Taxi Girl

It’s May of 1980 when the rest of France discovers “Mannequin,” a 45 fresh from Paris and composed by an all-male group, Taxi Girl. The single alludes to suicidal compulsions—not fashion—and yet France is seduced by the synthetic and exhilarating tune. French pop is some of the most sensual in the world, and the young and the restless, with their pale skin, lauded by the likes of Actuel magazine, are enough to bring tears to one’s eyes.

With their second hallucinogenic single, “Cherchez le garcon,” an avant-garde hymn to the quest for identity inspired by the crime fiction and farce of the Burroughs, Taxi Girl becomes their prince. At the height of their influence, the group radiates a poetic aura that places them at the level of Genet or even Rimbaud, yet they still can’t kick the hangover.

In 1981, while still basking in their glory, the group’s drummer dies of an overdose. They immediately wrap their first album, Seppuku, and release it that same year. The album cover? A young Japanese woman about to perform hara-kiri. A razorblade is required to listen to the disk and its dark romance, full of witchcraft, murder, and addiction, for the simple reason that the vinyl is sealed shut on all four sides. For Taxi Girl, razorblades are a symbol. Always cutting-edge, the group lived a short and stormy existence from 1978 to 1986, with enough lightning speed to induce vertigo. Even today, listening to their tapes and ever-modern songs, each as beautiful as a bullet, conjures an entire Parisian urban landscape. Rose Bonbon. Palace. Forum des Halles. Punks, outcasts, nights spent stoned, bar fights, the curse of a band broken apart too soon because they refused to be tamed and refused to submit. Independent, young and (too) proud. Almost an aesthetic manifesto.

The same quixotic, radical and rebellious energy can be found in Études’ Spring–Summer 2018 collection. The collective tapped Mirwais to create clothing and a soundtrack. The collection is a remix of Paris in the ’80s. Of firsts. Discovering the capital and its Métro. Falling in love. Getting goosebumps at a concert. Are one-way tickets available? Destination: an era of electric shivers from pulling an all-nighter, where razorblades hang from one’s neck, brandished like flags. Where boys look like women, and women look like boys. Where the City of Lights is rocked in the penumbra of hypnotic monochrome. Black, white, khaki, fluorescent yellow, blue, green, and prints that harken back to vintage Métro tickets and posters of torn fences. Work and party clothing, with large, wide pants and oversized trenches for roving without shackles or fetters. Paris, ever a “city of dreams”, still has us walking. A look back on the prodigal era with one of its heros, Mirwais. At just 18 years old, he became Taxi Girl’s guitarist. Since then, he’s transformed into a global star in the production of futuristic electronic music.

Why did you decide to collaborate with Études?

You know, people say that Taxi Girl is a cult group, an iconic group, but it was a rather underground. There was never a second album. You don’t just approach us out of sheer luck, there’s got to be an entire thought process behind it. You approach us because you know what Taxi Girl was and you like what it stood for. Above and beyond that, having an interest in the group means being interested in something that’s not purely commercial, that even during its glory days wasn’t super well-known. There are many different ways to embrace the music of the ’80s. Études could have turned towards Duran Duran or a hip-hop group like Public Enemy. What really got me is that they paid attention to a group that’s been gone for over 30 years and only lasted for 8. Taxi Girl isn’t the Beatles. We weren’t hip. We’re still really underground. Today, a lot of creators turn toward what’s in style or try to predict what will be tomorrow. Études is distinctive and they’re against uniformity.

Taxi Girl was also against uniformity. In the 1980s, you broke with a lot of codes, first and foremost in terms of diversity. You’re Afghan-Italian. Daniel Darc was Russian, Lithuanian, and born into a Jewish family. And you dreamed of England, Germany, the United States, and Japan...

We fantasized a lot about countries abroad, but it was really only a fantasy because we had access to nothing. It was the era before the internet. There were three television channels and when you wanted to listen to music, you had to go to a record dealer, and they were few and far between. At the time, rock dominated and it was culturally very white, with groups like U2 or the Police. Michael Jackson hadn’t yet changed the game and it wasn’t until 1982 with Thriller that diversity really arrived on the music scene. Even then, Jackson’s record label had to blackmail MTV to put him up front and center. If you don’t show Jackson, we won’t give you Springsteen. On one hand, there was “white” music and, on the other hand, “black” music. During that period, funk was only a hit amongst hicks (before the French Touch sampled Nile Rodgers). The French respected old “black” music like Nina Simone but thought hip-hop was just a passing fad. When we recorded “Paris”, Daniel [editor’s note: Darc, Taxi Girl’s lead singer who passed in about 2013] and I were shocked by “The Message” by Grand Master Flash. Honestly, people didn’t give two shits about us. Our song, “Dites le fort: nous sommes jeunes, nous sommes fiers” also referenced James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”

You were really heterodox, especially with your use of synthesizers before guitars. Were you aware of that?

Despite the fact we were part of the after-punk movement, few people really listened to that in France. We were really influenced by the period that spanned 1977, or the end of punk, up through the beginning of the new wave with the success of Police. And then there were groups like Magazine, Kraftwerk, or Devo that a lot of people forgot about. Taxi Girl was different from them and maybe a bit too ahead of its time. We formed in 1978, when the French thought that modernity was Téléphone, and the year before they were blasting out the same type of rock as the Stones. It’s not hard to understand that if Téléphone was considered the renaissance of French music, we could hardly ask audiences listening to French variety and the Stones to listen to Blondie and Kraftwerk, which we loved. We wanted to play punk but it was too late and we told ourselves that we weren’t going to be a guitar group. So we mixed guitars with synths to avoid fake rock. In any case, I’ve always believed that rock ended in 1973 with the Stooges’ Raw Power. When I was 12 or 13, I had long hair and I listened to the Stooges. I wanted to make rock music. It started with Jimi Hendrix, whom I heard on the radio for the first time when I was 11, a complete shock. For some people, it was Elvis, for me, it was Hendrix. Afterwards I started listening to the Stones, the Doors, Velvet, in 1975. From 1974 to 1975, no one listened to Velvet or the Doors, they were curiously enough very indie.

You were also part of the vanguard in your solo career, for example, with “Naive Song,” a song that blends electro-folk influences from Madonna with house music and auto-tune. What strikes you as insanely modern today?

I’m interested in what’s next. I’m currently wrapping a new LP. The biggest issue isn’t creating music, it’s getting paid to make music. And that’s part and parcel of the process of creating it now. No musician can afford to work for years on an album only to end up like the flavor of the week and not eke out enough to make it. As practiced by major labels, remuneration based on streaming kills artistic freedom because musicians can no longer succeed in making a living. We have to find alternatives. When will someone write the equivalent of the New York Times article incriminating Weinstein, but for streaming rights and record labels? Everyone loves music but musicians are paupers and fragile. That needs to change. Women are currently trying to free themselves from sexual harassment, and in this unsettling period, musicians should also act. We have to rebel a bit. We rebelled with Taxi Girl, we didn’t want to just endure things.

At Taxi Girl’s concerts, what was your audience like?

There was a little bit of everything. At first a lot of extremists, then political activists, then others, but above all hippies and a few punks. Today, when we talk about punk we always show the same photos of the Sex Pistols in leather blouses, especially the one of Sid Vicious with the padlock around his neck. But this look was really on the fringes in France. It takes a long time for a trend to make its way to the streets. The hippie movement was born in San Francisco in 1967 but it wasn’t until years later that the hippy “vision,” so to speak, was brought about, especially in France. All to say that, in a crowd of about 2000 people, there were perhaps 50 people dressed in leather and the rest, they were a hangover from the hippie ’70s, men with tresses that came to concerts because they knew there would be a ruckus.

Did you really fight that much? And then Daniel slit his wrists in public...

We didn’t fight all the time, but sometimes, when we did, it was catastrophic. There were a lot of fist fights with violent punks and Daniel has a habit of instigating the public. In Beauvais, one group got up on stage and we fought, the concert was stopped, a bunch of cop cars were flipped over. Things often degenerated. There was violence, amateurism, accidents. We had the same kind of savageness that you can find in the ’burbs with rap. We were a bunch of weirdos with a morbid album (Seppuku) and our drummer, Pierre, died of an overdose of heroin at 19 years old. We argued, we tried to undercut one another. People came to our concerts and were disappointed because they only wanted to hear stuff in the same style as “Cherchez le garcon.” Like the Doors, we only played about fifty concerts. But everyone who came remembers.

You were born in Lausanne, Switzerland, before leaving for Kabul. You arrived in Paris in 1966. Do you remember the first time you saw the French capital? What did you feel?

After living in Afghanistan until I was six, it was very weird. When you watch the music video “Paris,” the ambiance is just about the same. The city is dirty and grey, not at all the “City of Light.” I set up shop in the 18th near Guy Moquet, which was the stomping ground for rockers. It’s just about the same thing as it is today except back then, they wore fanny packs and seemed a bit more ridiculous. I lived next to a small group of projects called the “cités Rothschild,” and I’m pretty sure the family had them built. It was all 20th-century architecture with orange English brick. Most people don’t know this, but in Paris in the ’60s, it was tough to find a place to live. There weren’t enough apartments. France started industrializing in the ’60s and “imported” 2 million people from the Maghreb to help with construction. I arrived in France not long after this period. In working-class neighborhoods you could see glaziers in the streets. Building fronts were somber, filthy, and Parisians wore black. There wasn’t a lot of color.

The music video for “Paris” looks like the Paris of today. Did you make a point to stick to Daniel’s words about the capital? (“This is Paris, and in Paris, there’s nothing to do but walk in the streets, walk in the streets during the day, and wait; wait until it’s a bit warmer out, until there’s a bit more light, until there’s a bit more love”)?

Yes, that’s really what we thought. At the time, we were going through a period where we had lost everything: our label, our manager had ripped us off, we had separated from Laurent Sinclair (keyboard), we were broke. We’d been one upped by Daho and Indochine, a boy band that had opened for us. We had to prove ourselves once again and we were at the end of our rope. We shot most of “Paris” in the 13th arrondissement, near the Olympiades and Belleville, but also at the Bleu Nuit bar behind Les Bains Douches on the rue Volta. We found a lot of squats where we hung around towards rue de l’Ouest, at Montparnasse. It was all very dirty, with paved stone everywhere, even the Champs-Elysées. Up until about twenty years ago, the Champs-Elysées consisted of two side lanes, you couldn’t really circulate. Since then, lots of things have been restored. It’s hard to imagine that there was nothing, you could just wander in the streets. Boredom, inertia, dread...those are the things we wanted to fight against by forming a young group. Palace, Rose Bonbon, they were lights out in the middle of the ocean. Paris was more than that.

Where did you hang out?

I’ve lived at Marcadet Poissonnier, Barbès, Pigalle, Châtelet. From ’77 to ’79 I was at Guy Moquet, and Daniel lived with his mom on the rue Cauchois. We often met up at the Montmartre cemetery at the top of the rue Joseph de Maistre, then we would grab a few drinks at the nearby café. That was before he started using heroin and ruined himself.

Has Parisian urbanism inspired your sound, including your album Production? What about its cold side?

Tough for me to say. In regards to the idea of “warmth” from “commercial” music, we found mainstream, overly commercial music so cold that even Kraftwerk seemed warmer. I think that songs from certain pop stars nowadays are much colder and devoid of humanity than Joy Division. I’m speaking specifically about intention, not sound. No theatricalization can evoke artificial emotion.

What does “Taxi Girl” mean? Where does it come from?

From the outset, we tried to pass it off as the title of a pocket paperback, even though we were still in high school and went to the café around the corner, but in truth it was really to imitate the Velvet Underground, whose name was inspired by the title of a paperback. We were referencing the “Taxi Girls,” young women you could pay for a dance. During our first concert at the Rose Bonbon, there were a bunch of guys à la Weinstein that had booked us only because they thought we were a bunch of chicks. We were also a bit rebellious and transgressive, so we thought it was funny to call ourselves Taxi Girl even though we were an all-male group.

You and Daniel Darc seemed to pay a lot of attention to the way you dressed...

Yes, but in a very natural way. We didn’t have a stylist. What blows me away is that when I watch our music videos, I find ourselves to be pretty stylish. In “Paris,” I’m wearing a teddy like a lot of people would today. One of my only fights with Daniel was about our look, back in 1978. I wanted Doc Martens but there weren’t any in France, so I asked our manager to bring me back some from London, which meant an entire expedition by ferry boat. Daniel ripped me a new one: “You can’t wear that! Especially not with your military pants!” Obviously, a few years later, he was wearing them, just like everyone else. Once, some skinheads decided to screw with me but they noticed I was wearing Docs and because few of us had them, they stopped giving me trouble. Our red and black rags were a reference to Kraftwerk and anarchists. As for Daniel’s leather, we found that at the flea markets in Montreuil and Saint-Ouen. On the cover of my album Production, released in 2000, I’m wearing a leather jacket that I bought for 300 francs (45 euros) at the flea market during the Taxi Girl years. When I went back to the flea market that same year, leather jackets cost 1,000 euros. Paris was also like that in the 1980s, you could buy a super leather jacket for 45 euros because only thugs wanted them.

For one of your concerts, you used an image of Hitler with a mustache à la Dali. Was this a situationist statement?

The picture of Hitler was for a concert at Palace opened by the Talking Heads. A few weeks later, a few dudes from Betar (a Jewish youth movement) came to mess me up, and I had to explain to them it was a surrealist portrait. Today, we couldn’t use that image at all.
In any case, Taxi Girl was an artistic venture. Robert Combas also painted a big tableau for us on a window he had salvaged from the Champs-Elysée, and called it “Army of the Night.” We died in indifference. Nobody understood, we made no compromises, we ran ourselves straight up against a wall. But our arguments and convictions were close to the situationist movement abroad. We told our audiences, “Okay, you came to see us, but after the concert, stop being passive, don’t put up with the crap on the radio and band together, act.” That’s how we inspired a lot of people. We didn’t want to earn millions to buy Lamborghinis like in the industry now, nor did we want to be famous but we wanted to help others. That’s why we created an independent label, Man’Kin, and we lost all our money when our manager Alexis Quinlin ripped us off, kinda like Malcom McLaren. But at least we did something. We had very contradictory personalities. Daniel was dark, provocateur, tortured. Laurent was narcissistic and flamboyant. As for me, I was ambivalent about a lot of things. I always thought that I had to go against the grain, that we couldn’t let a bunch of dimwits train people through pop culture and hit charts. We wanted to make music that spoke about the darkness in the world and told people the truth. Our vision wasn’t depressive; it was realistic.

Conversation with Mirwais Ahmadzaï, Paris, February 2018. Interview by Violaine Schütz. Translation by Lindsay King. Archive & press photography.