Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Françoise Cactus: The (Stereo) Total Picture

Written by Amanda Otto
Photos by Christopher Voy

Making music to drown your sorrow to seems a lot more prevalent nowadays than its counterpart—making music that’s actually fun to listen to! Stereo Total’s new album Cactus Versus Brezel supplies you with just that: tunes that make it hard to keep the smile off your face. The band has kept the same joyful electro-garage pop standard going for the past twenty years, and I was honored to have the opportunity to interview one half of the multilingual duo, Françoise Cactus. Apart from her involvement in the group she is truly a modern-day Renaissance woman and an inspiration to artistically driven females across the globe.

Amanda: You have sung in French, German, Spanish, English, and even Japanese. In the songwriting process, do you ever have difficulties deciding what language to write the lyrics in?

Françoise: Except for Japanese, never! My first language is French because I am French. Second is German because I live in Berlin. Third one is English which I learned from The Rolling Stones Songbook. I’m learning also Spanish and Italian. But for some languages, I just ask friends of mine to translate my songs and to teach me how to pronounce them. That’s how it happened that I was singing in Portuguese, Russian, or Icelandic (which is a PITA!). Generally, I write a song directly in French or German, and sometimes also in English. I never think about it. An idea comes into my head, maybe only a line or a complete refrain. And then I continue writing. French songs are mostly more romantic, German songs more funny, and English songs really minimalist.

Amanda: Since your time playing with your early band Les Lolitas, how has your attitude toward writing music and touring changed? After all this time is music still fun?

Françoise: I love making music and I suppose I will never stop. I want to be like Sarah Bernhardt who jumped on stage as an old lady with only one leg. My attitude toward writing music has changed, yes. When I was with the Lolitas, I wrote more complicated and, in a way, depressing lyrics. [Since], I’ve learned to make [writing music] more simple and more playful, which is, in my mind, a new quality.

Amanda: The name of your new album Cactus Versus Brezel makes me wonder—are there a lot of tensions that arise while making music with someone you’re involved with? How do you resolve disagreements that you may have creatively?

Françoise: Well, the new album’s name was kind of an accident. The guy who made the cover (Klaus Theuerkauf) put this name on it. But it’s true that Brezel and me, who are generally best friends, always get in some arguments when we are making new songs. It’s because we’ve got different tastes and both of us wooden heads. Finally, we come to some agreement, et voilà!

Amanda: Your music takes a lot of influence from the French yé-yé greats of the sixties, many of which were also artistically and romantically involved (Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Françoise Hardy and Jacques Dutronc, Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan). Do you relate to these duos? How does your relationship differ?

Françoise: Oh! I am a big fan of all these couples you named! I wanna write like Serge Gainsbourg, look like Jane Birkin, whisper like Françoise Hardy, be fun like Jacques Dutronc, be cool like Johnny Hallyday (when he was young), and sing like Sylvie Vartan. I suppose that Brezel and me are most similar to Françoise Hardy and Jacques Dutronc, but Brezel is Françoise, and I am Jacques.

Amanda: I have read that you meet Brezel in a bakery. How did that first conversation go?

Françoise: We first met on a Berlin street in front of a bakery. Both of us were living on the same street. Brezel east side, me west side. It was short after the wall was gone! There was no conversation at all. We looked at each other and were interested. 

Amanda: Let’s talk about sex, baby. Stereo Total seems to love using sexual innuendos, and your work has even appeared in the pink film (Japanese soft-core porn) Underwater Love. Why does sex keep coming up in your music? Is this because you’re French? (Pardon the teasing stereotype!)

Françoise: Even if I am not a sex addict (God save the queen!), I really like sexual subjects because they allow a lot of word games, and also, this is true, because I am French. I like to play with French prejudice.

Amanda: Stereo Total is very playfully experimental with sounds. What is the strangest instrument you ever found yourself using on an album?

Françoise: A writing machine. We had a writing machine solo on the song “Dactylo Rock,” which is a song about a secretary in love.

Amanda: Aside from music, you have a number of other talents—you are a published author and your paintings have been in several exhibitions. Have you found these mediums to be satisfying in different ways than your music is? Or is it more a continuation of the same creative expression? When do you have time to sleep?!

Françoise: It is a continuation of the same creative process. I don’t see any differences between my songs, books, paintings, or knitted objects. Even cooking belongs to it! I get enough sleep because I am a fast producer. Most of the time I do nothing and just collect impressions, and then, hop! I do the stuff. This is really helpful that I am no perfectionist. For me, the perfection means: expressing my idea in the best way, but never with the “best” sound you can get in our times, etc. I even like mistakes. Mistakes always inspire me. Not enough wool! Not the right ingredients for cooking! And so on.

Amanda: Berlin has been flourishing as an artistic and musical mecca in the past few years. What has it been like to live there? What are some of the benefits Berlin offers to its artists?

Françoise: For me, it is a long story, because I live in Berlin since the ’80s. Some movements from that time, especially the “Genius Dilettantism” inspired me a lot. Now, we have a lot of tourists coming here because the city has got the reputation of being arty. This is true, but it is also cold and grey in the long winter!

Amanda: The first show on your current tour was in Washington, DC, my hometown! Do you find that first stops on tour you have more energy?

Françoise: I like Washington because this is where Bratmobile and the Make-Up come from. The first shows are always exciting because we try out a set list, we play new songs, we don’t know if the audience will love or hate it, we are at the same time tired and overexcited!

Amanda: Do you have any plans after your tour? What does the future hold for Stereo Total? And for Françoise Cactus individually?

Françoise: We will write new songs and play more gigs! I’m gonna prepare a group exhibition “Monstergirls” with Stu Mead and Jule K., I’m gonna finish writing my handbook for girls who want to build a band, plus my novel about old idiots, and I’m gonna learn to make vegan cookies (even if I am not a vegan). Or I’m gonna sleep a lot and collect impressions.

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