Dinner Interview with Karkwa
Words by Sarah Silver
When I entered the modest back room of Pianos Friday night, the five members of Karkwa were scurrying to get their equipment set up for a quick soundcheck just moments after arriving in New York. “It’s so funny to see them carrying their own stuff,” remarked a Quebecker fan who happened to be in town for the show. “In Quebec, they have a huge team that sets everything up.” Indeed, everything is bigger in Canada for Karkwa, who formed in 1998, and whose most recent album, Les Chemins de Verre, won last year’s Polaris Music Prize for best full-length Canadian album. Lucky for me, they are still obscure enough here in the States that I had the pleasure of talking with Louis-Jean Cormier (lead vocals, guitar), François Lafontaine (keyboards, vocals), and Stéphane Bergeron (percussion) over an intimate dinner.
SS: Have you had a great deal of success in France?
L-J: We haven’t had mainstream success, but we’re capable of filling venues in and around Paris. We’re well known in Quebec. Polaris was our big break. Before we didn’t really think we could tour Anglophone countries. But we toured Ontario last month with Plants and Animals, and it went very well. It’s very new for us to tour and speak English.
SS: And what has the reception been like in the States?
L-J: There’s nothing for us in the States! (laughs) No, this is our second time in New York and we played at SXSW three weeks ago, and it went very well. But we don’t want to do American college tours. We prefer to play at festivals and just do one-off shows. We make a good enough living from our music in Quebec and we want to tour other places. Also, we are all fathers, we have kids at home and we’ve toured a lot in the past 10 years so we just wanna take it easy and be more selective.
SS: How did you guys meet?
FLF: Stéphane, Louis-Jean and I met studying music at Cégep St. Laurent, a college in Montreal. We started playing at the college and just entered contests. We never won anything.
SS: And how did you choose the name Karkwa?
L-J: At the first contest, we had to choose something quickly and we did what I call the blind dictionary trick; close your eyes and put your finger in the dictionary. It’s a strange name, Karkwa. In English it means quiver [of arrows]. It sounds like a Native American word. This spelling was the international phonetic spelling of the word “carquois,” so it was in the dictionary with brackets. For a while we tried to keep the brackets.
SS: It seems that your writing exclusively in French plays a big role in marginalizing your music here in the States. Would you ever consider writing in English?
L-J: We’ve never considered writing in English because, as you can hear, we’re not that good at it. French is our first language and that’s the way we think, the way we dream; we live in French, so it’s easy for us to play with words and create poetry. Also, it gives us a unique edge; it piques people’s curiosity. When we were in Austin, we met Sigur Ros’ manager and he said:”You sing with your heart and you are unique. You don’t have to sing in English. What you do is very universal.” And we agree.
SS: I read that someone is translating your songs into English?
L-J: Someone translated four of our songs for a special project with Radio Canada. It was Jim Corcoran, an Anglophone singer from Quebec who has always done music in French. And the singer of a band called Land of Talk, Elizabeth Powell, sang these songs with us. It gave us the idea that, for future albums, we should include English translations of the words in the artwork of the CD.
SS: Your lyrics are like poems; each line is so well thought-out. Are there poets who inspire you?
L-J: Yeah, but I’m not a huge reader, I don’t read a lot of novels or think much about poetry. Though I did work on a project involving the poems of Gaston Miron. It’s a bit shifty, what happened, because I never really dove into his work, but it got under my skin somehow. He’s a great poet who had a very particular way of phrasing ideas and I think that has inspired and influenced me, but in an almost subconscious way.
FLF: He’s an emblematic figure in Quebecois poetry. He’s one of the first poets to speak about Quebecois people and Quebec itself. There were singer-songwriters before, who sang about Quebec, but he was the first to put it into poetry.
L-J: There’s a rich tradition of poetry in Quebecois song, like Gilles Vigneault, Félix Leclerc, Robert Charlebois and Jean-Pierre Ferland. In terms of Quebecker poets who are still alive, there’s Patrice Desbiens, a really incredible guy. There’s Marie Laberge. These are great authors. But I’m not an assiduous reader. I should be.
SS: Who are your guys’ biggest influences for this last album? I read somewhere you love Philip Glass, and I definitely hear that on songs like “La Piqûre.”
FLF: Yeah, I was really into Philip Glass and Steve Reich stuff, but also folk and rock music.
FLF: We listened to a lot of jazz when we were young. We still do.
SS: How long are you here for?
LJ: Two days. We’re gonna play tomorrow after the premiere of a film produced by Julia Roberts, Jesus Henry Christ. They chose one of our songs for the movie. We’ll go to the premiere, and then play at a private party afterwards. With Julia Roberts.
Stéphane: We will play “Pretty Woman” four times.