Françoise Cactus is as exotic as caviar to a Midwest cracker like me. During a recent interview, the French musician, who's one-half of the electro-pop duo Stereo Total, immediately plays into my American stereotypes: She starts talking sex.
"In the U.S. you are more prudish, but here it is in the publicity, the television, everywhere, the talk shows -- where people are explaining their bestiality and their sexuality. It's exhausting," Cactus says from Berlin. "I don't like it when people come out and are like, 'I'm this and I am that,' as they would speak about having some hobby like harmonica or fishing."
With her sexy accent, Cactus is explaining "Komplex Mit Dem Sex," off Paris-Berlin, Stereo Total's new disc. The song, sung in German, concerns a girl confused about her sexual identity because she sees so many options and "doesn't even know if she's a woman, man, or animal."
Emblematic of the music Cactus makes with her German partner, Brezel Göring (born Friedrich Ziegler), the song moves with the bounce of '60s French pop, while Cactus' girlish vocals flit over a melody that whispers "I Think We're Alone Now." It's sweet and somewhat goofy, with a childlike playfulness.
On "Forever 16," off the duo's 2001 album, Musique Automatique, Cactus even sings that she never wants to be an adult. The proclamation is made in musical jest, but Cactus admits it's partially true.
"People who get older, they're like, 'Oh man, my bad luck story, it was horrible. I will never fall in love anymore blah blah,'" says the 40-something singer, explaining how Stereo Total's guileless charm dovetails with her personal perspective. "In time, they make their lives smaller and smaller. This I do not want to do, so I like to keep a naive element in the things I do. Not because I would be so naive, but because I like stuff that is a little bit childish."
Cactus (born Françoise Van Hove) grew up very much into art -- writing and painting from her teenage years on. In the '80s she started making music inspired by "geniale dilettanten" (genius dilettantism), a German art and music movement similar to punk. It developed in West Berlin, a city that had become a magnet for creative types, since it was the one city in West Germany without compulsory military service. This is when bands like Einstürzende Neubauten began using industrial instruments, experimental primitivism, and electronics.
"The idea was -- if you wanted to be a musician, for example -- you don't have to be a really special person. You don't have to take any lessons for learning guitar. You just have a good idea, and then you go onstage and do it," she says of the movement. "I got my best two friends and said, 'Let's do that.'"
That's how her garage-punk band, the Lolitas, began -- which was around the same time Göring was creating his experimental noise and tape-loops project, the Sigmund Freud Experience. With names like that, these two had to come together eventually.
They met in a Berlin bakery in 1993, and Cactus thought he was cute. They lived on the same street, and before you knew it, they were playing together. Their first song was a 10-minute cooking recipe in which each ingredient had a sexual undertone. Since then they have released seven full-length albums encompassing garage, punk, rock, electronics, new wave, French chanson, and '60s yé-yé.
Stereo Total's latest, Paris-Berlin, is a particularly punchy affair, from the clanging "Plus Minus Null" and the burbling "Chewinggum" to the punky "Plastic" and a comic ode to "Patty Hearst."
"For this new album, we wanted it to be a little bit more rock and roll, because these electronic bands are sometimes boring -- because they are using always the same sounds," she says. "So we wanted that our record sounds like a live concert."
One of the album's most amusing songs is "Baby Revolution," which blathers about sexual revolution, the bourgeoisie, and Marxism over a trilling synth line and persistent clatter. The lyrics come, naturally enough, from a movie by gay Canadian porn director Bruce LaBruce.
"It's called Raspberry Reich, and this is the story of Gudrun Ensslin, a German terrorist [of the Baader-Meinhof Gang]. But it's all transformed into gay porn," she explains. "It's very funny. It has the feeling of movies by John Waters."
When not making music, which consumes most of her time, Cactus continues to paint, write, and create art. Moving between media gives her different ideas. While painting she might get an idea for a novel, or while writing, an idea for a song.
"It's like if I speak French or I speak English or I speak German, my ideas will stay the same ideas. Maybe I will speak better in French than in English. Maybe I better write than painting. But for me, it's just another way to express the same stuff," she explains.
One of her most famous creations is a topless, life-size wool puppet. She was hanging pictures for a particular group exhibit when she realized no one had contributed any 3-D art. So she decided to crochet her puppet, dubbed, appropriately enough, Wollita.
"One day I go out for a cigarette -- it's not forbidden here -- and I see this trashy newspaper: my puppet really big on the front page, and then written 'Scandal, Kinder-Porno [child-porn] exhibition,'" Cactus laughs. "It started a big scandal and made her famous. She's already recorded a CD where she sings about her love of wool."
Cactus is lucky. While some artists struggle to let go of their art, her creations are already forging a life without her.
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