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Sarah Tomlinson

Love and Happiness

While the French Kicks may at first come off like just another indie-rock quartet—you know, what with their home on cool (and fast-getting-cooler) label Star Time International, and their scruffy, devil-may-care, shave?-not-today-good-sir aesthetic—they’re actually flying under the radar of their true calling. Which is full-on pop sensations.

The proof is in the pandemonium—the response they stir up at their live performances, which goes far beyond the shuffle and bob of your average indie-rock show. We’re talking dancing. We’re talking girls hiding in the bathroom after fighting with their boyfriends about how dreamy singerNick Stumpf is. We’re talking the type of swoon that sultry-voiced crooners from Otis Redding to Prince used to send rippling across a room.

Stumpf is honored by these comparisons between his band’s succulent indie pop and these masters of soul music, though he’s not so down with the whole heartthrob trip: “You know, people get onstage, and it’s one of those sort of age-old things,” he says, laughing into the phone. “But I don’t think about that very much at all. It’s much more important to me that people are listening to me than anything else.”

And while it’s not like he’s doing the mashed potato or ripping splits onstage, Stumpf has emerged as a charismatic front man since stepping out from behind his drum kit back in 2003. At first, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself up there; he’s played musical chairs as a performer since starting out on piano (which he studied at Oberlin College) and then taking up drums, an instrument he still plays on French Kicks’ recordings.

He tries to incorporate all of these perspectives into his songwriting, with help from his brotherLawrence (who plays bass in the band and, like Stumpf, learned music as a youngster from a teacher immersed in Gospel churches in the Washington, D.C., area) and guitarists Josh Wise and Matthew Stinchcomb.

And now that’s he’s gotten used to the front-and-center position, he’s much more relaxed. On the band’s second full-length album, The Trial of the Century, the French Kicks are swimming in elegant vocal harmonies, a step closer to the R&B and soul they’ve loved since high school: Motown and Stax RecordsAl Green and Prince.

“You can have some sophistication, and you can also have a little pop hook, and if you can put them all together in a creative way, then you’ve done something,” Stumpf says. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”