Philippe Katerine – better known to French music fans as Katerine – is not just renowned for his own fantasy-filled albums. He has also written flamboyant compositions for the likes of Anna Karina, Les Sœurs Winchester and his partner Helena Noguera and penned highly original lyrics for Bertrand Burgalat. With the eccentricity of Annegarn, the temperamental nature of Dutronc, the romantic approach of Barouh and the atypically seductive nature of Gainsbourg, Katerine has carved out his own special place on the French music scene. This week the authentic dandy releases a new album, his sixth to date, which revels in a glorious mix of psychedelic pop, nostalgic jazz and Pierre Henry-style electronica. RFI/Musique investigates:
RFI: Given that we live in a society where work is held sacred, it's interesting that on your new album you choose to defend the right to idleness! Katerine:
Well, what did you expect? That's how I am, you know, it's the way I live my life. I'm not a hard-working type and that's all there is to it. I enjoy making songs from time to time, but let's not exaggerate. My thing in life is lounging around, that's where I get my real kicks!
RFI: But that's also an artist's role isn't it, to swim against the tide and defend a controversial point of view? Katerine:
You've only got to turn on the TV these days and it's all work, work, work. Even on a programme like "Star Academy" they hammer home the message that you've got to work all the hours God gives you if you want to make it in the music business! I love hearing them bang on like that. It's obviously not something I put into practice myself but it gives me a good laugh!
RFI: Gainsbourg was also renowned for writing odes to idleness. Basically, it's a way of shaking up the status quo, isn't it? Katerine:
Well, let's face it, France is a country of workers and one of the biggest problems right now is unemployment. But I have to say, I was unemployed once - and it was one of the best periods of my life!
RFI: But you can't go round saying that, right? Katerine:
Apparently not. If you do you get some very strange looks. Being out of work is a terrible thing.
RFI: There are two very original characters who guest on your new album - Général Fifrelin and Boulette. Are they real people or is it your own voice filtered through a machine? Katerine:
No, no, they really exist… General Fifrelin is a general who writes songs and Boulette is a little girl who does her own songs. I've met them both and I can attest to the fact that they're both totally original characters!
RFI: So in a way you've decided to use part of your new album as a springboard to launch new talents… Katerine:
Yes, I see it as a way of opening doors for other artists, promoting the songs I love. Général Fifrelin must be – I don't know really – not far off 70 I guess. He's been writing songs since 1975 and he's got a whole stack of fabulous tunes, a lot of which are actually very unusual. He's a pretty ambiguous character really, he's got a grotesque side to him but he's also very touching. As for Boulette, she's this feisty little 11-year-old who sings in a sort of punk group with a bunch of other young girls. RFI: So your new album is really "Katerine from 7 to 77"! Katerine:
Yes, I think I've covered the whole spectrum.
RFI: Seriously though, it's rare for a singer to invite other artists to perform their own songs on his album. Juvet did it a long time ago, letting Balavoine sing his first song Couleurs d’automne on his album… Katerine:
Did he? In my case, what I really wanted was to give these other singers total freedom of creativity, you know, let them indulge their imagination to the max. That's why we decided on this rather original way of getting them involved. After the track Le jardin métallique
it's almost as if you've got this concert going on with special guest stars. And if listeners like Général Fifrelin and Boulette's music they can access all their other songs via Internet. We have this website where you can stick the album in the computer and check out their songs on the site.
RFI: I get the impression that you're someone who loves the idea of paradox and contradiction… Katerine:
Yes, and I'll act like that in conversation too! I'll be defending this one idea and then fifteen minutes later I'll turn round and say the exact opposite. Take what we were talking about earlier, for instance, when I was defending the right to idleness. If you'd caught me at another moment I could have defended the opposite point of view! That's just the way I am, I'm afraid. But believe me, it's not always easy!
RFI: So besides defending the right to idleness you also defend the right to philosophical U-turns? Katerine:
Yes, exactly. And if you ask me it doesn't do any harm. "It's only the stupid who refuse to change their opinions" as we say in my neck of the woods!
RFI: There's one song on your new album, A la lune, which really stands out with its soul influences... Katerine:
Well, I'm someone who loves dancing…
RFI: I didn't know you were the sort of guy who hangs out in discos…Katerine:
No, I'm not. I'm someone who likes jigging about at home! I put a record on and just dance away to the music. And as dancing's one of my great passions in life I wanted people to be able to dance to some of the songs on my new album for once.
RFI: Why do you say for once? Katerine:
Well, it's not something I'd ever really dared do before. This time round I really wanted to get people's bodies moving, you know. And that's something that's actually pretty new for me – although, having said that, the songs on my new album are more the sort of songs you dance along to in the living-room with your wife and kids! But I'd love it if this time round my songs actually did work on the dancefloor.
RFI: Listening to your new album it's a bit like "Roll up, roll up, step into Katerine's Big Top!"…Katerine:
It would be wonderful if people actually did take the album that way! When we were working on the album, I imagined it as a sort of big party or a circus show – because it does have a sort of baroque, excessive side to it somewhere. That's the image I had in my head when I was working on the final mix, in any case. When I was sticking all the tracks together I felt it was a bit like a big show with all these different acts going on. And that fitted in with my desire to make a totally mixed bag of an album this time round. RFI: One thing's very clear when it comes to your music and that is that nothing's manufactured – there's no notion of you mapping out a career plan or making neatly-formatted hits! Katerine:
Well, luckily for me, those just aren't the sort of questions I bother myself with. Let's face it, if I were a bit smarter I wouldn't make this kind of music at all. If I wanted to roll out the hits I'd go elsewhere! The way I work is to completely let myself go and give into my dreams, my fantasies and my gut feelings. Basically, I believe that if I'm passionate about what I do then other people will be too.
RFI: You made your first album back in 1991 and you've recorded another five or six over the past ten years. It must feel very reassuring to build things up in such a slow, steady way… Katerine:
I don't know about reassuring. I'm always afraid that each album's going to be my last! I never know if there'll be another one or not. As I said before, I honestly don't have any kind of career plan in life. It's funny actually I've come to realise one thing over the past ten years and that is that when I started out in this business I didn't actually write many songs. But these days I do more and more – and the more I do the more I want to do! It's become a sort of bulimic, addictive thing with me.
RFI: And what about your attempts to play Pygmalion like Gainsbourg? Katerine:
Well, personally, I don't feel like I'm manipulating anybody - and I'm not sure Gainsbourg ever manipulated the girls he wrote songs for either! I think there's always an element of control and manipulation in the image of Pygmalion and I can honestly say that's something I'm not attracted to at all! The way I operate is much more wrapped up in notions of seduction and tenderness.
RFI: If we were to compare the Katerine who started out in 1991 with the Katerine of today, what would you say has changed?
Katerine:Well, I'd say the Katerine of today is much freer, for a start. When I started out in this profession I was a bit of an 'old man' inside, but these days I feel a lot younger! When I began my career I had a lot of personal problems to work out. I was painfully shy when it came to talking to people. I used to go red al the time, you know, it was horrible! But writing and performing my songs over the years has helped me free myself of all that.
Katerine in concert : 11 November at Olympia - Paris and 15 November on Alain Pilot's radio show "La Bande Passante " on RFI at 15h40 Universal Time.