French indie-pop duo The Penelopes, aka Axel Basquiat and Vincent T, fled Paris in 2012 because they felt their 1980s UK-inspired pop was too niche for French audiences. Axel Basquiat interview by Veronica Simpson
Luckily, the British music scene took to them straight off: a 2012 tour supporting their heroes Human League was later followed by another icon, The Cure’s Robert Smith, choosing them for his 2018 Southbank Meltdown festival. And now their homeland has re-discovered them thanks to a series of hit duets with French actresses, plus their new sideline in atmospheric movie soundtracks. We catch up with Axel in the duo’s Bermondsey base.
You started out with a very 80s inspired indie-pop/dance vibe, and yet that was 20 years before your time as young adults. How come it had such a strong appeal?
It was a huge time for us, the vision of those guys. How they moved, how they edited their stuff. We really liked the music from Manchester, Sheffield, the British indie pop scene. We don’t come from that generation but it’s in my DNA in terms of music. We’re big fans of The Cure. I think I had an epiphany when I was a kid, listening to (the Cure’s first album) Three Imaginary Boys. It changed the way I think about how you can make music. I think I listened to this album, back from the holidays, coming back to my shitty council estate in the North of Paris and on the way I was listening to this album. I loved the first four or five albums. I loved the fact that even though it was the punk era they occupied, they were sounding fragile – not a heavy sound, not a testosterone sound. It was still a bit crafted.
Do you also love the 80s aesthetic?
We’re not that into the aesthetic. We are rockers I would say. That’s our look. I didn’t like the Goth look, I find it a bit too… stupid? In terms of aesthetic, we mix a little bit.
How has your style evolved, over the decade since you both came to London?
I love suits. That comes from my love of early Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker. I love good suits, but mix them with something more modern, like a basketball jersey so it’s not too serious. I mix it with something from the street. I love Bowie.
Ah, Thin White Duke era? Yes, I always think the French look is so impeccable – especially for women. But what they don’t do well is mix it up. Is men’s fashion the same?
Yeah a little bit. In France I was mixing up less. France is way more classic. People need a uniform in France and the look is very… bourgeois. They don’t encourage experimentation.
Where in London do you live?
We live by the river in Bermondsey. I’m now in the garden. We have the river in front of us, It’s great, very central. We were living in Victoria Park (East London) for many years, and we’ve had to move because we found a very nice house. I like to live very central, still close to Shoreditch, very close to the city.
What sort of style have you chosen in furnishing your new house – is it more French or British?
There’s a kind of Frenchness: the first floor is quite blue, very calm. The style is really all about memories, it’s all posters and stuff. The only thing we put on the walls are memories: the things we find on our travels, a lot of instruments.
You left France because you said there just wasn’t the audience for your kind of music there that there is in the UK. But that has all changed, since you started recording these wonderful duets with French actresses like Virginie Ledoyen, Isabelle Adjani. And now you’re DJ-ing at Cannes Film Festival and scoring film soundtracks. I’d say you’re pretty popular with France’s cultural elite.
Yeah, we’ve gone way more mainstream. It’s funny because for six or seven years I was only in the UK. And suddenly I had this project with these French actresses. Now I’m going back very often to Paris. (The duets) is a project that was inspired by Tindersticks (Stuart Staples) doing a duet with Isabella Rosselini (Marriage Made in Heaven, released 1998). I love these kinds of things. Also I love The Murder Ballads album by Nick Cave (with guest vocalists PJ Harvey, Kylie Minogue). So we did these duets, and now they say, in France: you guys are the new Gainsbourgs, because he (Serge Gainsbourg) made music a few times with French actresses. And maybe that is true but it’s more inspired by Nick Cave. We are not completely pop. We come from art. We’re a bit left field. For the French we take that comparison as a complement.
Over the last few years you have become very in demand for movie soundtracks. That’s a whole different kind of storytelling, isn’t it.
I love to compose for the cinema, because it allows me to compose every day. If I slow down my tempo, I’m more ambient now. It gives me this confidence. And when you work for the cinema, you need to write a good melody at 10am and at 2am; you can work from the morning until very late, and you realise you can write beautiful songs in an emotional state of mind when you write for someone else. You just remove your ego. Your ego is not your amigo. You remove it and it’s quite easy.
Coming from this kind of New Order, Joy Division, Cure area, I like when there’s a kind of melancholy in the music, and the directors also want this kind of feel from us – a kind of ambivalence, like the way we write songs. But at the end there’s hope and light.
What music are you listening to currently?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Future Islands, Still Corners, Destroyer and Oneohtrix Point Never.
Where do you get your inspiration from generally?
I drink whisky. I love whisky. I like a good Midleton, but Connemara also. I drink a lot of whisky. It doesn’t matter if it’s Scottish or Irish. I love a peaty Scotch – like Ardbeg. I read a lot about of politics, and I enjoy just hanging out. I have no pattern, no particular method.
How would you define originality?
It’s a very difficult question. It depends whether you’re Stendhal. For me, I love eccentricity, when it comes from authenticity: you just do your thing, create your own life and atmosphere and vibe and nothing else matters.