Julien Gasc :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The music of French singer-songwriter, troubadour, and multi-instrumentalist Julien Gasc is a perennial gift. Shortly before the world locked down due to Covid-19, Gasc released his third LP, L’Appel de la Forêt. Both a stylistic break and continuation of his evolving muse, we asked our mutual friend Derek Wheeler James to catch up with Gasc, via phone from his home in Toulouse, to discuss the album’s aesthetic origins, and more. Also: if you have not yet done so, be sure to check out Gasc’s Lagniappe Session from April, here.

Aquarium Drunkard: When I listen to the new album (L’Appel de la Forêt) with headphones on, I’m really drawn to dissecting what exactly I’m hearing.  Of course, I’m moved by your vocals and melodies, but because I don’t speak French, I’m quite focused on the instruments, performance, and production. With this record, you’re really obscuring the idea of this is this and that is that. Sometimes when I’m hearing it, I can’t tell a drum machine or a drummer? Is that a keyboard or a pedal steel? The way the voices and arrangements are, it all gets so interwoven and obscured.  Can you say the producer’s name again?

Julien Gasc: Benjamin Glibert.

AD: Did you record the last album in Brussels?

Julien Gasc: We recorded the musical part in London in a studio called Wilton Way Studio, which is in London up north in Dalston. In an old pub. We stayed for 7 days and recorded live. We’d practice the song, and Benjamin would give us notes. When we were ready, we’d record a few takes and keep the best take we’d have on drums. Then, we would multi-track on top of it. Most of the time it was me on organ, Syd Kemp on bass, and Cédric Monzali on drums. Benjamin played piano on some tracks. It was a lively recording session. Some of the songs we had percussion going live as well. Most of the time, percussion and pedals would come after duties around 6 or 7 pm. We also had Harry Bohay on pedal steel, Eno Inwang on percussion, and myself and Benjamin playing everything, even the accordion. There’s an accordion on the 1st track, and we played a four-hands accordion on it. I played a guitar solo on the last track. Benjamin told me to do it in one take so we could be off for the day, so that was pretty quick. Then, we came back to Brussels and let the tapes rest for a couple of months.

I penned the lyrics of the record after. I wrote around 200 pages and got started in English. My idea was to think of songs in English. The guy at the label told me we weren’t going to have the French radio play it like that. So I rewrote everything a second time. I’ve got a pile of writings for the record, and I kept around 15 pages. It’s just love songs, mostly — most of the songs were written for my lady. I used the forest as a metaphor of someone getting lost in the forest. Originally, the record was going to be called The Color of the Forest because I grew up in the forest. On my first record, there’s a question of a deer, on my second there’s a unicorn, and on my third one I wanted there to be a forest. I had the title of the record before writing the lyrics. My final name was The Call of the Forest because if I’m in Toronto tomorrow, the forest where I grew up still calls to me. I hear this call of the wild everywhere. I imagined something hidden from me, and I remembered walking 7 or 10 miles in the middle of the night going back to my parent’s in the middle of the forest. I feel comfy in the forest. It is where I belong.

DJ: You said that with this album, you wanted to do a lot in English. Why this one? The first two were in French.

Julien Gasc: Because I recorded in London, so I have a strong connection with London. Even if I’m not a good, fluent English speaker, I feel like it’s a sort of ideal to sing some songs in English. But the guy at the label told me “You’re wrong. We need French for the radio.”

AD: So the label is mainly focused on the radio in France, but that’s fine because we still love it here anyways. In some ways, that opens it up even more for the listener. Maybe you connect more with it in the musical feeling or mood. You’re not as influenced by what the actual person is talking about. But that can go both ways.

Julien Gasc: For example, you take the first song, “La Trêve Internationale.” I read one morning about La Trêve Internationale, which is like an international break for the rugby or soccer teams. The clubs and championships in each country stop for the players to go with the national teams and go play international matches. It’s very interesting because we’re in the middle of an international break. It’s an echo of what we’re in now. I’m a big fan of soccer, so I read this and I kept it. But the song is about I just talked to my girl and she said she’s really fed up with her work. I tell her she should quit, but she’s thinking about our trip to the USA. So I say, “Okay, so let’s dance,” and at one point it says it’s the international break, and people are focused on something else, which is burning cars and demonstrations in Paris. We had strong demonstrations last year. Paris was a mess for months and months. All the songs are about what we needed last year in 2019 and 2018. It’s sort of a diary. It still resonates now because we have this international break. People are saying that I’m cynical, but I’m not making jokes. Sometimes I do jokes in the songwriting and words, but I’m not cynical. I’m talking to the one I love and saying true things. I try to use simple French, which was a big challenge.

AD: All of a sudden we’re in this global pandemic, and this album came out in January. Do you feel that it’s incredibly appropriate now?

Julien Gasc: Oh, yeah. It resonates with how we live now.

AD: So you said it’s about your experiences in Paris last year and everything you were seeing, but also love songs.

Julien Gasc: Most of the songs are just love songs, with the exception of “Maracabela” which is a track where I wanted to give a little message to the women who suffer in the dark because they were left or they don’t know how to handle their life. They’re sitting in the dark waiting on something good to happen. “Maracabela” was based on a Brazilian dance called Maracatu. It’s like a blues song. The choir helped globalize the message. I wanted a Brazilian vibe on this one.

AD: I hear it on the whole record. When I think of French and Brazilian music, they’re similar in so many ways. The connection has been linked for a long time. I’m curious for your perspective on this. You’ve listened to so much music in your life that you’ve absorbed and turned into your own .. and one can of course hear all of the decades of French sensibilities in your music, but I hear so much Brazilian influence as well. When I think about the difference between the two, they overlap in so many ways. You can separate them, but the sense of rhythm and melody is what I’m getting at – the similarities they share. It’s like the French absorbed the rhythms of Brazil, but the melody and call-and-response has been going on for so long in Brazilian music. When you take that on in your music, it feels natural and organic.

Julien Gasc: We’ve had the troubadour culture since the 12th century. My dear friend who made the graphic design of the record, Sébastien Trihan, used to live in Brazil, and he lived with a family in the northeast of Brazil. The old mama at the house was a queen and she said something to him that the words and way of singing was inspired by the French troubadours. The connection in the Brazilian music has been there since the very start. But French troubadours got robbed by the English who just took the idea back to England. But the troubadours were there in Brazil, singing in the fields and making parties.

AD: Once again, from the outsider perspective, even something about the sound of French and Portuguese with the way that you sing and phrase the melodies, they just have so much connection. Your album is so exciting because everything feels so modernized. I felt that way as well with the Sébastien Tellier album that he did with Arthur Verocai, L’Aventura. It’s like – here’s this French guy who is into electronic dance music yet is connecting with this Brazilian melodic and rhythmic genius. It’s seamless. It feels natural, whereas in the US it would feel like “Oh, they wish they were Brazilian. They fetishize that style.” When you think about L’Appel de la Forêt compared to your first two LPs, musically where do you see yourself going from here? I feel like you keep stepping it up each time with these three albums. I appreciate how vibrant and modern this one is. As much as we talk about the idea of being influenced by people who have made great music, nobody wants to hear somebody do the same thing that someone’s already done. It’s more exciting to hear something that’s like “Wow, it sounds like 2020.” This is now.

Julien Gasc: Yeah, this is now. I really wanted to make a record like that. I talked to Benjamin and said “We really need something modern,” and you’re the first interviewer who has said that it’s modern. In France, everybody said “He sounds ‘60s, ‘70s and is trying to sound like this,” but they didn’t really listen to the record. They don’t listen to records, I think. It’s nice to hear that you think it’s modern because that was our purpose from the start.

AD: Maybe they’re listening to it from a different context, but for me, I hear that immediately.  The type of songs and melodies that you write are informed by music from all decades, so somebody might point that out and say “Oh it sounds ‘70s,” whereas you’d be like “I love The Beatles. They’re a huge influence on me.” There’s a difference between being influenced by something and carrying something on into the future, rather than throwing out that idea of songwriting and being like “We just write dance music.”  To merge everything is to move the ball forward. If you really think about it and listen, you can hear how you are modernizing this type of songwriting – and I love how dry the production is, the dead sound and not just putting reverb on everything all the time. I could hear a hiphop producer being inspired by what you’re doing.

Julien Gasc: The deal was to make demos, so with Benjamin we made some demos of the record. I made like 5 tracks on my own, and I just got a Moog, an organ, a bass, and a drum machine on my iPhone, and I would sequence the grooves. I said from the very beginning to Benjamin, “I don’t want no jamming around with this record. We really need to focus on the grooves and go back to the basics.” There’s not much jamming on this record. The deal of the record was to write pop songs starting with some dance influences from Columbia, Chile, and Brazil. “La Trêve Internationale,” is a sort of white, blue-eyed Cumbia. We had this other song, “Passer, Laisser,” which is a Cueca, a dance from Chile. It’s a limping sort of groove. It was hard to make it sound in a studio with a proper band. The demos were okay, but with real people, we had to take a day with this one. It was the first day, and we spent maybe 8 hours on it. The other track, “L’Appeal de la Forêt,” I wrote the instrumentals of it based on some grooves that I found on my drum machine. All the record was demoed, and the last track was written by a friend of mine, Marker Starling. He’s this guy from Toronto and he makes blue-eyed soul. This was a b-side from a record he put out in 2001 on Tomlab. The record was called Monody, and his name back then was Mantler. He sent me a few demos, and I told him I’d really love to have one of his songs. This song was meant to be on this record because it resonated with what I was living at the time. I was high on love, and Marker Starling told me when he wrote it he was real high on love. It’s the only song in English on the record.

AD: What about track 4, “Libertas et Firegasc?” What is firegasc?

Julien Gasc: It’s me, but it’s evil me. It’s me as a cat. I wrote this song on New Year’s Eve because I really wanted to be with my girl. I’m just moaning, and I improvised the lyrics. It’s like I’m fed up and I just want to see her and she’s partying with her people. It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m left alone with my bananas and a bottle of champagne. There’s this evocation of my girlfriend saying “Don’t lose your frame of cool. Be gentle. It’s not over today. Let’s hang tomorrow.” I’m just moaning and saying “I want to see you. I want to see you.” At midnight I go to message, and she was like “Happy New Year, my animal.” It’s my diary of New Year’s Eve alone in Brussels where I’m just hanging out and desperate. At one point around 9:30, I’m taking a cab to my friend’s, and then we went to dance. So, “Libertas” is my girlfriend, and “Firegasc” is myself. On Statues of Liberty, there was always a cat at her feet because the cat is the animal that is free. It was an idea made from antiquity, my girlfriend being Liberty and I’m the cat at her feet. The cat hates to get orders. Cat is free by essence.

AD: This track is so R&B. Is that a guitar that comes in off the top?  I love that hook.

Julien Gasc: It’s the pedal steel through a whammy.

AD: That’s crazy. That comes across sounding like an electric guitar or keys. It’s such a strong hook.

Julien Gasc: I wrote that melody line on my Moog. When I gave the melody to the steeler, he said “I’m not going to be able to do this. It’s impossible to play.” He had to find good positions to play it. The melody was not written for pedal steel, but we did it somehow. He played it.

AD: And who’s the woman that’s singing?

Julien Gasc: Her name is Catherine Hershey, like the chocolate. She’s born in Pontiac, Michigan. She sings on all the albums, since the very first record.

AD: She’s so great, and that’s another interesting reoccurring thing with your writing. The call-and-response that you frequently use. It’s like the yin to your yang of the lead vocals. Your vocal is very front and center on this album, very dry. It brings it into a whole different space than the previous albums. This album definitely feels different, but to have that similarity of her being there really glues it together with your other work in a way that I love.

Julien Gasc: She’s the link of the record. I really wanted to sing in English, and she did it. She’s born in Pontiac, so she could do it. I wrote all the lines that she would sing on track 4, and I told her to go in the cabin and improvise and just shout. When she came back to hear what she recorded, she was like “Oh guys, you’re not going to keep this?” But yeah, of course we’re going to use it.

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