French rock renaissance
The days when audiences outside France sniggered at French music are well and truly over thanks to acts such as Phoenix and Daft Punk. Jim Carroll on how French music got so hip
Thomas Bangalter, left, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, from the French music group, Daft Punk
French rock band Phoenix
The fact that the most infectious, feel-good tune of the year was made by two French lads usually seen sporting motorcycle helmets is a sign of the times. Daft Punk’s Get Lucky may star the suave guitar of Nile Rodgers and be pebbledashed by the affecting falsetto of Pharrell Williams, but the real work in the engine-room was done by Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo.
The fact that one of the best albums of 2013 so far was also made by French musicians further helps this Gallic pitch. Phoenix’s latest album Bankrupt! is a creative slam-dunk, an album where the band’s sunny retro-pop, languid hooks and cosmopolitan melodies comes with added muscle thanks to producer Philippe Zdar. That they’re spending the year playing these tunes to audiences at festivals worldwide from Coachella to Primavera to Longitude is testament to the appeal of where Phoenix are at right now.
But Daft Punk and Phoenix are not alone in the current French musical peleton. A country which for decades was viewed as a byword for mainstream musical naffness (with honourable mentions to the contrary for Serge Gainsbourg) blossomed from the early 1990s onwards. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo were very much to the fore in changing perceptions about French music. The release of debut album Homework in 1997 focused attention on what was going on in Paris and started a wave of interest in the new French school.
But they weren’t the only ones in the field. Electronic music provided the bulk of this vanguard with acts like Air, Cassius, Justice, M83, Yelle, Black Strobe and others, plus a long procession of veteran DJs and producers like Laurent Garnier, David Guetta and Etienne de Crécy, putting a French spin on the agenda.
Other genres have been just as prolific. In recent years, France has given us alluring radio anthems from The Dø, mesmerising soundtracks from Yann Tiersen, headspinning psych from Ulan Bator, innovative vocal spectaculars from Camille and startling urban blues from Disiz.
There have also been bespoke indie grooves from Fránçois & The Atlas Mountains, chic folk and boho pop from Lou Doillon and turntable twists and turns from C2C. You could also add teenage producers like Madeon and Carbon Airways or the prolific David Grellier (AKA College, as featured on the Drive soundtrack) to those electronic names mentioned above. The French buzz is hard to avoid.
The confidence, assurance and quality of this music is apparent to those both inside and outside the country. Frank McWeeny is a French DJ and radio presenter based in London and is well placed to see both sides of the coin.
“I don’t think it could be in a better state, to be honest”, McWeeny says about the current scene. “As much as exporting music goes, France has always had a big reputation for massive rock and electronic artists like David Guetta or Bob Sinclair or rock’n’roll figures like Johnny Halliday, but people outside the country used to still laugh at the idea of French music. But now, especially since the release of new Daft Punk album and the return of Phoenix, you can’t ignore the really good stuff that is coming out from there.”