Here’s a great little interview by Jonas with Chris Parson, the English translator at Paléo. Read on to find out why he was given Neil Young’s harmonica, how Joe Cocker loves Shepherd’s Pie (and hates broccoli!), what happened when Oasis played at the festival and how the Stranglers didn’t like being served white wine out of small Swiss glasses!
Chris Parson is the English translator for the Paléo festival in Nyon (which starts next Tuesday the 23rd July and runs through to the 28th) It’s thanks to him that you can read both the programme and the Paléo website in English. Chris has been working at Paléo since 1988, when the festival used be at Colovray by the lakeside.
Chris posing with Neil Young’s harmonica and signed LP
Chris was born in Dublin and raised in Preston, Lancashire. After studying philosophy and literature at Bristol, he did a degree in teaching and then went on to work in the civil service. He left his job (not long after Margaret Thatcher arrived on the scene) to go travelling in Asia, where he eventually met his Swiss wife, trekking in Nepal. A few years later, he moved to Switzerland.
He now teaches Adult Education at Geneva University, in the Faculty of Psychology and Education. He is also the president of the association of L’Elastique Citrique, (note they are on tour next week read more here). Chris is also involved in several local associations including the Usine à Gaz. He likes to cook, travel and listen to great musicians like Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. (Full disclosure he also happens to be my dad!) I met up with him to discuss his time working at Paléo.
When did you first start working at Paleo?
I first started in 1988. At the time the festival was still at Colovray. I was living in the same small apartment block as Jacques Monnier [co-founder of the festival and head of programming], and at the time I was giving English lessons to him and a few other friends from Paléo. Jacques asked me if I was interested in running the backstage hospitality area at the main stage, as he was looking for someone who could speak English and French and had some notions of diplomacy. I said: “Ok, why not”.
So you were thrown in at the deep end?
Yeah, I hardly knew anything about the Festival, and I found myself in charge of the dressing room area, where all the big-name bands playing on the main stage were being looked after before and after their shows. I was told to read all the technical riders attached to the contracts they’d signed and make sure I delivered everything that was asked for by the artists.
For instance, my first year The Stranglers asked for two litres of fresh orange juice to be ready as they went on stage. I mistakenly provided orange juice from a bottle, only to find out that when the manager didn’t have freshly squeezed orange juice in jugs he threatened to call off the concert. We had about half an hour to find some oranges on the festival site (at the end of July…), and squeeze enough out of them to fill the jugs. I suppose that was my baptism of fire (you might say baptism of orange juice!)
I spent a long time reading the rider for Carlos Santana [who will be playing this year at the festival], he had apparently asked to be given food and drink every fifteen minutes. We prepared everything and approached him every quarter of an hour to offer him food, juice, fruit etc… Every time we offered him anything, he politely refused, saying he didn’t really need anything. He probably only drank a couple of glasses of water all evening. This was when I realised that a lot of the demands made on behalf of the artist were formulated by their management teams and didn’t necessarily reflect the demands of the artists themselves.
What are the weirdest experiences you’ve had working backstage?
On the evening before the festival, we went out to eat ‘filets de perche’ with The Stranglers and their record company. Several members of the band were horrified to be given tiny little wine glasses in which to drink their white wine, they felt it was bad for their image, and asked for them to be replaced by beer glasses. They also asked for a rowing boat because they wanted to row across lac léman! That was on my first year. Otherwise, I was also asked to give a massage to the female violin player of the Wooden Tops, she had overheard someone saying I was good with my hands [chuckles].
I also remember when we hosted Julien Clerc at l’Asse (the Paléo grounds) in early ’90s, his staff were very keen to have a bottle of “pastis” for their aperitif, but Julien Clerc forbade them to drink alcohol before the concert, so we had to procure a bottle of pastis on the side and serve them under the table…
Perhaps the funniest incident involving alcohol, when the legendary guitarist BB King came to the festival, it was stipulated on his rider that a bottle of Cutty Sark whisky had to be placed on his dressing room table. This particular brand of whisky was not to be found in Switzerland, and we had to send a driver into France to find a bottle, which took him several hours to locate. As by now I was also acting as a translator for the festival, I was asked to serve as an interpreter for an interview with a regional newspaper. On entering BB King’s dressing room, he asked me if I’d like a drink (this was after the concert). I noticed that the bottle of Cutty Sark was standing unopened on the dressing room table and asked him for a glass of whisky, so he opened the bottle and served me a glass! I am pretty sure he never touched a drop.
One of the artists I’ve probably had the most to do with at Paléo is Joe Cocker. His rider always starts with the “Joe hates chicken, Joe hates broccoli”. There then followed a long list of things Joe can or cannot eat. In fact, Joe always eats the same thing: shepherd’s pie. We were provided with the recipe each time, which required several dollops of HP sauce, something rather difficult to find in Switzerland at the time… All the kitchen staff involved in making the shepherd’s pie would then come to his door and present it to him and ask him to autograph the recipe!
We once had to provide a three-course dinner with silver cutlery for 75 musicians and technicians working with Paul Simon. The kitchens were a quarter of a mile away, at La Ferme, and we had to carry everything back to the main stage. During the meal, a stocky little man in a white T-shirt walked up to me and asked me for a piece of Gruyère, saying, in a rather surreptitious way, “I’m on a diet, don’t let my manager see”. I then realised that this was the great Paul Simon.
You now work for the press office. What exactly is it that you do?
For the past fifteen years or so, I have been translating the programme, the press pack for the press conference that takes place in April, and the Paléo website content into English. This means that from February onwards, I am one of the handful of people who knows the festival line-up, which is revealed to the public round about the end of April. During the Festival, I am also responsible for organising press conferences, and for providing an interpretation service for the media who wish to interview English speaking bands. I also have to deal with the record companies and the artists’ managers.
Working at the press office, I suppose you’ve had your share of incidents with the press?
Probably the most notorious incident concerning the press, a band playing at Paléo and a record company was with Oasis. We knew the Gallagher brothers were in the middle of a bust-up and the band left the stage twice during the first half an hour of concert and never came back on, in front of a sold out crowd, claiming they had been pelted by coins and various other objects, including a urine-filled condom during one of their numbers. This was obviously an extremely sensitive situation, and the band demanded the British embassy in Bern provide them with an escort out of the festival. But the director of the festival, Daniel Rossellat, insisted that they should stay until the last member of the public had left the festival site after the last concert. Oasis who were one of the leading pop bands in the world at the time, were thus forced to stay until the early hours of the morning. A press conference was then held at 1.30 am, and before the Festival could give their version of the events, Oasis’ record company rushed in, and read out and distributed a somewhat biased statement to all of the journalists there.
I got to speak with a BBC world service correspondent, who was by chance on holiday in the area. When he heard the news, he hastily asked for an accreditation to the festival and asked me for my version of the events. As the English interpreter, I was faced the next morning with calls from breakfast TV shows and different English media who wanted to know what had happened. My nephew, who was having breakfast in the UK, suddenly heard my name as the official spokesperson for Paléo on Breakfast TV as he was having his breakfast! I think we made the front page of the Daily Mirror and the Sun.
This year, for the second time in twenty years, Neil Young will be playing at Paléo. I believe you have a special relationship with this particular artist?
Yes, for me Neil Young is certainly one of the greatest folk-rock musicians of the last forty years. In 1993, the night before my 40th birthday, Neil Young played on the main stage. At the end of the concert, as the clock struck midnight, my colleagues in the backstage area cracked open a few bottles of champagne and started singing “Happy Birthday”. It was the 22nd of July, and my 40th birthday. The tour manager hearing the singing and asked whose birthday it was, and when pointed in my direction, came up to me, handed me the harmonica Neil Young had played with that night, and wished me a Happy Birthday! I had also given him an album (Young’s first solo LP) to autograph, although he had told me that Neil Young never signed anything. I got it back duly autographed. Perhaps what impressed me the most was that he always toured with one of his very handicapped sons, who watched the show in a wheelchair in the wings. When it was time to go, I was asked to give a hand carrying his son to the car that was waiting to drive them back to the hotel, and found myself carrying the boy with his father, Neil Young himself. A great musician and a good guy. I am obviously looking forward to seeing him again this year…he will be playing the day after my 60th birthday this time, so I’d better polish up the harmonica!
All photos- Courtesy Jonas Parson