Who are the French?
They are a people of contradictions—sophisticated yet crude, polite yet blunt, beguiling yet sometimes annoying. Plus, they rock like few others in town, wielding a sanctified guitar sound handed down by the forefathers of rock 'n' roll while sneaking in a biting sense of humor that is uniquely Knoxvillian. There's little frippery in their sound—it is a distillation of all that is worthwhile about loud music played late at night in a dank bar: inescapable hooks, hummable melodies, and witty lyrics. And that is essentially the French's goal, according to frontman Brett Winston: to entertain the masses (or at least those masses who go to bars).
"We don't have any songs with a four-minute ambient intro, or expect people to sit there glued to us while we stare at our shoes and twiddle on knobs," Winston declares. "Basically, every song is written with the idea that it will be played live in a bar, to people who may or may not be fully invested in our music or our greatness. So we don't repeat stuff over and over—we try to make sure the lyrics can be understood, try to say things that people drinking in a bar may be interested in, which turns out to be a wide variety of things."
So does that make them a bar band? "I hate that phrase, in the respect that all those bands suck," Winston says. "To me, a bar band is someone who'd be right at home in a Budweiser commercial and just sound so perfect." To discover the true essence of the French, one must disregard the band's ostensible mission statement, the punk-rockish "We Are the French" (sample lyric: "We are the French, and we say ‘F--ck you, f--k you, f--k you!'") and instead look to their party anthem, "Party With Them," a country-inflected ramble that could be seen as both rock-music criticism and self-aware confession, revealing the inherent insincerity of rock music:
"People writing songs about drinking that don't drink/People writing songs about smoking that don't smoke/I wanna party with them."
But, despite the self-deprecation, the French are more than just a party band, with a talented lineup that qualifies it as a Knoxville supergroup. Winston led the gone-but-not-forgotten Ghosts as well as Stinkfoot. Drummer Jeff Bills has been in more local bands than can be listed in this space. ("I think it'd be easier to name the bands he hasn't been in, and that would be Jag Star," Winston says.) Meanwhile, bassist Drew Gilch was in Jag Star, and Charles Jefferson Caudill Jr. played guitar and sang in the recently disbanded Westside Daredevils. The friends started playing together informally in 2009, and gelled into bandhood shortly thereafter. (The band's name is more of a reference to international relations than high-school sex play: "At the time, the French seemed to annoy all the right people, and they still kind of do," Winston says. "So we thought that was a good name for the band.")
Inspired by '50s rock 'n' roll and its energetic reinterpretation of R&B, the French like to keep it simple, with basic chord rhythms that don't disguise their blues roots. The songs are all pretty damn catchy, and if the guys were about 10 or 15 years younger, you could easily see them hitting the Southeast bar circuit for regional fame and misfortune. But the French are also dads (except for Caudill, though he is in a committed relationship), so it's not going to happen. "Ultimately, we're not out to get famous by any stretch of the imagination," Winston says. "Things change, and the idea of getting into a van is not as exciting. Rock music is a young man's game. I try to play music that I think is age-appropriate for where I'm at."
Aside from their proficient playing and hook-filled ought-to-be-a-hit songs, the French's music carries on that subversive Knoxville tradition of injecting humor into its garage rock. Winston's lyrics are for the most part tongue-in-cheek riffs on relationships ("Yeah, I meant what I said when I said whatever it was that I said to you"), personal dilemmas ("I've got a lot of dreams that I hope never do come true/But I know that's what they'll do"), and even politics ("What happened to my country, my country 'tis of thee?/They bought off all the Republicans and got the Democrats for free"). If you are paying attention, the lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny—but they also reveal a depth that's just not present in most other bands' attempts to do "funny" rock songs. Winston credits the one and only Todd Steed of Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes.
"As a kid, I remember listening to ‘Ethiopian Jokes,' which has a consciousness, is very funny, is very sophisticated, and that's what his music is always like," Winston says. Carrying that mantle is no small responsibility, but it helps that Winston has no worries about being taken seriously as an "artist," but rather believes that problem with current music trends is an overabundance of self-serious artists.
"We don't need more nice people who are serious about music—we need more exciting, interesting people playing music," he says. "When I was 13, arena rock stars or the first wave of punk rockers were like characters in a movie, and there's a big appeal there. If I was 13 now, and I saw a dude in a beard and mustache wearing a down vest in the summer playing genericana, I would probably play a lot more video games than want to go grab a guitar."