Les Cowboys Fringants just released Octobre, their ninth studio album in 20 years. Even though the band members are now considered veterans of the scene, they have no intention of growing old and indifferent in their cozy suburban environment.
It all started in L’Assomption, a small town of about 20,000 located about 45 minutes northeast of Montréal – when there’s no traffic. Picture a high school sometime in the mid-‘90s. Jérôme Dupras is the mascot of his cohort. Every day, the young bass player scours the school’s hallways and gives bear hugs to everyone, boy or girl. Students are on their guard: everyone knows that Dupras can pop out of nowhere and grab you at any time. Everyone also knows about his comedic country band because their guitar and violin players—Jean-François Pauzé and Marie-Annick Lépine—also attend that school.
That day, Jérôme was walking towards me during recess, a huge grin across his face. I was bracing for impact, convinced I was his next “victim”.
“Olivier, we need a drummer for the Cowboys Fringants. There’s a jam going down on Friday. Would you like to play with us?”
As a grunge-fed kid into Weezer, Nirvana and Hole, this drummer obviously thought that country was, at best, uncool. Moreover, the rapid-fire snare drum acrobatics typical of the Cowboys compositions seemed a little too complex for my abilities. I immediately answered back: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I believe that fact that moving back towards socially and politically engaged songs is in no small part dictated by the fact that we’re all parents, now” — Karl Tremblay
Twenty years later, the Cowboys Fringants have released nine albums, selling nearly a million units in total, won 11 Félix awards, and toured extensively in Québec and Europe. I’m sitting across the table from the band in La Tribu’s (their record label) offices while I reminisce about this potentially life-changing offer. “We only knew two drummers, back then: Dominique Lebeau and you,” Dupras remembers. “One of you accepted the invitation and I don’t think he has any regrets even though he’s no longer with the band.”
Now all on the cusp of their forties, the four musicians and singer Karl Tremblay can be called veterans of the scene. “There’s no doubt that when your band was around in the golden age of the cassette tape, you’re a veteran,” jokes Tremblay referring to 12 Grandes Chansons, the very first, cassette-only, Cowboys’ release launched in 1997. “Thanks to Jaromir Jagr, we also know that veterans can be very good at what they do and stand out among their younger peers,” says Dupras.
Built to Last
Try as you might, I dare you to name even one other Québec band that has been active without interruption for 20 years, while maintaining a constant level of popular and critical acclaim. According to the bass player, “a very large part of that longevity is due to the fact that we have had an incredibly loyal audience throughout the years. It’s easy to keep going when the demand is there.” That holds true not only in Québec, but in Europe also, with the band giving on average 12 overseas shows each year. “When we play in Europe, we play 1,500- to 6,000-capacity venues,” explain Jean-François Pauzé. “We’re so lucky, it’s like we’re rock stars. We tour major cities and get to major venues on our tour bus. And that’s with zero help from commercial radio stations. It’s all word of mouth.”
For Karl Tremblay, a big part of this is linked to the fact that the band never moved to France, like so many Québec artists trying to break the European market. “If we toured over there six months out of every year, we’d surely play smaller venues because there would be more shows. We prefer a densely packed two-week tour, instead. We whet people’s appetites even though it’s not really intentional. Now that we all have a family life, we don’t wander away from home for too long. That too helped the band stay together for so long.”
Another of the band’s secrets for success: no one member of the band carries the weight of the whole group on their shoulders, because none of the band’s songwriters are front and centre. “Jean-François writes the songs, I sing them. Since we need each other, this prevents any kind of ego-tripping. We’re aware of our respective roles.”
Yet, things haven’t always been this harmonious. In 2002, when Break Syndical came out, the Cowboys were young, hot-headed and impetuous. Their respective roles were not as clearly defined and everyone tried to upstage everyone else during the recording sessions. Says Marie-Annick Lépine, “Time taught us everyone’s strengths and roles. So much so that for this new album, we asked external producers – Gus Van Go and Werner F. – to help us evolve beyond our safety zone, and that was a first. They taught me to work on my arrangements with the specific song in mind and not only according to my impulses or personal mores.”
Now established in New York City, Gus Van Go, the ex Me, Mom and Morgentaler stalwart, is mostly known for his rock productions (Trois Accords, Vulgaires Machins). Anyone would be hard pressed to predict his intervention in the Cowboys Fringants’ country universe. “We wanted to go outside Québec,” explains Pauzé. “Over here, all the record producers know what we sound like. And even the ones that don’t know us have a preconceived idea of what our music is like. That’s why we wanted to work with Gus. He knew nothing about the band. It did us a lot of good sonically.”
It is indeed true that a song like “Les Vers de terre” and its tex-mex twang is a departure. Same goes for the hypnotic blues “Mon Grand-Père,” or the undeniably Pink Floydian finale, “Pub Royal.” “We did get a lot of help from our drummer, Pierre Fortin, for the arrangements,” adds Lépine.
Does that mean that the current drummer is taking a bigger role in the band than was expected (a few musicians have taken turns in that role since Dom Lebeau left)? “He’s taken exactly the role that we hoped he would” says Lépine. “We gave him carte blanche for the rhythm section, and his ideas greatly influenced our songs. The album’s opener and title song, “Octobre,” started out as a ballad. He suggested we speed it up, and that’s the version we used on the album.”
Even though the band is exploring new musical avenues, fans won’t be on foreign ground when it comes to Pauzé’s lyrics. Here, his flair for creating characters – “Marine Marchande,” “La Dévisse” – is equalled only by some of the most politically engaged texts of the Fringant’s repertoire to date. He takes no prisoners when the time comes to criticize our individualistic society. One might think Québec society hasn’t changed a bit since 2002’s En Berne.
I’m appalled by our society’s utter apathy,” says Pauzé. “Instead of coming together, we isolate ourselves in consumerism. As if our individual growth could be defined by what we purchase. Maybe it’s some kind of nostalgia for the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I long for a society that’s motivated by forward-looking projects, especially with regards to the environment, an area where Québec has everything it takes to become a world leader.”
That’s all well and good, but aren’t the band members at risk of being assimilated by this apathy, all of them being parents and mostly suburbanites? “I admit we can’t honestly say that none of our songs apply to us, too,” says Pauzé. “I do live comfortably and I don’t know that I could sacrifice much of that comfort. Contrary to what many believe, I’m not some kind of schoolmaster. We’re citizens of a Western country that comes with a certain level of comfort. That doesn’t mean we can’t ponder the future.”
In their defence, the group has never stopped supporting the Fondation Cowboys Fringants – which contributes to reforestation activities – since its creation almost 10 years ago. Dupras is the Foundation’s president, and to him one thing is clear: “The 21st century will be the century of cities, much more than that of provinces or countries. And since neither Québec nor Ottawa are putting any kind of social project, it’s in communities that things are happening. Urban areas are picking up where others left off, and an incredible number of citizen-led initiatives are making our cities more pleasant.”
For example, thanks to the Cowboys, 10,000 new trees were planted in the Centre de la Nature de Laval after a benefit concert in April 2015. “Karl came back from the inauguration all teary-eyed,” confides Lépine. “That forest will grow at the same speed as my kids,” adds Tremblay. “In 20 years, I’ll take them there and show them what dad and his friends did. Actually, I believe that the fact we’re moving back towards socially and politically engaged songs is in no small part dictated by the fact that we’re all parents, now. When people talk about climate changes in 2050, it seems far off in the future… until you have kids of your own. My kids will be my age in 2050. What kind of world are we leaving behind for them? Will they benefit from the same opportunities we did?”
Just as a veteran player is a natural leader in a sports locker room, the Cowboys Fringants are natural leaders because of their assurance and direct action.
You can watch an excerpt of this interview here: