“You have a choice in life,” says Yann Tiersen, lounging on a sofain the Kensington office of Mute Records. “You can be quiet and assume(sic), or you can say fuck it and do what you want. I preferthe second way.”
This is the philosophy that informs Tiersen’s newalbum, Dust Lane, and it was thrown into sharper focus by the deathsof his mother and a close friend during the recording process.Tiersen, best known for the much-adored music that appears on thesoundtracks of Amlie (2001) and Goodbye Lenin! (2003),spent two years adding layer on layer to the expansive post-rocktextures that make up Dust Lane.
Its dramatic highs and lows are asfull and ecstatic as its creator believes life ought to be, even inthe face of grief and hardship. Though Tiersen is quick to point outthat (as with Corinne Bailey Rae‘s The Sea) the album was conceivedbefore his bereavements, it does brood on mortality. The opening,ominous piano notes of Ashes call to mind John Lennon‘s Mother,before the song’s mood changes to one of hope and renewal.
The album is an international affair, recorded in Tiersen’s home inBrittany, in Paris, and (in the case of the title track) on an islandin the Philippines. Featuring Bristol natives Matt Elliott (ofThird Eye Foundation) as “the album’s narrator” and DaveCollingwood on drums, it was mixed in Castleford by legendary producerKen Thomas. “I originally thought I would mix it myself,” saysTiersen, “but I asked Ken because I love his work with PsychicTV – you know the one with the skull (1982′s Force The Hand OfChance) – and what he does with vocals. I like the sound to be a bitblurry. There were so many textures on Dust Lane, I think Ken is theonly person who could have done it.”
“French people still think France is so important.Even abroad, when I meet French people they can be so arrogant.” – Yann Tiersen
Tiersen himself does not see the album as a huge departure – hedescribes its predecessor Les Retrouvailles (2005) as “kind of a draftfor Dust Lane” – but it will certainly surprise listeners who are onlyfamiliar with his soundtracks and 1990s albums. Its dense soundincludes signature instruments like accordion and toy piano, but alsoanalogue synths, multitracked vocals and astringent guitars.
Matt Elliott is most prominent on two tracks at the album’s centre,Palestine and Chapter 19. On the former, he simply spells out theword P-A-L-E-S-T-I-N-E. The track was prompted by a trip to Gaza,”somewhere I had wanted to go for a long time. It was the first timeI was in front of the reality, and I could feel the gap between thenews and what was really happening. Not that the news lies, but evenif you shoot an image, there is a distance there. The name Dust Lanepartly came from the image of the dirt road going into Gaza. I wantedto deal with it in the most neutral way, just by naming it: Palestine. It’s such a complex situation – I didn’t want to be part of that. Idon’t have the elements.” By way of balance, the text of Chapter 19deals with the Jewish ghetto in New York, taken from Henry Miller’sSexus. Tiersen, who first read Miller as a teenager, says “hechanged my way of living”, and particularly admires TheAir-Conditioned Nightmare, Miller’s acerbic study of contemporaryAmerican culture.
With Elliott as the main vocal presence, the only clue that this isProduce de France comes from the accents on closing track FuckMe, a duet between Tiersen and fellow Brton Galle Kerrien. Tiersensays it is simply “a love song I wrote for my girlfriend on tour” butits lyrics are in the carpe diem tradition, an exhortation toprocreate in the face of the abyss: “I know you know we are fallinginto a deep oblivion… So we have to take care and share it together.”Tiersen also acknowledges the thematic resemblance to SergeGainsbourg and Jane Birkin‘s Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus, though he isuncomfortable with the Gallic lothario stereotype. “I’m fromBrittany, and we’re not really part of that Latin culture.”
There is no small irony in the fact that Tiersen is regarded as aquintessentially French export, yet feels very little connection toFrench music, nor even to La Rpublique herself. “France is a verysmall country,” he says. “It used to be an international country, manyyears ago. But French people still think France is so important.Even abroad, when I meet French people they can be so arrogant.” Heblames the quota system, obliging French radio to play a certainamount of domestic music, for suffocating the music scene.
“Idiscovered Brel through Scott Walker.” – Yann Tiersen
Tiersen’s true musical heritage is American and British punk andpost-punk – he is more influenced by Joy Division, Michael Nyman andPenguin Caf Orchestra than by French chanson. He onlyreturned to his childhood instrument the violin after searching forstring sounds to sample from other people’s records. “The same withthe accordion. I couldn’t play a brass instrument – I tried but I wasreally bad – I couldn’t play the flute, and the accordion was akeyboard so it was easy,” he says modestly. “I didn’t know Frenchmusette music at all. Even people like Jacques Brel – Idiscovered Brel through Scott Walker. My parents listened toBrel, of course, but when you’re a teenager you’re not interested. Soit was only when I heard Scott Walker’s versions that I thought ‘thisis fucking good’, you know. The only French singer I listened to wasSerge Gainsbourg.” Tiersen would go on to invite Gainsbourg’smuse Jane Birkin to guest on Les retrouvailles.
And what of Amlie, the film that launched a thousandEurostars, sending young dreamers in search of the kooky romance ofJean-Pierre Jeunet’s fairytale Montmartre? Tiersen’s evocative music,taken largely from his existing albums but with a few newcompositions, was a key element of the film. “It’s funny, becauseParis is maybe the town I hate the most on earth,” smiles Tiersen.”But I’m not ashamed or anything. If you have a huge successs withsomething it’s normal that you will be associated with it. Most of thetime I don’t mind. Most of the time.”
The bestselling soundtrackalbum brought Tiersen a huge new audience, who may be surprised by hisrocky live act, but the composer says that, on the whole, they take itwell. “A lot of people, it’s like they went to my music throughAmlie doors. Even if they come to my shows expectingAmlie, it’s so loud they soon realise it’s not the same! Wedo some of the tunes, but in very strange versions.” With an album aswarm and ambitious as Dust Lane, who knows – that girl from Montmartremight even stop following him around and go back to waitingtables.