AQUASERGE’s initial response to that old chestnut of a music journalist’s query, “What are your influences?” is succinct and illuminating. “Gainsbourg, the Canterbury scene and krautrock,” states vocalist and keyboard player Julien Gasc. There, in a nutshell, is the essence of Aquaserge’s sound: pop, whimsical psychedelia and jazz rock. That essence is mixed into a Gallic cocktail of bittersweet emotions, spiced with a soupçon of electronica, chanson, classical, and cinematic soundscapes.
Formed in 2005, Aquaserge is a moveable feast of musical ideas and personnel. An offshoot of French polymath Hyperclean, the project initially involved Gasc, Julien Barbagallo (Drums) and Benjamin Gilbert (Guitar), and their early output revolved around three concept albums depicting a “strange flood, the end of the world and a new form of marine life”. It is tempting to see the group’s name as being umbilically linked to this watery saga, but when I ask him what the name means Gasc replies, somewhat obliquely, “our band is our life”. This is as far from a literal translation as you could get, and when he offers, by way of elaboration, “It means a lot of jokes and a play on words too; you can always transform this name,” you begin to get the idea that this is a group that wish to escape the confines of pigeonholing and keep on moving.
This obliqueness, this elusive resistance to being easily described, are defining Aquaserge characteristics, but they refuse to be rankled by the ‘psych/prog’ tags. Where some musicians would rail, Gasc displays a twinkle-eyed sangfroid: “It’s not annoying, it’s just fun… we have so many influences, it is hard to label us.” I don’t think this shrug of the shoulders is a front, more a declaration that Aquaserge really don’t pay much attention to genre stereotypes and are determined to deliver their musical vision untainted by any outside critical influence.
Their openness to musical influence is another thing entirely. Band members have collaborated with, amongst others, Acid Mothers Temple, Stereolab, Melody’s Echo Chamber and Moodoïd. They were brought up mostly in the south of France, and the traditional music of that area is, according to Gasc,“really droney,” which might seem an obvious connection to today’s Frenchedelic renaissance, but he doesn’t see it as a direct influence, rather as “a satellite”, out there somewhere but not in the band’s direct line of vision. While most of the band received classical and/or jazz training, their background is, Gasc says, “more mixed and open than traditional.”
To this end, the group have evolved into a writing and touring ensemble, with Manon Gilbert (Clarinet) and Audrey Ginestet (Bass) as regular contributors alongside a variety of other musicians (tonight, for example, we will see Olve Strelow on drums as Julian Barbagallo is touring the US with Tame Impala). Gasc denies that there is a leader of the pack, stating jokingly that “we are all leaders”. If so, they must be benign dictators in order to fulfil Gasc’s assertion that all members of the band “influence each other when composing, arranging and producing together.”
That ethos has led them to A L’Amitié (‘To Friendship’), their latest opus, an album which sees them move away from the concept format into territory that is “more free and exploded in terms of ambiences”. When I ask Gasc about the new album, I sense that this is something of a relief for the band, as he admits that they wanted to “renew” themselves, maybe after 2013’s collaboration with April March, which was criticised in some quarters for being musically “dense and derivative”. A L’Amitié has a fairly sparse feel which allows its ideas to develop within the framework of individual tracks. A sense of discord pervades the vocals during the opening tracks, aiding the dramatic suspense of the keyboards on the title track and unsettling the melodies in For Bob, a tribute to Canterbury scene icon Robert Wyatt. “We wanted him to sing on this song,” explains Gasc, “but finally this never happened, so we wrote him this musical postcard.” The heavy riffing of Serge Singe is continually interrupted by passages of jazzy, discordant brass, woodwind, piano and percussion. The influential elements are still there: surf guitar and Frippery on Je Viens (Reprise), the jazzy repetitions in the middle section of Travelling, preceding its beautiful fadeout. The final track on the album, Ceci, contains the lyric: “it’s a hold up/give us back our inspiration”. Someone coughed up. This is what can happen when classically trained musicians break out of the conservatoire. With this album Aquaserge have brought together the elements that so intrigue and please them to forge their own identity.
If the sometimes playful nature of Gasc’s answers hints at a desire not to give too much away – the answers are, after all, in the music – then what do you expect from a band who on their Facebook page list their current location as “The Bermuda Triangle”?
“We love playing live and touring. Playing live with Aquaserge is always a thrill,” concludes Gasc. However they play it, expect to walk away from the North Stage this evening with a smile on your face.