Where has Nicole Thibault been? When NME speaks to Thibault, she’s uninterested in the COVID small talk – “Don’t ask. Next question.” She’s nervous about the Zoom video interview, but commits to it in an act of goodwill. Jokes are delivered dry, and often take a second to sink in. Her blonde bob and frilled white shirt make her appear not unlike the ’60s French singers that loom over her music.
The answer to Thibault’s recent whereabouts is written in between the lines of ‘Drama’, a single from her debut solo album, ‘Or Not Thibault’ – the first new music from the former Minimum Chips frontwoman in 15 years, released under the mononym of her last name. In the vague press line for the track, she described its impetus as “the realisation that I was experiencing pretty intense levels of legit ‘drama’ in my life for a couple of years”.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t want anyone to feel that I’m whinging,” she says now.
“I’m simply going ‘woah, this was full on’. I acknowledged it, got through it and I’m really proud of myself. I’m proud of myself for coming back to music, because it really got taken from me. That’s something I didn’t expect to happen… You have to get into that headspace [to make music] and I couldn’t do it for years.”
The truth of that drama is a lengthy, difficult divorce. But the effervescent music of Thibault refuses to wallow in trauma. Even a song about crying outside Australia’s infamous dole office, ‘Centrelink’, chooses to render the experience in constructive terms, backed by spacey, transcendental pop: “We’ve all been there / Some may not / Some never will”.
One of the most defining songs on the album is the most unassuming. On the surface, ‘Spanakopita’ is a twee rhythmic exercise, parsing a tune out of the push-pull rhythm of the title’s five syllables. “You’ve been making spanakopita, for the first time in a while / I can see your old self again,” she sings.
But its domestic simplicity is its emotive power – Thibault describes it as an ode to emerging from trauma, to be able to “come back to do the things that I used to be able to do”.
“It’s about coming back to yourself.”
“I’m proud of myself for coming back to music, because it really got taken from me. That’s something I didn’t expect to happen”
Thibault came from a classical background, studying trombone at university in Brisbane in the early ’90s. Her impoverished student life meant she went record shopping in thrift stores, where she discovered the orchestral pop of Burt Bacharach and the baroque work of French singers like Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg. Thibault began to play with early Chapter Music signees Clag, who described their own music as “psychotic kiddie punk”. The looseness of the playing started to interfere with the sanctity of her academics, and she dropped out soon after.
“I hated classical music. I was in an orchestra. I played one note in two hours. If you go see an orchestra, the trombones will just be sitting there. Half the time, I would miss my note. It was really stressful and really elitist,” Thibault recalls.
She formed Minimum Chips with friend and partner at the time Julian Patterson and Ian Wadley. They were a band that riffed on baroque pop in a trio setting, and their hypnotic and alien-sounding music enchanted a young music entrepreneur named Steve Pavlovic, who wanted to sign them to his soon-to-be launched label Modular Recordings.
“Fugazi loved Minimum Chips. Just goes to show they have taste”
In the interim, Pavlovic breathlessly booked the band to every premium tour that came to Brisbane: Fugazi, Stereolab, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and more. Bikini Kill loved playing with Minimum Chips so much that they brought them on four separate tours, by request. But not everyone was a fan.
“Back then, nobody was supportive of each other. We were hated so much, hate just rained down on us because we were so weird. We got accused of being a crappy lounge band by this hardcore band who wanted to support Fugazi,” Thibault says.
“Fugazi loved us. Just goes to show they have taste.”
Minimum Chips, accruing momentum, excitedly showed Pavlovic their new material, only to be suddenly shut down.
“He really liked us as a live band and then we recorded an EP. For some reason he didn’t like it. He just went ‘no’,” Thibault laments.
Pavlovic turned his attention to launching Modular Recordings; one of its early successes was The Avalanches’ debut ‘Since I Left You’. Minimum Chips released their EP ‘Freckles’ in 2000 on Trifekta – ironically, the same label which released The Avalanches’ debut 7-inch ‘Rock City’.
Though prolific live performers, Minimum Chips only managed a single full-length album in their 12-year run, 2005’s ‘Kitchen Tea Thankyou’. When NME asks Thibault about their breakup shortly after the album’s release, she asks if we want the answer on or off the record.
“I don’t think we were a very functional band. We were pretty un-aspirational,” she ultimately says.
“I didn’t have much money. I had enough money for maybe three or four sessions… But we just kind of knew we had something special”
By contrast, Thibault can’t praise her current working relationships enough. Instead of attempting to reform Minimum Chips and barrack off nostalgia, she played new material solo around town, which young Melbourne psych-pop kids gravitated towards. Lachlan Denton (formerly of The Ocean Party and now of Pop Filter), Bec Liston and Stella Rennex of Parsnip and Zak Olsen – the savant instrumentalist behind Traffik Island – all became contributors to the amorphous Thibault band.
They recorded ‘Or Not Thibault’ in staggered sessions over a year at producer James Cecil’s studio Super Melody World, situated in the surrounds of Mount Macedon. The space is a heritage-listed primary school built in 1878, and retains a haunting aura. Opposite the mountain is the famous geological formation of Hanging Rock, pictured on the austere ‘Or Not Thibault’ album cover.
“I didn’t have much money. I had enough money for maybe three or four sessions… But we just kind of knew we had something special. We [Thibault and Cecil] got along so well. He’s like ‘I just wanna record this album, don’t worry about the cost, I’ll just own your soul for the rest of your life’,” Thibault laughs.
The result is a rebirth that makes sense. ‘Or Not Thibault’ remoulds the avant pop of Minimum Chips with the sound of musicians working in personal and musical harmony. Baroque arrangements, led by a convincing digital harpsichord, elevate the domestic poetry at its heart to the plinth of meaning.
The testimonials are telling: Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna has described ‘Or Not Thibault’ as “if two of my favourite bands, Stereolab and Electrelane, merged together and were made brand-new by Nicole’s originality”. But it’s perhaps her husband, Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock, who sells it with appropriate simplicity: “Hey turn that up. It’s really good!”
Thibault’s ‘Or Not Thibault’ is out now on Chapter Music