When Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt showed up at the 1988 Berlin Independence Days music festival with Mudhoney, they were hardly in the market for another band. At the time, Sub Pop was barely out of the gates, riding on a couple of EPs (by Green River and Soundgarden). But then Poneman witnessed the awesome power of French punk band Les Thugs, a group with leftist English lyrics, who 10 years after their breakup he counts among the top three most-underappreciated bands on Sub Pop’s prestigious roster.
“After Mudhoney triumphantly roared into Berlin and played their show—all sorts of people were seeing them play and having their minds blown—we kind of traipsed around the event complex and stumbled into this show where there were these really, really animated French guys up onstage,” Poneman says. Those guys turned out to be Thierry Meanard (guitar), Christophe Sourice (drums), Pierre-Yves Sourice (bass), and Eric Sourice (guitar, lead vocals).
“They were really, really intense, and really fun to watch. I was just riveted for half an hour,” Poneman recalls of the band’s explosive performance. And yet, he says, “There’s an almost shoegaze quality to what they do. It’s punk rock in spirit and execution, but there’s also something very hypnotic about [it].” After their set, Jonathan approached the band about a record deal, and the band promptly recorded the single “Chess and Crimes” as one of the first Sub Pop Singles Club releases. The 10-year relationship between Sub Pop and Les Thugs was interrupted only once, when the label was too broke to put out the follow-up to the band’s 1989 American and Sub Pop debut album, Electric Troubles (it came out on Jello Biafra’s label, Alternative Tentacles, instead).
Fortunately, Sub Pop got back on its feet in time to release As Happy As Possible, a record Poneman believes is Les Thugs’ “defining album” as well as one of his all-time favorite Sub Pop releases. And yet, Poneman says, “Les Thugs have played [in the U.S.] several times, and they’ve never drawn much of a crowd.” Unfortunately, the band’s formidable underground success in France as a pioneering punk-rock band never translated to the United States.
But for the band, it was a very different experience, one few other French bands shared. “At that time, we couldn’t imagine what would happen for the band,” Christophe Sourice says from his home in the suburbs of Angers, France. “We were already so happy to play outside of Angers, and then we started touring France, then we started touring England, and then the U.S.!There was not one French band who toured U.S. like we did.”
While Poneman didn’t exactly expect Les Thugs to become the next global sensation, he was disappointed and surprised that the band’s music—especially As Happy As Possible, which he considers one of local producer Kurt Bloch’s finest achievements—didn’t get more attention from an American audience. “It is one of the great puzzlements of my professional career, why that record didn’t get more reviews and didn’t dobetter,” Poneman muses.
Christophe Sourice puts it more succinctly. “People doubt that a French rock band could be a good rock band.” And yet, Les Thugs, along with bands like Métal Urbain, Stinky Toys, and Noir Désir (who formed in 1985, two years after Les Thugs), helped pave the way for other French bands who wanted to make rock music. “When we started the band, 95% of the music we were listening to was American or English music,” Christophe, who wrote most of Les Thugs’ leftist lyrics, explains. “There were a few French bands that we liked, but not so much. For us, English was really the language for rock music.” And honestly, he says, the music always took priority over the words. “In the tradition of French music, the lyrics are more important than the music,” he says. “For us, the music was more important tounderstand.”
Though the band isn’t getting back together for good—the band members live in different cities now, and are doing everything from promoting shows to playing the bass drum in a marching band to (in Christophe’s case) working for the city of Angers as a gardener—they played a handful of shows in France before their two Seattle shows commemorating Sub Pop’s 20th birthday. “The audiences were really crazy, even more than when we used to play,” Christophe says of the reunion shows. “Some people didn’t have the opportunity to see us 10 years ago because they were too young; some of them, they missed us, and they were happy to see us at last.”
Les Thugs play SP20, 4 p.m. Sun., July 13, and at Neumo’s, 8 p.m. Fri., July 11 (21 and over).