French music-comedy-theatre-film hybrid Airnadette explain their Fringe 2013 show
The world's biggest airband describe themselves 'the perfect sandwich' of pop culture references
This article is from 2013.
Through their wildly acted-out dubscapes, French music-comedy-theatre-film hybrid Airnadette are either criticising or celebrating popular culture. A bewildered Julian Hall still isn’t sure where the truth actually lies
‘This is happening!’ That exaltation, a favourite of abrasive stand-up Nick Helm, was very much on my mind as I visited the Udderbelly’s Purple Cow in London earlier this year. The cow is the sign that the Fringe is looming, and it turns out that, once inside the venue, this incredulous and affirmative phrase is also totally apt for the antics of French airband phenomenon, Airnadette.
For the first ten minutes, whatever this is that is happening feels hard to grasp. The audience are bemused as they are assaulted by a cacophony of short refrains from well-known rock, pop and rap songs and by classic lines from cult movies. All of which are either danced and/or mimed to by the six-strong troupe, each one the living embodiment of a certain type of music. In short, it’s a bewildering dubscape.
‘The first ten minutes of the show are weird for everyone,’ admits M-Rodz in conversation with me afterwards. M-Rodz is the rap-loving cool chick of the group that also comprises Freddie Mercury-alike Gunther Love, power balladeer Jean-Françoise, Britney-loving pixie Scotch Brit, 70s rocker Château Brutal and alt-rocker Moche Pitt. Also chucked into this very busy mix is the only actual speaking part, producer/MC, scene-setter and costume-change cover Johnny O’Right, a vibrant amalgam of Tony Montana, Alan Cumming and Robert Downey Jr.
Though a simple internet search will spoil the illusion, I’ve been asked not to use the troupe’s real names; mercifully, I am allowed to talk to a selection of them in their offstage personas. It’s admirable that the mystique of this outfit is guarded, and it is understandable because Airnadette are, on the face of it, anathema to identity and personality: everything that makes them who they are is promiscuously borrowed.
Their simple tale of a band’s rise, fall and rise again works for several reasons: infectious enthusiasm, the sextet’s distinct physical types and moves, and the onslaught of subculture reaching a point where all these elements are of the same pitch. It’s no mean feat. ‘The first thing we had to do was find our character,’ explains Jean-Françoise, the lithe, doll-like and depressive beauty of the group. ‘They were all part of us.’
‘Yes, they are an extension of our personalities,’ agrees the equally striking M-Rodz, appearing radically different in her offstage mode, as if morphing from a Vanilla Ice tribute act to an elegant chanteuse. ‘Each of us is an ambassador for a certain type of music,’ she continues. ‘And each one is really different and complementary,’ adds Jean-Françoise.
Finishing each other’s sentences must be an occupational hazard for a group who started out as friends (the girls) having a laugh in Paris cabaret clubs, and drawing in acquaintances (the boys, also actors and musicians, and frequenters of air guitar competitions). They have now been together for five years focused almost exclusively on Airnadette. The work involved in bringing a cabaret act into a full narrative (one that involves, in truth, a minimum of air guitar, and more air drumming if anything) has been intensive. Little wonder, as their characters are pieced together almost as if they were suspects for a crime, taking on identities and sources as diverse as Blackadder and Bobby De Niro, and Little Britain to Apocalypse Now.
‘We knew what we were looking for,’ says M-Rodz, 'but to make our characters whole we had to go through a big box of cult lines. Some fit perfectly. Some of the ones that did not were more cult, and that gave us a difficult choice.’ Trading dialogue doesn’t just stop at individuals either. Jean-Françoise and M-Rodz believe that any given number of the troupe could swap lines and still be coherent characters. Not unlike how music and lyrics dictate the order of which come first, Jean-Françoise admits that sometimes the line led the story and vice versa. The character of Moche Pitt, for example, was cheated on by Scotch Brit in the original French version, but in the English version he cheats on her. ‘There were no rules,’ adds Jean-Françoise, ‘but we had a basic story that we wanted to tell.’
That simple story is, they say, pretty much their own story: ‘a series of happy accidents’ which have so far taken the group from goofing around in cabaret bars, to supporting Camille in celebrated Parisian venue La Cigale, touring the US for a Canal+ documentary, meeting the popular singer M in LA (‘you take things to another level because you don’t have instruments’, he told them) and supporting him for his concerts at Paris mega-venue Bercy.
They are the only airband to have an album out (EMI France seemed up for a laugh by releasing a double album of the full-length version of the songs that are used for about 15 seconds each in their show), and they have supported Garbage, thrash veterans Suicidal Tendencies and LMFAO (who seem like the ideal fit for Airnadette in terms of loopy spirit). The group are about to make a film with a French production company and, as well as their Edinburgh run, they have a Paris residency later this year. A London theatre wants them for a long run too and Las Vegas has also knocked on their door.
‘People think of working with Airnadette as playtime,’ says Jean-Françoise, explaining their allure. ‘Every good idea we have had has come from a joke,’ adds M-Rodz. ‘We are going with the flow.’ There is no doubt that the frivolous French outfit have enjoyed the luxury of choice so far. They don’t even venture a Gallic shrug about the future: they are unconcerned about it, without being over confident. Indeed, why should they be worried about the fickle nature of fame? After all, they’re more than aware that Airnadette are trading on the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture.
To me they are the embodiment of the Pet Shop Boys song ‘DJ Culture’, and they nod when I bring it up. ‘We are living in a time of zapping,’ acknowledges M-Rodz. ‘We consume the culture this way: we have internet on our phones and we eat culture in a quick way. Whatever we want, we have, and the best of it: we put it all together and make the perfect sandwich. Airnadette is an homage about today’s way of consuming; it’s a celebration and a critique at the same time.’
The mass appeal of their cultural mélange is obvious from the response of this midweek London crowd of which I am part. An air of uncertainty dissipates as the audience become more convinced they should submit. This bodes well for Edinburgh during the Fringe where every night is Friday night. Meanwhile, if the fans and band members for Suicidal Tendencies can sing along to their medleys, then perhaps there is no obstacle they cannot leap over with such charm-assisted frolics.
‘On tour in France we often had people say that if they knew what it had been like they would have brought more people along,’ Jean-Françoise says, sympathising with the initial hesitancy audiences have. ‘We are hard to explain on paper. We are not mime and mime has never been rock’n’roll. Air guitar doesn’t cover it. It’s comedy, yes, but also it’s a new form of acting.’
Airnadette, Underbelly, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 3–26 Aug (not 7, 13, 19), 8.50pm, £15.50–£16.50 (£14.50–£15.50). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £10.