Producers Olivier Libaux and Marc Collin lead the French cover band called Nouvelle Vague. The band’s name means “new wave” in French and “bossa nova” in Portuguese, and it relies on young female vocalists who are unfamiliar with the original versions to breathe new life into classic songs. Their poppy, bossa-nova-tinged renditions of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel” on the group’s 2004 self-titled debut first made a name for Nouvelle Vague, and since then they have gone on to release two more albums covering everything from “Come on Eileen” to the Smiths’ “God Save the Queen.”
Wrapping up a grueling multi-national tour in support of their third album NV3, Libaux — with a halting and warm French accent — talked with us about copyright issues, touring in the U.S. and working with some of the biggest names in the new-wave gestalt.
Since the fall of last year you guys have been on a pretty demanding tour schedule. How’s life on the road?
We’ve been on the road maybe 10 months out of 12, you know? We’ve just come from Asia, and the thing is, it’s quite difficult for us to come to the U.S. because it’s complicated. But we are very happy, and so far the tour has gone very well — extremely well, I would say — and we are very happy to play here.
What are the differences between touring in the States and touring in Europe and Asia?
It’s quite difficult to answer, I’m not sure people are that different. In terms of audience or crowd, touring in the U.S. is far more exciting, because it’s the USA, you know? It’s legendary, and we are not visiting that often, so it’s a thrill to be in the USA. I think people are particularly positive and happy, though that happens in Europe and Asia too, but there’s something about touring in the USA for us: the freedom, plus the very different bands here. That makes a difference compared to playing Finland, for example — not the friendliest country in the world. [Laughs.]
On the new record, you had some pretty big names: Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen, Barry Adamson of the Bad Seeds and Magazine, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode. How did you bring these guys into the project?
Nouvelle Vague is a cover band. When we started this project, we were just into the new-wave music sound, so we started this project as fun, and so as musicians and producers we recorded our strange version of songs like “Making Plans for Nigel,” etc, etc. When we started we weren’t thinking at all about Depeche Mode people or the Cure people or the Clash people. These people heard what I was doing because I think the word of mouth was enough. People like Ian McCulloch and Martin Gore, they happened to appreciate Nouvelle Vague, and we could hear that Ian McCulloch was very happy with our version of “The Killing Moon,” so we started to know that the original people were happy with Nouvelle Vague.
So, before the recording, we just took a list of names together, and we tried to contact these people’s management to see what their response would be, and it happened to be very positive. Ian Mculloch’s management was very positive; Marin Gore was exactly the same; Barry Adamson was the same. These people were interested in the idea of working with Nouvelle Vague. It happened very easily, we recorded the versions and sent them the songs, and that was it. They worked with us, and we just had to bring the versions together.
What did the recording process look like with these different contributors? I know it was recorded in Paris; Martin Gore apparently sent his vocals in from New York. How did the whole recording process shake down?
Martin Gore was the only one we couldn’t work with physically, because he was in New York recording the Depeche Mode album, so we worked through Internet, which is the modern way of working, and it allowed us to work from Paris, which was interesting because we could spend the whole day together and work together. So Barry Adamson came, Terry Hall [of Funboy Three] came, some others came too — for example, Chris Bailey from the Saints. It was really fun, meeting someone, spending the afternoon, working together. One thing was they all wanted us to teach them. For example, Ian McCulloch said, “OK, you are the boss. Tell me what I am supposed to do.”
Of the songs on NV3, I was surprised to hear “Blister in the Sun.” I never really considered that a new wave song.
It was the same for me! We had words with Marc Collin about that. He wanted to do it simply because the album was released in 1982, which makes it the period we are referring to, but in my opinion, new wave music is a different kind of music. But the thing is, this cover is working so well the way we have done it. And also we have met Gordon Gano very recently; he appreciates the version. Again, there’s a good thing behind this song, and now Gordon Gano is keen on us.
So, how do you come to choose the songs you cover?
We have many favorite songs from this period. We are such huge fans. We collected every new wave record. So, one of the things we do is pick a song we feel will match the Nouvelle Vague way of doing covers. We just need the songwriting to be as solid as possible. When the song’s good, it has as much of a chance to be a successful cover as if you turned the song into bossa nova. It has as much of a chance to still “work” because the original songwriting makes it work. So, we pick favorites and also songs we feel that can fit in with our way of recording.
You and Marc Collin arrange the new compositions, and your team of vocalists perform them; how often do your singers add their own interpretations to the song?
I would say often. Generally, Marc and I play a new arrangement, a new musical connection for a song to live a second life. At which time the performance of the lead vocalist is very important, because each time it’s the vocalist who will be at the top of the recording and make it work with the Nouvelle Vague atmosphere. We prepare, and the girls finish the work, I would say.
How did you come to meet the girls?
Marc is a producer and a musician, and I am also a producer and a musician. We live in Paris, which is a big city but not that huge, so we have our network, I would say. In the beginning, we decided to work with young acts, young singers, to confirm the people who sort of carry on new wave. Some of the girls were just having a few singles at this period. We have kept that generation of singers, and I guess now many singers know us so we receive a lot of demos and that kind of thing, so it’s quite easy to help the network grow. I would say it’s quite natural, because we are Nouvelle Vague, we are producers and musicians, so we meet lots of singers.
How does communication work, in terms of having native Portuguese and French speakers in the band? Is there a common language between everyone?
I guess the common language is English. Everybody knows it in the world. [Laughs.] At the moment, actually, there are two singers, Elena and Karina, performing on this tour. Karina is from Brazil and Elena was born in Portugal, so they speak Portuguese and we can’t understand anything. But you know, a little bit of English, a bit of French, it’s easy. The international language is English. It’s not French. It will never be French. [Laughs.]
Have you every wanted to cover a song and couldn’t get permission to cover it?
The thing is, we’ve had this position since the beginning of Nouvelle Vague, not to ask for permission. The simple reason is that when we were starting the project, we knew if little Marc and little Olivier, just young, unknown musicians from Paris, asked for permission, it would take ages. So what we decided to do was to not ask for permission, record the cover, release it, and leave 100 percent of the rights to the original artist. We were not pretending to get any money from this avenue. And it worked very well, because artists and musicians were very helpful with Nouvelle Vague, because Nouvelle Vague was interesting for everybody. According to French law, you can record a cover without asking for permission as long as you are respectful of the original [song]. And we are French, so we were thinking, Yeah, we leave 100 percent of the rights to the original artist.
How often do you encounter people who might not necessarily take what you’re doing seriously, just because you’re covering other people’s music? Some people are really sensitive about bands who cover other people’s music.
I would say we are so happy already with the response we have. A lot of people take us quite seriously — I don’t really think about people who don’t take us seriously. I know we are different. It’s really an entertaining thing, but at the same time something is very solid and creative, so I don’t really worry about people who are not keen — yet — on Nouvelle Vague.
Would you ever consider an album of original material? I know that both you and Marc Collin were involved in other projects before you started this band.
We’ve had a busy year, and it’s a very good thing. I have a solo thing to record, and I must go back to France very soon to record it. Under the Nouvelle Vague “suit,” we have at least two albums to record. I can’t tell you much more, but for the moment, yes, two special Nouvelle Vague albums to record as soon as we can get to the studio. New material on the way.