Remix compilations of famous artists are tricky.
So when Ghislain Poirier approached me about a new project of his that took this time-honoured idea but flipped it in a hip hop way I was intrigued. One of Montreal’s best-known musical exports of recent times – with over seven albums under his belt for labels like Ninja Tune and Chocolate Industries and regularly involved in his home city’s live scene – Poirier got in touch following FACT’s recent double feature on beat tapes. He had just put the finishing touches to a compilation of remixes of Robert Charlebois’ music, but instead of going the obvious route he’d handled the whole thing as if it was an illegal beat tape of sorts – with the blessing and approval of Charlebois and his label.
For those who at this point are wondering who the hell Charlebois is, and I was one of those, he is perhaps best known as one of Quebec’s most famous musical exports: a musician with a career spanning fifty years, an integral part of the international 1970s psychedelic scene who made friends with everyone from Frank Zappa and Janice Joplin to French legends like Alain Souchon. He is a living monument of the Francophone music world, and among the few French-singing artists not from France to have made a lasting international career.
Tout Egratine is the name of the compilation that Poirier has overseen, and on which he is featured alongside the likes of Oh No, Fulgeance, Kid Koala and a grip of Quebec’s new school of producers. Following our brief email chat I spoke with him on the phone to get more details on the project and its lessons. Read on for a fascinating insight into modern creative directing, the importance of sampling and bridging generational and underground/mainstream gaps with a simple idea.
To accompany this feature Poirier has given FACT four exclusive premieres off the compilation including the remixes from Oh No, Fulgeance, KenLo Craqnuques and Poirier himself.
How did the project start?
It’s an idea I had about a year, year and a half ago. I was working on a similar project as creative director for a singer from Quebec. I was in charge of getting remixes for her original songs, handling the process etc… I took my expertise, my knowledge of commissioning remixes for my own projects, and applied it to another artist. Once it was done I realised I really enjoyed it. And so I thought it would be good to expand that to an older musical figure from Quebec. I had some names in my head, reached out to labels but there was no real interest. And one morning I woke up and Robert Charlebois’ name came to me. I decided he was the one, I reached out to a contact at the label releasing his latest work and put the idea to them. I literally woke up and had the idea at 8am, and by 11am I was pitching it and luckily the contact at the label really liked it. I explained to her that I wanted to do it like a beat tape, that we would be exploring his music in different ways and she thought it was perfect. He’ll be celebrating 50 years of his career next year and I felt that exploring his career via a beat tape was the perfect way to bring together the old and the new, and everyone wins too. So it was quite a natural thing, not forced at all.
You mentioned that you guys worked not with stems or anything like that but with the tracks, flipping them in the same way people have for decades now. Did the label put any limitations or suggestions on what you should use?
It was up to us what to use. The only limitation was tied to his publishing. Some of his publishing is owned by another label than the one I dealt with, so we couldn’t use too much of that. It didn’t really impact on the process ultimately though. We all used a mix of CDs and vinyl as source material. Some of the remixers already had his music on vinyl so they went straight for that, and sometimes I would send them wav files from CDs. In a way it was like doing a legit remix but the illegal way. And I really liked that. It gave the whole project an artistic direction in a way, and made all the music fit a certain style, which is more loop based. It was also good because it allowed me to tell people that if all they got for their remix was a minute, minute and a half than that was fine, as long as it’s good. And to be honest you’ll never really get that kind of feedback when doing official remixes!
It definitely feels more like a traditional beat tape than an official remix album for a famous musician.
Once all the remixes were in it was also my job to try and make sense of it all, which is why I added edits to the final package. On four of the five edits on there I literally just looped up different parts of the original music as is. And on the fifth edit I added some keyboards. My idea was to present the remixes, which include parts of the original tracks with added drums and melodies, and then some edits in the more traditional sense of the term, using parts of a song that isn’t necessarily funky but has a killer segment that can be looped. And I think on some of those you could have someone like Ghostface come and kill it.
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Obviously Charlebois is best known in Quebec and French-speaking countries, but I assume based on your standing as an international artist you want this to go beyond just French-speaking countries. What would you say is Charlebois’ importance as an artist then?
Well I definitely want this to reach outside of just Quebec and France, which is why I asked someone like Oh No to be on it. When I reached out to him I was emailing Egon, from Now Again. And Egon owned some Charlebois vinyl, and I was also talking to someone at Wax Poetics and he also owned the same vinyl. So Robert Charlebois is definitely part of this worldwide crate digging culture. Back in the 60s he was big in Quebec and he also did a lot of stuff in France, he was really friendly with everyone. He was also a good friend of Frank Zappa, and Zappa played on some of Charlebois’ records. He also toured with Janice Joplin across Canada as part of the Festival Express which went down in the 70s – it was a big psychedelic rock tour. Charlebois was basically part of the international scene at that time. We tend to forget that because there was no internet! (laughs)
Did he sing in French and English?
Always in French, but he still fit within this international movement. There’s a funny story actually, one of many. He hung out in California for a while, doing music and also drugs – there’s a track called ‘California’ that was inspired by that period. And he left his guitar behind. Thirty five years later, more or less, he’s watching MTV and he sees the Nirvana Unplugged show. And they must have had a guitarist with them who wasn’t part of the group and as Charlebois is watching this he realises that this guy is playing the guitar he left behind thirty-five years ago! He recognised it because it had a specific strap and other stuff on it that distinguished it from others. So yeah, he got around. He represented Canada in various international competitions too. A friend of mine here has Polish roots and he told me his parents saw Charlebois play in Poland in the 70s. So again, he was part of something big in the Francophone world but also connected beyond it. The psychedelic scene was a real worldwide movement and Charlebois was a part of that.
It’s funny you mention Egon too because the project reminds me a lot of his own work. There was the Oh No album that sampled only Galt McDermott’s catalogue, and he’s done regular beat tapes with Oh No and others pillaging the Now Again reissues and back-catalogue. Do you see this album as fitting that same tradition?
For sure. And the Stones Throw/Now Again approach is definitely a model that I followed for this project. For me it was important to get someone like Oh No on there who totally understands how to flip the past into the present by keeping elements of the track you can recognise. And I found it also very funny to give remix material like this to people who don’t understand French. I wanted his voice, his singing to be used as just another musical element, another sample to draw from rather than something with meaning attached to it because of its words. And funnily enough the first remix that was handed in was Oh No’s.
Where is everyone else from on there?
So we have Fulgeance from France. Elaquent is from Toronto and everyone else is from Montreal or Quebec City.
What I liked about the line up is that you had some obvious names, like Oh No, Fulgeance but also Kid Koala alongside new talent like KenLo and Shash’u who for me are two of the most interesting producers to come out of Montreal’s production scene in recent years.
KenLo was someone on top of my list. I definitely wanted him and knew that he would also be familiar with Charlebois’ catalogue. He was like ‘it’s not even a question, I’m doing it’. And I reckon he probably already flipped him anyways. Again this is a project that allows us to do something we may have already done but legally.
Did Robert Charlebois himself give you any feedback?
The idea was to not involve him in the project until the end. I think that was a wise move, it was a call from his manager and label. They told him about the project but decided to not give him any news until it was done. And when he first listened to the music it was after we got it all mastered. I wasn’t there but he told me when I met him later that he was very surprised because these tracks aren’t necessarily what people might think a remix should be. A lot of people from his generation think of remixes like disco remixes, extended versions type things. These ones are split between being really different from the original songs and having enough elements that you can tell what the original song was. When I met and we spoke about it I think he was very surprised and at the same time amused and perplexed. Basically he told me that he didn’t know that style of music and he was just curious if people liked this kind of stuff! He admitted to not knowing anything about the scenes or styles but when I told him that there were people into this stuff he was very happy. He basically admitted to not having any reference so it was hard for him to really judge it in that regard. And yet it was all fine. It’s something beyond him but he’s happy to see that younger kids and a new generation who probably never saw him live at his peak were able to take his music and reinterpret it like that. He wanted to talk more with me and those involved in the project. I think it was like opening a door into a world he never expected and he loved it.
Well it definitely fits in with this idea of such projects helping to bridge generational gaps.
And it’s not even particularly old music, but it’s fascinating how times goes by so quickly and we forget stuff. Or how we take it for granted in a certain way. We might dismiss it as “oh it was a different time” but maybe that time is still valuable if you put it in a new context. Not just historically.
It’s also what sampling is about in a way. What the practice has become, across all media. Those who defend the practice certainly use this kind of logic to put their case across. It is about shining a light on something again, putting it in a new context and keeping it alive and relevant to new generations. I assume that if a result of this work is a new generation seeking Charlebois’ original music it would be a success for you?
Oh yeah totally. For someone who really knows Charlebois’ music this album is almost like a big quiz. It’s a trainspotting trip. It’s also very significant because it’s about taking something from the mainstream – even if his music was fucked up back then, he is mainstream – and building links not just between generations but also scenes, underground and overground. Who knows KenLo in the Quebec mainstream? No one. But he’s part of Alaclair Ensemble, one of the best rap groups right now, he’s been making beats forever, he’s like our Madlib basically. And I find it fun to put these names together with Robert Charlebois – it’s an interesting mix. I would even say it’s a statement.
The compilation is released by La Tribu on November 25.