During CMJ 2013 in New York, Erika Forster of Au Revoir Simone sat down over a cannoli and talked with QRO. The trio of Forster, Heather D’Angelo, and Annie Hart had just played the CMJ performance, as well as a KEXP session, in support of their first new album in four years, Move In Spectrums (QRO review), and were about to follow-up their just-concluded European tour with an American one. In the sit-down, Forster talked about the new album, ‘returning to the road’ (from Bratislava on west), what they did on their hiatus, being into keyboards ‘before they were cool,’ going minimalist (and into the crowd), fashion, not being French, and much more…
QRO: How was your recent European tour?
Erika Forster: It was great. It was long, for us – it was almost a month. We started in Helsinki, and finished in Porto, in Portugal. And hit a bunch of dates in between. It was cool.
Putting this new album out, it’s a different climate – there’s a lot of different bands out now, than there were on our last record. It’s definitely been sort of an experimental time. ‘We’ll see what it’s like out there, if people still remember us, if people still want to hear us’ – and it ended up being really great!
The third show was in London, and the fourth show was in Paris, and we’ve always had really strong crowds there. It was really magical.
It was also fun – you spend so much of your time, as a band, in these vans, getting from place-to-place, and our tour manager, and our sound engineer were there; our people who we’ve been working with for seven years. They’re like our family at this point. We’ve spent so much hilarious times together; just know each other really well. Our tour manager is from Prague, and our sound engineer is from England, so it was nice to have ‘the gang back together’…
QRO: They’re your ‘Old World family’?…
EF: They’re totally our ‘Old World family’… [laughs] They just do a really good job, and we have a lot of fun together.
The shows were received really well. We sold out in Berlin, Paris, London, a lot of shows sold out. We got treated so well. It was really fun.
And also meeting new fans, who don’t know our old albums at all, just are appreciating this.
QRO: You toured Europe pretty extensively – had you ever been to Slovakia before?
EF: Never – that was actually the one place on the tour that we’d never been.
It was so great, both in Prague – and we’d been to Prague on tour, because our tour manager’s from there, but we’d never played there – both Prague and Bratislava, both of those venues were these multi-purpose venues that were like art galleries with art residencies programs, people all over the world, with a bar-café-venue space, really awesome people running them. It was just a very alive, cool scene, and really great crowds. People were so polite in Bratislava – I just remember it being a very charming, very polite, very appreciative crowd.
That was one of the few dates on the tour that I had a little bit of time in the morning, and woke up early, went into town, and got to see a little bit. It was funny – there weren’t very many other quote-unquote ‘tourists’ walking around, although it was like ten in the morning. I saw a nice big castle, and made it back to the hotel in time…
QRO: You only played one date in the U.K., but a lot on the continent – usually it’s the other way around for American bands…
EF: Yes! I know! I was laughing so hard that we were playing three shows in Switzerland and one show in [U.K.]! I was laughing that maybe Switzerland is the only place in Europe that still has money to pay bands… [laughs]
But we are going back in February, and we’re gonna do Glasgow, Manchester, hopefully, maybe Dublin, I’m not sure, and maybe Brighton, and then we’ll end with London again. We’ll do more, but this first time was just London.
Yeah, we thought that was really funny, too…
We’re gonna do a lot more shows in France, too.
QRO: That was your first tour in a while, no? What was it like, being ‘back on the road’?
EF: It was strange. It was very strange.
It took a couple days, and then this sort of ‘muscle memory’ kicked in, of like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what we do, this is what it’s like…’
The first couple nights, I was hanging out in the hotel room, after the show, just like watching TV on my computer, and then after a few days, I was like, ‘Wait a second – I need to just go to bed right away!’ Because the van calls are so early…
It’s definitely a strange lifestyle, spending such a long time in a van all day.
QRO: And in a van in Europe, too…
EF: Yeah. But it’s fun, because we’ve done it before, we know what we like, we know what we want to revisit, and we sort of ‘know the drill.’ But it definitely took a couple days.
And the first couple days, it was like Helsinki, to Belgium, to London, so the first days… We were still getting over our jetlag.
QRO: Your CMJ show (QRO recap) was sponsored by France Rocks, the French government’s music program here in America – but you’re from Williamsburg…
EF: I know – but we have a French name…
We have a lot of French connections – for lack of a better term. We toured with that band Air, and we’ve always done really well in France.
I don’t know exactly how that came about, but it was nice. And when we first started playing in France, people thought we were French…
All three of us speak a little bit of French. Kind of have to…
Au Revoir Simone playing “Another Likely Story” live at The Gap in New York, NY on February 23rd, 2012:
See also them playing “Tell Me”
QRO: How was making Move In Spectrums?
EF: It was pretty similar to the other albums. We just started by collecting ideas. The first step is sort of shyly presenting the ideas to the other girls, and then seeing, of the ten ideas that you throw out there, which ones they’re receptive to. Trying to play them with different drumbeats, and then, little by little…
It was a little more starts-and-stops than the other albums, ‘cause we were kind of working around Heather’s school schedule. So we had a chunk of summertime, 2011?, that we wrote a lot. But by the time we picked up those ideas again, in the winter and next summer, a lot of the ideas weren’t relevant anymore; we didn’t really like them anymore. But it was good, just to keep our chops up and keep practicing.
Most of the writing was done before we started working with our producer, just many, many hours. We talked to other bands, and people think we’re crazy that we have like eight-hour band rehearsals, because most bands are like in there, run through the songs, and get outta there – go to the bar, whatever. We really treat it like a job, go in and put in the hours.
We got a bunch of new keyboards for this album. We had an Oberheim OB-8, which is really sort of space age, ‘galactic’, just funny sounding. The keyboard I fell in love with for this album was an ARP Quartet. I played sort of brass and string sounds. There’s a real sharpness to the songs that are different than the softer, more eighties Juno sounds that I was playing on the other records. We added a few different ingredients to the mix.
And then when we met Jorge [Elbrecht], when we started working with George, who produced my solo EP (QRO review), it was great – the songs sort of instantly started taking shape, and started sounding like what they were going to become. We started hearing much more potential in how huge, how the spectrum of the sound that we could create. I think we had a lot more tools this time.
QRO: Generally, do each of you bring in songs – and then is it usually the songs you bring in, you sing?
EF: Generally, yeah. A lot of songs are collaborative from the beginning, they’ll just be something we’re jamming on, make a beat. And then those songs kind of develop on whoever sings. I think that’s the song, “Let the Night Win”, for example, was a song that I didn’t really have anything to add at first, keyboard-wise, so then I started thinking of a vocal melody. So kinda just happened like that.
Yeah, a couple of the songs were more finished. And then the other girls just add an extra level of texture, some backing vocals.
QRO: So the lead vocals, they’re not the first thing?
EF: It depends on the song. Usually, if we bring in a song that’s more or less complete to the group, we usually have the core progression and a vocal, but then the band works together to add the bridge, or the intros, or that kind of thing.
But nothing’s set in stone – when you bring in a song, it’s sort of like anybody can be like, ‘Oh, I hate that part – can we change it?’ ‘Can we do something else here?’ ‘I wanna add this?’ or ‘I’m envisioning this…’ So it’s nice that we have really good communication, we’re allowed to interject on each other’s compositions.
QRO: You were on hiatus before this record, doing other projects…
EF: Heather got a second bachelor’s degree from Columbia, for microbiology.
EF: Yeah, she’s like a real scientist…
The way it looks is, ‘Oh, we had four years off…’, but thinking back, we actually toured until the end of 2010, and then we had a year off, and then we started working on this record in 2011, anyways.
QRO: You were saying that the musical scene’s changed a bit. It seems like everyone these days is using keyboards. Do you feel like you were into that ‘before it was cool’?
EF: I mean, we don’t take any ownership on that movement, necessarily, but we have noticed that it’s a lot harder to find all the models and vintage keyboards. They used to sit there on eBay, and nobody was bidding on them. So now it’s harder…
But I actually like it, because I feel like I meet more people who play the same instruments, and we can sort of ‘talk shop.’ And they can teach me things that I didn’t know about on my instruments, and we can have this kind of dialogue.
We did used to get a lot of criticism, in the beginning, ‘You don’t have a drummer,’ ‘You guys are so weird…’ And now, it’s so much more typical to be a one-person [keyboard performer].
I think, in a way, the scene has changed around us, and we belong more, now.
But we started around the same time as Hot Chip, so we were kind of parallel.
QRO: Oh, yeah, Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem – those were the ‘indie-dance’…
EF: Yeah. And we weren’t doing any sequencing, and we have definitely less dance-y music than Hot Chip at the beginning, but we felt continuity with them.
QRO: I’ve noticed that you all do dance at your shows. I think of you being stuck on the keyboards, but especially when you’re playing with one hand…
EF: I’m actually playing more with one hand. I think I’m becoming more of a minimalist, as I get older. I’m playing slightly simpler parts on the new songs than on the older songs. I’m not quite occupied all the time.
It’s a funny conundrum: trying to dance while being still enough to sing into a microphone, and be attached to a keyboard with one hand. It’s pretty hilarious… [laughs] We try…
QRO: On the other hand, you don’t have to carry something, something weighing you down…
EF: Yeah. When I first started playing bass on “Shadows”, I realized how much fun it is to have your instrument attached to your body. It’s a really different experience, when you’re at this station.
QRO: I noticed that Annie played bass for “Crazy”…
EF: She worked on that part with Tyler Sargent (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), who played it on the album. It’s sort of more like whoever writes the part, plays that part. And we help each other with parts, from time-to-time, but for the most part, we enjoy playing our own parts.
Au Revoir Simone playing “Shadows” live at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY on May 29th, 2009:
QRO: Why is it occasionally that you switch where you’re standing/keyboard you’re playing?
EF: That’s because the instrumentation. Each keyboard has its own personality and sound.
I don’t know why we’re like this – not every band is – but I think, a lot of times, we’re trying to recreate the songs as they were on the album, because we feel like we’ve somehow ‘perfected’ what we’re trying to do on the album, and so we wanna bring that to life with the live show.
So we switch around for the sounds. In practice, when we’re making the songs, sometimes we play each other’s keyboards…
QRO: So that’s how it starts…
EF: So, for example, the Juno 60 that Annie plays is the only one that does that arpeggio, so Heather has to play that on one song. And then my Nord is the only one that does a real electronic piano sound. It’s just very utilitarian.
QRO: [At Highline Ballroom (QRO venue review),] You covered Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”. How did you decide who was going to play what on that song – and who would get to go into the crowd?…
EF: Good question…
That song, we were doing a session for Sirius XMU, and they wanted a cover, and we just kind of decided on it last minute. That arrangement, we just sort of made it up, not on the radio, but we made it up the day before. It just kinda happened.
And my part, again, I’m being more of a minimalist on this album, and I didn’t hear the part that I played until coming into later in the song, so I just stand around. So sometimes I dance, and sometimes I go into the crowd.
QRO: Had you gone into the crowd before?
EF: No, never. It’s really fun! It’s fun to sort of ‘see what the audience sees…’
QRO: Before I saw that show, I was going to ask you, ‘Do you all ever want to go into the crowd?’…
EF: [laughs] So funny!
Annie’s crowd-surfed once, on her birthday. I forced her to crowd-surf. Our sound engineer at the time was really into the Baywatch theme song, and she would play it after we got off stage, which was funny at first, and then really weird. But I forced her to crowd-surf once, on her birthday, to the Baywatch theme song, in Houston, Texas.
I have never gone into the crowd, but it’s really fun. It’s so fun to be able to connect with our super-fans, and just dance with them.
QRO: Being a New York band, have you ever had to play a place at CMJ that you wouldn’t want to play normally?
EF: Upstairs at Piano’s (QRO venue review)… [laughs]
Today, somebody was like, “Oh, the last time we saw you guys was upstairs at Piano’s.” We were like, “We played upstairs at Piano’s?!?”
QRO: I last saw you playing at a Gap store last year – did you get any free clothes?
QRO: You do seem to have a lot of involvement in fashion – I saw the New York Times fashion piece that you were in…
EF: Yes, in the New York Times Magazine – that was one of our favorite shoots.
Being an all-female band, I think it’s just natural. Female musicians have been inspiring designers for so many years. People always talk about like Patti Smith, whatever – all these iconic women, female musicians.
Yeah, it’s cool. We’ve really been embraced by the fashion world. We always get invited to do stuff for Fashion Week.
QRO: But do you ever feel it focuses too much on you being an ‘all-girl band’?
EF: It’s not irrelevant. I think, being a performer, you do think about those things. And I think for us, we just have fun. We enjoy it, we have fun – it’s not like we take it super-seriously.
QRO: I was thinking, ‘Do you have to think harder about what you wear on stage?’, but that’s probably true for any women playing on stage, whatever the band…
EF: Yeah – and actually men. You’d be surprised.
We’ve talked to a lot of photographers who think that men actually equally think about their image, but they’re just not as willing to admit it.
QRO: Say you’re playing outdoors, have you ever had your hair blow in your mouth?
EF: Yeah. Well the worst thing about playing outdoors, playing at a festival is that you set up, you do your soundcheck, and then you come back for the show, and your keyboard is covered in dust, and tree leaves, and weird stuff… [laughs]
QRO: For the song “Crazy”, is that supposed to be from a guy’s perspective?
EF: Heather actually wrote that, so I think it’s pretty open-ended. I feel like she was singing it to us, but I think it’s sort of just an open-ended “crazy…” Sadly, I can’t answer.
But on the video that we did – we recreated the movie After Hours, that kind of is from the guy’s perspective, because the main character in the movie just meets all these insane women that are ruining his life.
Au Revoir Simone’s After Hours-inspired video for “Crazy”: