"What do I like about America? The music, the style of the buildings, the movies, the youngness of the country. It's a good challenge to play here where people don't know us."
Catherine Ringer is clearly intrigued by the continent she's touring for the first time. And the admiration seems mutual. Ringer and her partner, Fred Chichin, form Les Rita Mitsouko, one of the most provocative pop groups to come out of France. Singing in French and English, the duo delivers diverse and witty songs on its debut American album, "Les Rita Mitsouko Presentent the No Comprendo."
The T. Rex-like vocal chorus of "C'est Comme Ca" comes courtesy of T. Rex's producer Tony Visconti, and the sprightly dance groove "Andy" was recently remixed in four different English versions by American R&B; musician Jesse Johnson. Both were hits recently in France. The album also features cocktail-lounge musings, fuzz-toned garage-band psychedelia, a gloomy dirge and a title that makes Les Rita Mitsouko sound like the Mamas and the Dadas: "Un Soir, Un Chien" ("One Evening, One Dog").
Though they're in the midst of making a new record, word-of-mouth has created such interest in Mitsouko that Ringer and Chichin are doing a whirlwind club tour of America, accompanied by a live drummer and backing tapes on which they played all the instruments. (They'll perform at L.A.'s Francophile dance club Flaming Colossus tonight and Thursday.)
Ringer and Chichin met in a Paris music hall in 1979, and it was collaboration at first sight. The two composers were primarily interested in electronics and synthesized sounds. Both also had a passion for rock 'n' roll and started dealing in simple song structures with complex words.
"Before, the music was poor but the lyrics were strong, poetic," Ringer noted with a dry laugh during a phone interview from San Francisco. "Now the music is good, and perhaps the lyrics are a bit empty. We've made progress."
The group made its official debut as Rita Mitsouko in 1981. "Rita Mitsouko is the kind of name a dancer in the Crazy Horse Saloon might have," Ringer explained. "We are very eclectic, and we have an eclectic sense of humor. Rita Mitsouko is a kind of play on words, like the way that Sparks named an album 'Kimono My House.' "
Ringer's voice lights up at the name of Sparks, an L.A. group that found much greater acceptance in France than in America. One can find traces of Sparks' off-the-wall humor in some of Mitsouko's songs and videos.
The French video of "Andy," for example, features Ringer getting splashed in the face with a pail of water in sync with a cymbal crash. It also has some shots that might raise the eyebrows of the PMRC. So would Ringer's participation in an X-rated film--a subject the European media have been quick to sensationalize.
Ringer remains discreet about her pornographic past, dismissing it by saying, "Why should anybody be interested? It has nothing to do with the band." Rita Mitsouko's latest cinematic endeavor was a lot more illustrious: Jean-Luc Godard filmed the duo during its "Comprendo" recording sessions for his recent film "Be Careful With Your Right." Ringer says it's in the style of the famed director's Rolling Stones documentary, "One Plus One" (a. k. a. "Sympathy for the Devil").
Les Rita Mitsouko first made its mark--and set a new standard for modern pop music in France--with the single "Marcia Baila," which shot to the top of the French charts in 1985. A striking blend of Ringer's low, rough, cabaret-style emoting, synthesizer noodling, Latin flavoring and intellectual, poetic lyrics, the song examines the mental, spiritual and psychological state of an Argentine dancer Ringer worked with.
Said Ringer, "People responded to the way we were working. 'Marcia Baila' was not a typical commercial thing, and its success proved to other French musicians that it is possible to do something different and still make money. Since then, more musicians are writing in French."
But why haven't there been more rock exports like Mitsouko?
"We have good French rock groups," Ringer declared, "but they only fit in France. It's just like groups that you might have that are popular and relate to California but have trouble exporting their sound elsewhere."
Les Rita Mitsouko, however, seems to be translating in all cultures.
"People understand the emotion," Ringer explained. "When we played in New York recently there were a lot of French people in the audience and they were surprised by what a good reaction we got. They were surprised that Americans could feel the music. It's just like when I was 12 years and listened to Bob Dylan--I didn't know what he was saying, but I could understand the feeling."