Manatee Interview: Water Rush
Caen's Manatee were one of the French highlights of Les Trans Musicales 2010 in Rennes where, live, the neo-shoegaze sound of their debut EP 'Like a Small Animal' became an irresistible sugar rush that inspired outbreaks of dancing from small children. Rockfort spoke to members Charlotte (vocals, keyboard, sampler) and Maxime (guitar) about putting in the hours, work vs music and the status of the artist in France.
Rockfort: Manatee has been going for about a year...
M: Yes, we all had other groups before and we played our first gig in January of last year.
C: Max and I were in the same group before, we've been making music together for about six years but the band we were in before was with three other musicians and we didn't really like what we were doing, so from within we tried to move it in a direction we were happier with. We ended up starting from scratch just the two of us with the idea of doing something that we could really identify with. We looked hard for a drummer and couldn't find anyone but finally we met Thipaine. We met just like that in the corridor of Le Cargo (Ed: the key venue in Caen), and then tried playing together and it was great the three of us. It works really well on a human level, there's an equilibrium. So we're just enjoying it day by day and the concerts are a real bonus. The key thing is that we make music for our own enjoyment and in this group we've really found it.
Rockfort: The live show is a pretty joyous experience, was it like that for you straight away?
M: The first time was stressful.
C: Yes it was quite stressful to begin with, there was quite a lot to manage and we don't make it easy for ourselves sometimes. But we're beginning to be able to let go a bit.
M: There are a lot of technical aspects in the machines we use and it takes a while to be able to not be bogged down by that. Our aim is really to able to lose ourselves in the sounds, to be able to play with them.
Rockfort: Charlotte, you've got the keyboard and sampler and you apply effects to your voice...
C: Yeah, I do sometimes apply effects to my vocals, not a lot yet but we're gradually building things up. The sound engineer does some of that but I've got a pedal as well that I use to control the sound of my voice, which is obviously better because with an engineer you really have to have an understanding.
Rockfort: You already have quite a high singing voice and it sounds as though sometimes you pitch it even higher...
C: Yeah there's one song where I double up my voice like that – it's something Dan Deacon does as well, Yeasayer too.
Rockfort: I like Thipaine's drumming too, he has quite a particular style...
M: Yes, he's not really someone who learned to be a drummer, he doesn't really use his feet. He's more of a percussionist, which is what interested us about him.
C: And Max wanted a drummer who would stand up so we'd all be at the same level on stage. And the fact that he's standing forces him to play in certain ways, it's a constraint. For us, in terms of communication on stage, it's great to have a guy who's not just sat behind you but it's also in terms of the relationship with the audience, he's right up front there with us.
Rockfort: You've been working pretty quickly – you already had an EP recorded within a few months of getting together.
M: We'd recorded it before our first gig. Basically with the old group we'd started an album that we didn't finish and we had a few days left in the studio, so we used them to make the EP.
Rockfort: So was Manatee a studio project to begin with?
C: No, we always wanted to play live but we knew we would need a recording and we wanted to work on the songs via the recording process, exploring some new ideas. As a result, though, the EP's not really fresh for us, we've already moved on to other things. We're recording a new one now... but after recording it we had problems with the mix and the mastering so that when it was released so much time had passed... so now we don't hesitate to record things very quickly after we've written them to not draw out the period between the moment of creation and the release.
Rockfort: It's true that the live performances are stronger than the EP at the moment.
C: Yes, and the new EP we're recording is going to correspond to what we do live.
M: The recordings are always lagging behind where we are live.
Rockfort: You've progressed very quickly in the space of very few concerts. I take it you rehearse a lot.
M: Yes. We love it, being in our rooms, twiddling knobs. We rehearse between 15 and 25 hours a week.
Rockfort: That's quite a lot.
C: And we have jobs as well! We both work part-time catering in colleges, for kids aged 11 to 14. It's poorly paid but I like it a lot.
M: And we need to pay the rent!
Rockfort: Is it good to have something alongside the music?
M: Yes, partly because you can't rely on music to provide enough for you to live off, then you're only making music to be able to feed yourself. We want that to be separate.
C: Our concern is that if you rely totally on the music you end up compromising, doing something that's going to please more people, being more commercial. We're not judging anyone who does that but we wouldn't want to have to do that, to ditch a song because it's not catchy enough or add a chorus. So having a job as well means we can be completely independent in what we do. Of course, even talking about having the option is quite French, in many other countries even musicians who appear to tour a lot, like Shannon Wright or someone, still have a job on the side.
M: The status of 'artist' in France can have a negative influence as well, as there are many people who, to have the money that goes with it, will do whatever they can, often to the detriment of the music. Without realising it.
Rockfort: So do you think that not being the 'struggling musician' can impact negatively on creativity?
C: Not exactly but I understand that point of view. However, there's a point where, if you're passionate then your level of material comfort isn't necessarily a factor. If that does affect what you do, then it's probably better to be doing something else.
Rockfort: There's no simple explanation for why some French singers sound good to English ears when they sing in English and others don't but Charlotte, sometimes your voice, particularly on record, doesn't sound very French at all. Sometimes it's even bit Scandinavian. Is that something you're aware of?
C: Yes, I think I'm aware of it up to a point. When I sing in English I feel as though I'm addressing English people, it's as if in some way I were having a conversation with some English people. So maybe that helps it sound more natural. It was difficult to begin with but I absolutely wanted to sing in English because singing in French for me means that the words are primordial, they are important over and above the music. With English, the voice is more like an instrument, it has its place among the other sounds. It's part of what's going on but the accent isn't all the voice and the text. There's a greater musicality to English.
Rockfort: You might be right about the rhythm but perhaps it's primarily a psychological issue? Sung French is too tied to chanson,there's too much cultural baggage there.
C: Perhaps. We allow ourselves a simplicity in English that we wouldn't in French, because in French it immediately belongs to a certain culture, it's variété. When I hear a song sung in French and the lyrics aren't great then for me that's variété, it's not rock, electro or even rap anymore. It's weird.
Rockfort: How is Caen for musicians at the moment? We're aware of GaBLé, amongst others.
Yes it's good. Already if you take a group like GaBLé
, who live 3km away from your house, when we saw them for the first time it was a good feeling. It makes you think “Yes, something can happen here as well.” We listen to a lot of American groups, things that seem incredibly distant to us, and you start to think “We have to move! What are we doing here?” but at the same time we're supported by Le Cargo and the key thing is that we have access to rehearsal space 24 hours a day, we can go there when we like – during the night, Sundays, holidays. If we moved I don't know if we would have a place like that available to us, where we can always get out of the house and play. That's fundamental. As for Caen, it's cold – like England! - but it's better than Paris because it's a more manageable size, and there's lots of green.
Interview and translation by David McKenna