Life with Lola…
As Lola Dutronic, the Toronto/Düsseldorf electronic duo of Richard Citroen and Stephanie B have carved out an impressive career of engaging pop tunes. Originally conceived by Richard Citroen to combine his love of ‘60s French pop with modern electronic music, Lola Dutronic’s music pulls together a talent for melody, witty lyrics and a captivating vocal style to form a catalogue of electronic pop with a unique sense of charm.
Their 2015 album Lost In Translation presented the band at their best, particularly with their scathing commentary on modern cultural conceits such as reality TV and social networking.
Lola Dutronic have certainly been prolific this year. They kicked things off with a sequel to their 2012 song ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’. The tune’s blackly humorous lyrics about how musicians appear to enjoy their best attention only once they’re dead got a contemporary update in the form of ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead (The Sequel)’.
The pair followed this up with their take on ‘Male Stripper’ (with Man2Man) and they’ve just released their newest single ‘My Name Is Lola’.
Their latest outing continues the duo’s talents for crafting accessible electronic pop with engaging melodies. Essentially a love letter to Berlin, ‘My Name Is Lola’ is a track that Richard Citroen describes as “a bit of a departure from our usual ‘Wall Of Sound’ approach, we’ve taken on some of Alle Farben & Robin Schulz’s colours”.
Originally, the pair had planned to record the lyrics in Stephanie’s native German. But translating Richard’s English lyrics proved unworkable, so they left it alone. “We did manage to include German shout-outs to all our favourite Berlin haunts!” adds Richard.
The Electricity Club spoke to both Richard Citroen and Stephanie B on life in Lola Dutronic. Ich bin Lola!
What are the pros and cons of working when the pair of you are in separate countries?
Richard: Apart from the technical marvel of recording over the interwebs, about the only pro I can think of is the time difference. I’m a morning person and Steph’s a night owl, so when we record together, it’s lunchtime at my end and early evening at hers, so that works out well for both of us.
Cons are that it’s hard to capitalize on any local interest and it’s very difficult to organize live shows – mostly because of the expense involved – although we have managed it a time or two with our friend and unofficial 3rd member, Dirk Krause filling in for me on the European dates.
Stephanie: Richard already said it all – yes, finally being a night owl comes in quite handy!
How does the process of writing new songs start?
Stephanie: As Richard is the mastermind behind the project and writes pretty much everything, I come in rather late in the process. When he has finished a couple of songs, he sends them to me with a guide vocal and some notes, and then I start recording my parts.
Richard: Once we’ve sorted out the keys properly, Steph then adds her vocals and her sometimes amazingly elaborate harmonies and sends them back to me, where I mix the whole thing.
We usually Skype each other before going for a take to sort out what kind of mood to go for etc., but the harmonies are always a total surprise.
It’s not 100% foolproof. We’ve binned a number of songs that haven’t worked out properly, but I’d say our hits to misses ratio is about 80%.
Lola Dutronic has moved on quite a bit from the early days of covering French pop. How do you view Lola Dutronic today in terms of what defines the sound of the outfit? Or is it a continually evolving process?
Richard: It’s a definitely an evolving process.
I liked doing the French pop thing, mostly because I love the sound of the language, but it started to get old, and a friend of mine came up to me at a gig in 2007 and called us “adult contemporary” and I thought to myself, “I’m not having that!”, so I started to rethink the whole thing. So much so that the next time we played live, the same guy congratulated us on our “raw sound”. A bit of splash and buzz and four-on-the-floor can work wonders, you know?
Whenever I’ve revisited some of our early albums, I’m struck by how dirgey a lot of it is, which was quite surprising, since it didn’t seem so at the time, but nowadays we’ve definitely got a much more Eurodisco sound than we ever used to.
Of course a lot of that has to do with Stephanie being German… which is a language I’d like to utilize a bit more in the future.
I think it’s really important to move forward to the best of your ability, and while it’s an easy trap to live in your own particular bubble, I do try to stay on top of what’s happening in the charts. Of course for all I know our next record might end up sounding like The Chainsmokers, although somehow I doubt it.
“All my friends will tell you that I’m a bit of a wise-ass and I thought it might be nice to get some of that into the songs”
There’s a very particular sense of humour to some of Lola Dutronic’s songs, I’m thinking in particular of songs such as ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’ and ‘Go Fuck Yourself’. Are you ever worried about any negative response your songs will provoke?
Richard: I initially started writing songs like that because, apart from the fact that I’d gotten fed up with writing “Moon & June” type lyrics, I wanted to get some of my own personality into the songs. All my friends will tell you that I’m a bit of a wise-ass and I thought it might be nice to get some of that into the songs. People don’t seem to mind, and if they do, apart from the usual tiresome online haters, they’ve certainly kept it to themselves.
Stephanie: Richard is a hell of a storyteller, not only in his lyrics, but also in real life. It is always very enjoyable hanging out with him, and I’m glad his very particular sense of humor, as you put it, finds its way into his songs. I guess people who cannot relate to it, simply choose something else to listen to.
Was it a strange experience revisiting ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’?
Richard: Slightly strange, yes. For years, whenever a high profile musician died, we’d get people suggesting that we add a verse about them. People like Lou Reed etc., but we didn’t think it was such a good idea. This continued right up until the end of last year and still we resisted, but the final straw was George Michael dying at Christmas. All of sudden a couple of artists that I know and respect got in touch and suggested that it might not be such a bad idea after all, so I thought, screw it, let’s do it!
From a musical point of view, I liked the idea of revisiting the track so that I could incorporate some of the production techniques I’d developed over the last couple of years and finally mix it properly.
Stephanie: From the technical side, yes. Once I finish a song, it is finished, and that can even go so far that I even forget the lyrics again, unless I prepare for a performance, because of course I don’t listen to my own stuff day in day out. So re-recording a song that had been already finished a couple of years ago was something new, and I wonder what will happen when we play it live in the future, now that I have so many verses to choose from!
Were there any artists that you considered, but didn’t make the cut for the new versions of ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’?
Richard: I thought about including Carrie Fisher because pretty much everybody loved her, but she was a film star and I wanted to stick to musicians.
Greg Lake was a possibility, but despite his epic talent and the fact that ELP is what got me interested in synths in the first place, he always irritated me on a personal level, so he was out.
However, I did manage to include a little nod to Keith Emerson in the synth break. Too bad nobody’s noticed yet!
Since I wrote the first version very quickly, I wanted to do the same with this version, but if I’d taken a little more time I would have probably re-written the George Michael verse and not gone for the cheap joke, because even though a lot of his music was a bit too middle-of-the-road for my liking, I loved George Michael. However, I stand by the Prince lines, which everybody seems to like.
Do you think that the ever-changing landscape of the music industry makes it increasingly difficult for new bands?
Richard: We’ve got what I like to think is some sort of profile, but we get asked to perform for free all the time, so I can’t even imagine what it must be like for new bands just starting out.
“It’s getting to the point that only people that come from money can afford to get in the game”
Certainly those pay-to-play multi-band bills with a half dozen bands seemingly chosen at random is no way to go.
I’m not the first person to suggest this I’m sure, but given what people seem to expect in the way of production values on stage now and the high costs involved for even the simplest shows, it’s getting to the point that only people that come from money can afford to get in the game. Now this is fine when it’s someone who is actually talented like Lana Del Rey, but the day is coming when it’s going to be someone with no discernible talent buying their way onto a label and into the charts.
Stephanie: I think what makes it hard for new bands is that there is such A LOT OF music around. There are not only a few big idols, but hundreds of thousands of artists competing for the audience’s attention on the different music outlets, and many of them are actually good! So you get new music offered each day, narrowing the attention span for each artist, album or song down more and more. I myself discover new bands through Spotify playlists each day, and the albums I have saved are now so numerous that I can’t listen to them all anymore. Many of these artists are self produced, and I guess that also many or most of them cannot make a living from releasing their music and playing shows. Recording at home has become very affordable, and musicians are producing great stuff all by themselves, but in the end they HAVE to, as it has become even harder to MAKE money with your music in a field with so many others to compete with.
What are your thoughts on crowdfunding schemes for music, such as PledgeMusic and Kickstarter?
Richard: We’d start one tomorrow morning [to] finance a tour, but I’m afraid we’d probably only raise not much more than a tenner, but I think it’s a cool thing if you actually need it. However, I think that it’s a disgrace that they allow Amanda Palmer anywhere near it. She certainly doesn’t need the money.
Stephanie: If you know who your fans are and how to address them, crowdfunding can be a very good tool for you. But if you have 100 Facebook fans and are hoping that you can attract new fans by a crowdfunding campaign, because somebody “discovers” you between all the other Kickstarter projects and is convinced by your music to give you money, forget it. You need loyal fans who will buy your CD anyway, because they will help you producing it by giving you the money in advance. Otherwise, you risk your image with a crowdfunding campaign that did not raise the money you needed.
I have no problem with Amanda Palmer doing crowdfunding, she does not take anything away from any other artist, and rather gave an example to us how it needs to be done.
Lost In Translation features some quite scathing critiques on social networking and the phenomenon of reality TV. Do these reflect your own thoughts on these aspects of modern life?
Richard: ‘Reality TV’ is a song I co-wrote with my friend Manoush, who is a cult-film actress and singer in Germany, so most of the lyrics are hers. However I certainly agree with the sentiments, as it’s a mystery to me why anyone would watch people like the Kardashians. They don’t seem to do anything, and we’re watching them not do it.
As for social networking, well it’s really taken over everyone’s lives hasn’t it? I’m itching to pick up my phone right now! It is weird how it’s brought people both closer together and further apart at the same time. Certainly it’s not doing the greeting card industry any favours, is it? I wish people happy birthday on Facebook all the time, but I can’t remember the last time I sent anyone an actual card in the mail.
Stephanie: Yes, WHY do people watch the Kardashians – I also don’t get it. But although I don’t “get” many of the trends out there these days, and it has always been that way, I guess from time to time one also needs to get vocal about it. My own social media use is pretty limited to Facebook, but I only log in there once a week or so, I have less than 100 friends there, and Facebook surely is not how I stay in touch with them.
I see most social media outlets as useful tools for (self) promotion rather than a way to connect with my friends.
What does the future hold for Lola Dutronic?
Richard: No idea. Just keep going and hope somebody notices… although I think we’d both love to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest. I’m British and Stephanie’s German, so why not?
Outside of the joint interview, we also quizzed Lola Dutronic’s team individually to explore the band’s history and the equipment they use. Richard Citroen reflects on past and muses on the elements that make Lola Dutronic work – and also his thoughts on the late Marty Thau. The former New York Dolls manager, who also worked with Suicide, was an important figure in Lola Dutronic’s history when the band signed to his newly revived Red Star record label in 2010…
What originally inspired you to do such unique versions of classic French pop songs?
Richard: I was messing around on my computer doing some Moby-type tracks and one day I thought it would sound cool to have a French girl singing on it, so I sampled up some old Francoise Hardy records. They sounded cool and so I sent them to a label in Vancouver. They weren’t interested because of the licensing issues, but they did ask me to have a go a remixing Katrina & The Waves’ ‘Walking On Sunshine’ for them. Somewhere along the line I realized that the resulting dub-ish type track fit perfectly with Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je Taime No Moi Plus’. The finished remix wasn’t releaseable for technical reasons, so I hit on the idea of redoing it with my singer Frankie Hart, who spoke French. While this newer version was much brighter and poppier than I had originally planned, Lola Dutronic was born!
Can you talk a little about what instruments and equipment you use in the studio?
I have a pretty minimal set-up that’s really starting to show it’s age.
The usual iMac, DAW (Acid Pro 6) and M-Audio interface with a couple of synths (MicroKorg & Yamaha EP340), plus a Fender Stratocaster and a little Vox amp, plus a couple of outboard FX units.
I’d love to get a Nord or some of the new Korgs & Rolands and maybe an Arturia synth.
Just something to broaden the palette a bit, although I must confess I’m not much of a gear head.
What do you think Marty Thau brought to Lola Dutronic that you still think is important today?
“Marty taught me how to make a record properly and to think outside that little indie box”
Marty taught me how to make a record properly and to think outside that little indie box. Having been associated with some proper hits in the past, he viewed everything through that prism. While he was under no illusions about the commercial viability of some of the acts on Red Star, we both agreed that if you don’t think your record is a hit, why should anyone else?
He also got me to appreciate the beauty of Suicide, who up until that point were only of historical interest to me.
What are your thoughts on the fact that Canada has been putting out some impressive bands and artists in recent years? Are there any that stand out particularly for you?
I’m assuming that you mean people like Austra and Pirate Coleure and while they’re cool, the one Canadian act that’s impressed me the most is The Weeknd. I work with a lot of local Toronto acts, rappers/singers mostly, and about 4-5 years ago, I started getting people asking me if I could make them sound like The Weeknd. And I’m like… Who? I’d never heard of him, so I checked him out online, and was really impressed. Some of his stuff was barking mad like the one where he does his thing over that Portishead machine gun track. I mean who does that?! Around the same time we both appeared in a round-up article of cool acts out of Canada, so I was happy about that, so I generally kept an eye on him.
I’m really pleased with his recent chart topping success. I hear him everywhere I go.
German-based singer and musician Stephanie B provides the mesmerising vocals for Lola Dutronic. Here, she reflects on her background in music and how her distinctive vocal style was developed for the band…
Can you talk a bit about your background and interest in music?
Stephanie: I have always rather been a verse-chorus-bridge kind of person, meaning I like straightforward pop tracks. However, I got kind of stuck in the ’60s. I like a lot of what comes from this time from Francoise Hardy, Frankie Valli, Jackson Five, Serge Gainsbourg, and also film music by the likes of Francis Lai, Lalo Schifrin and others, as well as a lot of Bossa Nova. Masterful use of songwriting skills and harmonies, and this underlying melancholy…
Today, I also listen to electropop acts as well as acoustic singer songwriters. And I kind of find pieces of all of this in Lola Dutronic.
You’ve got a very distinctive singing approach which certainly appears to reference that classic French style. Do you draw inspiration from any particular singers?
Well, I guess most has been said already with my previous answer. I have been inspired by certain music and singers, but when I joined forces with Richard, we developed the current style of Lola Dutronic together.
Germany has its own rich musical history, but are there any more recent German artists or bands that stand out for you?
I have to admit that I am not so in touch with what is really popular in Germany right now – it is male pop-rock with German lyrics and all sounds the same to me.
The Electricity Club extends its warmest thanks to Richard Citroen and Stephanie B.
‘My Name Is Lola’ is out now.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.