Few have achieved as much in both the music and fine art worlds as Tony Conrad. In the ’60s, Conrad helped pioneer minimalist drone techniques together with the likes of La Monte Young, John Cale and Terry Riley (among others) as The Dream Syndicate before developing his trademark strobing “flicker” film method that became central to experimental cinema. At the time, Conrad characterized the New York downtown music scene as a search for “something just beyond music, a violent feeling of soaring unstoppably, powered by immense angular machinery.”
It was also a fitting description of the artistic kinship he would strike up with the German band Faust. Known today as one of the most important krautrock bands of the ’70s, Faust merged jazz and rock techniques with radically improvised fluxus and avant-garde interventions, using tape, metal or whatever else was at hand to create authentically new music. Conrad approached the group to collaborate, resulting in their 1973 minimalist masterpiece, Outside The Dream Syndicate, which they recently performed at this year’s Berlin Atonal Festival. Daniel Gottlieb sat down with Conrad and Faust’s Jean-Hervé Péron and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier to moderate a conversation on their collaborative history.
Tony Conrad: Today, the 22nd of August 2015, is the day that Faust and I come together for the ten-thousandth time. Well, really it’s the third time—somewhere between the third and ten-thousandth time.
Jean-Hervé Péron: For me, it’s our second time together, and for Zappi it’s the third. In my mind we’ve played two shows together in the past. But Zappi mentions you played together as a duo in New York.
TC: You weren’t there in New York?
JHP: That’s right.
TC: What were you doing?
JHP: Gardening. It’s the thing to do. I take care of all the weeds and the dirty, nasty jobs, whereas my wife takes care of the real gardening. So I’m an unskilled gardener, and I love it. I’ve a passion for physical work. Mind you, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the problem with mankind is that it can’t deal properly with its garden.
TC: And Confucius said…what did Confucius say? I forget. So this’ll be the third time that we’re playing together? I first heard your music because [film critic and record producer] Uwe Nettelbeck sent me your records along with stuff by some other bands. I played the records and thought, “It’s like rock ‘n’ roll, but this is far-out stuff…and this is from 1971?” In New York, we knew about psychedelic music and bands like Amon Düül, but Faust were doing stuff that was weird, and I thought, “This sounds nice. I should go and talk to them.” Did you guys know Amon Düül?
JHP: When we were living in our self-designed studio in Wümme, we voluntarily secluded ourselves from the outside world. This was a choice that we made. So, while we were aware that there was a scene outside Wümme, we didn’t know anybody. No Can, no Kraftwerk, no Cluster—no nobody.
Zappi Diermaier: We lived in Wümme like it was a cloister.
TC: For a long time?
JHP: There are two ways to approach time: the way you feel it and how it passes in reality. For me, I felt like Faust’s days at Wümme lasted two years.
ZD: I think it was three years all together.
TC: But you guys must’ve been, like, 15 years old back then. You look like you’re only 50 these days.
JHP: That’s kind of you, Tony. Actually, I was 19 when we moved to Wümme.
ZD: And I was 20.
TC: 20—now that’s an important age. I loved being 20. When I was 20, I was beginning to make this drone music. When I heard of you guys, which must’ve been about 10 years later, I was thinking, “Oh boy, I better record Outside The Dream Syndicate before I forget how to play it.” So that’s why I wanted to go see you at Wümme. That place was like an ant colony. There were chambers in different parts of this big building. There was a guy in the attic writing operas, everyone’s smoking a lot of weed and the dog outside is biting everybody. Nobody bothered to leave the house because you’d go outside, look all directions and there wouldn’t be another house for as far as the eye could see. Once a week or so, Uwe would come in his car with some groceries. It was like living in an oasis.
JHP: We shared girlfriends, we shared dogs and we smoked a lot of mind-expanding substances. Luckily, we had the great opportunity to be introduced to your world and concept of music. But you’ve got a very important point here, Tony, in mentioning that the drone “scene” existed 10 years before Faust was actually making music.
TC: In my mind, it wasn’t a scene. In a way I was like you: isolated and out of contact with everybody. There was nothing. I mean, I was listening to rock ‘n’ roll and Peggy March—stuff that had nothing to do with drone music. Also, the avant-garde music of the day was focused on very different things. So for us, it was like, “Whoa, this drone music we’re making is the best shit in the world.” That’s what we thought at the time, but you can’t do the best stuff of anything, ever. After all, the idea of using a single note as a basis for composition has existed in music all over the world for thousands of years. In that respect, La Monte Young’s idea of an eternal music—although completely false and wrong and misguided—has some kind of sense to it. Drone functioned in Western culture in a way that broke down the barrier between high and low music culture. The next thing to happen in our little circle was The Velvet Underground and the old connection with Andy Warhol furthered this breakdown of high and low culture. With Faust, the feeling was similar. You were making rock music that was devoid of commercial sensibility. Like you say, Jean-Hervé, we didn’t care what anyone else was doing.
JHP: What happened to us? What made us go in that direction?
TC: To you?
JHP: To us in general. Did our parents mistreat us? Were we stepped on when we were born?
TC: We were reared on the avant-garde spirit of happenings and fluxus and the breaking down of boundaries within high art forms. It was obviously theater, but it was also music. La Monte Young was writing pieces where he would feed a piano some hay and things like that. But these avant-garde gestures can happen any time; they’re not just reserved for 1960. It was happening in 1970 with Faust, and maybe it will happen in 2015. I don’t know who’s doing it now, though. Except for me!
JHP: I think it’s important to reiterate, as you mentioned, that drone and all these ur-musics—these primal ways of expressing oneself—have existed since before we were born. It’s the stomping of the Britons, the overtone singing of the Aborigines and the Inuit.
TC: The Celtic music of Europe is a particularly interesting case. It’s unknown because it was never recorded, yet throughout Europe you see evidence of bagpipe-esque instruments in Hungary, Germany and France. The Celtic origins of the tradition must have been somehow stamped out. I wish we knew more about this.
JHP: We must not forget the other person in our story, Uwe Nettelbeck. You were doing this beautiful thing in the States, and we were doing our thing on the other side of the pond, and Uwe had the merit of seeing that there was a connection between us—that these were two weeds that could grow together. Uwe had a vision and a plan. He wanted to give the experimental music the same means of production and commercial changes as Schlager or pop music.
TC: I heard this, too. I told him that if he releases Outside The Dream Syndicate it shouldn’t be classified as classical; it should be pop. Zappi, how did you get to know Uwe Nettelbeck?
ZD: It was an accident that I was there. I knew him, but I had nothing to do with film. But Andy Hertel made a film about a monk who had the same nose as me, so I acted as this monk. It had nothing to do with Faust. A bit later I met Uwe in this film house, and he brought a little suitcase with contracts and money inside.
JHP: To bury our souls!
ZD: We were very hungry so we took the money and went next door to a restaurant and ate.
TC: For me, by the end of the ’60s, this drone music was at an end. I was no longer thinking that it was a statement. As for Faust, it was a beginning, an accident, a thing that came together.
JHP: I would like to stress something that is essential to keep in mind: We didn’t think much. There was no plan or concrete intentions. We were young and enthusiastic. This is the privilege and strength of youth. I certainly didn’t think. I didn’t care. The primal ur-music is something that’s inside you. We didn’t want to invigorate, misuse, abuse, or make anything popular. No. It just happened. And Tony, you triggered this. It was latent in us, and you triggered it.
TC: It’s fantastic to hear the origins of Faust, because I never knew all of this. It’s a long and complicated story. And now the band has split in two.
JHP: I still have the sheet of paper you gave me in Atlanta where you explained your historyand your itinerary in music, but I guess you didn’t have a chance to hear our story. I feel privileged to be part of the Faust saga, and you’re right that Faust has split in two directions. We respect each other, we don’t interfere with each other, we ignore each other, we don’t like each other—but we do respect each other. The Faust story is getting complicated. Now I feel an urge to meet younger people.
TC: It was fun to begin performing music again when these younger, fantastic musicians started making their own interesting music and rediscovering what we’d one in previous decades. Getting asked to play again was partly due to the newfound access to lost music made possible by reissue CDs in the ’90s. Suddenly there was a community that was discovering this minimal record by Tony Conrad and Faust. Smart, young people like Table Of The Elements founder Jeff Hunt, David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke found me and asked whether they could re-release our music. They wondered, “Should we ask Faust?” and I was like, “Yeah, Faust is a band—they’re real people! You should contact them.” Then they realized that Faust was actually a big band, so they invited us to play this festival. I think they were surprised that I could still play.
JHP: There was a time when I didn’t want to let anybody from the outside into our circle, but now I’m quite eager to meet all these younger people who have heard what was happening in the past and are now pushing it further. So the circle is closed to being closed. My mantra is: rund ist schön—round is beautiful. What differences have you found performing with a new generation of experimental musicians?
TC: Well, first, let me say that I’ve been working with the harmonic series for a long time. I considered the drone as a way to explore harmonic relationships. I have a lot of theories about the harmonic series that have evolved over the decades, and I’ve wanted to express them though music. So this means being highly selective about which harmonics I should play and what relationships I should establish. This approach and manner of thinking hasn’t really been developed by the younger artists working with drones. They’ve been thinking about drones, but not following this interest in a particular direction. So this is a specialized aspect of my music that I don’t see echoed so much in other peoples’ work.
ZD: Has their approach to music affected your practice at all?
TC: I’d say the rise of so-called “noise” has allowed my music to be understood in a certain way. I like noise because it breaks things up. I don’t really believe in minimalism. Okay, fine, the three of us play very steady drone music—it’s wonderful—but it’s not the only thing, you see? It’s not a matter of being impatient; it’s a matter of offering some color and some change. Yet it’s often the case that the color and change in my music is associated with the concept of noise, which connotes a sort of uniformity, so it’s a bad name for it. Because after all, there’s a lot of variation within drone music, and the types of variation that have come to be called “noise” are incredibly various. Alternative instrumental techniques, theatrical elements, different performance styles and the use of pre-recorded material: each of these things have been called “noise.” Noise is a reductivist concept. It’s such a garbage pail term. It really means nothing and it’s not an adequate way to understand what’s being added to the music. To me, noise stands for the addition of something extraneous, and I love that—to add something external. In that respect, there has been a lot of change and a lot of additions for me in what I do.
JHP: But your work with music has always spilled outside the bounds of musical performance.
TC: Of course. I think I was candid enough early on to realize that my music didn’t have a platform for achieving anything significant in the way of social change. This meant that if I had social, political or historical ideas, I would need to write or use other media to express them. There were certain observations I made that suggested that social change was a good area to be thinking about. It seemed to me that rock ‘n’ roll was a really significant factor in the downfall of the Soviet Union. Jeans, fashion and rock ‘n’ roll infected the East in a way that was very powerful. I think this helped to draw my attention to the way that music may function as an expression of social power and social twisting—the twisting of individuals in the construction of a social order. The clearest examples of this kind of thing are marching music, anthems and church singing. It’s very clear that music is one of the main things that forms identity and creates unified social structures, so the idea that you’re German or American is strongly expressed through music.
Also, music in relation to advertising—jingles, for example—is very important to social constructs. Everybody thinks that all of this isn’t such a big deal. I think it’s way up at the top in terms of importance. It’s very clear that these are factors that have been inaccessible to a 20th century understanding of music and society. In the 21st century, we’re going to need to understand some of these things as we face the pervasive monster that is neoliberalism. And we have so few tools that actually manipulate people in any way that could be construed as opposite or running in a different direction to neoliberal forces. If we ignore music in this regard, we’re making a big mistake.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from past issues.
A as in Animal Collective:
We embarked on a trippy tour together. They were very foolish—before we even met them they let us travel on their tour bus. They’d start their live sets and this massive cloud of ganja would rise into the air. Their audiences were really peaceful, good-feeling crowds.
B as in Beats:
Making beats is a daily habit, part of laptop life. They’re like sketches in a notebook. You can get into your own zone and lose hours getting into little grooves.
C as in Chopper:
A wooden instrument created by Dave Sylvester and Mica. It has eight strings with a wheel and picks and you use a rod to play it. It sounds like the strumming of a guitar, but more constant, more mechanical, less human.
D as in Dancing:
Pulling shapes. At the same time as playing a gig you can get a sweat on. It moves the music forward.
E as in Englishness:
Sort of an old-fashioned term. We have such a shared culture online and those distinctions feel more and more irrelevant.
F as in Feeder:
Raisa: The title of an EP I put out a couple of years ago. It wasn’t as fun without these two, which is probably why I haven’t put out anything else since.
G as in Good Sad Happy Bad:
The name of our new album, but it could be the name of the band. The songs are either real downers or peppy uppers. The title says everything and nothing, which is ideal for us.
H as in Matthew Herbert:
A mastermind. He made an album where he reared a pig. For his live shows he’d have a chef on stage. Smelling bacon during his set was off the hook.
I as in Improvisation:
Improvisation is equal parts math and cosmos. We always thought that improvisation was this thing that you had to train many years for and we’d never be able to do. It felt satisfying coming together for the jam that became Good Sad Happy Bad.
J as in Joyful/Jarring noise:
Is this a description of our music? Otherwise, big up Sun Ra.
K as in Kwes:
An amazing soul and an absolutely natural musician. He’s got an unbelievable set of ears, a beautiful voice and beautiful lyrics. Plus, his productions are tactile and personal. He’s also a great facilitator of other people and he’s very patient and committed. He can play several instruments to a really high standard, as well as use a computer. More often than not, you don’t see those two skills together.
L as in London Sinfonietta:
We did a live performance with them called Chopped & Screwed that involved the Chopper. We were worried about it. These musicians are absolute virtuosos, specialists in modern music, and able to read and perform incredibly complicated notation. We gave them some written material, but the order of how it was played had to be committed to memory, which put them in a vulnerable position. We were surprised at how much risk they felt that involved, but we were all totally out of our comfort zone. Everyone had to risk something.
M as in MC’s:
Brother May came up with the name Micachu, and he’s the main MC that Mica works with. He’s part of the much-treasured group around us who are interchanging roles and making music together. This community is the most important thing.
N as in Notation:
It’s like a drawing, but a detailed drawing instead of a big sweeping thing. To compose with notation is pretty Zen, but we don’t write out our stuff because we’re talking to each other and have it committed to memory.
O as in Optimism:
Yes, please. It’s not done on purpose, but if you hear optimism in our music, that’s really great.
P as in Post-punk:
It felt like we were making punk music for this album. There’s the driven, sketchy energy of the music but also our own explosive compositional attitude—it’s full of sudden changes in direction and mindset.
Q as in Quantization:
We avoid it mainly, but every music technology has a place, even Auto-Tune. It depends on what the purpose is.
R as in Rough Trade:
We were choosing between labels, and [founder of Rough Trade] Geoff Travis listened to five seconds of Jewellery and said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll sell much of this, but I like it so I want to put it out,” and we were convinced. He was truthful and unfazed. The whole ride with the label has been a pleasure, and we’re very lucky.
S as in Shipping container:
We mixed our album Never in a converted shipping container. The studio was in a neighborhood of containers holding office spaces, homes and workshops. During the process another container two doors down became available and Mica went for it. Later, Kwes moved into another. The whole area is around East India Docks. It’s right opposite the Millennium Dome and under the flight path of London City Airport. There’s very little phone signal and no Internet, so it was a good place to write music and poetry.
T as in Tunings:
The moment in between songs. Non-standard tunings expand the harmonic world of the humble barre chord. We don’t use many weird tunings anymore because half the set was spent getting in tune! Those tunings aren’t patently unusual, just to Western ears. In Indian music, Western music scales would sound strange too.
U as in Under The Skin:
A film directed by Jonathan Glazer, starring one Scarlett Johansson, with a soundtrack by me, Mica. Has it changed how I work? I’ve gone back to my old ways.
V as in Vacuum cleaner:
Mica used to use a vacuum cleaner to distort her voice. It sounded like hell on earth and it nearly killed her. A Hoover is never a safe thing to put near your mouth while it’s on, kids. Especially every night on stage!
W as in Withasee:
I, Marc, produce bands and artists as a facilitator under this name, and a few solo bits. The name was given to me by school friends who noticed I introduced myself as: “Marc with a ‘c.’” I was named after Marc Bolan and I’m proud of it!
X as in Xylophones of light bulbs:
American composer/instrument builder Harry Partch created a tuned percussion instrument called the Mazda Marimba, which used Mazda light bulbs as keys.
Y as in “You Know” (from Never):
It’s the story of a quick rejection at a long house party. For the video, we dressed up like our friends in colorful clothes and had them boogie to a drum ‘n’ bass track while drinking non-branded beer.
Z as in Tirzah:
Doesn’t start with a Z—this is cheating! However, Tirzah is a chic goddess babe.
Hailing from Perth in Western Australia, one of the world’s most isolated cities, Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker might seem an unlikely candidate to top the charts alongside Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. But in only a few short years, Parker’s infectious brand of lysergic, riff-heavy pop has gone from bedroom project to global juggernaut, striking chords with young festivalgoers and aging psych-snobs alike. With his latest album, Currents, Parker draws on new inspiration from the funky crucible of ’80s electro-pop and a beguiling set of new life circumstances.
Kevin, you’re from Perth, which is thousands of kilometers from the next major town or city. How has that affected the music you make? Or do you think people unnecessarily romanticize the idea that isolated spaces promote innovation?
I still don’t know. There’s definitely something to be said for Perth people doing what they do to please themselves rather than anyone else. I think we have that balance going on where we’re so far away from the other cities in Australia that we feel disconnected, but we’re connected enough to know what’s going on in the outside world. We have our interpretations of styles of music that are popular in other places, so we catch on to the rest of the world. Touring in Melbourne and Sydney isn’t really in the cards for young Perth bands because it takes ages to fly there and costs a lot of money. So we said, “Fuck it, let’s not bother. Let’s stay here and make music for the rest of Perth.” Maybe it’s that sort of decision that makes the city musically productive. Since everyone has already seen everyone else play, there’s an onus to do more fucked-up shit.
Besides, I never relied on a music scene to do what I do because I make music alone, and when I started out there wasn’t a scene around me anyway. My experience of the “Perth scene” was just my friends and the people I lived with. Perth is so spread out that everyone has a huge backyard by anyone else’s standard. That was one of the things that shocked me once we left Perth: I always assumed that everyone around the world had a backyard. Only when we started traveling did I realize how naive that perspective was. We were more about backyard parties and weird jam events amongst friends that would go on for way too long.
Would you say playing outside established venues with your friends fed a healthier musical instinct? Playing in bars always seems to foster a competitive tension between young bands.
For sure. The competitive thing never changes, though. You can’t escape it because it’s human nature. I always found it constructive. Like a sibling rivalry, it only makes you strive harder. I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as good at what I do if I didn’t strive to be better than a band I saw or played with. I wanted to make music on the level of my friends. So that was competitive in the best possible way.
Do you think bands tend to get too deep into the mechanics of how they’re going to make it too early in their careers? There’s a tendency to focus on getting plucked out of your hometown by that cool, foreign label.
Before we got “plucked,” as you say, which is exactly what it felt like, I didn’t want to be a part of that grind: raise some money, record a demo, get a manager, get some more money together, record an EP, shop that around to every single person you can think of—from rural radio stations to giant labels. Then you go and raise more money from extended touring, record an album, and that’s your moment. I saw the painfully rigid structure of it.
I read that you got the call from the Australian label Modular, your pivotal “pluck” moment, on your way to a university exam. The world is pressuring you to get a life, or a “real job,” and then the complete opposite happens.
We were waiting for Modular to let us know whether they would actually go through with signing us. They’d been in contact with us before but they were like, “We need to talk to the boss,” who I guess was [Australian promoter and Modular founder] Steve Pavlovic. The call was to confirm that they would fly us to Sydney to play at a showcase for them. I was walking around uni, the exam was in 20 minutes and I was meant to be studying but I was thinking about this call. Then five minutes before the exam I thought, “Fuck, I better start walking to the exam,” and then the call came on the way there and I was like, “Fuck it, sweet! I’m out!”
After that I drove home to our share house and told Jay [Watson, touring member of Tame Impala], and we were like, “Whoa, sweet.” We didn’t even have a manager and we needed a lawyer to decipher the contract. It all went pretty smoothly after that. Each step on the ladder of success was as weird as the last. Getting flown to Sydney and put up in a lush hotel was like, “What?” Modular was so cool at that point. They put on a gig with us as the sole act in the middle of the day just because they wanted to see us. No one had even heard of us. Literally no one. And they had all these cool people there. So that was kind of crazy.
It must be weird thinking back now to something that seemed like such a huge deal at the time. Are you losing touch with the person who was stoked and surprised at something like that happening?
It’s true, which is sad. I still consider that the most exciting time of my life. The initial feeling that something great could happen is immense. Not to say that amazing things haven’t happened since then, but I’m getting better at digesting them.
I assume your resources and creative possibilities have expanded with your success. Do you feel like there’s a trade off in that regard? Are there constraints that appear in other areas to offset the appearance of freedom?
I think the more people you have involved—like with these big American labels—the more you have to fight for what you believe in. In the early days, if I thought something should be a certain way, I could say, “I think this should happen,” and I’d deal with it myself. Now it’s on a different scale. For instance, if you’re asked to stream your live set at a festival and you don’t want to, it’s a big deal. Some phone company sponsored a festival we played, and it was stipulated in the contract that the top three headline bands must be streamed, and I’m like, “No, I don’t want to be fucking streamed. I want to have a good time on stage and know that it’s not being broadcast to the entire Internet and stored forever and picked apart.” So suddenly, if you don’t want something to happen, if you want to do it your way, all hell breaks loose between managers and festival promoters and whoever. Even though there are lots of people working for you who care about your work, you’ve got to fight for what you believe in more when it becomes a bigger deal.
The business interests of the infrastructure become tightly linked with your private decisions.
That’s what it is. When more people, companies and brands depend on you to make a living, suddenly you have to please a lot more people than you did in the early days. Some people just ignore it and say, “Fuck you, I’ll do what I want,” and others are quite considerate. I guess I’m somewhere in between the two.
With Currents, you drape your signature songwriting style in electronic, funk and R&B-inspired aesthetics. The press has tended to paint this slight shift as a big, risky move for Tame Impala. What would happen if you released something that was really going to confound expectations? If slight changes in instrumentation are heralded as a fundamental change, what would happen if you released, say, a drone record?
Or the sound of a washing machine in reverse.
Not purely to be weird for the sake of it—but if your audience considers slight generic change as some huge step, perhaps that’s something to play with?
I hate the term “going electronic” or “going pop.” A lot of bands who have an established sound and a bit of success can become overly aware that people consider them to represent a particular brand of music. It’s a cool thing for them to throw those expectations out the window and make something totally obtuse. I find being inaccessible for the sake of it more of a cliché than going the other way.
Could the infrastructure veto such a move? Render it somehow impossible?
At the end of the day it’s still down to the artist. That’s probably the reason why a lot of bands make an experimental album: to pull a middle finger to the people who are expecting them to do something else. In a way that’s kind of how I felt when I was making Currents. I was making songs with a drum machine rather than a drum kit, or songs without a chugging riff. I knew that [Tame Impala’s 2012 hit single] “Elephant” did really well in America. The radio stations just kept playing and playing it months after its release. The record label was like, “Sweet, this ‘Elephant’ tune is sick.”
Ten more of those, please.
They never straight-out said that. The people we work with would never expect me to regurgitate formulas for the sake of success. But they’re probably thinking, “If he makes another ‘Elephant’, then we’re minted.” If I did, it’d get played on the radio, even if it was less inspired. As long as it was the same kind of thing, they’d be like, “Dope, there’s the next one—ship it out!”
Your production tends to get put on a pedestal, and people like to emphasize your self-questioning isolation within this dreamy soundworld. Album titles like Lonerism and Innerspeaker make such a connection quite immediate. While Currents is aesthetically pleasing on the surface, there’s an insidious aggression in it that’s contrary to the production style.
Some people focus purely on what the sounds say to them. The production style forms their opinion of how optimistic or pessimistic an album is. For me, Currents is meant to be about looking forward and a sudden adoption of confidence. Suddenly this interior voice is declaring what they are and what they want, as opposed to the other albums, which are more self-questioning. The overall consensus on Currents was that it’s heartbreaking and really sad, which kind of confuses me because Lonerism was really dreary in comparison. The lyrics are quite defeated, and Lonerism in general has a depressed tone to it, yet people were saying it’s really upbeat and positive. It’s weird that I always seem to have the opposite interpretation of my music.
Production can be such a red herring that it can say one thing with this hand and another with that.
Oh man, that’s one of my favorite things about music: putting two different kinds of sentiments together. I always thought a sad song with sad music and sad lyrics is one-dimensional. When you juxtapose positive lyrics with a melancholic sound, suddenly you have this weird friction that plays with your emotions. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I gravitate towards that musically.
Would you consider production to be surface or content? Some critics say your production keeps listeners away from meaningful interaction with the actual content of a song. Do you consider production musical material in and of itself?
My instinct is to say that it’s extremely inherent in the music. Production is the music as much as the aesthetic dressing because so much of how a sound comes across dictates how the brain responds to that sound. If you play a guitar nice and clean with some country rock strumming, it says one thing; if you overdrive it, suddenly it’s a really angry, aggressive chord with a completely different emotional value. And that’s what production is: it’s how the sound gets from the source to the ear. So from the ground up it has emotional weight. I dream about being a hotshot producer in the same way a kid dreams of being a rock star. See, for me, production is part of the songwriting process. I’m completely unable to write a song without considering how it would be produced at the same time.
Surely there are loads of people asking for your services.
You’d be surprised. I think there are a lot of production requests coming from fans sent to my manager. She filters through them, so not many requests actually come to me. Some big names have asked me to produce their stuff. I wouldn’t be able to say who, because then I’d be saying whom I denied. Sometimes I say no because I love their music and I’m too afraid to fuck it up and ruin it for them. It’s such a personal thing; people have to know each other to work together properly.
Now that you’re playing these huge festivals, is there any sort of musical monotony setting in or does the mega-festival keep surprising you musically?
I’ve slowly become that guy who doesn’t check out bands, which seems to be the ultimate sign of becoming a jaded festival veteran. You just rock up, play your gig and piss off. I still maintain that you can learn something from every artist you see, especially watching them on stage. That is, if they’re not exclusively using backing tracks. Having said that, I don’t go out looking for my new sound. I wait for it to come to me. Music has always come from such an internal place for me. I have a hard time thinking about it any other way.
When you’re a teenager, music can be a huge factor in shaping your identity, maybe because it comes from a highly personal internal place, as you say. I guess that especially goes for musicians. But for most, real success will remain a fantasy and their identity readjusts to everyday life. But when the opposite happens, I imagine music can have a volatile influence on your sense of self.
Absolutely. I guess that’s why artists go crazy. [Long pause] That’s how insanity happens.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine with photos by Luci Lux. Click here to read more from past issues.
See: An empty stage, its backdrop painted with the idiot faces of gods. Their heads incline upward, either in disdain for those below or in baffled wonder at what hands might work above them. And there—descending on silver wires, a puppet with arms thrown wide like a grotesque Christ. His wooden feet touch the stage with a soft tchk. No spotlight illuminates him; only the footlights cast awareness, flickering softly below a dance of dust particles.
He slowly advances, though obviously under the command of a less than able puppeteer. The effect is of one burdened by some crippling illness or distress. His robes—perhaps “rags” is a better term for those flapping swatches of loose red fabric—twitch as his head wobbles madly, as if the puppeteer was seized by a fit of the giggles. His painted lips part with a clumsy clunk:
“In the light of your persuasion, I saw a rare creation, and I cross this consummation for another way of being.”
Following this proclamation he steps back, away from the footlights. The rumble of sheet metal from behind the curtains rises slowly. It’s a simulated storm that brings a cold wind to blow and tease at the ends of our host’s sad tatters. Above stage center, two pale, beautiful feet emerge, glowing as they kick the air. The puppet echoes these kicks in exaggerated pantomime, legs thrusting higher into a gleeful dance. He tears his robes further to reveal an almost comic striped prison uniform. This puppet is no invalid, but inmate! What a silly impression he makes amongst the stars of gods and swirling eddies of ancient dust…until he suddenly stops dancing.
Through some trick of light his face appears streaked with wetness: sweat? Tears? He stumbles forward, mouth agape.
“In this light I thought I heard a voice that said six perfect words.”
From above, on the edge of comprehension: “A child’s echo, hear him singing.” Then a church bell begins ringing, and the voice speaks once more from curtained ceilings: “This is not the only dream.”
Two hands now appear from above. Neither hold wires or give direction to the slumped-over figure below. From between thin fingers, snowflakes begin to fall, covering the puppet in white, and as the hands pull upward the puppet rises up from the freezing pile. He is clad once more in ragged red, his hands outstretched toward those now vanished. His voice lashes out from hollow insides:
“Take my hand beneath the sky! Lend your voice, that I might fly! When you’ve looked beyond my eyes into a different way of being!”
Wooden lips not meant to spread crack as they’re forced to perform the acrobatics of intense laughter, delivered into a false sky of spinning gods who don’t get the joke. The puppet’s knees hit the stage. For a moment he looks like a penitent child discovered at some perverse game. Shaking like a flame, his small body shapes a whirling dance that steadily becomes more luminous and violent until zzzzppp! he’s yanked upward, to rest among the lights with that unseen beautiful figure.
Caught in a dance against this empty stage, two silhouettes—a shadow and a shadow’s memory—sewn together by delirium. Two conjugal shapes straining as much against as toward each other, each starving on the other’s empty essence. Neither voice nor limb nor light remain.
This is sex.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from past issues.
In 1977 when the Sex Pistols were spawning angry three chord reactions against the pomp of prog, a young Jean-Michel Jarre was enjoying the success of his first LP Oxygène—the kind of spacey, analog synth exploration punk supposedly sought to destroy. Jarre, a former student of Pierre Henry, would go on to sell 80 million records over his forty-year career and has experienced a critical reassessment of late. His recent collab-heavy LP Electronica 1: The Time Machine ambitiously seeks to tell the history of electronic music…with electronic music!
Max Dax: Monsieur Jarre, your new album Electronica features a large cast of iconic collaborators.
Jean-Michel Jarre: That’s right. They are my heroes. I am proud that they were all willing to participate. I see it as a great honor that they all loved the project.
Strangely, the most iconic of all possible collaborators is missing.
Who do you think would that be?
I would have thought the first composer you’d reached out to would have been Pierre Henry, who is considered to be the last living godfather of electronic music.
OK. Let’s cut the preambles and really start talking then. You’re absolutely right. Pierre Henry is it. I actually will meet him again very soon. For various reasons that should not be part of this conversation, it wasn’t possible for him to work with me on Electronica. But we met a couple of times over the last few months and discussed the possibility. When we met for the last time in June, he proposed to collaborate on the second volume of Electronica that will be released in April 2016. Pierre Henry is very old, you know? He needs a lot of time to rest, and I am more than willing to respect his slow schedule. Suffice to say that I am very, very busy all the time so that this particular collaboration turned out to be the most complex and the most difficult to set up, even though we both live in the greater Paris area. I can only hope that this collaboration will finally see the light of day as I consider him the last man standing.
As a young man you studied under Pierre Schaeffer. Can you tell me about it?
He laid the foundation for everything I have ever done. By inventing the concept of musique concrète, Schaeffer created the theory of electronic music, and we all should eternally praise him for that. He was the one who defined music’s single most important evolutionary step in the 20th century by saying that there can be music beyond notation and sheet music. He basically introduced the idea that concrète sounds should also be considered music. Music is sound. That was his message. And as we all know, this concept changed the shape of music fundamentally. Every electronic musician, every composer and DJ is a sound designer nowadays and thus a grandson of Pierre Schaeffer.
But Schaeffer wasn’t only dry theory.
You’re right. To prove his theory right he took a microphone and went out into the city and recorded whatever he heard: a barking dog, the sound of the heavy rain, a train passing by, the wind blowing. With these concrète field recordings he started to compose music.
So, when Kraftwerk recorded the airflow from the inside of a moving car to generate the hissing sound in their song “Autobahn”, you’d call them Schaeffer’s “grandsons” too?
Yes. Between noise and music there’s just the hand of the musician. As opposed to Schaeffer, Pierre Henry was more like a hands-on composer and less interested in concepts. When together they changed the definition of music in the late forties, they were like yin and yang. And don’t forget the music of Eliane Radigue who, since she is a woman, is often overlooked in this context. But more than anything else we should understand that electronic music came from all sides of the frontier and, in a way, also helped us to forget World War II: Germany, with Stockhausen’s Studio für elektronische Musik in Cologne, and France were the epicenters of electronic music. Italy’s Luigi Russolo formulated the manifesto L’arte dei Rumori [The Art of Noises] for the futurists and Russia’s Leon Theremin invented the first instrument that would generate entirely electronic sounds.
Where would you put electronic music in music history? And where would you put yourself in that context?
Electronic music evolved out of continental Europe’s classical music tradition whereas rock music and jazz are derivatives from an Afro-American origin. In that sense, electronic music looks back onto a massive heritage. And regarding my person, I had two choices: I could have either become a composer of contemporary experimental classical music or the electronic musician that I eventually evolved into. In the early ’70s I started to experiment with ideas and concepts of pop and progressive rock and voilà—that’s when I wrote Oxygène. From there my music has become part of the collective unconscious. Every musician seems to have an opinion on Oxygène—be it the late Edgar Froese from Tangerine Dream or younger artists like Boys Noize, Air, Gesaffelstein or musicians from the Berlin techno scene.
It’s interesting that you place the beginnings of electronic music at almost at the same time as abstract painting.
We’re talking about modernism here. And in this context I would call myself a modernist. I feel so privileged that I have been, just by coincidence, born into this century where I could basically witness the beginning of a phenomenon. When I started to make music, the first synthesizers had just been invented. When I started to compose electronic music it felt like walking in virgin territory. It was fully innocent, naked, with no references and no direct influences. That is the ultimate luxury you can have as an artist. Nowadays, when young musicians start to make electronic music, they face a long heritage. They’re influenced by everything that has been published before and by definition cannot be pioneers anymore. Having said that, there still is a lot of interesting music being released year after year. And to tell you the truth, If I had the choice, I would love to live 100 years from now. Maybe I would make music with implants in my brain that directly translate what I am imagining into music? I like the idea of traveling without flight cases, saving air freight.
But wouldn’t you agree that the future has already begun? No one has to learn an instrument anymore to translate a musical idea into real sound.
When I did Oxygène in 1976, I recorded it in my kitchen in Rue de la Trémoille. It was basically a home recording, as I actually didn’t have much money at all. I only owned seven or eight instruments, among them the ARP 2600, a Farfisa organ and Korg’s Minipops 7 drum machine. But with the success that came with Oxygène I was able to invest in more and better gear. Never forget that limitations are very important.
Limitations forced you to become creative?
Yes. The trap of technology these days is that it makes everybody believe that it is a luxury not to have any limits. In a Faustian sense this is true. To break that pact with the devil you have to force yourself into limitation. My advice to young musicians and producers is therefore to start by carefully choosing one plug-in and to then explore this one feature for six months. Take nothing else, don’t stop until you really master it. It’s like educating a child: You better give it a rigid framework. But within this frame make sure to give it total freedom.
That sounds like potentially sound advice. Do you have any more to offer?
Always keep in mind that the history of electronic pop music only started forty years ago. Every relevant work of music that has been released in these years was important because it surpassed the level of pure technology. In other words, every plug-in, instrument or computer is just a tool. If you want to create a piece of music that is going to last you have to find a way to define your very own unique musical language. It’s like discovering your musical fingerprint. Formats have been the result of such individual efforts. Because of the pianoforte we have the concerto. Because of Elvis Presley we have the format of the three-minute single and the jukebox. And because Native Instruments invented the plug-in Massive we have dubstep as a preset. But we should not be trapped by this insight.
By the way, one of the tracks on my new album mirrors exactly that. Together with Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air, I recorded the track “Close Your Eyes”. We had the idea to utilize all the different technologies that were used over the course of the decades and to feature them all in one track. The track starts with sounds from oscillators of the Pierre Schaeffer era and the first loop we made was magnetic tape that we’d cut with scissors. From there we went to the first drum machine and the first modular synthesizers to the first sampler, which was the Fairlight. Then came digital hardware and finally some Native Instruments plug-ins. And the last sound on the track was made with an iPad.
How did you approach all of these world-famous musicians, gathering them like a tribe around you?
First of all, when you love someone’s music, you have a fantasy about the person behind it. You project a lot of ideas on this person. This is a prime example of how our imagination works. You may have noticed that my album is the exact opposite of all these albums that have features of famous artists on them. These commercial albums are all made according to the same generic formula: You send files around the world and get back vocal tracks or a guitar riff from people you’ll never meet that you then copy and paste into your music. In my eyes, this is a worn-out marketing concept.
So, what exactly makes Electronica so different then?
I wanted to physically meet each and every collaborator face-to-face. I traveled the world for this. And not only that: I approached everyone personally, avoiding agents and managers. I wanted this to be a collaborative project between artists from A to Z. Paying respect to each artist involved was a huge issue. And this included recording a demo-—as opposed to a finished track—for every single artist I approached. These demos basically mirrored the musical phantasies I had towards each musician and left enough space to add their own ideas and to express themselves.
In 1975, Bob Dylan gathered a stellar cast of artists including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Harry Dean Stanton, Allen Ginsberg, Kinky Friedman and others to embark on a tour that would carry the name “The Rolling Thunder Revue”. Were you perhaps doing something similar?
I know what you’re getting at. Of course I would never dare to compare myself to Dylan. But I am aware that the young generation considers me one of the godfathers of electronic music. And apart from that I am the boss of my own project, yet at the same time I am fully aware that I can only learn from all the young musicians that I’ve actually met all over the world. There always has to be a director if you want the result to be cohesive. Believe me, if you show a lack of leadership you can’t fit so many egos—Massive Attack, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter—on one record.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from past issues.