“I hate Radiohead”, says Mac, guitarist of Parisian electro punk act Pravda. “When they came out, the press screamed genius, but what we see in them is a sinister revival of prog rock.
When Mac met Pravda’s bassist, vocalist and synth programmer Sue in the summer of 2002, he discovered they shared a love for the Buzzcocks -whose lyrics were “like haiku, exactly the way rock or even pop music should be”- as well as the simplicity of classic rock stompfests such as AC/DC’s Highway To Hell and Joan Jett’s I Love Rock’n’Roll. “House, ‘French Touch’ and its imitations were the big thing at the time” remembers Mac. “It was impossible to hang out in a Parisian café without having to deal with a poncy DJ playing his ‘cool’ DJ shite. We thought that if the kids didn’t listen to rock’n’roll, it was simply because they didn’t know about it. We thought that if the kids only could heard guitar power chords, they would inevitably love it and enjoy banging their heads just like Beavis and Butthead.”
Thinking back of the 90s, when squareheaded House DJs were convinced their reign would last forever, Mac recalls “a very painful time. My Parisian friends thought that guitars were history and rock was dead. I couldn’t help loving rock’n’roll and couldn’t bring myself to listen to electronic music. It didn’t convey any meaning to me.”
Sue, on the other hand, throws in that at some point she had actually grown quite found of electro music: “I used to go to a Parisian club called the Pulp, because I loved some electro DJs.” Around 2001-03, a new wave of electronic music dubbed electroclash invaded clubs in New York, London and Berlin, merging early 80s electronic new wave and post punk sounds with simplified electro. Out went the posh House DJs with their thick glasses, in came queer punk aesthetics, dressing up, pornographic lyrics and confrontational vocalists like Peaches – a mix that appealed to a sexually diverse crowd of clubbers and rock kids alike. Mac appears eager to stress that Pravda’s only real connection to electroclash is the fact that they used a computer to produce their EPs and the new album. I don’t need to put him at gunpoint to help him decide what side of the brittle fence he is on: “Rock’n’roll without hesitation. We don’t listen to electro much at home. The music is mainly rock’n’roll. When we go out, we end up at rock’n’roll gigs. There’s an electro side to our stuff only because we have limited production resources: just a computer, no rehearsal space. Everybody who makes music at home with a PC sounds electro.”
However, Pravda’s affiliations with what was known as electroclash some five years ago shine through not only in the fact that they cover Miss Kittin’s Frank Sinatra. Their version of Motorhead’s Ace Of Spades features electronic sound effects so camp they make Soft Cell sound like AC/DC in comparison. Sue happily states that Pravda have “a really cool fan base in Electro”, and ultimately even Mac can’t deny a little bit of influence “from acts like Miss Kittin and The Hacker” despite not having listened to a lot of electro. “To be fair”, he continues, “I have seen some ‘electroclash’ bands that were really cool on stage. I wouldn’t buy their records though…”
Unsurprisingly, a largely fashion-orientated phenomenon like electroclash, with its obvious style-over-content agenda, couldn’t last too long. Little more than a year after its inception, everybody seemed embarrassed to have been associated with it. “Being a Parisian, I know a lot about shallowness and trendies”, sneers Mac, “The thing that drives me mad is the attitude of the magazines: they only look at music through fashionista eyes. They are responsible for that stupid association between music and style, not the bands or the gig-goers.” Sue adds consequently: “I think it would be more rock and roll to wear tracksuit bottoms while playing the guitar on stage.. But the fashion and journalist worlds wouldn’t understand!”
Perhaps because of their general disdain towards those who follow the crowd, Pravda found Punk to be a plausible enough descriptive category to put right next to Electro. Mac elaborates: “It’s fact that we DIY everything from music recording to graphic visuals, videoclips… etc. Then again this is my definition of punk: the important thing is to create something yourself with what you’ve got. Other people have other definitions. When we started the band, Sue didn’t play any instrument apart from piano, which she studied when she was a kid. This was the opportunity to engage in a project where the only important thing was the music, or more precisely the ideas you put in your music.”
Sue agrees: “Sometimes I prefer telling people that we are ‘punk’ because being one finger guitar heroes, we are punk in some way!”. “And as far as the method is concerned”, adds Mac, “we wanted to keep everything simple: play with as little virtuosity as possible and as few instruments as possible”.
But while all of that makes perfect sense, it’s hard to deny that the ‘punk’ tag has been used for so many different things in the course of the past thirty-odd years that it has almost become meaningless. In a world of wholesome ‘punk’ acts like Blink 182, why would an edgy chap like Mac still want to stick to the p-word? “Yes, it is totally meaningless now”, he contemplates, “to some people, punk means a safety pin and a Never Mind The Bollocks t-shirt. It’s fashion in its entire, cynical recycling process. Real ‘punks’ are those who struggle against that. In fact, your remark is so pertinent that we are going to remove the ‘punk’ word from our myspace page. Over here, I see the label ‘punk’ on all sorts of things that it ain’t: stupid designer clothes, commercial pop acts… no further comment.”
What strikes me is that in France, there has always been a somewhat unusual tradition of punk rock bands employing drum machines and synthesizers. I’m thinking of Metal Urbain, Berurier Noir, even Ludwig von 88. Would Pravda want to be seen as part of that heritage? “I didn’t listen to those bands much in the 80s”, replies Mac, “In fact I didn’t like the drum-machine sound at the time. And I was listening exclusively to UK and US bands… Now we’ve just “discovered” Metal Urbain and we think they’re great – apart from the unforgivable saxophone. We have even recorded a cover of Panik, a great song. As for Berurier Noir, they have a new album, and we’ve heard a very good song Coup d’Etat de la Jeunesse. There isn’t even a single note of saxophone! I’m gonna buy their album.”
Truth be told, within the parameters of their self-imposed punk simplicity, Mac and Sue are more than competent players. Tall and skinny, jet black dyed hair and armed with striking looks, Sue not only has a way with her bass but also visually evokes images of the great bassists of late 70s amphetamine rock’n’roll. Is it a coincidence Pravda chose to cover songs by Motorhead and The Stranglers, two bands dominated by aggressive bass guitars? – “I’m not a bass player, actually…”, replies Sue, “I’ve got no influences at all, I just try and do my best! I learnt how to play the bass to be able to do gigs. We chose these songs because they because we knew we could add something personal to them.” However, Sue is happy to admit to being “very proud to play Ace of Spades. Sometimes I try to look like Lemmy, but I always end up smiling in that moment!”
More often than not, Sue will wear next to nothing on stage. “As a woman playing the bass half naked on stage, I’ve got a message: I’m here and I’m doing the show. I realised that women, especially lesbians, are very sensitive towards such a behaviour. But actually I do the show like that not because I’m a feminist but because I feel rock and roll like that.” Do they have a big gay/lesbian following from the electro scene? – “Yes we do indeed”, says Mac, “but we don’t really know where that comes from… We are openly supporting every kind of human emancipation, including the feminist and gay ones of course. But we are not into the fashion aspects of the ‘queer’ movement. For instance, we would be up for supporting gay rights or women’s rights with gigs, events, or demonstrations, but we wouldn’t want to be part of a ‘being gay is cool’ celebration that has no purpose. Yes, I know… we are not that much fun after all.”
Listening to the song People Unite, for which Pravda have just released a home-made video, I couldn’t decide whether its sloganeering expresses leftist sentiments or if it’s just ‘post-modern’ irony peddling. It seems I hit a spot as this is where Mac gets really agitated: “Yes, we are interested in radical politics, to say the least. I’m not sure what radical means to you, but I don’t believe in reformism or any kind of political stance that promotes negotiating with or accommodating the ruling class. Left-wing politics are not about the ‘romantic’ attitude, like writing Che Guevara on your school bag. People who think revolution is romantic are the very same people who turn right-wing when they grow up. Class struggle is not romantic, it’s about boring, repetitive and tedious actions. When things get tough, chances are you won’t get killed heroically on top of a barricade, but rather miserably in a police cell, after a life dedicated to distributing leaflets, sticking posters and being spied upon by the police.” From the sound of things, Sue couldn’t agree more: “We have forgotten the term ‘class war’. It has been banned from political speeches as if it had disappeared. But, in my opinion, this is not the case. That’s why I wanted to write such a simple but provocative sentence. Classes don’t have the same interests, and that won’t change.”
What is the core message of People Unite, I asked. Mac: “People Unite is a useful song, I think, because we live in a time where the bourgeoisie is very successful in making people think they are divided along some particular lines such as race, sex, religion, ethnicity… whereas the only concept that can make things progress for people is the realisation they’re all workers and have a totally different agenda than the owners’ classes. Nobody can deny that the media broadcast continuous reactionary propaganda, and that workers -especially younger generations- are confused. Maybe all artists should use their influence to try and counter their ideology to try and oppose this process… counter-propaganda, man!”
As for liberal ‘punk’ acts with their oh-so-courageous anti-Bush statements, Mac is predictably outspoken: “There are bands who slag off Jaques Chirac or George W Bush. That’s fair enough, and quite honourable – but politically harmless. If all kids in America hated George W Bush, it wouldn’t change the system. To me, it’s not about individual politicians, but the system they help to perpetuate. If you get rid of a president or prime minister, you’ll realise nothing has changed. Maybe it wasn’t the president that was wrong but the private interests they serve. It all boils down to private property, no?”
To what extent can radical political messages work in a rock’n’roll context? Mac: “Pravda’s dream would be to bring as many kids as possible into politics, without being recycled by the media into harmless, hand clapping, guitar strumming song protesters. The reason why we don’t actually sing aggressively and openly about politics is that we’re not sure yet what attitude to adopt. We’re not sure about the possible positive impact of our songs.”
In London, one can’t avoid running into bands who claim they want to do ‘something new’ and inevitably end up sounding like somebody else. I want to know whether Pravda are one of the bands who operate under the pretence of wanting to push music forward, or whether they think that ‘sounding new’ is a futile aesthetic ending in itself.
“No! Trying to sound new isn’t pointless or aimless”, Mac objects, “Nor is trying to sound oldie or classic. I have friends to whom the history of rock music ended in the 70s or in the 60s. That’s cool. I respect people who recreate garage music from the 60s with a farfisa and a fuzz box, even if it’s not my scene and I wouldn’t be able to do that personally. I respect them – you actually can produce vintage 60s music by the book and still say something new. You can always say something new. But we in Pravda have decided to be ‘modern’ sounding. Remember, at any time in the history of rock’n’roll, bands that we now consider vintage were at that time musically cutting edge, even the bloody Rolling Stones.”
Sue laments that “nowadays, people lack audacity. Some are convinced that everything has been done or invented. That’s why people always want to reproduce what has been successful before. People are also afraid of newness. Nowadays, if you want to succeed, you imagine you mustn’t be too original. This is sad.”
Pravda’s packed February gig at East London’s 93 Feet East was announced as “France’s hottest new band at the moment” by the promoter. Are they really becoming that huge back in France? “At the moment all signals are on green, our myspace blog is growing steadily with enthusiastic fans”, confirms Mac, “small amateur radios play our stuff, medium and national radio stations are beginning to follow now. And we’ve played so many gigs last year that the word is out about us”. Even though they assure me they “really don’t care about succeeding or not”, Sue and Mac agree it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if Pravda had some serious commercial and cultural impact, especially given the state of French popular music at present: “Music tastes in France are quite awful”, sighs Sue, “French singers can’t help overstating the interpretation in order to be emotional”, and Mac agrees: “there’s an entire world of French pop that you guys will thankfully never know in your life”. In contrast to those bands who feel that “telling you about their feelings is what music is about”, Pravda want their music to be “useful to people: for shagging, dancing, and also for thinking and bettering their lives.” When asked for useful artists in French pop history, Sue goes back as far as the 1960s: “Singers from the Ye Ye era like Françoise Hardy, who used to sing in a very simple way. If the words are cool and clever, you don’t have to sing in an affected way.”
By achieving large-scale success in France, Mac suggests Pravda would “accomplish our first mission: change the taste of French listeners. That would be our coup d’etat.” Sue is optimistic in this respect: “The French media seems to agree in saying we will be important in the French music landscape… so we hope it will come true!”
Things seem to be looking up for Pravda: their album A l’ouest, naturally a 100% home-made affair, turned out an excellent debut. Sue sums up the album’s main purpose as offering “fun through simplicity and efficiency”, while Mac adds that their primary aim was to “make music we wish we could hear nowadays ourselves.”
How would they sum up the entire Pravda project in one sentence? “Do-it-yourself”, figures Mac, “Beavis and Butthead grow up and go New Wave.”
(c) Zuri Zone