The Pleasure Pit

Cult producer Jean Claude Vannier on his recently unearthed Serge Gainsbourg collaborative masterpiece
By Robyn Cusworth | Film+TV | 16 November 2017

“I was in Cevennes when my copyist friend’s daughter Dominique Marechal phoned me. She told me that she’d found a little suitcase full of tapes with my name on it,” renowned producer Jean Claude Vannier tells us below, recalling the discovery of his collaborative soundtrack with Serge Gainsbourg for the film Les Chemins de Katmandou.

Les Chemins de Katmandou, known also as The Pleasure Pit, and Dirty Dolls in Kathmandu is a French-Italian crime-drama directed by André Cayatte. Described as a “1969 Smacksploitation film”, it contained all the ingredients to rouse a cult appetit; a doe-eyed flower child Jane Birkin, a storyline dipping into 60s psych and a Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack thought to be lost in a studio fire.

This very soundtrack, considered the final shard in piecing together the collaborative discography of the composer Jean Claude Vannier and Serge Gainsbourg, was found after nearly 50 years, having been assumed destroyed. Now, Finders Keepers Records, founded by Andy Votel, present the first ever pressing of these master-tapes.

Still, Les Chemins de Katmandou (1969) dir. Andre Cayatte

On listening to the Les Chemins de Katmandou, fingers may stutter to press against two or three genres, let alone one. It’s clear that the work set a foundation for symphonic ideas heard in Histoire De Melody Nelson and the 1972 L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches – with sounds boomeranging from progressive rock, folk, psychedelia and classical.

And the Vannier/Gainsbourg works didn’t stop with Katmandou either, a string of Serge collaborations range from the film scores Cannabis 1970, La Horse 1970 and Sex Shop 1972, to Serge’s 1971 cinematic concept album L’Histoire de Melody Nelson, orchestrated and arranged by Vannier, who went on to release nine albums of his own while composing, producing and writing for many other francophone artists. 

Robyn Cusworth: How did you feel when the studio recordings for Les Chemins De Katmandou were found?
Jean Claude Vannier: I was in Cevennes when my copyist friend’s daughter Dominique Marechal phoned me. She told me that she’d found a little suitcase full of tapes with my name on it. We listened and I recognised the lost Katmandou music… I then rang Stephane Lerouge from Universal and he was very interested to hear this rescued stuff.

Robyn: This is such early work, did listening back to the original soundtrack spark any sort of nostalgia?
Jean Claude: No I’m not often nostalgic, it’s funny, a souvenir. I was quite young and just starting out, developing my style and manner of writing.

Robyn: This period was so close to the 1968 riots. Did the movement impact your creativity?
Jean Claude: I was recording in London at the time. May 68’ for me was a sort of deliverance, but it was stopped too early, it wasn’t strong enough. In London, all the policemen looked at me as if I was a dangerous terrorist! They’d say to me, “We hope you are not going to do here what you have made in France!”

Robyn: Could you tell me about the recording process in 1968?
Jean Claude: Well, everything was our imagination, I didn’t sample anything. I remember, I improvised a sort of atonal joke at the piano and we ended up keeping it and so it was written for the orchestra.  It was recorded in Studio Davout – a big old cinema that’s on Boulevard Davout, Porte de Montreuil, many film-scores in Paris were recorded there. Though we did like to record some of the music to sound as though it was an improvisation, to introduce some “pseudo free” moods, Serge and I brought the melodies and moods and I arranged them afterwards. It was a bit of a tinker job. 

Robyn: I definitely heard comedy in the tracks, especially in Collin Maillard which translates as Blind Man’s Bluff in English. Is there a story here?
Jean Claude: Ah, I don’t remember! I believe the disc producer imagined this funny little title by himself.

Still, Les Chemins de Katmandou (1969) dir. Andre Cayatte

Robyn: There are so many layers throughout, how was this created instrumentally?
Jean Claude: At the time I didn’t use ethnic instruments, the “breast” is only a pedal timpani, played by Bernard Lubat. The orchestra is composed by classical instruments and played in another way. There was no special recording technique, the sound is solely musicians on classical instruments.

Robyn: So, did you visit Nepal for this job?
Jean Claude: I never saw the film, Serge said to me that it wasn’t so good… and I hadn’t enough time! I never visited Nepal either. We didn’t want to record ethnic music, indian musicians would play it better than we would have done anyway. I did find a guitarist who had an Indian sitar, but it only had one string. If you listen to the music you’ll be able to hear that it’s always the same note. As for hippies, I didn’t follow them very far. Their philosophy wasn’t essential for me.

Robyn: What would you list as influences in this project?
Jean Claude: I was influenced mainly by Stravinsky, Ravel, Satie, Blues, Tango, and Klezmer music

Robyn: You have been described as a musician’s musician. How do you feel about being the one behind works such as Serge’s with such popular recognition? Does your artistry outweigh this?
Jean Claude: Serge and I were collaborators, fellow workers but we stayed close friends until he passed away. I can’t really explain that feeling, but I am proud to receive this kind of success. Throughout my life, I’ve written a lot of music, some of it successful, some not so much, but I recorded all of them with the same enthusiasm and all have been  from the heart.

Les Chemins de Katmandou will be released by Finders Keepers Records on the 5th of November

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