François Marry and his band The Atlas Mountains are, as you might know by now, Domino’s first Gallic signings. It’s a pairing that was destined to be.
In 2003, François, now 28, waved farewell to his hometown of Saintes, near La Rochelle in southwest France, and took up residence in Bristol to work as a teaching assistant. He was welcomed there by a tittering class of school-kids more familiar with another François from La Rochelle – the one in that school textbook that’s helped generations of Brits misunderstand the French: Tricolore.
But François defied his pupils and made himself at home. Straightaway, he availed himself to Bristol’s music scene as a trumpeter for hire, displaying an advert in a shop window: ‘It said, “I come from France, I’ve brought my trumpet with me and I’d like to play with anyone who… well, anyone really”.’
He was quickly ushered into the inner-circle. Volunteering at Bristol arts venue The Cube in his spare time, François met Camera Obscura and Domino signings Movietone, both of them asking him to join; he became acquainted with King Creosote’s Fence Records, who put out his last (third) album Plaine Inondable in 2009; and he met his heroes The Pastels. The latter encounter still excites François to this day.
‘One of my early recordings,’ he says, ‘was a song about The Pastels’ Katrina [Mitchell] and how much I liked her. You know when you’re young and you have your heroes? Well…’
But it’s not the mutual friendships François shares with Domino that got him a deal; it’s the elegant, fragile, velvet-plush songs on his latest album E Volo Love that wooed them into requesting his John Hancock. The record is a giant leap forward for a musician who’s discovered brilliantly that there’s a fine line between making indie pop that’s twee, saccharine and wet-as-a-flannel and making indie pop that’s heart-meltingly delicate, enchanting and otherworldly.
‘I think that’s why, in the past, I didn’t get as much attention,’ says François. ‘But there’s more muscle in what I do now. That comes from the people I work with. Amaury Ranger [his drummer] plays with a lot of energy and is keen on different rhythms, which makes us strong. And the Scottish guy I play with, Gerard Black, used to be in a band called Findo Gask. When we play live, it’s very driven.’
François And The Atlas Mountains’ fluid, hot-buttered sound comes, too, from the broad range of music François aspires to. He grew up listening to his parents’ chanson and Serge Gainsbourg albums, as well as a vast indie pop collection owned by his oldest friend – the same one who now lives in view of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. And there’s more.
Les Plus Beaux and Do You Want to Dance bookend E Volo Love with skittering African influences that are much less to do with being fashionable and more to do with instinct. François loves the African and Middle Eastern sounds released on Sublime Frequencies, Soundways and Analog Africa, and the album was mixed by Tinariwen’s studio bod Jean-Paul Romann – but the mark of Africa on E Volo Love is more organic still.
‘In France, there’s a strong connection with North African music because of all the colonies,’ explains François. ‘Also, I was brought up listening to African music because my mum grew up in Cameroon. She was born there so she’s always been sensitive to African music, especially Manu Dibango. What keeps attracting me to African music is it doesn’t feel structured – it’s more instinctive, more fluid, more rhythmic.’
That’s not to say E Volo Love lacks swoonsome ear-pricking melodies – there are more on here than you can shake a talking drum at. But texture and mood dominate thanks to slowly ebbing arrangements, elastic rhythms, seamless twists and turns, such as Piscine’s chanson-into-house-music tack, heavy doses of elegant French drama, and a soft graze of electronics. François says that Auguri by French singer Dominque A is an album that’s steered him to where he is – that, Aphex Twin’s Drukqs and Erik Satie’s Gnossienne.
As for the grand theme on this dual-language album – sung in both French and English – it’s simply about love, says François. Songs such as Piscine yearn nostalgically for the past (and a specific small-town swimming pool from François’ youth) and try to evoke a feeling that, in his own words, ‘you have when you get older. You know, about how the way you love is different. You miss the passion, but you have more trust and comfort in the love you still have.’
E Volo Love is delicately poised, then, between sunnily feel-good and wistfully melancholy – like that poignant end-of-summer mood we all get in. There’s little surprise that François joins the dots between love’s evolution and what goes on out there in the fields. He wrote the album wandering around the French countryside, surfing and cycling. There are no field recordings on E Volo Love, but it’s so airy you can almost hear the birds twittering, or branches creaking in the breeze.
‘I’m trying to make music that works with the world we live in,’ says François. ‘I spend lots of time in the countryside. Often, when I write a song, I play it in my mind a few times and kind of find the words when I’m cycling around or go surfing. I’m very keen to let the song rise while I’m just walking around.’
There be ghosts, too. The album was recorded in a grand church in Saintes and the band have employed its natural reverb – especially haunting on the gently celestial Bail Eternal with its spooky choir-sung Latin palindrome In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (‘We go into circles by night and are consumed by fire’).
The reason for recording in a church? The acoustics, the view and, curiously, the fact that, according to François, stonemasons used to seek out ‘cracks in the earth where there was more energy and then build cathedrals on top to make people feel good.’ Listening to E Volo Love, either the crack in Saintes was very good, or François is one talented chap.