Artists-On-Albums: AOA #17 (Revolver’s Christophe Musset on Elliott Smith’s Either/Or)

Chistophe Musset (Revolver) on…

Elliott Smith – Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars, 1997)

Elliott Smith – Either/Or

In September 03, at 18 years old, I made the hasty decision to study cinema at the university of Nanterre, in a suburb of Paris. I’d never had any ambitions for life after highschool, and I couldn’t think of anything else I’d like to do, so I thought it was as good an idea as any. A few weeks into my studies, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant was released in France. The film made a powerful and lasting impression on me, and I took it as a sign that I’d made the right decision. So I started finding out as much as possible about Gus Van Sant by watching his other films and researching his sources of inspiration. It’s this search that first led me to Elliott Smith: Good Will Hunting featured a few songs from Either/Or (including “Angeles”, my favorite song from the album, which appeared four years later in another Gus Van Sant movie, Paranoid Park).

At around the same time, along with my former classmate, Ambroise, we had started covering songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkle, the Kinks, etc. I taught him what I knew of the guitar, and he taught me what he knew about singing. As a kid, Ambroise sang in the choir of Notre-Dame de Paris, so he had an instinct about harmonies. Because we were living in Paris we didn’t have access to a basement, or any place where we could make much noise. This limitation had a lot to do with the development of our early musical style : we simply got used to strumming softly on our acoustic guitars and singing quiet harmonies.

In the meantime I was really into Bright Eyes—Conor Oberst’s lyrics really touched me, and still do today. One night at home, while searching online, I came upon an interview in which Oberst named Elliott Smith as one of his greatest influences. That was it—after Gus Van Sant and Oberst, I was definitely curious about this guy.

The next morning I took the metro to the nearest music store and bought a copy of Either/Or. Instead of taking the metro back I walked home, listening to the album in my headphones. It was snowing, a rare occurrence in Paris, and I remember thinking how fitting it was for the music. I had time to listen to the whole album twice. It was the most beautiful music I had ever known, so gentle and sad, full of humility. I was stunned by the natural but complex quality of the half-whispered melodies and fascinated by his strumming technique. And the words gave answers, or at least echoes, to some of my most intimate feelings.

Both Ambroise and I were profoundly marked by the album, and it certainly encouraged us to write our own songs. Smith’s approach to the composition was clearly influenced by the 60’s bands we were covering, but the differences made him less intimidating and more relatable: he was contemporary, more rough, his lyrics were extremely personal, his sound not so good, and he didn’t seem very self-assured. Plus, his songs relied essentially on guitars and vocals—the only tools we used at the time. By finding a modern way to reintroduce melodies and harmonies, he opened a door. We’d found a guide.

We spent hours and hours trying to figure out what chords he used and how to play the guitar parts. I’m still amazed at the underlying complexity of a simple sounding song like “Between the Bars”. As for the fingerpicking parts, I must say that I still spend time trying to figure some of them out! In general, I can’t help but pick up my guitar every time I listen to one of his albums.

Strangely, despite the closeness we feel to Elliott Smith, we’ve never actually covered one of his songs. Once Jeremie had joined the group, we tried “I Didn’t Understand” (from XO) together, but we weren’t satisfied with our version. His songs are so personal that it felt somewhat like a betrayal to sing one all together. I guess that for me his music is for listening to and playing alone.

Notes On The Artist:

Christophe Musset

Ambroise Willaume (vocals, guitar, piano), Christophe Musset (vocals, guitar) and Jérémie Arcache (vocals, cello) formed Revolver in late 2006. Willaume and Arcache met when they were six years old, at the Maîtrise de Notre-Dame de Paris, the renowned music school for choristers and aspiring classical musicians. Willaume and Musset met in high school, where the latter taught the former guitar in exchange for being taught how to sing. In early 2007 the trio, named Revolver after a poster of the iconic Beatles album that hung in Willaume’s bedroom, began gigging around Paris: small shows in friends’ apartments, in front of 20 or 30 people. As Willaume describes it, playing in these intimate environments was like music “in the olden days, chamber music – pop de chambre.” By the summer of that year, Delabel/EMI had contacted the young band via their myspace. They were quickly signed, and released a critically acclaimed EP, Pop De Chambre, in France and the US. “It was training for our album,” notes Musset.

Music For A While was recorded in Paris’s Studio Pigalle. Producer Julien Delfaud (Phoenix, Herman Dune), helped Revolver focus but also widen their ideas. The studio environment also helped the band pull together their fantastically eclectic and century-skipping ideas, as well as gave the band the ability to recall the sunshine harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel and the Beach Boys, both of whom the band has always loved. Revolver’s melodies can be traced to the likes of Henry Purcell, 17th century British Baroque composer and visionary, and John Dowland, the 16th century songwriter whose melancholy songs would, four centuries later, influence Benjamin Britten – another Revolver touchstone. Each of these composers and artists defined the popular melodic and harmonic structures of their respective generations, and Revolver offers us a modern take blending each of these pop histories.