“Ladies, wine, and cheese
They’ve always got me on my knees
Now don’t you touch my Brie
You know that French cheese isn’t free”
As rock band mission statements go, the above may not have the anthemic power of “For those about to rock, we salute you,” or the staid memorability of “We’re an American band,” but such is the self-created world of Columbia’s Les Merry Chevaliers.
Formed in Columbia a year ago by Luc Fromage (lead vocals) and Pierre Balz (lead vocals, guitar), Les Merry Chevaliers (The Merry Gentlemen, in half-French) have been slowly gaining notoriety among local rock fans, not the least because to see the band live is to see five grown men dressed powdered wig to buckled shoe as 18th century French aristocrats, not exactly the most common thing to stumble across at a Columbia rock club.
But while this could easily be written off as nothing more than a gimmick to shroud subpar tunes, nothing could be further from the truth. Like The White Stripes before them, Les Merry Chevaliers dive headlong into a memorable shtick while actually having the music to back it up.
Unlike many rock ‘n’ roll gimmicks, Les Merry Chevaliers’ decision to don the jackets and powdered wigs has solid reasoning behind it. Yes, if you’ve spent any time in and around Columbia’s music scene in the last few years, you’ll likely recognize at least some of the players behind the costumes. But that’s not the point. After chatting with Free Times, Fromage insists via text message that their onstage and pseudonyms garb are as crucial as KISS’ makeup.
“We started talking about starting a band and trying to play some gigs for fun,” Fromage says of his and Balz’s early inclination to collaborate. “The discussion became, ‘Why would anybody go see 40-year-old guys play music?’ Even if the music’s good, there’s nothing that’s going to make you go see them. There needed to be something special that we would do to make us interesting. And it was Pierre who said, ‘The name of the band should be Les Merry Chevaliers and we’ll wear 18th century French clothing.’”
Balz takes the sentiment further: “We want to be a band you’d want to see. Five dollars isn’t nothing. So when you pay your $5 to come see us at a bar we’re going to give you a show. … When you come see a band that you don’t know anything about, I think it’s important to give them showmanship.”
“Les Merry Chevaliers is just an interesting way for kind of older rockers to, you know, have a meaningful impact on the music scene without it being like, ‘Here’s the old guys trying to give us the what-for,’” says bassist and musical director Garrique le Freaque. “So the shtick is about making it more interesting.”
And it is interesting. But while the costumes and live-action cartoonish-ness may get people through the door, the music still has to deliver. And with Never Mind the Baguettes, Here’s Les Merry Chevaliers — the band’s freshly released debut — it does. As the titular reference to the Sex Pistols’ only studio album indicates, the music reveals a firm devotion to old-school punk rock — or, in the band’s parlance, punque roc.
The majority of the music takes obvious influence from The Replacements and the New York Dolls above all else (including the latter’s penchant for outrageous clothing). For the most part, the guitars are buzzsaws slicing through power chords without sacrificing memorable hooks. The sense of humor imbued in the lyrics is reminiscent of The Vandals, especially on albums like Hitler Bad, Vandals Good. It sounds juvenile and puerile and pointless on its face — and sometimes it is — but more often than not the band is taking what they do extremely seriously. Just not themselves. Tracks like “Hot Moms!,” “My Butt is Ringing (Is it You?),” and “Ladies, Wine, and Cheese!” are ridiculous in theory, but they’re so much fun and so well-played they couldn’t have been created by someone who didn’t care deeply about what they were doing.
With most of the band members have time-consuming day jobs and Fromage recently moving to Durham, North Carolina, there’s no telling how long Les Merry Chevaliers will last, but the band will keep taking fun seriously for however long that is.
“We want to beat everybody else to the punch by making fun of ourselves,” Fromage says. “You can’t make fun of us more than we’ve made fun of ourselves already. But we practice with seriousness, we play with seriousness, we try to craft songs that are strong.
“There’s a little rule that none of the songs should be earnest, that there should be a spirit of fun in the songs.”
What:Les Merry Chevaliers
Where:Art Bar, 1211 Park St.
When:Saturday, Sept. 9, 8 p.m.
With:The Balsa Gliders, Harry & the Hootenannies