It’s a cold October evening in Lac-Mégantic’s Musi-Café, and this writer surprises himself jumping to his feet when the trio onstage – a singer/guitarist who looks like Slash, a percussionist seated on a cajon, and a sax player who looks either like a dandy or a homeless person, depending on your perspective – starts playing the Cowboys Fringants’ “Awikatchikaen,” a song from the 2000 album Motel Capri.

The writer surprises himself further when he realizes he remembers every single word of the song, no matter how opaque and absurd. And although this writer hasn’t listened to the song since the last century, it’s still is among those he’s listened to the most in his whole life, as a teen, when the band’s following album – Break syndical (2002) – established them as the band of an entire generation. That generation was elated that there finally was a band from Québec that wasn’t making music only for their parents.

There would be another surprise, later in the evening, when the trio onstage sang “Marine marchande,” a much more recent tune from the Cowboys’ repertoire (from their album Octobre, 2015), that the entire bar sang along with the band. So, not only have the early songs of their repertoire penetrated the repertoire of popular covers in bars – nearly 25 years after the band was born – but some of their more recent productions have also achieved near-universal popularity.

We speak on the phone with Jean-François Pauzé, the writer of these classics, and he giggles when we tell him that anecdote. “We even have a tribute band!” he says in reference to La Grand-Messe, “the ultimate Cowboys Fringants cover act.” “I actually think they play more than we do! I sometimes get tagged in their Facebook videos, and it’s quite surreal to see kids who are 18 or 19 singing ‘Impala Blues,’ ‘Banlieue,’ and others that even I would be incapable of singing.”

To be honest, a few of the unifying choruses on the Fringants’s new album, Les antipodes, might very well end up in the same position. If I had to bet an old two-dollar bill on which ones, I’d pick the alcohol-fuelled historical hymn to whiskey, “La traversée (de l’Atlantique en 1774)”. In the meantime, here’s the highlights of a very long interview with the band’s main songwriter, on the release of their 10th album.

I always find it amusing when people describe the Cowboys as a bunch of dreamers, when a lot of your more politically charged songs – “Le gars d’la compagnie,” “En berne,” “La manifestation” – are quite a cynical. The first single from Antipodes, “L’Amérique pleure,” is also quite resigned. Are you a cynical person, or do you use cynicism as a tool to shake us up?
“There is a cynical side to the Cowboys. I can be quite cynical, my girlfriend often tells me I am. But what we strive for is to describe our society as objectively as possible, and the world we live in isn’t always pretty. Sure, we do have heavier, accusatory, and pamphleteering lyrics, but that’s balanced by our sense of humour, and our environmental commitment [through their Fondation Cowboys Fringants]. We’ve planted a million trees since 2006, and we still believe things can be changed and fixed.”

Yet, I’m still surprised every time I hear people singing “La manifestation” [“The Protest”]… when they’re actually protesting. It seems like not everyone has listened to the whole song!
[laughs] “That’s genius! But at the same time, it’s OK to take it on the first degree, and to ignore the sarcastic side.”

At the recent 2019 ADISQ Gala, Bleu Jeans Bleu won the Award for Band of the Year. What Bleu Jeans Bleu has in common with you is that they began, like the Cowboys, as a parody of a country band. Les Trois Accords also have songs in that vein in their early repertoire. Why is it, do you think, that each generation has its own parody of a country band?
“I think everyone in Québec loves country but won’t admit it. It might be overly simplistic, but I do think we all have that running through our veins in Québec, so when we can’t admit it, we do it through humour. It’s still true today: our music is still influenced by folk and country, and “L’Amérique pleure” is a good example. Except we fully assume it, now.”

Ever since your previous album, we can definitely feel an increasing influence of Celtic folk-punk bands, like The Pogues.
“We do belong to the larger folk family, but obviously, if we want to renew ourselves, we need to explore other folklore. The Celtic, Breton, and Irish thing is something we’ve been getting into more lately, moving away from the Québec folklore and foot-tapping [music] that we’ve exploited extensively in the past. The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, those bands get played a lot in our tour bus.”

Do you agree with me when I say Karl Tremblay’s talent as a singer is greatly underestimated?
“Karl is an amazing artist, someone immensely sensitive. He always succeeds in inhabiting his characters, and hits the right note in how he sings something. And he’s constantly improving. Let’s be honest, he sang way too nasally back in 1999! He’s put in a lot of work and lost his teenage voice. Now, he has the voice of a mature man, a reassuring voice. That’s what the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conductor said when we played with the orchestra: Karl has a very peculiar timbre of voice, it’s very warm. And he’s such a crowd-pleaser, a great leader of crowds. One or two beers and Karl is on. He knows what to do with his crowd.”

Back in 2004, “Plus rien” came across as an alarmist and ridiculously catastrophic song. Now the scientific consensus on the impact of climate change makes it seem like it was spot-on about our future.
“The funny thing is, I wrote that quite fast. We needed one more song for our album La Grand-Messe. I started tinkering with a rudimentary beat on a beat box, but I had no idea that was the beat that we’d keep, and no idea what the song would be about. Then, I went to a Hubert Reeves conference in Sainte-Thérèse with Jérôme Dupras [the band’s bassist] and Reeves was saying the next extinction of a species might very well be our own, and that it would be the first man-made extinction as opposed to one due to a natural catastrophe. I believe there’s still hope. The problem hasn’t become tangible yet, but as it becomes increasingly tangible, people will wake up and politicians will step in with concrete measures.”

Even Hubert Reeves says there’s still hope…
“Far be it from me to compare Jérôme Dupras to Hubert Reeves, but he too believes we still have time, and that we can reverse this trend. [Jérôme Dupras is also a professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Université du Québec en Outaouais, and a researcher at the Institute of Temperate Deciduous Forest Sciences.] When you have a guy like him in your band, and he says that to you, it helps you to keep hope alive.”

“It’s cool to make a big album or receive awards, but I’ve always seen staying power as the most inaccessible thing.”

I was surprised, the last few times I saw you guys live, at how you still play songs from your entire repertoire. How do you build your set lists?
“When we start a tour, we play as many new songs as we can, and after about 10 shows, things get pared down organically, when we spot songs that don’t resonate with the crowd as much. We have a pool of 15 to 25 must-play songs and every night we pick seven or eight of them. This allows us to not play the same show twice. Plus, with a repertoire of 130 songs, we can also pick more obscure ones. And when someone goes through the trouble of making a big sign with drawings and all that, we always play their special request. It might make only seven or eight people happy in the crowd, but it also makes us happy. Thankfully, we have Karl, the human jukebox, who remembers the lyrics of every single one of our songs, at least partially. To be honest, he fumbles the lyrics of our new songs more than he does the old ones.”

Isn’t it a bit weird that you were never nominated in the Author or Composer category at the ADISQ Gala?
“It’s cool to make a big album or receive awards, but I’ve always seen staying power as the most inaccessible thing. What makes me really proud is that we weren’t a flash in the pan. It still motivates me. I’d love to still be around after 35 or 40 years, like Michel Rivard. But beyond that, I know what I’m worth. I know that when I write a song, I work on it tirelessly, it’s super-fine-tuned, the meter is unimpeachable, and the rhymes are rich. I know how hard I work.”

To me, “Sur mon épaule” is a kind of sequel to “Étoiles filantes.” Even though you wrote that “nothing makes sense, in the end,” I get the impression that what you’re saying in that song is that the only thing that makes sense is the bonds that unite us all.
“There’s no doubt that my rock is my family, and the people around me. That’s my salvation.”

Do you hear a lot of “chansonniers” covering your songs?
“Not as much lately, mainly because we don’t go out in bars after our shows like we used to. But I think I have a special power that makes a Cowboys song play as soon as I enter a store. I swear I hear one of our songs every time I go in a store, yet the person at the counter has no idea I’m in the band that’s playing, even though I’m grinning!”