A Band Called France

Ever since John Westhaver of Birdman Sound turned me onto the band France a few months ago, I find there’s little else that seems to do it for me, musically. How to describe their sound? I’ve seen it visually depicted simply as WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, which works surprisingly well; from my vantage point, it’s drone rock, but of an entirely different variety than most. Oddly enough to my ears, they are frequently described as folk, though I surmise this is primarily down to the fact that Yann Gourdon plays a hurdy gurdy (or vieille à roue), which is a traditional folk instrument.

No vocals, no solos, no progressions. Audiopile has a wonderful piece on the band’s Do Den Haag Church album that serves as a great introduction to the band:

“This recording is simply the cornerstone of European (mid tempo) medieval tribal rock (or kraut rock, if we must). This recording is by French trio called France. They consist of hurdy gurdy player Yann Gourdon, bass player Jérémie Sauvage (of Standard In-Fi Records) and drummer Mathieu Tilly. Their music has the same approach as the band Faust showed (or were navigated towards) when playing with Tony Conrad in 1972. The story goes, that when Conrad entered the jam space, he gave Faust one instruction only: “Pick a key, keep the same tempo, make no changes and stick with it for an hour or more.” Now look at this band, France. They do the same – but for 12 years already. Started in 2005 in city of Valence, not too far from Lyon or the French Alps, surrounded by miles of countryside. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons their sound is so rural, very unmodern, using some ways that were set in stone by German and British psychedelic rock, but decided to speak with uncommon language (hurdy gurdy), which might not be understood by many, but we grant if you will try to understand, you will soon be addict and slave to its sound. France is the sound of long forgotten voids from the past.“

It’s like a primitive rock throb with this incredible, constantly changing drone atop it, which displaces the (absent) guitar and, one might say, surpasses it in psychedelic effect. Or perhaps it’s apples and oranges. They’ve got me rethinking the whole enterprise of psychedelic music, and what’s entailed in making that freaky stuff. Despite the band’s longevity and a considerable discography, there is precious little information online about them, at least en anglais. Their website is minimal, to say the least. One of the few sources of information on France (and related bands) is a piece in The Quietus appearing in August of last year. From which:

“With luthier Joël Traunecker, and motorised ‘drone-box’ manufacturer Léo Maurel, [Yann Gourdon] has created a hurdy-gurdy with a motorised wheel… The performance space is enlisted as a fourth member; each France recording is of a live show, with the trio responding to the acoustics of the place. Their discography functions as “an archive of moments” according to Sauvage, although nothing could ever capture the deliciously disorientating, hallucinatory experience of being in the room while the band are in full flow.”

It is difficult to overstate just how different the approach to playing is from what one is used to. The music is liberating people from the normal pat expereince of seeing one song, taking a break before going into another, perhaps some banter, a strategic game on the part of the band of arranging your setlist to favour crowd reaction, encores, and so on. Essentially, France are ‘performing’ the same song every time they play. What changes is the venue and its acoustics, the walls, ceiling and floor, and the space in between them all.

I certainly haven’t heard all of their discography, but the following is a listing of my ‘top ten’, roughly in order of preference.

1. The first album I heard by the band was Meltdown of Planet Earth (2015), recorded live in Paris on June 12, 2014. Two sides making up an hour’s running time. This is still probably my fave of theirs and it is not unusual for me to listen to it twice in a row on commutes. I’d mainline this album if I could. The sound is rock & roll as compared to most of their catalogue, and the green album cover with three orangutangs seals the deal.

2. The aforementioned Do Den Haag Church (2014) slides in at number two, just behind the champion. This is the other France record I would suggest to anyone new to the band. The sound is absolutely fantastic. 43 and a half minutes make it a relatively accessible listen. Apparently there were about 30 people at this show.

3. Next up I’d have to go with Live à l’Ottfest (2016), a cassette which was also later released as OTT, a three-sided double LP. This is the longest performance I’ve yet heard at about 70 minutes, which alone is enough to recommend it. Forget about everything for over an hour and just absorb the sound. The only bummer here is a tune-up at the beginning from Gourdon, which, like Hendrix of old, kind of dulls the bite of the following tune somewhat.

4. Pau (2011) is a weird one, even in the context of France’s music. The mix is much heavier on the hurdy gurdy over the drum and bass, making the whole thing sound less like a rocking trio and more like an experimental drone ensemble. Just under 45 minuten. Unlike most France records where the band plays one uninterrupted set, this is broken up into two smaller sets (one per side). Drumbeat is unusual here too, sort of a ba-da-DUM loop going on.

5. Say hello to Metzoïde (2018). 52 minutes, though this clip is only half an hour. Came with a DVD. When you’re playing the same thing over and over, dynamics are a strange and mysterious force. Here they are more pronounced than normal, the drums in particular playing an unusual beat that snakes around the drone and builds a teetering stairwell to someplace beyond love or pain. Another great cover too.

6. Far Out Far West (2020) is a half hour, originally issued on a one-sided LP that played from the inside out. One comparison France sometimes gets is to the song “Sister Ray” by The Velvet Underground; this album sounds more like it than most.

From MOS2000 on Discogs:

What should I say about this release? “It sounds terrible!” is the first thing that comes to my mind. This judges only the audible sound, not the artistic performance of the musicians. Distorted and repetitive, noisy drone may not be everyones cup of tea anyway… But it is clearly a quite ambitional attempt to push the boundaries of what vinyl is capable of. The plan to cram the 33+ minutes on one side is clearly an artistical decision. The song should not be interrupted, the session must be provided in one piece.

That means you have to live with some technical downfalls implicated with vinyl production – low on bass, cut very tight, little separation or stereo effect. Then of course the inside-out cut – that is a way to provide some quality “at the end” of a long piece, when you can make use of the better physical conditions that are present in the outer groove – but then on the other hand you should provide some music that is not very demanding at the beginning (inside) and goes to crescendo at the end (outside). The song performed presents an ongoing drone with little to nearly no variation in dynamics or loudness. Inner and outer groove has to handle the same performance – the technical trick does not produce any real benefit (maybe my ears are to bad to admire it of course…).

Cover artwork is nice, holographic sticker is nice, one blank side looks cool – but music of this length and style should be presented on a medium where it can show its full sound spectrum. I think a download with a high quality sound version would have been a nice addition to this record.

So finally I take this thing as a statement of “Music should be on vinyl – no matter if it is too long!” – if I try to enjoy it – sonic wise – I have to tweak my system quite a bit. The sound is of very heavy “bandpassed” quality, which has a “deafening” effect from the moment it starts. Something to chew on for a while… 🙂

7. Speaking of single-sided LPs, Untitled (2010) is a beast, again clocking in at half an hour. Sporting a cannabis leaf stencil on the cover, this one sounds like an attack, a lock groove lancing of some bass and drums boil.

8. Recorded on a commune in rural France, October 2013. France à Tarnac (2014) is a banger, wild in atmosphere, 55 minuten.

9. Bizarro (2020). 33 minutes of Wedding Present cov- nah, just kidding, it’s France doing that drone thing again. Like many of their releases, Bizarro was issued as very limited quantity CDR. Each copy has its own hard-drawn-with-markers cover. Slow and heavy tempo.

10. Live à Metamórfosi (2017). I kind of forgot this one, it should actually be much higher in the list. Very well recorded, you can crank it and it’ll sing like angels. This is another one I’d play for any France novice, kinder and gentler on the ears than some. Short sides so it would be a good one to have on vinyl. Recorded live in Paris at STRN FEST (Olympic Café) on January 16th 2015.

And now, to wrap up, some live videos of France in action, starting with the last album listed.

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