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Tone Glow 098: Martin Dupont
An interview with Alain Seghir, the frontman of the cult 1980s coldwave band Martin Dupont
Martin Dupont is a French coldwave band that formed in 1980. The Marseille-based group went through multiple lineup changes over the course of their lifespan, but has maintained Alain Seghir as its principal songwriter and frontman. Alongside Seghir, band members have included Brigitte Balian, Beverley Jane Crew, and Catherine Loy. During the 1980s they released 3 LPs—Just Because… (1984), Sleep is a Luxury (1985), and Hot Paradox (1987)—and a cassette titled Inédits 1981-1983 (1985). Earlier this year, they released an album titled Kintsugi that saw the band reimagining songs from throughout their catalogue. They also embarked on their first US tour. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Seghir on May 10th, 2023 via Zoom to discuss the evolution of the band, his love for the bass guitar, and his career as an accomplished ENT surgeon.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: How’s your day been?
Alain Seghir: Very, very busy. I’m an ENT surgeon and today I had a lot of patients because I’m going to the United States on Monday. I had a computer problem and it was terrible, and that has all the data of my patients. It was an awful day, but on the other hand I was lucky because on the main French TV channel, they did a report about me. They are very interested in the duality of me being a surgeon and musician. So I’ve been very busy, very worried, but happy as well.
I want to start off by talking about your music and then we can talk about your current profession afterwards. Where were you born and what was your childhood like?
I’m from Marseille in the South of France. My dad was in the military and he put me, very young, in a very severe boarding school. I wasn’t allowed to go home even during the weekends. That kind of boarding school is nearly one century behind us. It was very hard. But I also had my first musical sensations because it was a Catholic school. I was a singer in a chorus with a big church organ and I was impressed by the music—it really filled my heart. I was a pupil, going in secret to the chapel to play on the organ (laughs). It was such a heavy sound, and to put my finger on it… I loved that.
How old were you when you tried playing the organ?
Maybe ten years old.
Do you mind sharing the first strong memory you have of feeling the power of this instrument, or of music in general?
It was a Sunday in the big church and I was singing in a chorus. It was a piece by Bach. The music by the organ was so beautiful that I felt like I was getting kicked in the stomach. I was seven years old at the time. Afterwards, because I had been in the boarding school for a long time, I went to play in secret on the organ and I was selected to go and sing in Roma for the pope.
It was such an impressive story for me. And the strongest memory I’ve got about that is that I missed the bus (laughter). I was lost in Roma as a ten-year-old boy. A priest from the Netherlands realized that I was lost and he ended up taking me back to my group, and then the priest of my group gave me a kick (laughter). That’s the strongest memory I’ve got of that story. But afterwards I was impressed by all these hundreds of voices singing together—it gave me an impression of heaven. For a little boy it was so impressive.
How often did you actually go home and see your family?
In fact, my parents came to see me in a parlor twice a month for an hour. Maybe that explains my strange side—no one would do that nowadays.
Did they support your interest in music?
Not at all. They dreamt that I would become a doctor because for them it was a good profession. They were quite simple people. And that’s why they put me in a severe boarding school, since they thought I would get the best education. I never had any kind of support for music from my parents.
My [paternal] grandfather was a Cossack and went to the Middle East during the war. My dad joined the French army when he was 16 or 17. It seems weird but I’ve got little history of my family because they came to France after the war and when I was born, my dad was always involved in wars in other countries. This is to say that this was a specific period where there’s a small part of Latin [i.e. Roman] culture, a bit of Slavic culture from my grandfather, and a bit of Middle Eastern culture.
I was always very curious. I remember, very young, I was interested in Indian, Chinese, Turkish, and Japanese music. It all touched me. When I was a teenager I liked rock music but in my mind, there was a kind of mix; I remember in my childhood I created songs in my head that mixed very different stuff.
I was in Marseille a couple years ago and it was very obvious that it’s a multicultural city.
Maybe now it’s different but during my childhood I used to think that it was successful in that way. All of the people there were bringing their own culture and mixing it.
What sort of ways did you see that?
For example, I remember when I was walking down commercial streets, there were people in a bar playing Arabic music, and for me it was a new atmosphere and I was pleased to listen to that banging. I had friends from Armenia and we would eat Armenian food. People in Marseille were always friendly, and maybe it’s because it’s sunny and people would be outside; it’d be easier to share with one another.
How did you get into rock music? Were there friends at your boarding school who led you to it?
No. There was a section in the boarding school for teenagers, and when I was younger I was not allowed to go. I remember going to their door and listening through it to hear rock music for the first time: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. I thought, whoa, that sounds good. My first strong sensation came during a holiday. My dad was listening to news about horse races with this transistor radio and there was “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones right after that. I was thinking, “that is my world.” When I was older, I used my own pocket money—which was meant for food and so on—just to buy records. I tried to discover many things by myself, and I was on my own more so than with friends. I would putter around for a long time, looking at covers, and ask [record store clerks] if I could listen to them.
Were there any record purchases you remember that felt life-changing?
Honestly, I don’t think so. I loved very different things and I didn’t think that I had a main kind of music that touched me. I wouldn’t say that there was a band that was seminal.
I know that you eventually got a guitar and played in the band Mud Shark. How old were you when this happened?
Was this the first band you were a part of?
Yeah. I was at a music store and was trying to play the guitar. There was a guy in the corner playing Jimi Hendrix perfectly. I was very impressed and I went to talk with him, and he was so cool and friendly. I told him that I wanted to buy a guitar. He had a good feeling about me and said, “Yeah, play with me.” And that was Mud Shark! Later, this guy was the leader of a band that was famous in France—they played Caribbean music.
What was it like playing in a band after all this time of listening to and absorbing music?
It was weird because I was not a musician—I didn’t take lessons. I was listening to so much music that I had this aspiration to do something new, and it’s like I played as if I was forgetting how to play. That’s how I played bass guitar, and I had no complex about that because I was able to get any kind of instrument and play it my way.
I know you ended up enjoying the bass guitar more. What drew you to that instrument?
I loved the bass because the sound was deeper. I had the impression that I didn’t need to have many notes to get a sensation; heavy, strong notes were just so pleasurable. Quite early on, I played a fretless bass and, in my head, the bass was more expressive than the guitar.
I get that in your music, too. There are tracks on Just Because… (1984) like “Welcome To the Dissidents” and “Pure Delight” where you’re really making clear the power of the low end.
(laughs). You’re talking to me about songs that I would never dare show to an American. I thought it was kind of personal, like a joke to myself. Like “Welcome to the Dissidents” was kind of a joke in my head.
I love cinema, and I love experimental cinema. I used to see dissident films from the USSR and it was kind of a wink.
Yeah! Wow, you really know my story, I’m impressed.
I’m a fan of the band! What was the connection between the film and the song?
To be honest, as a kid I had no intelligence behind anything I was playing (laughter). There was no reflection, it was just my feeling—I was just inspired by the film. If you listen seriously, there’s no relationship between the film and the song I made. I just wanted to put that feeling there. I also sampled a record… it was a part of [Sergei Eisenstein’s] Ivan the Terrible. So, “Andrew Roublev” was just an homage to Andrei Tarkovsky. After my boarding school, when I was a student, I went to the cinema at least three or four times a week.
Do you remember other films that you liked at the time?
I loved Jim Jarmusch’s films. And the famous German filmmaker…
Werner Herzog? Fassbinder?
I like them, but no not them.
Yes, thanks, Wim Wenders. I also loved Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray.
Do you feel like your interest in other mediums of art affected the way you approached music?
No. To me, music was always the strongest emotional support. Of course, I’ve used paintings from my friend Yves Cheynet for the covers because they’re a whole universe. And they’re moving because he has his own style.
When you started Martin Dupont, Catherine Loy was in the band and you two were dating. How did you two first meet?
She was my girlfriend and, in fact, we were going through a bad period. I was unhappy because our love story was not so good, and music is the best way to explain your pain, to drain your pain. I started in that kind of spirit, and I was happy to ask her to sing—her English wasn’t very good, but she had a lovely French accent. She wasn’t a musician at all but she was so glad to do things with me, and it started like that. Afterwards, during a rehearsal, I met Brigitte [Balian]. She had a stronger personality, a stronger voice, and was able to speak in English properly. I played her my music and she was impressed and wanted to join us.
To clarify, were you and Catherine already broken up by the time you were in the band?
Just before [it started], and the band made our relationship better until the moment Catherine met an English girl named Beverley Jane Crew. She told me, “I met such a sweet English girl,” and she insisted that I meet her. When I first met her, I invited her to do a jam at home with me. She came with her clarinet and I asked her to be in the band. And I married her two months later.
So it was a bit hard for Catherine to stay in the band afterwards.
I want to talk about a few songs I love from the first two albums. The vocals are really theatrical on a track like “Lovely Monster,” and I can envision you aiming for a sort of grandiose, almost cinematic feeling there—how did you approach the vocals on that? Were you inspired by other singers?
The first thing I want to say is that you really, really touched me by saying that. You can imagine that song: I was alone in my small room where I did music, and I was so unhappy and heartbroken. For me, I made these songs just to shout my feelings. “Lovely Monster” is a song about how I was touched by beauty but how that beauty didn’t want me. It’s the typical feeling of a teenager—even if I wasn’t a teenager anymore, I still felt like a teenager at heart. It was just a way to sing emotion and without any thinking, as I told you before. It was as if I put a microphone in front of my heart and said, “go on.”
That reminds me of another song on the album, “Sticks in My Brain.” There’s all this yelling and warbling, it sounds very paranoid—it sounds like a pure expression.
Thanks a lot. I’m saying it again, but at the time I never would’ve dared show my music to an American.
What is the apprehension about?
It’s because I’m not a native English speaker. I used the words as they came. Of course I used real words and real sentences, but most of the time, I created the lyrics spontaneously as I was singing—the music could give me an emotion to support what I could think, and “You are a lovely monster” came out. First of all, I made a mistake. I should have said “take your beauty off my neck” but I said “put your beauty off.” It doesn’t matter, though, because we can feel the sense.
You’re going on your first US tour in a week. Do you have any of this same nervousness about performing songs in front of an American audience?
I think that as I’m getting older, with more cultural background, I could sing any words or any lyrics because it’s honestly poetry in a way. And to me it makes sense. For example, when I go on YouTube, there is a comment on our song with someone saying, “What’s this guy saying? What’s he talking about?” It doesn’t affect me anymore because they are all people getting the spirit of it. For example, you told me about different songs and you were still able to get the feeling of it no matter the grammatical quality of the sentences.
I did want to ask about the song “Willy Nilly.” There’s that one part where it sounds like a vocal sample, like it’s from a cartoon. What is that?
That’s my voice with a sampler. I played my voice on different octaves.
I really love it.
(in a genuinely surprised tone) Really? Thanks.
Yeah, especially because it’s the sort of thing that an artist would utilize more on an album but it’s only really on that track. And I love that the emotion is coming through even with this cartoonish sound.
In a way you’ve got humor but on the other hand, there’s sensitivity. It’s funny. Thanks a lot, you’ve made me more confident. For the American tour, we want to play a song called “Doron Doron.”
I was wondering if that was a reference to the band Duran Duran at all.
(laughs). No! At the time, I was listening to a Japanese record and there is a song where they are singing this one part that sounds like “doron doron.” And I loved that. Veronica Vasicka [of Minimal Wave] told me that she likes the song and played it during a DJ set. People really liked it. “Willy Nilly” is even stronger because the lyrics are really good. They’re in French, but they’re really good.
How did you decide on using French lyrics versus English lyrics?
I didn’t sing in English because it was fashionable or because it was the language of mainstream rock. It was because I didn’t want my dad to understand anything I was singing about (laughter).
Did he ever ask about the lyrics?
No. And it’s because he wasn’t interested in anything I was doing. I once made music for a ballet in New York, and it was with a Boston band and a French choreographer. I was in the New York Times and I showed it to my dad and he said, “I don’t care. Go back to your medicine, lazy boy.” I was so disappointed.
When did you make the music for this ballet?
It took place in 1989.
So that was after the band broke up?
We never broke up. The latest album [Hot Paradox] was in 1987, but I continued making songs, and some of these ended up as bonus tracks [on reissues]. I played with the choreographer for fashion designers, for fashion shows, until the early ’90s. I never went to the girls and said, “The band is dead.” I was a medical student and I was at the end of my studies—I really wanted to be a good surgeon. I had it in the back of my mind to sell all my instruments, to buy a new generation of computers, and so on. I thought there would be stronger synthesizers and better sounds, but life has been faster than me.
I succeeded better than I would have thought in terms of my surgical career. I was quite young when I became the head of my department—ENT surgery. I loved my job so much that I had forgotten to go back to music, but music was still in my heart. I have more records than anyone else I know. I don’t know anyone who’s bought as many records as me—I have thousands and thousands of records.
Do you still have them or have you sold them?
Yeah, I have all of them, and CDs and cassettes.
I wanted to talk about Sleep is a Luxury. I’m thinking about you not wanting your dad to know what you’re talking about. As someone whose first language isn’t English, you still found a way to have your lyrics come off strong, especially in the context of gothic, new wave music. I think about the song “It’s So,” for example. The lyrics are simple but hit harder because of that. Can you talk about writing that song?
You’re maybe the first person I’ve told this to. “It’s So” was a love song for Beverley. At the beginning, she was worried. She was worried because I was meant to be Catherine’s boyfriend and she thought I was absolutely in love with her. She didn’t want to see me and I didn’t understand why; she was like a cat who was hiding, afraid of me. I was alone in my room and I was full of desire, and I was shouting [the lyrics to the song], “It’s so sexual.” I knew that it didn’t mean anything because I know that love is from the heart, but the difference between love and friendship is that one is sexual. I was just saying simple things: “It’s not enough to cry,” “It’s not enough to shout,” “It’s not enough to die.” It was that kind of spirit, with a sort of derision, but it was all emotional and sincere. I’m very pleased with all the songs you’ve mentioned because they’re not the songs that people ask us about.
I don’t actually know what Martin Dupont’s most popular songs are (laughs). I’m just asking about songs I like.
It’s great because it means that everything I’ve done has been worth doing.
Everything you’re talking about with regards to “It’s So,” is that related to what is being talked about on the song “Hunted” from the same album? There’s a similar exhaustion and anxiety there—is that coming from the same emotional turmoil?
When I did this song, I used completely different lyrics; I think it was originally written by Beverley and I ended up singing what I felt. The first version was called “Love Triangle”—typical Beverley. She is the one who wrote “The time of the month is right / To feel full moons and mouths” [from “Full Moons and Mouths” on Hot Paradox]. She’s very sensual. But with “Hunted,” the bass part was very specific and, to me, really emotional. I sang lyrics that I felt went well with the music. I didn’t have it in my mind; I tried singing with the lyrics from Beverley but it was another [person’s] story and I didn’t get the feeling I needed.
That makes sense; you have to sing what makes sense for you.
Exactly. I feel that if I don’t sing lyrics without feeling it strongly in my heart, I am a poor singer. It doesn’t matter what I sing, and you proved to me that if the emotion is there, you’re allowed to sing what you feel.
Is there a song you made that you felt was extremely difficult to sing because it was so emotional to do so?
I was crying while singing one of the first songs I made. I never dared to [release] it. I tried to make it cleaner, to make a proper version, but I couldn’t.
On Hot Paradox, you have the song “I Never Tried” and there’s a homoeroticism there, or at least you’re hinting at it. Can you talk more about that?
I think it was [written] after a film. I don’t remember which one, but I think it was about the suffering of a gay guy; I felt it was unfair and knew that everyone deserved to be happy, to find love.
Are you still married to Beverley?
Ah, I see. I love Beverley across the Martin Dupont albums but one of my favorite moments is on “My Analyst Assez” when her clarinet comes in. It’s so unexpected. And I’m wondering if you could talk about songwriting and how you would keep Beverley and Brigitte in mind when doing so.
I used to do the songs by myself—the whole architecture of the songs—and they would put parts in. I used to say to Brigitte, “Would you try to sing on that?” Or sometimes there were versions where I would sing by myself. With “I Met the Beast,” for example, the first version sounded too close to Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway and I didn’t want to copy him so I asked her to sing. For Beverley I would say, “You should put a clarinet [part] here,” and it was subject to some arguing. For example, she would say, “Could you tell me what I could do in this part because you tell Brigitte or Catherine what they should do but you don’t tell me.” I said okay and played a part on a synth (sings a melody) and said, “Okay do that.” And she would say, “I cannot do what you want me to do, you always tell me what I have to do!” And I’d say, “But you asked me what you should do!” And Brigitte was always laughing at this, between Beverley and I. But I had all these crazy ideas and Beverley trusted me. In “My Analyst Assez” she would have normally started with consonant musical parts and I’d say, “No, no, no! This is a cry from the heart—be crazy! Don’t worry.” And it was like that. And now we play that live and it really works.
How many live shows did you play as a band back in the day? I know you opened for bigger bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Lounge Lizards, and the Lotus Eaters. Did you tour France or anything?
We only did five gigs. One was with a fashion designer because we decided to mix a gig with a fashion show, and the models were going through the band during the concert. It was a lovely, strange atmosphere.
How was it like playing with those bands? Do you have any memories?
The Lounge Lizards were very friendly. I remember they arrived during the soundcheck and laughed because we used a toy drum kim—it was for children. They were impressed by that. I remember John Lurie was really nice, and we were in the same hotel. I remember he was thinking, “What’s this guy doing with three girls?” (laughter). And this was the only concert we had with Beverley, Brigitte, and Catherine.
With Siouxsie and the Banshees, Steve Severin was very nice and I remember Robert Smith was playing with them. I met him in Marseille when they were doing their first gig in Marseille. He was shy and sweet. There’s this important detail: We were the opening band and when we started to play, I never had, in my life, such a strong-sounding song. It was enormous. The public was impressed. I myself was impressed too. But the sound engineer put it down to like 30 dB afterwards and we never had such a strong sound afterwards. We started with Siouxsie’s [mix] and it was one minute of pure happiness (laughter). Anyways, we went on with the gig.
Do you have any stories with the Lotus Eaters when you played with them?
After our gig, the bass player Michael Dempsey—who played for Roxy Music and was the first bass player for the Cure—was singing one of our songs backstage. Beverley told me that they were impressed and after the gig we met him. He’s still a friend of Beverley, and after Beverley went back to England, they still kept in touch. He’s such a lovely guy and is interested in all kinds of music.
I’m curious about the Marseille music scene. Obviously with the new album, Kintsugi, and the live shows coming up you have Sandy Casadon and Thierry Sintoni from Rise and Fall of a Decade on board. I also know there was the GMEM—the Groupe de musique expérimentale de Marseille—and that Brigitte sang on an album by Patrick Portella called Le voyage d’hiver, which is one of my favorite albums. Can you describe for me what the Marseille music scene was like while you were a band, and what the environment was like?
At the time, Marseille was more of a rock city, there wasn’t really a new wave scene. It’s funny because you talked about the GMEM and I was listening to a lot of experimental music at the time, and things from France, things from England. There was the English label Recommended Records—bands like Art Bears and Henry Cow—and I was listening to other things like the Residents. When I was a young medical student I was impressed by Bartók’s music. I bought the whole discography of Béla Bartók that was on Hungaroton, the Hungarian label. I had hundreds of records of his music. Most people think about the strong rhythmic or harmonic nature of Bartók’s music but I think there’s a huge sensitivity there, and there are these roots in Middle Eastern folk music too. Maybe he had a role in the way I create harmony or melody, I’m not sure, but he’s a real influence.
With Kintsugi you were remaking songs, and in a sense these songs can feel new because there are new arrangements and it feels, in a way, like what you’d expect for a band who is trying to bring ’80s music to the present day. How did you approach this record and what was it like having new people on board for this project?
At the time I only used analog instruments, analog recording, analog everything. When the Yamaha DX7—the first mainstream digital synthesizer—was out, I created an extension board. Anyways, it was not easy with the digital stuff, and Thierry was very familiar with that. As Veronica was asking me to play live, I thought of him because I met him by chance at a concert in Paris. We had a friendly talk and when he listened to Martin Dupont, he said he didn’t know them and didn’t know how [that was possible], and that he loved them. He said he was ready to help with concerts.
I chose the song “Love on My Side” because it was a sound I made alone after 1987, years after the “end” of the band. I never finished that and I thought, if he’s able to do that, this will make sense. Two days later, he sent me a recording that was really interesting and well done. A week after, I’m in the studio and I’m singing on it, and I played it to a friend in France who has a label and he said, “Please give it to me, I want to issue it as a single.” I thought, okay, maybe this is worth the work. Afterwards there was more time to work and we preferred to make an album instead of just working towards the concerts.
Do you mind talking about your work as a surgeon? What drew you to the profession? You even said earlier that you were so drawn to it that you didn’t think about making music despite listening to a lot of it.
First of all, my parents wanted me to be a doctor, but I also thought about doing this myself. I was ill when I was a child and had some diseases; I had so much physical suffering that I wanted to be a doctor. When I was a young medical student, I was interested in face surgery because the face is the most expressive part of the body—it’s how people interface with others. I just wanted to be a head and neck surgeon, but with my passion for music, I wanted to understand the anatomy and physiology of the ear. When I started to work, I thought I would’ve been more interested in plastic surgery because I love beauty in the general sense. But in fact, helping people with cancers—things like that—quickly made sense for me.
I’ve done presentations at conventions about my large spectrum of activities. I work in the whole field of ENT surgery. In a hospital, you usually have a guy who only does the ear, a guy who only does the nose, and so on. For me, it made sense to do more, and my assistants who worked in my service were glad about my multi-ability. I love that job a lot. I can send you, through WhatsApp, this TV program from today. While working today, some patients who were coming in for the first time saw me and were surprised, saying “I saw you on TV just before coming here! That’s incredible!” It’s funny.
You love this job and have done it for many years. What’s the most fulfilling thing about it? What keeps you coming back every day?
To make people feel better. I’ve seen people crying because they can hear properly after years of being deaf. Even with plastic surgery, I remember a young girl crying from happiness after discovering her new nose. I thought to myself, “Maybe It’s not so superficial, maybe it’s more helpful than many years of psychotherapy.” The other thing is that you have to be good every day, you have to learn every day, and sometimes you can be a bit of a show-off but really, it teaches you humility. Diseases are not always as simple as in the books; computers could have done the job if that were the case.
Do you see any overlap between your work as a surgeon and how you approach songwriting?
I never thought about that. I was lucky enough to be the head of a big department early on and I was able to decide on the limit of what we were gonna do with surgeries. I know that when I can’t do well, I have to respect the limit. When I was in Cherbourg, there was someone from the military and there was an explosion—his face was blown out. He had 14 operations before I’d seen him, and the head of the military hospital was a friend of mine and asked me, “Can you help me with this patient? He was operated on for years, and now he’s got meningitis. He lost one eye. And germs are going through the nose.” I proposed to him that he should close the breaking of the skull base through the nose with local anesthesia—the patient didn’t want general anesthesia because he lost sensitivity the last time he did that—and it was very audacious to do that. This is to say that I am able to do things in my career that are not mainstream. I used to do a lot of reconstructions [for people who had] cancer and other people would tell me, “I love to learn from you—we learn things that aren’t in the books.”
It’s actually amazing hearing you say this because it actually makes sense. Of trying new things and discovering things on your own.
Of course there’s an ethical limit to it, though.
I have one more question that I ask everyone. Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
(laughs). No, I’m too sensitive for that.
Thank you for reading the ninety-eighth issue of Tone Glow. Shout out to all the lovely monsters.
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