Backstage at EB Festival Budapest, Louise Brailey spoke to Barcelona’s keeper of slow-mo house music and Hivern Discs‘ proprietor John Talabot about politics, The xx and why some house music really is just a feeling. Illustration by Andreas Paus.
To listen to a John Talabot production is to be caught in a moment. Crouched somewhere on the fringes of house and disco, his music is too slow to work a club at peak-time, but this is four/four electronic music as emotional rather than physical trigger. His debut album Fin was a unexpected hit on Permanent Vacation in early 2012 and was a record which always felt that it was a cache of bittersweet moments spun out and scaled up into cresting euphoria—or is it melancholia? Speaking to the Barcelona-based producer backstage at Electronic Beats’ Budapest festival back in October, it didn’t take long for this reading to be validated: Talabot knows all too well a happy memory, like the afterglow of a night’s partying, will eventually fade. For him, however, his music is a means of staving off the inevitable. There’s little noticeable progression in records like “Depak Line”, “Oro Y Sangre” or the tellingly titled “When the Past Was Present” because, as he explains, “I just have to keep it like that, I can’t change the song, I can’t add more because I have to keep it just like that”.
Maybe it’s the accelerated age in which we live, where the presence of camera phones at gigs becomes endemic, a byproduct of unstinting self-documentation, Talabot’s music seems both strikingly old fashioned and struck with a peculiarly modern anxiety. A couple of hours before he was due to take the stage for his headline set at EB Festival Budapest, EB talked to Talabot about politics, the surprise success of Fin, and how to hold onto those experiences that you don’t want to forget.
It’s been nearly two years since you released Fin. With the critical distance that affords, have you any theory why that record was such a hit? It did so well with such a wide variety of people: from indie sorts who maybe bought a couple of electronic records a year to underground music fans to broadsheet journalists.
I never expected that the album would go further than people who like electronic music. There was never an idea to bring the record to a live show. But I think nowadays, people listen to a wider range of music; you have your iPod full of The Beatles, but also techno and house. And people hear a lot of tracks on YouTube as well.
It still felt like a surprise when you toured with The xx, they have a pretty large, mainstream fanbase. How did the hook-up happen and how did your music go down with that audience?
Primavera Sound was our first live show and we were super nervous. On the day, The xx were playing on another stage twenty minutes before us. When we had finished playing, we were really stressed and Miguel—Pional—comes and says, “Did you see The xx dancing during the live show?” and I was like, “No, that can’t be possible?” But they were there! Later, when we were backstage they came over and said they loved it and they wanted us to be on the tour. I was like, “Wait, it’s our first live show and you are offering us to go on tour? This kind of tour where we have to go in front of your fans and play the record? We can’t.” But then we thought again and felt it was a great opportunity. Everyone in America was really open-minded. Europe was harder. One of the nice things about The xx’s crowd is that they’re really excited to see The xx no matter what, so anything else the group present on top is a bonus. People trust their taste.
I wanted to ask you about politics in Spain right now. Obviously it’s pretty dire, with corruption rife within the political class. Does this have an affect on the musical scene, is there a desire in young people to come to clubs and escape?
People don’t really have money to go to clubs; I think a lot of people are having trouble, some are going back to live with their parents. We have these two parties in the government, and you don’t know who is better because they are both really bad. Before when people wanted to do something, they would try to find money from grants or something, but I think now people are realizing that they can’t count on the government, everything you want to do has to be on your own. Nobody is taking care of you anymore. The feeling is we want to go back to before but we can’t go back to what we once had.
Do you see less people coming to clubs, then?
I don’t think it’s affecting the established clubs so much as a young generation who don’t have the spaces that we had when we were younger, where we could make small parties or whatever. I think that’s done. When things go bad, nobody wants to take risks. So everybody wants to be safe, to do safe parties, parties that will definitely work. At this moment it’s really hard for young people to have their own place.
Talabot at EB Festival Budapest 2013 by Attila Masa & Bertalan Soos
On the mix CD you just did for DJ-Kicks I noticed there you went in quite an interesting, overtly dark direction: there was a Pye Corner Audio track on there, an Andy Stott remix, Madteo. All strange, half-lit records that, in some ways, made explicit the tendency towards melancholy in your own work.
I like that kind of dark edge from the eighties, and sometimes I feel like groups like Pye Corner Audio, Madteo have that vibe in their techno. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to separate the live show, which is more ‘indie’, from the nightclub. When I was doing the album I knew some people would be disappointed but I only wanted to include music I dig. I wanted those names in the tracklist because it’s important to say that although you can see me singing onstage, I really like this kind of music and playing it in a club. It was my way of making a statement.
It’s strange because so many people describe your music as being sunny and warm because when people think of Spain those are the characteristics people ascribe it it. But your music is actually incredibly sad.
Totally. I never think of Barcelona as a sunny city when I make music. My music is based on feelings that I have. I miss a lot of things when I’m abroad, I miss old times with my grandparents, I miss having a house by the beach which I don’t go to anymore, I miss my sister who lives abroad… I’m always missing something in my life, and that’s sad. But at the same time it’s nice, it gives you the feeling that you need someone or something. I’m the kind of person who never throws anything into the garbage, I’m afraid I will miss it. Like, this card [picks up Electronic Beats flyer]. This card gets to my home and it maybe won’t leave for five years. I’m afraid that I won’t remember that festival I went to in Budapest.
You’re an emotional hoarder…
I’m a garbage collector! [laughs]
I think you can hear that in your music. The way your records capture a single moment, or emotion, and then holds onto it over the course of the track.
Maybe that’s because all of the tracks came in a specific moment. I need some kind of feeling to make music, whatever it is. I need to say something, or I need to explain—no, not explain, I don’t want to explain anything with my album. It’s more those moments that are part of everybody’s life, those “Oh yeah, I remember we went to this night that we went to?” Sometimes when I go out for example, when I come back home the only thing I want to do is music.
Because you’re inspired by what you felt?
Sometimes ideas are just a moment. I just feel something in that moment and then I just have to keep it like that, I can’t change the song, I can’t add more because I have to keep it just as it is.
Can you give an example of one of these personal moments which you feel the need to hold onto?
“Oro Y Sangre” just came out of me after a party I went to. I went to a friend’s house, we were just listening to records and having fun. I realised I missed those times when you’re with friends. So I made a pattern and some kind of dark melody, I just wanted to give it that tone because it came to me when I was feeling something. I think my tracks have a purpose like a song, there’s a break, there is a chorus, a melody, there’s not so many changes over the course of the tracks. But I think it’s enough.
Was there a record in particular that you heard and which really turned you onto making music?
There’s many. Sometimes just tracks with synthesizer or drum machine, like some Chicago house tracks. They say more to me than a love song or any song with lyrics. I don’t have many relations with pop music, even hip-hop or R&B. I like hip-hop but mainly the instrumental. I’ve never been into a lot of R&B, for me, R&B has to be really cheesy and then I like it because of that, like R Kelly. I feel his productions are cheesy but really good. I’ve never been a pop person. My first contact with music as something important in my life was with techno and electronic music. It was when I went to clubs and went oh, what is this music?
How old were you?
Seventeen or sixteen. It was the moment where I thought ‘where did they get this music from?’ If you go to the mainstream record shops they don’t have these records. I discovered it was another world of music that nobody told me about because it wasn’t on the radio. Maybe in the UK it’s different.
Right. In the UK we have pirate radio or even the mainstream radio channels showcase underground music in their late night programming. But in Spain you’re completely sealed off from that musical world? It’s just pop on the radio?
Spain is shit. It’s not even just pop music anymore. It’s strange commercial productions from nobody that they just play that doesn’t get played anywhere else. All the knowledge you want to have when you’re seventeen, there’s no program to turn to. It’s funny, when I started going to clubs, when you wanted to hear the track the DJ was playing with the vinyl, you had to get the name vinyl or go again to the club and ask the DJ. There wasn’t YouTube—I’m not so old, I’m thirty but the only way to hear a vinyl again was to ask the DJ. I liked it! When I went clubbing I had a notebook with the tracks I really liked. One of the DJ Kicks tracks started out in the notebook.
“Kron” by Sillikron, the Jurgen Paape remix. That was a track I discovered when one of the local DJs played it at Apolo at Nitsa. I thought it was beautiful and have had it since then. Actually I still have the notebook, because I don’t throw anything out! I mostly found all the records but there is one I really liked, other than that I don’t know why I wrote down, but I never found out what it was. Even years later I tried to ask the DJ who played it what it was, but he doesn’t remember, even from the name I wrote down because it was loud and I couldn’t hear. It’s lost.
When can we expect the follow-up to Fin, it’s about time surely?
I still need to think about it. When I was doing my first album it was because I wanted to get away from the 12-inch vibe and I wanted to get back to short songs with direct ideas, direct to the people, not even for the club, actually without any purpose. Doing an album to have more gigs, more tours and to continue your career is nice but I think you need to say something. I am still in that process, trying to find what I want to say. Or trying to get that feeling of yeah, I want to get in the studio. When I go back home I spend time with my family, friends, I’m not thinking about the album, I’m think, shit I haven’t seen these people in a long time. I need to go back, stay with them and then the ideas will come. ~