> CLAIR OBSCUR – An Introduction by David Sanson (2005)
Among all groups which animated the French Cold Wave and Industrial scene of the 80s, Clair Obscur is certainly one of those which radiated furthest outside the boundaries of France. Several of their records have been published by British labels like All the Madmen (the live The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1986) or Cathexis Recordings (the 12″ single Smurf in the Gulag, the same year), and one of their act of glory is to be part of the compilation From Torture To Conscience of the mythical label N.E.R. alongside with Current 93, In The Nursery or Death In June (1984). From Killing Joke to The Nits, from Le Cirque d’Hiver de Paris (1982) to the Wiener Festwochen (1991), the bands with which they played, and the venues and places that they performed are a fantastic testimony to the richness of this group which is so difficult to classify.
Founded in Creil in 1981 by Thierry Damerval (bass guitar), Christophe (vocals) et Nicolas Demarthe (guitar), Clair Obscur drew immediately attention with a home made audio tape (re-released on the album Play), a 7″ single magnificently designed (Santa Maria) and several 12″ singles. From the most tribal cold wave to chamber music, from industrial music to dance music (unless these two are synonymous), their musical approach is eminently atmospheric and embraces a surprising variety of styles, giving birth to iconoclastic scenic transcriptions. By recreating a domestic place on stage or by organizing a fake TV game, Clair Obscur explore universes close to theatre or performance, which can be found in In Out, published in 1988 on V.I.S.A. with the help of France Culture. After the releases of the albums Sans titre, 1992, Rock (1994) and Nulle Aide… (recorded under the name CO2, for “Clair Obscur 2nd Generation”, in 1999), the end of the 90s saw the group hibernate. Christophe Demarthe mainly worked on his project Cocoon, an ambitious multimedia work released on Optical Sound. Since March 2004, Clair Obscur has been reactivated by Nicolas and Christophe Demarthe, and their albums Play and In Out (…) re-released by the label Infrastition.
(*David Sanson is a journalist and a musician. He is the editor of the French Art magazine Mouvement. The text above is an excerpt of the booklet of the compilation Echo Location, on the French scene of the 80’s, published by Optical Sound in 2005.)
INTERVIEW (By Pall ‘Nattsol’ Zarutskiy) (Grave Jibes Fanzine)
Nattsol: Tell me, how did you begin? You were ‘on the wave’, or you didn’t depend on any?
Christophe: Like any young people who like music, we had our groups. They were Joy Division, DAF, The Cure, The Talking Heads, Tuxedo Moon… At that time we lived in Creil in the north of Paris, and the music that we loved was not played on the radio (this was just before the birth of the free independent radio channels in France). So we naturally decided to write the music which we wanted to listen to. It was not our purpose to belong to a ‘wave’. Simply the bands we preferred mainly belonged to what was called new wave at that time, and which would be called cold wave today. So yes, when people asked us what kind of music we were doing, we answered ‘new wave’.
Nattsol: Could you tell about that cold wave era? Now it’s really difficult to imagine what was that. Was it organized movement?
Christophe: In France it was not organized. This must be typically French, I mean our incapacity to create real networks, unlike the British people for example who through the Cartel managed to federate the independent labels. In France everyone stupidly thinks that he is clever enough to make things by himself and better than his neighbour. This is a pity because no network really existed for this scene in the 80′s. Even if today foreign people speak about French cold wave as a movement. The only thing which existed in the early 80′s (and was partly linked to the victory of the left wing in 1981) was the creation of informal places like squatts where more post-punk bands could play and where the audience could attend concerts for little money. Of course there were also many small independent labels which were created in the early 80′s allowing such bands as Clair Obscur and others to exist, but once again the pity is that all these indie labels were never able to federate and create a genuine alternative to mass culture.
Nattsol: Your music always seemed to me more avant-garde than rock. Some of your songs like ‘Tristan Tzara’ prove my opinion. Also I can remember here that Clair Obscur was called ‘rock Artaud’. So tell me about it. What cultural movements and art actors you were influenced by?
Christophe: Truely speaking we were barbarians. Clair Obscur was called ‘rock Artaud’ by the journalist Jean-Francois Bizot but we had not even read ‘Le theatre et son double’ at that time… However we were very interested in discovering other artistic proposals in theatre, dance, cinema, visual arts, which nourished our music and our live performances. ‘Rock culture’ was too narrow-minded for us. We were not longing to belong to ‘avant-garde’. We were just interested in searching, experimenting new tracks, new fields. Also what was clear for us was that just being on stage with a guitar was not sufficient. I think that the originality of Clair Obscur in our live performances was that we were at the same time giving a live gig and questioning the conditions of this gig.
Nattsol: Another question of this type. The name of your song ‘Blume’ strongly reminds me Kurt Schwitters’s poem ‘Anna Blume’. So is that what I’m thinking about or it’s absolutely another thing?
Christophe: It is absolutely another thing. The lyrics of ‘Blume’ speak about joy and flowers, and the music is very dark. ‘Blume’ is all about this contrast. It is a good example of most of our songs where words do not say what I mean. Most of the time what I mean is to be understood not in the words but in the way I utter these words. So for the listener the exercise (quite difficult) would be to try to replace the words of the song by other words which can perhaps be guessed in the way words are expressed and also by the music. But perhaps it is rather an exercise for a psychologist more than for a music listener… And to complicate things a little more, in some songs what I say is what I mean…
Nattsol: I noticed that the music instruments in your songs are rather different. For example there’s absolutely amazing saxophone play in ‘Bad Lover’, there’re lots of wonderful bass parts in other songs. Others have only noisy ‘dirty-sounded’ guitar and so on. So it depends on line up or the songs tell what they need?
Christophe: The songs tell what they need. For our new album (to be released in early 2009), I wanted a more physical atmosphere. So we decided to use ‘rock’ instruments and analogic machines. The songs exist first. Then we invite musicians according to our needs.
Nattsol: Clair Obscur grew up not only in music but in performances too. Tell me about your performance experiments. And what are they now?
Christophe: I have answered to this above.
I cannot tell you about our next performance (in December in France near Paris (http://www. lesiteducube. com/site/breve. php?id=416) because our audience have to experience it first before we start to explain it.
Nattsol: Looking back, can you tell me what has changed in the band and what’s stayed? What makes Clair Obscur itself, of course, except the line-up.
Christophe: Our music has partly changed, because it has always been changing (right from the beginning of CO). Our shows are less spectacular (I mean there are less paraphernalia), because we have perhaps sufficiently worked with this notion of ‘spectacular’, and we are more interested today in working with the physical part of our music, which cannot be reduced. This is perhaps what makes Clair Obscur itself, the physical part of our music, whatever the music instruments which we use.
Nattsol: There was the period when Clair Obscur kept silence. What was that? Searching for new ways? And have you had any side-projects?
Christophe: Our seven years of silence were caused by a disinterest of the French music profession for our music. These years allowed me to create a solo project called Cocoon (). But because I missed the physical experience of the stage, I decided to reform Clair Obscur in 2004 and was happy to see that our music did mean something for younger people.
Nattsol: What do you think, do you have the followers in music? And what bands do you think are related to Clair Obscur?
Christophe: Oh I do not know. Perhaps you can tell me…
Nattsol: So Infrastition records re-released four your albums – ‘Play’, ‘InOut’, ‘Antigone’ and ‘Live 84/86’. Sould we wait for other re-releases?
Christophe: This is not impossible…
Nattsol: Tell me about your new album ‘We Gave a Party for the Gods and the Gods all Came’. What will it be?
Christophe: I partly answered above. Our new album will be published in January 2009 by the French label Optical Sound (http://www.optical-sound.com).
It will be rock, dark and sexy…
Nattsol: For now what do you think, is cold wave alive? Or it took it’s place in music history and cold wave bands went out of the borderlines of this style?
Christophe: Cold wave as it existed in the 80′s is dead. Young bands who write cold wave music today only make copies. It is as if they were making rockabilly music. There is no sense in only trying to approach the sound of the 80′s. What has more sense is the interest of today’s young musicians for the sounds of the 80′s when they attempt to create new sounds at the meeting point of these older sounds and the sounds which appeared more recently in the (experimental) electronic scene. Of course the interest for dark music belongs to all periods. But it is not by copying the sound of a certain period that you will express yourself in the most relevant way. Today the music of Pan Sonic for example is much more interesting and relevant than the music of many young ‘cold wave’ groups.
Nattsol: So you had many shows. Tell me, which shows and where were the most important and interesting for you. And where do you want to play else?
Christophe: My answer will not be very intellectual. I mean in our shows despite our relexion for creating the conditions of a general atmosphere and the possibility for our audience to ask themselves questions, in the end what worked or not has always been a curious alchemy between our public and us, on a special day, in a special venue. Why did it work on that particular day, in that particular venue, with that particular audience, I do not know the answer. This is perhaps a kind of luck both for the public and for the artist.
Perhaps one of the most important and interesting shows for us was when we played at Festival des Musiques Mutantes in Paris in 1986, because we had decided to take the risk to play with classical musicians in front of a rather punk audience (performing after Annie Anxiety and The Ex) and the public decided to play the game… and made an encore for us for at least ten minutes after the end of our show. This is a strong souvenir.