Take a ferocious live band playing swing music, mix in jazz and a liberal sprinkling of house, and then drop it into a club. That’s something approaching the Caravan Palace experience. With an armoury of bass-heavy and flapper-friendly dancefloor classics, this Paris-based band is as innovative as they are lively.
Although established figures on the electro swing scene, it’s taken a while for this seven-piece to breakthrough into mainstream acceptance. Their eponymous debut album grabbed a respectable home-grown fan-base for the band, which gave them a solid foundation over the next seven years. Now they sell out venues on both sides of the Atlantic and have just put in a characteristically upbeat performance on ‘Later… with Jools Holland’. Having the time and freedom to develop is a certainly a good thing. “We were lucky enough to be able to widen our audience while the genre ‘conquered’ the ears of many countries around the world,” says Hugues Payen, the band’s violin player and vocalist. “We always had partners who understood it was necessary to have a long-term view with the project. And now, we can thank them!” It’s time well spent. Their brand of punchy Charleston-house is as compelling as anything you’d find in modern dance music. Familiar already to revellers at White Mink, Secret Garden Party, Wilderness and Boomtown Fair, everywhere they visit is crammed with fancy dress outfits, wildly enthusiastic fans and frantic dancing.
Keeping the music sounding fresh has been a concern across the years. “We’ll still listen to a lot of music, and maybe try new ways of working, with more features or covers, or… it’s a surprise, even for us!” Musically, Kendrick Lamar, ASAP Rocky and even Kanye West and Rihanna provide influences. Hip-hop seems to be what’s currently offering innovative sounds for the band to embrace, as is future bass. These genres’ powerful, but minimalist, styles of arrangement are driving the band in new creative directions.
Probably not the first act to produce electro swing, Caravan Palace stood out more than their peers by being a proper live band. This meant they offered something tangible to audiences. They could play almost everywhere, like festivals, venues and nightclubs, with a real show. Payen is still uncertain about exactly what draws so many people to the electro-swing sound though. “It seems that the innocence and spontaneity it exudes make it a real alive and dynamic style, jubilant in its way. The genre also includes so many different musical aspects which I think increases its appeal!” Packed with swooping brass, frantic percussion and tantalising piano melodies, there’s plenty going on to get your feet moving in any Caravan Palace song, especially if nostalgic rhythms and massive beats are your thing. From the roaring twenties to a modern day underground movement, via 90s warehouse parties, their sound acts like a checklist of the best things in dance music.
Released in October, the third Caravan Palace album ‘<I°_°I>’(or ‘Robot Face’ as it’s more conveniently and popularly known) shows a new side to the band. Traditionally the third album proves the most arduous, both to write and produce. But it seems ‘Robot Face’ didn’t fall prey to these customary creative difficulties. “If we had to compare, we’d say that the most difficult was the previous one ‘Panic’. The making of the third album was full of surprises and questioning in a positive way. You can probably hear it!” Obviously their musical tastes have changed since they formed in 2005. This third album introduces an expanded sonic palette, partly from necessity to keep their unique sound vibrant and partly through their love of musical innovation. It retains that animated retro-edge which flows through everything they do, yet sounds far more refined and effortless. As a work, it’s something you’ll happily listen to in its entirety over and over again.
I had a vision of the band immersing themselves in classic 20s Parisian culture, like the work of Dalí, Man Ray, Buñuel, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, whilst relaxing. The reality is not quite so romantic… “We’re whole bunch of geeks wasting hours on Facebook and forums! Of course we have seen a lot of (classic) dance and music movies. It was totally ‘melted’ in the movies then. Just have a look at the cinematography of Cab Calloway or The Andrews Sisters!”
Being a French band and French being a somewhat romantic-sounding language, surprisingly all of their lyrics are In English. It seems their mother tongue is not so good for what they do. “There’s no interest in singing ‘ooh la la’ or whatever if it doesn’t swing, and let’s be realistic, French doesn’t really ‘swing’. It’s a very demanding language, and many wonderful authors before us forbid us to use it poorly, for we’re not authors, just musicians.” He points out Caravan Palace’s music doesn’t deal with philosophical, political or aesthetic subjects. It’s all about love, jealousy, dance, and sometimes death, and English offers plenty of relevant terms and innuendo. “It’s a very reachable vocabulary for us!”