LOUIS PHILIPPE, the musical alias of all-round cultural gem, football correspondent, aesthete and baroque popster Philippe Auclair, is what you might call the cult musician’s cult musician.
This would be a precise encomium, yet at the same time entirely unfair; the finally crafted, beautiful and elegant music he’s been gracing the world with since right back in the Eighties deserves everyone’s ears. That so includes yours.
One of the silver linings to a very dark calendrical cloud this year has been Louis’ return to the release schedules and the record store racks.
July brought the bright acoustic classicism of The Devil Laughs, the best sort of continental-inflected cafe-jazz pop, which he released in cahoots with old friend and former Young Marble Giant Stuart Moxham; it’s proper lovely.
And today, December 11th, he’s releasing his second album in under six months, Thunderclouds, as Louis Philippe & The Night Mail – read our review here.
It’s a deeper, more luxurious baroque beauty, in which the delightfully insouciant, layered textures of such fellow travellers as Noël Coward, The Left Banke, Brian Wilson and Sean O’Hagan mix delightfully in Philippeworld – all couching seemingly carefree, but actually deeply realist and strong lyricism about Grenfell, Brexit, the nature of us as people in such societal schism. It’s frank verbal steel delivered in a glove of delicious, smooth velvet.
We’ve had an abiding love for the world of Louis – he’s an adopted Gallic great of song, of that there can be no argument – so we took some time to ask him about his musical peregrinations, Brexit, football, so much more – and by golly, he’s a great and erudite interviewee. Dear reader; we love him (we didn’t marry him). Read on…
BACKSEAT MAFIA: Hello Philippe, and thank you for taking time out to talk to us. Herein, a selection of curious questions. What led you to the UK all those decades ago? Was it the culture, a particular novel, band or scene; even the beautiful game?
Philippe Auclair: I’d been under contract with Les Disques du Crépuscule since 1983, which had teamed up with Rough Trade and Cherry Red to start a new label, Blanco Y Negro, with Cherry Red’s chief A&R Mike Alway as its boss. Mike had “heard something” in the few records I’d made for Crépuscule and wanted me to join Blanco Y Negro, together with Vic Godard, Everything But The Girl and a wonderful Greek duo called Fantastic Something. But by the time I should have been signed to the label … he’d been sacked. Mike’s attitude to music was defined by radicalism and whimsy, two things you’d never associate with a major label. And Blanco Y Negro was supported by Warner, so…
But Mike bounced back at Cherry Red, with his own imprint, él records. He wanted me to be part of the nucleus of his new project – and I very much wanted to be part of it myself. So, when he asked me if I could join Simon Turner in the studio to give a hand on the first King of Luxembourg LP, I didn’t think twice. And I never looked back. So I moved to London for purely musical reasons. But I stayed for other reasons too – I met my future wife within a few days of arriving in London. And I just felt at home.
BSM: And you’re a professed lover of London. What is it about the city for you?
PA: It is home. Despite the best efforts of politicians and property developers, it is still throws surprises at you every day. I’m an obsessive walker, I’m also obsessed with London’s history – but every time we go out, we still come across something different, unique.
Otherwise, I should add that I’m now struggling to recognise some of what really made me fall for London to start with. The relentless gentrification of all but the most distant parts of town has damaged my city a great deal. It is less spontaneous than it used to be. It is also losing its music scene at a rate of knots, whatever people would have you believe. That’s normal: most studios, rehearsal rooms and midsize live venues have closed down. It’s actually a theme – my relationship with London, and how it has evolved – which runs through much of Thunderclouds.
And how’s the city for you now in the wake of recent (worrying) political lurches?
See above. I’ve been very active politically myself, but I’m now asking myself some very serious questions about the future of my family here. I’ll never unlove London. But the bastards are really trying hard to make it happen.
And what were your first musical stirrings – the tunes that opened up that glittering world of sound; your first band?
The first tunes I can remember clearly are: “Girl”, by the Beatles; “Cast Your Fate To The Wind”, by Sounds Orchestral and Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village”, which was the theme music to a wildlife programme on French television.
As to my first band, I can’t even remember its name! I joined it after putting a classified ad in Libération, in which I mentioned The Remains as one of my favourite bands, a very niche reference in France at the time. I joined for a couple of rehearsals, playing the bass, and that was that – I wasn’t really cut out for that.
You came to Cherry Red offshoot él, and worked alongside Mike Alway. The label had a beautiful aesthetic. In a chicken and egg way, was it that aesthetic that drew you, or were you given free hand to shape it as you wished?
Both. I completely bought into Mike’s vision, which coincided with affinities of mine. I was even more of an Orson Welles fan than he was, which is saying something! And I’d like to think I also helped him develop the él concept in some small way. In the end, however, Mike ‘played’ él like others sing or play the piano. The label was his instrument. But that was for the label’s ethos and image. When it came down to the music, Mike backed off. “I know nothing about how you make music”, he’d say. I never saw him once in the studio. But he’d lead you. He’d give you lists of song titles, and your job was to write them. This is how I actually wrote some of my best tunes at the time, like “The Rubens Room” – his idea, my song.
What were your favourite bands on the label?
Bad Dreams Fancy Dress were wonderful. I loved Nick Currie’s first Momus records, too. As to the rest, it’s more difficult to say, as I had a hand in making quite a lot of them, including Simon Turner’s [The King of Luxembourg] Royal Bastard, which is probably the most “él” of the lot.
él finished in 1989. Then came the Japanese years, when you worked alongside the great Cornelius and others. How did that come about and how was the whole Japanese scene for you?
Not that we knew it, but él quickly became a thing, and a big thing, in Japan in 1987. Our Japanese audience just understood what we were at, and didn’t have any of the hangups of the British indie public at the time. We wanted to present a world in technicolor, when the mood music of Thatcher’s England was grey, and angry. But the Japanese got it, instantly, and a few of the él artists developed quite a following over there. I was one of these. So Simon Turner, Julia (Anthony Adverse) and I toured there in October 1987. I don’t think we were that accomplished, musically speaking, but it was a triumph. I had three singles in the indie Top 10 over there at that time.
Any standout amazing or surreal moments from those times?
Having Derek Jarman in the front row filming the gigs with his super-8 camera was … wonderful, even if the film has never surfaced. But the most surreal thing was coming out of our hotel in Shibuya, with Simon, and seeing a 30-storey high picture of Simon projected on one of the skyscrapers. That, and the girls who were at the airport to welcome us, screaming their hearts out as if we’d been The Beatles in 1965. And many other things, come to think of it.
Why did you pick as a nom-de-plume the name of the last French king?
Mike and I were going through a book of heraldry and came across the arms of Louis Philippe. I think we both stopped at the same time and thought the same thing. It’s French, but easily pronounceable, it’s got ‘Philippe’ in it, and the mock-aristo thing was one of our in-jokes, I suppose, as we had absolutely zero money.
You’ve been working with Stuart of Young Marble Giants for many years now. Were Young Marble Giants a band you had crossed paths with a long time before, so that working together was something you always meant to do?
I didn’t ‘mean to’, as I’d fallen under the spell of Colossal Youth before I first picked a guitar. I’d seen them play in Paris at Les Bains Douche in June 1980 – and probably fallen in love with Alison as well. Everybody did. I also remember meeting up with Stuart’s brothers Philip and Andrew a year later, and cooking them dinner in my small Paris flat … then that was it, for a number of years, until, answering a friend’s request, I helped Stuart find a studio to record Random Rules, ended up playing on the album, and started a friendship of some thirty years now. It is quite surreal in some ways, and totally natural in others.
Then, of course, there’s the album and collaborations with satirist Jonathan Coe, author of What A Carve Up!, the seminal and wry look at the Thatcher era …
…which started when Jonathan – who’d sent demos of his own band to Mike Alway! – asked for permission of using one of the verses of my “Yuri Gagarin” song as an epigraph to one of his novels. We met – and realised that our tastes were uncannily similar, not just in music, but also in film and literature. The rest followed of its own accord. Jonathan wrote lyrics for a number of my songs, we did this album together – with Danny Manners, my most precious collaborator for so many years, and Jonathan also wrote the sleeve notes to Azure and, now, Thunderclouds. He is a fan of my music, I am a fan of his writing, but it’s not a mutual admiration society, it’s more – if I’d been a writer, I wish I’d been a writer like Jonathan, and vice-versa for music. We’re very different in many ways, but I’d say that our emotional response, not just to art, but to the world in general, is strikingly similar.
él released the great and quirky Bend It! football song compilations. Do you ever fancy writing an album about the beautiful game yourself, given your passion and day job as a football correspondent? Is a good football album even possible?
It must be! But I’m not about to write it, even if I collected most of the Bend It! material from the BBC Gramophone Library (true), and I’ve never really fancied doing it. Of the three songs I’ve written which have football themes, none is a real ‘football song’. I’m very fond of “When Georgie Died”, but this is much more a song about my childhood and what George Best meant to me then than about him as a footballer. I don’t think I’d be able to write a ‘straight’ football song like “World In Motion”, for example. However, if you want to hear what a proper football song should sound like, listen to Quarteto Em Cy and Chico Buarque’s “O Futebol”. Sublime.
It wasn’t until your collaborator Robert [Rotifer] pointed it out that I really became aware of the lyrical pointers in “Falling In A Dream”. What led to you putting pen to paper about this tragedy – and using baroque pop as a vehicle?
It was the other way round. I had this tune, and one line of the chorus. But as we were approaching the recording dates, I felt more and more strongly by the day that my lyrics should be more about the here and now this time round, and express how angry I was about what was happening in and to my country, as this is how I consider England to be. I live very close to Grenfell. We were woken up by the smell of the fire that night, and saw the orange glow in the sky. The horror of it. The words flowed out. The fact that they are set in a musical form which, from the outside, sounds quite ‘pretty’ is something that is 100% deliberate. I’ve written a few ‘political’ songs before – “My England”, or “Wild-Eyed And Dishevelled” – but I hate the idea of turning a chorus into a slogan. Others may be good or brilliant at it, I’d be rubbish myself and I know it. Just like I try to disguise discords and dissonances so that they creep on the ear without the listener realising what’s going on, I try to avoid directness in my lyrics. That’s my inner Becker/Fagen [Steely Dan] at work, I suppose. It is just natural to me. To be more ‘in your face’ would actually be hypocritical for me.
Baroque pop – what do you love about the form?
I’m not too sure about the category itself, if I’m honest. On the other hand, it’s useful and not inaccurate shorthand for a kind of pop which feels like home to me – The Left Banke, Millennium, Sagittarius, The Zombies, etc, etc. I’d say the common thread between all these groups, apart from the attention given to melody and the use of ‘advanced’ harmonies is that to these artists, as it is to me, each song should be like a miniature tone poem. It is not really a form – it is more of an attitude, even if, musically speaking, there are some common traits, the use of ‘classical’ instruments being the most obvious one. For me, there is nothing ‘baroque’ about The Beatles, for example, which is crazy when you think that it is impossible to imagine The Zombies without them; but there is definitely something baroque pop-ish about the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. Go figure this one! The expression is odd, by the way, as baroque music is – to my ears – about ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake as much as anything else. I’ll be honest – I can’t stand classical baroque music. With the exception of JS Bach, who is not ‘baroque’ in that sense anyway. I’ll leave it at that.
If you could make one hypothetical dream LP with any set of collaborators, alive or dead, whom might you pick for that session?
I’d ask Maurice Ravel to write the orchestral arrangements and just sit back in the studio, not believing my luck.
So you’ve blessed us in recent months with the two-hander with Stuart M, and now this under your own name. What different facets do you think you expressed with the two different albums?
This must be a good question, as I don’t have an easy answer to it. It is the same person, if not the same musician. I was very much an arranger as well as a performer with Stuart; while there was a lot of improvisation in Ken Brake’s studio, I always felt I was on top of things, whereas Thunderclouds has a feeling of freedom about it, which is due to the rapport I had with Andy, Ian and Robert, and the speed at which we recorded it. Extraordinary – The Devil Laughs took years, Thunderclouds took little over a week from start to finish. But it is the same person you can hear on both albums, there is no solution of continuity, even if the harmonic language of the two albums is quite different.
What are you favourite tracks off the new one – what should we be looking forward to?
I’m very fond of “The Man Who Had It All”, for too many reasons to mention. Very proud of it too. As to the rest, I only ever listen to my records when I absolutely must, so am not the best person to ask. Songs have a life of their own, you’ve got to let them go and live their own life once you’ve given birth to them. But I’m a happy dad.
Why were you away from our ears so long!
I wasn’t entirely away. The strange thing is that I know I did some of my very best work after él and even Trattoria in Japan, and the fans who know these other records would agree with that. They were hard to come by (not any longer, though, everything is now on Bandcamp), on smaller labels; the music press by and large ignored them. Every time there was a breakthrough, something would happen which would reset the counter at zero. I had a Top 30 hit in France – the record company went bust. I had a tune at number 1 in the US campus charts, “She Means Everything To Me”, and more or less the same thing happened. The label just wasn’t equipped to deal with it, and the momentum was lost. This can become soul-destroying, and certainly played its part in the hiatus in my recording career after An Unknown Spring, in 2007.
But I kept busy. I worked with The Clientele, with Stuart, with Louise Le May, with Testbild! … then there is the necessity of earning a living, which has become almost impossible for musicians like me, who do not tour often, employ ‘real’ musicians both in studio and on the road, and have got an audience which is counted in thousands, not millions. In the not-so-distant past, when records were a thing, I could just about make ends meet from one record to the next. These days, it is almost impossible, I’m afraid.
What was your musical discovery of lockdown?
Igor Levit. I don’t know how I’d managed it, but I was unaware of him – pretty shocking this – until he played Satie’s “Vexations” for close to a day without a break. It was one of the most hypnotic and most revealing performances I’ve ever heard. As far as pop is concerned, 8×8 – again, I’m amazed I didn’t know a thing about them before a German friend directed me to their work. Sternpost, the solo project by Petter Hernbertsson of Testbild!, is magical. Statues Asleep is a fantastic album. I shouldn’t forget “Allah Wakbarr”, by Ofo The Black Company, pure dynamite, which led me to some weird and wonderful psychedelic 1970s’ stuff from Nigeria. My tastes are much more catholic than some people would think.
And what was your musical rediscovery of lockdown?
I’ve mostly stuck with the tried and trusted, but there there have been a few. Shuggie Otis, Laura Mvula’s second album, which I’d completely zapped when it was first released, Lee Dorsey – his later, funkier stuff – a lot of Milton Nascimento, whom I’d always listened to, but I wasn’t fully aware of the fact, and it is a fact, that Clube De Esquina is one of the greatest albums of all time, and Lo Borges a criminally under-rated songwriter.
And how has 2020 been for you generally?
I lost one of my closest friends, Ken Brake. Other people I loved died too, long before their time. It has been an awful year.
You always seem to hit upon brilliant, erudite and intriguing collaborators. Do you like the energies of sparking off others in this way?
I don’t think I could work any other way. To start with, there was Dean Brodrick, then Danny Manners; now there is also The Night Mail, who are, indeed, brilliant, erudite and intriguing people. There’s also been Petter Herbertsson. Bertrand Burgalat. I’d like to think it’s the same for people who call on me to kelp them, like Stuart or Alasdair of The Clientele. I’m the least solo of the solo artists I know.
What next: are you looking ahead to another album; might we be blessed with some tour dates after all of this?
Yes, another album will follow Thunderclouds [excellent news! – Ed]. The material is already written. And should the health situation improve and allows us to travel – and provided Brexit doesn’t make it almost impossible -, we will play some gigs in the spring. Stuart and I have already been approached for a date in Paris, while we’re currently trying to organise a one-off concert to mark the launch of Thunderclouds. Other dates will follow.
Philippe: thank you so very much.
Louis Philippe & The Night Mail’s Thunderclouds is out now on Tapete on digital download, CD and LP. You can order yours direct from Louis at his Bandcamp page, here; or from Tapete, here; or make thine way to your trusted local record emporium.