SUCCEEDING where Napoleon failed, those dastardly French have at last managed to invade this sceptered isle.
But rather than manning the barricades and ridding our supermarket shelves of brie and Golden Delicious, as a nation we seem to be welcoming this particular Gallic menace with open arms and dancing feet.
Whatever happened to the Dunquerque spirit?
In reality, it’s not like we have much choice. With music of the quality produced by the likes of Daft Punk, Air, Mr Oizo and Etienne de Crecy, we can do little but capitulate.
And just when you thought it was safe to go back on the dancefloor, Parisian funk merchant Alex Gopher turns up to deliver the coup de grace with his debut British album, You, My Baby & I.
Gopher began his musical career in the Versailles suburb of his hometown of Paris, playing in a band named Orange alongside Nicholas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel (later to find fame and fortune as Air). The pair shared Gopher’s love for the music of Prince, Kraftwerk, New Order, Parliament and Funkadelic.
“Of course,” says Gopher over the phone from his home in Paris. “I am a very big fan of Prince. I am a very big fan of P-Funk and George Clinton too. For this album, I just try to use all of my past influences, from funk music to pop music and jazz, because you know, I started my career playing bass in a teenage rock band. I fell in love with funk music at the start of the Eighties and I just wanted to take all these 15 years of music and put something back.”
“I think I don’t have a leader personality, so when I’m working with other people I always try their ideas. The only solution was to make my music alone. I remember when I was working with Nicholas and Jean-Benoit. They have got very strong personalities so I was always the guy helping them. But I wanted to do my own stuff. That’s why now I prefer to work alone.”
“For this record I wanted to have real songs because the format of the album is for home listening,” he explains. “I’m not a singer so I needed some people to really sing for me.”
“I met Clip Payne in Paris five years ago. And I said, one day I will try to do something with this guy. A few weeks later, he sent me back a demo of Time, the first track on the album, and it was exactly as I dreamed it would be, because it was my music with the talent of a man who made original P-Funk, a very good melody maker.”
On the album’s lead single The Child, Gopher also employed the voice of Billie Holiday to spine-tingling effect.
“It’s only quite a small section,” he says. “The idea was to try to make a song like if she was here today. At the beginning I wanted to have a female singer and I wasn’t able to find a good person in Paris. I fell in love with The Child because my wife was pregnant at the time, so I just tried to meld the two universes together and by chance it fits perfectly.
“When I finished the track, I asked myself, is that respectable or not? And people in general seemed to realise that all I wanted to do was make a homage to Billie Holiday.”
Do you never fancy having a crack at singing yourself?
“I use a vocoder on Ralph & Kathy,” says Gopher. “But that’s the only possible way I could sing.”
Gopher is also conspicuous by his absence in the typography-heavy video for The Child and the follow-up single Party People. On the album’s cover, he seems to be present only as a poster on a wall, before you realise that the whole vignette is actually reflected in Gopher’s sunglasses.
“In electronic music there is no singer you have to push to the front and I like that,” he decides. “It is the music which is important. You have to find a strong image to illustrate the music, but not the artist behind the music.”
Gopher describes the album as “a family affair. I try to work with friends.” One of its mellower moments is entitled 06/10/98, the date of his son Joseph’s birth.
What does Joseph think of the track?
“I think he’s a little too young but it’s quite funny to see him shake his body when he hears it,” he replies.
One curious thing about Me, My Baby & I is the fact that, although it sounds absolutely, intrinsically, hopelessly French with its innate hip-swinging funkiness and general air of louche insouciance, all of the lyrics are in English. While this makes a certain amount of commercial sense in an album destined for the UK market, how does that square with the French culture ministry’s infamous edict that a certain percentage of music played on the radio has to originate in the Fifth Republic?
“Ten years ago in France, all the music was English and American and the government made this law to help French singers and artists,” says Gopher. “But now, it’s funny, because hip hop is the very big thing in France and they all rap in French. But electronic music can live outside of these laws and we are proud to live without government involvement.”
I would just love to hear you playing the music from the album live. Will that ever happen?
“I find the technology I use makes my music go in different directions,” answers Gopher. “I try to make funk but with modern technology so if I try to do live music I will lose the personality of the music.
“But at the same time, gigs are interesting if there is something unusual. If I am alone with the computers, there is nothing visual, so that’s not interesting. Maybe I could merge computers with live music but that’s very difficult and I am maybe too lazy to do that. I’m a lazy guy.”
You can do live stuff with keyboards though. For example, did you ever come across Howard Jones?
“Excuse me? Howard Jones? I don’t know him.”
Eighties pop star with synths? He used to have a little monkey bloke in a cage dancing for him?
I’m not convinced. Note to self: Don’t make stupid jokes when interviewing French people.
“Kraftwerk were very good onstage as an electronic band,” he continues, regardless. “When I was younger I did not make the difference between guitar music and electronic music when I listened to Kraftwerk. I thought they were just another pop band and I did not realise the tools were not the same.
“It was better before, to be quite naive and to take pleasure with the music without thinking how it’s done.
“I always try to make my computers sound like real musicians and perhaps that’s the only way to continue to use computers. I want to use these tools but I want to make classic pop music.”
These days, Gopher lives in Montmartre with his wife and child. He seems content with his lot in life.
“I think that it’s the best place you can live in Paris,” he tells me. “It is an old, beautiful part of Paris with a very diverse population – old people, the young generation, a lot of artists, lots of West Africans, lots of North Africans. It has a very good spirit, you know.”
Finally, I ask him how it feels for French music to have gone from about as uncool as it gets (Johnny Hallyday) to about as cool as it gets (Daft Punk, Air, Etienne de Crecy, Motorbass, Kojak, Rhinocerose, the list just goes on) in such a short space of time.
“The big sellers in France are hip hop artists,” he laughs. “Everybody knows that electronic artists are successful elsewhere, but for example Mr Oizo is still very, very underground in France. But perhaps for us that is the best situation because we are not too much involved in big business.
“We can continue the way we began a few years ago.”
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Alex Gopher is still making beautiful and wonderful music and in fact has a new album out this month. Read all about it here.
[This interview is an expanded version of a piece that originally appeared in the Big Issue in the North in November 1999]