With the exception of Mitterrand's relationship with Kohl, it's been ages since a Franco-German 'couple' has produced anything sexy. Except, perhaps, for Stereo Total: a poetic and wild duet that has been rife on German airwaves for around ten years. Exactly 14 years, eight albums and 63 songs have recognised the duo's explosive union of German electro-rock and polished French lyrics. Wordplay and kitsch images juxtaposed over the complex notes of the backing music have been developed by this pair of raging eccentrics.
The yin element of the duet, Françoise Cactus, grew up in Burgundy. Née Van Hove, the forty-something Lolita is an all-in-one writer, drummer and singer. Aged 17, she left France for Germany, driven by a desire for escapism and a very definite 'taste' for autochthonous boys. In Berlin, she spent some time working for German left-wing newspaper The Taz before assembling a female rock group. A couple of tours and one broken barrier later, she came upon a certain Brezel Goering. The icing on the cake: the scene of their meeting was played out in front of a bakery in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood.
At the time, Prenzlauer Berg hadn't yet become an El Dorado for bourgeois bohemians, but rather a shady part of east Germany. The pair hit it off, creating a fruitful collaboration from 1993. Alter ego and musical engineer Goering was thus to incarnate the yang element: a nonchalant beau, survivor of the experimental 'Sigmund Freud Experience' compilation, which interweaves minimalist sounds and punk chords.
In their records the partners in crime, who are a couple both on and off stage, broach Gainsbourgian variations on the same themes: love (in 'Liebe zu dritt'), sex (in 'Komplex mit dem Sex') and revolution (in 'of the hormones'); three recurrent themes peppered with irony and nostalgia, and all of this in German, French, English - and sometimes Japanese.
'We like to mix up our influences,' observes Cactus. 'French pop with German electro. In Germany, rhythm is a must. But I still find it easier to sing in French.' All the same, she never hesitates to hum away in German with her 'so charming' accent.
Logically, 'the Germans really like the French. Over there, everything that is French has sexy connotations. Which isn't necessarily true the other way round'. There's a lot of money to be made. Because if the Germans are 'fascinated by the particularities of other countries, this attraction comes to them from being ashamed of their own history.'
Cactus knows 'how to cultivate that old thing called naivety' in her lyrics. She doesn't like 'intellectual music'. Her passion is for 'old, slightly kitsch tunes of the 1960s, Christophe or France Gall. Naïve doesn't mean stupid', she immediately clarifies. 'My style of writing is inspired by Colette, or Gainsbourg's style of equivocal chanson. Behind the naïve lines and risqué choruses, the message is meant to be viewed as 'feminist and provocative'. Most recently, a song taken at random from their new album, entitled Komplex mit dem Sex, gibes at numerous frustrations created by a 'society that's a little too turned on by sex. It's true', adds Cactus, 'we're constantly bombarded with images of orgasming women, on billboards, everywhere.'
'In this porno-chic environment it's difficult to find the right positioning. This trivialisation of sex, as if everybody was into latex fashion or on the look out for a partner, it's really unoriginal,' she criticises. Would this former punk have turned puritan? 'It's boring, that's all,' she remarks. Full stop.
'Messed up' industry
Constantly on the road between the United States and Japan, 'a very particular pleasure with a lot of energy,' Stereo Total released their eighth and most recent opus last June: Paris<>Berlin. Despite their success in Germany, this melodic partnership remains little-known in France. It must be mentioned that the couple are not very enthusiastic about signing with any major labels. 'Massive companies mess groups up,' says Cactus. 'A lot of the time, the people involved don't know a thing about it. We don't want to be mainstream,' she repeats.
But you've got to make your bread. Sometimes. 'The only lucrative thing that anyone's done with us was a cover of our tune I love you Ono for a Sony ad campaign,' says Cactus. 'We don't make music to please people; we make music that we'd like to hear. That's why our recordings seem quite simple and sometimes blunt.'
A lack of recognition in her home country doesn't bother Cactus, who swears she 'feels more French' since she's been living abroad. On the other hand, she admits to largely preferring 'Berlin to Paris.' The city of lights is 'downright depressing,' whilst the German capital, even if not quite as 'cool since the Wall came down,' represents a new El Dorado for many Europeans, who are seduced by its artistic lifestyle and dynamic nightlife. In short, it's the Barcelona of the noughties. 'Berlin is far less elitist and less cold than Paris, even if the architecture is still really ugly, completely destroyed. Property is less expensive and the quality of life is remarkable; there are some really nice areas.'
Far beside the Franco-German microcosm and enthusiasts of Franco-German TV network 'Arte', the duet demonstrates a genuine interest in what is 'European', lamenting only that 'Europe isn't the whole world'; suspicious of commercial 'low-costs' that are steering everybody to travel and 'eventually look the same. The same tastes, same labels, same products...there used to be more differences. The question of European identity is something that can only ultimately be judged from the outside.'
'Liebe zu dritt' by Stereo Total
In-text photos: (Feffef/ Flickr), (Stefanopoulos Notopoulos/ Stereo total), (Uliuli/ Flickr)