John and Jehn: Work in Progress
With the duo's new single, 'Oh My Love', out in the UK, Rockfort catches up with the coolest couple in French rock, John and Jehn (aka Nicolas and Camille), to get the latest on the progress of their second album.
Rockfort: You’re recording in a barn, apparently…
Nicolas: It’s at my parents’, near Cognac. In the middle of a vineyard, in the middle of nowhere… and it’s a big room with wood and stones and concrete, and this has the best acoustics ever for us because it’s not too echo-y and it’s not too dead. We’re enjoying ourselves and we’re able to write good new songs there, so we’re just keeping the work going all the time.
Camille: We’re half way through recording, and so far they’re the best songs we’ve done. It’s the first time we’ve achieved what we were aiming for, in terms of production, songwriting, singing and playing.
Rockfort: And is it true you’ve been listening to Robert Palmer for inspiration?
Camille: Yes it’s true! And some Donna Summer, Jimmy Sommerville, some Michael Jackson to give us ideas. We just didn’t want to repeat ourselves in any way.
Nicolas: ‘Oh My Love’, the single, in particular is an homage to Roxy Music, to ‘Love Is the Drug’. There’s this little percussion going ‘ch-ch’ all the time in that song, and it’s exactly the same in ‘Oh My Love’. I started to write the song around that, I was completely fascinated by that little percussion. And 80s is so… we’re going in an area now, socially and musically, that’s really like the 80s.
Camille: Musically the 80s was like ‘anything is possible’, and we’re looking for that…
Nicolas: It has to be fun. We’re just looking for some groovy stuff now.
Rockfort: The single also reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees, in that it sounds as though you’re trying to make exotic pop.
Camille: Yes, exotic pop is a really good name for it. We were thinking about Pulp, for example, who were doing pop but… weird. Twisted pop. We’re not trying to make obscure music anymore.
Rockfort: Are those real timpanis on the single?
Nicolas: Yeah, we borrowed them from a classical music school in France. They don’t use them in the summer, so we took them… we’re trying to do new stuff in that barn. We’re like kids because we’ve got new instruments, new toys.
Rockfort: It sounds like you’re leaving more space in the songs as well.
Nicolas: Yeah, there’s no guitar in ‘Oh My Love’ except at the end. And also, we’re trying to recreate the mood of ‘20L07’. That’s the only song on the first album that I am quite happy about. That song is a bit of a picture of what’s going to be next.
Rockfort: And Camille, you’re often quite hunched over on stage, but for the beginning of ‘Oh My Love’ you move to the front, you have a different pose for that.
Camille: Yes, I know…that’s what's really exciting about these new songs, they’re going to open doors stage-wise. We’re thinking about having other musicians because we want to control the front of the stage more and maybe concentrate just on singing. Everything fresh, everything that brings a challenge, for example if I have to sing ‘Oh My Love’ by myself, then it brings a challenge that I really want to take.
You know our original idea was to ask Underground Railroad
to be our backing band. It didn’t happen because, luckily for them, they have lots of things to do. But it could have been fucking brilliant!
Rockfort: Is it a coincidence, Camille, that you take lead vocals on both songs on the single?
Camille: I don’t know why, but in the first half of recording the second album it’s mostly me singing. And the other half, which is demo-ed, is more him singing. I don’t know why, actually…
Nicolas: No, there is no plan about that.
Camille: When we can’t find a way of singing something, we both try it. So it’s really a matter of who gets the best take, and then we keep it!
Nicolas: We’ve both improved our way of singing, actually. We want it to be clear.
Rockfort: You’re the first signings to an unusual UK label, Faculty
Camille: It’s a record label owned by the University of Westminster… it happened through our manager, Sally Gross…
She’s the head of the business department there. And suddenly they were struggling to find artists, which is weird cos in that university they’ve got loads of bands! But it happened that everyone loved the demos there, and they were like “Yeah, let’s do it”. I think they like the project a lot, and we’re the only ones on it so it’s very comfy. They can manufacture vinyl, give tour support… sometimes it’s difficult because every single thing has to go through that very big administration, but they’re doing well. We’re going quite far with that album on Faculty because, for example, in France on Taratata
(Ed: the closest French equivalent to Later... with Jools Holland
) the presenter Nagui was showing that album that we recorded in our bedroom.
Rockfort: What was it like to get that reception and the reviews in France after making a name for yourselves in the UK first?
Camille: We didn’t expect anything from France – for three years we kind of closed everything and left thinking that we had no future there. And suddenly we come back and the welcome was… huge.
Nicolas: With an album like that, it’s just a miracle, because it’s quite dark.
Camille: We’ve not been everywhere, because it’s not an album that can really open every door. But it’s been quite surprising.
Nicolas: It seemed like a place was there for us, we’re not in competition with anyone. The first gig we did as headliners we just packed out the venue in Paris and we were like “What the fuck?” Maybe Underground Railroad could have done it if they had a team working for them in Paris.
Camille: And Les Transmusicales was the one that started everything for us, we made the cover of Libération….
Rockfort: And you’ve been working on a soundtrack for a silent film?
Yeah, it’s a German film (Ed: 'Diary of a Lost Girl’
), it was an idea for a festival run by Rodolphe Burger
and he proposed it to us when he saw us in Paris. The idea was really attractive to us, cos we like it when people ask us to do different things from what we’re used to doing. It’s a challenge again – it’s an hour and forty-five minutes, and as John and Jehn we’re not used to creating music for so long, it’s like two albums! It was really hard at first, I mean how do you approach it, do you jam it? So eventually we set up different themes for different scenes, and it would be improvisation but on a theme. It became easier once we decided that.
And we don’t have any drum machine this time, I’m just playing kick drum. The film suits us very well, it’s a black and white expressionist movie with lots of contrasts and the actress, Louise Brooks, is brilliant and sexy. And we’d like to do it in the UK. That’s what we want now for the UK, we want to come back with something different. Because we’ve been harassed about the letter
we put on our blog by Andy Inglis (Ed: director of the Luminaire venue in Kilburn
) about the state of live venues in the UK, because everybody thinks we feel the UK is horrible… it’s just the way we see music at the moment. We want to, if we can, try different venues and reach different people, and play some odd things, maybe with films. Because bands can get very bored, especially playing the UK in those conditions.
Camille: I think we spent our time trying to please a ghost business that was supposed to be here, and now we’ve left and we’ve got some distance from that, we just want to have fun and play with bands we want, in the venues we want and create our own events.
Rockfort: So do you mean that you thought you had to play a certain game when you came here?
Camille: Yes, but we learned a lot from that. We played everywhere we were asked to play, in the worst shitholes everywhere, but because we wanted to and it was very beneficial for us. We wanted to do that and see how me managed in London, but now we don’t want that anymore. Is it a dream? (laughs) Maybe with the second album we’ll get there – so we need to release the fucking album!
Interview by David McKenna