In October 2000, I found myself drinking champagne in an east London bar with Molly Ringwald. I'd had the usual schoolboy interest in the coltish American actress ever since The Breakfast Club; she was visiting town and a mutual friend suggested we meet. Molly wore fishnet stockings and her hair was short and brown. (Was it ever truly red?) We talked about a sitcom she was developing, and about the U.S. presidential race. When the bottle was empty she went off to have dinner at the Ivy with Channel 4 star Graham Norton; I got in a taxi, exhilarated but slightly glum, and went home. A copy of We Love the City by Hefner a London-based trio somewhere between folk and punk had just arrived from Amazon. I hit the play button and heard the first line of the first song: "This is London/ Not Antarctica/ So why don't the tubes run all night?/ You are my girlfriend/ Not Molly Ringwald/ So why won't you stay here tonight?"
After my freak-out subsided, I realized it was a perfect Hefner moment. Through five albums starting in the late '90s, the band constantly blurred the lines between life and art with songs about love-wrecked, angry misfits living in rented outer London bedsits and produced some of the funniest, most tender independent music to come out of the U.K. in a decade. Hefner appears to have evaporated, but the creative force behind it, Darren Hayman, has formed the French, which this week releases its debut Local Information, a winning collection of story songs from the miserabilist and his electric keyboards.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]"I don't like to say we split up," Hayman says of Hefner. "It's just that four or five albums is enough, unless there's something really new to do." Hefner's drummer and guitarist are pursuing solo projects, while Hayman and bassist John Morrison are the French. Why call a band the French? Hayman, who grew up in Essex, explains that due to the antipathy his countrymen have for their neighbors across the Channel, "it's a kind of litmus test of my audience."
His audience somewhere between big cult and the bottom of the pop charts will be relieved to discover that the essence of Hefner is still there: the realization that the stupid experiences we all have can be the building blocks of art. Hayman's is the music of false starts and dead ends; like Woody Allen and Philip Roth, he turns unvarnished neurosis into art.
The French sounds much as Hefner did on their last album, Dead Media: sparse organ arrangements that almost qualify as melodies, with occasional blips and bleeps added. Hayman says he had to create a new band to accommodate his increasing push toward electronica: "I don't think of eclectic as a good thing in a band, and to record the songs the way I want them to sound as a Hefner record would be misleading people."