Sebastien Tellier with Chairlift @ The Independent, 04/17/09
Despite representing France at Eurovision 20081, having songs featured on TV shows as widely watched as Ugly Betty and playing to sold out crowds nationwide, Sebastien Tellier is, in the United States, surprisingly obscure. The question "who?"2 must have been asked about 40 times in the weeks prior to the show, and we eventually gave up putting him into broader context; instead, we simply said "imagine if Giorgio Moroder and Prince were surgically grafted to one another. Only sleazy."
Somehow, even with his total rejection of common sense regarding personal attractiveness and, (as will be discussed below), a performing rawness bordering on "intentionally amateurish", he manages to put it all together into complete and total brilliance that must be seen to be believed. Such was the case on April 17th when, along with opening act Chairlift, he performed in front of a packed house at San Francisco's Independent Theater for his pre-Coachella warm up/final date of the Sexuality tour3.
It's the aforementioned sleazy part that makes describing the sublime genius of a Tellier concert so difficult.
Sebastien Tellier is a hirsute, gangly hedonist who projects an affably drunk persona best described as "moistly dapper". His creepy accouterments are legendary: the geezer shades he ubiquitously sports without a trace of irony; the enormous beard that resembles the sort required of anyone running for President of the United States between 1868 and 18944; the long, flowing Kenny Logginsish mane that, despite the increasing thinness on top, he hasn't changed since 2002, (giving his hair a stringy, sweaty sheen). He is almost a living tribute to everything that made the world before 1983 so richly disgusting. Normally seen wearing a white suit with cashmere scarf, he took the stage5 clad instead in the uniform those of you who experienced divorce in the early 80s might remember from the guy your mom dated immediately after: Grey pants, black shoes, ugly multicolor button down and a leather Member's Only jacket6.
Culled mostly from Sexuality with a few older songs thrown in the set was, frankly, amazing from start to finish. There was the incredible performance of Ketchup Vs. Genocide, which made it sound as though Tellier's frame of reference begins with GodWeenSatan and ends with The Pod. The epic 10 minute version of La Ritournelle that actually stunned the room into something nearing silence. The encore, Sexual Sportswear, stretched out to over 10 minutes of gloriously debauched crooning and was almost perfect,except that it was the final song. Particularly noteworthy was the absolutely incredible version of Divine, which was re-arranged for live performance with New Jack Swing/Money Mark beats halfway through, then restored to the original arrangement after the bridge. If the show had been nothing but this song performed thusly for two hours it still wouldn't be long enough to grow tired of hearing it.
Anyone familiar with his recorded work knows that he's a extremely gifted songwriter. La Ritournelle is as heartbreaking as Divine is chipper and yet both are sincere and touching (and entirely not cheesy) reflections of romantic love. He's openly influenced by prog rock and tends to write about large epic level themes, is comfortable with ironic detachment, capable of sincere sentimentality, able to be funny without funny being the point. He's also known for being a workaholic and something of a perfectionist, which is what makes his shows so compelling. They have a loose, freewheeling atmosphere that, examined in individual pieces, should contribute to a disappointing whole. He proudly flaunts a weak voice that is, or is at least intended to sound tempered by heavy drink: It frequently slips out of tune; it loses strength during long notes; he mumbles when he should enunciate. His eyes are never visible behind the shades, and he rarely breaks into anything remotely similar to a facial expression, even during songs with profound emotional power.
All the while he makes slurry jokes and plays up his persona as the world's sleaziest bon vivant - a persona, it must be noted, that is portrayed in a manner suggesting extreme exhaustion, understandable considering the length of the Sexuality tour, but seeming less from work and more from an excess of celebrating7. During this particular show, he sipped constantly from a plastic cup which was filled and re-filled from a bottle of Telus White Wine (placed delicately atop his piano), was clearly drunk or at least, wanted to give that impression. He also tended to stagger around as though he'd just woken up from a one night stand, crawled out of bed and walked out to find that what he'd mistaken for a kitchen was in fact a venue with 500 people.
The Music Man composer Meredith Willson was known for the parties he threw toward the end of his life, where midway through (and preusmably well soused), he'd simply find the nearest piano and begin entertaining his friends with renditions of his own songs (and a jillion other standards.) This is, as I see it, the essence of a Tellier show - the bizarrely distant intimacy he captures in the studio is achieved by approximating the experiencing of visting him at home, almost as though he invited everyone over and now, having sufficiently intoxicated the lot of us, has decided to pick up whatever instrument is handy and outplay the DJ. Whatever he's actually trying to do, it works. Trust us when we say that you will never see a skeevier person whom you'll immediately wish you could look identical too, nor hear a songwriter who's pretenses are more authentic than even the most "daringly" honest artist in any genre.
And in all seriousness, we really do wish we could get away with that beard.
NOTE: none of the photos of Chairlift turned out. Here, instead, is a youtube embed:
It's a rare thing for an opening act to so successfully defy mediocre expectations and at the same time compliment the headliner perfectly. Such was the case with Sebastien Tellier's opening act, the Brooklyn based electropop outfit Chairlift, currently touring in support of their second album, "Does You Inspire You".
At best, my expectations for the band were ambivalent. I love electropop, but the modern Synth music scene has felt for some time as though it's running out of steam. Otherwise brilliant bands appear to become bogged down by the weight of their influences (understandable, given that synth pop bands have to mine a music scene dead for nearly 20 years), or perhaps falter because such music rarely appears, domestically, outside of commercials and video games (which is to say, a lack of musical community and positive reinforcement). It seems however that the body of contemporary work has finally widened sufficiently to give modern artists their own frame of references, something that Chairlift aptly demonstrated during a stunning 45 minute set.
Similar to bands such as Freezepop, or the dreaded Postal Service, they make a decidedly DIY kind of synth pop that is almost exactly contradictory to the big budget work of 80s forebears. For Chairlift, this means lo-budget house beats that lend a kind of rustic charm (that is, if you can call anything using synths "rustic") to the mountain of Synths, otherworldly guitars and sky-high vocal arrangements. The result is highly processed, yet paradoxically lo fi-ish kind of electropop that simultaneously revisits the shoegazer sound. Think Freezepop and Ulrich Schnauss. This isn't to say that they were merely an amalgam of influences; the praise lavished on them here is due to the beauty of their music, not the quality of their record collections, and because we always recommend using a hammer when a spoon will suffice, we can confidently state that Chairlift is fucking gorgeous.
It's a sexist cliche to look at a band composed of 3 people (Guitarist and Keyboardist Aaron Pfenning, Lead singer/keyboardist Caroline Polachek, and drummer/bassist Patrick Wimberly) and focus attention on the one woman. That said, while we want to be clear that this is not just stupidly mooning over the hot chick, we are forced to point out that a large part of what makes Chairlift special is the stunning depth of Polachek's vocals. Rock is full of arguably terrible singers who get by either by virtue of their personality (Jarvis Cocker), or because the other strengths of the band make singing irrelevant (no one bought cream albums for the singing). More common are technically good singers whose voices are well suited to their songs but not necessarily the most important thing about them (Robert Smith, for instance). Singers like Morrissey, Goldfrapp, Scott Walker, whose voices and whose vocal arrangement are so essential to their music that covers of their songs feel like insults, (due to the cover artist's lack of comparable skill) are exceptionally rare.
Polachek is that kind of singer. The depth of her skill might not be as apparent on their releases, due to the almost-twee frailty of the recordings, but live the room is inhabited entirely by the sound of her voice. Gifted with impressive range, she's also capable of striking abrupt tonal shifts (sounding at one point sarcastic, at another entirely crestfallen and bitter) without losing any sincerity. For instance, the performance of "Bruises", (a song recently featured in ads for iPod Nano), during which Polachek managed to match, note for note, her lovely altosoprano to the crazy portamento keyboard solo at song's end - or during "Make Up Your Mind", as she beat her tambourine against her breasts as if she was rending her garments like a guilty penitent. This isn't to say that Wimberly and Pfenning are irrelevant - drumming was excellent, ditto Pfenning's guitar and keys work. Their performances, however, were far more understated, giving way to the power of Polachek's.
As for the aforementioned expanded frame of reference, Chairlift's songs themselves defy conventions and almost the label "electropop" itself. Often slow, ballad tempo, some even containing elements of late era Jazz, it's only tangentially "dance music". And while I personally would prefer nothing but, this is in fact a good thing. Chairlift doesn't make the same kind of 80s prog-rock genre-hopping in which Sebastien Tellier wallows, but songs such as the heavily Prince'd out "Planet Health" demonstrate a remarkable comfort with pushing past the narrow confines that genre places on artists. It's a challenge to pull off and even more difficult to believe how wonderful it is to see performed live.
The point: Chairlift might not be the greatest band of all time but they shine as something rare in music largely defined by genre conventions: good, and on its own merit. Go and see them. End friendships if you have to do so in order to make the time. You'll find new friends at the concert. Better friends. Friends who like Chairlift.
1) Sebastien's hilarious 2008 Eurovision appearance should not be missed. France must have a tremendous sense of humor to have selected him as their official entrant (or simply felt no need to appear to take Eurovision seriously.) Either way, the decision was genius level brilliance.
2) Or if you prefer, Que?
3) NOTE: It must be made clear that I'm aware I write for LAist. San Francisco is, as far as google maps has confirmed, not in LA. That said, I recieved editorial permission to cover the show. It was, after all, a pre-Coachella show so we can place it within the LA family, right? RIGHT? I thought so.
4) US Grant Reprazent!
5) At show's start he came onstage, bumped against the mic (causing minor feedback), looked out with a bewidlered expression on his obscured-by-sunglasses face, then stopped short when another Sebastien emerged, revealing the first to be an identically dressed stagehand. This was presumably a nod to the Eurovision appearance.
6) For a moment, it felt almost as though he was about to take us for a ride in his sweet Chrysler convertible, in hopes that we wouldn't bother him later as he's boozing up mommy in the den.
7) Best example of this - in slurry francofied English he remarked just before performing Roche that "I alwayz have to talk ehbout mah bi-sexualitee. It makes mey soo weery", then proceeded to almost imperceptable gyrate as he sang.