Tuesday, 8 May 2012

french wives: the inbetweeners

Fifteen months in the making, French Wives release their debut Dream of the Inbetween later this month. “I’m sure the thought’s crossed all our minds already,” ponders frontman Stuart Dougan. “‘What if people don’t like it…?’”
French Wives formed nearly four years ago, when founding duo Stuart Dougan (vocals, guitars) and Scott MacPherson (guitars, vocals) met online. “It’s pretty embarrassing really,” winces Stuart of their MySpace-indebted roots. “We should just say we met in Sleazy's – everyone else does…”
The rest of the band – Chris Barclay (bass), Jonny Smith (drums) and Siobhan Anderson (violin, vocals) – were recruited through friends, and before long they were whipping up emotionally-charged indie-pop and gigging their way round Glasgow; a pretty straightforward origin story by all accounts. “I really wanted to say that we all had the same mother,” suggests Scott when asked if they’ve ever been tempted to embellish the story with lies, but Stuart displays stronger scruples. “I think we have given some nonsense versions in the past,” he says, “but generally we tell the truth.” While honesty is an admirable trait, it has its risks. “I don’t think any of us would have joined if we’d known at the time that you two met on MySpace…” deadpans Chris; Siobhan and Jonny nod their heads unsmilingly.

'I wish I had started younger,' goes the refrain of French Wives’ latest single, but when it comes to recording and releasing their debut album, quite the opposite is true. “For a couple of years, someone from Electric Honey had been in touch about putting out an album, but it never really happened,” explains Stuart. “And to be honest, we weren’t really in a position to do it before – we just felt we weren’t at that stage yet. Maybe in different circumstances we would have, but it wouldn’t have been as good as the one we have now, so I’m glad we waited.” When Electric Honey made enquiries again last year, the band decided they were ready to take the plunge, but rather than rely wholly upon existing material, they holed themselves away and wrote “Like we’d never written before,” as Scott puts it. “I think in those few months, our song-writing stepped up a level,” agrees Stuart.

The result, Dreams of the Inbetween, was produced by Tony Doogan, known for his work with Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai amongst others. “We made a short list of all the producers we wanted to work with, and he was near the top, but we never actually thought he’d do it,” says Scott. “I think it helped that he was a proper grown-up – generally speaking, if he made a suggestion, we listened to it. Whereas if it had been someone our age, we might have been a bit like, ‘naw, shut it’.”

“The guy’s a genius,” Stuart enthuses. “We’d play a song through, then sit and talk about it for two hours – to have someone like that talking you through your songs was really amazing.” Frustratingly, ‘administrative issues’ (“mostly on our part,” they’re quick to add) forced the studio sessions to a halt just one week in, leaving the band to unblock funding delays then reschedule wherever Doogan’s diary permitted. Gradually, over three or four sessions spread over twice as many months, the album took shape, guided along by their straight-talking producer. “I think it’s easy to surround yourself with ‘yes men’ when you’re recording your first album,” reckons Stuart, “whereas Tony is the absolute ultimate ‘no man’."

"You quickly learn that if Tony’s suggesting cutting out a big section of your song, that’s probably because it’s not very good.” Siobhan likens him to a strict teacher you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. “Oh definitely, you want to keep him happy,” agrees Stuart. “He came to see us live for the first time last week and said, ‘that was pretty good’. That’s really high praise from him!” Doogan’s input extended beyond his musical input. “Because we’re, as he puts it, ‘a little bit green’, it was quite good just chatting to him about the music industry in general,” says Stuart. “To be honest, we probably took so long recording because we kept asking him to tell more Belle and Sebastian stories...”

Only two previously released tracks – Me Vs. Me and Halloween – made their way on to the album, both in significantly re-worked recordings. “They both changed quite a lot,” nods Scott – a metamorphosis that necessitated a painful, but rewarding, letting-go. But the results, they insist, are far more faithful to their original intentions, the band “finally sounding how we want to sound,” in Stuart’s words. “We knew how we should sound, but didn’t know how, which is where Tony came in. Some people that have heard the album, if they have been quite attached to the old versions, don’t think the new ones are as good, but it would have been petty to make an album with this great producer, who’s been helping you with all your other songs, and then go, ‘oh no, not this one, we know better about this one, this one’s fine’”. Not everyone’s ready to say goodbye to the earlier versions (“My mum was gutted when she heard the new Halloween for the first time…” chips in Chris), but then again, we suggest, ‘preferring the early work’ scores instant indie points… “Aye, folk will be like, ‘I prefer the one with the hiss on it,’” laughs Scott. “‘The longer version with crap vocals, that’s my favourite…’” counters Stuart.

Earlier this year, French Wives came fourth in the inaugural Blog Sound of 2012 poll, positioned as an alternative to the BBC’s annual list. That must have felt pretty good? “The blog thing was really unexpected,” says Scott. “We didn’t even know it was running, to be honest, until we made the long-list, and when they said we were in the top 5 as well, it was a bit of a shock, because all the bands are quite big: Theme Park are doing well, Friends are doing well, and Beth Jeans Houghton, and Daughter, and then… us? They’re all much bigger names, so it was nice to be included in their company.”

“We’ve always had pretty good blog support,” considers Stuart. “There’re a lot in Glasgow especially who’ve been really positive about us and really stuck by us. We’re a really independent band – we don’t have any management, even the deal with Electric Honey is not a conventional record deal – so it can be hard to reach big press outlets and things like that. So having the support of bloggers is really important in getting us out there, especially down south.”

Earlier this year, they took steps towards extending that support base to further flung markets by flying to Texas for South by Southwest. “We’d heard a lot of different viewpoints about how and why bands should go to SXSW, but I think our main motivation was more personal – to take this band we’d worked on for four years over to America was enough for us. I think if we hadn’t taken the opportunity, we’d always look back and regret it. What if the album gets crap reviews, and we decide we hate each other and don’t want to be in a band anymore, and we’ve missed that chance?”

Raising the airfares with ceilidhs and benefit shows, the band followed Austin with a handful of gigs elsewhere in the States. “It was amazing,” Stuart says of the response. “No one has any cynicism or pre-conceptions, it’s just like [puts on American accent] ‘Oh hey man, what’s the name of your band? Fresh Waves, that’s awesome! I’m going to totally come and see you guys, that’s rad!’ And then at the end: ‘Oh dude, I am so fucking stoked, that was great, can I give you guys some money?’ There was no back-biting, or bitchiness, or anything like that.” A Scottish Showcase gig with We Were Promised Jetpacks and Django Django, amongst others, was particularly rewarding. “Because of bands like Frightened Rabbit, and going further back, Teenage Fanclub and people like that, a lot of Americans have this kind of emotional affinity with Scottish music,” reckons Scott. “We’re seen as a wee country with a lot of good bands, so that was a good card to have – ‘we’re Scottish, we must be good!’”

With US visas and album launch preparations monopolising the band's time lately, closer to home festivals have thus far taken a back seat: they’re sure they’ll get “one or two” lined up, but organising everything themselves makes forward planning tricky. “I think the nature of the industry is that it does take some people till after their first album to really establish themselves,” suggests Stuart, “so if the album does well and someone was interested in managing us, or acting as our UK booking agent or something like that…” He breaks off. “I’m putting those things very specifically…”

We offer our services as a go-between: French Wives, WLTM… “We should try that,” Scott laughs, “go on dating sites and look for booking agents…” Before we head off to draft the ad, is there anything else the band craves – for instance, any acts whose level of success they look at and think, ‘aye, that’d do nicely’? “We’re good friends with Admiral Fallow,” ventures Stuart, “and I still can’t quite comprehend how big they seem to have got. I played in a band at school with Kev [Brolly] called Ellroy. It’s crazy to think that we once did a medley of Hey Ya by Outkast and She Wants to Move by N.E.R.D. in a school hall, and now they’re headlining the Barrowlands. And it seems to have been quite organic for them – they released a record, people loved it, and now they’re playing the Barrowlands. If enough people like what you do, then you will always get to that next level.”

feature written for the skinny

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