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Just in time for Bastille Day, Whale in the Thames and Johnny Montreuil bring their French connection to Minnesota

Whale in the Thames

Whale in the Thames Photo provided by the band

Since 2011, Whale in the Thames has been one of this area’s most original, energetic, and just plain fun rock & roll bands. The band (singer/guitarist Choice Pickins, bassist Shelley Rohlf, drummer Brian Hanson, keyboardist Charles Boigenzahn, singer/guitarist Emily “Bee” Boigenzahn, and sometime trumpet player Matt Darling) is a garage-rock blast in concert and on its latest album, Whale Stampede.

Starting Friday for the next two weeks, Whale in the Thames and friends will be joined on stages from Wisconsin to Minnesota by Johnny Montreuil, a French rockabilly singer and actor who’s touring America for the first time in support of his album Narvalos Forever. “These guys are so good, and we really want to spread the word,” says Boigenzahn, who booked the Montreuil tour and who also plays guitar in the Clash cover band Rude Girl and garage rockers the 99ers. “Not many people know who they are here, but who knows? In two years or something, they could be as popular as [gypsy punks] Gogol Bordello.”

In advance of the shows, Boigenzahn chatted with City Pages about Johnny Montreuil, life in France, and her songwriting collaboration with her father, Slim Dunlap, who was felled with a massive stroke in 2012.

City Pages: How did this Minnesota-France connection with Johnny Montreuil happen?

Emily Boigenzahn: We first met him when we toured in Europe with Rude Girl and Whale in the Thames. Rashid Ouai, from Tarace Boulba, the 25-piece funk band that toured the States and that we hosted here, he agreed to help us get gigs in France. And after one of the Paris gigs, the band was invited to go out to a party out at Johnny Montreuil’s caravan on the outskirts of Paris.

I guess he landed there one winter when he was down on his luck and driving this dilapidated old camper van, and he came across this abandoned circus tent that they let him park his van in. Over time, people heard about it and he would have people come and play music with him and just hang out and it turned into a commune of artists living in this setting. So the band went to this party and we were just blown away; it was wild with all these artists and this guy with a stand-up bass at the center of everything, Johnny Montreuil.

He’s really enamored with the Wild West of the U.S. and outlaw music, and his music took on more of a rockabilly or psychobilly feel. They’re a four-piece and they just welcomed everyone with open arms, and we had a great time and our family went back to France last summer and met up with him.

CP: When did you first travel to France?

EB: In 1991, I was a student through the University of Minnesota program in Montpellier in the South of France, and I liked it so much I went back for another year. Chuck followed me over there, and we both loved it so much we wanted to find a way to live there and stay in France. It was that last year of college, and we started to wonder, “What am I going to do with my life? What direction do we take?” We were dreaming together, and this was also with our friend Fabrice Boy, who’s French, and who was a part of the host family that I had in Paris from the high school exchange I did.

So we were just dreaming about, like, how could we put all the things that we love all together in one place and share it with other people, and those things were: music; making and eating great food; reading; visual arts, and theater. So we ended up creating a cultural café called Le Bouquin Affame, which means “starving books,” and we were able to get government grants to build out this space, which became a community gathering space. We had English conversation circles on the weekend, and this really cool community of people with lots of regulars, and we got to discover a lot of really great French bands, because on average of two nights a week we’d host performances. We were there for six years.

CP: You guys are parents to two daughters [Eloise and Audrey] and your family has big musical roots here, with your mom [longtime First Avenue/7th St Entry booker Chrissie Dunlap] and dad [Curtiss A/Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap] and everything that’s bloomed from there. How did that inspire all this?

EB: For me, I’ve been a lifelong rabid music fan. As a teenager, I asked my dad to show me some stuff on guitar and he was like, “If you want to play guitar you’ve got to be original and you’ve just got to figure it out all by yourself.” So I just thought, “OK, that sounds too hard for now,” and just dove into being a huge music fan for all those years. When I was in France is when I first started trying to play guitar again, on an acoustic guitar, then I had Eloisie, who was born in 2000, and that put it away again.

Then in 2007, I was with some girlfriends and we were talking about secret ambitions or fantasies that we wanted to someday do. And I was like, “I want to learn to play guitar and the kind of guitar I’d want to play would be like the kind of guitar in the Clash. I’d have an all-girl cover band, and we’d play the music of the Clash.” And basically, my girlfriends, many of whom are in the band and already accomplished musicians, helped make that possible, and that band was really a vehicle for me to learn to play guitar.

By then my dad did show me a few things, but I mostly ended up doing what he had told me from the beginning, which is just trying to figure it out myself. I felt like all those rhythms were ingrained in my brain for so long that once I learned how to form the chords and stuff, the rhythms just came naturally.

So Rude Girl started in 2007, and I wanted to take it a step further and learn to write my own songs. And again, I talked to my dad about it, and he encouraged me. One piece of advice he gave me was, “Just start writing any songs. Bad songs. They could be the worst songs in the world, but that’ll get you started and you’ll start writing better ones.” Which I thought was great advice.

So then Chuck and some longtime friends, we just goofed around in the basement, and made the basement into a practice space, and then our good friend Choice Pickins jumped into the mix, and it all really clicked. We started really drawing from there, I think, and decided we wanted to be a band. Choice had a few songs, and I was struggling to write my own songs, and I talked to my dad about it.

It was Christmas, 2012, and he gave me song starters: “OK, here are some song starters. I’ve got a bunch of songs that I started, but they’re not all the way finished, and they don’t have lyrics yet, and I’ll give you these songs and then you can try and finish them as a way of getting started in songwriting.” So that fateful Sunday when I was just getting ready to put my coat on, it was a Sunday in February of 2012, right as I was about to walk out the door to our planned song starter session when I got a panicked call from my mom. My dad had fallen; he wasn’t moving, she’d called an ambulance and that was when he had his massive stroke.

So I raced over there. And in the hospital, he was talking and he was kind of goofy, and I don’t know if the stroke was still happening or if he was just on the other side of the stroke, but he kept talking about it, he was like, “I’ve still got your song starters, Bee; I’ve got your song starters, don’t worry about it.” It was just heart-wrenching that he was still talking about that; I was like, that’s the last thing we’re going to worry about that right now.

But in the end, that experience—of just kind of tearing your insides out and going through that turmoil—a lot of songs came out of that period, when your heart’s on the table and pulled out of your chest and you have all those raw emotions… And then with the band it was just such a godsend to have them there as my support going through that, because getting together with them, they could make me feel happy again. Playing music is just so therapeutic and it just works through a lot of that.

CP: One of the things I love about Whale in the Thames is your joyful rockin’ performances, and because you also have serious ballads, it’s a really dancing, cathartic thing when the rock kicks in. So from all that personal pain, comes lots of deep joy, too, and you share it. Lighthearted and heart-wrenching is the word, as you said. Which brings us to the name…

EB: It’s named for the true story of the whale—there’ve been multiple whales—who lose their way and start swimming up, up, up the river Thames and make it all the way to London. We’re intrigued by that story, and as a band when we first started, we’re not the most super proficient musicians in the world, so sometimes you feel like you’re swimming upstream or you’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be, but in the end it’s an adventure and it’s exciting and sometimes you make it to London, sometimes you end up in Paris, sometimes you’re back out at sea.

From there, Shelley, our bass player, is a visual artist, and she was really inspired by the aquatic imagery and she started doing a lot of paintings of the whale and waves. And I think we’ve always felt inspired by ’60s garage rock—American, British and French. But I think because of the era we grew up in and all the music we love, a lot of our sound has more of a late ’70s punk scene or DIY early/mid ’80s sound.

CP: What are you most excited for this week? Sounds like it’ll truly be a town-to-town caravan with a lot of cool stages and people involved.

EB: This is the first American touring that these guys have done, and I think it’s always good to return hospitality. They showed us a great time in France, and we’re hoping we can introduce them, through the different artists and venues that we’ve arranged, that we think they’ll connect with. Just the idea of introducing them to a lot of new people and a variety of music, hanging out with them and showing them a good time.

CP: The gigs are eco-friendly, yes? Why is that important?

EB: When I first started looking at finding them gigs around the region, it was close to around the time Billy Bragg was here [at the Fine Line in April], and I love the idea of his brand of touring, where you go and you spend a chunk of time in one spot, and you really get to experience that city, and the people of that area. I want them to be welcomed by people and have places to stay where that’s part of the experience, so that’s how I started thinking about it—Billy Bragg’s eco-friendly way of touring. So it’s just fun to explore all those options, and with all the different bands, each night will be unique with different crowds.

CP: Now that the plans are made and bookings done, you must be looking forward to playing.

EB: Yes! Just having a family and historic connection to the Entry, my all-time favorite place to see music and a place where I feel like I grew up, and then at the Hook and Ladder, as a newer place on the scene that my brother [Louie] was involved with in helping getting off the ground, and I just love that space, too. For the grand finale at the Hook, it’ll be the first time that all three of my bands will play in one night. So I might be a little tired by the end of this, but the last night I’m playing with all three of my bands. Then I think I’m going to take a little break.

It’ll be a whirlwind. It’s been a lot of work. I hope people come out to the shows. Anyone who goes to the shows won’t regret it—these guys are something else.

World-psychobilly-punk music fans have several chances to catch Johnny Montreuil this month:

July 12 – Tom’s Burned Down Café, Madeline Island, Wisconsin, with David Huckfelt and Keith Secola

July 14 – Landmark Center, St. Paul, as part of the Alliance Française Bastille Day party, 1:30 and 5:15

July 15 – 7th St Entry, Minneapolis, with Whale in the Thames and Stranger Angel

July 16 – Palmer’s Bar, Minneapolis, with Parisota Hot Club

July 18 – Mortimer’s, Minneapolis, with Goo Goo Mucks, the Pitchafits, and Whale in the Thames

July 19 – Ed’s No Name Bar, Winona, with Whale in the Thames

July 20 – Hook and Ladder, Minneapolis, with the Boot R&B, Rude Girl, Gini Dodds and the Dahlias, Uppertown, the 99ers, and Whale in the Thames