Trans Mission: Les Transmusicales de Rennes 2009

A festival in the cold and wet of December might not be everyone's idea of fun, but the unique flavour of Les Transmusicales de Rennes (and of the local speciality, galette-saucisse) makes it well worth the trip to France's North-West. This year's edition ran from 2-5 December, and Rockfort tested it for you.

The Transmusicales de Rennes festival began at the tail end of the 70s as a kind of ‘fuck you’ to the music industry and stars of Paris. Emerging from an artistic ‘association’ known as ‘Terrapin’ after the Syd Barrett song and fired up by punk, it said “hey, things are happening over here too – but you’re going to have to come here to find out what.” And, over 30 years later, people are still coming, except now it’s not just to check out the local musicians in a scene that cradled Marquis de Sade and Etienne Daho (although plenty of locals groups do play the festival; we talked to three for the Rockfort radio show – Complot, Del Cielo and 69 – and those interviews will be up shortly) but an always intriguing array of global talent. One of the ways in which an event that has now become a “big factory” (as trio La Terre Tremble put it to us) keeps itself fresh is by not having any real headliners. The biggest names this year were probably Fever Ray and Mr Oizo, and that’s not exactly U2 doing Glastonbury. The other is festival director Jean-Louis Brossard’s policy of never booking a band more than once. And even though it appears to be getting more flexible, with GaBLé being invited back for the second year in a row for example, that rule has directed the focus towards fresh talent while still allowing for the presence of artists of the stature of Kraftwerk or the Beastie Boys. 

For several years, the festival had been held almost exclusively in the aircraft hangars of the ‘Parc Expo’ outside the town. That was still largely the case this time, and one of the weird pleasures of the event is squeezing onto a packed shuttle bus filled with drunk and delirious (though largely good-natured) French teenagers, many of them chanting (“Mr.Oizooooo!”) or singing slurrily in chorus. This year, though, Thursday night’s entertainment was back in the centre, returning to the refurbished Le Liberté venue, which can house 5,900 people in its main hall and 600 in the tunnel-like Etage upstairs. It’s an impressive space, but the crowds and difficulty of movement between the two areas, as well poor sightlines in L’Etage, led the wags of Paplar magazine (a nomadic publications that follows festivals around) to suggest that all the people who had been insisting to Brossard that “it was so much better before” when the festival was at Le Liberté were now saying the same about the Parc Expo. In short, there’s no pleasing some people.
(Above: Danton Eeprom was as the festival too, at around 5.30am on the last night. We didn't quite make it through till then... but looks like some people did. Good for them.)
Alongside all this main festival hoopla, every December in Rennes also brings a parallel festival, Les Bars en Trans, which is Les Transmusicales’ younger, scruffier sibling. It has also furnished me with some of my favourite musical memories of Rennes over the years, partly because of the intimacy of the venues (bars, largely, clustered around the Place St.Anne in the more ‘historical’ reaches of the town) and because of the unexpected delights that you can literally stumble upon, both musical and culinary; several stalls sell the local speciality, galette-saucisse: a sausage wrapped in a buckwheat pancake, no more, no less. The acts playing are also almost exclusively French. Sadly, we didn’t really find that one special moment this year; on previous trips it’s been Mansfield TYA, Tender Forever and the Lille-based triple-whammy of Jonaz, Lena Deluxe and Genjini, but this year the best we saw was the sporadically charming Canadian Julie Doiron and Bordeaux’s Kid Bombardos. The latter I’ve heard spoken of highly but they recalled The Strokes (deliberately) and Orange Juice (probably accidentally) without really approaching the heights of either. Credit for some nifty guitar work, though. And we missed local girl Laetitia Shériff, sadly, as she played on the Wednesday night before we arrived.
Back at the main event, we obviously caught a lot of non-French stuff that needn’t concern us too much, but Fever Ray was moody, magnificent and quite hard to see, and Blk Jks definitely tweaked my curiosity. At around 5am on the Saturday night, after becoming sleepily transfixed by a DJ playing banghra and Bollywood beats, we were quietly ambushed by the 8-bit fey-nutters Meneo, bouncing onto the stage brandishing Gameboys, against a backdrop screaming ‘Kung-Fu Glitch’. Catching these two in Shoreditch I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, but in this place and time they were… discombobulating. We also caught ‘next year’s big thing’ (chuckle) Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. By the time you read this, they may have already collapsed under the weight of expectation. If you want to know, they’re like Jesus and Mary Chain meets The Gossip – dismiss that as music writer reductionism if you like but it’s hard to avoid with acts like these that are barely musical or conceptual concerns, just the Pavlovian stimuli emitted by PR departments.
The Gallic delights included GaBLé singing with a choir of old ladies (as previewed in our interview here) and Cercueil (pictured above - our interview with the group is here). The latter don’t like the term ‘gothic’ to describe their music, but theirs is certainly a dark, ghostly mix of updated Cold Wave electronic pop and guitar noise, and the singer has imperious, Grace Slick-style delivery. Mr Oizo set the huge Halle 9 (the largest hangar) rocking but, for my money, all the Ed Banger ticks and tricks –  which can be an ear-tickling pleasure on record – interfered with the flow of energy too often when it came to actually dancing. On that count, The Popopops as DJs (described disapprovingly by Drowned in Sound as “the French Artctic Monkeys” when they played the festival last year) were far more direct, and much more effective, when it came to injecting some genuine party spirit into that drafty, giant metal crate.
For the Rockfort radio show, we interviewed three artists who were either current inhabitants of Rennes or who had at one time been based there, Complot, Del Cielo and 69. Complot (originally Complot Bronswick, interviewed here) have been around since the beginning of the 80s and don’t like the term ‘post-punk’ to describe their music, although they claim PiL as an influence. Their second show of the festival (the one we caught) was a special demonstration of the possibilities of 5.1 surround sound for concert venues. The sound was very bright and clear, but it was most noticeable in the quieter moments when, say, a single sequencer pulse would be panned around the room or ambush you from behind. More crucially, Complot, who are not exactly spring chickens (it’s similar to witnessing a reformed Gang of Four or Magazine), were a tight, arresting musical unit and totally rocked. The drummer alone was mesmerising.
69, meanwhile, were previously two-thirds of the rock trio Sloy, who moved from their native Béziers to settle in Rennes for most of the ten years of their existence. Sloy were produced by Steve Albini and championed by John Peel – in short, probably the finest, most convincing grunge-era band to emerge from France. As 69, they make for a stylish duo, and the new stuff is more playful, drawing on the surreal side of post-punk, of Talking Heads and the like, without becoming a dull homage. Finally, Del Cielo is comprised of two mainstays of the Rennes scene, Liz Bastard (of Supersage) and Gael Desbois who plays with Olivier Mellano (probably the hardest-working guitarist in France) in Mobiil, and in Laetitia Shériff’s band; their marriage of minimal synth-and-guitar lines, hip-hop and glam influenced beats and Liz’s near-spoken vocals make for seductively uneasy listening on the likes of ‘Faut Pas Lâcher Ça’, which bristles with barely restrained tension. 
And finally… this year’s Transmusicales de Rennes festival gifted us a marvellous alternative to the expression ‘staying until the bitter end’: staying until the Wankin’ Noodles. Their official festival slot was at around 4am on the Friday night (hence our new favourite saying…) but they proved to be impossible to avoid. Amble round the media village in central Rennes, and there they are, giving a calculatedly ‘riotous’ performance for local TV… stumble into the VIP (dahling!) area in one of those aforementioned hangars – and there they are again, kicking out the jams for a radio showcase. So are they the future of French rock n’ roll? Er, no. They’re The Hives, basically, but with extra geek-chic, a far more ridiculous name and one gangly freak of a lead singer (that's him hovering over this paragraph). But are they marketable? Sure! Every move, every riff, is down pat. So who cares if not a single one of them is original? Don’t worry, that’s a rhetorical question.
God bless Les Transmusicales, though. More of the same next year, we hope.
David McKenna


(Above: Nice lady takes picture of us)

(Below: Robex, from Radio Grenouille, our hero, and the man who makes our radio stuff at Les Trans happen)