Clap your hands and say Yé-Yé
The ‘sad sacks’ of Eux Autres bring their sunny pop down from the cold city
There’s the old adage that less is more. Not a bad one to live by considering it has worked quite well for everyone from respected German architects to snotty blokes in punk rock bands. That maxim has definitely been used effectively by a pair of handsome siblings named Heather and Nicholas Larimer, who make up the pop duo called Eux Autres.
It started when the two moved to the musical hub of Portland, Ore.—Heather was learning the drums and her younger brother Nicholas played guitar. They began writing songs—some in French, some in English—and in 2004 released their debut Hell is Eux Autres, a collection of sparse, garage-pop tunes heavy on boy-girl harmonies, ramshackle guitar and drums with plenty of feel-good handclaps. The album, recorded by Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Death Cab For Cutie) and Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss, gave a nod to the early-’60s Yé-Yé artists like Jacques Dutronc and Françoise Hardy and attracted a lot of attention in the States and Canada. Pretty good for a couple of kids from Omaha, Neb.
Eux Autres has just released Cold City, a more layered set of sunny pop wrapped up in wry lyrics, and will head out on a short jaunt down the West Coast.
Tell me about growing up in Omaha.
Heather: It’s hard to generalize about Omaha because, like most American cities, it’s become highly suburbanized. But we grew up in a cool, old neighborhood close to downtown—the same area where Alexander Payne likes to film. It was very Catholic and yet relatively liberal, although conservative compared with much of the country. We both went to Montessori School, which was really music- and rhythm-oriented. We also played Suzuki violin, and our dad played the banjo and sang to us. So we grew up making up songs about stuffed animals and action figures.
Being a teenager in Omaha, you had a feeling of being outsider, that no one at school liked the same music as you. That’s probably changed a lot, now that Omaha is cooler and the Internet has revolutionized the rate at which culture travels. Just as I was leaving Omaha for college, there started to be a lot of bands in town, a lot of sweaty shows at F.O.E. halls and polka halls. The kids Nick’s age—the one’s who grew up listening to that first wave of Omaha bands—they were the ones who revolutionized the scene by starting Saddle Creek, etc.
I’m crazy about Omaha. I’ll fight anyone who slags it. It’s Eastern European, bricky, rivery, but then there’s a bit of Wild West—like Chicago meets Cheyenne.
What did you two listen to growing up? Did you have similar tastes?
Heather: Well, I influenced Nick’s taste in music because I was the eldest. I was attracted to skaters and other quasi-marginal people. That led me to punk music, things like Minor Threat, and regional post-punk like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü. Of course, I loved R.E.M, too. Then, in 1991 Pavement came and played the Eagle Hall. I was one of about 20 people there, and it changed my life. The idea that these preppy boys could be playing jagged, disillusioned music made it seem possible that I might have something to contribute to the world.
How do you decide if a song is written in French or English?
Nicholas: Neither of us really speaks French all that well. I guess that’s part of the challenge. When we started out, I think that maybe writing songs was a little overwhelming, so it made it easier to come up with rules that would kind of confine things, narrowing down our options. Using just a guitar and drums simplified things. Then we thought it would be interesting to just write in French, thus limiting what we could write about and how we could say it. It was more about the sounds we were making with our voices. Then we figured out that we weren’t really interested in having every single song sound like that. We wanted to sing about other things.
I guess now we just get a feeling pretty early on in the songwriting process if it’s going to be in French or English. If we want something more spare, where we don’t obsess over the lyrics, then it’s in French. Everything else is in English.
Still into Yé-Yé?
Nicholas: We still love that stuff, but I guess we’ve been listening to more music from the ’70s … and revisiting a lot of the stuff we liked in the ’90s. I’m not sure if it’s affected our music or not. It’s hard to tell. Some of the songs on the record have been around for a while.
Where do the ideas for songs come from?
Heather: They usually start with a guitar part. Often that has a specific vibe, a hue. Next we usually write vocal parts using only sounds, not words. And then we brainstorm subject matter. We’ve been friends for decades, so we can riff off each other indefinitely. We’re both kind of sad sacks with wise-cracking exteriors; we have a similar orientation to the world. I’m much more literal than Nick, however. I’ll just come out and say, “You dicked me over, man!” in a song. Nick tends to couch things in metaphor.
If you could only add only one of the following to a song, which would it be … tambourine or handclaps?
Heather: I’m going to say tambourine since I began my musical career as a somewhat violent, unpredictable tambourine player.
You worked with Jeff Stuart Saltzman again on the new record. Were you looking to keep with the same sound?
Nicholas: We wanted it to have the same feel, but a little more fleshed out. Nothing big, just a few more instruments. This time, I think we were more into throwing in random things that we thought would sound cool—harmonica, mellotron, violin, even the occasional bass. We worked with Jeff again because he’s an awesome engineer, we like the same music, and he always contributes a lot of great ideas. He’s pretty much the third Autres.
Two years ago, you said your mission statement was “Eux Autres wants to break your heart.” Is it the same today?
Heather: Eux Autres wants to break your heart, and then help you learn to love again.