"I Never Really Understood Why It Worked": Charles de Goal Interview
For a little over 30 years, on and off, Patrick Blain has been Charles de Goal. He released a first album of atmospheric post-punk - synths, drum machines and stabbing guitars - in 1980 that made a significant impression both in France and beyond. Now with the revival of interest in the French Cold Wave scene, the self-effacing Blain has found his stock rising again. Rockfort spoke to him in January before a show organised by OntheROOF! at Cargo.
Rockfort: There's not a lot of information on the internet about you but I believe, to begin with, that was very much the idea.
P: Exactly – to begin with it was about anonymity, not knowing who was in Charles de Goal because the group was really just me. I made the music by myself with the assistance of other people on some tracks. I was quite shy at that time and I didn't really want to put myself in the limelight. It had the added effect of creating a buzz, with people asking who Charles de Goal really was. So it was partly timidity and partly an artistic idea that was suggested by a friend Philippe Huart, a graphic designer and painter who played with me in the band I was in before, C.O.M.A. He had the specific idea of making sleeves that were anonymous, so you would never know who I was.
Rockfort: Was it also about creating a character or persona?
P: Yes, that too. It was a replacement for the person I am, which is fairly ordinary, so we created a character. And it worked, people wondered who was behind it and lots of names circulated but no-one ever knew until '85, '86 when I started playing live.
Rockfort: You didn't play any gigs at all to begin with?
P: No – since I was doing everything on the records I couldn't really see myself getting on stage with just backing tapes... I didn't really have the self-confidence to do that. Then from the third album I looked to semi-professional musician friends of mine to do live shows with, and that lasted for about a year, and year and half. But that wasn't a good period for us as a live band! (laughs)
Rockfort: You had a lot to learn...?
P: They weren't the right musicians.
Rockfort: But now you have the right ones?
Rockfort: Is there anyone in your band now who was with you at the time?
P: No, not at all. I played with Etienne the bassist and Jean-Philippe the drummer for ten years in a group that I was in between the two periods of Charles de Goal, Monkey Test. So when I was asked to do a reformation gig to celebrate the reissue of 'Algorythmes', I thought of them, and in the meantime I'd also been introduced to Thierry, who played in End of Data from Rennes and who had been a fan of Charles de Goal, and we got on very quickly. Initially we were only supposed to do one gig but it went so well that we said “Why not carry on?”
Rockfort: So it terms of live performance this is the best time you've had in the band?
P: Yes, it's a whole lot better. Now it's really what I would have liked the first time round. I was always really disappointed by the live shows before and now I've got people who are on the same wavelength.
Rockfort: What was your background coming into Charles de Goal?
P: I had always been a programmer, which explains why in 1980 I had a track called 'Modem' when nobody really knew what that was at the time. Outside that, I loved music and I was always hanging out at concerts and in record shops including the most famous Parisian one of the time, New Rose, that ended up starting a record label and releasing my records. So I was in that punk, post-punk, new-wave scene to an extent but, although I really followed the punk music I didn't adhere to the punk's way of life.
Rockfort: Being a programmer wasn't as common at the time as it is now, I imagine...
P: Not at all, I fell into it purely by accident. If I'd been told at school that I'd end up in IT I would have laughed because I was terrible at maths and not too great at physics. But by chance it was suggested that I do a course over the holidays, and then it became apparent that I enjoyed it and I got into it that way. In IT a logical approach is more important than maths.
Rockfort: A lot of the records of the period, particularly the ones deemed to be part of the Cold Wave in France, demonstrate an interest in the future, dehumanisation in an age of computers and so on but you were perhaps one of the few musicians of the time actually working with computers...
P: Yes, that was important. I mean I played in rock groups like everyone else, making music like the Rolling Stones, and then synthesizers arrived at an affordable price, real analogue synthesizers, and it was really interesting trying to do something with them, mixing the machine and the human sides, something which has always interested me. We were exploring more or less uncharted territory because, prior to that, up to about 1978, synthesizers had been used by groups like Tangerine Dream to do some very atmospheric things, not so focussed on the rhythm. Obviously after that came digital and everyone got into that, myself included, and it's terrible, a catastrophe! (laughs) It means that the sound of records from 1985-6 onwards is horrible.
Rockfort: Hence the more recent revival of interest in analogue...
Rockfort: Did your work as a programmer feed into the music in any practical way?
P: Not that much. As much as you need a logical side for IT, I tried not to apply that to the music. In an analogue synthesizer it's the mistakes that are interesting, rhythms that are a bit unsteady, that kind of thing. However, I did apply the logical side to the writing of lyrics and the structuring of songs. For example, there's a song called 'Dans le labyrinthe' which I constructed as a labyrinth, so there's a phrase at the beginning which you find again later with some pieces removed, so it's as if you're in this maze and you turn around and find yourself back where you started... that relates to the programming side. Obviously with lyrics, emotions come into it, you write about what you know but there are some more artistic, intellectual exercises, even if I'm not someone particularly intellectual... I like mixing both, I'm not someone who goes just one way, I like mixing up experiences and information. I don't like things to be black and white.
Rockfort: So the first record created a buzz?
P: Yes particularly in France, and in Germany. Unusually for someone completely unknown we sold 15 or 20,000 without any real publicity. It was a big surprise for me, and particularly for the record label who didn't expect that at all. It was so successful that afterwards there was pressure to make a second one, which was a challenge we didn't rise to all that well. But it was a big surprise, because I'd been doing that for enjoyment, I never thought there would be any financial reward. I never really understood why it worked.
Rockfort: Maybe it was right for the moment. There were other groups with a similar mindset and approach at the time. We spoke about End of Data earlier, did you establish links with any groups like that?
P: No, I was pretty solitary, I remained in my corner. I don't like showbiz, I didn't like the scene in Paris – you know what Parisians are like – so I didn't really rub shoulders with other members of the scene. However, since we started up again I have a lot more and now I find groups much less competitive than they were at the time. Back then it was really tooth and nail.
Rockfort: You're playing with one of your contemporaries from End of Data, have you met other people who were in groups at the time?
P: Well Thierry said that 'Algorythmes' is the record that inspired him to make music. There was an interesting scene in France back then. Not as far as the vocals, the singing wasn't a strong point – not just because of the language, the singers just weren't very good. That's improved since!
Rockfort: Was playing the Offset festival last year was one of your first ever gigs in the UK?
P: Yes, bizarrely. It went well, we were very well received. For us little Frenchies playing in the UK really means something. For me it's the country of music, all my idols come from there. We've been pleasantly surprised to find that so many people have wanted to book us – we've played roughly a gig a month – even though we haven't released an album for two years.
Rockfort: That was 'Restructuration', the first with the new group, so are you going to carry on recording with them?
P: Yes, there will be something out this year, more on less along the same lines but we're going to open things up a little more. We weren't hugely adventurous on 'Restructuration', it's quite heavy going in places, so we want to be a bit freer.
Rockfort: How do you feel generally about the rediscovery of your music and of other groups of the era?
P: Well there was a broader revival of interest in the period, with English groups being influenced by what's called post-punk, there was a whole wave of people like Bloc Party and the The Rakes who integrated ideas from Gang of Four and others, so I think following that everyone was interested in post-punk, and when that happens you're always going to have people who go digging for the biggest rarities, to be able to say “I have it, I found it!”. Even me, and I worked in New Rose for a while, there are lots of these records that I never saw, that I never heard about. We're discovering them now but they were totally unknown. But we're discovering some good things, and it's good that people's records are reissued, people who weren't really expecting that.
Interview by David McKenna