Retro-Futurism, Phenomenology, and Scatting Gibberish: A Conversation with Caravan Palace

Caravan Palace © Florent Drillon
Caravan Palace’s ‘Chronologic’ sees them taking a dive into unexplored territory, poppy and hip-hop laden in turns, but still fused with their original ethos of electro-swing danceability.
Stream: ‘Chronologic’ – Caravan Palace

 




Caravan Palace’s unique brand of electro-swing has exploded with a nigh crossover-like success, attracting dance music lovers and swing aficionados alike. Their newest album, Chronologic, sees them taking a dive into unexplored territory, poppy and hip-hop laden in turns, but still fused with their original ethos of electro-swing danceability.

Chronologic - Caravan Place

Chronologic – Caravan Place Cover Art

Chronologic also stages a newfound lyricism front and center. In previous outings, the band – and vocalist Zoé Colotis in particular – emulated scat vocals. The result was delightful, but words often made the cut based on their sound over their meaning. Such new lyricism informed a much different song making process overall, with vocal features throughout the album accentuating the new(ish) direction.

Caravan Palace’s new work covers nostalgia, “Melancolia,” and features a more stripped down approach that previous Palace efforts. More than that, it evolves, it refines, it still pops off. The band mention the challenges of writing music for a largely English speaking audience, and how experiences and language barriers are endemic information in making music, how inseparable bits of identity can change in translation.

Inside, we talk retro-futurism, how electro-swing can evolve, and gibberish.

Caravan Palace © Florent Drillon

Caravan Palace © Florent Drillon



A CONVERSATION WITH CARAVAN PALACE

Atwood Magazine: So, your new album is Chronologic. I love it. It’s kind of a departure from previous albums - back to that in a bit - but first, how has it been taking the new songs on the road?

Arnaud Vial: It’s always a little hard at the beginning, but it’s getting better.

Charles Delaport: We started touring festivals in France and Europe. The festival circuit is very intense, we only have a short time to set up everything. So now that we’re touring venues, we have more time to set up and make everything sound better. We are very happy to be here and have time to sound check and everything.

Has there been a difference in the reaction between the European and American audiences?

Zoé Colotis: Hard to say.

Charles: We did our first show in Mexico five days ago. It was our first time so it was a big difference.

Arnaud:  Crazy people.

Zoé: Really enthusiastic. The main difference is maybe that here, people know how to sing the lyrics better. It’s weird, because we’re supposed to be French so we’re known in France and they enjoy the music, but no one is really singing. But here, I can hear it in the microphone and the audience is, jeez they’re really singing the lyrics. I wanna do the Mariah Carey thing like, “your turn!”

Arnaud:  You tried that yesterday.

Zoé: [laughing] Yeah, yesterday was a bit of a fail. The thing is, I didn’t pick the right moment to do it.

I saw on your Twitter the other day that an audience member was doing a dance and you started mimicking them, and they were so happy about that.

Zoé: We have very cool fans. Some people have such cool dances, and some others have weird outfits. Yesterday, a guy had glasses, and this outfit that said, “Caravan Palace, I love you” and the robot face. So at the end of the show, we asked him to come up on stage and he was so excited he almost killed himself.



On the sort of live aspect, one thing that struck me was that a lot of the musical technicality kind of takes a backseat on Chronologic. It’s there, but maybe back in the mix, etc. I know in the past members have described your music as “music for musicians,” so how have you found the songs on Chronologic translating to the live arena? Any chances for unwritten solos and stuff like that?

Arnaud:  It’s more written yeah, you’re right. Songs like “Plume”, which are very pop in the structure are kind of new for us. I think it’s a good balance between the old songs. There isn’t too much space in the new songs for improvisation but at first, you’re just playing the new songs as they are on the album. If you can do that live, after a while we can go further and give a bit more room for the instruments to express themselves.

Actually, since we were talking about “Plume,” where was that filmed?

Zoé: Tokyo.

So, the video features a robot that falls to Earth and is mistaken for a cosplayer. And this seems like a different robot than Georges. Where did the idea for the video come from and how much did you collaborate with the director in establishing the themes and such?

Charles: Actually, we let the director have a lot of freedom to determine where they wanted to take the video.

Zoé: We have input for the edit to make sure it’s tight with the music. What was cool was their influences from old science fiction. There’s also the part at the end like Terminator with the red eye. It also had influences to previous music videos like the video for “Suzy,” which references Metropolis and things like that. I guess it’s because they watched the previous video and said, “okay, that’s a cool mix of things from the past and references.”

Charles: It gives some sense of continuity too.

Zoé: We’re also interested in filming all over the world. We had “Dramaphone” in Paris, “Midnight” in Compton, and now it’s Tokyo, so why not?



So, why “Plume”? Would that video specifically have worked with another song?

Charles: We like the fact that “Plume” is a bit tropical, like a summer track, and the music video is not at all a summer track. It’s a deep contrast. We like that. It’s surprising – you expect to see girls on the beach.

The video felt very winter with -

Zoé: I would say fall.

Yeah, all the gray colors. Is the robot dead?

Zoé: Who knows.

Arnaud:  I think so.

Zoé: Can we say that robots…?

Charles: Robots don’t die.

Zoé: Robots never die.

Okay, now this is the obligatory influences question but I’m going to spin it a little bit. Were there any specific inspirations for the album Chronologic? Obviously, musical inspirations are very cool, but I’m more interested in life experiences, relationships, and so on, because to me there felt like there was this thread of nostalgia throughout the whole album, particularly on the song “Waterguns.”

Charles: We like to work on these tracks together, so take a song like “Plume.” It’s a very dancy song, but the harmony and the colors of the sweet voice are quite nostalgic and melancholic. We actually did a track called “Melancolia” which is very melancholic [laughing].

Our music is full of joy, but joy is also melancholia. It’s not just about having fun and moving your body.



That’s actually why I felt nostalgia was such an appropriate emotion, because it can be joyful as well as terribly sad. As I mentioned before, I felt that Chronologic was somewhat a departure from previous albums. I don’t know if you feel this way, but Robot Face sort of distilled the electro swing lightning from your self titled. Chronologic still has that, but in a lot of places it takes things in a more subdued direction, maybe even influenced more by hip-hop and with flavors of the more haunting songs on Panic. What spurred that change?

Arnaud:  I think it’s just natural. We just wanted to do more songish, poppish format. Adding some new singles, new voices, just to change a little bit. It was already a slight turn on Robot Face. At first, people said “yeah, what the fuck, where are the instruments.” But…no one complains anymore.

Maybe it will be the same with Chronologic. Right now people are saying, “oh what, so now you’re a pop band?”

Charles: It’s more difficult to make a track for Chronologic than a track for the first album with many gimmicks, many parts. Less is best, in some music.

Arnaud:  It was certainly not the case on the first album.

Charles: There was lots and lots and lots of information.

Zoé: But it’s still the case. I think the next challenge for Caravan Palace is less information.

Arnaud:  I think people like Caravan Palace for the bigger tracks too.

Zoé: Yeah, I know. But if you’re talking about a challenge – something we’ve never explored – not saying it’s better or worse. Just something we haven’t explored.

Charles: And simply, we don’t like to do the same thing. We need to evolve. Our taste changes.

Arnaud:  Electro-swing has been very trendy. A lot of DJs went – okay, let’s go on the electro-swing train. And they’re all doing basically the same song.

Zoé: The same song.

Arnaud:  It’s like a house beat with a clarinet or voice sample. It’s amazing how many songs you can find with the same samples.

Charles: Every time you do a different track, I don’t know, I don’t see the comments on YouTube, but I’m sure people are like, “no no, do what you did before!”

Arnaud:  “We want trumpet, we want clarinet.” Yeah.

Charles: Electro-swing fans are…difficult fans. Because they don’t want to change that much.

Arnaud:  Sometimes they just forget that swing music in the 30s, the 20s, was pop music. I’m sure there were some purists saying, oh what is this shit. I want to listen to music from the countryside. There are always purists.

Caravan Palace © Florent Drillon

Caravan Palace © Florent Drillon



This is a good segue because I want to talk about the featured vocalists a bit. I think a lot of the differentiation also comes from the featured vocalists, who just by nature of their vocal timbres give a different flavor to the songs they’re on. How did the collaborations with people like Charles X and Tom Bailey come about?

Arnaud:  It was pretty simple. We were looking for new voices, men. Charles X is pretty famous in France, probably more than the US. He’s a very good singer, it was really nice working with him. And Tom Bailey is a French singer, but he’s living in the UK. So at first, we were thinking, “oh, he’s a British guy.”

And then he starts singing on our track and we are like, “I know this accent, it’s not British. What is this?

Both of those features were through our manager, but there was also a guy singing on “Moonshine” who’s a very interesting guy. Sings like Chet Baker.

Zoé: In case you didn’t notice. [laughing]

Charles: It’s very clear, for us. They had very clear vocals without much vintage effect.

Arnaud:  It was a change, also. The clear lyrics – you couldn’t understand anything from earlier Caravan Palace records. Like, “um…what did she say?”

Zoé: They used to ask me to sing the samples that they edited. When you edit samples, it basically doesn’t mean anything sometimes, if you want it to sound exactly the same. If you keep the same words, in the end it’s kind of a weird sentence.

And now we’re more into like, “let’s talk about that,” it’s sort of a more regular songwriting process.



Yeah, so I think when I reviewed the album Chronologic, I said the lyrics on earlier albums were like, “delightful gibberish.”

Zoé: And also based on scat. Originally, scat was just using words because of how they sounded.

Exactly. So, in that way Chronologic is a bit different. How was that lyric writing process.

Arnaud:  Painful.

[laughter]

Zoé: When you start to say something, you have to put some things you’re thinking about, so it’s easy for a solo artist. This is what I have in my heart, this is what moves me and makes me thrilled. Obviously, I’m a girl first, they’re guys.

Charles: And we are French first. English is not our language, there are many expressions we don’t know.

Zoé: Yes, but also even the theme of the song can be – I remember the beginning the beginning of “Melancolia,” I’m singing “driving my 50 -” I would never think about that [laughter]. No way. I don’t even know what an 850 is, you know? It’s a car.

But, I liked the idea, so if I imagined myself driving, what would be my mood? Why is she driving this? If a guy is driving it, it would be different from a woman, so maybe she’s been dumped. So the process is different – you mix all the influence, and it’s not that natural. So it takes a lot of time.

Plus, we worked with American native people to make sure the way we want to say things is okay, and then they change it at the end. They’re like, if you want to say that, you would rather say it this way. Well, then, what about the rhyme? And then we have to change the first line. So it takes a really long time.

Wow, that’s such an interesting perspective. Yeah even like...driving a car just sort of - period - is an almost quintessentially American experience. The sort of fetishization we have for cars doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. So, these people are actually translators?

Zoé: Not only. Sometimes they submit ideas because they understand what we are trying to say, or the kind of mood we are in.

Charles: Or the few words that we have, they can make sense out of them.

Can you describe the recording process in general a bit more?

Charles: In general, there is no recording process. When we’re working on demos, we try to do our best to make it sound quite good. But for the voice, it’s at the end of the process and we had to get Charles X and Tom Bailey to come to Paris to record it.

Arnaud:  It takes a lot of time, because in all the music industry now, all the vocals are really really really processed. It’s kind of amazing, all the processes that are on voices. If you don’t your voice just sounds really weak.

So, we spent a lot of time on voices, especially on Chronologic.

Charles: We work in our own studio – we don’t go in a big studio, so we have all the time to record and record again and do everything. Time for…many takes.

So, on the recording process, what was the most extreme decision anyone made for any of the songs.

Arnaud:  I think it’s on “Melancolia,” the chorus sung by an American guy called Titus. We are singing as well, and it’s very rap.

Charles: It’s a very different sound for us. We like hip hop a lot, so we wanted to put this voice with effects and so on.



How do you feel about the fact that vocals in this musical moment are so processed? Good, bad, neutral?

Charles: Maybe it’s too much. Too much autotune all the time, everywhere. But it’s fun. It’s an effect so –

Zoé: I have two different opinions, considering the record and the live performance. You never get what you have in the studio on stage. To me, it’s kind of two different ways of thinking about making music. If you want to think about a live project, you should not care too much about effects.

So we used to say that a good song is a song that you can just do with a guitar, and voice, and nothing else. Then you can do a different version with good effects on the voice, and lots of orchestral things and whatever. So, this is the thinking of “how should we write a song?” Then it’s a question of sound, and what you want to hear.

What you want to hear when you buy a song or go on Spotify – you don’t want people singing like old rock and roll. We’re tired of it, what Billie Eilish does is really interesting, and she does a lot of processed vocals.

So, two different opinions – what you wanna hear, and what you need to do if you want to perform live.

Okay, plugs! Where can we see you, listen to you, and pay you?

Charles: Our next year is all about touring.

Zoé: [singing] It’s all about touring, it’s all about touring!

Charles: Life of a musician.

Arnaud:  Maybe a few new tracks.

Charles: Touring, releasing tracks, thinking about new music.

Zoé: We have the piano solo coming out with Lone Diggers.

Arnaud:  New mixes, new music videos!

Charles: Some cool ones. We’re working on a movie for “Supersonics.”

Arnaud:  It will be in stop motion!

Thank you so much for sitting down with me. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, and good luck tonight!



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Caravan Palace’s ‘Chronologic’ Is Swinging, Haunting in Turns

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Chronologic

an album by Caravan Palace



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Danny Vagnoni is a writer specializing in music & culture writing, podcasting, and editorial work. Danny is currently working with Grammy winner Denny Somach (Ah Via Musicom, Eric Johnson) on an upcoming classic rock podcast and multimedia endeavour. He is based in Philadelphia, PA, and loves the city's resurgent culture. [Aside from all that, Danny has approximately five million instruments, two of which he can play competently, brews beer for kicks, co-hosts a podcast, and has a ceaseless drive to create.]