Oyster #94: Sebastien Tellier
I call my mother and I say 'Take me to the hospital, because I think I am almost dead.'
In Oyster issue #94, Alice Cavanagh met with the inimitable Sebastien Tellier in Paris. Here is an excerpt from our exclusive interview:
A hot June day in Paris brings the kind of sweltering heat that can make you feel a little bit drunk (not necessarily a bad thing). I'm at a cafe near La Madeleine, tucked away in a corner and trying to be discreet. You see, I have a rendez-vous with Sebastien Tellier, France's electro-pop playboy, and I have arrived early to cool off, quite literally - my shorts are stuck to my legs. "Not to worry," I think, sipping on my Perrier, "he'll be late." At 4:30 pm on the dot, however, a tall, very hairy man breezes in and talks amicably with the waiter, before heading back outside to sit down. I sigh (shorts and legs are still as one), knock back the rest of my drink and walk over to introduce myself.
The first thing of note is that Tellier is much more attractive in the flesh than I had expected. He's stylish - not in an ironic way like in his videos - and behind all that hair there is a very handsome face, with a pair of extraordinary blue eyes that light up when he is amused. This happens often over the course of our two-hour chat, though I can't take any credit. No, Tellier is one of those wonderful people who can laugh at themselves. Perhaps this is too obvious a point to make to anyone who's ever watched his clips or seen him perform, but for those who haven't, let's recap: for his Eurovision entry in 2008, he decked out his female back-up singers in fake beards, gyrated around on stage and sucked on a helium-filled ball, all while an off-camera wind-machine fanned his locks. This was, however, a toned-down Tellier for the masses. While conducting my research, Vincent Vendetta, of the Midnight Juggernauts, relayed a more typical performance: "We once played a gig together in the north of France which concluded with him rolling on the floor and making love to the monitors on stage. It's funny watching an audience respond to a man caressing a large, inanimate speaker-box for five minutes."
So, what's the deal? Who is the real Sebastien Tellier? The man sitting before me, drinking Ricard with ice and lighting cigarette after cigarette certainly fits the cliche. But is it all a cliche? The sexy synth sound of French electro- pop? The outfits? The lyrics? The girls cavorting in their underwear? He smiles and takes a drag of his cigarette before answering, "When you are in show business, your job is to be attractive - not sexually attractive, but to make people want to see you. That is the point of my creation ... it allows me to show off and to feel comfortable at the same time." So, where does the character end and reality begin? "It's a fun thing, I am being cheeky. The real me is expressed through the deep, sentimental music - very sad and very deep. That is what I like. When I play a song like 'Divine', [he sings] 'Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah,' it is not inside of me. It is just for fun, because I don't want to boring."
When I speak to Tellier's close friend and collaborator, director Mathieu Tonetti, he suggests that the character conceals the singer's shyness. "It's like a game ... now he can express himself. Before, his music was really intimate and really low-key, and now his music is more generous. He was not like a great performer when he was younger, now he has a great technique and he can express more of a rock-star thing."
Precocious though he was, it took him some time to get his own music off the ground - he released his first album, L'incroyable Verite, at 26. So what was he doing prior to 2001? Smoking weed? "Actually, yes," he says, laughing. "It was five years of smoking hash and [playing] PlayStation and thinking about music. It was very deep introspection." Sounds more like very strong hash. "Maybe. I was actually very, very depressed. I had no money, so it was impossible to go to parties or bars. The PlayStation was an escape." Something eventually got him going, though, and one day he decided to walk unannounced into Source Records, a sub-label of Virgin. "I had an eight-track demo recorder and I had done three or four songs. At the first meeting they said to me, 'Yes, it is OK; you have a deal.'" He lights a cigarette. "The guy just happened to be free that afternoon; I think I was very lucky." That "guy" left Source to start the Record Makers label, taking Sebastien with him prior to the release of his debut album.
While recording his second album, Politics (2004), Tellier once again struggled with feelings of depression. "I was alone in a big studio; it was a horrible ambience, like a nightmare. It took a long time to record this album, but there was one good thing about it: I did a song called 'La Ritournelle'. It was not a huge success, but it was like sun in my life. I reached a goal: a big song, with strings... It was like climbing a big mountain - no, a volcano. Many people around the world loved it, and it was great for me to know that." The bouts of sadness and the endless partying took their toll, and around that time Tellier ended up in rehab. "It was party, party, party - all of the day, all of the night. One day, around seven in the morning, I call my mother and I say, 'Take me to the hospital, because I think I am almost dead.'" Tellier stayed for a few weeks, because the staff refused to release him. "I was too crazy." How crazy? He laughs and says, reassuringly, "I was not dangerous, though. I was like a little animal."
'La Ritournelle', as directed by Mr. Oizo
It's difficult to imagine Tellier experiencing the dark moments he describes, especially as he is able to laugh while talking about them. After all, this is the man who did Eurovision as "a joke" and released an album through American Apparel (he admits Dov Charney is an unusual guy, but likes him nonetheless). Tellier knows how to have fun. I wonder, then - is he a hopeless romantic? "Yes," he says, "but not like Romeo. Romantic like a child. My vision of love is like [that of ] a child's." Has he had long-term girlfriends? "When I have a girlfriend, I stay with her for a long time. I never quit a girl; it is always the girl who quits me. I think it is because I was never completely in love. The girl knows when the guy isn't in love. She feels it, and so it is like, 'Bye-bye.'"
He's also just finished his fifth album, to be released in 2012. It was produced by Mr Flash (Gilles Bousquet), whom Tellier describes as, "The first real crazy person I have met who has a normal life. I don't understand how he can do that, because he is so fucked up." I have to laugh. How crazy is crazy? "At lunch, he will try the wine and he will try 30 bottles. I think he has to go to the hospital," he says quite casually, before adding, "But the music is great; I feel very comfortable with my new record." Tellier's last album, Sexuality, was by far his most commercial to date: a perfectly-marketed package in which he explored his "vision of sex - normal sex, not porn sex." So, what can we expect from this one? More Eurovision pop? Bigger hits? "I play a pop song just for fun. I don't play hits. The goal is not to be pop, it's to do pop," he says, almost excited at the revelation. "I love the underground spirit, but I don't like to be underground. After I die, I want to be remembered." In France they worship at the graves of their idols: Serge Gainsbourg's tombstone is covered with photos, poems and flowers. Is that what he imagines for himself ? "Yes! I want to live more than life. That is the point of my music. I am trying to reach eternal life with my music."
Here are some of our favourite Tellier videos:
'L'Amour et La Violence'
And here is Tellier's own favourite clip of all time:
Sebastien Tellier will be performing at Parklife 2011.
Saturday 24 September - Melbourne (Sydney Myer Music Bowl and Kings Domain)
Sunday 25 September - Perth (Wellington Square)
Saturday 1 October - Brisbane (City Botanic Gardens)
Sunday 2 October - Sydney (Kippax Lake, Centennial Park)
Monday 3 October - Adelaide (Botanic Park)
Ticketing info here.
Photography: Xavier Cariou