Frànçois & the Atlas Mountains talks technology, Brexit and collaboration

Dan Webb
Frànçois Marry is a former touring member of Camera Obscura and the lead singer of indie pop band Frànçois & the Atlas Mountains, whose latest album, Banane Bleue was produced by Jaakko Eino Kalevi and is out now.

Congrats on the new record. Thematically and musically, how does this album differ from your past work?
I guess it was done with less people, like with a crew of just Jaakko and I, whereas the albums before were much more band based. I did the previous albums with the band that I toured with and this one, everyone went on their own side to do their own thing. So I was kind of left to myself to bring an album together, but that’s what I had been wanting to do for a while. Just focus on making an album with just one producer, instead of getting a live band in a room. And I think that makes less brains on the work and less intentions. So I think it gives more air, it gives more space and that’s probably what I wanted as well. Yes, I just wanted something that would be kind of lighter and easier to the environment, to the ear. Just something that would be elegant and simple.

And in terms of the production, the instruments are very clean, the vocals sound very delicate and close mic’d. Were these stylistic decisions made to further the storyline of the album, would you say?
For me it wasn’t much to do with artistic thought. It wasn’t much of an artistic decision, it was more that, I guess I was at a time in my life where I just wanted everything to be simpler, in terms of lifestyle and in terms of my relationship as well. And yeah, I just wanted things to be just down to the core, just most straightforward as possible. And so yeah, the arrangements are pretty simple and it’s very regular. Before I used to mess around a lot with polyrhythms and lots of vocal harmonies. And I guess I was trying to be clever in the past, whereas on this album I was just trying to be comforting.

Sure. You mentioned polyrhythms – I believe that Afrobeat was quite a significant influence on your previous work. I’m curious as to what Afrobeat means to you.
Yeah, I guess I was into it for different reasons. And one of the main reasons is that my mother was born in Africa, because of the time where France had colonies in Africa. And she was raised there, and so I think there was something… Like the first show I ever went to was a Manu Dibango show. So he’s a Cameroon artist. And for me, music was Africa basically, because I could feel like there was something just very instant and spontaneous in the way African music works. And the power of making your body move and the power of communicating with what your ancestors did, I think, is a lot of what you find in African music. So that was always a very strong reference to me, because of that. But at the same time, I guess my own personal story was a lot through Bristol in the UK and that wasn’t much of an African city. Maybe the only aspects of Black music are very strong in music, in Bristol are more like Jamaican influences. So yeah, Afropop to me is just a way to mix the narrative songwriting that comes out of me naturally, in terms of wanting to express my feeling, with rhythms that are inspired from Africa, just because they are the most powerful rhythms.

Awesome. Well actually, by way of coincidence, I’m going to be interviewing the son and grandson of Fela Kuti tomorrow.
Oh great. Which one, because he has many?

Yeah, yeah, of course. Femi and Made.
Femi, yes.

I was wondering if you have any suggestions as to what I should ask him?
Oh, wow. That’s a great question. Yes. We played with him once, and I was really impressed by the amount of musicians that play with him. And I have a sense that with him, and obviously Fela Kuti, there’s a big responsibility in being a bandleader in such bands. So yeah. I was wondering if you could ask him, how does he prepare to be the manager of the music, when there are so many people with him? If he has any specific way to be good at it. How do you get good at that, I was wondering?

I find that it’s really tricky to force your collaborators to do something, while still keeping sensitivity in the work and the inspiration.

Sure. Is that something that you personally would like to improve on?
Yes, totally. I find that it’s really tricky to force your collaborators to do something, while still keeping sensitivity in the work and the inspiration. I feel like when you go into leading people, then you just sometimes get restricted to what there is to be done, instead of catching the inspiration that is in the air. So, there’s a fine line that I kind of struggle with, when I’m leading a band. So my techniques with that is just to collaborate with people that I feel have similar feelings as I have, so I don’t have to express so much to them.

I find it interesting that there’s an invitation to send you a WhatsApp message on your website. What’s the concept behind that?
It’s because there was a feeling on the album that we live our relationships through electricity and the magnetic airwaves that are circulating the air. And so that’s why the album cover picture was kind of bananas in the shape of a wifi signal on a disused antenna on a disused electric pole. And so, there was the feeling that being an artist in Europe is a very comfortable position, and the comfort in our lifestyle relates to the electricity and the energy that is around us, in the way. We can communicate easily with one another, but at the same time it brings a lot of misunderstanding. So I think we wanted to try to find a way to promote the album that would involve some devices that we use in our daily life, for that respects. Because I find telephones is our… They just make us think very differently and I think they shape the way we think about stuff, and they shape our mind, and therefore they shape the way we feel even. So yeah, we wanted to kind of mess around a bit with that and focus the promotion of this specific album through those means.

I felt like shaping my imagination without those devices made my spectrum of my images and sounds in my head very different to the generation that is growing up with it.

Do you feel like all these technologies – iPhones, Zoom technology and the like – are necessarily positive innovations for the world? Or do you take more of a negative viewpoint?
I think they are just evolutions. So it’s hard to tell. But I can definitely feel that growing up without them, because I’m 38, and I was growing up in a place where there wasn’t much technology, so I picked up on that when I was in my mid 20s and I felt like shaping my imagination without those devices made my spectrum of my images and sounds in my head very different to the generation that is growing up with it. And I can picture that. Yeah. That’s all I have to say about it basically.

Sure. Now, I think you mentioned that you spent some time in Bristol earlier, was that correct?
Yeah.

And you also mentioned that you feel that artists are in a comfortable position in Europe, is that correct?
Yeah.

I guess it leads me naturally to the topic of Brexit. I’ve spoken to some British musicians, who have shared their feelings with me regarding the situation. I’m just wondering what your perspective on the situation is?
I felt like there was a huge shift in the way British artists deal with politics. I don’t know if you felt that throughout the years, but I’ve had the impression that there is much more political content in arts coming from the UK now than there used to be. And I feel like it’s a very interesting point, because… Yeah, I think we live in quite privileged surroundings in Europe, and I’ve got the feeling that Great Britain is maybe the first of European countries that is going through a situation where it was very comfortable and very free and very liberal, to a situation where suddenly everything becomes more difficult because of capitalism. And I have the impression that lots of British artists are more and more aware of that and expressing about that. In France, it’s very different because there’s lots of subsidies to help the arts. And so, that’s why lots of musicians are coming from all around the world are really happy to come and play in France, because there is art actually, there was good help to promote the music. But I think we’ll soon reach the same point as in the UK, where artists will have to express their political views a bit more through their music, just because there’s an urge to adjust our lifestyle to a way that we can travel around more freely, and ensure music in easier ways. And I think the population in Europe, like everywhere else in the world, is pressured to be productive, and I think artists are complaining about that more and more. And I’ve got the sense that Brexit in the UK is forcing artists to take positions politically at the moment. So, I find it really interesting, but obviously it’s really hard for musicians in the UK. I’m in touch with friends as well in the UK, and they are very worried and a bit devastated.

I’ve got the feeling that Great Britain is maybe the first of European countries that is going through a situation where it was very comfortable and very free and very liberal, to a situation where suddenly everything becomes more difficult because of capitalism.

I hear that many musicians in the UK are worried about what it’s going to mean for them, obviously post-pandemic, in regard to touring in Europe. It sounds like the cost is going to be much greater than it previously was. Do you think it’s going to affect your touring plans in the future?
Yeah, it might do. It might do. Especially because I’m on a British label, but I live in France. Hopefully, I’m lucky because I can still travel easily to Spain and Italy and Germany, and Switzerland, Belgium, all those places. But yeah, obviously… Well, the UK, in terms of touring, was not the most beneficial place to go on tour, but obviously it was, in the sense that it’s spreading my music to British listeners. And that makes the project overall more sustainable, just reaching out to a British audience. But yeah, I wonder how it will be. It’s really worrying to feel like the walls are narrowing, and you’re just stuck in your own country.
I’ve been in touch with musicians from Scotland and they have slightly different views on it, as you might have heard. They’re considering maybe following a movement that could bring Scotland back to Europe, so we’ll see how that goes.

It’s really worrying to feel like the walls are narrowing, and you’re just stuck in your own country.

If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Well, I would dream to… There’s lots of artists I really love, so I would obviously dream to collaborate with them. But I guess the tricky point of your question is what would you create? Being a fan of someone and wanting to jam with them is one thing, but then wanting to actually express something specific with someone is a different matter. I guess I’d love to… Ah yes, here is what I would do. I think I’d love to collaborate with Aphex Twin, and instead of doing a piece for prepared piano, I would do a piece for prepared forest. So I would put MIDI devices in a forest and jam with the forest and it would all be composed by Aphex Twin.