words: Pete Mella
pics: Chris Saunders
Fred and Marion, aka The Lovers, are everything you would think of as typical French hosts. Sandman meet them at their flat in Nether Edge, and is greeted with some glorious food and some fantastic French red wine.
The married Gallic couple are the French link in Sheffield electronica, having worked with practically anyone who's anyone in the scene. Marion is half Fred's age, although you probably wouldn't estimate Fred was old enough. They met on September 11th 2001, a date that holds a happier significance for them than the rest of the world.
We met through a Jamaican producer, a friend of both of ours called Paul Groucho Smikle," says Marion, "I met him when I used to live in London, for a few years I had a bar there, then I went away for a little while to New York and San Francisco, and when I came back from Paris via London, because he told me, 'I have a friend, you should meet him, he's French, he lives in Sheffield'."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Marion moved to Sheffield when she met Fred, Fred having moved here eighteen years ago.
I first came here eighteen years ago for a party with a friend from London, for four years I was working for FON Force with Mark Brydon and Sim Lister. It was like a love story, something changed in my life when I came to Sheffield." Marion is equally fond of her adopted home. "I see it as all the other villages and big cities where people have kept their heart." I think out of everywhere we've been in the world," says Fred, "people in Sheffield are so open-hearted, they're so hospitable. You get a friendly welcome."
The pair have both had interesting histories before finding each other. Fred has been involved in a dazzling array of projects and with a role call of influential musicians. He worked with Fon Force in the 1980s, has collaborated with Nightmares on Wax's Robin Taylor Firth, Sweet Exorcist's Robert Gordon and Massive Attack's Sarah Jay. He was ahead of his time by bringing the first house record into France whilst working with FON. One of his most interesting projects is a voodoo dance album with Haitian singer, and genuine voodoo princess, Ife.
“I was never scared of the voodoo, because the voodoo we know now in Haiti, it was a 17th, 18th Century way for slaves to be away from the masters, to remember their culture. When they performed a ritual sacrificing a chicken or whatever, it was a way to create fear between the slave and the master. It’s a mixture between shamanism and catholic Christian. I saw it more as historically than religiously.”
Again ahead of his time, many of the songs Fred produced for Ife were about the then pretty much unheard of misery at Guantanamo Bay.
“He’s also been a smuggler on a boat (“I was 17,” he shrugs), and took part in student protests in Paris in 1968 (again, you can’t quite work out how he’s old enough), and Notting Hill in 1975. Although politically his philosophy is neither left or right.
“It’s a 20th century thinking, and we’re in the 21st century,” he says. “I love life, I love people, I don’t like this world.”
Marion left home at 17 and moved to London, where she formed an arty pop punk band called Mademoiselle. She later moved to New York where she worked as a Bunny Girl, and later a jazz singer in San Francisco. She’s worked with producers such as Nellee Hooper, and she wrote the track ‘Wonderland’, which Roisin Murphy and the Pyschedelic Waltons took to number two in the dance charts.
“It was very funny,” says Fred, “because Roisin Murphy was in Moloko, and I was working with Mark Brydon.”
The Lovers as a concept came largely from ubiquitous former All Seeing I man Parrot.
“The Lovers is our story of how we got together,” says Fred. “It was Parrot who had the vision, he saw us in the studio at Axis in Sheffield, and he said ‘ah! The Lovers’. So he had the vision of that, because we were in love and at work.”
Both Fred and Marion are talented song-writers, with varied tastes that range from Can to Jimi Hendrix, Public Enemy to French cabaret music. Three influences they pick out particularly for The Lovers are Peter Sellers, Jacques Tati and French writer and song writer Boris Vian.
“He influenced a lot of singers like Serge Gainsbourg or Jacques Dutronc. This guy introduced Jazz, Rock, even Tango and Polka, and American Culture in France after the second world war. He died at 32 years old in a cinema where they were showing his movie because he was mad with the version they did of his book which was a love story between a white girl and a black man.”
The pair regularly tour with I Monster, the Sheffield act seldom seen live in their native country but who are something of festival stalwarts on the continent. Sometimes they’re part of the live band – Fred playing guitar and Marion singing – other times support as The Lovers. They go down well, despite some describing them as “too French for the French”.
Another member of the Sheffield electronica scene they’ve teamed up with recently is Kings Have Long Arms’ Adrian Flanagan, Marion dueting with Adrian on the song ‘Stag Party’, a raucous party anthem revealing the seedy side of pre-nuptial celebration. The Lovers played their first ever gig with KHLA in Manchester, and are keen to sing the Salfordian’s praises.
He’s very full on for it!,” says Marion, “When we wrote ‘Stag Party’ we played it to Adrian, and he goes, ‘This is my song!’” I remember first time I heard Kings Have Long Arms,” says Fred, “because sometimes he can give emotions, like a teenager, sometimes you see something of a deeper artist. I like things deeper and twisted, obscure.”
Their debut album, the knowingly titled ‘Allo Allo’, is released soon on white label, also featuring production and writing credits from Parrot and Honer, Kevin Bacon and Jon Quarmby, and Jarvis Cocker (ironically a Sheffielder who has now adopted Paris as his home). It’s an eclectic tour de force, the unmistakable Shefftronica stamp of Parrot, Honer, Cocker et al firmly on it but with a particularly Gallic twist. Thematically it tackles French stereotypes head on, with tracks such as ‘La Le’, a ditty about masculine and feminine words, ‘French Kiss’, and ‘Frog and Snail’. The latter is a jaunty number about French culinary habits (“Yummy yummy yummy yummy yum yum / Protect us from the restaurants”). You wonder quite how the French public will take it when it’s released as a single across there in September.
But it’s not the sound of a couple playing up their Frenchness for the laughs of English listeners, although humorous it can be at times. A standout track is ‘Bring Your Chaos’, a sweeping, beautiful song with a slight Middle Eastern feel, which show off Marion’s breathtaking vocals to full effect.
Elsewhere we find Latin lounge pop (‘Noi Je Suis Faite’), disco-tinged ballad ‘Basque Country’, a melancholic song about the life of a Bunny Girl, and ‘Fred de Fred’, Fred’s autobiographical song about his nomadic nature. Despite a vast mixture of styles, and its varied emotions, from jaunty pop to heartbreak, the album is tied together by Marion and Fred’s entwining vocals and their obvious empathy. It sounds French, yet Sheffield, simultaneously.
The Lovers’ music is produced on their Mac, either in their Sheffield flat or in their second home in the South of France (which Fred describes as their “little house on the prairie”). They see technology as something bringing the world together
“The last gig we did with I Monster was in a castle,” says Marion, “a beautiful place, and we were playing just before The Streets, so we met The Streets. They’ve done everything on their computer at home. So with the power of imagination you can still do different styles.” Maybe the star system is something that will disappear,” muses Fred. “Computers are bringing the world together.”
The Lovers seems to be the mere tip of the iceberg of what Fred and Marion are doing. As well as that project and working with I Monster, their other projects include writing for a Russian singer and a Russian film, and soundtracks for Sheffield’s Jelly Dolly independent film company. They’re also planning a musical exhibition in caves at a French monastery, which will take in not only electro music, but also classical and choirs.
They’re huge caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites,” says Marion, “one of the caves is one hectare, it should be really interesting.”
Two very busy nomadic French musicians, who have travelled the sights of the world, from smuggling on the high seas to playing festivals at castles. Some would say it perhaps odd The Lovers have found home in Sheffield: Sex City, but perhaps with its history of quirky music and eccentric characters it makes absolute sense.
So have the pair finally settled down in South Yorkshire? They’re on the move yet again over the next few months, playing various dates in the UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, with Russian dates coming up soon too.
We’ve settled down, yes,” laughs Marion, “but still with a foot in the air!”