Words & Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“I was working in the comics section and developed taste for the more indie type of graphic novels…”
There was something almost sacrilegious about asking Romain into a church to shoot some portraits of him, as he comes across as a kind of Barista Lord of the Dark. His drawings of Cthulhu-esque tentacled creatures and detailed observations of insects are pinned around Kin, the Fitzrovia café where he works, and provide some clues to this enigmatic character.
“I started drawing in December last year. I’m influenced by loads of things, like Black Metal imagery, occult stuff, the Italian Renaissance, and “outsider artists” like Fred Deux and Cecile Reims, as well as my friend Al Doyle.” Romain’s interest in comics was first aroused when he worked in a bookshop in Paris, where he grew up. “ I was working in the comics section and developed taste for the more indie type of graphic novels. Winshluss, whose Pinocchio won the 2009 Angouleme prize, is a particular favourite but I love American artists like Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes.”
Romain only developed an interest in drawing as a way to pass the time while taking some time out from another of his passions: music. He started playing guitar at 14 and formed his first band at 16. “It was a perfect way to get out of the suburbs, do stuff in Paris and it also allowed us travel a lot. As we were involved in the punk scene I spent loads of time hanging out in squats: the perfect place to meet weirdos who shared the same ideas and a will to live their lives in a different way. It was also a great place for creativity and the cradle of many musical projects.” A few years studying sound engineering were a bit of a disappointment. “ I thought I would find that as good as playing music … that wasn’t the case.”
It was in Ireland that his focus really crystallised. “I’d always wanted to live abroad. My friend Arnaud moved to Dublin, so I was visiting him quite a lot. When our Irish friends and fellow punks wanted to spend some time in Paris, they’d stay at mine. So I had strong connections before I moved. I started three bands over there – Rats Blood, Ghost Trap and Cat Piss Brain Rot – all of them through the punk scene.” As a guitarist and occasional vocalist, he still regularly plays with Rats Blood but has started two new bands: High Vis, a post-punk outfit, and Love Song, a more melodic project. “Most of my projects have a political stance, they are all based on a D.I.Y libertarian/anarchistic ethic I would say.” Though his influences include punk and death metal, he’s nothing if not than eclectic in his tastes, with jazz, hip-hop and classical all feeding into the mix. “I love watching the LSO at the Barbican Centre,” he tells me.
The extensive gigging with his numerous bands has taken him to an equally varied range of unusual venues. “From the middle of a forest in the north of Germany to a small local football stadium in Italy. We also ended up squatting in Barcelona, in tunnels built underneath a mansion. They told us they were built as an escape route during the Civil War. I remember sleeping in a room the squatters had discovered after knocking the walls down. There was a massive pentagram in the tiles on the floor. I slept within it – and all the people who slept outside it got bitten by bed bugs! Ahah!!!”
Now living full time in London, Romain divides his time between his day job as head barista at Kin, playing music and discovering London on his bike. “I kinda cycle everywhere in London – the best way to commute! I love skyscrapers, the mix of old and new architecture, the brutalist Barbican Centre is cool… the Tate Modern… also the old Battersea Power Station.”
Romain’s obvious interest in the unusual side of London becomes apparent as we do some more portraits, this time in one of Fitzrovia’s hidden gems, the Grant Museum of Zoology. “In Paris I used to love visiting the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, where you could find lots of strange creatures and skeletons,” he tells me. He looks strangely at home in in this Lovecraftian environment, surrounded by jars of formaldehyde and animal skulls. As we make our way out, a monstrous python skeleton winding its way across a display case catches his eye. “We should ask them if I could wear that as a scarf,” he jokes…