Interview: Caravan Palace’s Hugues Payen
Caravan Palace caused a huge ruckus when they toured in the US last year, selling out shows in major cities like New York. The band is an electro-swing band, producing live swing music complimented by contemporary electronic beats. This French band is comprised of Zoé Colotis (vocals), Arnaud Vial (guitar, vocals), Hugues Payen (violin, vocals), Camille Chapelière (clarinet), Charles Delaporte (double bass, electronics), Antoine Toustou (electronics, trombone), and Paul-Marie Barbier (vibraphone, percussion), and though they are French, all of their lyrics are in English. They have released two albums, self-titled Caravan Palace and Panic!, both of which were very successful.
Caravan Palace is continually playing with the relationship between “old” and “new” in both their live shows and on their albums. During their shows, you can expect not
only live electro-swing (which in itself plays with old and new), but also bebop in a Daft Punk-style or a swing dance circle, which may call to mind a breakdance circle! (You can check out a review of one of their shows in France here!) But be warned: shows on this North American tour will definitely sell out! This band is so unique, so fresh and so hot right now that it might be hard to score your tickets.
Sensible Reason had the opportunity to talk with Hugues Payen, who plays on violin and contributes vocals in Caravan Palace. We chatted on everything from underground raves in Paris in the ’90s, to stipends the French government provides artists when they’re struggling, to the origins of electro-swing:
Sensible Reason: You’ve toured twice in the US before, the second tour being an amazing success with multiple sold out shows. How were those experiences for you?
Hugues Payen: We had the occasion to play in USA very early (2010), in regards to what was the electro-swing movement at that time and our own fame there. But we knew then that we had to come back for several reasons, including the fact that half of our sound is directly and exclusively American! When we did it, in 2013, it was a 6-week long adventure, full of surprises and great events, and the public was there! That really was a surprise, because the figures weren’t that good when we arrived in USA…Now, one of our first motivation for the next album is to play it in America!… USA didn’t really have its “electro-swing moment” yet, and we want to be sure to be there when it’ll happen!!
What do you think contributed to the band’s success abroad?
Payen: There is a major reason to that: Electroswing has spread all over the world, in every big city, in every little bar, from Beirut to San Francisco! Not only our own music, but hundreds of electroswing tracks blooming from everywhere. We had the great chance to be some kind of “pioneers,” with Parov Stelar. We also work hard to offer a great show, thanks to our wonderful singer Colotis Zoe, so it must be some other good reasons to our (relative) success.
SR: What are some specific cities that you’ve noticed have developed a strong electro-swing culture?
Payen: Paris of course, but London or Montréal are also very active in the electro-swing movement. However, many electro-swing parties take place in every major city of our little planet!
SR: Do you find differences in performing here in the US versus in France? Is the crowd or environment different and in what way?
Payen: It couldn’t be more different on paper, but swing music has become a universal symbol or synonym of joy and lightness. We find in the eyes of our American public the same little glow as in France when we began touring. Maybe it is us, or maybe it is the universal success of electro-swing! But of course, everything is different: from the distance to drive from one concert to the other, to the frenetic attitude of some fans, to the way everything works in our job… That’s exactly what we’re looking for when we come to the USA!
SR: What is one major difference between being an artist or musician in France and being one in the US?
Payen: In France, artists and technicians have a special “status”… which enables you to be paid even if you don’t tour or have any fee for a moment. It’s not that easy to get it, but when you do, it’s a real relief! It implies a different way of thinking and doing that very job.
SR: Electro-swing is fairly unique here the in the US—there are very few bands that perform it live. What drew you to this style of music?
Payen: Here are some precisions [to how we got into electroswing]: in 2004, Carlos (double bassist) was commissioned to make a music on a blue film from the ’20s. He was playing with Arnaud (guitar) and myself (violin) in a jazz manouche band (gypsy jazz, i.e Django Reinhardt [Belgian-born French guitarist and composer of Romani heritage]), and producing electronic music, as we all did too. So we composed that soundtrack together, and it worked! But at that time, there was no electro-swing at all, just a very few albums to refer to, even if they didn’t sound exactly the way we were searching for our own project. We did our first album quite “blindly,” and began touring for a year before the release of the album. People immediately loved it in France (jazz manouche is a long, long love story with the French), and we decided to tour abroad very soon, because we felt that it could work in a lot of countries! And we were apparently right!! At that same moment, another artist, the Austrian, Parov Stelar, had quite the same idea; that’s why we both are considered today as the “creators” of that style, even if it’s not totally true (remember the success of Mr Scruff’s “Get a Move On!” or Doop’s “Doop” in 1994!!)
SR: How would you mark the success of your album Panic!? Were you pleased or did you find anything surprising about the response to the release of the album?
Payen: Releasing a second album is always risky when the first was a success. And it is even more difficult when everything has changed in your musical environment. So we decided to make the album we wanted to hear from an electro-swing band, not what we could hear everywhere. There was a price to that, but we are proud of that album, maybe more than of the first one. We are totally aware that Panic! contains some unusual sounds for an electro-swing album, and that’s exactly what we aimed at, so nothing surprising for us!!
SR: What do you mean when you say, “everything has changed in your musical environment”?
Payen: Electronic music is the real living music today, for it has penetrated almost every other style. As a living thing, it always evolves. In 2005, when we began, dubstep didn’t exist, even our own genre didn’t exist!! And at the same time, the economic environment has radicalized through the Internet and the digital way of consuming music.
SR: What was the “price” you paid for creating music that you thought was true to electro-swing and not conforming to the EDM industry norms?
Payen: The normal one: in France, nobody had a word about our album! Even our friends didn’t know that it was released!! We were prepared for that, so no problem. 😉
But I don’t mean that doing a “true” electro-swing can’t be successful; we didn’t seek success while doing that album, that’s all!
SR: How do you keep the music fresh and prevent it from sounding repetitive? What keeps the drive in your band to be breaking new ground?
Payen: That’s exactly why making a Caravan Palace album from A to Z is so long… Our tastes changed a lot since 2005, so it’s harder everyday to find a new way to make the electronic music swing! For the 3rd album we’re working on, we want to come back to an efficient sound because we feel that electro-swing has to find new paths.
SR: That’s interesting! I thought it would get easier over time for the music to flow out. However, you feel the opposite– that it’s actually getting harder. Can you elaborate?
Payen: It’s easier to do the “common” work, looking for samples, melodies, and so on, but being totally satisfied, from the first to the last note, has never been as hard as today!! The problem is that nowadays, electro-swing is overwhelmed with new tracks everyday, so every idea seems to have been found by someone else, even if it’s not the case… What “saves” us is that we have our very unique sound, and we are the only ones who know how to do it
SR: We’re excited to hear about a third album coming out! What does it mean to “come back to an efficient sound”? It almost sounds like you want to go back to the roots of electro-swing, but then at the end you say that it has to find new paths. Can you explain this juxtaposition?
Payen: Our first album was a lot more “perky,” and we’d like to find that aspect again. But when we listen to it, we don’t like the sound– it’s almost like it has “2005” written on it!!! So, our goal will be to “actualize” that sound, and produce new tracks with that good old vibration, and brand new sounds from today! And we’re not far from accomplishing this!
SR: What are some of the connections you see between music and language? Can you speak to the deeper meaning of writing your lyrics in English and how your French audience was able to connect to the meaning of your songs through the music?
Payen: Words are interesting for us, not if they mean something, but if they swing! They have to tell a musical story, more than a “literary” story… If you listen to jazz standards, there never is some political, poetic or philosophical meaning, just stories about love, hate, and dance. The simplest topic is also the best way to find swinging words! French fans understood very soon that swinging in French is not… credible! Some artists tried to do so, but it always ended with “oulala,” “voulez-vous coucher avec moi” or “c’est magnifique”– a whole bunch of clichés we absolutely wanted to avoid. So, the “translation” is elsewhere; swing music and electronic music have a common goal: to make people dance. That’s the real bridge between them, and we try to “enhance” that particular point.
SR: You’ve spoken in interviews about the influence of American jazz & swing on your music. Can you speak a bit about the influence of French or European electronic music on your style?
Payen: Electronic music has been our musical background for 20 years! Some of us are old enough to remember (or not…) the illegal parties in the woods, in the middle of the ’90s!! But that project is very specific. If we’re listening to hardcore techno music, it seems difficult to adapt it to our songs! We’re just trying to find the good sound for what we do, and keep on listening to a lot of different things!
SR: “Illegal parties in the woods in the ’90s”?? Well that sounds really cool…
Payen: Yes, it was really exciting… search for “teknivals,” “spiral tribe,” “heretik,” and “free parties,” and you’ll know everything you have to know… At that time, every major festival had its teknival, and to give you an idea of the legality of that, you had to call a number 2 hours before the party to have the directions to go there (“go right for 200 meters, then to the left until the oak is on your right, then…”). I never went there, but I know that some parties took place in the very center of Paris, in old churches, urban wastelands, or even the catacombs!!
SR: You’ve said you’re listening to a lot of things. Can you list the 5 artists that are in your ear right now?
Payen: ASAP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, Hot Sugar, James Blake, Gesaffelstein… are the first ones I think of, but they’re far from being the only ones!
SR: Are there any special collaborations with specific DJs/producers we can look forward to? Any prospect of a new EP or album on the horizon?
Payen: We make some remixes for various artists, but the work on the 3rd album takes a lot of time. We hope to share some new songs very soon, for we’re very impatient to tour again, in France, in Europe, in the US, and everywhere we never had the chance to go yet!
Sensible Reason wants to thank Hugues Payen for taking the time to do such an extensive interview! This fun, quirky band is currently on the move for their 2014 North America Tour, and there’s only one month left! Check out tour dates here: