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The first time, audiences simply try to find an applicable category for music that wanders from ambient, somnambulant instrumentals to seductive French-pop balladry to noisy avant-punk to hints of Dick Dale guitar twang. The second time, they're hoping to figure out what gives with the group's odd assortment of instrumental accessories: beepers, transistor radios, a stringed drum called a gopichank, a collection of toys, and a wider variety of gongs than most of us knew existed. By the third time, however, the newness has worn off, and it's clear that this group is much more than a novelty. By this point, the sweet insinuating melodies, rich sonic textures, and loopy elliptical poetics have kicked in.
Native Parisians who migrated to Tucson in 1997, singer-guitarist Naïm Amor and drummer Thomas Belhom have built a solid fan base in Europe, and their shows in Tucson -- where they're often joined by musical friends like Giant Sand's Howe Gelb and Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino -- are hipster events.
But these days, the duo is slogging its way across the Midwest, on its first American tour. They're often the first of three bands, facing audiences that find them a continental curiosity. Coming off a well-received, if lightly attended, opening set for the Handsome Family on a Friday night, Amor takes a break before heading to Columbus, Ohio, and discusses the band's bold decision to leave the glitter of the Champs Élysées for the Arizona desert.
"I first went to Tucson for holiday to visit [group lyricist] Marianne Dissard, and she was a friend of Joey Burns and John Convertino and Howe Gelb," Amor says, in his halting English, with a thick French accent. "She was finishing a documentary film about Giant Sand. So I met all those people and came back a year later and played in Tucson. We just thought it was really interesting for us to move, to completely change cultures and find a different approach and a different life."
Amor and Belhom had known each other for years in Paris, and had a mutual admiration for each other's musicianship, but never collaborated. Shortly before moving to Tucson, however, they both joined Generation Chaos, an ad hoc experimental workshop, which brought musicians together twice a week for extended improvisational exercises. This approach became the catalyst for the Amor Belhom sound.
"With Generation Chaos, we mixed our background, which is basically rock 'n' roll, with this improvisational approach."
The Amor Belhom Duo has often been classified as avant-garde jazz, but in fact, no genre comfortably encompasses their wild forays across the sonic map. You can't pin them down; all you can do is find signposts along the road: the slow, hypnotic drones of Bedhead, the metallic clank of Raindogs-era Tom Waits, the sugary Europop of the Cardigans and go-for-broke dissonance of the early Velvet Underground.
If Charles Aznavour had grown up listening to Sonic Youth, trance music and the Butthole Surfers, he might have conjured something equally weird. At times, the very incongruity of the elements is the music's most appealing quality.
For instance, a title like "Fucking and Songs" -- off the group's eponymously titled 2000 release -- would seem a natural for the band's punkier tendencies, but its sound is pure seduction, with Amor pulling out his breathiest Claudine Longet croon over a bed of jazzy guitar chords.
Hearing him wrap his French accent around Dissard lines like "Riding the ol' mobile until it can no more . . . /Climbing the next pickup on my way to Cheyenne" has a strange but endearing sense of cultural dislocation about it, kind of like watching French new-wave filmmakers of the '50s and '60s pay homage to American gangster movies.
Amor says the claustrophobic urban life he and Belhom had known in France made the Arizona desert particularly appealing to them.
"I was struck that there was so much space, to do what you want to do," he says. "It was a good place for recording, practicing, and everything. These things were not very expensive, and you felt that you had so much room around you."
Although they spoke some English before moving to Tucson, they've often found themselves failing to communicate in Arizona.
"We learned English in France, but it was totally different, taking a class in high school," Amor says. "Sometimes it's still confusing, but it's not so much with the language as with the culture. You'll say something in a certain context, and it's misunderstood by people."
He recalls an early example, in which he inadvertently offended a waitress who'd bumped into him at a diner.
"I'd just learned, a few days before, the use of the phrase 'You're welcome.' In France, if someone excuses themselves for something, you say, 'Oh, it's nothing.' But I thought people here said, 'You're welcome,' so when this waitress bumped me and excused herself, I said, 'You're welcome.' And she looked at me like, 'Who is this Pepe Le Pew, French freak?'"
More recently, he came close to a slugfest with a Tucson bar patron over a similar bit of confusion. Amor was working the door of the club, when a guy walked in and asked Amor to keep an eye on his bike. Realizing that he wouldn't be able to give the bike his full attention, and afraid it would be stolen, he called out to the guy, saying: "You better watch your bike."
Unfortunately, the bar patron thought Belhom was threatening him by saying, "You better watch your back." Things got testy before the mistake was cleared up.
Such flare-ups, however, have been minor compared to the liberating effect that Tucson has had on Amor and Belhom. With their musical comrades in Calexico and Giant Sand, they've found a creative community that shares their love for trippy sounds and cinematic mood music. In addition to their two discs as the Amor Belhom Duo (their 1998 debut, Wavelab, was named after the Calexico-owned studio where it was recorded), they also recorded a full-on collaborative album with Calexico last year, Tete a Tete, under the group moniker ABBC.
The acclaim for Tete a Tete set the stage for Chicago's Carrot Top Records to reissue both of the Amor Belhom Duo records last month. So now, with their first national tour, the duo seeks to convert the American heartland in the same way they've won the hearts of Tucsonans and Europeans.
If the result isn't quite jazz, in the strict sense of the term, it shares one of jazz's principal tenets: that art is created in the moment, when musicians interact and follow their impulses. Amor says he and Belhom, like Burns and Convertino, create music without any preconceived notions, letting the songs dictate their own shape.
"We've been influenced by everything from jazz to punk rock to country music, to French songs," he says. "We listen to so many different kinds of music, but we try to have a personal position on all the music we like, instead of having a variety approach.
"We never think about music in terms of, 'Oh, we're going to do a funky song,' or 'We're going to do a hard-core song.' Some of our punk songs came out of pop writing, and vice versa. If the song has to go more funky, or have a more electronic groove, we just go there naturally."