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Fránçois & the Atlas Mountains: "We’re not trying to be eccentric for the fun of being eccentric"

15 July 2014, 09:30

Francois Atlas, of Francois and the Atlas Mountains, is Skyping from a cafe next to an art school in Baldo, France. Is there anything better than sipping an espresso in the country after which the French presses I drink on a semi-daily basis are named?

“I’ve had some really good coffee in Ethiopia actually.”

Which only makes sense coming from Francois’ lips. After all, those lips at the end of his cup and saucer are the ones instructing the very Afro-centric world-pop sounds the Atlas Mountains revel in. Francois gets a kick out of hearing his music described as such: “That’s a good definition, ‘world-pop.’ [Laughs]. I’m quite excited about the idea of us being like a world-pop [band].” He goes on, “I do listen to a lot of music from Africa and India. There’s a guy [from Brooklyn] who does a thing called ‘Awesome Tapes from Africa.’ I spend a lot of time listening to that.”

You can hear the Africa most distinctly in the Atlas Mountains’ percussion arrangements. Which dig up African roots so deep they come intertwined with fossil sediment, and at times (notably on the song “La Vie Dure” off their new album Piano Ombre) the percussion sounds literally like dinosaur bones been whacked.

“It wasn’t dinosaur, but there were a few, like, log sounds and wood sounds,” Francois clarifies. “And we used those African drums called ‘dudumbas’—they’re like really, really big African drums that come in a set of three.”

Growing up in France to a mother from Cameroon - a French colony in West Central Africa - and who used to play a lot of African music around the house, Francois was turned on to African culture early on. Added the fact that France is a great place to pursue and appreciate art, given how accessible global art is made on an institutional level.

“I think to be honest, when I was living as a student in France before I went to the UK, I used to find it so easy to go to a dance performance or go to a show of like an Indian saxophone player or whatever and then when I moved to the UK I found it more difficult to access this kind of world culture.”

He goes on: “I found that even though people are very open-minded as far as listening goes, in the UK there’s not that many structures, there isn’t more help from government to promote cultures from other countries. And I think back in the 90s when I was growing up in France - really less now - but there were a lot of groups and associations and government helps to promote world culture. [There were] a lot of other school libraries and places like that you could listen to a lot of music from Africa and India or China and watch a lot of documentaries about music.”

Nowadays with the internet, world culture is available to anyone who’s interested. Which explains one of Francois’ perhaps less-than-favorable contemporary artistic comparisons:

“Yeah a lot of journalists ask me if I listen to a lot of Vampire Weekend… And then recently someone told me the guy from Vampire Weekend used to listen to [Paul Simon’s] Graceland all the time. And then it clicked because my mom had that tape and would play it all the time. So now I understand the connection with Vampire Weekend because both our parents used to listen to Graceland.”

While Vampire Weekend clearly have much shallower ambitions, Francois uses his music as a universal language the whole world can share, no matter what language the lyrics are in. Francois’s voice, I tell him, conveys so much in its humanity and melody than words even need bother.

“Yeah I think it translates, just the sound of someone’s voice. Yeah I never used to understand what Jimi Hendrix used to sing about when I was a teenager, but I still liked the way he sounded like he really didn’t care about singing. He was just playing the guitar and like his vocals for that for example.”

I’m a bit surprised to hear such a casual Jimi Hendrix reference.

“You can’t avoid him. It’s the same way the Beatles just influenced any pop songs after them, Jimi Hendrix influenced every guitar player after him. It took me a while to realize I was influenced by it. I obviously was because everyone is.”

Another big Western influence for Francois appears to be the English language, as he sings in both France and English. About his bilingual lyrics, Francois says, “I lived in the UK for like 7 years in Bristol and in Glasgow in the UK, and so therefore I started singing in English when I was living back there. And more recently I’ve been living more in France so most of the songs on the new album are in French.” He also says, “I’m just singing in whatever language feels nice to.”

I compare him to - what feels like an extremely topical reference given my Far-Westernality - Serge Gainsbourg. I’m pleased to hear a like-minded admiration for what I take to be sort of France’s David Bowie or Leonard Cohen. “Yeah he was a very good one,” Francois confirms. “He’s the most amazing of the French artists/French singers because he used the French language in a very rhythmic way. Lots of play of words. And you can enjoy the music even if you don’t listen to the words. But yeah I can assure you the words are really funny and really good.”

After apologizing for my tendency to over-deconstruct his artistic influences, Francois half-jokingly muses: “As long as you don’t say that we aren’t influenced by Vampire Weekend.”

I also try to get a sense of the perceived romanticism that seems inherent to the country of France, and if maybe Woody Allen, hipsters, wine-drinkers, have a tendency to gush. Is France as romantic as its sounds? “I think France is a very romantic country. I think part of it is maybe the sonority of the French language. It’s got some really weird texture in it and it has a lot of rough and soft at the same time. The way the ‘R’ are pronounced. They are kind of a bit grotesque, but at the same time it rolls. It’s funny, because I lived in the UK for 6 years, so I’m used to hearing people say French is very romantic, but when I describe what I describe what I do when I’m in France, it is very romantic compared to the lifestyle of people who live in the UK. So yeah, I’m fine with that.”

Hearing more, it becomes more surprising that more bohemian artists from gentrified city boroughs in Brooklyn and L.A. aren’t packing up and moving to France—or at least trying to.

Francois explains how nurturing the French government is towards working musicians: “I don’t know if you know much of how the system works in France, but it’s really helpful. They really help artists and musicians once you reach a certain level.” He goes into further detail: “When you get paid you give [it to] the government and then the government gives you a monthly salary in exchange. It’s a really good system. You need to become like a fairly successful artist, but if you play like 60 shows a year, then you can have these sort of upgraded benefits for artists, which allows you to have like a monthly income.”

Meanwhile everywhere else in the world, music-purveyors are generally regarded as being about as narcissistic and useful as a Tweet: millions of Twitter users and only pop stars and Charlie Sheen seem to be making any money off of it.

Before making a life out of his music, Francois studied history (for free, no less), and was a French teacher for a number of years while he was living in the UK. Ultimately, he couldn’t escape the beat of those big drums acting as a centrifuge for his soul.

“I think that’s why I really got into African music, those much more spiritual and much more spontaneous forms of art where you don’t have to understand from an intellectual point of view what’s happening. It’s more of just a direct form of communication with the world instead of communicating through references and theories.”

Francois says, “I like having a non-intellectual relation to the world, and being an artist you kind of see what your hands do by themselves. Your hands have an idea about melody on a guitar or your hands starting to create shapes on a piece of paper and create a drawing and I really like what happens then.”

On Piano Ombre, Francois says that the band is much more the sum of its parts than ever before, in part because the lineup has remained consistent, which wasn’t the case before two years ago. So just how much of what we hear on the album is Francois and how much is the Atlas Mountains?

“It used to be much more Francois, and nowadays it’s a much more Atlas Mountain project,” Francois says. “Piano Ombre was very Atlas Mountains albums, because they are all really amazing musicians and I didn’t feel or have to give them too much directions to do the album.”

Over three album, Francois’ journey as a bandleader has been documented like a musical travelogue, a passport stamped by the various friends and musicians he’s encountered along the way.

“Maybe on the previous albums there were a few songs that are just me. But on the new album I don’t think there is one song where it’s just me exclusively. It’s always the band in there, and especially the [harmony vocals provided by the other band members] are very very high, and sound like angels.”

Francois says additional instruments are played by friends and other Atlas Mountain inductees, violin portions coming from one of Francois’ flat-mates. Francois also talks about his use of field recordings, like the ones gathered from his mother’s garden to add an extra organic dimension to “Summer of the Heart”: “The song is about being in London in the summer, so I wrote the song 2 summers ago in London and the little house where we were staying had really nice bushes and branches so I recorded some of the branches and sort of sampled them. And later on in the recording I searched through my recordings to grab those recordings from location where those songs were written. Where the song was about.”

A similar ambiguation of art and real life appears on the last track of Plaine Inondable, “Pic-Nic,” on which you can hear barking dogs and other natural sounds beneath an otherwise fairly raw recording of just an acoustic guitar, electric keyboard, and Francois’ voice: “Yeah that was recorded outdoors, that’s why. At night. I had a bunch of friends at home, and it was the last song on the album, so we just took it easy ‘cos we’d done most of the album. So we just lay in the garden, and I asked some of my friends to whistle…”

This sort of captured intimacy is felt all over the music, playing a bit like a secret handwritten note left in an unsealed envelope, or some odd collection of inside jokes that don’t come with the implicit “you-had-to-be-there.”

As Francois assures, “We’re not trying to be eccentric for the fun of being eccentric, but we’re just trying to find our own language as a band and the thing that sounds the most accurate to who we are. And that involves trying to find new ways of playing and playing new rhythms and things that make sense to only us.”

François and the Atlas Mountains support Franz Ferdinand tomorrow night at Somerset House, before a summer UK & Europe tour culminating at London’s Scala (tickets here). Piano Ombre is out now on Domino.

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