“I love it here. It’s like a dirty French version of Sydney,” says Nathan Roche of Marseille, the city he has called home for the last two years. Before that there was Paris and before Paris there was Sydney. Roche is someone who not only likes to bounce from city to city but also project to project.
He’s currently the frontman of the Villejuif Underground, a band who merge groove and grit to create sultry garage-rock-pop. He also makes improvised music as C.I.A. Débutante and his various credits for other bands — from Camperdown & Out to Disgusting People — stack way high.
An avid and fecund writer, Roche has also written and self-released an eye-watering 15 novels and seven collections of poetry. “I think it totals around 30 books I’ve written,” he estimates. “But I can’t say that they are all very good.”
To top it all, Roche has also recently became a model and muse for fashion house Celine. Catching the eye of creative director Hedi Slimane, the Villejuif Underground frontman was fast-tracked to collaborate on the brand’s latest campaign.
Here he talks us through his hectic and eclectic life.
Are you someone who needs to be active all the time?
I used to be like that when I was younger but now it’s a much more systematic and robotic approach. Writing a book or making a record isn’t a torturous thing to do — writing a book is the thing I enjoy most on earth. I’ve done it so much over the years that it’s kind of an easy and pleasurable thing to do — the only thing I need is time.
What made you decide to leave Sydney and head to France by yourself?
Life was too perfect in Sydney. I was getting money from the government, like the dole, and I was living off that and living in a place with a window overlooking Sydney Harbour. I’d wake up and go for a bike ride to different beaches and start drinking early in the afternoon. I was writing lots of books and making lots of music but I wasn’t using another section of my brain that I think could have been utilised. A part that involved learning another language or putting myself in uncomfortable and challenging situations.
Your Villejuif Underground bandmates are based in Paris and you’re in Marseille. Does that make getting together tough?
We never, ever rehearse. I don’t think we ever have rehearsed. We have a song and then just do it live until we remember it. This is why some people who see us live are like, “That was pretty good but what was that song, I don’t know it?” And we’re like, “Well we don’t know it either, we’re trying to learn it.”
What do you get up to in Marseille?
Since 2014 I haven’t had more than €200 in my account. Then all of a sudden this Celine thing happens and they gave me a bit of money, so for the first time in a few years I was able to put out a new book and I’ve recently been putting together a new poetry book with my wife — she’s done all the design and illustration. It’s kind of a joke to have so little in your account for years and then suddenly have some. I’m not a millionaire or anything but a couple of thousand is a hell of a lot to me and that means it’s possible to do a lot of things.
Were things a struggle when you only ever had €200?
I’ve been on tour for the last few years and I have a very low standard of living, so it’s easy to get by without having to work all the time. I tried to quit the band so that I could become a dishwasher, and I say that without sarcasm, but nobody would take me on. I was handing out resumes, and I’ve washed a lot of dishes in my life, but they often have the same people working at these places for like 10 years or something. It’s very hard to break into. It was easier for me to have a photoshoot with Hedi Slimane than become a dishwasher in Marseille.
Being in a band are you encouraged and supported more as a result of being in France?
It’s insane. I had no expectations of being treated this well or having drink tickets or food or a place to stay when on tour — in Australia that doesn’t exist. I was in the UK with C.I.A. Débutante last year for a little tour and I had forgotten what life was like for a touring musician outside of France. We played in Manchester and it was like, “Right, we take 50% of the door, there’s no food, nowhere for you to sleep, and maybe you’ll get a drink ticket.” In France they don’t even blink an eye when you ask for your fortieth cocktail. There’s a system in place for musicians where if you’re playing over 40 contract gigs a year you get €1,000 a month for your service to the arts. I haven’t been able to get that but lots of my friends have it.
It sounds like you follow your instinct when it comes to going to new places and trying out new creative projects. Has that impulsivity ever backfired?
For sure. It happened a few months ago in Morocco. I was there with my wife when this thing with Celine happened. They emailed me when I was in the middle of the Sahara desert and invited me to Paris for three days, so I was like hell yeah. I went to the airport and they told me my passport expires in two months and 25 days — there needs to be 3 months on it to travel.
This was the beginning of a torturous six weeks of being stuck there endlessly going to the embassy and not knowing if I was going to get deported back to Australia because I didn’t have legal papers. We ran out of money and my wife had to go back and wash dishes at her family restaurant to send me money to stay there and fuel my hashish addiction. It got pretty bleak.
What does the future hold?
I want to do some more poetry because it takes less time than a novel and I’ve always got this 2,000 page masterpiece novel that I really want to start on but I need to quit music to do it. It’s going to take forever. It’s about a time travelling poker player.