dÉbruit: "Breton Groovy?"
At the Les Vieilles Charrues festival in Brittany, local boy dÉbruit (Xavier Thomas) took time out after a set in the blinding sunshine to talk to Rockfort and nail down a name for his exuberant post-dubstep sound.
Rockfort: How did you get started?
X: First I learned the saxophone was I was nine, in a music school. So then usually you move into playing with a band, playing classical music, and the saxophone doesn’t sound really nice with that… I mean, as a teenager you don’t feel it’s very cool playing Johann Sebastian Bach on a saxophone. So I started to learn guitar and drums, playing in bands and recording at home. From recording I got more into electronic music and producing – editing the recordings I was doing, placing stuff, cutting…
Rockfort: Is there a scene in France at all to compare with what’s happening in London, Glasgow or Bristol?
Actually I lived in Glasgow about seven years ago, but that movement wasn’t there. One of my friends had a night that was about experimental electronic music and I was DJ-ing there, and then I came back to Paris and now I’m in a crew, a label called Musique Large
which has artists like Fulgeance
and a guy called Ghislain Poirier
from Canada who did some stuff. So it’s vinyls, and a small label with passionate people. Then I’m signed in the UK to Civil Music, I’ve released two records with them and I’m preparing an album. But concerning the scene in France, there are people but clubs and venues are maybe a little bit too business orientated, they don’t really call outside promoters so it doesn’t leave a lot of space, clubs are not as open. But it’s changing a little bit.
Rockfort: I’ve encountered things in France that people have referred to as ‘live dubstep’ but on a technical level it wasn’t really up to the same standards.
X: We had a lot of electronic dub in the 90s, and even proper dub bands, so I suppose people don’t have the DJ culture on a dub level so much. I can see that it’s arriving now on a bigger scale, but only a few people have been listening to it from the beginning.
Rockfort: There are the likes of Wankers United, who is much more on the Skweee side of things…
X: Yeah I know Thomas (Lanza). That stays definitely in the underground, and it’s a shame because I think it’s a slightly different, creative music that could have a little space in venues or clubs.
Rockfort: It’s not really the ‘sound of Paris’ right now.
No, Paris is still the old French electro! (laughs). But it’s changing a little bit, I played with Skream in Paris, with Annie Mac and Busy P
Rockfort: So there was some crossover…
X: Yeah, come and listen to Busy P and maybe you can hear something else as well!
Rockfort: Do you like the French electro sound?
X: There’s some stuff that I can like but there are a lot of followers and lazy stuff. But there are things like Mr Oizo that I like.
Rockfort: What else have you got on Musique Large – is it mostly French?
There’s also an American guy called Charles Trees from Ann Arbour in Michigan who did a digital EP recently, and there’s a band now called Baron Retif & Concepción Perez
. It’s two guys and those are their crazy names, it’s more like a band and their going to do an EP on Musique Large as well.
(Above: the sleeve for the 'Nigeria What?' EP)
Rockfort: You’re based in London at the moment, when did that happen?
X: Last September, so not even a year ago. I moved there because of the people and my music got more exposure there, people were playing it on the BBC like Benji B, Mary Anne Hobbs and MistaJam. It’s something that can’t really happen for me in France, apart from student radio or web radio, but I’d seen that you can be played on quite big shows and because of the people I work with it made sense to go there.
Rockfort: So you feel more supported in London?
X: There are definitely a lot of people that I’ve met since I came here. You see people doing good things and pushing it, and just the fact of being able to see good music every night. And if you go to the same nights on regular basis you meet the same people. Some of them are producers, people you might be aware of, and they just introduce themselves and you’re like “Oh it’s you, I like your stuff.” It’s actually really friendly and easy, nobody’s bigheaded. There’s a quite positive energy that makes you want to work more, gives you ideas. It’s good to be surrounded by creative people, even if sometimes we don’t speak about music, which is also very good!
Rockfort: Is it difficult to make certain kinds of music in France?
X: Yes, I felt really frustrated when I was living in Paris because obviously the scene wasn’t at all what I was doing. So it was always “We’re going to do you a favour” and you open for whoever, early when the doors open and there’s nobody in the club, so it’s not a big risk they’re taking! I got bored of that, because I was already playing abroad quite a lot. Also, I think if you’re French in France, you’re not judged on your music but your capacity to promote yourself and sell an image. It’s obviously not entirely true because I’ve played in small collectives that have invited me here and there, I’m thinking more about festivals and big clubs.
X: I learned about the Haiti thing two days after it happened, because sometimes I don’t really watch the news or buy the paper. But I heard about it, also because there’s a big Haitian community in France, and I saw people doing things and I played a night to raise money, and I thought I should do something more personal to feel like I was really helping. I started to listen to a lot of traditional Haitian music, and sampled it, so I did a little EP of four tracks with all the money going to Unicef.
Rockfort: Was that the most focused you’ve been in terms of sourcing samples?
X: I think so, yes. I’ve never really thought “I’m going to do a record of only music from that country”. On an EP or an album there can be music from Mali, or flamenco or old dub. I don’t think much about what I’m going to do, I just take stuff I like and put it together. It’s hard to make it work sometimes because it’s music from different times, different textures. Making it fit together isn’t always possible but when it works it’s a good surprise.
Rockfort: You obviously have a taste for combining synths with more acoustic sounds.
X: Yeah. I work a lot on the synths to have my own sound so that takes a bit of time, and people notice my synths, that’s what I’ve heard recently! So I try to have a little signature either in the rhythm or in the synths… but I think it’s just my taste, I take the synth and I tweak it a bit until I reach something I like, and maybe I like something that other people wouldn’t like in the first place. I dunno, it’s not really that complicated.
Rockfort: Your last EP was at the end of 2009...
X: January this year actually, it was a bit delayed because of technical issues… the 3D glasses that came with it were not packed properly! Now I’m doing a lot of remixes, and I’m going to a project with some Lee Scratch Perry sounds. It’s going to be a series of twelve inches with Kode 9, me, Mala… that’s on Adrian Sherwood’s label. And then I’m going to be working on my album! That should be out next year in March or April.
Rockfort: Why did you start working with 3D in the videos and on the sleeves?
X: It was an artist, Rainbow Monkey, that I met when I did my first tour of Germany in 2006, he’s a graphic designer and artist. He was playing in a band, we did a few shows together and I liked his artwork, I liked the fun approach he’s got and in my music I always want to have something that’s surprising and enjoyable – it matches fine together. He was working on 3D thing and portraits. The sleeves are a bit disturbing in the first place, but then you get into it and you find the fun when you put on the 3D glasses. He did the little teaser videos that you’ve probably seen.
Rockfort: It’s not unusual for artists to try to shake off labels, but you took issue with the term ‘wonky’…
X: Yeah, that was funny. I was trying to make a joke about it: “If my music was wonky I would fix it.” It’s a weird term to describe music. Maybe there’s a word that people don’t use because it’s not cool anymore, but ‘groovy’? Sometimes I try to say “My music is fun and groovy” and people are like “What?” It doesn’t sound very cool! (laughs) UK groovy! Or Breton groovy!
Rockfort: You’re from Carhaix (Ed: where Les Vieilles Charrues takes place).
X: I was born here, I lived here until the end of my studies in Rennes. All my family is here, even my granddad was at the gig…
Rockfort: Does he like what you do?
X: Yeah, he likes it, he’s a musician too… he makes more traditional music, folk music from here, in an orchestra for balls around the countryside. He kind of understands what I do. He came once before to one of my gigs and tried to see behind all my machines, and was like “So if I understand well, you just play all the instruments…”
Rockfort: Would you sample Breton folk?
X: I’ve never tried it, I know it too much maybe. I mean, the language is dying in a natural way… it’s my grandparents’ first language, and my great grandmother couldn’t speak French, she’d make mistakes and me and my sister would laugh at her… but there are different styles, with only singing or with massive marching bands with the bagpipes and everything. That would be hard to sample, but maybe the vocal stuff, put a vocoder on some traditional Breton music!
Interview by David McKenna, with Ruth Saxelby and Francesca Ronai