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Underground Railroad - Interview

  by Sarah Maybank

published: 21 / 9 / 2008

Underground Railroad - Interview


At a gig at Rough Trade East in London, Sarah Maybank speaks to Parisian alt-rock band about their recent move to London, and their well-received, grunge-influenced second album, 'Sticks and Stones'

Parisian alt-rock noiseniks, Underground Railroad, are sitting on a bench outside revered London record outlet Rough Trade East, swigging from cans of Red Stripe and swapping war stories. It’s the usual sorry litany of up-and-coming band maltreatment; non-payment, rubbish venues and, says bassist JB Gavinet, a show in Leicester where “we drove for ten hours and when we arrived at the venue there was a Post-It on the door: ‘Sorry, gig cancelled’. The promoter hadn’t even bothered to ring us.” So far, so depressing. But, really, isn’t this just called ‘paying your dues’? Then Raph Mura, drummer, vocalist, officially most effervescent person in the world, flourishes his top trump: Reading 2008. "We played the Radio One Introducing... tent. One band were advertised at 5pm as “the FF’ers” and this huge crowd, 3000 people, turned up thinking it was going to be a secret gig by Dave Grohl’s band. But they weren’t - they were a real band. When it wasn’t the Foo Fighters everyone got really angry, throwing stuff at them - bottles, cans, shoes - and they had to leave the stage. Then we were due on and it was still heaving with angry fans. The security guys said to us, 'It’s chaos out there, do you really want to go on stage?' Then the crowd started throwing cans and bottles at us." "And we started throwing them back", continues guitarist Marion Andrau, shivering in the miserable, early autumn drizzle. "It was like a war." The battle of Thermopylae 480BC. Leonidas and a few hundred defiant Greeks face up to legion upon legion of the elite fighters of the Persian empire, the future of western civilisation in their hands. Underground Railroad can sympathise; ‘up against it’ is practically their middle name. This is a band whose dues-paying didn’t even take place on their home turf – they had to exile themselves to make a go of their career, arriving in London "broke, depressed and friendless" from their homes in the outskirts of the French capital a few years back. "In France rock is very underground, apart from in Paris", explains Marion. "There isn’t really an audience, especially if you sing in English, like we do." And and it’s not like things got any easier when they arrived here: "Ha ha! Yeah, our first-ever UK gig", continues Raph. "We played at the Dirty Water Club [London garage mecca]. We love garage but it’s not what we play. We were a bit grungey for them. I looked like shit too." "We both did", interrupts JB. "We had these bowl haircuts", winces Raph. "We both looked like Karen O. I was wearing these skateboarder shoes. Nothing about the way we looked made sense. People either loved us or hated us. Someone shouted, 'Horse shit!' at us. [Looks embarrassed] There’s a video...." "But it’s those experience that make you what you are", says Marion matter-of-factly. "You have to learn things this way." Looking back, though, can you truly, honestly say you’d go through all that grief again? "Yeah, of course", affirms Raph, concluding his Reading story. "Our hearts were going like mad, ba-doom, ba-doom, ba-doom, before we went on. But in the end we got to play to about 500 people who’d all stayed behind to watch us." Surfing on a wave of positive reviews for their second album ‘Sticks & Stones’, Underground Railroad are the vanguard of a music press-tagged neo-grunge revival. Taking the energy of their debut, 2007’s ‘Twisted Trees’, and adding a bit of ear-friendly spit and polish, ‘S&S’ is 10 lightning bolts of riff-driven mania, that plays Cupid between pummeling New York no wave and the golden era of American college rock (Sonic Youth guitars, Throwing Muses off-kilter rythms, Pixies weirdness). Very avant-‘oh my Gaahd’. But it’s grounded with the craftsmanship and rock sensibility that turned the Foos into radio-friendly mega unit-shifters. The kind all artists want to be. The no-sell-out ones. Ironically, the Foos no-show is almost like a heads-up from Fate to the rest of us. With Grohl and his success-wearied, Reading-avoiding mates about to go on ‘extended hiatus’, Underground Railroad could soon be the new outfit generating the riffs rocking your iPod. The Rough Trade gig is a small date on a current slew of bigger gigs promoting the album. Today, an enthusiastic crowd of east London trendies. Tomorrow, the world. Raph takes a swig of his lager (“I’m properly English now, I drink beer, watch football and sit at the computer in my underwear”) and smiles contentedly, as if positive responses from enraged Foo Fighters obsessives – rather than being torn to pieces - is no more than he would have expected. As if his band have found their rightful place in the rock hierarchy. Heading upwards. Underground Railroad are an interviewer’s dream – Raph’s effervescent and enthusiastic; Marion and JB are quieter, more sardonic. They banter and bicker like a gaggle of exuberent sixth formers. ("What do I bring to the band ? Dictatorship !" declares Raph. "Yeah, and I bring the burgers", riposts JB insouciantly.) Try keeping a straight face when you’re talking to them – it’s impossible. But for all that, they’re deadly serious. They had to be even to get this far. Each and every stinging chord of ‘Sticks & Stones’ betrays the boredom of growing up in the south-western nether regions of Paris, obsessed with Nirvana and frustrated by a music scene that accomodates, says JB, "reggae, rap, metal, chanson, mainstream stuff - everything but what we like." They got together in the fall-out of two going-nowhere bands during their rehearsal studio’s annual two-month summer break, after a sequence of events that sounds like it came from a Ben Stiller script. Halfway through the story you’re already wondering which characters he and Owen Wilson would be playing: "I was in a shit hard rock band", remembers Raph. "No, not shit hot. Just shit. Marion and JB were in a band that played very bad French pop. They were good, but their singer was awful, like Celine Dion. I remember one time they were playing in a theatre, a sit-down venue. They were doing covers of Christmas songs, and I was at the front, trying to mosh with one of my friends. Just the two of us. We got thrown out by the security guards. It was a good gig." Hauling their acoustic guitars out to the local woods, the only alternative practice space available, they discovered a spark, jammed four fledgling songs into existence, got a debut gig in front of 400 people - and within months were thwarted by virtually everyone living beyond their city limits. In Paris, fans used to seeing UK and US rock bands were more than willing to show them the love. But no one else seemed to care. “They don’t give you a chance in France", says Raph. "You’ll try to put on a gig in a town hall and they’ll say, 'We don’t have rock gigs in this city'." "It’s like Essex", quips JB. "Nothing ever happens." "In the UK you’ve all the big agencies, it’s all about making the right contacts, so we thought, ‘Let’s move to London,’" adds Raph, brushing off the fact they "were so broke when we first got here we couldn’t afford to rehearse. We just wanted the possibility to tour, to get a fanbase." The initial aim was, says Raph, "to not go back to France as failures. We’re going to be playing Paris Olympia and that’s brilliant. My parents think it’s amazing." Now their sights are higher. While recording ‘Sticks & Stones’ in Seattle, they parlayed a chance meeting with Nada Surf into a support slot for their upcoming European dates and they’ve already toured with Dinosaur Jr. "Merv is great fun: 'Hey guys, have a beer,'" says Raph. "J Mascis isn’t very talkative though. It’s like Jay and Silent Bob, and he’s silent Bob. But then after a few gigs he started recognising us: “Oh these three people must be the support band...'" For the moment, Raph says they’d be happy with making enough money "not to have jobs, and to buy new equipment, new synthesisers, so we can experiment. And getting more people to come along and watch us." But then he reels off a future itinerary that suggests a hunger and a work ethic to push things a lot further than than that: "We’re going to tour the album, then in the new year it’s out in America, so we’d like to play SXSW and some other dates. We’d like to play some festivals in the summer, then hopefully take some time off to write our new album. We’re always trying to get to the next level. It’s more fun..." But for now there are more mundane matters to attend to. At ten past seven the interview draws to a close. The band are due on stage in five minutes. !"Right then", says their manager John, walking up and clapping his hands together. "You need to start thinking about a set list." Underground Railroad raise their eyebrows virtually simultaneously and meander off to sort the problem. Their demeanour says it all – if the past few years have been anything to go by, this could prove to be the very least of their worries. Literally. ‘Sticks & Stones’ is out now Check out www.myspace.com/urailroad

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Underground Railroad - Interview

Underground Railroad - Interview

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