La Femme est La Femme
Psycho. Tropical. Berlin. Words chosen by French sextet La Femme to announce their debut album, which presents synth-rock as you’ve never heard it before. The title is both instantly evocative and a bit difficult to unpack, like the songs contained within. The band’s story, on the other hand, is a little simpler to explain.
Founding members Marlon Magnée and Sacha Got met as schoolboys in Biarritz, on the coast of French Basque country. After some years and a lot of work in GarageBand, they moved to Paris and expanded into a six-piece, including Clémence Quélennec, Nuñez Ritter, Sam Lefevre, and Noé Delmas. Since the release of Psycho Tropical Berlin last year, they’ve exploded into one of France’s leading rock acts—and now their sights are set beyond that small hexagon.
Like Yelle before them, La Femme are rapidly attracting a cult fanbase of American listeners who may not understand all the words, but can’t deny the vibes. This is thanks in no small part to their high-energy live shows, sure to convert the uninitiated. “We have the rock ‘n’ roll spirit,” Got says. “Like CBGB in the 70s.”
It’s a shame that the infamous punk venue never got to see Magnée jump offstage swinging a rubber chicken over his head, or Got dive into the audience on an actual surfboard. “It’s an exchange, you know?” says Magnée. “The more the crowd’s crazy, the more we are crazy. And the more we are crazy, the more the crowd is crazy.”
Clémence Quélennec’s stage presence is more reserved, but she leads the band with a fierce calm that anchors Magnée’s zanier behavior. “Music is sharing,” she adds. It’s this understanding that allows La Femme to cross the language barrier.
“The most important [thing] is the vibe of the sound,” Got says. “When we were little, we listened to American [and] English music. I didn’t understand, but if the music was good, I listened.”
Despite restrictions that require at least 40 percent of songs played on the radio to be in French, there’s no doubt that anglophone culture has an overwhelming influence in France. Many other artists have seen the international success of acts like Phoenix and M83 and follow their English-speaking leads; some even relocate to the U.K. to pursue new audiences. La Femme, however, stay resolutely true to the tricolore.
“With America everywhere in the world, and in music, it’s the same,” describes Magnée, whose Doc Martens are tied with French flag-printed shoelaces, “people want to copy the American bands and do the same, but it’s shit, I think. Because after this, everyone will be uniform.”
There’s no chance of that happening with La Femme. Quélennec notes sometimes feeling pressure to positively represent French culture abroad and combat the Gallic reputation for rudeness, though she’s little cause for concern. With a fondness for berets and flawlessly-applied red lipstick, the singer exudes classically Parisienne charm. She may let Magnée and Got do most of the talking, but her look says volumes, delivered with a demure, knowing wink.
“There’s too much Americanization in our country,” Magnée expounds. “American people don’t sing about France, but we know everything about America because we see a lot of movies and know exactly how it is. We want people to be open-minded, there is not only America.”
La Femme mine from their home country’s musical history to create a sound that might be best described as “surf Gainsbourg.” Indeed, “Hypsoline” is a sensual spoken-word track in the vein of those on Histoire De Melody Nelson, the godfather of French rock’s magnum opus. Got also cites the lesser-known track “La Horse” as a favorite.
“We’re big fans of Serge Gainsbourg,” Magnée says. “After that, I don’t think there’s a typical French style, because other countries are influences. In the 60s, yé-yé [a type of French pop] was influenced by American stuff, it’s kind of multicultural. There’s not a typical sound.”
As writers, he and Got certainly aim for the atypical. Conventional song structure is abandoned almost completely on Psycho Tropical Berlin, even on the tracks that are loaded with irresistible hooks. Riff-heavy hit “Sur La Planche” pays tribute to the band’s beach town roots, but there’s a macabre undercurrent reinforced by a violent music video lit in Lynchian red. Magnée has cited everything from the Velvet Underground to spaghetti Western soundtracks to the Sex Pistols as influences. This varied background manifests in the relentless push and pull that occurs across the album.
Psychedelia plays its part, as well; the record’s concept was inspired by a woman who watched over the band while they were on shrooms in Berlin, where brutalist architecture contrasts with the sand and sea of their origins. These disparate images come together on Psycho Tropical Berlin’s primary-colored cover art, which Magnée proffers as an illustration.
“It was a girl like that who was flying in the sky,” he remembers, smiling.