An Art-Pop Amalgam for the Masses:
Elucidating the Enigma That is La Femme
Trying to get a better understanding of La Femme is difficult, and not based on the effect of co-founder and guitarist Sacha Got’s somewhat limited grasp on English and his heavy, intermittently indecipherable French accent. No matter their native language, they’d still be hard to pin down. To put it succinctly, La Femme is a conceptual conglomerate.
Let’s begin the demystification process by explaining the bits and pieces that comprise their sound. Last year’s Psycho Tropical Berlin, their debut full-length, culls from abstract moods as equally as iconic musical influences. The album name represents a trifecta of inspiration: insanity, sun and iciness, respectively. The latter seems to offer the greatest room for interpretation.
“Berlin is a concept of… industrial [music]… a big party with big sound, these kind of concepts,” Got says.
In their undeniably stylish pastiche, La Femme appropriates the sultriness of ‘60s ye-ye, the electronic rigidity of krautrock, early surf-rock’s radiant summer-fun vibe and a smidge of post-punk discord. Those familiar nuances are feathered in alongside a nod to futurism, which evokes a feeling not unlike the kind you get when looking at high-end Cold War fashions from the ‘60s – the aim was function, sometimes even protection, but it was so aesthetically avant-garde that it never caught on. La Femme, however, is instantly likable.
Furthering the enigmatic element of the Biarritz-bred group is that, despite the prevalence of female vocals, there isn’t a specific female singer credited as part of the project. Instead, there are several: Jayne Peynot, Clara Luciana, Marilou Chollet and Clémence Quélennec. Got and his songwriting counterpart, keyboardist Marlon Magnée, have stated publicly that they doubt a single perfect female voice exists. But for live shows, Got clarifies, it’s always Quélennec.
It’s still a bit confusing, though. I pondered out loud to Got: Why not make at least Quélennec a permanent member? Apparently presuming my question was a result of translation issues, their manager, Stephane Le Sciellour, chimes in.
“Sometimes it’s not very clear in English,” he says. “Clémence is La Femme’s singer. She’s performing all of the live song[s]; she goes on tour with them. She is the singer of the band. La Femme is a concept; it’s not just one singer. In the studio they’re working with several singers. But Clémence is always the singer onstage.”
Although Magnée and Got didn’t really relinquish the songwriting reins on the album to anyone else, it’s not unfeasible that eventually someone else – be it bassist Sam Lefèvre, percussionist Nunez Ritter, drummer Noé Delmas or a brand new whoever – could be part of their next creation.
“There are no rules,” Got says “It depends.”
Swapping singers throughout the more than 20 tunes is a tactful decision, actually. They like the idea of La Femme seeming mysterious. Got doesn’t present himself as a ringleader. He actually prefers the idea of a pack without a frontman. And they’ve achieved that goal – at least for anyone who becomes hip to the fact that there isn’t a front-lady at the helm.
Their grasp on surf is also somewhat bewildering, but only to a point. France isn’t known for the sport, of course, but – unbeknown to under-cultured Westerners like myself – Biarritz is a coastal town that hosts heaps of visiting surfers, particularly at its Grande Plage in La Cote Basque. In fact, three years ago Got and Magnée met some Californians in town for a competition, and as a result embarked on their first American tour.
“When we were going, we had one EP,” Got recalls. “But we have everything for the album, it was coming out.”
“They left for the US nine months after they decided to start a band, but basically they already were at this stage, where they had all the songs on the album already,” Le Sciellour points out. “They were performing all these songs for two years before they started to record.”
The trip lasted three months, during which they played 27 shows – all without a percussionist.
“When we [went to the States for] the first time, we don’t have drummer and we play with rhythm box…drum machine, sorry,” he says. “And we didn’t have the singer. But we find the singer, and now it is everybody, it should be cool.”
They didn’t escape fledgling status right away, and there were some growing pains involved. Laying down the tracks for Psycho Tropical Berlin was, apparently, quite a feat for the novice players.
“It was very long, and very perilous,” he says. “Finally we did it, and it was cool, but it took a long time because we [had to] discover the process of recording. And, us, we want to try some stuff, because sometimes there was kind of [experimental] stuff, but you only have one week for the recording. You are under pressure.”
“In various studios, different places, and it took a long time,” Le Sciellour adds. “They were recording and recording and recording – very, very messy.”
It may have been a trying, tiresome operation, but the final result is virtually flawless. Its master of ceremonies is “Antitaxi,” where synth swings from spooky to gritty to surf-y before an exuberant staccato male-and-female shout session at its tail-end. Imminent doom courtesy of panicked flute-like accents and deeply pounding drums make “Amour Dan De Motu” an anxious pop jam, then the titular track rolls in like careless revelry during a nighttime thunderstorm. “Hypsoline” is like emerging triumphant from a bad-brown-acid trip. One of their inaugural singles, “Sur la Planche 2013,” translates to on the board – surprisingly, it’s one of their darkest, most fright-fueled takes on the surf motif. It’s immediately followed by a subtly romantic ye-ye ballad, “It’s Time to Wake Up 2023,” that’s slyly modernized by perpetually undulating synth. After a deceptively patient 30-second intro, “Packshot” materializes as one of the album’s punchiest, worthy of galvanizing a crowd of well-dressed, stiff-shouldered dancers.
As if that weren’t enough to sway anyone with an ear for voguish pop, an eight-song bonus album was tacked on to the existing 13 offerings. Clearly, that crop was not an afterthought: “Welcome America” is a funk-laced two-stepper that rivals LCD Soundsystem’s biggest hits, and “Paris 2012” manages to simultaneously exude a lightweight airiness and brawny aggression. And even though it’s a Chuck Berry cover, the sugar-rush speed of “Oh Baby Doll” is made even more irresistible by a candied, girly croon.
Lyrically, La Femme can be as cryptic as their intended overall image. They occasionally rattle off words to conjure up imagery: interstellar, moon, full moon, change and transformation are among the chosen chants on “Witchcraft,” a faintly sexualized fling with electronic experimentation. But they’re not a pretentious bunch, really. That would imply elitism, and this bunch aims for mutual movement – during live sets, they hop around onstage in hopes that you’ll do the same.
And they aren’t without a sense of humor, either. Got is fast to joke about the inclusion of “protest against worldwide assholes,” among the goals listed in La Femme’s press bio.
“Yeah, for sure, we don’t like assholes, you know. Like everybody, asshole is not good. You have to be careful because sometimes you can be the asshole,” he laughs. “It’s not very [much] about assholes, it’s not talk about this [all the time]. Sometimes [the album] can, but it’s not really. I don’t know, but it’s cool when you make a gig with good ambiance. Like, [when everyone] parties they don’t think about their problems, so they dance. And it’s a party, and there is no asshole here. Sometimes there is, but there’s assholes everywhere. You have to be careful.”
All things considered, La Femme isn’t that perplexing. Being fully seeped in chic doesn’t necessitate inaccessibility. They’re innovative enough to entice any indie aficionado, yet they adhere to melodic customs enough to pique the interest of even a mainstream radio devotee. There isn’t a drop of pompousness in their pop. That La Femme is widely alluring is simply not up for interpretation.
Photo by Sarah Milk.