Aug. 1 2012 08:13 AM

Synth-pop bands College, Electric Youth and Anoraak hit the road

David Grellier of College
Photo by PJ Skyman

Drive is nothing if not stylish. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the 2011 film feels as brooding and dark as a classic film noir. The characters say more with their body language than with their dialogue. The hero of the story—a mysterious stunt and getaway driver played by Ryan Gosling—always wears a quilted satin jacket with a gold scorpion embroidered on the back.

And then, of course, there’s the soundtrack. Throughout the film, composer Cliff Martinez ramps up the quiet intensity with a beautifully understated score. But it’s a handful of glamorously seedy synth-pop anthems that make the film really feel like it’s set in the Los Angeles underworld.

The film’s key song is “A Real Hero,” a sentimental piece of heart-melting pop perfection by French producer College and Canadian duo Electric Youth. Over an extra-dry drummachine snare and a deliciously simple synth-bass line, Electric Youth singer Bronwyn Griffin hits at the heart of Gosling’s vigilante heroism with her sweetly innocent vocals.

“And you have proved to be a real human being / and a real hero,” she sings. When you hear it, you might feel like Gosling’s character yourself, ready to embark on an insane, bloody quest to save the woman you love.

If you’re in a heroic mood, you’re in luck: College and Electric Youth are coming to San Diego for The Drive Tour, joined by the French electro-rock band Anoraak.

Granted, the “Drive Tour” is a bit of a misnomer: The only thing you’ll actually hear off the Drive soundtrack is “A Real Hero.” Anoraak doesn’t appear in Drive, and no other acts on the soundtrack will be on stage.

Still, there’s plenty of driver-friendly songs between the three acts. Electric Youth’s romantic, ’80s-style, synth-rock banger, “Right Back to You,” could’ve come straight out of Knight Rider. Anoraak’s 2008 song “Nightdrive With You” conjures thoughts of late-night, back-seat necking with starry-eyed synth arpeggios.

“I just remember the pictures in my mind: just driving with the sunset in front of you, driving nice and fast,” says Frédéric Rivière, Anoraak’s frontman, when asked about the song.

But we all know what everybody wants to hear. Sadly, College creator David Grellier doesn’t appear to have a special, club-ready, hour-long remix of “A Real Hero” ready for the show—though many listeners would no doubt love to hear something like that ( just sayin’). But the performance will still be special.

Usually, he says, he plays the song off his laptop while projecting visuals on the wall. With Electric Youth on this tour, Griffin will handle vocal duties—offering the much-needed touch of a real human being.

Grellier, 33, who runs the blog Valerie Collective back in France, met Electric Youth five years ago after he stumbled across their MySpace page. Aside from “A Real Hero,” they’ve also collaborated on the track “She Never Came Back,” off College’s first album, 2008’s Secret Diary.

But it’s “A Real Hero” where they hit pop gold. A few years ago, Grellier crafted the instrumental part of the song in homage to lonesome, self-driven heroes like Dirty Harry and Mad Max. Using his computer, he gave it his usual straightforward finesse.

“I’m not a big technician. I like to work quickly and to express what I want as simple as possible,” Grellier says, speaking by phone from a tour stop in Boston. “If you find a good melody, a simple melody… it’s the most important part of my work.”

Around the same time, Electric Youth’s Austin Garrick became inspired by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the famous US Airways pilot who in January 2009 landed a disabled passenger jet on the Hudson River in New York City, saving all 155 people aboard.

When Grellier sent Garrick the instrumental, everything fell into place. Garrick wrote lyrics that combined Mad Max’s indomitable spirit with Sullenberger’s even-keeled grace. Griffin imbued the words with storybook innocence.

When they released the song in 2010 on College’s A Real Hero EP, Grellier says, it first came out in a 300-print vinyl run via a small Belgian label. But in 2011, Grellier got an email from Drive’s music supervisor three months before the film was set to premier at the Cannes Film Festival.

When Grellier saw the movie at Cannes, he was blown away. The song plays a big role in the film, and Gosling’s character also mixes a little Mad Max with a little Sullenberger—he’s a damn good driver with a heart of gold and a flair for killing.

Grellier says he never met the director before Drive came out. “But, by great coincidence, we don’t need to talk,” he says. “He did his movie. We did the song. And together it worked magic—real magic.”

Now, as he crosses North America with Electric Youth and Anoraak, they’ve got a lot of driving to do.

“It’s going to be craziness,” says Rivière of Anoraak. “I’m just already realizing how long of a drive it’s going to be from Minneapolis to Vancouver.”

College, Anoraak and Electric Youth play at The Casbah on Monday, Aug. 6.

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.