MUSIC | Les Limiñanas – Journey to the Centre of the Universe

LIONEL LIMINANA of Les Limiñanas talks to NEIL MUDD about growing up in a dead city, why he loves fuzz so much and how the band’s brilliant new album Shadow People owes a debt to Iranian psychedelia…

Some bands are pale imitations of their record collections. Not so Les Limiñanas who fuse Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound with the spatial cool of Jean Claude Vannier and propulsive ‘Fuck you!’ of The Stooges and call it their own. Not bad for a band from Perpignan, a town in the South of France so dull Salvador Dali jokingly pronounced its train station the ‘centre of the universe.’

“Perpigan is not the centre of the world,” says Lionel Limiñana, one half of Les Limiñanas with wife Marie. “It’s more the end of the road!”

Blighted by unemployment and poverty in the nineties, Perpignan “was a dead city and we were very bored,” he says. “There weren’t any clubs or bars to play (and) no places to rehearse, but its centre was full of excellent record stores and libraries where we spent our time.”

An underground music scene percolated through this potent mix of boredom and culture, and a community began to cluster around a small group of bands and independent record labels. The spur was garage rock and psychedelia, inspired by vinyl compilations and bands from Europe and the US who came to perform live in the city attracted by its ground zero buzz. Marie organised gigs and Lionel played in a series of ad hoc bands; for a while the two even ran a record store together selling rare American pysch records.

Terrific new album Shadow People draws on this groundswell, distilling rock’s pure essence into forty minutes of ravishing fuzz soaked ecstasy. It is a primer in how to draw on music’s knotty anthropology without becoming subsumed. I wonder how the band has managed to arrive at this ease of musical interconnection.

“When I was a kid, I had a pile of 45s without covers which must have belonged to my parents,” says Lionel. “Two records I liked in particular were Dialogue Sous La Douche by Les Simplets (a 1969 curiosity on the Vogue label) which was really amazing, and The Edsel’s Boneshaker Joe which was very trashy rock and roll. I don’t have any idea what it was doing there.”

His brother Laurent was a mod and through him Lionel discovered The Jam, The Action, The Easybeats; his other brother introduced him to Serge Gainsbourg, Suicide, MC5…

“I got lucky. I fell in the right place in the middle of all this.”

Given the peerless soundtrack to Sergio Leone’s film Once Upon A Time in the West, Lionel thought it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard: “The voices, the fuzz, the drums. It all stayed. If we use fuzz so much in our music, it’s probably because of The Cramps and The Stooges, but also Ennio Morricone,” he says.

All of which explains the lush cinematic sweep of the new album, though tracks like Shadow People and The Gift feel like a taking stock. “You have to be influenced by the music and movies you watch, but nothing was planned. Even the subject happened on the way. Shadow People speaks about being a teenager, and curiously it’s those memories that gave colour to the record. The Gift sounds like the music coming out of my brother’s speakers at home in the mid- 80s.”

“Marie and I listen to a lot of different things: American music from the sixties, the Back from the Grave garage rock compilations; Nick Cave; Sleaford Mods. We also like movie soundtracks from the 60s and 70s: François de Roubaix, Morricone, and the productions of Phil Spector and Joe Meek. Marie likes psychedelic music from Iran and Lebanon. All these records were spinning as the songs (came together).”

The tradition of storytelling in French song writing – the nuances of which can be lost on English speaking audiences – is less obvious an influence, but present nonetheless.

“With (2012 album) Crystal Anis, we got used to structuring our records with a beginning, middle and end which explains the opening and closing instrumentals on our records like a movie,” explains Lionel.

“We (love) the idea of putting the record on the turntable, closing our eyes and listening to the story. I do it with the radio still today. I like to listen to the movies without watching them. Here again, this is linked to childhood, [spoken word albums by French actors Bourvil and Jean Marais] telling a story with illustrative music and sound effects.”

Shadow People features noteworthy contributions from French actors Bertrand Belin and Emmanuelle Seignier, the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe (who co-produced the album in his Berlin studio), ex-New Order bassist Peter Hook and the band’s longtime collaborator Pascal Comelade.

“We met Bertrand Belin on an Australian tour. We both got stuck in Paris and again at the stopover in Japan. We would go to have drinks while waiting to hear about our flights and we became friends. Emmanuelle Seignier came to our village (the couple still live in Cabestany) last winter to talk about another project and we recorded Shadow People just before eating Italian by the sea. We first met Anton online. Everything happened like this, naturally.”

I mention the flowering of interest in French pysch pop, thanks largely to Andy Votel’s championing of Jean Claude Vannier, and Ace Records, whose Ye-Ye Girls compilations are essential listening. I ask him who Lionel thinks is French music’s best kept secret?

“It’s Pascal Comelade for instrumental music. He reinvents the genre using very particular instrumentation and breaking every dogma. We would have never done Les Limiñanas if we hadn’t met Pascal. It’s through seeing him we decided to record together and let go of the classic band format.”

For any French rock band, conversation inevitably turns to disparaged French genius Serge Gainsbourg, still known mostly in this country for the rather silly Je t’aime, a UK number one that sealed his reputation as a perennial sleaze. His antics on French TV, such as setting fire to 500 Franc bills and propositioning Whitney Houston with the immortal words, ‘I want to fuck you!’ seem merely to have sealed the deal in the public’s imagination.

“Most of the time he was too drunk and it could be sad,” says Lionel. “His records from that time – Love On The Beat, Lemon Incest (which Gainsbourg recorded as a duet with his daughter Charlotte) are not as good as they used to be. Whereas Melody Nelson, Anna… All this didn’t move and they still sound great!”

When they appear onstage at the Brudenell, Les Limiñanas have expanded to a seven piece which includes the afore-mentioned Pascal Comelade. They barrel through tracks from the new album and a few old favourites with propulsive urgency, pausing only for the occasional ‘merci’ before unleashing their next number. They are clearly having a whale of time. Marie, seated behind her stripped down drum kit, batters away at it like a flame haired Mo Tucker and wears a grin like a teenager, back in that Perpignan club once more.

Everybody, apart from the gangling Comelade, who sports a chiffon blouse open to the waist, is dressed from head to toe in black. More comparisons offer themselves, from the Velvet Underground to early Stereolab but as we have already noted Les Limiñanas are so much more. They are the coolest band playing at the centre of the universe right now!

Les Limiñanas play the Hope & Ruin in Brighton tonight (More information and details here).

Shadow People by Les Limiñanas is available now from all good music stores.