College & the Valerie Collective

“So you suppose I play an instrument?” It was more of a statement than a question that came from David Grellier, the one-man band behind College and composer of the track, “A Real Hero,” whose thrumming synth and chaste vocals have made their tour of today’s retro-laden blogosphere and have carried the Drive soundtrack to the top of the iTunes charts since the film’s release. Much like the critics who have sought to declare Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent film Drive “high trash,” Grellier’s synthetic explorations could easily be seen as naïve, nostalgic, and derivative by aesthetes, but it is the 31-year-old Nantes native’s approach that saves him from being unoriginal—Grellier makes music solely on his computer and has no illusions about his technical skill as a musician.

“As far as I remember, I bought an electronic drum machine, [but] I’m not a technical guy. I found it fantastic that I have some friends [who are] fans of old keyboards and all that stuff, but I’m more comfortable with my computer. My parents bought me guitars at Christmas, of course. I tried to play for about three weeks, but I don’t have the passion to learn or create melodies. I just learned to do some covers of Nirvana and Metallica.”

Grellier was born in Nantes in 1979, his father a factory worker and mother a homemaker, and was surrounded by the pulp and pop of ’80s West Coast culture that would become the source material of his musical pseudonym College. “I grew up in the suburbs with all the ideas we can have in the suburbs in France during the ’80s. France and French people in general were always fascinated by the social way of living of American people, and they tried to reproduce that in France, and that’s why I think… maybe [I had] the same life as an American boy in the suburbs of America… [It] all created a very special mood.”

This intense nostalgia also birthed the Valerie Collective, a blog that Grellier founded in 2007 to bring together other ’80s-obsessed musicians, artists, and producers in Europe, the UK, and Canada such as Russ Chimes, Anoraak, and Electric Youth, as well as the Zonders, a pair of German artists who design the bulk of Valerie’s sleek and campy album covers, posters, and T-shirts. The collective exchanges music, tours together, throws “Valerie parties,” and contributes vocals, lyrics, or compositions to each other’s songs, as Electric Youth’s Bronwyn Griffen and Austin Garrick did for “A Real Hero.”

Grellier has put out three albums to date under the name of College, an EP in 2007 entitled Teenage Color, 2008’s Secret Diary, and this year’s Northern Council, each of them a meditation on a variety of pop, or pulp, culture, and the broad atmospheres of the ’80s. While Secret Diary and Teenage Color are heavily populated with romantic sentimentalism and song titles such as “She Never Came Back” and “My Secret Romance,” Grellier’s Northern Council takes inspiration from a bleaker part of the ’80s—glasnost, depression, and trips to Moscow and Washington DC. “I think our music is very representative of our world today. We have references—it’s like Drive, it’s like Super 8, which I love a lot… but it’s like we don’t want to create something new, we just want to revisit our [past] and sometimes I’m afraid about that. I think it’s the general movement of today.”

TEXT BY William Blake