Interview with Les Négresses Vertes


Following Les Négresses Vertes triumphant return last year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their classic debut, guitarist Stéfane Mellino tells Gerry Ranson it’s good to be back.

After years dominated by low-rent rock and diminishing returns, the Reading Festival was in need of a revamp. Having found success following the heavy rock revival at the start of the 80s, it had been surpassed by Castle Donnington’s hard hitting Monsters Of Rock bash, and was now having an identity crisis: 1988’s bill found Iggy Pop and the Ramones sharing the festival’s twin stages with Starship, Bonnie Tyler and Deacon Blue. Something had to give.

One of the most successful promoters of the 80s, Vince Power had built on the popularity of his north London venues the Mean Fiddler and the Town & Country Club and was looking to move into the festival business. Reading provided the perfect opportunity. With a background in roots and world music, Power brought a marked change to the line-up, with sets from the likes of The Pogues, Billy Bragg, Mary Coughlan and The Bhundu Boys. Intent on trying out new ingredients, he also introduced a new band, in the form of many-legged French troupe Les Négresses Vertes.

Described at the time as a “French version of The Pogues”, in their crumpled charcoal suits, the men and women of Les Négresses Vertes fused traditional sounds with bawdy barroom lyrics and a robust ladleful of punk attitude. Recently signed, perhaps incongruously, to dance label Rhythm King in the UK, they’d just released a debut album Mlah, and a single ‘Zobi La Mouche’, featuring a William Orbit remix. Not sure what to expect, as the band took the stage after lunch on the Saturday, a bemused audience would soon be won over by their woozy French charm, personified in louche, charismatic frontman Helno.

“Of course we remember the Reading Festival,” laughs founding guitarist and singer Stéfane Mellino when I catch up with the band ahead of their London show in November. “It’s very rare for a French band to play there, but the audience was very cool with us, and we had a big success.”

After a lengthy lay-off, the band reconvened early in 2018 for a tour celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the release of Mlah. It has proved so successful that they decided to go round again and completed further dates earlier this year.

“Last time we’d played together was for an MTV show in Paris in November 2001,” Stéfane explains. “Then we decided to stop for a while; we didn’t know the pause was going to be so long, but with the death of our manager Jacques Renault in 2004 everybody started to make his own way solo. We decided to be back together in order to celebrate thirty years of Mlah. We did our first gig in front of friends in a small venue in Banlieue de Paris called Le Blanc Mesnil and the response was incredible. We saw on their faces that everybody was waiting for that, including us! Since then it’s really enjoyable to be back and playing.” Continue reading “Interview with Les Négresses Vertes”