Hop on a space shuttle and get off at a dance floor on the moon with a groove band playing while a mysterious, stunning lady moves her hips to the beat on a background of palm trees and stardust.
With a taste of orgies and other odd adventures, L’Impératrice – ‘the Empress’ in French – takes you on a spiritual trip, on an Odyssée, throughout past and future decades of disco-inspired sounds with a cinematic twist.
The self-produced six-piece band from Paris have released three EPs, among which is Odyssée, which came out a year ago exactly, and they are currently working on their first full-length album.
With dreams of one day performing in London, the founder, Charles, gave Artefact an insight into the Empress’ multifaceted character, talks about strong and indomitable women and tells of an unusual experience in India, while still keeping an element of mystery to his four-year-old project.
Like a dozen other self-produced acts originating from Paris that rule today’s French alternative music scene, Charles’s project started in his bedroom.
He first worked as a music critic for six years within some of the most popular culture media outlets in France, such as Trax and Les Inrockuptibles.
He and his mates also created a magazine called Keith, which he says was a “homage to all the great Keiths (Richards, Haring) who contributed to pop culture”.
This establishes what would be his musical training: one day, the former journalist felt he couldn’t carry on criticising other people’s work without even being able to make music himself.
Starting from the very bottom, as he had never taken classes before, Charles used what he had at his disposal at his parents’ house to play around with and experiment.
“I had a few synthesisers at home as well as an old Farfisa organ from the 70s and an electric piano, so I began to compose with this. I would record with Garageband because I think that’s the easiest way to make music while having fun”.
This initiative gave birth to L’Impératrice’s first eponymous four-track EP in 2012, which was instrumental-only at the time.
Describing the band’s genre is not easy. With groovy sounds reminiscing of disco years, some tunes have a melancholic feel while others have a bouncy 90’s French Touch influence, and others could be the soundtrack to a film.
Charles himself finds it difficult to put his genre into words; “We do pop music, but it’s not really safe to say ‘pop’, Michael Jackson did pop too, but according to me that’s not really what it was.”
Highly influenced by 70s French composers such as François de Roubaix, Vladimir Cosma or Michel Legrand, which he grew up listening to, he says; “I didn’t feel like I could do anything other than a mix of old school 70s, 80s electronic and pop music”.A year ago, the former five-piece band was joined by a sixth member, Flore, adding her voice to the instrumentation. However, Charles insists that they don’t use her voice as a lead, but rather as a new instrument.
“We want people to identify our music with the harmonic atmosphere and references rather than with the voice”. In order to keep this spirit, three tracks on their latest EP Odyssée have no singing.
Indeed, he believes that being an instrumental-only act was what garnered them recognition in the first place, with people discovering a new way of listening to music: “They were being guided by bass lines and synth riffs rather than by a voice”.
“We want people to identify our music with the harmonic atmosphere and references rather than with the voice.”
Although their music might sound electronic, no computer is used during the process of recording. Only instruments, says Charles: synthesisers, guitar, bass, drums and voice.
The band positively welcomed the addition of a voice as a challenge during songwriting: “It brought a new way of exploring what we can do as we have to go over our methods again in order to write our music in accordance with the voice” says Charles. “There are tracks on which we even started singing before playing the piano, you see”.
Flore’s soft and captivating voice acts as a hook, which undeniably “brings greater access to audiences as people are more easily moved by it” he believes.If L’Impératrice music at times sounds as though it could be the soundtrack to a film, it is no coincidence. All of the members of the band are passionate about cinema; one of them even works in the industry.
The guitarist, Martin, is the only one of the group to have another job besides playing music. He works as a director of photography and has put his skills to use for two music videos, among which include Parfum Thérémine.
“He’d gone off to Scotland one summer with one of his director friends without informing us, and then they called us and said they had a surprise as they were working on this video. We were pretty happy!” recalls Charles.
The band are surrounded by creative friends with whom they usually team up for the production of videos. Charles believes it is important to let them express themselves on their work rather than have big directors do the job – on top of not having the budget yet.
Working with friends obviously has its advantages. Messing around with funny ideas is the core of the process as he points out; “We made an animation with salacious stuff for Agitations Tropicales because that’s what the track expresses. We were having a good laugh!”
Despite their artistic background, the band have chosen not to focus too much on creating videos for their work as they want to maintain an aspect of mystery to their character.
Indeed, “L’Impératrice’s universe and aesthetics are quite hard to describe: originally, the empress is a mysterious thing, like a muse” explains the founder. “We’re not looking to impose a universe – it’s like when you read a book. Unlike films, books leave everything to your imagination; from the settings to the characters’ faces”.
So, what made him picture this project as an “empress”?
When he first started composing, Charles discovered an emotion he had never felt before. “L’Impératrice really is a feeling. It’s a very personal thing” he says.
He believes that this ‘feeling’ is super powerful and completely addictive – “kind of indomitable, with an imperial thing to it”. He adds that “something in the music reflected more femininity than masculinity – [maybe] because this feeling was extremely sensitive… it was like a woman: really indomitable, something you can’t fight”.
Essentially, his own personal vision of this empress would be “a woman who reigns over an ideal musical empire. She would be beautiful, very powerful, neither terrestrial nor spatial, but like a deity…”
“L’Impératrice is like a woman: really indomitable, something you can’t fight.”
Despite not wanting to impose a visual universe to their listeners, the band thought it would be interesting to personify their latest EP Odyssée in honour of an existing historical figure: Theodora, empress of the Byzantine Empire, who lived in the sixth century.
As Charles describes her, “she was a chick who did whatever she wanted: she slept with everyone, she was untrustworthy, she was vicious and she was extremely beautiful”. Aiming to restyle “lust and everything [they] know about the Byzantine Empire”, the band sought to tell a story through songs.
“It’s the story of a trip she goes on with her court: it starts with Le Départ (“The Departure” in French), then there’s Agitations Tropicales (“Tropical Agitations”) where she’s in the jungle and it’s pretty much an orgy, and as we go along she brings her court to space”.
Charles likes the idea of an open-ended tale: “From adventure to adventure, we don’t really know what’s happening – are they coming back to Earth or are they stuck up there?”, he concludes.
After having toured and having written new music over the summer, L’Impératrice have just started recording their first full-length album in the studio, which will see a few changes within the composition.
They are aiming for an even more narrative style in the hope of recounting a new story. “It will be more cinematic, a bit slower, a bit groovier; [it will] be a real homage to 70s French chanson: to guys like Nino Ferrer or Cortex, who wrote beautiful lyrics on beautiful instrumentations.”
Charles also intends to play around with the composition of the tracks, exploring rhythms they’ve never tried before as well as including new sonorities and harmonies, with loads of percussion, a string orchestra and brass: “The tracks’ formats will be weirder, a bit deconstructed and there’ll be ten-minute-long songs as well as shorter ones”.
He hopes this first album will allow them to perform outside of the borders of France. Having played in a few cities outside of their homelands, which include Florence, Geneva and Brussels, it really was a trip to India that made him realise how much more the audiences from abroad can bring.
Indeed, two years ago, L’Impératrice toured India. They performed in eight cities over the span of ten days, including New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. “That was pretty mad. That was mental. It was amazing. It was fantastic!” says Charles, still in disbelief at this incredible experience.
He recounts the culture shock the band experienced upon arriving, particularly for the bassist, who had barely ever set foot outside of Paris prior to flying there, experienced going on a plane for the first time in his life.
The band were stunned at how diverse but also very receptive their audience was: “We thought we’d be playing for a bunch of French expats but not at all! Since very few people have access to credit cards and culture over there, as soon as there’s something happening such as a French show, everyone is super curious to see what it is”.
The Minister of Culture in Chennai even decorated them with a medal equivalent to the Legion of Honour, which Charles says was “completely crazy”.
“We want to touch another type of audience, talk to them and interact with them differently, which we’d really like to do outside of France.”
He adds that “once you’ve toured India, you want to touch another type of audience, talk to them and interact with them differently, which [they’d] really like to do outside of France”.
And conveniently enough, their next dream destination is London: “We all love this city and it’s so close [from Paris], so it’s very frustrating not to be playing there”.
The one venue the band would love to one day perform at is Koko.
See you there!
Featured image by David Delruelle