[Editor’s note: Please welcome Greg Spivak to ToM. All photos appearing here were taken by Mr. Spivak, we encourage you to click on them to see them at full size and resolution.]
In French there is no equivalent for “hipster.” Recently the term has been adopted by the French press, with articles describing this American idea of “le hipster”; slowly, the word is starting to lose its italicized status as a new loan word along with les has-been, les best-of and les lifting (fine, the last is a strange Gallic deformation of “face-lift”). The closest the French come is the bobo, which, although coined by David Brooks, moved to, settled, and thrived in France — talk shows speak endlessly of the boboisation of certain neighborhoods. It however calls to mind an older cousin of the hipster, and denotes a more European sensibility — those found out at cafes during the week, a sort of fashionable yuppie. Perhaps this is because France has never had a strong apparent youth subculture of any kind; Paris lacks a Camden Town, Shibuya, Melrose, or East Village. It’s more common for girls in Paris to dress as their mothers do, which is to say, insufferably chic and tasteful, displaying a distaste for the alternative and outré. So why would Pitchfork choose Paris to plant their European flag? You got me. This is a country populated by folks with notoriously low English-language skills, without a real rock culture, and without a word for hipster. Perhaps, for the very reason McDonalds is spectacularly and seemingly strangely successful here — an empty niche?
Festivals of this type are uncommon here. There is the left-field avant pop festival at the same park, La Villette, primarily outdoors, in May — Villette Sonique — where acts like the experimental metal band Sunn O))) hold court along with Chicago juke DJs like Rashad and Spinn, and Ariel Pink only appears with his side project. There’s the August major-European-summer-rock-festival on the outskirts of Paris every year with headliners such as Green Day and Oasis. But in the middle such as this? The rock magazine Les Inrockuptibles has a multi-city touring “festival” in November as well — by festival in this case, a series of associated concerts at various venues; this year Pulp is headlining, a homegrown version with indie credibility to spare but without the openness to other genres that its American confrere offers. Pitchfork provides its bang in one place, concentrated in one indoor venue, the Grande Halle de La Villette. Built in the 1860s as “the Cattle Market Hall,” the over 200,000-sq.-ft. structure is long and imposing, with a Grand Palais–esque grandeur. Usually separated in half for most concerts and other cultural events, the organizers of Pitchfork Festival opened it up to reveal its size, placing stages of equal size and importance at either end — there was no “second stage” here in the land of egalité — and when the applause died down at one end at the end of a set, the other stage lit up immediately, without a moment’s pause. It was both thrilling and exhausting.
First Act I saw: AlunaGeorge. A lot of hype about them, this British soul/pop, pop-cum-electro with a catchy single “Your Drums, Your Love.” Given the pre-show buzz, perhaps I expected a life-altering experience. Instead, we got a sort-of dull, non-rapping replica of Nenah Cherry. The live band, as often happens with hip hop acts as well, often muddies the crisp sound of electronic instruments, lacking the punch, sacrificing the sound for a stage show (yes, a DJ with a CD mixer is not the showstopper one might hope for). After a few lackluster songs, she launched into a version of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do it” with no introduction, after which the audience applauded politely and the singer sheepishly admitted the song “wasn’t ours.” It seems that Montell Jordan is not very well known in Paris, at least among this crowd. (Warren G, though, is. A note to American artists passing though Paris — “Regulate” covers will be greatly rewarded.)
DIIV: 90s revival in mustard pleated slacks and rayon print top. Memories of Oak Tree bring me back to places I’d rather forget. Along with a dude who looks like Beck. The Joy Division-esque basslines and airy guitar melodies were appealing, but the overall effect disparity between their image and sound was so jarring as to render their concert one during which one felt it would finally be possible to sneak a cigarette outside or to slip out to the bar (quickly though, please) for a a refill of the cheap-size 4-euro (5 euros with a deposit) 8.45350568-fl.-oz. (or easier, 250-mL) Heineken. Post-concert listening though while writing this: I like it. Proof that the festival experience is difficult for acts like this.
Following the image clash was Factory Floor. High expectations again, although I knew nothing other than their brilliant, hypnotic “Two Different Ways,” which patiently and slowly builds to multiple roaring cowbell- and handclap- laden mini climaxes. Unfortunately, with a stage show that matched their style — grim, silent, methodical — the only thing left to keep our attention were the colored projections.
After a much-deserved break (to the detriment of Japandroids’ set), to satisfy a gnawing hunger, next up John Talabot. Solid electronic sounds, with a real debt to ‘90s techno, ‘90s Chicago house, psychedelic, and chillwave, all, uh, swirly and shit.
After a couple ultra-serious acts, it was time for the bigger names to take the stage. Sébastien Tellier. I knew little about his music, only about his performing in the Eurovision Song Contest back in 2008 (possibly the least probable venue to increase one’s indie cred, home to the insipid bubblegum pop that populates the American imagination of European pop) which caused quite a stir in France due to his decision to perform a song in English. Tellier has a knack for being a provocateur, and his blend of disco and French pop provided a welcome distraction and change of pace. At times provoking the audience, “you’re Parisians, you’re blasé” he said in French, and with his sunglasses and slurred speech (although it was a bottle of water he sipped on stage) he recalled Serge Gainsbourg, of the drunk, I-want-to-fuck-you-Whitney-Houston, era. At one point, intoning in the register of a French priest/cult leader, the crowd was visibly captivated.
James Blake brought the kids back to the tone set by Factory Floor — Don’t fuck with me, this shit is serious — a sort of diametrical opposite to Tellier, yet at the same time in the form of a hyper polite English boy with his toys. Blake melds soul and London electronic music to startlingly new (and not unrecognized) results. His cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love,” which begins with piano chords and his fragile voice alone, into which is thrown an incredibly bowel-jarring warbly bass line, blends the two styles to great success. Unlike Jamie Lidell, who also came from a background of electronic music, and who let his crooner side efface his electronic side almost completely, Blake amplifies and almost exaggerates it, at times looping and adding myriad effects to his voice. The bass in all his songs was overwhelmingly and almost shockingly strong, and the rhythms provided by the drummer, using both electronic and traditional drums, were fresh and crisp.
M83 has long been a strange animal — a band, (or more exactly, like the late LCD Soundsystem, the studio brainchild of one, Anthony Gonzalez, but touring and thought of as a band), almost cryptically French (indeed, eschewing most of the hallmarks of the French Touch), beloved in the U.S. and virtually unknown in their homeland. All of this began to change with the release of their latest album, and millions of French soccer fans heard snippets of the single “Midnight City” every time there was a commercial break during this year’s Euro soccer tournament. Not only a French breakthrough, but French mainstream success at last. What does this mean? It means live strings and brass…
And live sax solos, motherfucker.
However, Anthony Gonzalez remained resolutely polite and humble: near the beginning of his set, in French, he quietly noted that the audience must be very tired and wanting to go home after enduring 7 hours of live music, thanked them for staying, and asked them to please put up with 1.5 hours more. French flair? More like très anglo-saxon self-effacing humility. The music was anything but. Replete with dramatic synth washes, strings, and paired with an ‘80s-colored lightshow of turquoise and pink, their songs reminded the listener of a Terrence Malick score (when I saw The Tree of Life last year all I could think about was M83). For his home audience Gonzalez wryly translated his studio production to a captivating live show. And a long night had come to a close.
Our man in Paris, Greg Spivak is a graduate of the University of Chicago, the New York School of Hard Knocks, and the Parisian Academy for Style. He’s currently writing the great Asian American novel in Paris.