69: New Position
Rising from the ashes of cult 90s French grunge trio Sloy, 69 - Armand Gonzalez and Virginie Peitavi - manage to draw on the spirit of Devo and Talking Heads on their debut album 'Novo Rock' (out in France in March) without merely replicating past glories. Virginie and Armand discuss creativity and independence with Rockfort.
(Above: 69 at Les Transmusicales de Rennes 2009)
AG: 69 is a mixed-sex duo, with Virginie playing guitars and keyboards and me singing and playing guitar – but everything is interchangeable.
Rockfort: Where are you from originally?
AG: The south of France, from near Montpellier. But before that, in Sloy, we spent ten years in Rennes.
Rockfort: Why did Sloy break up? Had you just reached the end of what you wanted to do?
VP: It’s just the natural life of a band. We released three albums and said everything we wanted to day. And groups are always difficult to manage…
Rockfort: Is a duo easier?
AG: No, not at all! (laughs) A group is a whole host of things: a record contract, touring, recording, there are various people who have to handle all that and it’s a difficult thing to keep going in the long term. And a duo is just as tricky when it comes to all those things – yes, we’re a couple, but it’s just as hard. But it is different from a trio, and musically it’s also different from being in a trio.
Rockfort: How were Sloy perceived in France?
AG: We had a core of fans very soon after starting, because we were making music that was quite new for the time. It was in the immediate wake of grunge, and when we played with American groups of the same type, after a while we realised that we were as good as them. People were quick to appreciate that, and didn’t see us as just a copy – because in France you have a lot of copies. The fact is with Sloy we were there at the same time, so we couldn’t have come up with a copy in only three weeks. Our album came out in February 1995, and Jesus Lizard came out in December 1994, for example. So it wasn’t a copy, we were part of that music too. So we were seen as a group apart in way, we had a following but it wasn’t necessarily the easiest music to get into, it was still indie-rock and it stayed within that network. We were also the first French group to appear on French TV singing in English.
VP: Ten, even 15 years ago, that was barely imaginable.
AG: Mr Toubon imposed quotas for singing in French.
Rockfort: What has changed with 69?
VP: It’s more produced, we worked a lot more in the studio, adding much more instrumentation than we did with Sloy – we were a power trio, we just played, maybe use the first take…
Rockfort: Do you work with a producer?
AG: Yes, but it’s friends of ours who have a studio where there are loads of old synths, everything’s analogue, and there’s really a certain state of mind. And they’re not people who are into that because it’s fashionable now, they’ve always been like that. So for us it was important to work with a crew, where each of them could get involved with the sound of the beats, of the keyboards. That was very new for us, to share the music-making like that.
Rockfort: So 69 is really a collective project rather than a band?
AG: Yes, but it’s not like you sometimes get in hip-hop when a project is ‘featuring’ someone – it’s more like “I’m not very good at programming drum patterns, you are, so you do it.” So it’s a team effort but we don’t present ourselves like that, for the live shows it’s just us two.
Rockfort: You’re the public face of the group, then?
VP: Yes, exactly.
Rockfort: Are you releasing the album yourselves?
AG: Yes, that’s how we’ve always worked. Maybe if now it’s in the context of the music industry undergoing major changes, but we’ve always done it that way, it has always been others licensing the records from us, so we could retain control of our music… of the most important decisions, which are always musical.
Rockfort: You has control of your work from the beginning then…
AG: Yes – we were very young when we started with Sloy, but we were pretty direct in our dealings with people. We immediately went to Steve Albini to produce us and he said yes very quickly. And when you’re 20 years old and you meet someone like that, who explains to you what it is to be independent, and that it’s not a bad thing, that you have to be able to handle the business side and that will give you the necessary freedom. When you’re a young adult and you meet someone like that, they inevitably leave an impression. And the further you go in the music industry, the more the business side takes over the less free you are musically. So we realised that it was important to retain our independence – we might sell fewer records, but at least we’d be free.
Rockfort: Was that sense of your own independence also down to the fact that you felt you were a good group, so people would come to you?
AG: I think, perhaps. We maybe didn’t say that to ourselves initially…
VP: Yes, I think it’s a question of mentality and self-confidence.
Rockfort: What’s 'Novo' rock?
AG: We like the 80s, things like Joy Division, Talking Heads, Public Image – that’s our musical culture… New Wave rock like Television. And Devo, who have been a major reference point for us for a long time, tried to popularise their style which they called ‘novo’, so it’s a tip of the hat from us to that idea, of a rock where you mix up a lot of things, which is what you have now in this decade. Devo were doing that – it’s cult now but at the time it was very strange.
Rockfort: So what is your album a mixture of?
AG: Of references to groups from that period, to that way of putting together music that was quite mechanical, but with a ‘white’ groove – but not turning into electro either. It was also important that it resembled our personalities.
Rockfort: Is the attraction of the period the sense that there were genuinely new forms possible for rock?
AG: Yes, undoubtedly. Behind Devo you had Brian Eno, an immensely important producer, and they made music without looking back over their shoulders. It was present-future. But I think until the end of the 90s new styles were still appearing and supplanting older ones, in rapid succession you had punk, these post-punk groups, new wave, dance music… now that isn’t so much the case anymore.
Interview by Ludovic Merle and David McKenna. Translation by David McKenna