Riot Child: An Interview With Musician and Artist Jean Claude Tribe

I first met Jean Claude Tribe on the backlots of Paris Photo Los Angeles at Paramount Pictures Studios. He was wearing an Elizabethan-era collar. He looked not of this time, ethereal, ancient – I ran up to him to take his picture. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been learning more and more about Tribe, his art, his music and his fashion sensibilities. They are wholly unique, yet steeped in a plethora of references, from the Old Masters to luxury street wear culture. Currently, Tribe is working on his debut solo album. As a classically trained pianist, Tribe combines his incredibly beautiful voice with a backdrop of an otherworldly, synthy keyboard soundtrack, as well as pained lyrics that speak of love, loss and other pangs of the soul. Being born in the midst of the LA riots, the tumult makes sense, but it was in the gray, rainy atmosphere of London where Tribe developed his identity as an artist, fashion designer, and musician. That said, it is music that Tribe considers his first and everlasting love. His first solo album came with fits and starts, but lately he has been finding more and more inspiration and will see the album to completion. It also helps that he has Interpol front man Paul Banks as a mentor – they email each other, exchange demos and discuss Tribe’s musical progress on a weekly basis. Autre was lucky enough to have an in-depth conversation with Tribe, and we are excited to introduce such a burgeoning musical talent. In the following interview, Tribe talks about growing up in the midst of the LA riots, moving to London at 16, being the face of cult French street wear label Enfant Riches Déprimés, and his new album, which will be released this fall. 

Oliver Kupper: What is your background? You grew up in LA, but where is your background specifically?

Jean Claud Tribe: My mom was born in South America, and she is Portuguese and Indian. She moved to the United States—LA—when she was seventeen, and she met my dad out here. My dad is from New Orleans. I was born in LA during the LA riots. It was really crazy around our neighborhood and in so much of my county. I was living in raids, pretty much, from about 5 to 16.

OK: When did you move to London?

JCT: I graduated high school at 16, and then I moved to London and went to college out there. I went to London in 2009 and came back in 2012 and got into the whole art and music thing in LA.

OK: So what came first, music, art, or fashion? Or was it a collective interest in all of those things?

JCT: It’s always been music for me. I was a very chubby kid, I was the geeky choir boy. I dressed very trendy. I was not inspiring with my fashion sense at all. I went from Hollister one year in high school to screamo the next year. But one thing that always remained was my voice. That’s what I was always known for at school. When I finally moved to the UK and went to college out there, I actually stopped singing completely. It was a very internal process for me. I was so young to be starting college at 16, especially in another country.

OK: What did you get into in London?  

JCT: I wanted to consume as much of the town, the city, everything. That’s when I really developed my love for art history. I took an art history class solely so I could get into the galleries for free and get credit for it. I would visit so many galleries every single day, and I’d have to write papers on everything. I was doing that while working in PR marketing.

OK: When you came back to LA, is that when you jumped into more fashion stuff?

JCT: I came back in 2012, and once I got back, I got thrown into the fashion thing. I started off as a photo assistant. I had no intentions of doing any modeling. But after living in London for so long, my style adapted to more of the European look. Like, the drop-crotch harem pant hadn’t happened in LA yet. I remember when I came back wearing a pair of pants with that cut, and no one was wearing it at the time. It was those little things that grabbed fashion stylists’ attention. Then, I started doing modeling. I became the face of Enfants Riches Déprimés at the end of 2012. It’s a French brand. It’s gotten pretty big now, with Jared Leto and Courtney Love—a lot of the older punks. And the younger, I guess, wannabe punks. I was their first model and helped develop that brand. I was really close with the founder.

OK: What was his name again?

JCT: Henri [Alexander].

OK: When I met you, it was at Paris Photo, and you were wearing an Elizabethan-era collar. That’s very unique. Forget drop-crotch. No one is wearing that. Where do you think your bravery for fashion comes from? Was it something natural? Was it a collection of your studies in London? Was it through researching fashion designers? Was there a specific fashion hero that you had in mind?

JCT: I would say my fashion has been influenced by my music. I was really classically trained in piano. In a lot of my tracks, the chords I’m building off of are from the classical composers. It just dawned on me one night listening to one of Bach’s symphonies, I saw this image of a Franz Kline painting, and then I saw an image of a Frans Hals portrait of a man wearing a ruff collar. I felt like my music sounded like I was the man in the painting singing. His expression was very somber and sad, very stoic, but also very relatable. I feel like a lot of my songs have those emotions in them. I felt like it instantly became me.

OK: Do you think you’ve found your signature look?

JCT: I worked with ERD and being submersed in French punk inspiration and Japanese avant garde movements. Within all of those themes that I worked with, it was a natural progression for me to move on and figure out what my signature was. For a while, I was just known as the face of Enfants. I wanted to be very individualistic. The collar became me, and it just felt right. I ordered a collar from Wales, and when I put it on, it was just unreal. It just felt right. I told myself that for any major performance or formal event, I will always wear one. My collection has grown since.

OK: When I first saw you—and I never do this—I ran to catch up with you so that I could take a picture with you wearing the collar. I was trying to not sound out of breath when I asked to take your picture.

JCT: [Laughs] I barely got to see the art because everyone wanted a photo. It was just the perfect event to go to wearing that. People there had appreciation for it.

OK: Do you have a personal style philosophy?

JCT: I don’t put anything on that feels too trendy. I can’t stand looking at old photos of me wearing things I would never wear now. I want to look back and have a huge catalogue of images that I’m proud of, that are classic and timeless. That’s what’s needed to have longevity in any industry. Especially in music. I see so many artists and musicians that are so on-trend. It saturates my mind. It blocks people from getting to know who you truly are because there’s so much distraction on the outside. I try to make sure that I have a statement piece, but it’s still minimal and memorable. It makes people to get to know me more. I want them to hear my story, which is outlandish from the beginning—hiding behind all these layers and colors. That’s my philosophy for style.

OK: You’re working on an album right now that comes out in September. Is this your first official album? What has that experience been like?

JCT: I’ve just been so thrilled. This is my debut solo album. I released a collaborative EP a few years ago. I’ve been writing these songs back in London. I could have put the album out when I got back from London—everything was done and ready to go. But when I started recording and working to get this whole process going, it just did not feel right. I cancelled the entire project. I don’t know why I did it. People thought I was totally crazy. But it just did not feel right. Something was telling me to wait, to keep doing art. At that point, I was working a lot with ERD. I felt like I needed to continue with that for a little while longer. Finally, at the beginning of this year, I felt so inspired. Everything just fell into place. The producers that I’m working with now found me—they came to one of my shows. After one of my shows, they invited me to their studio, and we recorded that night. The song that I sent you, that’s the first take you’re hearing. The vocal track is just the first take after my show.

OK: It’s great, by the way.

JCT: Just hearing that, knowing these guys, having it sound so good the first come around—I was blown away. It’s hard to find a producer that makes you sound like how you sound in your head. So we started working on the EP. Everything just felt right. I went to Coachella this past year and met Paul Banks at a party. We started talking, and he asked to hear my stuff. He’s on tour right now, but we talk every couple of weeks. I send him all my new tracks and he gives me all of his notes. So we’ve been working on the EP together over the Internet while he’s on tour, which has been really cool. Those little signs, for me, made me feel like it was time, more than ever. I’m so excited. I’m so ready to get these songs out. It’s also been crazy, too, to revisit something that I wrote back in London, and I can make the song sound so much better. It makes me really happy that I did take the time to wait.

OK: Amazing. In Los Angeles right now, there’s a creative atmosphere that seems really palpable. Do you feel that it’s different than it has been, or more intense?

JCT: It’s hard for me to answer questions about Los Angeles because I don’t feel home here anymore. So it’s hard for me to dive into the creative scene. It sounds a little contradictory for me to say. When I go and meet other artists out here, when I hear their stories, I always feel like they’re always wanting to leave LA, to explore and get out of LA.  I feel like a lot of the inspiration out here is not native to LA. It’s very rare. That’s just my advice.

OK: I mention that because—not as much music, more art—but art and a lot of galleries are moving from New York and London. Especially the arts district downtown is really becoming something that it’s never been in the past.

JCT: There’s been progress. I feel like London made me snobby, I guess. I look at the galleries over there, and they’re just incomparable.

OK: LA is so new. When we were talking that night at that after-party, you were talking about how you felt so ancient. You have an ancient spirit, an ancient soul. Your sensibilities are much more European… After music, do want to get more into fashion or design? Or do you want to stick with music for the time being?

JCT: Music is my number one. The fashion and design stuff is going to frame the music, if that makes sense. I always say that I’d rather be a musician than a model.

You can learn about Jean Claude Tribe and listen to tracks of his music by visiting his website or following him on Instagram. Photo series for this article shot exclusively for Autre by Esteban Schimpf. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram to stay up to date: @AUTREMAGAZINE