In the icy run up to the general election where little England provincialism is on steroids, where better to console oneself than in hyper-cosmopolitan Hackney and listen to the French/American supergroup L’Epee. These are formed from a collaboration between the French actress Emanuelle Seigneur and Anton Newcombe from the Brian Jonestown Massacre, together with the the husband and wife team of the Limiñanas. In a world in which much popular music is about the lumpen derring-do of council house dwellers and the pecking order thereof, how refreshing to immerse oneself instead in deep continental hauteur, a reverence of l’art pour l’art, and hear songs instead involving cannibalism, dreamy word pictures and various types of suggestive obsession.
However, it would be wrong to consider all this particularly innovative. The sound that is produced by the 8 people onstage has hints of a well worn lineage. There is the wall of sound indulgence that can be seen in the Velvet Underground (the crazier parts of Heroin and Sister Ray), there is the more melodically spartan and but still rhythmically hypnotic sounds of Joy Division. The drummer who bangs along with tom,snare and kick drum only, no cymbals, rides is definitely Moe Tucker redux. At times Seigneur comes across a little bit Nico, however she also comes across like the chanteuses of Ladytron. But for an actress, she is surprisingly un-divaish. No reminiscences of actorly shenanigans disrupt the performance on stage, nor anything particularly flamboyant or thespian beyond some muted overhead Bollywood hand movements during the more intense sections of the music.
The stage design was particularly good. The four members of the band from left to right, then an outer ring of the supplementary musicians, all next two standing lamps with a turkish looking metal lampshades around them. All of the songs were sung by Seigneur except for one where Newcombe took over. When he did, he put the guitar down and took microphone in hand. However, in doing so he spent the time crouching over the pedal board, seemingly searching for effects he was unable to find (for nothing really seemed to change the timbre of the singing voice). As a result, whatever emotion might have been chanelled into his vocal performance was instead mediated by the spectacle of him pouring over the pedalboard in forlorn split attention as he pondered the various tweaks unsuccessfully attempted.
Though definitely of a shoegazy style, the performers were not just characterized by introspective froideur. Flame-haired drummer Marie Limiñana seemed to be totally enjoying herself, smiling throughout, and every so often glancing at Seigneur who mirrored back with a look of fulfilled satisfaction only slightly less beaming than her bandmate’s. Her hirshute partner Lionel while not as radiant of face, nonetheless rocked away immersed in the music in a way that belied the streaks of grey now appearing in his plentiful beard.
The venue itself is odd. Cavernous and could-do-with-a-lick-of-paint in equal measure. However, it is laid out like an amphitheatre with concentric semicircles of stepped floor, meaning everyone sits on the floor as they watch the band. Normally in those gigs where seating is made inappropriate through the rhythmic ambitions of the band, the audience normally throws off its fetters and starts standing up in any case. In this case, though the music was involving and driving, only a very small group of hipsters at the front right edge of the stage took to dancing, and when they did so it was done with a kind of self-parodic gentility, as if “Dancing Queen” might have been playing.
Potentially the length of each concentric step might be the active ingredient which deterred anyone from getting up and dancing – and also the fact that the person in front was sitting of the edge of the one’s dancable area, making any collision between the foot of the upright person and the posterior of the recumbent person open to interpretations of over-energetic exhortation bordering on bullying.
The audience was resolutely middle aged. To glance across the audience was to see an infinite expanse of receding hairlines and bald pates. This is not surprising given Seigneur is in her fifties, Newcombe is in his forties and the Limiñanas look like they’ve been around a bit too. Still given the exposure they have been given on Radio 6 it was surprising the lack of young people. The band did perform excellently but the reception was not necessarily in proportion to the standard of performance. Shouting out “woaaah” while effectively sitting on the floor just doesn’t have the same force as it does when declaimed from a standing position among crowds of a similarly engaged throng.
From their very strong catalogue the highlights were “Dreams”, the super rhythmic “Last Picture Show” and the wonderful “Lou”. The set opened with “La Brigade Des Malefices” which set the tone for the evening with obscure spoken French namedropping some 70s period fantastical detective show (maybe like Randall and Hopkirk deceased).
Overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable gig and one of the best I have seen for a while.