The Penelopes

Hailing from the outer suburbs of Paris but currently taking the UK by storm, The Penelopes bring with them a unique style - lush, layered, keyboard-based post-punk pop with a French disco punch. The duo - Axel Basquiat and Vincent T - have been championed by fashion designer agnès b who has booked them for her shows and are about to do a massive tour with The Human League. Axel has a memorably deep voice as well as the kind of stage persona that sees him dubbed “The Black Iggy Pop”. They are complete musical whirlwinds, DJ-ing and remixing for other bands too, and they showed us round their jaw-dropping vintage synth collection, while telling us how they created their new album Never Live Another Yesterday.

Pour Le Monde Records
@The Penelopes

Lush layers of dance sounds

The Penelopes have always had a deep love for British music, so it seemed the logical thing to move to London, and their arty brand of synth-driven pop rock has been winning them friends all over the place. They say that it’s the sunshine that brought them to London! We’re not sure we believe them. The video for their current single Summer Life is stunning and was shot in the Spanish desert, and they suffered for their art with extremes of heat and cold, not to mention sand.

The single is from their album Never Live Another Yesterday, which is loaded with sunny-sounding dance tracks.

I think it’s a pop album, I think it’s contemporary pop songs, I don’t know if you can say that in English but it’s simply some modern pop songs. People think that it’s very electronic, but it’s not that electronic, I think. To me it’s more layers of things. It’s just modern pop tracks and layers and layers, of real instruments, I mean live instruments, synch, drum machine and drums, and the sound is thick.

Growing up in a council estate in the the less glamorous quarters of Paris, Vincent and Axel originally put together a sound that was hugely influenced by English post-punk.

We come from the background that is rock but with indie pop, shoegaze etc. But I think what triggers something in us, it’s New Order, this kind of thing, New Order, Human League, and in a sense The Cure as well. But New Order was important, and our background is very rock, post-punk in general and indie pop, but we wanted to do something different from our reference, from our background.

When we found management in the UK, we decided to come here. For our style It’s better to be in London than to be in Paris, I think, definitely - they don’t understand what we are doing in France. French pop is so shitty. You have really good pop compared to France. If you talk to a magazine here you can talk about reference, everything. For you guys it’s obvious to talk about, I don’t know, Gang Of Four, New Order, that kind of band, Ride, Slowdive, but if you talk about Slowdive or Ride to a French journalist, you’re just an alien, you know, the guys don’t understand.

Their live performances are a dazzling blend of keyboard wizardry and live instruments, as Axel explains:

You have a drum machine synchronized with drums and the click of the drum machine, and you have a MIDI synth. Vincent plays some parts, I play some parts, it’s a kind of combination of MIDI and live stuff.

We just wanted to explore the dance side, you know, and it was just new for us because we didn’t have this club culture, and we just wanted to do something different, so for this we started to incorporate a lot of keyboard etc. But at the beginning the tracks are very simple, it’s just a bassline, drum machine and a guitar. And then we add layers of keyboards.

They are gaining a reputation for passionate live work, particularly for Axel.

I think we are the nicest guys and the most caring guys on the earth honestly. We are very calm in general, but I don’t know what’s happening on stage, people say I’m going a bit crazy, and I think it’s just another side that we don’t know, can’t explain it really. I have a tendency to break the instruments. I broke some instruments on stage previously, now I manage to control myself but I was a bit moody and I can break stuff. I’m calm but at the same time on stage I’m a bit stupid, I can do stupid things. And afterwards Vincent regrets my stupid attitude.

They have to pick their stage gear carefully, and keep a lot of rarities for the studio. They have amassed a stunning collection of vintage kit, especially synths and drum machines, by means of crafty buying. They saw the potential of these instruments before other people did, and they were teenagers at a time when people were chucking out all things analog.

We just started really randomly because we had no money to buy, so we just really collected together keyboards, and we did good. As we became a little better, we became maybe more geeky. At the beginning it was just to have a drum machine, anything would have worked, we didn’t give a shit about the drum machine really, we just wanted to have a sound, and little by little we explored.

Sometimes the gear is a bit random, a bit bizarre so we use it and now people say how do you do that, but it’s just a cheap keyboard, you know. The reason is just curiousity, punk attitude, I don’t know.

A few years on and they have a jaw-dropping collection of iconic vintage kit as well as some newer gear. They showed us round it and let us in on how they use it in their tracks. (See side panels for more info and videos).

It cost nothing, a Casio, Juno-6, (Yamaha) CS-10, it was cheap, nobody wanted the Roland guitar, nobody wanted this kind of thing. The Korg Micro Preset, the Mini Pops. We bought this drum machine, the guy who had that didn’t know what it was, and Vincent bought it for like three pounds. It’s a kind of sound you have in Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, you know, the small cheap drum machine. It was cheap, it was three pounds and now everybody wants that. You know, it’s super rare and in ten years it’s rare but we bought it for nothing. And it’s kind of a combination, now we have some stuff, more expensive stuff but we still try to keep this balance between cheap and expensive gear.

Laura Kidd, who performs her own material as She Makes War, was guest vocalist on the album and plays bass with them in their live shows. For vocals, they have had a lot of fun with the TC Helicon Voiceworks Plus that they call the harmonizer.

We worked a lot with the harmonizer, and it was funny for some harmonies with Axel’s voice, so we wrote a lot of harmonies this way, with a girl’s voice, and we asked Laura (Kidd), the backing vocalist, to do the same or to improve them. It was really interesting because at the end we used finally Axel’s voice, Axel’s backings, and Laura’s backings and machine backings too, and we tried to make layers of harmonies. It’s used by Depeche Mode I heard. Sometimes when you record the vocals, you’re a bit stuck and you don’t hear all the melodies, so it’s good to have this kind of rack. You just plug it in MIDI and you can play a new melody and you can find a new harmony that you will not find spontaneously.

We asked them about working on the album and they said there were a few raised eyebrows to start with, at their Gallic sound.

They were really surprised by this kind of guitar so they said this was typically French. The producer told us it was a really French way to do some guitars, it’s like funky guitars, like Chic guitars. This kind of disco side. I think it’s a bit French. When we were kids you could hear this music in the street, disco, funk, etc, and this kind of tempo, between rock and, not funk but disco. I think we bring. I think this is the French side, strangely, you know we have a lot of disco producers, like the favourites Daft Punk, Cerrone etc. I think we are doing a kind of disco rock thing.

But it was a fruitful collaboration and they loved working with producer/remixer Dan Grech-Marguerat, who is known for his work with The Vaccines, Scissor Sisters and Lana Del Ray.

We were really happy because he has a great way of mixing and he’s a really kind guy. He’s perfect.

The duo relish remixing too and have remixed tracks by Glitches, Figure of 8 and The Chevin who were recently on the David Letterman Show.