Interview Sneak Peek: Jean-Michel Jarre

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Next month, French electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre will release Volume Two of his Electronica concept album series, this time featuring guest artists Pet Shop Boys, Primal Scream, Gary Numan, Jeff Mills, Peaches, Yello, The Orb, Sebastien Tellier, Hans Zimmer, Cyndi Lauper—and Edward Snowden. For a feature appearing in our June issue, Tony Ware sat down with Jarre to learn more about the recording sessions, his collaborations, his thoughts on the evolution of synthesizers, and what it was like to collaborate with Snowden on the frenetic track “Exit.”

 Watch Jarre and Snowden discuss the making of "Exit":

When presented with an emulation of hardware, do you go for the ease and portability or do you prefer the physicality of the original hardware?
For the sequencers, I used mainly the touchscreen version, and for the sampler from Native Instruments it’s with a regular computer screen. But I see your real question … for both the Orb track and for “Exit,” I used some VCS 3, as I use it quite a lot. And in the Orb, I am using also a very old synth that is quite unique—the Coupigny—and it’s a French kind of synthesizer that was made in the late '50s, early '60s, and is basically a bank of oscillators with some shape modulators, wave modulators with LFOs, but it has a very wide range. It goes from 1 Hz to 30,000 Hz or more. And I used that for the Orb track to create this kind of organic low frequency and some effects, mixed with VCS 3. And for “Exit,” it’s a perfect example of mixing recent plug-ins like Replika as one of my favorite delays of the moment and some new plug-ins from a small company called Cheap Sound and they are doing software for creating kind of 8-bit type of sounds, early Commodore Atari sounds, and also some analog modular like the ARP and also some samplers, both analog and digital.

You’ve watched things go from analog to digital to analog again. With such a library of gear, maybe you don’t feel the need to invest in Eurorack components, but how do you feel of the rise of the new modular?
It is an interesting question, though I realize I didn’t answer what your question was about the original analog versus emulation of the VCS 3. I love both, particularly the Xils-lab XILS 4 (matrix modular analog synthesizer) plug-in which is in my opinion the best emulation because they have some parameters you don’t have in the original analog. But the analog one you can’t compete with because of the warmth. It’s always I think a mistake to compare the emulation of a synth with the real one, because by definition they can’t sound the same. But it’s great for someone without the original to get the feel of the approach, the concept of the synth. But the result will be different in terms of sound. And to go back to what you were saying about the trend of the new modular. When I was in Berlin last time we spoke I spent some time in the biggest store of some of the newer modules, mixing the Doepfer with the Buchla modules and ones from smaller companies, and I am very interested by this because it’s something totally different. The approach of the modular Moog, the 55 I have in the studio, is actually one philosophy created by one man. And the whole thing sounds the same from A to Zed. What I like is this patchwork of modules you have in one box. So when you go from one box to another you are changing not only the parameter, but also the circuits themselves, which gives you a totally different sound. So I am very, very interested and would like to get some of these concepts in my studio one day. I am even considering to have this on stage, because the problem with modular synthesizers on stage is you have no presets so you are stuck with one sound. But with these modules it is interesting because you can preprogram a family of sounds, so using them on stage will be worthwhile because you won’t use it once for one sound and that’s all.

I understand one of the things you like about using Monark is its organic application of artifacts you can embrace. And the analog gear you utilize will detune and sometimes do what it likes at will. So, if we’re personifying the synths as characters, you have a very large cast of unpredictable characters ...
What is interesting, even on stage during the last tour I toured with something crazy like 50 or 60 analog instruments and every night I was exposed to small accidents and incidents. And at first it scared me, but after awhile I realized how exciting it was to, instead of hiding this to expose these and use them to connect to the audience in a different way. In a day when everything has to be perfect, clean, politically correct, it is wonderful to recognize that accidents are the basis of all interesting things. So on stage when I have a Memory Moog going crazy I was just sharing the experience, saying things like “This is an old lady being sick, give me two minutes.” This sharing changed the entire relationship with the audience. And talking about this, it’s all about our ambiguous relationship with technology, these accidents, how technology can send us surprises even though at its base technology is neutral, it’s all about how you’re using it. For instance, these days beyond the world of music you have the world in your palm of your hands through your smartphone, and on the other side you are spied by the outside world. And this is one of the recurrent themes of Electronica, this ambiguous relationship we have with technology.

One of the most unusual collaborations I’ve done is with Edward Snowden. I’ve been really interested, fascinated by his coming out and I’ve been impressed because my mother was a great figure in the French Resistance so I was raised by this idea that when society generates things you can’t accept someone has to stand up, and if you don’t someone else will. And that is not very popular most of the time. Edward Snowden is for me, whether the American government likes and accepts it, is a modern hero for saying ‘be careful’ to the abuse of technology. It’s something I really respect. And then I wanted to do a track involving his contribution. It’s part of the same idea of what technology has to offer, how can we as creators and just human beings use it in the wrong or the right way.

The Snowden track feels the most sequenced of the bunch, that there was more time spent drawing in notes, thinking more clearly about rhythm and tempo …
The whole “Exit” track inspiration came clearly from this idea I had about the Edward Snowden situation. I wanted to really create, evoke this idea of a mad quest for more data, more information, and at the same time this crazy hunt for an individual organized by the three biggest U.S. organizations — the CIA, NSA, and FBI — and then have this quite speedy, hard techno feel with lots of sequences involved and sudden breaks like in stop motion, like in a movie when suddenly the action stops, almost like hiccups in the quest, an interruption, something that creates a kind of accident … when the machine is going too fast and for unknown reasons there is an interruption. I remember the first Matrix movie, it was based on this idea of stop motion with slow-mo effects [bullet time] and then having a breakdown, a kind of stillness where Edward Snowden can deliver his message. I used my DigiSequencer, which is a homemade sequencer very specific to my work. It is something quite special that was developed a long time ago by Michel Geiss.

I had it as an analog piece, and then I have now a digital version on a touchscreen. So I did mainly a lot of sequences with this, using sounds from the ARP 2600, some of also the FM8, the Razor also from Native Instruments, and also from samples that I had from my bank of the Fairlight that I sequenced in that tempo. Also I recorded my breathing to have these kind of sequences evoking a kind of chase. I also used the pad in the middle made with a Memory Moog and delays. That is a track with lots of elements, as I wanted to have every four or eight bars new elements, so I used Kontakt as a main sampler to process lots of elements all along the track.

Read our complete interview with Jean-Michel Jarre in the July issue of Electronic Musician, on newsstands in June.