From working to keeping healthy and exercising to performing events, doing anything during the pandemic lockdown has been a challenge for many people, and has also forced a change in the way of doing things we would normally have taken for granted.
In this guest blog, Londoner Samuel Deschamps (ex-La Shark) and Berlin-based Jan Blumentrath (Intergalactic Republic of Kongo, Ora The Molecule, Eliot Sumner) tell us about their lockdown experience and, how, despite many challenges, they managed to collaborate on a new project called Ex en Provence. From writing and recording through to making videos and preparing to release new music, the pair explain how it all came together.
1. Lockdown 1.0
“In 2020, during the first national lockdown, myself and long-time producer and songwriting partner Jan Blumentrath decided it was time to start a band. We were in two different cities at the time, Jan in Berlin and I was in London. There were no gigs or recording sessions being booked and limited access to recording equipment due to the government restrictions. However, due to the nature of our relationship, we didn’t feel this would be too much of an obstacle.”
2. How We Met
“We met in London and originally shared a studio in Stoke Newington (in northeast London). Jan had lived in Spain in the hills near Granada for a couple of years touring and we’d managed to write some pretty good songs for artists bouncing ideas back and forth, sending each other audio files using WeTransfer. I also recall memories of Jan setting up a studio in a favela in Brazil with three rappers we worked with (Pearls Negras) using the mattresses pushed up against walls as soundproofing and an old sound-card and microphone. We’ve always found a way of making music with very little resources and working with what we have.
Speaking personally about where I was mentally and creatively during that first lockdown, I’d had a kind of stop-start few weeks of polar opposites. So much time on my hands, yet so much uncertainty and plans falling through it was easy to go from highly motivated moments to episodes of deflation and procrastination.
A typical day could be me trying to learn a language for 15 minutes on Duolingo, playing guitar for 15 minutes, doing yoga then trying some production etc… spending too little time on anything to see any real progress in anything. In a state of anxious euphoria and with a kind of a weight of expectation on my shoulders.
In many ways, this freedom to create was what I’d always wanted (I ordinarily work 35 hours a week in a cocktail bar to support myself). However, the creativity felt somewhat strangled and stifled by the confusion and tragedy in the air. I needed something long term to focus on to have targets and some sense of structure. Also with the glimmer of hope of future concerts and meeting in person again.
We began sending ideas as we often do when writing for other artists. This time the excitement of a release of our own, brought a new energy and urgency to the table. We had no shortage of instrumental musical arrangements we’d written so we would ping these with voice notes just as MP3s on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. I’d sometimes just air-drop these into a project and see what I felt like singing. This could be just a mood in the rhythm, melody or character that we’d latch on to. Sometimes we’d have a whole obscure concept from just a few lines or a hook that we’d expand upon. Most of the excitement would build when bouncing lyrics back and forth very quickly as texts and voice memos.”
3. Online Writing
“‘Counting Down the Suns,’ our first single, developed in just this way. I was locked down on a farm in Leicestershire at the time at my girlfriend’s family home. I had just a compact keyboard style midi controller, a cheap microphone and an interface. It started as a kind of two-chord progression, with Jan sending over a steady and powerful groove. The sounds had a feeling of ‘90s nostalgia. I remember thinking of Pulp and The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony.’ The feeling of anticipation and gravity some of those big ‘90s tracks had as we approached the new millennium.
At the time of writing, the Black Lives Matter movement was intensifying. Extinction Rebellion was also prominent. It was a time that marked a huge sense of uprising whilst the world simultaneously fell apart under the weight of the pandemic. I wanted to write lyrics that had the same optimism of the new millennium in a way, despite all the despair without being too political or latching onto one specific theme entirely. A song about new horizons. A feeling that is now even more prominent than ever before.
Whilst I was developing the lyrics, Jan had enlisted the help of his brother on guitar (who recorded separately in Frankfurt) and a longtime friend and musician Adam Gammage in Northampton. Over the space of two days, we had been sending each other bigger and bigger arrangements and mixes. Tweaking sounds, structure, and enhancing the scale and atmosphere of the song. I was trying to up the stakes lyrically too, the words and delivery became more grand and dramatic verse by verse as the music became more complete.
As the months went by, a body of work that was consistent began to emerge. We’d formed the band with a hope to revisit some old ideas, pitches and jams we’d recorded, but we have a tendency to reinvent our sound and start from scratch practically seasonally. When you’ve been writing for a long time in a partnership or group, sometimes you look back at ideas from several years back and it just doesn’t connect in the same way it once did. There becomes a weird admiration from a distance almost.
Our new single ‘Mrs. Tambourine Girl’ came from trying to write an entire verse from song titles of the 1960s. This became a really fun exercise, jigsawing different titles together to change the narrative and give new meanings. Again, we achieved this by bouncing ideas back and forth erratically over several days although the first verse and chorus came together on one zoom session sat in our respective studios. Many of the themes of the source material resonate with a fight for freedom being felt by many across the world now. We almost felt as though we were tapping into collective conscience despite using words from over 50 years ago.”
4. Meet Up For Recording/Writing Sessions
“We wanted to bulk up the demos from lockdown 1.0 so we found an opportunity during the end of summer on the invitation of drummer Adam to meet for five days in his studio he set up because all his live shows got cancelled. Jan jumped on a plane and we took the train to Northampton. In the studio, equipped with an old synth, a drum set, and some amps, we formed a writing bubble. We were joined by legendary organist and songwriter Greg Coulson. The relief of being back in a room with musicians playing loudly for the first time in so long brought a cosmic energy to those sessions. We had several ideas that had been tried and tested in embryonic form as demos.
Now we had the equipment and the musicians to fulfil our wildest dreams, which took the whole project to a new level. Over the five days, we finished three of our best lockdown entries and wrote three new songs from scratch.”
5. Making A Video
“Now the songs were rolling out and we decided on ‘Counting Down the Suns’ being our first release. But we needed a video.
I found the soonest possible open-air corridor to Berlin. Jan found a video maker friend who already had ideas for a concept and we were good to go. When I arrived in Berlin our video-maker had not made it back home due to another job abroad, he put us in touch with another filmmaker but we needed a new concept and had a very tight time schedule due to a few writing sessions we’d set up, so the idea for the video was dreamt up the night I arrived over a few negronis in Neukölln.
Marta had read a message about global warming in my lyrics which was an angle we thought could work, so we settled on a plot that followed the convoluted journey of an abandoned fridge through numerous contrasting landmarks and idyllic spots of natural beauty in Berlin and the surrounding areas.
Shooting the video itself was hilarious, although it involved the obvious physical exertion of lugging the fridge around several miles a day. We joked that, in that chance meeting of cocktails and ideas, we could have chosen practically any concept (within our modest budget), a party scene? Hired a cool car? But instead, we chose to wake up at 4.30 am and lug around a fridge for several days.
For our current release ‘Mrs. Tambourine Girl,’ we wanted to bring a new flavour and a sense of escapism from our current surroundings in the grey silent streets of Berlin and London. We were approached by a friend we met in LA, Tanmay, who had moved back home to India and wanted to shoot there. We brainstormed with the team remotely over several calls and formulated a storyline about three Indian schoolgirls breaking the rules and revolting against the system. This spoke to the counterculture collage style of the lyrics, and the song and setting were not completely alien due to the sitar-esque repeated melody of the main guitar riff. It was an amazing opportunity to see a story come to life in a new vibrant setting. And to see the song through a new lens. Since shooting the video and finishing the edit, India has fallen into a state of crisis with Covid-19, and we have decided to work with a local Covid relief charity to the area the video was shot.
We did however attempt to shoot a scene on a rented speed boat for an epic finale scene. but we were stopped with the key in the ignition and removed from the premises as soon as they saw us hoisting the fridge onto the boat. Despite our argument that it was for a film to raise awareness about global warming (kind of). In the end, we had to make do with playing a gig on the roof of a van instead. Fine. Anyway, at the time Berlin’s lockdown laws were less severe and we also managed a few fruitful writing sessions, and a short, cautious three-hour road trip to see a friend’s socially distanced concert in Hanover. Nothing makes a band like some time on the road, bonding in unfamiliar terrain! A rare luxury in these times between lockdowns.”
6. Press Team and Release
“Separated again, in Autumn, we got to work approaching a small team for press and radio, our theory was that without any live shows it would be tricky to build a buzz so we could use a bit of a push in these areas. Jan has a small label with a distribution partner that would help get in on all the DSPs (Digital Service Providers). We also put the finishing touches to the first single remotely. I had some vocals that needed improving and found an amazing engineer to master the song in New York (Erin Tonken, who worked as an engineer on the last David Bowie record).
Lockdown two and three and fortunately under government rules I was able to safely cycle to my nearby studio and had a productive month of writing. We also recorded a split-screen rendition of the single live, with Adam on drums in Northampton and Jan on synths in his warehouse in Berlin.
Meanwhile, Jan was running a Vlog and ‘club night’ of sorts, where he put on bands and DJs in an open-sided moving van and played to traffic jams of people and pedestrians, and video streamed!”
7. Finding a Band Name
“The band name was a huge thing for us! For almost six months we were constantly texting us the weirdest ideas and it became an ongoing joke: ‘Hey mate, what do you think of the name Chopin Liszt?’
I remember still writing down options back at work in December, two weeks ahead of the release whenever they sprung to mind (sometimes after hours with a few drinks). One of them, which I still love was Christmas 2020!”
“Once the name Ex en Provence came (a personally nostalgic play on words on the Southern French town Aix en Provence), the last step was building a social media presence. Honestly, social media has never been a strong point of mine, but in the new year we are looking at having a creative and fun approach to it, anything that brings an alien, live, or artistic energy to what can be a repetitive platforms like Instagram is great. We are always keeping an eye out for inspiration.
It’s May 2021 and there’s a feeling that when this is all over there will be an almighty explosion of culture and live music like we may have never seen in our lifetime. But there’s also a sense that things for bands will never quite be the same again.”