French duo John & Jehn: 'in England, no-one cares about boundaries'
On 29 March a duo like none of the other new faces on the French music scene released their second album, 'Time For The Devil’. Fans of Joy Division and The Velvet Underground, the couple live and compose in London, which might be why their album exudes the feel of the British new wave
I meet John & Jehn in a chic, modern hotel in the Pigalle quarter of Paris. It is after 7pm and night is falling on a still quite wintery French capital. This interview is wrapping up what has been two full days of intense promotion for the twosome, but they're still all smiles. John and Jehn were romantically involved before joining forces on the music scene, and made London their home in 2006. 'We got together as a couple in January 2005. By July we had started working together, with the idea that we would just chill with some recording equipment and record whatever came into our head. That gave rise to our first EP, L’amour ne nous déchirera pas ('Love Won't Tear Us Apart'). We were happy with the result straight away. It had a very post-punk sound, very Joy Division,' says John.
Things start to move quickly. They send the recording to a friend, SallyGross, who offered it to Rough Trade Shop, a legendary London record shop which has been open since 1976. It hit the shelves immediately. 'It was a massive achievement; we’d fantasised a lot about Rough Trade and that whole English indie culture.' Next John and Jehn began to perform at small-scale concerts, familiarising themselves with the scene in England. Tired of travelling back and forth, in October 2006 they decide to move across the Channel, moving in with Sally, who became their manager. 'All styles of music are confused,' says John. 'England is where we find our inspiration. This intermingling and cross-pollination of groups is mind-blowing. There are lots of styles that clash, lots of different generations and lots of people listening to music. In France there are more boundaries, there’s less mixing. Whereas in England no-one cares! On the same night, you can play with a reggae band, then with a metal group.'
John and Jehn teamwork
In the space of a few months, the duo succeeded in making a name for themselves on the London scene, then in France. Life changed dramatically from when they were first composing in a room in London. 'At the beginning we were a tiny microcosm,' recalls Jehn. 'It was the two of us in London, tossing around ideas at three in the morning. Today we have a whole team of motivated people around us. These people haven’t just jumped on the bandwagon – they are really passionate about working on the project. We had to open ourselves up to them.'
The trick is surrounding themselves with people who really engage with the project, especially with the visual elements. 'Image is something very psychological,' John says. 'The sleeve for the first album was done by my tattooist Joe Moo. For the second album, we got back in touch with Antoine Carlier, who I’ve known for over a decade. We developed this whole universe of graphics and visuals with him and he sort of gave the substance to all those songs, thanks to his visual creations.' It obviously helps to work with people you can rely on. 'We gave him a carte blanche so he would bring his vision to our projects,' adds Jehn. 'That’s what we look for. The result is always just right, even though it’s never what we expected.'
Time For The Devil
The couple's second album, produced by the independent label Naïve, is a creation with more organised moments, and at concerts they often perform together with guitarist Gemma Thompson and drummer Raph. 'We normally start the melodies off with the bass, because we’re looking for a groove,' says Jehn, miming bass, although she’s usually on guitar. 'When we have it, we see how the melody fits over it, and we’ve already got a structure. John’s the one who has the overarching artistic vision, meaning he chooses the instruments and sounds etc. I often sing John’s lyrics because I love interpreting them; they’re really soulful. And we work on the choruses together. Long story short, what John does is to put together the structure, and I do the arrangements, the melodies.'
What a result. Far from the sober darkness of its predecessor, Time For The Devil is much more accomplished. Playful and melodic, you might even say it has a hint of pop about it. The style popped into their heads very recently, according to John. 'It’s what we wanted to do on the first album. But we couldn’t express it, we hadn’t had enough time. We’d already started to work on the second album when the first one was released. We were very surprised, but very happy that the first album brought us so far, but we couldn’t keep on using the same old material. We had to take a big step up with our second album, after all, we had time and a bit more money to spend on it. Anyhow, it’s not exactly a secret. Our career is making music, so creativity is the key, opening yourself up as much as possible, and letting your imagination run riot. We can write songs quickly because we love writing them! We’re lucky because we love what we do.'
First published on cafebabel.com on 11 May 2010
Images: ©Camille Promérat
Translated from John&Jehn: « Il faut être le plus créatif possible »