Here's a disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of French band Nouvelle Vague. The music collective has been on my playlist since 2007; from its days in the classic iPod to its sync with my new iPhone 6s. I first watched Olivier Libaux, Marc Collin and their female vocalists in 2008, when they belted out their sultry bossa nova covers that mirrored the beach setting in ZoukOut. As a person who completely missed the new wave boat by growing up as a teenager in the 2000s, Libaux and his collective were responsible for introducing me to the likes of Depeche Mode, Joy Division and The Clash. They were also responsible for many a teary bus ride listening to their cover of Depeche Mode's In a Manner of Speaking.
Which was why, when I met the foursome up close last month, I tried to not break a sweat. In Vietnam's capital for the opening of Le Méridien Saigon, they're Le Méridien's global music partner, curating 24-hour playlists and performing in the chain's openings in cities all over the world — be it Gurgaon, New Caledonia and now, Ho Chi Minh City. It's a little on the nose — a French band singing in a French heritage hotel situated on the riverbanks bearing a French colonial past. But it's one that works.
When you enter the hotel's new restaurant, you hear a whisper of Serge Gainsbourg; in the lift, Melanie Pain's French-accented vocals slur hauntingly over Buzzcocks' Ever Fallen in Love. But when you meet Nouvelle Vague upon arriving at the 22nd floor of Le Méridien Saigon's club lounge, it's a whole other story. Élodie Frégé, one of the band's rotating female vocalists, joins founder Libaux. Prior to joining them in 2013, the Burgundy native was already an established actress and singer in France, having starred in French films and with four albums to her name. We sit in one of the plush lounge chairs — myself facing the bespectacled, salt-and-peppered Libaux and flame-haired Frégé, while the duo looks out and over Ho Chi Minh's growing metropolis.
Hello you two! Élodie, what's life been like since you joined the band in 2013?
Élodie Frégé: It's been life-changing. I listen to vintage music all the time, but new wave music was a discovery for me. Before, I prefer music from the '40s and '50s and people like Julie London. I discovered The Cure with this band.
Olivier Libaux: And that's it, to get younger people to discover new wave music. That was the first proposal.
Olivier, you grew up as a teenager in the '70s. Who were your favourite bands growing up?
O: The great thing when you're a teenager is that you are not that faithful to artists, because you're discovering new ones. But my first favourite band was Deep Purple. I was 13 or 14 when the punk movement started and I must admit I was a complete fan of The Clash and The Ramones. In the '70s, there was a new band everyday.
Lets go back to the beginning for a second. When did you, Olivier, first have the idea to start Nouvelle Vague?
O: Mark and I were producers and musicians, and we both realised that we were big fans of punk and new wave. Then the '90s came and everybody forgot about it. We started to listen to all our records again, and suddenly came the idea of doing Love Will Tear Us Apart in bossa nova. The original was absolutely unknown. We wanted to hear if it was working, and apparently it was — the first album was very successful. And that's the story.
Yes, the first record was a huge success.
O: But when you cover music, you don't get rich. At least I could pay rent! And to go to the restaurant [laughs]! The gains of Nouvelle Vague were, and are still made, on record sales and tours. We tour all year long. Our concerts get paid, fortunately. And our songs are in movies and ads.
They're everywhere — in Le Méridien, obviously, but also in ads and soundtracks such as Blister in the Sun in Bridesmaids. Do you like listening to your own songs when they come on?
O: When I hear it, yes, I'm happy. One afternoon in Spain, the DJ was playing Making Plans for Nigel. I was thinking, "What a good recording, matching perfectly in front of the sea". When I called Air France to book a ticket, they were playing that song too as their dial tone. I was like, "Okay, can someone answer the phone?"
It's funny because everybody considers Nouvelle Vague as bossa nova, but it's not really. The atmosphere of the songs is very cinematographic.
Who decides what to cover next?
O: Actually Nouvelle Vague is quite a macho band. It's always the two guys who are always deciding.
E: But sometimes we let the guys think they are deciding.
Legend has it that you don't allow your female vocalists to listen to the original tracks before recording the covers. Is this true?
O: It's not that we didn't allow them, it's that they didn't know of the originals.
Does that help?
O: That helps a lot. Because around all these punk and new wave bands, there's something like a myth around them. Joy Division, for example, are completely legendary and you're not supposed to deal around them. And these young girls, while not knowing anything about them could take the songs very freshly.
Your third album, 3, was a bit of a departure from the bossa nova genre. When did you decide you wanted to be more diverse?
O: After the first album actually. Already on the first album it's not fully bossa nova. The first three songs were in the tradition of bossa nova — but for Guns of Brixton on the first album, it's sort of a dark pop. It's funny because everybody considers Nouvelle Vague as bossa nova, but it's not really. The atmosphere of the songs is very cinematographic more than being bossa nova.
I understand you've never asked permission from any of the original artists you cover, but what's the best reaction you've received from any of them so far?
O: The best response was when Martin Gore of Depeche Mode accepted to work on Master and Servant. You feel that your job is okay when Martin is keen on working with you! One of my best memories was when we toured the USA in 2005 and read the newspaper Boston Globe, where an interview with Martin mentioned nice things about us.
What about response from listeners?
O: We know a couple who met listening to In a Manner of Speaking. Two years later, they got married, and after they showed us a photo of their little baby — it makes this song special.
What's next for Nouvelle Vague? More covers or original material?
O: We are talking about writing original music, we will decide quite soon. But we also have our solo projects. I've been covering Queens of the Stone Age, a good album that I recommend!
Are you nervous about putting out original music as a band?
O: Don't think so, no. Nouvelle Vague is a very relaxed band.
E: It's a therapy for me.
How do you remain fresh?
O: First of all, the audience makes us fresh. Because newer and younger people are coming to us all the time. We've never written any story of what Nouvelle Vague is going to be in 10 or 20 years. Also, our female singers get replaced from time to time.
You have quite a number of rotating female vocalists — up to 25. So Élodie, are you coming to Singapore in November?
E: I think so, I hope so. I'm not sure, maybe Melanie is doing it?
Oh but Melanie has been to Singapore, so you can come instead!
O: [laughs] I will let Melanie know about this!
E: Or I will come with Melanie. We never sang together because now I'm replacing her on stage. It'll be great to sing with her.
Nouvelle Vague will be performing in Singapore on 29 November at Fort Canning Green and Gate. For more information on Le Méridien Saigon, click here.