04 March 2013
RA's Aaron Coultate talks to the iconic French artist about vintage synths, vaporized techno and society's fear of the future.
Jean Michel Jarre is reeling off some of the music he’s been listening to lately: Actress, Fuck Buttons, Zomby… It’s not the average 64-year-old’s playlist, but Jarre has never really done average. His presence has loomed over electronic music for some four decades. The Frenchman studied under musique concrète progenitor Pierre Schaeffer—one of electronic music’s earliest pioneers—and released the seminal Oxygene LP in 1976, which proved the catalyst to a sustained period of commercial and artistic success throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. His career has been defined not just by his achievements themselves, but also the scale of them: on Bastille Day in 1979 he played to a live audience of one million in Paris, while a further 100 million tuned in on TV; nearly two decades later in Moscow he performed to a crowd of 3.5 million. He's also sold around 80 million albums (Oxygene alone has sold more than 18 million copies).
Jarre now exceeds the French pension age by four years, but he's not showing any signs of slowing down. He talks excitedly of two new albums he has on the boil. His most recent project, InFiné by JMJ, saw him delve into the French label's back-catalogue and pick out his 12 favourite tracks for a compilation. It was a low-key affair—by Jarre's standards at least. In conversation, he's clearly enthused by the project, earnestly discussing the merits of each inclusion and explaining his shared roots with the label—both he and former label boss Agoria hail from Lyon in southern France—with pride. We called up Jarre at his studio to discuss the compilation's origins, his current musical interests and his ambitious plans for an electronic music academy in East London.
It's a concept that started in my hometown. Like me, InFiné has its roots in Lyon, and lots of the label's artists are also from that part of France. I collaborated with some of the InFiné artists at the Nuits Sonores festival in Lyon last year, and we had a special evening where some of them revisited my work on stage. When InFiné decided to celebrate their tenth anniversary with a compilation, they asked if I would look into their catalogue and make some selections for a compilation.
How did you go about compiling it?
I went through lots of different tracks, and tried to build a kind of journey, using songs and artists that fit well together. As the music on InFiné is quite varied—there are artists from all kinds of different musical worlds—it was important to have some sense of direction on the compilation. A selection like this is always subjective; [the final selection] doesn't come down to which track is better than the other, it's just more reflective of my own tastes.
How did that sense of direction develop?
One of the reasons why InFiné is so important to me is that lots of artists on the label have been influenced by my own music. For the compilation I chose tracks that I felt were close to my own music in some way. The first track [Oxia's "Exaila"] could almost be a kind of introduction to one of my own albums; it's a short piece and I think it opens the door to the compilation nicely. Then there's Murcof's "Como Quisiera Decirte." I've admired this guy's work for a while, at times it's very close to the kind of stuff I was doing when I studying with Pierre Schaeffer at the musique concrète studio in Paris, when we were experimenting with sound design in pretty abstract ways. Murcof has an approach to music that I really enjoy—he mixes an experimental approach with Latin flavour. I've always been interested in trying to mix the Spanish or Italian soundtrack ambience of people like Pedro Almodóvar or Fellini into music. I find "Como Quisiera Decirte" quite haunting. It has a Mexican feel but it's still definitely electro. I love that mix, that hybrid feeling between two different worlds.
Which other artists on the compilation did you find yourself drawn to?
Rone is a good one—he has a very interesting sound. The problem with so much electronic music now is that more often than not, you hear a track, and it's interesting, but you don't feel it belongs to somebody in particular, or has a particular style, even if it's OK and you like it. In the case of Rone, for instance, or Agoria, and some of the other artists on this compilation, they have a definite sound world of their own. That's rare these days.
Talking more broadly, which other contemporary artists do you listen to?
I'm listening to lots of different music. I really love Zomby's work, I've listened to a lot of his tracks over the past two years. And there's Actress—I've been appreciating his style of music recently. Then there are more established electronic artists in France like Air, Vitalic, M83, Justice or Sébastien Tellier—actually in fact I've just finishing a recording session with Sébastien today, we are working on a track together. I also really like Fuck Buttons. The first time I listened to their music I thought, "Wow, they've got such a special and unique type of sound." I mean, those guys build a kind of wall of sound in front of you, a fog of audio, with a kind of techno beat lost in smoke. It's a vaporized sound. I really love their direction and their Olympians EP was very nice.
How much time do you find yourself spending in the studio each week?
I try to spend as much time as possible in the studio, but it's never enough. There are always other things to do. My dream is to be like a writer, and spend four or five hours every day locked in the studio, but I can't really do that, I don't know why. I'm a workaholic in short spurts—I'll go into the studio and work for three or four days and nights, then I'll stop, take a break, and go back to the studio a week or so later. So for me, it's three or four days on, then three or four days off.
I read in an interview that you said when you're in the studio you feel more like a "painter than a producer, mixing with colour and light, and experimenting with textures." Do you still feel that way even when you're not in the studio as much?
Yes, more than ever. I think that's the beauty of electronic music. I used to do a lot of painting when I was a student, and I even hesitated between pursuing a career in painting or music. Over the years, when I've been faced with electronic instruments, oscillators and all these kind of strange machines, it occurred to me that mixing colours and mixing audio frequencies is actually the same thing. You are a craftsman, you are a painter, mixing colours and textures. For me, electronic music is very close to abstract painting, which is all about textures, shapes, colours and contrasts. These days, I like mixing analogue synthesizers with pure digital elements. I think this combination is actually reflective of society itself, because we aren't analogue anymore, but we're also struggling to deal with being in a virtual, digital world. I think it's quite nice when you can mix both worlds.
How has your studio set-up changed throughout the years?
Down the years I've collected a lot of different synthesizers. Lots of synthesizers are analogue and have a unique sound for me, like the modular Moog, Minimoog and Memorymoog and the big modulars, like the ARP 2500 and the ARP 2600, and the [EMS] VCS3 and the AKS, if you're talking about the first old analogue synthesizers. At one stage in time, people were craftsman—they had a special know-how, and skills that that you had to learn. That was true for acoustic instruments, and it's also true for electronic instruments—there are certain things you can't replicate. Even the Moog, or a Fender electric guitar, could be made today with a great sound, but it can't match the vintage one. The new Moog Voyager and all those kinds of instruments are great, but they're tamer in a sense. They have a lot of good qualities, but they can't match the original Minimoog, which has a kind of texture in sound and an untamed feel to it. The pitch isn't regular, you have lots of problems… it creates accidents, and accidents are always exciting in music.
When you started out, the idea of making electronic music was very adventurous and experimental in itself—now it seems a lot of people making electronic music are intent on looking backwards rather than forwards. Is that a sentiment you agree with?
I think that could be a very good description of our society right now, not just electronic music. We are still at the beginning of the 21st century for lots of different reasons—I think we are slightly frightened about the future, so we are looking backwards. That is partly due to the fact that for a long time we were looking at the year 2000 as a kind of final frontier. The people from the '60s, '70s and '80s, in cinemas, in literature, in music, everywhere—they had a vision of the future, and they thought that after 2000 everything would change; you know, cars would fly and we'd all go to the moon for holidays! Then the year 2000 came and went, and nothing special happened, so in a sense we lost our vision of the future.
Now I think we have to re-create a kind of dream for the future. In that sense, electronic music can help. But today that state of electronic music is a sign of the times: people are looking backward and having this vintage approach to day-to-day life. Having said that, I think technically, all digital instruments, such as the Animoog on iPad, are really bringing something new. For quite a long time, the quality of the digital era was not there, it was still quite harsh. There was this lo-fi world, not only for sound, but also for visuals. It's only been over the last three or four years that we've been re-entering the world of high definition sound, and that's going to change a lot in terms of the kind of music we produce in the coming years.
What kind of impact do you think that HD realm of music will have, specifically?
People will stop being obsessed by the idea of ultimate quality, and also stop being obsessed, as a paradox, about degrading ultimate quality. There will be a much more intuitive approach to sound, like we have with an electric guitar or with an analogue synthesizer. When you work on a Moog or with an electric guitar, through an amp for instance, you don't even think about the technical aspect of the sound, it's more about the musical aspect. I think the whole industry is affected; lots of producers are obsessed with trying to progress in terms of sound quality, and are more likely to be trapped by the gadget of the week, rather than mastering an instrument.
I think the next step is not going back, but to restore the idea of the fact that when you really want to play the piano, violin or guitar properly, it takes a certain amount of time. Technology made a lot of people think that you can make a decent track with instruments you learned the week before, which is obviously not true. For quite a while, then, you had lots of music that was not that bad, but not that great, and not personal or particularly unique. And for every gem, you had a thousand decent tracks that were nothing special. I think that's going to change: a new generation of musicians will emerge with no technology complex, and they'll be more in tune with the digital era.
Speaking of the next generation, I recently read an article that mentioned you might be starting an academy for electronic music in London. Can you tell me about that?
This is a project I have been proposed in relation to the development of Tech City in East London, part of this new digital and multimedia hub they want to develop in the area. The idea would be to have a school that gave the opportunity to people to approach electronic music from various directions. You could use a totally analogue set-up with tape machines, like the approach taken in the '50s; the analogue instruments used in the '70s and '80s; through to a total digital approach. I hope this will be the best way of preparing for tomorrow, with a dematerialized approach to music. The other aim [of the academy] is to have established electronic composers coming in to share their experience, and to offer them a special environment where they take that knowledge and work in English schools, using the tools of the academy. The third thing would be to have an online element to the academy, which would allow people to work collectively on the same piece of music remotely. Let's imagine you have one demo, and people can add to it online, they can collaborate and participate on a collective piece of work.
And how far down the line are the plans for the academy?
It's being talked about by the people developing Tech City. I just recently spoke with them about the academy concept and they seemed excited. It's an idea that's been around for quite a while. Two years ago I did a fairly big outdoor concert at the docklands in East London. It was the first big cultural event to happen in this part of London, an area that had been going through difficult times. After the concert, I discussed the idea of creating an academy of music in the area. So it's an idea I had and we have thought about for quite a while now. Obviously this school or academy should also involve the local community. That's what makes projects like this work—they need to be both local and international, and create ties with the local community. That's very important to me.
What other things are you working on at the moment? Do you ever see yourself releasing another album?
I'm actually working on two different album projects. One is a solo album, which is something quite special that will feature some guitar, while the other has more collaborations. I'm really in the middle of all this, it's all quite exciting and I'm hoping it will be finished by the end of summer, and released by the end of the year.
Words / Aaron Coultate
Published / Monday, 04 March 2013