A version of this article was published on Purple Radio
On the modern international pop music scene, France has specialised in exporting electro-pop, with David Guetta’s mass-produced club dross, Daft Punk’s retro-disco and beyond that the likes of Modji (remember them?), M83, Phoenix and Cassius.
One French band you probably won’t have heard of is the indie-rock outfit Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains. They sound quite a lot like Metronomy or Vampire Weekend, and represent a multicultural, international type of French music, as you’d expect from a band named, in English, after a North African mountain range. Frontman François Marry moved to Bristol in 2003 and played in pubs with locals before setting up the group a few years later. They are signed to Domino Records, an English label which boasts Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and Four Tet.
It seems rather bizarre that such an Anglo-friendly band is virtually unheard of this side of the channel. Perhaps it is the language issue: our listening habits are remarkably monolingual. The group sings in both French and English with a light and endearing accent.
But across the channel they were one of the most highly-critically acclaimed bands of 2014. The king of the French music media, magazine Les Inrockuptibles, ranked their album Piano Ombre the fifth best of the year, and this was the second highest of the French ones. The album is a very accomplished piece of work which flows together well. It is a mix of unexpected, unnerving sounds which pique your interest, and soothing melodies that flow over you like warm water.
The highlight of the album is its second song, La vérité, which is a jumpy, energetic, radio-friendly pop song with a catchy riff. The opening track Bois is a trip into a musical forest, as the name suggests, where François whispers over the crackling of electronic leaves and electronic falling raindrops. The murmuring becomes more rhythmic, more urgent, before the song rises in volume and richness above the forest, out of the dark, as the song works up into a crescendo. The fourth song, La fille aux cheveux de soie is a melancholic affair, with François’s light voice and a simple but efficiently charming piano motif.
I went to see them on a cold and wet November night in a Toulouse bar called Connexion, which in the United Kingdom would be half-bar half-club. It’s an ‘alternative’ sort of venue which eschews Eurotrash typical of most places to go out. In a dingy but rather large hall spectators, whose average age looked to be about 30, drank beer and ate tapas (certainly a more refined way to watch a band).
The warm-up acts were Babe, composed of two the Atlas Mountains and two Glaswegians, and Petit Fantôme, the stage name of another band member. The overlap made it hard to work out exactly which band was on stage. One band member wore a T shirt which showed a mock front-page of the Sun newspaper with the headline KEEP FUCKING BUYING, although as I was probably the only rosbif in the crowd I may have been the only one to find this bizarre. Sweaty and animated, François stooped, swayed and pranced around on the stage. Bois was a particular highlight, as the band managed to imitate the hushed, spooky atmosphere of the woods.
So if you are struggling for a belated New Year’s Resolution, how about vowing to find a foreign band diligently plying their trade outside of the Anglophone world?