Nouvelle Vague are back – with a twist
It was all in the idea: New Wave and post-punk tunes, played in a chilled, lounged-out, bossa nova style. Potent macho anthems, cooed coquettishly by girls – in a cute French accent, to boot.
The winning style was first exhibited in Nouvelle Vague’s 2004’s self-titled debut, which brazenly cast classics by The Clash, Depeche Mode, Joy Division and others in lazy, hazy Brazilian hues.
The duo, Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, returned two years later with a follow-up, Bande à Part, which featured more-radically reworked material from alternative 1980s icons, cementing the French band’s appeal among a knowingly ironic, cult crowd.
But such kooky charm could remain in the student dorm room domain only so long, and soon the duo’s covers of tunes such as Just Can’t Get Enough and Teenage Kicks were being used to sell a variety of products, from mobile phones to frequent-flyer packages. Perhaps inevitably, the critics turned on them. What was once the duo’s raison d’être was denounced as a repetitive gimmick.
“I can completely understand,” says co-founder Marc Collin. “It’s true and it’s not true – it’s a bit unfair. "With the first and second albums, all the media said: ‘This is a great idea, a great rendition’ – and after the third album it was suddenly, ‘OK, it’s always the same thing, the same concept, we don’t want to talk about it'.
"They’re not even listening to what we’re doing, they’re just judging the idea.”
Arguably, that third album, 3, took said concept a stage further, cashing in on Nouvelle Vague’s niche notoriety by inviting classic 1980s acts to perform on increasingly radical rearrangements, which were expanded to take in country and bluegrass influences. Eager guests included Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch and Terry Hall of The Specials.
Not everyone was so keen, however. Dead Kennedys and Japan passed. Some artists went so far as to as disown the new versions.
“I heard John Lydon from Sex Pistols didn’t like what we did on God Save the Queen,” says Collin.
Former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra went so far as to issue a statement condemning the use of the cover of his expletive-laden 1981 hit in the Robert Rodriguez film Planet Terror, one half of the Grindhouse movie double bill with Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.
“I’ve never done this project to please these people – they’re punks, they don’t care,” says Collin. “In a way, I’m a punk as well, I’m just doing my thing.”
Still, the negative feedback took its toll and Nouvelle Vague have been on a semi-hiatus since the release of the 2010 album Couleurs Sur Paris, celebrating forgotten French acts of the 1980s with the same bossa-to-bluegrass makeover. There has been no new music since then live shows have been scaled back. Collin admits the wavering critical and commercial success was in part to blame.
“That is why we have stopped, because every band that has started more than 10 years ago, most fans are very attached to the first two albums,” says the 47-year-old. “I was bored of myself doing covers. I felt [suffocated].”
Instead of creating new music, Collin and Libaux have spent the past six years dividing their time between projects for both artistic and commercial gain.
For the former, this included co-writing and producing Lebanese underground icon Yasmine Hamdan’s debut solo album, Ya Nass. They both oversaw the band/brand collaboration with Starwood Hotels, supplying a “lobby mix”. This brought Nouvelle Vague to the UAE for a private gig in Le Méridien Abu Dhabi in 2014.
To some, this partnership was a sell-out. To others, it was an appropriate pairing – after all, Nouvelle Vague have arguably been making the ultimate lounge music all along.
“It’s good to go to a hotel and listen to good music,” Collin says. “And it’s also a great way for us to visit the world, too – in great, great conditions”.
While the Nouvelle Vague core remains a duo, the band has always employed a wide range of session musicians and guest vocalists, on record and on tour, helping to launch the careers of several notable singers including Camille, Mélanie Pain, Gerald Toto and Mareva Galanter.
This year, they will end their hiatus with the release of an anniversary album and documentary, provisionally entitled Nouvelle Vague by Nouvelle Vague and Some Friends. The compilation will collect four new remixes of existing material, four previously released covers re-recorded on location with traditional musicians in China, India, Mexico and Hungary, four new covers (provisional picks are tracks by The Ramones, Cocteau Twins, The Associates and Richard Hell) and – wait for it – four original songs. After 12 years, Nouvelle Vague are ready to release their first self-written music. If that does not silence the cynics, what will?
• Nouvelle Vague are live at The Music Room, Majestic Hotel Tower, Bur Dubai tomorrow from 9.30pm. Tickets cost Dh250 from www.platinumlist.ae