The Fitzcarraldo Sessions: Some Sing a Bit Different

While at Les Francofolies in La Rochelle, Rockfort interviewed Thierry and Hervé from alt-rockers Jack the Ripper about their project The Fitzcarraldo Sessions, which sees them invite a host of guest vocalists from the French scene and beyond to guest on the album 'We Hear Voices'.


Rockfort: How did Jack the Ripper turn into The Fitzcarraldo Sessions?
Thierry (above left): Jack the Ripper were trying to record our fourth album, and at a certain point we realised it was going nowhere, so we decided to stop it for a while and our singer Arnaud would do his own project. But the seven musicians left stayed together and continued creating music. We decided to propose our compositions to different singers that we’d met on tours, or personally, or whose work we really appreciated. So we sent them to different artists like Stuart Staples from Tindersticks, Craig Walker (from Archive), Dominique A and, well, there were 11 people on the album in the end. It was a really interesting experience because we had the opportunity to build on our music with different people.
Rockfort: Was there anyone you wanted to approach who you didn’t dare to, or who said no?
Hervé (above right): Yes, Alan Bashung! Not a lot of people refused to collaborate actually, just Lhasa, Shannon Wright and Blonde Redhead.
Rockfort: To what extent did the people involved participate in the songwriting?
T: Not really in the musical composition at the beginning, then it started growing, for example with Moriarty, they really got involved in the composition of the song. But mainly with the others we sent them mp3 files and they wrote the lyrics and the vocal melodies.
H: We sent people two or three songs to choose from…
Rockfort: Although presumably as you went down the list, the choice of songs got smaller?
H: Exactly! (laughs)
Rockfort: In some cases, were you working with your heroes?
H: Sure, someone like Stuart Staples is a hero for us, and also Joey Burns from Calexico – we never imagined we could work with him, it was impressive to meet him, and Dominique A.
Rockfort: How was it recorded, was there ever more than one of the artists you’d chosen in the studio at the same time?
T: Recorded the album in ICP in Brussels, in three sessions, and there were some good meetings there, for example Dominique A and Paul Carter from Flotation Toy Warning, and Abel (Hernandez) from a Spanish band called Migala, and we were all together doing backing vocals and sharing different ideas, so that was really interesting. Some had the opportunity to be there at the same time, while others recorded alone without meeting anyone.
Rockfort: Some of the artists you’ve worked with already have ties of some sort, or share a similar vision – Stuart Staples, Calexico, Dominique A – in fact Francoiz Breut seems to be one person who’s missing there…
T: Yeah, we’re not part of that though, we don’t all live in the same house! It wasn’t conscious…
Rockfort: Fitzarraldo Sessions, and Jack the Ripper, play that type of music that doesn’t really have a name but it’s generally played by men in suits, and draws on Lee Hazlewood, Tom Waits. Morricone, country and blues…
T: It’s a certain type of music for sure, that goes from Tom Waits to Tindersticks to Nick Cave to Morricone. But it’s interesting with this project because the singers we proposed music to wanted to take risks, musically and vocally. For example, Dominique A really wanted to sing fast, which he doesn’t do usually. For them, they had a liberty, a freedom to do something else.
Rockfort: Was the project harder to put together than you’d imagined when you started out?
H: Sure, seven musicians isn’t easy, then all those singers, and strings and everything. In the beginning we were just like children, we thought ‘we’ll see…’.
T: We’re really happy with the result. We had it mixed by Ian Caple in his own studio in Sussex, and that was another great experience because we listened to all the Tindersticks and Bashung albums he’d worked on. It was also great to have a British sound engineer listen to our music, which we’d never had before.
Rockfort: Why was that important?
T: Because I guess he’s got…. It’s much more of a British culture anyway – rock, pop or folk music – and he’s got a different approach, to the sound, to the vocals. I couldn’t tell you what, technically speaking, but you can hear it. Much more organic, I’d say.
Rockfort: How does that compare with French sound engineering and production, what are the differences do you think?
H: In France, the albums are cleaner, everything in the right place, whereas with Ian he’s like “Some disturbing noise? Great!” You don’t tend to hide mistakes. In France we always clean tracks, delete things.
Rockfort: Who or what is Fitzarraldo?
T: It’s actually a reference to a film by Werner Herzog from the 70s with Klaus Kinski, who plays a guy who’s really a fan of opera. His dream is to build an opera house in the Amazon forest and invite Caruso and Sarah Bernardt, which of course is just a dream. At the beginning of the project, one of the guitar players thought about that, because at the beginning of the project we really didn’t know where we were going, just running after dreams, running after singers… so we were really working like blind people. So the analogy has a sense.

Interview by Ludovic Merle and David McKenna