ProgressoR / Uzbekistan Progressive Rock Pages

Interviews of Prog

Jean-Luc Payssan & Thierry Payssan

VM: Hello Thierry, hello Jean-Luc, and welcome to ProgressoR. Above all, I'd like to congratulate you and all of your band mates on the long and successful activity of Minimum Vital. After all, the band has existed already for nearly 20 years! First please tell me of your relations with music from the very beginning. How and when did you become familiar with music? What were your favorite music and favorite musicians at that time? Did any of them have an influence on your creation?

TP: The very first time we found some music amazing, it was in 1973 or 1974. In those days we loved that British pop, "teenagers oriented" band, called the Rubettes. We were fans, but we were only 9 years old! After that, we discovered the Beatles, one step higher of course! But the real artistic shock came for us in 1977 (we were 13), when a school friend lent us "Relayer" by Yes. It was pure magic, happiness, like a sacred revelation. Until now, and I guess for all our lives, we're linked to this moment. "Relayer" is our musical Grail! So, this was, of course, a strong influence when we began to make music by 1980. But, at the same time, we were very interested, since childhood, by all sorts of things regarding the Middle Ages, especially music. The strange thing is that we never really listened to that kind of music, simply because in those times there was nearly no bands or artists playing it. Most musicologists' think that music history began with Johannes Sebastian Bach and that, before him, nothing was really interesting. This has changed a lot of course, and it's great! But when we were young, there were very few chances to listen to this music. So we just imagined how it could have sounded, what it could have been like, and we were surprised later, when we found some records, that it was very familiar to us!

JLP: I think that later a band like Gentle Giant also had a major influence on us. This is not only one of the most creative progressive bands of the 70s, but the only one who really succeeded to mix rock and "early" music. And the way they used counterpoint, vocals, jazz or even contemporary music is absolutely miraculous.

VM: Have you any special musical training? (I am almost certain you have.)

JLP: Thierry had piano lessons at the age of 15. Thierry wanted classical training because at that time, he was fascinated by the Tony banks style (he still is!) and it was evident to him that Tony Banks studied classical music, as you can hear in the beautiful piano part of Firth Of Fifth for example. So Thierry had classical piano lessons. I decided for myself to study the classical guitar. I did it for three years and I never regretted it. Classical guitar is just fascinating. In fact, I went to the electric guitar much later. Even now, the acoustic nylon string guitar remains my favorite instrument. I've always admired rock guitarists that play the classical guitar, like Steve Howe, Steve Hackett or Philippe Cauvin in France. I've played some solo acoustic pieces in some MINIMUM VITAL albums: Porte Sur L'Ete (in Sarabandes) or Prelude Aux Oiseaux Tristes (in Esprit d'Amor) which are early music oriented, and I hope to release a solo album based on the classical guitar and the lute in the future. But you know, we, Thierry and I, never considered ourselves virtuosos. The only important thing to us is the spirit of the music I mean what lies behind the notes. That's why the only moment we practice our instruments is when we compose together. So we have no special musical training, our only goal, our only joy is to compose music, then to play it of course!

VM: Were there any bands or projects that you had participated in before you formed Minimum Vital?

JLP: Well, as soon as Thierry and I had instruments in our hands we had the foolish idea of forming a progressive band! But first we had not the technical ability to do it at all. So for a short period of time, by 1979-1980, we formed a teenage band with friends called Rocking Chair, just to learn to play. You won't believe me but at the time the material consisted in songs like Be Bop A Lula or many popular tracks by Elvis Presley. We were funny to look at I think, because our singer looked like a rocker from the 50's, and you had those two shy twins brothers wearing hippie clothes, long hair and pretending to be Gene Vincent. It was funny, but I'm afraid we were very bad musicians in those days!

VM: Here is the question that many connoisseurs of your creation ask themselves with, myself included. Why did you call the band Minimum Vital? (Personally I think the name Maximum Vital much more suits the music you perform.)

TP: I know this name can seem strange, especially in English. But actually, in French the "minimum vital" means the minimum salary you have to earn - or the only real important thing you keep with you when you've lost everything - to live. For us, it's music, so we chose this name, as a joke. In the beginning, the name of the band was "Concept", and we would have certainly kept it if another band in the south of France (don't know if it still exists) hadn't taken it. So we had to change in 1985 with our first recording. To be honest, we thought about "Maximum Vital", which could have been a wordplay joke, maybe better I agree. I don't know why we did not keep it! But, after some moments, the meaning of the name disappears, and only the music stays, so it's not really a problem.

VM: We have very little information of the band's history, at least in English. How Minimum Vital was founded? Please tell me the story of the band from the very beginning and up to when you started working as Vital Duo.

JLP: Well, as you said it's almost a 20-year long story! It's difficult to recall such a long period of time, but I will try. We began as a straight instrumental progressive band under the name of CONCEPT in 1982. At that time the band consisted in Thierry and myself, our trusted - and current - bassist Eric Rebeyrol and drummer Francois Peron. In 1983 we got two new members: Anne Colas on flute and Antoine Fillon on drums. At that time we were fond of jazz-rock music and the Canterbury scene, with bands such as NATIONAL HEALTH, GONG, HATFIELD AND THE NORTH. After a lot of rehearsals and only one single stage experience, we suddenly won a rock competition in 1984 and had the great opportunity to record a demo tape in a 24 tracks studio in Bordeaux. This tape was released, as you know, under the new name of MINIMUM VITAL as Envol Triangles in 1985. The same year we got in touch with Bernard Gueffier of the MUSEA label, who had heard the tape and was impressed enough to co-produce a new LP. Meanwhile, Anne and Antoine left the band for musical reasons. So we got new drummer Christophe Godet and recorded Les Saisons Marines for MUSEA in 1987, that was more progressive and less jazz-rock oriented. To me Les Saisons Marines is a very immature, not very well played and recorded album for sure, but it contains good tracks such as Pour Le Temps Present or La Tour Haute. I think in this last one, there are influences of medieval music in our work. This track could certainly have sounded better if we had a good sound engineer at the time! That's the reason why we re-recorded it many years latter in the VITAL DUO album, where it sounds much better. Between 1986 and 1988 we toured as MINIMUM VITAL and began to gain certain recognition in the progressive scene. By 1989 we went to Perigueux (south of France) to record our third album in a new studio, with excellent sound engineer Jean-Paul Trombert. For me Sarabandes is the first real MINIMUM VITAL album, and furthermore was the first to be released in a CD format, in 1990. By 1991, we had the idea of a new kind of music. We began to introduce vocals and worked on an imaginary, meaningless language, just like the French band MAGMA did in the 70s, but in a luminous way. We also wanted the music to dance and swing, but not in a commercial way of course! That's where the idea of La Source came from. La Source took most of one year to record and was the most difficult and painful album we made. We had problems with drummer Christophe Godet, who didn't feel quite right with our new direction. Above all we suggested to him to play exclusively on electronic drums, which was not a good idea at all! I also felt very uncomfortable in doing the vocal parts, and that's why we got help from Jacky Withren, a professional vocalist. Looking back at this album, I think it contains creative moments, but sounds too cold and electronic to me. In 1993 we began to play La Source on stage with the help of Philippe Cauvin, a great acoustic guitar player who is also a singer and leader of mythic band UPPSALA. At the end of the year, Thierry and I were very unsatisfied and nearly thought about quitting the band. But we had composed new music, and we were sure we could go one step further on the La Source direction. So we had no other choice but to form a fresh, new MINIMUM VITAL! We kept Eric Rebeyrol on bass, and got drummer Charly Berna and Sonia Nedelec on vocals. This team was the best incarnation of the band I think. The new band began to tour in 1994 and got the opportunity to play at the Progfest Festival in Los Angeles, where the audience reaction was really enthusiastic. We began to think of a new album, but we wanted to present the new band as soon as possible. So we decided to record the videotape called Les Mondes De / Worlds Of Minimum Vital, which was released in March 1995. We finally began to record Esprit d'Amor in 1996 but felt we need a second vocalist. We wanted a mix of male and female voice, so Sonia suggested one of his best students, singer Jean-Baptiste Ferracci. As we were mixing the album, we were invited to play in a huge festival in Rio, the Rio Art Rock Festival. This stay in Brazil was pure magic and it was the most exciting stage experience we've ever had. This event gave us the idea of editing a live album. Esprit d'Amor took a year to mix and was finally released in April 1997. It remains to me one of our best recordings in terms of sound and music. After performing in national and international stages, we returned to our idea of a live album and released Au Cercle de Pierre in 1998. This live album was very special. It was recorded in Bordeaux and it contains very old pieces like Ronde (witch can be found on Envol Triangles) that were rearranged and sound much better than in the studio versions. Therefore this CD contains a CD Rom track with a full, complete bio of the band in English, picture gallery and some videos. So this is a good album if you want to know more of the MINIMUM VITAL story! By 1999 we had new material enough to prepare another album. But as you know, we created VITAL DUO and that was the beginning of a new musical adventure. That's the reason why this new MINIMUM VITAL album, Atlas, was only released in 2004, five years later! Looking back to what we have already done, I would finally describe our music in those terms: a deep influence of YES for the positive spirit of the music, and a deep attraction for folk, early and medieval music. Those two big influences have driven us, year after year to create this actual kind of imaginary folk music I think. But we are always moving on, we try to build our own musical sphere album after album!

TP: I add that we are working on updating our web site at the moment, with a new biography and bibliography, including a picture gallery.

VM: After you released "La Source", many progressive reviewers began considering you on the fringe of mainstream. As you might know, I have a different view on the matter and I like all of your albums. Nevertheless, why did you decide working with song-oriented forms after releasing two all-instrumental albums and "Sarabandes" where there is only one song?

TP: Yes, we know that "La Source", and above all "Esprit d'Amor", were considered as being a few commercial oriented albums by some people. We don't see things like this from our point of view. Our only aim was to make the music better, clearer, more fresh and positive, always being sophisticated at the same time. We wanted to have a real coherence in the frame and harmonies of the songs. This demands much more work and talent to achieve than writing very complicated things, which can easily be - and indeed are, most of times - unbearable! To be honest I don't think that we've reached that point perfectly, but we tried our best in writing "Esprit d'Amor". After having made a lot of instrumental music, we became aware that vocals could give a more human and emotional feeling, and could bring more joy to the music. But as we're not real singers, it couldn't be done until we met Sonia.

VM: Which of the Minimum Vital albums has had the greatest commercial success - by the number of copies sold? And which album do you regard as the band's creative peak? Also, it would be interesting to know whether your earlier works had better sales than those released in the '90s or vice versa.

JLP: In commercial terms, Sarabandes is our best album. We go on selling copies of it regularly. The fact is Sarabandes was a very creative moment for us. If you want the truth I can barely listen to the first two ones, but I enjoy listening to Sarabandes. It contains one of our compositions I like the most: this strange and short song Cantiga De Santa Maria. In this track we tried to concretize what we had in mind, spirituality and energy. It's not only music to me, but also a kind of litany ending in a musical trance. As regards our more recent works, I am very proud of Esprit d'Amor and above all the VITAL DUO album Ex Tempore, because of its deep medieval spirit. This last one opened many creative doors for our musical future I think. Going back to material commercial considerations, I admit we sold fewer VITAL DUO albums compared to what we did with the band. It's disappointing. Maybe many people considered, not having listened to VITAL DUO, that this "band" was a boring, minimal acoustic version of MINIMUM VITAL. This is of course totally wrong! There is a lot of energy in VITAL DUO. But to end the subject, we don't really care about the number of copies we're selling. We would like of course to have major commercial success, but honestly our only aim is to make the music we really love. We just try to be honest and authentic musicians, nothing more, nothing less. After all we're only poor modern troubadours, aren't we?

VM: Why did you stop working with Minimum Vital back in 1999?

TP: We felt that we had to search in another direction to find some new inspiration for the music. "Esprit d'Amor" had been something very important to us, a real change in our work, something we were looking for a long time. When the album was released, we felt a little "empty". So, something new had to appear, and the Vital Duo project came to our mind in time to give us a new direction.

VM: Please tell me of Vital Duo and your work on both of the outputs, CD and DVD, you have released as a duo.

JLP: As I said the VITAL DUO project was an important experience for us. We've always been searching for spirituality in music, and a kind of medieval spirit. Note that we never wanted to be a medieval band! I'm rather talking of an imaginary medieval music that could sound modern, and could mix a lot of progressive influences. I think we found it by creating VITAL DUO. Speaking of the works we've done as VITAL DUO, the Ex Tempore album was released in 2001 and the DVD Le Jardin Hors Du temps in 2003. The album, as always, took a lot of studio work to achieve, because we wanted to sound like a whole band although we were only two musicians. That's why we added a lot of drums, percussion, and vocals and so on, which included many re-recordings. The DVD sounds differently and even better I think, because it represents what we are really doing on stage. The major part of the music on this DVD was recording in one single day in a small chapel, in only one take. There is no re-recording on it, although a lot of people told me they could hardly believe it! That's why I like this DVD: this is VITAL DUO at its most authentic.

VM: Almost all of the compositions by Vital Duo on the DVD are new. Why weren't these released also on CD - as the duo's second album?

TP: Yes, we had this new material, which could have been released on a second album, but it was too soon maybe. We were very interested in working on a DVD project, and we thought that some new tracks could give the project some interest. There was also a new album of Minimum Vital, which had been started (in August 2001!) and was released first. As we are very slow, here we are again with this project of a second album with the Duo in the air. But since we made the DVD (in September 2003) the project has evolved in something new. We have written new music which are in a special mood I think, one step again in a new direction, something very exciting to us, so I hope we can begin to work soon on a new recording.

VM: Did you play live before a large audience as you did with Minimum Vital?

JLP: The audience of VITAL DUO and MINIMUM VITAL is nearly the same. We sometimes played for a large audience with the Duo (for example at the Crescendo Festival in France, or the Mexicalli Baja Prog festival in Mexico). But what is interesting with the DUO is that we can play on big and small stages as well. We could surely play in a small chapel with the Duo, providing a nice, intimate medieval atmosphere, but we certainly couldn't do it with MINIMUM VITAL!

VM: After a few years Minimum Vital was reformed however. What was the decisive factor of the band's reincarnation?

TP: Actually, Minimum Vital was mainly reformed to make the "Atlas" album. This album was the one missing between "Esprit d'Amor" and the Duo's album "Ex Tempore". We should have released it sooner, but it had been impossible for different reasons. We began to write the music by 1998, after the "live" album ("Au Cercle De Pierre"), so it was in a way the continuation of "Esprit d'Amor". We thought that it would have been a pity not to record this music. Before working on a new, different project, which will be the case in the near future!

VM: You are the principal masterminds behind Minimum Vital, not to mention Vital Duo. Do you always compose music together?

JLP: Yes, I couldn't compose music with someone else! Sometimes Thierry can write a totally finished piece of music, but the piece won't be recorded until I had my part on it (not forgetting the contribution of the other members in term of arrangements of course). I also wrote complete songs, but most of the time we compose together. Sometimes I say to myself that we are the two branches of a unique tree.

VM: Let's talk about your lyrics. What is their role in the band's music? What language you use in them? Is this an artificial language, like in the case of Magma, for instance? Or, as I suppose, it is only partly invented and has a Breton dialect in its basis? Don't you worry that your lyrics are inaccessible to a general listening audience?

TP: We like Briton very much, and also music from Brittany. But we can't speak it at all, as we're in the south of France, which was in the past the area of the Occitan language (language of the troubadours). We can't speak it either but we sometimes listen to it. So I think we're influenced a little by it. I don't know really where the words we use come from. It was natural for us, from the beginning, not to use English as most neo prog bands do (I'm talking about those who are not English of course). So, this is our "own special way"! I would say that it's only a musical language, like Magma's Kobaian, where the sounds of the words are only there to fit well with the music. So it's not a problem if nobody understands because there's nothing to understand. The only important thing is the feeling that the words can give to the listener. I think it's a more poetic way to enrich the music. For example, I'm very impressed by the way the words of Jon Anderson give such magic to the music of YES, like in "Close To The Edge", or "The Ancient". Some people said it was nonsense at the time. To me, it is pure poetry! It expands the imaginative strength of what you're listening to. Sometimes, we use real words in French, Italian, Portuguese, even English mixed with imaginary words or sounds. I like this very much, because some sense can be felt then, depending on the people listening, and this sense can be strange, mysterious, or joyful (most of the time I hope!).

VM: Your albums come out once in three years on average. Why? Is music your principal occupation or, maybe, you have a daytime job, which doesn't concern music?

JLP: I think you answered to the question. It's quite impossible in France to manage a progressive band and earn enough money to survive. That's why from the very beginning, we decided to have a daytime job, in order to keep an absolute artistic freedom. Thierry works in architecture, I work in a library and most of the other members are professional musicians. This explains the fact that we need so much time to end an album, not mentioning the time dedicated to compose music, the rehearsals, the stage activity and so on.

VM: It is time to ask you to explain your current musical activity. Please tell me of the process of creating your latest album >"Atlas".

TP: As I said before, the project began some years ago, so the music was nearly written when we began to rehearse. To write the music, we worked as always together with Jean Luc, with elements we brought individually, and also things, which came out with the both of us playing. We always have a little tape deck in our rehearsing room on which we can record improvisations or ideas. After that, we have to put all this together and write bass lines and vocals. Then we work with the other members, first individually and then with the whole band. At this point the role of the other musicians is very important, because every one can try and suggest ideas. I must admit that we are often very direct in the way we present the music to the others, but they however always bring a part of the arrangements. The process of recording was long because we did the drums first, in a professional studio, and then we put the tracks on our own equipment, and record and mixed by ourselves, which was new for us. I have been personally very involved in this work and I liked it very much. Controlling all the recording process and learn about sounds techniques is something I wanted to try a long time ago. It's very interesting but very hard in the same time. We're just beginning to reach a point which is not too bad I think, and in the future it can get better and better. We haven't much equipment, but the elements we have are very good in quality, and we know them very well now.

VM: Can you introduce the members of the band's current lineup and tell us a little about them?

JLP: Eric Rebeyrol is a long time friend. When we met in 1982, he played the electric guitar. We gave a demo tape to him called Movements, consisting of music for a whole album we had composed with Thierry (but was never released!). When he heard it, he was so enthusiastic that he immediately wanted the three of us to form a band. But there was already a guitarist! What we need was a bass player. So he had the guts to sell his guitar and buy an electric bass, just in order to play with us. Soon after, he became a great bass player and he never touched a guitar since then! You can rely on him in absolutely any case. We share a lot of things concerning music and life in general and it's quite impossible for me to think about another bass player for MINIMUM VITAL. Sonia is a complete musician. She teaches music in a private school, and can sing different types of music, including classical music, contemporary music, jazz and rock music. She made several albums with a very interesting contemporary music band called THE DELTA ENSEMBLE, and a jazz album with LES GRANDES GUEULLES, a vocal band who gained certain recognition in France. Jean-Baptiste Ferracci is a professional singer. Didier Ottaviani teaches drums and plays with many bands, but he is most of the time very involved in jazz music. He has a jazz trio called Zazen and contributed to many albums.

VM: Well, Sonia Nedelec is with you since 1992, and she is a brilliant vocalist, in my view. Where did you manage to find her? Will we hear her amazing singing on the band's next album (if such is planned)?

TP: Actually, we met Sonia in 1994. It was after "La Source", in which the vocal parts were mostly a mix between Jean Luc and Jacky Whitren (she was a professional singer we met in the studio). After this experience, we thought it would be great to have a real singer within the band, especially a woman's voice. That's why we began to look for someone at the end of 1993, and very soon, with only one or two phone calls, we met Sonia. She was teaching (she always does) in a music school in Bordeaux, and was very interested to try this experience. She is a person who is interested in many different aspects of music. She is able to sing everything, from classical to jazz, from rock to contemporary music. But we don't know the future of the band. We feel we have to do something new and fresh. The next Minimum Vital album will be very different than "Atlas". I don't know if Sonia will be part of the project. May be she will sing on the Jean Luc album.

VM: All of your albums, without exception, were released on Musea Records. It seems you are happy having a deal with them, aren't you? Did you ever try with some other label?

TP: Bernard Gueffier is a friend. From the beginning, he always did his best to help us doing records. Each time we had a project (I think about doing the first CD, or the VHS video, and more recently, the DVD), he followed us and Musea co-produced the project with us. Of course, we can't ask Musea things we would ask a major label, and with time passing by, we are aware that some things are impossible, like putting a lot of money in promotion, taking all the expenses of a production, etc. The reason of our difficulties is simply that the "market" is not favorable to this kind of music. I mean it's not "in the air". So, spending money in buying advertisements or anything else would lead to nothing. It's hard for some musicians to understand this (including myself in the past). Musicians always dream and they believe that there are so many things to do to promote their music and that investing in commercials will change the situation, but it's not true. Of course, we have to do it a little, but not spend too much money or energy on this. Once, we tried to make a deal with a producer in Paris, in 1993. We thought at the time that the music we were thinking of for the next album ("Esprit d'Amor") could have touched a larger audience thanks to the vocals and the clearer structures of the songs. But the guy was a crook, and in the end we lost money, and we came in front of a judicial court! So we decided that it was better to work with honest guys like Bernard!

VM: As the curtain falls, here is the most traditional question. What's next on your agenda and what are your thoughts on the future of your musical activity in general? Will you ever work as Vital Duo again or you concentrate exclusively on Minimum Vital?

JLP: MINIMUM VITAL is actually working on a 20-min long piece of music for the Odysseus project. The aim is to create music to illustrate a chapter of The Odyssey by Homer. The project will unite nine progressive bands together. Each band will have to illustrate a chapter of the whole story. As you know, MINIMUM VITAL has never worked on such a large scale of music, so this is a very exiting project for us. We have recorded a large part of the music, and we intend to finish it and mix it this autumn. Musea will release the album at the beginning of 2005. Then I intend to concretize a solo album project. It will be an acoustic album based on classical guitar, lute and voices. It will be very inspired by early and medieval music, and will be also ready by 2005, I hope. We also have a lot of material for a new MINIMUM VITAL or VITAL DUO album. So, to answer your last question, we don't really know actually if we'll go on as VITAL DUO or MINIMUM VITAL really. We are at a turning point, I think. Maybe the challenge for the future is to bring the "Vital Duo spirit" in the band. Anyway, we'll be very busy in the future, and I hope that our next works will be surprising to hear!

VM: Thank you very much Thierry and Jean-Luc for doing this interview.

VM: September 1, 2004

Related Links:

Vital Music
Musea Records

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