the french fight back: smokebox interviews clermont ferrand

New York is known to be a musical melting pot, a place where anything and everything can be thrown into the mix. Hence, it is not surprising to run across a (Non-Haitian) French Rock and Roll Band. What is surprising is to discover that said band is fantastique! Les Sans Culottes is the epitome of what a “band” should be. They play their asses off (i.e., create massive grooves and execute tight arrangements with panache) while putting on arguably the most entertaining show in the business. If you are not in New York or their frequent touring ground of California, the best way to experience them is through their website – Of course, you should also order up a copy of their latest perfectly- prepared CD Faux Realism. I caught up with their fearless leader Clermont Ferrand as LSC was preparing for their next show at the famed Bottom Line nightclub. By the time you read this, the US and Britain will have invaded Iraq and Les Sans Culottes will have shared the stage with “special surprise guest!” Ringo Starr. While it is hard to find solace during this time of war, we can look to artists such as Clermont and company for a little level-headed social commentary, humor, and booty-shaking. As they say in France, “Laissez faire en l’amour et la guerre”… er… uh… something like that…



John Pinamonti: I suppose I should address from the outset the recent wave of bad press that anything French has received in America. Have you as a band or as individuals encountered any of this “anti-French” attitude? Do you see your band becoming more politicized, do you feel as if you can help ease the tensions, or do you even care?

Clermont Ferrand: Well I saw that America’s leading intellectual journal, the super-prestigious New York Post, say that the French and Germans, because they think Mister Bush is an idiot and creates pretexts for everyone of his longstanding policies such as tax cuts and drilling in the Arctic, were called the “axis of weasel.” It is unfortunate that there is no word for weasel in the French language as this is not part of our diet. Perhaps the Americains should pause to consider what kind of stupidity would force French peoples to take the side of our good, good friends the Germans over Mr. Bush’s latest stupidhead idiotic ranting. Of course, with the English it is quite another thing.

For Les Sans Culottes, as a French band in Brooklyn, we have long endured the stupidity of Americains, the terrible coffee, their horrid taste in “fashion”, their laughably fat bodies. Can I supersize that for you? So it is difficult to say that there is more hostility as the mere sight of these people was painful for me. But we can give as well as we take and are entirely proud to be a fly in the ointment. The entire revolutionary project of Les Sans Culottes is to break down cultural chauvinism by any means necessary. As for myself, I have taken to wearing a French flag lapel pin, and appearing everywhere surrounded by 15 French tricolors and Ari Fleischer (of Popeye fame) bearing simple placards like “war is peace” and “protecting the homeland.”

But no we are not getting more politicized. After all we wrote “Non Merci Oncle Sam” with its reference to the economic Taliban well before the Americain invasion of Afghanistan.

JP: You say you are “A French band in Brooklyn” – well then, let me ask you about the credit on back which thanks “New York for keeping it real and France for keeping it Faux”. You seem to imply that, while being French, you are also distinctly American. Then again, I guess New York really isn’t like the rest of America, or the world, for that matter…

CF: Well it is true that in the current political climate we have largely been passing ourselves off as Americain, meaning that we have bought a lot of duct tape and chewing gum at Odd Lot last week. “Yo son, fauxgetaboutit.” That is why we are no longer billed as a Faux French Rock n Roll Band but instead a Faux Freedom Rock n Roll Band, which by the same toking is also the Americain side since Amerika is all about Faux Freedom. The good news is your Mr. Ashcroft is clarifying this and abandoning any further pretense. I’m faux Love and I’m faux happiness. But like the Colossus of Rhodes, the croissanwich and Au Bon Pain, Les Sans Culottes have one foot astride either side of the Atlantic causing no little discomfort for everyone despite the Tai Bo workouts. Now we are marketing freedom ticklers on our website for all the Anglo-Saxon girls. We’ve started covering “We’re an Americain Band” as part of our show now also since people might think we are Canadian.

JP: You mentioned the English earlier… As far as music goes, this country experienced an “English Invasion” in the 60’s, where many groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones embraced and incorporated American music in creating their exciting and profitable styles. There are those who see LSC as part of a “French Invasion”, and consider you to be carrying on a similar plan of “attack”. Your comments on this?

CF: France was invaded by English and Americain language and “culture” well before the Rolling Stones washed up on the shores of the Etats Unis with their terrible Americain accents and ludicrous minstrelsy imitations of Muddy Waters. Unfortunately now some young French bands are so brainwashed that they choose to sing in English rather than a beautiful language. For our crossover attempt we did compose a song in Esperanto called “Li Kantu.” And we are challenging the cultural pre-conceptions of Americains every single concert by showing that it is possible to rock mightily en Francais, and that the typical Les Sans Culottes song, though song in French, is no less understandable than your average histrionic Robert Plant Led Zeppelin lyric or that of horsewhispering REM pitchman Michael Stipend. Unfortunately all the other French bands suck so it is sort of a lonely invasion. Something like Gallipoli. Anyway, we’re doing a show with one of the washed up Anglo Saxon invaders, Ringo “Mr. Barbara Bach” Starr in two weeks at the Bottom Line, and I love the song “Back off Boogaloo.” Of course, the bottled water thing was very successful.

JP: There has been talk about a new New York scene, with bands like the Strokes at the forefront of this alleged “new wave”. Do you feel at all connected with this? How do you feel about the current state of “rock and roll”?

CF: I’ve known the Strokes since we were in boarding school together in Verbier. Julian Casbalancas’s French is better than mine (though my english is better), and we both grudgingly acknowledge that our success is due to our father’s modeling agencies (mine runs Hasbro). He came ot our Bowery Ballroom show and threatened to “kick our bass player’s ass” (at my encouragement) but said he changed his mind because “we rocked so hard.” So we are both pro-rock. and we share the same guru, JP “I’ll shower later” Bowersock, who auditioned for the LSC guitar slot captured by Cal D’hommage back in 2000. Julian and I took guitar lessons form JP and tellingly, neither of us play guitar. As a result, JP was forced to work with the Strokes and now they all smoke to much and say things like “I love you, JP” , “in a gay way.” So we all feel pretty connected to them albeit in a gay way. Ultimately, it’s good that NYC bands are interested in playing rock n roll again, but I think singing in English is boring. We’re the only good rock ‘n’ roll band in NYC. The others are terrible. In Detroit, there are a a few good bands. notably, the Electric 6.

JP: Let’s talk a little about the creative process. It seems to me this is a band that very much thrives off of group improvisation. How are songs developed?

CF: As for the creative process, it’s pretty simple. Take equal parts Baudelaire, Henri Michaux, Godard, Cheap Trick, “Merde Genevieve” (french phrase book), stir in a pot of absinthe, let simmer 16 hours, and vooila, you are in the french rock n roll business (“freedom rock”). Most of our songs are written for a specific audience, like Hewlett Packard or Toyota, and now we’re writing one for the U.S. Army. We’ve got the Swiss girl writing songs now too, which is a little boring since she actually speaks French (but with a horrendous Swiss accent) and she keeps writing parts for the alpenhorn and for a character named Heidi.

JP: I had heard that HP and a few other corporations had purchased the rights to LSC music. This puts you in the same company (pardon the pun) as the Rolling Stones (Microsoft), Led Zepplin (Cadillac) and The Stooges (Nike). If you had your choice, what would be the ideal product match for LSC? Gauloise? Gitane? George DeBoeuf?

CF: Well it is true we allowed one of our songs to be used in a commercial for an Americain computer company because it is one of my deepest beliefs that somedays computers will benefit mankind. Then we can stay at home and listen to music on our computers and not have to pay infalted costs to record companies. So yes I have a dream. And we also allowed one of our songs to be used in the latest Rob Schneider comedy, “The Hot Chick,” because I think Rob is a genius, a true artist, and the movie was released in time for serious Oscar consideration, although our song was not nominated. Other products the band would consider endorsing: Orange Julius, Tony Lama footwear, Stroh’s Beer, the Petit Ecolier cookies.

JP: So you have no qualms about possible fan objection to “selling out”?

CF: Well maybe if we were to do it all over again we could think about selling out, like for instance, not singing in French in the United States, though I know the singing nun is sleeping a little uneasily these days as the Francophonic tsunami approaches. it’s hard to think of a less commercial approach than that taken by LSC, and most of the ill gotten gain has just been put back into the band, the purchase of feather boas, psychiatric fees, medical marijuana and such. Since we’ve always worn our inauthenticity on our sleeve, we didn’t have to worry about appearing fake, like all of those phony bands that pretend to be real. I’m not talking about Lenny Kravitz. He’s real cool. Enrique Iglesias seems manufactured to me but that’s what I like about him. Of course, if we ever get any fans we’ll have to ask them if they want us to sell out or not.

JP: I sense from your live shows that you have a firm grip on the audience. That is, they seemed somewhat entranced by the deepness of the groove, the heaviness of the lyrics and whatever particular outfits Kit Kat and Celine are wearing. Your comments on playing “live” please.

CF: As for having a firm grip, no one has ever accused us of that either. And I much prefer playing live to the other option. But once having a chosen to perform our minstrelsy in French face, a rather large net with which to play tennis, we felt obliged to overcompensate and went with the whole andy hardy “let’s put on a show” “will work for food” thing, very Spike Jones meets MC5, but now, of course, we don’t use pyrotechnics. I think it pleases Americains to see French people so eager to please them.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Five
April 2003


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