SUIT YOURSELF INTERVIEW FRENCH BOUTIK
FRENCH BOUTIK - International Mod power pop at it's best, Cris from Suit Yourself caught up lead singer Gabriela to talk about the band, her early influences, the French Mod scene, the fantastic places the band has played and some favourite memories in the scene.....
Hi Gabriela, can you tell us a little about yourself, where you are from and how long you have been involved in the Mod/Sixties scene.
Sure, I was born in New York but grew up mostly in the San Francisco area. I moved to Paris 15 years ago. I got involved in the mod scene when I was 16 or 17 (can’t remember exactly but was not far off my birthday !) and in the suburbs of San Francisco. I have been on and off since then, had at least 2 longer periods where I was trying to escape from mod island and be more “normal”, but always end up getting dragged back in the end :-) Scene politics is a huge drag but I love the music and fashion and scooters … although a walker and metro woman these days, Paris is really not made for scooter riding like San Francisco is.
Can you tell us a bit about your early musical influences, what got you into the scene, the clubs and rallies you used to visit and a favourite early memory.
Ah, that is a hard question. To be honest it is very hard to tell what ended up influencing anything, but my mother playing the guitar mostly to Spanish (my father was from Honduras) and then Jewish folk songs (from my stepfather’s family) and us all singing, along with my mother’s Irish-American family being quite musical and loving singing and piano, probably did not hurt. I was also in a choir at school which I loved and is probably the only reason I ended up graduating from high school.
I hung out a bit with the skate punk crowd in high school thanks to my friend who was a DJ at the school station, and after graduation (I skipped a year when I was young so was earlier than usual), a good friend that I worked with turned up looking absolutely incredible and told me she was a mod now. I didn’t have much of an idea of what this was but she told me about it went along with her to a club night and was very impressed with the clothes, scooters, music everything really. So quickly took a trip to the hairdressers and the local Salvation Army and I was really shocked how much more at home I felt in the clothes (at the time lots of beautiful 60s Italian wool was easy to get) and with all of it.
I was very lucky and our little local newspaper had an advertisement for someone selling a Lambretta, a Servetta Jet 200. I knew how to ride a motorcycle thanks to my US grandfather so got an advance on my paycheck and got it! My friend’s boyfriend from the UK, Craig Semplis, taught me how to ride it and so I was finally mobile, I didn’t know how to drive a car and still am quite bad at it so this was great.
As for listening to music, my first record was Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be There” that I picked out when I was very young, we used to watch the Jackson 5 cartoon and I was a big fan. I did go to some skate punk and other shows in high school that my friends brought me to but really didn’t get into anything. The only record I remember particularly liking from the time was Echo & the Bunnymen.
But, I really liked the 60s music I heard at the club and my friend’s house, so much more than the awful stuff on the radio at the time. I went to a local shop with her and not knowing much was lucky picking up a few records: The Harder They Come soundtrack, a Sam Cooke compilation, “Hi we’re the Miracles” and a Zombies re-issue 45 of She’s Not There and Tell Her No. I loved all of them and slowly acquired more records, mostly soul and rocksteady, but some non-mod 60s pop too.
I moved to San Francisco shortly after this and started going to the local clubs. Most often to the Mabuhay Gardens (aka The Mab), where Liz Pepin, who published a local modzine called Wham!, put on regular nights with bands and DJs. Her club, Secret Society, also did regular scooter rallies that I went to, I had a few different Lambrettas during this period.
Ah yes, I also had a Squire flexi-disc that came with her magazine (Does Stephanie Know), that and Makin’ Time were really the only revival bands that I liked, not due to really disliking the rest but really just not hearing it. My mod friends were mostly into soul and the skinhead ones rocksteady and reggae so didn’t really pick up on the others.
The scene in San Francisco went heavily scooterist for a while in the late 80s / early 90s and I admit I was quite happy to go along with it. We had an all-female scooter club and one of my favourite memories is organizing the scooter ride to a night at the Mab. The guys in the big club were sure we would screw it up being female so they boycotted it and we were quite worried to have no one, we called everyone we knew ended up having a lot more than usual and the guys were astonished when we turned up. To their credit, they congratulated us right away and that was the end of any disrespect.
Another memory: One time myself and my friend drove our scooters to a Weekender in Santa Cruz about 2 hours away. We had all kinds of mishaps like being stopped by the cops with a flashlight taped to the headset to replace a bad lamp. And on the way back she got a flat tire on her Vespa primavera that had been kitted out with a fancy pipe which made tire changing difficult. This happened on the coastal highway and the only establishments open were a cheap shop and a Hell's Angels bar. And we had no money at all.
So we made a deal she stole a patch kit from the shop if I would ask the hell's angels for tools. Luckily she was a good shoplifter and the Angels thought we were hilarious asking for metric tools. They had never seen Italian scooters before and were very impressed when she fixed it herself. I guess if we were male they would have been a bit less friendly but we made it intact.
I know a lot of people hate scooterists now which I understand but I really enjoyed this period too. There were some bad points: Running from nazis all the time (yes we had them too in San Francisco), fashion taste going out the window, but it was fun and I loved my scooter.
I then got totally out of the scene around 1992 for a couple of years after a classic big fight in my club and some other bad things happening, a good friend was killed and everything was very aggressive atmosphere. I got into motorcycles and tried to listen to different music and wear new clothes but always something was missing and ended up back in again in the mid-90s after running into some old friends and going to a club called Pop Scene that Omar Perez was running. There was another fun club called Darling that Sarah Baumann put on. Kirk Harper, who was a mod soul DJ in the 80s ended up hosting Pop Scene at 330 Ritch Street so there were a few of us from the old scene that caught onto it this way. It was a mix of Brit Pop and 60s sounds, and while I didn’t really latch on to any of the newer bands so much (I did see Supergrass who were fantastic) as still a bit stuck in 60s land I had lots of fun and it’s really thanks to that that I got back into the scene. Just good music and dancing and good times, no more Nazis to run from !
Well after that I had a bit of a purist period and didn’t listen to much apart from r&b and soul (Herbie Goins is my favourite, love James Ray too), apart from the Zombies who I still loved, and also got to go to the New Untouchables Isle of Wight rally where my friend’s band, the Nick Rossi Set, were playing. Rob Bailey arranged for a Lambretta sx150 rental which I rode down from London and that was really a fun time. And I got to see Herbie Goins at another rally there too as well as Italy, he was fantastic.
Then, to make a long story a bit shorter, I moved to Paris, got out of the scene tried some new things notably flamenco and then yet again got back into it here! I ran across a DJ night at a bar near my house, le Baron Samedi, and loved it (general 60s and soul) and picked up a few flyers for other things going on, that my friend Olivier (who has put out a few records now under Popincourt) was up for going to as well. There were soul allnighters in Montmartre at the time and a bar called Ne Nous Fachons Pas where they always play good music. So here I am again and guessing for good this time.
What sort of music do you like now, where do you like to go, favourite clubs and rally destinations?
For sure my musical tastes have developed a lot since being in the band. I really was quite a 60s snob and hadn’t listened to much pop or revival or brit pop, even The Jam, but Serge and Zelda both listen to a lot of this and obviously, we are a pop band so it has been fun to catch up on all that I missed. I still love soul and r&b (Irma Thomas & Tammi Terrell are also longtime favourites) and generally find the rocksteady version of anything superior to the original (Yes I know not strictly mod either but have lots of skinhead friends who rubbed their musical tastes off on me), but also like a lot of not at all mod scene stuff (the Zombies still, The Equals,The Everly Brothers 60s period, Tony Bennett - Let’s Begin, French singers like Charles Trenet and Françoise Hardy, the totally uncool Simon & Garfunkel). I’ve been listening to the radio shows we are on which have lots of different sounds and enjoying quite a bit.
I love mod weekenders, great reason to visit somewhere interesting, listen to great music and have fun with friends - I can’t wear flamenco shoes anymore but I still love to dance - and we go to Brighton pretty much every year as it’s such a great event and also an excuse to visit my friend who lives nearby and catch up with lots of other friends. So it was really cool to finally play there this year although meant uncharacteristic getting up early and less all night fun ! There is a very good one in Nice called the Riviera weekend, also had really enjoyed the Glasgow Mod Weekender a while back and Rome too this year but I have yet to have a bad time at any of them. Everyone says Lavarone is fantastic so hope to make that one day.
What is your favourite part of the scene? the clothes? music? events? Socialising?
Everything really! I appreciate when other people dress nicely and don’t really feel comfortable when I have tried other styles of clothes, I love playing and listening to and dancing to music which means events, and not all but most of my friends are related to the scene in some way. I enjoy both stricter mod events (really the best for dancing and everyone looks great) as well as the more revival oriented nights (more creativity and personality in bands).
Our readers would love to know about the French scene, What is the scene like? Is it a thriving scene?
I’m sad to say it is pretty small and definitely not thriving :-( Not just for my band, we rarely find shows here due to lack of interest - of course we have local fans but in general the very few mods here that do go out prefer DJ nights and even those have problems with attendance. The people that like to go see live bands prefer a more garage / 60s sound, and again even those groups have a hard time finding places to play due to lack of support The few times we have played at bigger clubs they have to bill us at a “60s dance party’ - I can imagine the total disappointment when they get us instead ! Even most music journalists have no idea what a mod is, they think it is an Austin Powers 60s party or pretending to be English.
In France people just think we are completely weird, actually a review here last year described us as coming from another planet and the only time we got in a major print magazine it just said “strange” ;-) There are a lot of really good groups in France but they are quite different than us. Singing mostly in French does not help either, people think it’s cool here to sing in English even when they don’t personally speak it and they are mystified that I don’t given that it is my native language so would be pretty easy.
Paris is a wonderful city to live in and visit but gentrification is happening and clubs, where you can have a full kit vs acoustic things, are closing. We have friends who put on regular very small DJ nights at places like the Tiki Lounge, and some are bigger events, the Paris Magic City soul night which is about twice per year and really good fun, and Le Cercle Modernist who have a great blog and also put on authentic mod nights around twice per year. .
It’s really surprising for a bigger international city to have such a tiny scene, I really can’t explain it.
Can you tell us about the band, how many of you are in the band, how long you have been performing together and a little about each band member?
Serge (guitarist) started French Boutik with our drummer Zelda around 2009 I think? Then the original bass player Elian joined along with singer Flora, they did a few shows locally and once in La Rochelle, and then Iky joined on keyboards. They had done a demo but nothing actually put out. I joined in 2011 after Flora quit, and since then Elian and Iky have left and we have Jean-Marc Joannès on bass and a rotating cast of guest keyboardists.
At the time that Flora decided to leave the band, I was studying flamenco dancing fairly seriously. My old SF scene friend Fred Eagle (who has also done lots of photos and videos for us and even played bongos one time Zelda couldn’t make it !) was visiting and suggested me to give it a go which seemed like a very silly idea given that I had never been in a band before in my life and had not sung anything since high school choir, but since I was sidelined from dancing by a foot operation I figured why not. I didn’t like the fact that they sung everything in English before (that is unfortunately quite typical for a lot of French bands), even if the lyrics were quite good, so here was my chance to personally change that which I did pretty quickly!
I had really enjoyed their shows and the fact that they had very original songs which made them stand out from a lot of scene bands. To be honest, I was pretty terrible at first, but I was enjoying it enough to try to keep going.
Zelda, who started the group with Serge as I mentioned, is not only an excellent and versatile drummer but great lyricist in both English and French and singer. She comes from the skinhead scene but likes lots of different music : jazz, garage, britpop, soul, powerpop, even some oi. I don’t think I have ever met anyone else with such a wide variety of tastes and capabilities.
Serge as mentioned writes almost all of the music, some of the lyrics, plays guitar and also sings. Like Zelda he likes lots of different music, he was inspired to start playing after seeing The Jam which is probably still number one in his heart, but he also loves XTC, Elvis Costello, the Kinks, The Drifters, The Undertones, the Damned ... on the French side Claude Nougaro, Henri Salvador, Jacques Dutronc, The Dogs, Bertrand Burgalat. He actually met Zelda while DJing a mod / soul night here so also loves all of that too.
Jean-Marc joined on bass a few years back. We did not know him very well, he was a customer at our friend Martin C’s shop where I was working and had never seen him play but we needed a bass player when Elian left. And as he had taken really great photos of the group live so we figured he had good taste and was conscientious and we knew he liked us so we took a bit of a chance to invite him to try out. He turned out to be a perfect complement to the group, a cool guy to hang out with and a very melodic player so it has worked out very nicely.
For keyboard: Usually, our good friend Olivier Popincourt who also played on our albums but sometimes Susanne Shields who also plays the flute, we had Emer from Trambeat for one weekend of shows, and we will have Toby Kinder from the Gene Drayton Unit guesting soon in the UK as well. We love a nice organ sound but it’s more of a compliment than essential to the songs, and a lot easier to manage with just 4 real group members. Plus Olivier has his own music going on plus his job and family so he can’t be with us all the time. We’re all juggling full-time jobs and the band but the only children are grownups or cats for the rest of us!
Live, we also have our friend Graham Lentz (The Influential Factor author and also works with the New Untouchables) guesting with us on percussion when we play where he can make it to the show, that adds a great spark and company.
Where did you all meet and what style of music do you play?
As mentioned above, Zelda and Serge met at a soul DJ night he was putting on, I met Serge at 4 a.m. on the dance floor of a soul allnighter (that I actually went to with Olivier Popincourt as we were friends), and Jean-Marc when he was sending us the photos he had taken of us playing in Paris.
As for style, well it’s basically pop which does not mean much, we came up with “pop moderniste” which I think actually is pretty logical. It’s French, it’s pop, and even though pop is not strictly mod music we’ve all listened to a lot of more traditional mod styles so much I think it comes through in the sound. I think we are modernist in the sense that we pay careful attention to timeless good music and style but try to move forward and create our own thing instead of copying past groups.
We sing about things that we think and talk about in the language that we speak to each other in:A lot of politics (I think you could safely say we are all mid to extreme left), cats (we love them), Paris (the native city to ¾ of the band), and even the occasional love song.
We like catchy melodies, strong guitar but also unusual harmonies and chords, whatever rhythms make sense for the particular song. People have compared us to all kinds of things, sometimes I don’t really see the connection, but probably my favorite was “Booker T and the MGs meet Stereolab” ! We don’t play covers unless we take a lot of time to transform the song into something different like we have done a few times with Madness, The Clash and The Jam for the Specialized charity compilations, and also had a Françoise Hardy on the last album and will have a Henri Salvador on the next.
Can you tell our readers about some of the fantastic gigs you have played at and some of the cool places you have visited.
We are really lucky to have been able to play lots of cool places, outside of the UK we have been to Montreal, Moscow 3 times, Ireland, a few places in Spain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Copenhagen and even San Francisco.
Moscow was an incredible experience, and we got to play with our friend’s band The Riots (sadly split up since) and meet lots of really interesting people. Of course you could travel to Moscow anytime, but actually participating with other bands and DJs made it completely special. Also a couple of months back in Carpi Italy it was wonderful, a beautiful place and very nice people, and of course we ate as much food as possible. And Dublin is a fantastic place to play, really enthusiastic and fun crowd, that was the first foreign place we played that I saw people singing along to our songs, hoping to get back there soon.
Playing on an island in Sweden with our friends The Most was rather incredible too. Even though they didn’t tell us in advance that the boat left at 8 a.m. getting us all up and ready for that was painful ! Also, we played a ska festival for the first time in Germany this year, which was memorable for both people not hating us as we had feared and the Heptones really liking and congratulating us.
We’ve been so lucky to visit so many cool places and meet great people. It’s kind of the upside of not having much of a scene in Paris, we are forced to travel to play but we love it. The hard part is paying for it of course, lots of small clubs just don’t have the budget so we try to get a couple of dates over the weekend to pay the cost of the trip.
Is there a difference between playing in the UK to Europe?
Honestly not so much, although a big difference is that we have played the UK so much more than other places there are a lot of familiar faces at gigs. We have played some of the same places a few times (Albert’s - formerly Putney and now Brixton, the Pelton Arms, the Essex Arms) and with the same favorite groups too : The Sha La Las, The Sound of Pop Art, Dr Bird, it is like coming home really in a strange way but always exciting.
Although in other European countries there are good mod scenes so the reception is not so different from the UK there, just not quite as active. I get the feeling there is a connection between England and France that isn’t the same elsewhere (apart from perhaps Ireland). They aren’t against something in the French language but not as many attracted by either.
Before I get carried away, there is one bad thing, the clubs never give you food in the UK - they always do in Europe apart from Paris - and often do not have a backline which is a bit hard for foreign bands who can’t bring a drumkit with them !
How have you found the UK scene?, are we receptive to you guys?
You know it was such a surprise to us, the English, who one would assume would be a bit chauvinist when it comes to language and music, have reacted so well we play there a lot ! I guess it is logical as really we are a mod band and the UK is the home of modernism, and even though we don’t copy the music we like, we grew up listening to the same type of stuff people listen to there so this must come through in our songs. But it’s not just the mod audience, when we played the Indie Tracks festival in July we had a really nice reception.
Maybe cool for them to have something a bit different ? I don’t know really, what happens frequently is the clubs are afraid to book us as they think a foreign language will put people off, but then if we manage to get in people like us so then they book us again. We had one night where we replaced another band at the last minute, and at a soul night too, generally not the most open minded of audiences. The promoter was very nervous and asking if we had songs in English. I had to reassure him all would be OK and it was, by the end of the show we were signing set lists.
The other cool part is getting to see and hang out with so many bands that we maybe have more in common with than the ones at home. We have made lots of great friends and had some wonderful times there.
I have to mention the great support from DJs from the very beginning really helped us as people got familiar with our music. We’re on a few more now but Alan May from the Glory Boy Show, Tommy Clark in Scotland, Warren Peace from the old controversial We Are the Mods, Wayne from Ice Cream Man, Captain Stax from Mod Radio UK, M Suave, Guillermo and Franky from Radiolux, Steve Worrall from Retroman, all of them played our very first record and said nice things which was very encouraging.
And our late friend Jeff Foster who rescued us when in a bad place for London lodging likely strong armed quite a few in London into coming to see us.
Possibly also too the fact that we are extremely political but it is in another language and usually about French politics so not as controversial in the UK ? We had a song out about Macron - Le Mac from Front Pop - Zelda wrote way before he even ran for President, he was the finance minister under Hollande. It was already clear he was the new poster boy for the old scam : Support tax cuts to big companies and help rich people hide their money in tax havens, all the while cutting public services and accusing poor people of being lazy. I doubt he has heard it but probably not the best way to get on the radio here !
If you had to pick out an outstanding gig which one would it be and why.
Argh, that is so difficult ! I am going to have to say the first time at the 100 club with Lack of Afro, it was a great show and so cool to be playing at a place so many legends have played. Although the first time actually going to Moscow is hard to beat. We could hardly believe it was real, even if brought to reality by -20 temperatures as was January !
Although if I polled the band I think we would also cite the March of the Mods Essex last year where we got to play with loads of great bands, and getting to play the 100 Club with the Fay Hallam Group was a dream come true. Also playing with the Senior Service at the Putney Club that was fantastic, and Brighton of course was great.
Can you tell us about the writing process in the band?
For almost all songs Serge comes up with the original melody and we split lyrics duties between Zelda, him and myself, sometimes separately and sometimes together, and then we work out the final arrangement together in rehearsal. It takes us a pretty long time for each song, I’d say minimum 3 months from start to finish once we already have the basic melody and lyrics and sometimes longer.
What advise would you give an aspiring musician?
Don’t be aspiring, just play ! Even if it is in your living room or local café. And, if you are composing yourself or with others, while of course, you have influences don’t make up your mind in advance, be yourself and work out the best thing for the song however that develops. And forget the tortured artist thing, enjoy yourself when you can, life is too short and if you don’t enjoy it, go do something else.
And, not only forget about being a star, don’t expect to make any money at all, if you can figure out how to keep playing while working a paying job and people are there to listen to you, you’re already lucky these days. That is of course not good - it’s pretty difficult to find a decent job at all these days, much less one where you can take time off and if you have a young family it’s really just impossible - but at the same time if you can swing it brings a certain freedom. There is no point in selling out to do songs you think will be more popular, even bands that do that can’t make a living.
Can you tell us about your past releases and what you have planned for the future.
We released three 4 song EPs on CopaseDisques : The first two (Les Chats de gouttière and Ici paris) are sold out on vinyl but these days with ebay and discogs probably can find them, and I think a few still left of Mieux comme ça. They were compiled by Detour Records along with a compilation track and an unreleased cover of the Riots, that is on cd only and called French Boutik : The Essential.
Our first album, Front Pop was released in 2017 on CopaseDisques, it sold out its first run so there is a fun red coloured vinyl version available now and it is also available on cd from Detour. We did the Madness, Clash and Jam covers for Specialized benefitting the Teenage Cancer Trust, those were on cd only and sold out but the Madness was on Mieux comme ça and also on The Essential.
We’ve been on a few compilations, we love to do them whenever we can, it’s fun to get records with your own song plus other bands and a good way for people to discover the group.
Our version of The Jam’s “The Place I Love” (L’endroit que j’aime) is now out on a special double vinyl single with Popincourt’s “Tonight at Noon” - also on CopaseDisques with all profits going to Specialized and the Teenage Cancer Trust.
We just finished recording and mixing our 2nd album, tentative called “L’âme de Paris” but we aren’t 100% sure yet. That was produced by Andy Lewis and we are currently finalizing release plans, almost certainly in January 2019.
We were really happy to have Andy produce us. Even though he is not French he really seemed to understand our music and paid attention to the lyrics which is important for us. He didn’t just record us and make it sound nice but contributed a lot of ideas to the arrangements and added lots of cool little touches like bicycle bells, gas canisters and metro announcements. I really loved the last record he did for the Fay Hallam Group, it was one of the best I have heard recently, so when I met him and he proposed to record us it was perfect.
We are absolutely thrilled with the end result, Andy did such a good job and recording was a pleasure. Already our live set is at least half new songs which are going over very well which is always nice.
Where can we buy the bands music?
CopaseDisques, Heavy Soul and Detour should have pretty much everything apart from the sold out EPs, or you can also get them from us directly : https://frenchboutik.ecwid.com/
They are online in all the usual places too - Spotify, Soundcloud, itunes etc.
Where can our readers find out more about French Boutik?
We do have a web site but honestly as hard to fit in updates with work, the best for now is to go to our Facebook page where we post everything HERE