Interview by Thomas Mangano
Blending elements from the traditional French chanson, American swing jazz, Roma & North African music, Paris Combo is a beautiful and exciting example of how eclecticism in music can not only find a market, but popularity as well. Though this fascinating ensemble flies mostly under the radar in America, their popularity in native France is huge. Paris Combo is back now with album #5 and has recently put tour dates in the U.S. For fans of the French music scene, this is a rare treat! We spoke with lead member, pianist and horn player David Lewis in this candid interview about the music scene abroad, the band’s creative process and …haunted venues, ( an interesting subject also explored in our interview with Jazz organist, Joey DeFrancesco).
Be sure to catch Paris Combo 7/17/2015 at The City Winery, NY. All U.S. tour dates can be found on their official website: Paris Combo.com.
Please enjoy and may you be inspired!
LBFH: Your 5th album continues the tradition of blending many influences to create an irresistibly eclectic blend of music. Is this something the band tries hard to preserve?
DL: It’s something that comes naturally because each member brings his or her own background and ideas to the group. We have a lot in common – jazz being the main element, but we also have had quite different experiences individually. When we first met, there was a common interest for French popular music of the forties, and Belle was attracted to the performers of that age (Arletty, Marie Dubas etc) . Potzi our guitarist was totally immersed in the music of Django Reinhardt, who accompanied many of those singers in the forties.
Then we started exploring other musical influences from North African and Eastern Europe.
LBFH: Mano doubled on some vocals with Belle and the combination was beautiful. Do you miss the vocal interactions with him?
DL: François now sings a lot more (including a solo feature) so we continue to have vocal harmonies in the arrangements. As always we adapt the music to what band-members bring to the project.
LBFH: Does the band have a primary contributor/moderator for the song ideas, like someone who decides what which songs make it to the albums and which will not?
DL: Belle writes all lyrics (and sings on all the tunes) so she has a pretty strong say. I also have a lot of input into the preparation our albums.
LBFH: What would you say are some of the key elements that must be present for a band to succesfully record and tour together for a sustained period of time?
DL: A desire to move forward together with the artistic resources we share as band – when you lose that desire it’s time to split!
Plus, a basic friendship which goes beyond just playing music together – you need the mutual respect and confidence that this provides.
LBFH: Is touring abroad sometimes stressful?
DL: Indeed! Especially when everyone is tired, but it can also be a very bonding experience and I attribute the band’s longevity in part to the stimulating overseas tours we’ve been lucky enough to do.
This said, being away from home sometimes feels like a long-distance race!
LBFH: In your press release you describe how the band members took a 4 year breather from recording and touring to return to musical sources. Did this bring about any significant changes in the band’s collaborative dynamics?
DL: We decided to write an album collectively, as opposed to individual songwriting (except the lyrics, which are always Belle’s domain). This was a departure from previous song-writing which was more individual, followed by group involvement in the arrangements.
LBFH: How did you know it was time to come back to the studio?
DL: When we had finished co-writing and arranging 12 songs we were happy with! It took over a year…
LBFH: As artists, do you feel that the creative process of writing and creating music the same once commercial success has been achieved? Do you feel pressure to produce music at a higher more proficient level?
DL: I think we have tried to write interesting but accessible songs right from the beginning – we were also lucky enough to have our music produced at the highest possible level right from the start, which I believe also contributed to early attention. Commercial success has been due to other parameters which are unpredictable, i.e. label promotion and media attention etc.
LBFH: Do you feel that audiences abroad, meaning outside of France and Europe, understand and appreciate the cultural blending of your music the same way that your European fan base does?
DL: I think sometimes audiences outside France and Europe appreciate the blending even more! When the music is totally new to people and not in a context they believe they understand, the reactions tend to be more non-judgmental – in the end we are not trying to appeal to a precisely defined group (i.e. jazz, heavy-metal, folk etc) – the more people are really open to hearing unusual juxtapositions, the better.
LBFH: When listening to your music, the passion within each player really comes through in the voices of the instruments. To achieve such a relaxed sound while playing within song structures is a truly remarkable talent. Does it require a lot of hard work to achieve that sound, or is it a product of the musician’s skills?
DL: The idea is that the band should carry the song together with the vocalist, with instrumentalists sometimes playing the main role as it were. This requires a real respect for both the song and the instrumental parts as opposed to just playing an accompanying role for the singer.
LBFH: Have you ever been tempted to let the music take a more improvisational direction during recordings, like a more traditional Jazz approach?
DL: What we do is a balance between arrangement and improvisation, whether it be in the studio or on stage – I guess we try to blur the lines between those two approaches.
LBFH: What forms of Jazz have been the most influential in your songwriting?
DL: Django Reinhardt, Ellington, Billy Holiday (with Lester Young etc) to name just a few…
LBFH: I recently visited the John Coltrane house on Long Island, NY. This is where he composed “A Love Supreme” in his home studio. It is easy to feel the energy that still surrounds the place. It is almost as if he never left. Are you often inspired by the “spirit” of those that came before you in the venues you play and in the studios you where you record?
DL: Acousti Studios, and Labomatic Studios (where we did our last album) both have long histories – the Beatles are said to have recorded a version of “Love, love me do” in German at Labomatic! Playing at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s not hard to imagine all the artists who have already set foot on that stage. The Old Town School in Chicago used to have inscriptions by Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell on the dressing-room! When you are in the US, modern music history seems very close indeed!
LBFH: Paris has such a deep history with Jazz and welcoming central Jazz figures. It gave a home to experimental musicians and artists and writers who were sometimes shunned in their own lands. Do you feel an effort like Paris Combo would have flourished had it been born in any other place in the world?
DL: The whole environment for the arts in France has been conducive to developing – and continuing – a project like ours. The somewhat simplistic name we chose for ours was also a tribute to the city that brought us together as it has done for so many in the past.
LBFH: Sometimes your songs are message oriented. Do you feel that public artists have a responsibility to voice concern on important social and political issues?
DL: As artists we have the possibility to express ourselves (more or less freely depending where you are on the planet) and to communicate with others via our art. If there is any responsibility, it is to be sincere in what we are expressing.
LBFH: Has home recording technology and file exchanging changed the way you create music and share ideas?
DL: Yes. We use now also utilize that technology to develop our ideas and pre-production for our albums.
LBFH: How do you feel the recording industry changed?
DL: We we started out, indie artists and producers in France could still derive a reasonable revenue from CD sales –
for the time being, the revenue from streaming is nowhere close to replacing that.
LBFH: I have heard other artists describe the industry dynamics as bands used to tour to promote albums, but now with streaming and piracy on the internet bands rely more on live performance to make a living. Do you believe this is true in your own experiences, is it more difficult now to sell albums?
DL:Yes it is more difficult, but, paradoxically, artists can still benefit from a record-label’s capacity to publicize and promote their music, even if the actual revenue is tiny.
I don’t know how long this can last, given that the labels need to generate revenue to survive.
LBFH: We love to inspire our readers by sharing different success stories. It is usually no accident that leads a band to success. Many events had to happen in a synchronous order to further the story. If you look back on your journey, what the key events be that led Paris Combo to where it is today?
DL: The signing with Boucherie productions, an historic French indie label, who then got us signed to a label in the States…
LBFH: Could you share one of the most bizarre experiences/situations the band ever faced?
DL: Playing in Lexington N.C. where people explained that they would have danced had it not been a Sunday…(maybe they were joking!)
LBFH: What is next for Paris Combo?
DL: A new album in 2016 and more touring this year in Canada, Germany, Italy.
LBFH: I discovered you during my efforts to learn French language. I went to the record store and found Motifs out of only a few French imports. Directly behind your CD was Francoise Hardy greatest hits. In France you are obviously better defined, but in the states it was harder to really get a good cross section of French music. Do you find that the internet has opened up more markets for the exchange of international music?
DL: Definitely. It has totally changed the game in terms of exposure to music from all places and times. Our children have access that was impossible for us when we were growing up.This said, you can only listen to one piece of music at a time!
LBFH: How do you go about discovering new music and new artists?
DL: Often through friends’ recommendation, but also via other projects (playing on other people’s albums, film projects where people suggest references etc)
LBFH: We wish you the very best on your international tour and hope you make NY a frequent stop in the future. Is there anything you would like to say to your American fan base that love you so dearly :)?
DL: Just that we appreciate the support and we will endeavor to come back often!
Thomas is a composer of film and production music. He is the founder of Local Band For Hire – Inspired Careers In Music.
To learn more please visit: ThomasMangano.com