When Nouvelle Vague began their inaugural run of concerts in the U.K. after forming in 2003, Camille and Mélanie Pain, the Parisian band’s then-lead vocalists, had some hesitations. At worst, they worried, unruly crowds might heckle the artists or even assault the stage with projectiles. Even if true, why would a cover band concern itself with such heated revulsion?
“We’ve already got this thing with English people,” responds Nouvelle Vague producer/mastermind Marc Collin, referencing the animosity he perceives between the English and the French. “In a way, we were starting to take their classics and turn them into our own things. [I thought], ‘Maybe they will not like it all.’ They loved it.”
While it’s good to know that the group ultimately never had to undergo public humiliation, the possible aversion makes a lot more sense when you’re familiar with Nouvelle Vague’s approach to the art of the cover. The group transforms sacrosanct punk, post-punk, and new wave standards like the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck,” and The Smiths’ “Sweet and Tender Hooligan” into lounge songs. Less revered names like A Flock of Seagulls and Soft Cell receive the treatment, too, but the experiment remains extremely risky: Wouldn’t drastically altering the style of the originals sap the lifeblood from their primal forms?
Collin and collaborator-in-crime Olivier Libaux understand the dangers, and instead revel in distorting sonic implications. “Bossa nova uses really beautiful jazz chords,” he says, speaking of the form of lounge Nouvelle Vague plays. “Pop and punk songs use simple chords, so it was funny to change the harmonies. It gives the song something else. They are jazzy, more classic in a way. As soon as you hear this beat, you want to dance a little bit. It’s the complete opposite of the originals.”
Much in Nouvelle Vague’s favor, they aren’t shy of taking chances. Instead, these saucy, slowed-down overhauls capture a power of their own. Take their version of “Guns of Brixton” by The Clash: Instead of keeping the reggae-influenced work as a raw, streetwise anthem, Nouvelle Vague twist it into a foreboding fire starter where every word is slowed to kick up the tension.
On Nouvelle Vague 3, their latest record, the band actually managed to convince original artists to rejoin them for rewired incarnations, nabbing Barry Adamson to perform Magazine’s “Parade.” In fact, Collin can recall nothing but positive feedback from his cover subjects. The only exception was Depeche Mode’s Vince Clark displaying distaste for their version of “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but he didn’t mind it when the outfit later covered “Don’t Go” by Yazoo, the project he was in after Depeche Mode. (Collin suspects that Clark’s dislike came from the fact that it was a Depeche Mode song in the first place.)
Having finished dozens of covers since the group’s inception, Collin says that the group’s trilogy is complete. “It was a real tribute to the ’80s,” he says. “We have to change the concept now because we’ve done a lot about this.” He’s pondering a few possibilities—covering contemporary American outfits like Vampire Weekend, crafting a concept album, or maybe focusing on French music.
In the interim, he’s happy to play covers that are miles removed from their famous forms. “We are trying to forget the original arrangement and be free to do what we want,” he says. Neglecting what everyone already knows for the more ostentatious, unlikely vibe of bossa nova is “one of the best ways to do it.”