Thursday, April 28, 2005

Battle of the Band

LordZim the blog has been many things to a few people: harangue, humoresque, travelogue, photo derby, "Mild Kingdom," and generally perplexing. That is all fine, but today, Lord Zim the fictional character who writes LordZim the blog has something uncharacteristically serious on his mind. And it concerns Clermont Ferrand, the fictional character who writes this blog's real CD reviews feature.

NB 1: This is not a news story. I have not interviewed anybody for this account, which is based on my friend's side of the story. Nor do I in any way speak for any of the principals described in this story.

NB 2:
I became friends with Ferrand, or "Bill," as I know him, back in college, when he dated a good friend of mine. I'd lost touch with him for many years and might still be oblivious to his musical exploits had he not phoned unexpectedly a year ago to say he'd be in LA soon with his band and did I want to get together? Strangely, he called the morning of the day my dog died. I registered his timing as a stroke of kismet.

NB 3: I'm too lazy to figure out French accent characters in HTML. Sorry.

And now, back to our show, which will soon enough resemble an episode of "People's Court."

Birth of the Fake

"Clermont Ferrand" is the inventor and lead singer of les Sans Culottes, which he calls a "fake French rock band." He likes to say they're "fake" because none of the members are French and the band is based not in Paris or Marseilles, but in Brooklyn. Ferrand, who takes his nom de roq from the capital of France's Auvergne region, claims he doesn't even speak French, though his lyrics belie that modesty.

He started Les Sans Culottes more than seven years ago. While visiting friends in France, his contempt for the country's rock music tradition (Johnny Hallyday, anyone?) prompted his hosts to force-feed him an aural diet of Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Dutronc, and ye-ye groups. The mild epiphany provoked by that exposure led him to create an homage to the forgotten sounds of French '60s pop. Into the soigne sonic frappe he threw the garage-rock influences of American '60s acts like the Seeds, the Rivieras, and Nancy Sinatra, whose "These Boots Are Made For Walking" is a standard at live shows.

As the controlling intellect behind the band, Ferrand, who plays no instruments beyond his own lacklustre pipes, assembled a sizeable detachment of players and singers to realize his vision. In addition to the de rigueur bass, drums, and guitar, he found a keyboardist and two female singers to round out that fake French '60s sound. The other members have names like Cal D'Hommage, KitKat LeNoir, and Professeur Harry Covert (haricots verts, get it?) Sadly, the best names -- Celine Dijon and Jean-Luc Retard -- went to people who have since left the band.

When they play live, Ferrand sings during most of the show but falls silent behind his huge shades during a few numbers, generously content to let the ladies solo or duet as he taps his toes. Yet when NPR did a story on the band a few months ago, it was Ferrand who spoke to the reporter and wove the tangled web of mystere that becomes a fake French rock band best.

Du Cote a Cote

Last year, Les Sans Culottes released their fifth CD, "Fixation Orale." The 12-song effort, which features song titles like "Voyage au Bout de l'Ennui" and "Telephone Douche," reached the Top 20 on "the influential College Music Journal chart," as Newsweek might say. Here in LA, we heard the Retard-Dijon duet "Allo Allo" on KCRW, a puffed-up college station that serves as tastemaker and Muzak for an entire Westside psychographic.

The band plays often in Brooklyn and Manhattan and even tours a few times a year, hitting LA and SF and whichever cities their manager, who also owns their label and books their shows, can arrange.

Over the years, the players have changed often and for varied reasons. For example, Retard moved to LA last year to pursue a film career. He joined the band for its West Coast shows, during which he kept an inventive "diary" on Slate in which he complained about Ferrand. Retard left the band a few months later. I ran into him at a party in Silverlake and suggested it might be time to change his name to Jean-Luc Retired.

Enter Intrigue, Rive Gauche

Two weeks ago, I was in NYC again and saw les Sans Culottes play a Tribeca loft party, where they shared the bill with an arty chamber orchestra called Ensemble Sospeso. Celine Dijon, the younger of the two singers -- and only native Francophone of the group -- had left the band in December. Her replacement, Edith Pissoff, was nervous, partly because it was her third show -- her Manhattan debut! -- and partly because the band hadn't practiced much since her arrival. In fact, the keyboardist was new too. Despite these liabilities, the show was flawless as far as I could tell, except for an awkward moment when Edith's mike failed during her first solo. She quickly switched mikes with Ferrand and regained her composure. Guitarist Cal D'Hommage was doubling as soundman that night, but he just watched her sort it out, not budging to adjust her mike's level.

I learned why two days later, on a glorious spring Monday. Ferrand and I met for lunch Monday at South Street Seaport, near where he works as a Legal Aid appellate lawyer. As gulls wheeled overhead and tourists ordered crepes at the food court, my rock star friend told me that after the show, D'Hommage, a San Diegan who calls himself "The Jar," had complained bitterly about the two newest members' performances. The Jar, it seems, prefers the people who have left the band. Being something of a businessman, however -- as band treasurer he controls the band's checking account and is the primary liaison to its manager/label owner/booking agent -- he knows better than to quit, because that would be to forsake any interest he has in the band.

Headless Torso Found in Topless Jar

And here's where the story gets weird and becomes a cautionary tale. I just told you that Ferrand is an attorney. Granted, he's no shark. He spends his days assembling appeals for people too poor to afford counsel, but as an attorney, you'd think he'd have maintained a smidge of control over his band's money and professional liaisons. But he didn't. He's never spoken to the record distributor or seen a sales sheet. He's let The Jar handle those details and disburse funds when The Jar saw fit. Is Ferrand an idealist? The band had always been a collective, with songwriting credits listed as Les Sans Culottes. At lunch, he said he was concerned about The Jar's discontent and refusal to work with the new players ... but he had no inkling of what The Jar was planning.

Later that week, I was back in LA and just parking in front of Trader Joe's when my cell phone lit up on the seat beside me. It was Ferrand: "Remember I told you I was having a little trouble with my fake French rock band? Well, it's gotten worse."

With Retard back in NY after a year in LA, Dijon itching to sing again, Covert the drummer a fickle ally, and an ex-bassist and ex-keyboardist on board, The Jar emailed Ferrand to say that he's taking over the band. Les Sans Culottes, he declared, would henceforth tour and record without its founder.

Ferrand -- oh hell, let's just call him Bill -- was stunned. But his affect is so flat that it was hard to tell. He didn't even seem sure he wanted to put up a fight. I, on the other hand, was livid. (See? This really isn't a news story.) I urged him to take a few precautionary steps and said I'd ask my music industry pals for advice and a lawyer referral. Snapping encouragement at him as I prowled TJ's aisles for yogurt and tea, I alarmed a few shoppers who wandered into earshot of my expletive-laced harangue.

On that day, Bill said he at least had control of the website, but a week later, he discovered even that wasn't true. Yes, it was Bill's pal who'd built the site, but it was The Jar who'd bought the web address. The old site with its photos and bios and seven years of history still exists on a computer somewhere, but today, www.lessansculottes.com offers nothing more than a drawing of a streetlight. [When this story first went up, it included a link to the whois.net page that reveals The Jar's home phone, address, and email. He asked that I remove that specific link, so I have.]

So now Bill has a top music lawyer on the case. He can little afford to hire her, but he really can't afford not to hire her. She sent the rogue players a cease and desist letter yesterday, and Bill is gearing up to defend his fake French band. As he noted via email yesterday, "it's 7 years of my life .... i got to fight."

Ce Qu'Il Fera, Sera

It's hard to say what will happen. Clearly, the band will never be the same again. Whether Bill resumes control or the other people take over, it's hard to imagine them playing together after all this bad blood. They're not like the Eagles or the Pixies, who couldn't afford not to reunite when offered huge stacks of money to put aside past differences. In some superficial ways Bill is the odd man out: He doesn't play an instrument, and he's a good five to ten years older than anybody else in the group. Yet everything they do has his stamp on it. The droll lyrics, the preposterous names, and the Francophile sensibility are all Bill's. If the band were to go on without him, it'd be like a peppy zombie, lacking the wit and sensibilities that make it noteworthy.

You'd think the malcontents could just go start their own band. But then they'd have to come up with a new name and new songs and build a new reputation. Why do all that when it's so much easier to appropriate someone else's concept? From their perspective, I guess, they figure they outnumber him, so they're entitled to kick him out. It's been done before ... Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett spring to mind. But Bill isn't bats.

Here's the announcement The Jar sent to Bill and a few others yesterday. Note that he doesn't use the band name, though they have a show set up.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: CELINE DIJON AND JEAN-LUC RETARD RETURN TO NORTH AMERICA TO RECORD NEW ALBUM AND FOR U.S. TOUR!!!

Dear friends, citizens, and lovers, it is with great joy that we announce the triumphant return of chanteuse Celine Dijon and bassiste Jean-Luc Retard to New York City. After nearly a year of self-imposed exile in protest of American imperialism and bellicose policy, the two greatest stars of French rock will kick-off their 2005 U.S. tour with a command performance at Sin-e on New York City's Lower Eastside. Back by popular demand, Celine and Jean-Luc will be backed by the band that made their hits Allo Allo and Tout va bien (Fixation orale, Aeronaut, 2005). For the first time in over a year, Cal d'Hommage (gtr), Moris Mars Chevrolet (keyboards), and Professeur Harry Covert (drums) will grace the stage. So happy to be reunited again, the band has already begun work on their must-anticipated follow-up album (due out in Fall 2005). Dates in Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco TBA.

The moral of this tale? Be careful whom you trust with your work. Don't surrender control. And establish safeguards to help you resume control if you have to. And don't place your faith in someone who refers to himself in the third person, especially if he uses an article in his sobriquet.

What other lessons might we derive from this story?

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3 comments:

Nous Non Plus said...

I will note that Bill was not responsible for my clever name. I came up with that one myself...

--Jean-Luc Retard

Edith Pissoff said...

I think the lesson learned is don't fake the funk. Be the funk. And don't f**k with my microphone.

patrick delphin said...

Dear Edith, I was at that show and I was wishing someone would turn OFF your microphone. You can not even whistle in tune! I am a frenchman and I could not understand even one word you sang. I believe that the english term for you is "sour grapes." I am very happy to see celine dijon return.
-patrick