As marriages go, it’s a decidedly unlikely one. Caravan Palace is in love with the soundtrack to the Roaring ’20s as it is obsessed with the new millennium’s most banging of genres. The brilliance of the band’s third and latest album, Robot Faces, is that it’s hard to know whether to reach for a Mary Pickford cocktail or the Molly, the songs fusing mammoth house beats and trance-heavy synths with hot-jazz horns and Prohibition-era vocals.
The Paris-based electroswing outfit makes finding the right balance between the old and the new sound effortless. But reached at a tour stop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, violinist and programmer Hugues Payen suggests that sometimes sonic appearances can be deceiving.
“We meet a lot of young composers who are a lot better than us technically on computers,” he says, on his cellphone and speaking with a Parisian-cool accent. “Sometimes that’s depressing, but we at least have the advantage of age. I remember when I was young there was no cellphones and no Internet and we were all very happy. We didn’t know that 10, 20 years later the world would change very fast. We’re too old for computers to ever be natural for us, and they are too young to know everything. But we’ve been able to cheat our way with things. We had to learn how to make music with computers, and it took us so long to do that.”
Over the course of three full-lengths—Caravan Palace came out in 2008, Panic in 2012—the band has indeed excelled at beatmaking, its brand of electroswing built on a solid foundation of classic house and trance, and then jacked up with sepia-toned horns and vocals. On record it’s so insane it works, with “Aftermath” sounding like a mashup of Moby’s Play and Benny Goodman’s The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings, and “Comics” crashing from yellowed jazz to Kid Koala–quality scratching before heading for the finish line with a flourish of Old West saloon piano.
Caravan Palace started out as a studio project, the origins of the group going back to double bassist Charles Delaporte bringing in Payen and guitarist Arnaud Vial after being tapped to do the soundtrack to a ’20s-vintage porno movie. All three were playing in a throwback Gypsy jazz band, while dabbling in electronic music composition on the side. By the time they were done work on the movie, they realized they were onto something, eventually ending up on the crest of what would be known as electroswing.
“When we began the project, we didn’t think of doing it live—it was supposed to be a studio thing,” Payen says. “But we made a live version, and people loved performing as much as we did composing in the studio. Our beautiful singer Zoé [Colotis] is an actress as well as a singer. It’s a tough job to be an actress and a singer, so from the very beginning we tried to put in theatrical aspects to the concerts. That made it feel really live.”
And it’s that live show today that explains much of Caravan Palace’s popularity. Google the band’s name and “Rock It for Me + Live at Le Trianon” on YouTube, and you’ll get an instant primer on how Caravan Palace brings wildly disparate worlds together with an effortless ease. The video’s midsong swing contest rocks as hard as the giant on-stage gramophone.
“It’s important for us to give a good experience to the public,” Payen says. “People paying for tickets want a good show, so you have to make them happy. And here in North America, people get happy very quickly when you give a lot of yourself—when you are totally into what you do.”
Caravan Palace plays the Vogue on Sunday (June 12).