Garry Mulholland goes backstage to see the lunacy of Eurovision

Everyone knows Eurovision is silly - but what could be dafter than drafting in a proper pop star to take part? In Belgrade, Sébastien Tellier guides Garry Mulholland through the lunacy backstage

The taxi driver seems delighted to see me. As he picks me up from the Eurovision hotel, he recognises me immediately as a Brit. He grins a toothless grin as he proudly informs me, in a thick Serbian accent, that he was born in Edinburgh, a much better place than Belgrade which, he reckons, is 'shit'. He then covers his mouth and mumbles an embarrassed apology for his toothlessness. 'Dentistry is expensive in Serbia,' he grumbles.

There is a silence. And then: 'So ... you are working at Eurovision?'. I confess that I am. 'Then maybe you can tell me ... how come I was told three months before that it was arranged for Russia to win?' As soon as the toothless Scottish cabbie says this, I know that my naive prediction that Denmark's faux-Britpop entry will win because it's hideously catchy is, well, really naive. I tell him that I have no real knowledge of the inner workings of Eurovision but that, if Russia win, I'll be thinking of him. Approximately eight hours later, as the voting settles into that familiar feeling of inevitability and Russia pull away from early leaders Greece, all I can see and hear is a toothless, ranting Serbo-Scot cabbie declaring, 'I hate zer Russians. Why don't they speak English?'

The 53rd Eurovision Song Contest is being held, on 24 May 2008, in the Beogradska Arena in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. The chance to revive the global image of a country best known, less than a decade ago, for genocide and Slobodan Milosevic was given to Serbia by Marija Serifovic and her song 'Molitva' (Prayer), which won the contest in 2007. This was the fourth winner from the former Eastern Bloc since 2001. If you noticed the minor furore after this year's contest led by Terry Wogan's somewhat out-of-character tantrum, it's worth mentioning that eastern Europe kept a dignified silence when Ireland and the UK won it five times out of six between 1992 and 1997. I'm just saying.

But one country that never wins Eurovision is France. Not since 1977, in fact. Stung by its failure to match the likes of Luxembourg (1983), Estonia (2001) and Latvia (2002) in the ferociously camp, visually stupid and mindlessly repetitive Euro-stakes, the nation that brought the world Carla Bruni, Charles Aznavour and Flat Eric decided that radical measures were needed. France's equivalent of the BBC rejected a public vote and simply invited their favourite cool, chic and critically acclaimed Parisian solo artist to represent France this year. Bizarrely, Sébastien Tellier said oui.

Tellier is a 33-year-old composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist, whose haunting instrumental 'Fantino' was on the soundtrack of Lost in Translation. Air hired Tellier as support on their 2001 world tour, and his second album, Politics (2004), presented surreal social commentary comparing genocide to ketchup and imagining games of tennis using the Berlin Wall as a net. It also featured the extraordinary 'La Ritournelle', an aching piano-led love song in the 'Unfinished Sympathy' mould co-starring Fela Kuti/The Good, The Bad & The Queen drummer Tony Allen and the Prague String Orchestra. This year's Sexuality album was produced by Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and is an erotic electro-pop masterpiece, inspired equally by Serge Gainsbourg, Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' and Tellier's actress/comedian girlfriend, Amandine de la Richardière.

Tellier's Eurovision entry, 'Divine', is plucked from Sexuality and, with its ethereal backdrop of sampled harmony vocals, is both an obvious tribute to the ultra-American pop of the Beach Boys and a dreamy lyrical reflection on the young Sébastien's desire to join a cool rock band. Add Tellier's image - hulking beardy long-hair in jet-black shades and ironic yachting or golfing chic - and one sees that 'Divine' is the least likely Eurovision entry in the contest's proud history of fromage. The UK equivalent would be the BBC cancelling A Song For Europe and asking Hot Chip and Jarvis Cocker to form a supergroup for the occasion. And them saying yes.

So I'm here to ask the obvious question: why the bloody hell does a 'serious' and unbearably fashionable underground pop face want to sign up to this circus of freaks, geeks and bimbos and mysterious political manoeuvrings?

The backstage area, a barely disguised gym with its leaking roof and makeshift huts as dressing-rooms, is a riot of Eurotrash colour. In front of me, Finnish metal gods. To my right, hyper-enthusiastic Spaniards in Elvis wigs. To my left, hulking Latvian pirates, pretty boy gay dancers and 50 singers in radioactive make-up practising their operatic scales. But behind me, a bunch of besuited bohemians sneaking a crafty fag or spliff, and occasionally deigning to raise a quizzical eyebrow and smile knowingly. Man, I love the French. Can I be in your gang?

What I don't know at this point is that Tellier and co are almost paralysed by stress and frustration, and that the French are teetering on the edge of not turning up at all.

'I feel some... what is the opposite of love? Pain. Not pain, but ... against me. That I am an unlucky guy. Always unlucky. But it's always good at the end. It's always a catastrophic rehearsal, quite good show.'

When Sébastien Tellier says the word 'rehearsal', he actually says, 'ree-arsehole'. It is just five hours before showtime, and we are sitting down for our formal interview in a room in Belgrade's Hotel Continental, where all the contestants are staying. The reason we are doing the interview almost a day-and-a-half later than scheduled is because the Swedish producers of this Serbian show have been royally messing up the shooting of Tellier's performance during the nine dress rehearsals, and he has been too stressed out to spare the time and energy to talk. The second dress rehearsal is so bad it's funny ... or it is if you're not the one putting your reputation on the line in front of a projected global audience of 120 million people.

While all the other entries are filmed with ruthless precision and meticulously swooping crane shots, Tellier's performance looks as if the Swedes have given the camera to a small child with attention-deficit disorder. The stage backdrop, which is supposed to be a sun-drenched beach, looks like a primordial swamp dipped in ink from a Biro. Tellier's joke is to drive on stage in a golf buggy, but this is shot from so far away it could be anything. This is followed - repeatedly - by shots of Tellier's feet. When they do find his hairy face, the camera stays rooted to the spot, allowing him to walk gently out of the frame until the screen is full of ... nothing at all. At one point, the director cuts to a shock shot of Seb's crotch, provoking sniggers throughout the backstage area. The backing singers, who are all wearing carefully applied Tellier beards and shaggy hair, are invisible, but you can see the stagehand assigned to remove the golf-buggy dart across the back of the stage. Tellier's record label boss Marc Tessier Du Cros gasps, 'It's like Spinal Tap. Or Monty Python.'

But while the French entourage whisper the word 'sabotage' and start to talk out loud about pulling out in protest, Tellier appears to be the calmest man in Belgrade. He's a fantastic interviewee, filtering his second-language English through an artist's veneer of poetic flourishes. He is warm, funny, indiscreet, and simultaneously hyper-confident and wryly self-effacing. If his quotes lose something in the translation, just keep in mind your favourite male French accent - Depardieu, Cantona, Sacha Distel - and you'll get the picture. And his reasons for agreeing to do Eurovision are simple.

'First, it was to give some pleasure to my family, in fact. It was a pleasure to call my mother and my father to say I had made the Eurovision Song Contest. It's very funny, because in Paris sometimes I go in dance club, and it's a pleasure to tell these people I go to Eurovision Song Contest. It's quite stylish, you know? After, step-by-step, I discovered Eurovision can give me a lot of things. It's kind of ... a big sun. Eurovision can put a lot of light on my music and on my name, and that's a very good thing for me because I want to make music until I die. I don't want to stop because I'm not successful. But if I am too close to the sun, I could burn. I have to keep a distance.'

I'd been advised by Marc that Tellier is bored by Eurovision questions, and that I'll 'get a better interview if you entertain him'. Deciding against my semi-legendary impersonations of Seventies' sitcom characters, I ask him about his troubled teenage years. You were a bit of a hooligan, yes?

'A kind of rebel, yes. But because I was obsessed with breaking things ... cars, flowers in the street. Because it was a very boring teenage for me, in a very boring city. It's between the 17th arrondisement, a suburb around 20 miles from Paris. Nothing to do but take some LSD and break something. The city was very close to a forest, so during the night, me and my friend, full of vodka, with an axe, we would try to create a clear place with not so many trees. Vodka and LSD. It was really wonderful. A great part of my life, in fact. But now I don't want to be like that any more because when you break a car from somebody else it's not good for the other guy.'

Were you ever arrested?

'Yes. One time. In Biarritz. I talk about this city in the first song on Sexuality, called 'Roche'. I was in a younger boys' school during the night, and tried to take some plates, just to ...' He mimes frisbeeing plates against a brick wall. 'But the police came and take me to the police office. But it was not so bad. No jail or nothing. After that some things with the police about drugs but nothing too bad.'

Was the LSD a big influence on your art?

'Yes it was. I was a very flat teenager. So to have some character and good style, LSD was the best. Along with alcohol. It was...' - Tellier mimes a bomb exploding - 'I came to create my own personality with drugs. That changed a lot of things in my life because, after LSD, I had no more respect for serious books. I saw no difference between serious book and a TV show. With LSD, everything seemed equal. At the beginning this was a kind of sadness because when everything is equal you don't care about anything. But after that, now, because it stayed in my mind long after ... maybe my last acid was about six years ago ... but I still feel ... erm ...'

You get flashbacks?

'Well ... kind of flashbacks. But for me, when you think everything is equal in life, that gives you a very good position. It's kind of an adult sickness, but also a freedom.'

Is this why you're so calm about the Eurovision screw-ups? Most pop stars I've met would be going ballistic by now. You just shrug and smile.

'Yes, yes! It's just a TV show. It's just Eurovision. Maybe what's important for me now is my girlfriend, maybe buying a house in Italia. Because I love boats and where I want to live in Italia has a wonderful lake. And it's a big pleasure to make boat there, and I want to buy an house there. But I haven't money. Herherher! I have to wait. But it's a big dream in my head. Anything else ... poof!'

In truth, Tellier's bid for Euro triumph has been on the verge of going poof ever since he agreed to do it. A few weeks before the first rehearsal, Tellier was told that sampled vocals were not allowed - hence his five backing vocalists, a Parisian choir who have had to painstakingly recreate the complex computerised harmonies in a few rehearsals. Then Tellier's regular sound engineer broke his shoulder and arm in a freak cycling accident. While all this was going on, Tellier found himself in the midst of a minor political storm as the French Culture Minister was asked to explain why this year's Eurovision entry was largely sung in English. Tellier eventually bowed to political pressure and got his girlfriend Ms de la Richardière (whom Tellier refers to as 'Justine') to add two lines in French. Is she Tellier's muse?

'Yes. Completely. Because, before her, I was a very anxious guy and sad guy. But with her I fall in love and so that love give me a kind of power and I can forget my little problems. She gave me lightness and something sweet. And she love sex. So she was the perfect partner to write Sexuality.'

Another vital part of Tellier's world is his label, Record Makers. Despite many offers from majors, Tellier has stayed loyal to the tiny Paris indie that gave him his first record deal.

'It is really important to me. When I talk about work with Marc it's a real pleasure and good times. It's really hard to walk into a big record company with the big table with water for conference ...'

Your parents are pretty successful, yes?

'Yes. My mother runs a school for genius children. And my father is a consultant. He explains to companies how they can make more money.'

So was your acid vandal phase a rebellion against them?

'No no no! My father wanted I become a musician from my birth. So at Christmas it was not toys - it was music instrument.'

Is it true that the first gig you ever played was opening for Air in America?

'Almost true. Just before that I did two very little gig in Paris, in a very little bar with just a guitar, just to discover what it was like to be on stage. But it was nothing... free tickets for friends. So really the first one was with Air in, I think, it was Houston. Or Dallas. In front of a huge audience. The amplifier broke on stage ... poof! But it was not so bad as the technician fixed it.'

Were you nervous?

'Yes. There was much vomit. And one time I pee on myself. Really! Before gig I am very stressful because I know everything is possible. And now I'm afraid about violence from somebody else.' He picks up a water bottle and mimes throwing it. 'You know ... something like that. I'm still anxious.'

So you'll be pissing yourself tonight?

'Yes. I will be very nervous.'

Do you think you're going to win?

'I think it's possible. There are almost 20 songs that are the same. But I don't know, because I have no choreography, no dance. I think maybe the audience of Eurovision love that kind of thing. We will see.'

So, win or lose, what are you planning to do after the contest?

'Drink a lot. In a stylish environment, but a very comfortable one. With beautiful girls. Because tomorrow I have to go to Turkey to play a show. So the night will be very short, maybe no sleep ...' Tellier drops his voice to a conspiratorial mumble. '... And maybe drugs.'

'I feel bad. Very bad.' A sober and drug-free Sébastien Tellier is sitting, slumped and rumpled, in another room in the Hotel Continental. In the room next door is the quietest post-gig party of all-time, all attempts to laugh off the French contingent's disappointment pretty much abandoned. It is two hours since Tellier came 18th out of 25 in the Eurovision Song Contest, with a not-so-grand total of 47 points. And I didn't get into the Green Room - which is actually a White Room - but it was no loss, as France did not receive a single 'douze points'. I have also sat through Eurovision four times, which I'm now seeing as free aversion therapy for my lifelong addiction to the daftest pop show on earth.

The winning entry, 'Believe' by Russia's Dima Bilan, was produced by American super-producer Timbaland, and the performance featured a surreal figure skating exhibition from a terrifyingly unattractive man called Evgeni Plushenko, who is an Olympic champion, apparently. Toothless cabbies can come up with as many conspiracy theories as they like, but 'Believe' is quintessential Eurovision. And although I especially feel for the contest's only black lead singer, Andy Abrahams, who finished joint last with UK entry 'Even If', he might well have done better if he could have afforded Timbaland to produce it and Torvill and Dean to swirl pointlessly around him for three minutes.

While most of the onscreen problems that had besieged the French all week were resolved for the live performance - although the director still seemed unnecessarily fascinated by Tellier's feet - there's a post-show feeling that this might have all been a mistake. The experience was somewhat defined by Tellier's attempt to take the piss out of it all by bringing on a helium balloon, having a suck halfway through, and singing a few lines in munchkin. The balloon, of course, didn't work, and it just looked like a beardy bloke trying to stuff a beach ball in his gob.

The pre-Eurovision maths were simple for his label Record Makers - if one per cent of a 120 million TV audience decided maybe to buy a Tellier record, that's 1.2 million potential new customers. But right now, everyone just feels humiliated. And particularly Tellier.

'I don't know why, but, before Eurovision, I don't care about the points. But, step-by-step, you go into the game. Like Monopoly or Scrabble. Day after day you go completely in the game, and so, today, I'm a little disappointed. Because I'm just 18 ... It's so pitiful! So the number one is Russia. And I propose to your audience of the magazine to watch the Russia performance on the internet to judge. So maybe the audience of Eurovision is not the same audience as the real world.'

So you're not going to blame politics, then? 'The UK singers were the last one, no? That's ... So, yes, it's kind of politics games between the countries. But for artists the politics game are too complicated. Not complicated, but ... it's another job. For me, I don't feel the politics. It's more that people want to have something very comfortable. With just one violin. Ice skating around. For me, it's just a pitiful show, you know? It's a shame. So maybe I'm not ready for the popular world.'

Tellier sighs, and makes one more attempt to put on his brave face. 'My performance was not so bad. It was one of the best of Eurovision. Not the best, but ... one of the most original. But it's a TV show, so when you make this TV show you are a kind of slave of the film-makers. So I was a slave and my master was not so good.'

Tellier's parting shot to Eurovision may be somewhat melodramatic. But it touches upon something real. Eurovision is about manufactured pop, and manufactured pop is about the performer surrendering, wholeheartedly, to whatever process the manufacturer deems saleable. Tellier is so 'indie' in attitude that he has a fear of conference tables. He is An Artist, and the artist's sensibility is sensitive, introspective and desperate to keep control of The Art. The manufactured pop performer has the skin of a rhino and is happy to be a 'slave' as long as it gets them a career in showbiz. While the French locked themselves away in their hotel rooms licking their wounds, most of the rest of the contestants were down in the bar of the Hotel Continental, getting royally pissed and swapping war stories about the various dumb-ass pop projects they'd been part of before. Eurovision is a huge self-perpetuating machine that has no interest in the style or philosophy of your precious arty types. It ate Tellier and spat him back out, barely pausing to see if he tasted good. He flew too close to the mainstream sun, and got his wings singed.

I suspect Sébastien Tellier will be seeing the funny side of his Eurovision experiment by now. He's a cool guy. But his failure to either win - or lose really badly in a blaze of rebellious glory - probably means that it will be another 50 years before a 'quality' artist does Eurovision, and that's probably a good thing. I mean, quality artists are everywhere. For three hours once a year, shouldn't the losers, twats and wannabes get top billing? What I do hope is that that mythical 1.2 million people are intrigued by 'Divine' and do go and buy Sexuality, because it is a beautiful, witty and wise album from one of the best artists in the world right now.

And if the Eurovision millions never materialise for Sébastien Tellier, he can still console himself that it could all have been much, much worse. He could be British and black.

· Sébastien Tellier plays at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk (17-20 July)


Garry Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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