Interview: Nouvelle Vague’s Olivier Libaux

One of the world's most famous cover bands releases a new album with original music

With yesterday’s release of I Could Be Happy, French band Nouvelle Vague—known for over a decade because of their magical covers of classic songs—does the unexpected: they’ve released original music. That isn’t to say their other offerings aren’t original, but here they’ve written four songs from start to finish to accompany an array of new covers. Unsurprisingly, the original work is just as vibrant as one would hope. The album, on Apple Music now, also features covers of The Ramones and The Cure, as well as Richard Hell (in a lively bossa nova infusion) and Brian Eno. It’s the band’s first release in six years and the choices they’ve made sometimes come as a surprise. We spoke with band co-founder Olivier Libaux for further insight on some of the decisions that went into producing an album different from all the rest.

How does it feel, now, 12 years into a successful music career?

It’s very crazy. It’s very rich. These 12 years of Nouvelle Vague have been so intense. We have traveled all around the world. We have met so many people. To see younger generations getting in our records is both strange and powerful. We feel very happy to offer fresh news with this new album—and a refreshed live show. There are four original songs here, for the first time. Nouvelle Vague was such a cover project from the beginning we couldn’t think about putting original songs on an album. There was a kind of pressure because all the songs we are covering, many of them are classics. When you feel like recording an original song to put with the others, you have to be confident about them. But listening to this record, it’s working well.

These are all recently written and produced songs. My songs are the two ones sung in French. “La Pluie Et Le Beau Temps,” the last song of the album, I wrote last year. I wrote this song because Nouvelle Vague has a partnership with Le Meridien Hotels, and I wrote it to be played in the hotels. Everybody in the band loved it so it’s now ending up on the final album. My other song is called “Maladroit.” I wrote it two years ago. It’s taken from a very French project, a book for children and an accompanying album all in French for the kids. People loved it and we play it live.

Why would the band debut original tracks now?

A few reasons. First of all, we have not put out new material since 2010. We were playing a lot but we were playing the same songs. For some reason, Marc and I couldn’t get to the studio and record new material. So, it’s been six years. Before 2010 we were only a cover band. We couldn’t even consider the idea of original music. When we reunited this year, we wanted to create a new future for Nouvelle Vague. We have proven that we are good at recording covers. Now the challenge for us is to record and write some very good original songs.

Do you have any particular process for creating original music?

I, personally, have always written some songs in French. I released French albums in France. My process is very simple. I take my guitar first. The idea is to find some nice chords. To whistle a nice melody and then I sit in front of my computer and write the lyrics. The two songs on this album were each written in two days. I am quite capable of writing songs. The real thing is to write excellent songs, which is not the same thing.

And what about covers?

It’s quite a long process. This recipe, if there is one, is 12 years old. What’s moving us when we pick a song? Let’s take this new album. The reason behind the presence of the Cocteau Twins song is that I was listening to them so much the last two years. We had never covered them in the past. I remember that when I discovered this song when I was a teenager, I loved it. Then I forgot about it. Two years ago I bought them all again. It’s one of my favorite songs of the new album.

It must be simple; simplicity gets straight into everyone’s ears and stays

Do you know where you will go with it once you select the track?

In a way, it has already been decided. If it is not happening in one or two hours once we get inside the studio, forget it. It must be simple. Simplicity gets straight into everyone’s ears and stays. If it is simple, the angle is the right one. It has to be—not easy but—quick.

Any early expectations for the new album?

First of all, I loved to listen to this album which is quite a good sign. There is a bit of everything there. Actually, you’ve got a bit of usual Nouvelle Vague sounds. Of course there are these beautiful original songs which are a bit of a challenge next to some which are classics. But, I believe there is something here not on previous. I say this because for many people Nouvelle Vague is OK easy listening music, comfortable music. This is true, but there’s also a lot of feelings involving melancholy and sadness. Here, there are songs that are deeper than ever before.

Has there been one moment along the way where you realized, “Oh, we’ve made it?”

There are many of these moments. I thank every day for providing this to me. Especially when you are born in the North of France, coming from a small town, it’s amazing. The greatest thing is when we go on stage. One of my strongest memories was at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010, which was sold out and not by just French people. There were genuine Londoners there. I must say that playing in the States, our first and second tours in 2005 and 2006, we played in these legendary venues, which were sometimes small clubs. There is one in San Diego where we were told Nirvana had played so many times there. It was the same in San Francisco. We played where The Doors played. It’s still amazing after 12 years. I am still the small guy from the north of France enjoying this kind of rendezvous with music and the places where music happens.

Images courtesy of Julian Marshall