Past Perfect

Nominally a Franco-American combo (although their origins lie in many places besides), Moriarty's apparently olde-worlde blend of folk, blues, jazz and cabaret on debut album 'Gee Whiz But This Is a Lonesome Town' has won them huge success in France (they were nominated for best live act at this year's Victoires de la Musique, the French equivalent of the Brit Awards) and a burgeoning worldwide following. They tell Rockfort why they're really "retro-futurists", how the tried to "map" their own songs, and about their musical Utopia.


Rockfort: The members of the band are from all over the place, how did you get together? 

Zim (double bass & more): It’s a very long story that dates back to more than ten years ago – well, the last century anyway. Two childhood friends met aged two, and a few years later started playing, well let’s say, blues-influenced music with harmonica and guitars – very basic – and then everybody met by chance, on the streets of Paris, on a bridge or at a concert, a party here and there, and the annual music festival that there is every 21 June (Ed: Fête de la Musique), we met Rosemary, and it all became a big family a few years later. And we adopted the same family name to make it clear.
Arthur (guitar & more): But it is weird because we do have mostly American parents, but there’s also some Vietnamese and Norwegian and Swiss…
Rosemary (voice): Peruvian…
Arthur: … so what happens is that people often wonder how we met, and it was really by chance, we somehow found each other, as if we had to meet – that’s what should really be emphasised.
Rockfort: Some sort of destiny?
Arthur: Yes it was strange how we met, I dunno – it’s as if we had to meet.
Rockfort: Did you arrive at the band’s sound naturally?
Zim: We were looking for the sounds, for our own voice, and then one day we realised that Rosemary was obviously the voice, and that all the instruments had to just adopt the vocals as the main, leading instrument. All the sounds and the textures should blend in with the voice, with that specific tone that she has – a very natural one – but it took a lot of time to find it… I dunno… maybe seven, eight or nine years’ work. And then one day it happened that the drummer left us and we couldn’t find a new one, and that was actually a big relief because we played acoustically, and by playing acoustically you could hear the vocals again, just naked. And that’s how we finally chose the instruments that go together with the vocals, by letting the drummer out for a while, and just drumming on a suitcase or on random materials that would act as drums.
Rosemary: I think we also just like the natural sound of objects and instruments, so the acoustic is really important for us, this is how we rehearse… we used to rehearse in a very small basement. It used to be electric at first, and then we went acoustic, but we started to play on instruments like a suitcase or other objects that you also find on the album, like a shaker, a coffee grinder and things like that, and there is a kind of democracy in the band – no instrument goes louder than another one, we have to hear everything the same way. It’s very important for us to be in a kind of circle to work together, to hear everything, and work into a sort of a trance. The other thing I’d like to add is that we also have a special taste for old instruments, old objects because… I dunno… because they carry stories with them, I guess.
Rockfort: You mention Tom Waits in one of your songs – are you comfortable acknowledging your influences?
(Laughter from the band)
Zim: Are you sure you heard ‘Tom Waits’? That was not supposed to be heard. The actual line is “Father O’Reilly broke under the weight.” You must be mistaken…
Arthur: We have a song on the album called ‘Lovelinesse’ which was written with an English friend of ours actually – it’s kind of an opium story that takes place in poppy fields, and there’s a naked nun and a priest, and the nun gets so big that Father O’Reilly breaks from the weight. But when we sing it, we say “broke up with Tom Waits.” It’s a ‘clin d’oeil’ to Tom Waits of course, cos he’s one of the artists that we all listen to, which is pretty rare as none of us listen to the same things. He means something to all of us. We are definitely little cousins of Tom Waits somehow.

: Can you tell us a bit more about Private Lily, a character in one of your songs?
Rosemary: Actually it is the story of Arthur’s cousin… one of our cousins, you could say… and it… doesn’t matter to say whether it’s true or not, but she just came out of high school, without a job and looking for something to do, and at a trade fair the army found her and she signed up for four years.
Zim: We had a long phone call with her on the last day of her civilian existence – she was 19 at the time – and the song just popped up the day after, it was a very quick song to write, just a very quick physical reaction for everyone hearing the story. It has become for us a story that has a broader meaning – it’s not just about that one girl but its more a story about lives and decisions, and war, being a 19-year-old girl and making a decision about the fact she could be sent to a war zone in order to secure a future…which is a paradox, obviously. But we don’t get too precise in the lyrics about this, we’d rather have it quite open. It happened in 2005, but there is no reference to this.
Rosemary: It could be any time.
Zim: It could be from the Civil War era in the US, or World War I.
Rosemary: Or in the future.
Rockfort: You seem to conjure up bygone eras, sometimes more than one era at the same time. What is the attraction of a past that you’ve never experienced yourself?
Arthur: I was always a fan of retro-futurist movies, like Blade Runner or these films here you’re in the future but at the same time things look like the past. And I think there’s that in our music. If you listen to it at first it seems very retro and stuck in the past, and we have this fascination with these old instruments, we play around one microphone like they did in the 50s… and then if you listen a little more carefully, you realise that the harmonies are not at all harmonies from those times, they’re much more modern, and the lyrics are much more surreal… strange associations… so I like to say retro-futurist.
Zim: It’s maybe a sort of Utopia, we seem to live in a time that is neither the past nor the future. When we write songs, everyone puts their own memories and influences in the mix but we don’t say too much about it. When we get together, we just form a circle and drop in some tunes, and someone’s going to come with an influence maybe from the 30s but someone else will counteract it with an influence from today and so we don’t care which era it’s from. It’s more interesting when you cannot tell which year a song is from, in the music or in the lyrics, or in the mood or the images that you can have. I think we call conjure up images, and in your head you have a movie starting to unfold, you see a place thanks to the lyrics, and we talk to each other about the place…
Rosemary: And we don’t agree!
Zim: Yeah, I’ll be like “this song happens in the desert in the 30s” and someone else will say “not at all, for me it’s obvious that it happens in Berlin in the 50s”… and you’re like “what?” But that’s the process.
Arthur: In fact, this was really unveiled when we tried to map our songs. And so we did a colder region, a desert, a city, the countryside, the Alps, a forest, and when we decided to put the songs in different areas we could never agree on where the songs should be. And that map is somewhere in our CD.
Rosemary: The first EP I think.

Rockfort: Why do you think you've been so successful in France?
Zim: Our story in France is a very slow one, we’ve been playing together in different cafés or sometimes on the street busking…
Rosemary: Parties…
Zim: … or artists’ studios, and we released our album almost by chance because we met a theatre director, so it’s not really from the music business. We didn’t really think about where we should fit it with regard to what style works or not, we just had to make it sound as good live as possible. It took a while for us to get used to this and make a concert actually work. Success is nice – the more people come to the shows, the warmer the atmosphere, even though it’s sometimes a challenge to play to over a few hundred people. It gets more difficult to have what we’re looking for, you don’t see the eyes of the people anymore so it’s a dangerous zone sometimes.
Rosemary: And I would have to say also that radio helped us a lot, we’ve been on Nova and France Inter a little bit, and also one TV had us, ‘Taratata’, and also after that we had 180 shows in a year and a half which is a lot of work, but kind of learned how to… to really like it. We try to never do the same list, so we don’t get bored at all, try new songs on stage also, et voilà… to stay who were are and who we were before that. Try to…
Arthur: People say we’re very generous on stage, and we just give all we can. It’s happens sometimes in concerts that the electricity gets shut off, and well we just keep on playing, and not many bands can actually do that today. And people understood that it’s real and in these times I think that's what people want to hear… if there was a little fireplace and they could all just sit around the fire.
Interview by David McKenna and Ludovic Merle