Right before taking off for a European tour, Annie Hart of Au Revoir Simone took the chance to talk to QRO.In the talk, one-third of the three-woman band (along with Erika Foster & Heather D’Angelo) talked about the upcoming tours of Europe and (and vs.) America, their upcoming new record, Still Night, Still Light (QRO review), their recent pre-tour secret show, adding new instruments, leaving her day job, the difficulty of catching a cab – but not with renting a van – in Texas, the other reason they’re huge in the French-speaking parts of the world (and the “enviable French work ethic”), and much more…
QRO: Why that one-off show at Union Pool (QRO venue review) before heading to Europe?
Annie Hart: Because we wanted to try out playing our new songs live. It’s a different experience when you play it a million times when you’re all alone, and then actually playing them for an audience; it’s just a different feeling, a different mental state. We just wanted to make sure things were sounding good.
Plus, it’s always nice to play for your friends, play a small show…
QRO: And why make it a ‘secret’ show?
AH: Because we have two shows coming up in the New York area soon, one at Bowery [Ballroom], one at Music Hall of Williamsburg. We wanted to play the show and play the songs for people in New York without it getting in the way of those other two shows. We wanted it to be small and intimate so we could have a showcase with our bigger ones.
QRO: How much have you toured Europe?
AH: A lot. Gosh, I honestly have lost track. My whole passport – we had to get extra pages. So I’d say six times? A lot… And they’re always fun.
QRO: When you fly, how do you keep your equipment from being lost or broken en-route?
AH: Ah – hah-hah-hah… Sometimes we don’t?
My Juno [main keyboard] has definitely seen better days since it’s been traveling so much. But we have cases for everything.
One time, we were meeting Heather in Glasgow – I don’t know why she came separately, but she lost her drum machine, and we had to have live drummers for the first three or four shows of the tour. Which ended up being really fun, because had like the drummer from Teenage Fanclub, and then from Camera Obscura (QRO live review), all these really cool, nice people, sort of randomly saying, “Oh, sure, I’ll help you out.” And they would just play. It turned out really well.
QRO: That was “Shadows” – how was making the video for that song?
But now we try our best to have all of our important gear as carry-on.
QRO: After Europe, you’re coming back to America. How does touring Europe and the States compare?
AH: Usually, we’re taken care of a lot better in Europe. For example, we have a tour manager and a driver, and we rent a van with a loft, and every venue cooks you dinner, and they put you in a nice hotel, pay you pretty well… In America, we’re driving my van, ourselves.
Even though it’s a lot less glamorous, touring America, it’s also a lot more comforting because you always speak the language, you know the culture, your cell phone works, you have friends in every city that you really know well, so it’s always a real treat to go visit the next place. In Europe, it’s more of a discovery, of new friends and new fun.
America is more comfortable, mentally, if touring Europe is more comfortable, physically… [laughs]
QRO: Those two shows you’re doing in New York, the second show of your U.S. tour is at Brooklyn’s Music Hall in Williamsburg (QRO venue review), and then you end the tour at Music Hall’s sister venue across the East River, Bowery Ballroom (QRO venue review), a month later?
AH: Well, we live [in New York], so it’s easiest for us to do it that way.
Plus, our record’s coming out May 20th, and our tour starts the 28th, so it’s really not a lot of time for people to get familiar with the music. Hopefully, by the end of the tour, we’ll have more fans and more people will have bought the record.
QRO: You’re also starting and ending your European tours with festivals, three in France to start, and one in Brussels to end. Do you do anything differently outdoors on a big stage, like not line-up so close, physically?
AH: We’re not actually playing outdoors at these festivals, but in the summer time, we do.
We don’t do anything different except play louder. It’s definitely a different experience, and it’s really fun in Europe because so many kids – like thousands of kids – know all the words to our songs, and it’s always really thrilling. I guess there’s a different energy level, because there’s so many more people there, but it’s also a different energy level because you’re far away from the audience.
QRO: Do you still set up your equipment with one right next to the other?
AH: Um… yeah.
QRO: Have you ever noticed, if you’ve been to a city more than once, fans that stand in the same place at multiple shows?
AH: That’s so funny – no, I’ve never noticed that, but I’m gonna start looking out for that. That’s really funny…
QRO: Are you all huge in Francophone Europe, because of the name?
AH: That’s my theory… We’re also pretty popular in Montreal…
I don’t know why, but, in addition, to me, French people have an appreciation for keyboards, and an appreciation for women in music that not too many other countries sort of revere in the same way, as a culture, I think.
QRO: Still Night, Still Light comes out in France first, then the rest of Continental Europe, before U.S. and U.K. – is that because of the tour, or is it the other way around: did you schedule the tour so that you would be playing places after the record came out?
AH: Sort of the releases were around the tour.
But we had to release the record in France first because they have an enviable ‘work ethic’, in which nobody really works in way, and nothing happens in May. They had to release it in either April or August, so we choose April… [laughs] So we sort of built everything around that.
QRO: How did making Still Night, Still Light compare with making The Bird of Music (QRO review)?
AH: It was a completely different experience!
Our first two, we had worked with our manager – who was actually our producer first, but we liked him so much, we asked him to be our manager. On this one, we hired a producer, Tom Monahan, who is amazing. He’s a little bit older – he’s not ninety or anything, but he’s older than we are, and he has a lot of experience. It was very interesting to see what he brought to this, as far as sounds, and delivery, really pushing us to give our best vocal performances.
Also, we did Bird of Music and Verses of Comfort [Assurance and Salvation] while we still had day jobs. Bird of Music took almost a year to record. We were touring in the middle, a little bit, but we would just go every day, after work, and go work on our record at [manager/then-producer] Rod [Sherwood’s] house. Still Night, Still Light we dedicated a chunk of time. It was still pretty piecemeal – we recorded some of it in Erika’s apartment, some of it in our practice space, we recorded some of it at Tom Monahan’s parents-in-law’s apartment on the West Side… Basically, anywhere where there was space, we went. But we dedicated a chunk of time to it, rather than just doing as best we could with our other obligations.
QRO: What was it like when you moved from having day jobs to the band being your ‘day job’?
AH: I have to say, it was really amazing.
It was really fun getting out of the desk job. My desk job was really great, ‘cause it was working for a non-profit that I felt really proud to be working for, but it was really stressful. It was really intense work. So, when I left, it was really fun for a while, and I had all this time for all these other projects, including my band and whatever art project I felt like doing. And now, I feel like the band has grown so much that now the band is more of a full time job than my previous, fifty-hour-a-week, full-time job… [laughs]
So it’s equally stressful. But, ultimately, I think, it’s just so rewarding to be able to do what you really, really, truly love, all the time, with nobody really telling you what to do. ‘Cause we run our own label, and it’s really fun to get to learn so much about the music industry, and then execute everything. We’re doing everything from choosing what record stores are gonna have an image of our CD in the light box at the front of the store, to doing the bookkeeping, to actually touring, to writing the songs – we’re doing everything. And it’s really fun.
QRO: Why did you decide to add a cymbal, and bass one song?
AH: And I kick a box, instead of playing a drum machine, on one song.
We wanted to add a different element. We felt like – keyboards are great, and we’re definitely in love with them, but when you play a synthesizer, granted, your timing’s not going to be perfect between every note, but the sound is going to be the same. But when you play an acoustic instrument like a cymbal, or a box, or a bass, every stroke is different, every hit is different, every beat is different. We wanted to add that sort of live, a little more ‘human’ feeling, to our set.
QRO: That was “Shadows” – how was making the video for that song?
AH: It was great! It was super-great. We shot it at The Bell House (QRO venue review), in Gowanus, with Disposable Television, who shot our first two videos (our only other two videos…), and we were really happy to work with them.
They had this really cool idea – I told them we wanted to do something with stop-motion, and they were like, “Uh, well, we don’t really do that. Maybe something else.” And then they came in a month later with this idea: instead of the subject moving, as in stop-motion, they were going to move all the cameras. They’re like revolutionizing photography or something, and we’re really excited to be their guinea pigs in that endeavor, because they’re so cool and really talented.
We were performing, and there’d be a bank of seven cameras in front of us. And they were going to cut and paste – I don’t know if I should reveal all their secrets, but they’re going to do some cool stuff.
QRO: Speaking of new instruments, where did you get your avocado?
AH: A-1 Music on First Ave., it’s a really tiny shop, I think on like First & [Eleventh] or something, we were there. They have some cool instruments. It’s not like ‘the greatest’ music store, but for random doodads, they have some good stuff. They have a lot of piano sheet music, if you’re in the market.
QRO: How much have you played the Still Night songs live, in front of an audience, before?
AH: We’ve played “Take Me As I Am” a bunch, and we’ve played “Knight of Wands” a bunch, but the other ones are pretty darn new. I think we’ve played them at South-by, and that was it. So, that’s sort of one of the reasons we wanted to do the show, as they say, your ‘tour legs’ on, figure out those songs.
You write them, and you record them, and you practice them, but, for some reason, it’s just totally different when you play them in front of people.
QRO: How was South-by-Southwest (QRO recap)?
AH: Oh, it was amazing. Awesome!
We skipped last year, because we didn’t have a new record out, and didn’t feel like it should have been on our agenda, but this year, we decided to go, because of our new record, and I loved it. I forgot how fun it was. I’d been there four times already, three of them playing, and it’s just so fun.
Have you been?
QRO: I was there this South-by.
AH: And you liked it?
QRO: Yeah. It was fun, it was intense – there were moments of frustration, but overall, it was great.
AH: Like when you can’t get into a show…
QRO: Mainly when you can’t get into a show – or are trying to catch at cab at 2:00 AM…
AH: Oh my gosh, I waited forever for cabs, sometimes.
My husband and I were waiting on Colorado Street or something, and this guy took it upon himself to get us a cab, but he looked really crazy, and so none of the cabs would stop… “Please, can you please stop trying to help us get a cab?…” We just sort of ran away to somewhere else, but it was really frustrating.
QRO: How are you going to balance playing new, Still Night songs, with older ones?
AH: Well, we are going to. I hate it, when you go see a band and they only play new songs.
One of the best shows I ever saw was Death Cab For Cutie (QRO album review) at Bowery, like three years ago or something. And they played three songs from each record. Even played some songs for their first seven-inch. I was like, “This is the greatest show I’ve ever been to! And one day, when my band has back catalog, I’m definitely doing things this way…”
We’re going to try to play two songs from Verses, and two songs from Bird of Music, or three, and then, the rest, new songs. Honestly, we are a little tired of playing all the old songs. We’ve played “Through the Backyards” at like every single show in the last five years. It’s a pretty song, but that’s a lot.
Au Revoir Simone playing “Through the Backyards of Our Neighbors” live @ Canal Room in New York, NY on October 2nd, 2007:
QRO: How do you fight ‘tour burnout’?
AH: I’m the worst one in the band for that. I definitely get burned out really, really easily. I love my house.
This tour that we have coming now, we made sure we have no drive longer than seven hours, to make sure to sleep at least seven hours, and get our own hotel rooms at least once a week. I’ll see if that works; I don’t know if it’s a proven formula, but we’re going to try.
AH: People do – not anymore, since people know who we are, but the first time we played in Stockholm, people were like, “Wow, these Swedish girls look like they’re straight out of Williamsburg…”
One time, when we were opening up for Air, these people came up to us after the show and said, “Your English is amazing!” [laughs] “Um… Sorry, we’re from Williamsburg…”
QRO: You played during Robert Normand’s fashion show in Paris in 2007. What was that like?
AH: It was fun. We played at this museum, in this giant hall, with all these catwalks, models moving around. And we were in a little corner. It was really cute. We just played three songs.
We also played a fashion show for a French designer, Ivana Helsinki. And then we just DJed for a Kate Spade fashion show. So I guess we tend to do that a lot.
It’s sort of fun, ‘cause it’s not like a regular show. You just go there, do your thing, and get paid a lot.
QRO: Are there models walking while you’re playing?
AH: Yeah. It’s fun to like change your tempo, change a song, and see them all change the timing on their feet.
QRO: Have you always set up that same way, the three of you?
AH: Well, we used to have four people in the band, a long time ago.
We kind of have to set up that way, because my keyboards are set up in an L-shape, and if I was anywhere else on the stage, they would sort of be blocking everybody. I guess Heather technically could go in the middle, but Heather plays Erika’s keyboards with her left hand on a couple songs, and they have to be right next to each other that way.
So it’s sort of a technical reason why we’re there. No particular reason.
QRO: Is it ever weird when you play the other end of the L, and you’re facing the side of the stage?
AH: Yeah, I don’t like it. I was actually thinking about that [at Union Pool]: definitely a downfall of our stage set-up.
A lot of times, it’s really fun, because, for some reason, the left side of the stage is usually the side that’s open to a big crowd of people. So it’s fun to play a song with my eyes closed and my hair in my eyes, and then look up and “Oh, whoa! There’s people here too!”
So sometimes it works to our advantage.
QRO: Are there any new songs you really like playing live?
AH: Yeah, one of the ones we played last night, “Anywhere You Looked”. I really like all of them. I really love “Knight of Wands”, I really like “Tell Me”… I really like the songs that are faster and sort of insanely technically challenging. It’s really cool to just sort of lose yourself in the song.
But it’s really hard to say. I guess I’d say all of them.
QRO: What about older ones?
AH: I really like playing “Stay Golden” live, because there’s no drums. It’s fun to sort of have control of tempo, speed up or slow down based on how the audience is reacting that night – which we’re doing with “Take Me As I Am” on this record. Same with “Tell Me”, I guess.
It sort of changes. I love playing “Lark” from our second record. It never translated on the record as well as I wanted it to, but whenever I play it live, I get chills, which is always fun.
QRO: Are there any songs that you don’t like to play live, or can’t play live?
AH: A lot of stuff from the first record, we can’t really play, because we used to have four members, and so we can’t do all the parts. And also, we don’t remember how the songs go.
This album, “Only You Can Make You Happy” we are trying to play live, but it’s a technical monster. I have to play these sounds on a loop, and loop it on a pedal, and then line it up with these drums, hit the pedal at the exact right moment. And then I have to play all these other parts on top of it.
Even though we sample all the drums – obviously, because we don’t have a drummer – we don’t sample other sounds. We play everything live. So we sort of have to figure out how to play everything live.
QRO: What cities or venue have you really liked playing?
AH: So many. Some of the best shows have been in Cleveland, San Francisco, Vancouver, Paris – have had a million amazing shows in Paris. Helsinki is amazing. Every time we play Dublin, we have an amazing show.
There’s so many though. There’s so many more. Every show we’ve ever played in any city in Portugal has been really fun.
QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?
AH: No… There’s so many crazy things that have happened to us, like our van broke down in Texas, and it was this epic adventure involving a million coincidences, and being towed in a tow truck through rural Texas, and then ending up at this mechanic who just happened to have a minivan that he could rent to us, so that we could make it to our show in Denton. We ran to the show, made it just on time, came back to this no-name mechanic’s place, and then got our car back, and he’d fixed it.
And the tow-truck driver was like, “This is going to be really expensive. This is going to be so expensive. Watch out for this guy…” And the guy was like, “Um… $200, including the van rental?”! We were like, “Okay… ‘Really expensive’, but we’ll get by, I guess…”
And it was great because, when we played Denton, the audience members were giving us money to contribute to the van. It was really sweet. It was like $75. It was really sweet…