you need to hear the guitar player all the time, sometimes the guitar player can be quiet for a while.
Rockfort: The primary aspects of your sound are the soul rhythms and the Anglo-Saxon pop melodies…
Xavier: We’ve always had very open influences, because pop music isn’t a French thing at all, even though we’ve had good interpretations of it. We’ve always liked bands from the UK, bands from America, from Sweden, even from Belgium sometimes, and we tried to make our own melting pot out of that. So it’s a mixture of soul rhythms, a bit of Beach Boys falsetto, ? and the Mysterians on the organ, a bit of reggae rhythms. It sounds very conscious but we’re just having fun… but it’s true that we’re big music lovers, when we listen to music it’s always with a musical ear.
Rockfort: Have there been any French acts with an approach to melody that feed into what you’re doing?
Xavier: Maybe we were reacting to French music a little bit… to me, French pop is really different from my vision of what a good pop song is. The emphasis is on lyrics… Gainsbourg made some masterpieces, but it’s not pop music, it’s something different.
Rockfort: Fugu is perhaps a kindred spirit in France, and I gather you’ve been producing his album.
Xavier: Yeah, with Pedro the bass player, and we produced the second one. He lived in a totally different city, but I think we got connected because of our love for Anglo-Saxon music, and the interesting thing is that now he’s doing an album in French.
Rockfort: On a your website, you say of the Fugu album “it’s a challenge to make it sound as good as pop songs in English or Brazilian.” What do you mean by that?
Xavier: He had a big think about all that. He was asked to do a song for a movie on French, and the director of the song wrote the lyrics, and I said “This is great for you! It wouldn’t work for me but it works very well for you, you should do an album just like that”, so in the end, my job as a producer was to make it so people don’t care if it’s in French. So the idea was to have smooth words, to make it very musical, whereas sometimes French isn’t very musical, it goes against the music, so it makes it a real challenge. In the studio I was harmonising with him on the French songs, it’s the first time I’ve ever done that. Because I never sing in French, apart from maybe sometimes under the shower… so it was interesting, but I don’t want to do that.
Rockfort: On Wikipedia, you are described as an ‘English language French pop band’.
Xavier: Yeah, that works for me. I think we experienced some success in other countries because I think our version of these typical, non-French bands is actually refreshing. It’s like Mike Nesmith from The Monkees covering Astrud Gilberto’s ‘How Insensitive’ – the original version in Brazilian is the thing, but he did a great job of showing his love for this song, for this music. For me, as a music lover, I don’t care, it can be in English or Brazilian, but for me as a musician it has always been more exciting to sing in another language because you don’t have the habits, the routine, you can express yourself in a different way.
Rockfort: Does singing in English give you a distance, a freedom from yourself?
Xavier: Yeah, I think it gives you a different perspective because you extract yourself from your persona and you become like a voyeur. And it’s fun to play with words… I don’t think there are many examples the other way round, of an English guy singing in French… the main thing for me is that we’re trying to be out favourite band. I remember listening to The Boo Radleys, and every EP there were re-inventing a new world for me, and I wanted to be as exciting as them. I hope we’re not just a band for other music lovers. And we try to get that optimistic vibe…
Rockfort: Are you a natural optimist?
Xavier: Yeah, I think so. In my case the pint is (looking at his glass)… empty! But usually it’s full.

Rockfort: Going back to your website briefly, there’s a picture of you “practising diminished chords”. Are there certain chords that as a guitarist and songwriter you can’t help going back to? 

Xavier: Yeah, for me the sound of Tahiti80 is a major seventh chord. It brings on that little counterpoint… I mean I’m not a musician, I studied very late. I discovered people like Prefab Sprout and The Style Council later, after being compared to them. I heard ‘Shout to the Top’ after we made the ‘Wallpaper for the Soul’ I think, and I though “wow, this a bit like what I’m trying to do.” Even though on the new album, I tried to stay away and use, not generic, but more standard chords, because if it becomes a recipe you lose the interest, so I tried to look for something more bluesy in a way, even though we’re not John Lee Hooker.
Rockfort: For the album title, ‘Activity Centre’, did you have the children’s educational toy in mind?
Xavier: Yeah, I was at a garage sale one day, and stumbled upon that game I had as a kid, and it was a bit of ‘madeleine de Proust’ as we say, and after that I liked the name, I liked the logo, and I just thought about our studio – because we recorded the album in our own studio in Rouen where we’re based – and I thought of the studio as a way of experimenting and having fun. I thought the studio was like this game, you have these instruments, you just pick one and try to play your part… sometimes it doesn’t work… and you have this unity of place, of time. So we called it ‘Activity Centre’, even though it’s a very generic name, it could be anything, like a financial centre, but for me it really related to that Fisher Price game because it’s… playful. It’s fun being in the studio, it’s fun being a musician. Maybe for some people it’s fun to work in bank, I don’t know… some crazy people. Of course, you need some suffering, but at the same time you’re lucky to me doing that. You take a mood and you have fun with it, you don’t know what you’re going to play.
Rockfort: Are your ties to Rouen quite strong?
Xavier: We have the studio there, I’ve been living in Paris for ten years but it’s very close. A few very cool bands come from the city – Steeple Remove, we’re kind of friends with them, we’ve known them for years. In the late 70s there was a band called Les Dogs, and they were famous because they were sharp-looking, very well dressed, kind of a French version of The Flamin’ Groovies. It’s not really about the heritage, but I think it’s cool not to come from Paris or Versailles… we didn’t have the coolest bands coming to our city, but when they came it was like a celebration. Rouen is not exactly the suburbs of Paris but it’s a bit like that. Usually when UK bands came to France, they would play their first gig in Rouen, and usually it was the shittiest show and then they’d play better somewhere else, it’s been very famous for that! I’ve talked to British bands, and they say that it’s the coldest crowd, which is a bit true, but I guess it’s also down to the fact the bands are just starting the tour there and don’t really know what to expect.


Rockfort: When you did your version of AR Kane’s ‘Love From Outer Space’ you were associated with more overtly electronic acts from Paris and Versailles…
Xavier: Yeah we didn’t do that on purpose… A R Kane were such a great band, so under-rated. They were noisier that My Bloody Valentine, and a bit like New Order, but the guys were black. They were a major band for me. You know, our biggest hit is ‘Heartbeat’ on the ‘Puzzle’ album, and when I wrote that I was trying to play ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys but I didn’t get the chords right, so I thought I could play it in a groovier way, a bit like The Jackson Five. And when I played that, it opened a door for me. I said “Ok, I’m a white French guy, but I really respond to groovy music”. I like melody, I like The Beach Boys, and I like Sly and the Family Stone – maybe I can combine those things. Actually, when you listen to Daft Punk, Phoenix, even Air, all those bands really like black music and indie music, and really combine it. I think this is a really French feature, being very open – sometimes in the UK, it’s a bit like different churches, but in France it’s very natural because we heard everything together. When we were on the bus the other day we were listening to Alan Vega ‘Jukebox Baby’, and this is a totally alien track but in France it was a big hit so he influenced a lot of people. It was played in the radio, and if you go to a garage sale you can pick it up easily.
Rockfort: I guess that might have been an important record for the Cold Wave bands of the early 80s – I’d forgotten that had been a big hit in France.
Xavier: You know, France is a land of contradiction, a total contradiction.
Interview by David McKenna