A quarter-century after forming Tahiti 80 as college students in Rouen, France, frontman Xavier Boyer and fellow multi-instrumentalists Pedro Resende and Médéric Gontier are still brightening the corners of transcontinental pop-soul-je ne sais quoi. (Raphaël Léger, a member of the band’s live act since 2002 and a contributor in the studio since ’08, keeps the sunshine beat behind the drums.) Boyer graciously agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail about the group’s latest LP …
A desire to return to younger days is front and center in the lyrics of the album’s second track, “Natural Reaction,” and in November it will have been 20 years since you began recording your debut, Puzzle, produced by Ivy’s Andy Chase. What led Tahiti 80 to reunite with him for The Sunshine Beat Vol. 1?
We rereleased Puzzle through our own label, Human Sounds, in 2015. It was the first time we looked back on our career; I think it gave us some perspective. There was something innocent back then. We were pretty young, naive, and ambitious — we thought our songs could become hits! And it happened: “Heartbeat” was huge in Japan, for instance, the most-played “international” song on radio there in 2000.
In a way with this new album we wanted to reconnect with our DNA: a lighthearted feel with big choruses, catchy hooks, complex harmonies, and solid grooves. When trying to sum it up I came up with this made-up musical style, “sunshine beat.”
We started this record on our own, but I knew I wanted someone to help me with my vocal takes. Andy was the obvious choice; we had remained friends over the years and were always waiting for a good excuse to work together again. Obviously, being the producer of our first two albums, he was going to be involved in the arrangements, and it was great. Tony Lash, another longtime collaborator, mixed the tracks. We had a clear vision of where we wanted to go, and we just knew these guys were going to help us achieve our goals.
As songwriters you’ve exhibited remarkable quality control over the past two decades, crafting melodies that aren’t easily forgotten while avoiding the pitfall of “the difficult album.” Do you start each new LP or EP with song sketches left over from previous sessions, or is continuity from one project to another not a concern?
Usually we start by going in the opposite direction of the last record. Ballroom was, by our standards, a dark album, and I had just made a solo record on my own [Some/Any/New, 2017], so the instinct was to work on lighter material and think in terms of band chemistry. Personally I always need a new focus. I taught myself how to play the piano for Wallpaper for the Soul [Tahiti 80’s second album, released in 2002]; this time I experimented with samples and drum loops, which was fun. That’s when the whole “sunshine beat” thing started.
It’s easier to work with a concept in mind. I can pitch it to the guys, and if they dig it we use it as a guideline. “Is it ‘sunshine beat’ enough?” was a common question during the sessions.
“Strung” features audio from a 1968 radio interview with producer Alan Lorber, who says, “The way we constructed this record” — in his case, Orpheus’s “I’ve Never Seen Love Like This” — “was to first lay down the two guitars and the bass and the drums.” How does Tahiti 80 construct its songs? Does one person bring in a beat, another brings in a chorus, and so on, or do the songs only take shape once you’re all together in the studio?
Most of the time I come up with a pretty much advanced demo, Médéric brings some material too, and depending on its quality or merits we use it as such, but we often deconstruct it. Pedro has his remixer role of fixing beats and helping with grooves.
We spent a lot of time rebuilding these songs together, but only a few tracks were recorded as a full band: “My Groove,” “Sound Museum,” which were pretty simple. On the other hand we can spend literally months working on some. With “Natural Reaction” we knew the song had potential, but it went through so many phases and versions that Tony was mixing it and we were still sending him some files!
That’s what I like about pop music: the only truth is the three and a half minutes of music you’re presenting to the audience. That’s why today I find the importance of background stories surrounding albums very annoying, as if the music wasn’t enough in most cases.
You’re Frenchmen singing in English who found favor early in your career with Japanese audiences. What do you make of this rhythmic Rosetta Stone?
Back when we first played shows in France it was hard for us. Indie guitar bands weren’t very popular, and we weren’t rock or electronic enough. The only moments when we seemed to get something from the audience is when we made them dance.
That’s how we developed our sound — we were scared of getting booed! It wasn’t a radical change — we were listening to the Field Mice and Sly & the Family Stone and just thought there was something to do in between.
In 2002 Moira McCormick, writing for the Chicago Tribune, compared “1000 Times,” a single from Wallpaper for the Soul, to the 1970s Philly soul of the Spinners. Being unfamiliar with that group at the time you responded, “When I was writing the song, and just had the melody, it was called ‘Smokey,’” i.e., Robinson. Similarly, when I listen to The Sunshine Beat Vol. 1 I hear echoes of the Cardigans, Timbaland’s beats for Missy Elliott, early-’80s Prince, and even the theme song to The Partridge Family, but which artists, genres, and sounds are actually inspiring you guys these days?
I remember giving that interview backstage in Chicago! When you start writing songs I guess you want to hide your influences and pretend you’re alone in the musical world. But after a few albums you know that your personality lies in how you interpret the influences that shaped you as a musician or songwriter, so that’s why we went full Prince on “Natural Reaction,” or KC & the Sunshine Band on “Let Me Be Your Story.” We’re comfortable with that and feel that people will get the reference. It won’t prevent them from liking the song — they will possibly like it even more.
In “Wonderboy” the protagonist implores his object of disaffection to “Take your stupid mind and spend more time in the Guggenheim.” Although that line probably won’t end up in any of the Guggenheim museums’ ad campaigns, are there any other cultural institutions Tahiti 80 would happily promote with a song if given the chance? “Louvre to Louvre You Baby,” perhaps?
That’s a good one. Let’s ask Grace Jones to sing this “Louvre” track. The Beach Boys would do a great job with “Centre Pompidou,” but since they’re not really around anymore we should do it for them.
The Sunshine Beat Vol. 1 (Human Sounds) is now available on vinyl and CD and in digital formats at tahiti80.bandcamp.com as well as other online retailers and streaming services.
[Boyer photo credit: Sylvain Marchand]