Jean-Michel Jarre: The Extended Interview

Berlin electronic supergroup Sascha Ring, Gernot Bronsert, and Sebastian Szary warp vocals, tweak modulars, and always aim for first takes on the haunting, intimate III
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Berlin electronic supergroup Sascha Ring, Gernot Bronsert, and Sebastian Szary warp vocals, tweak modulars, and always aim for first takes on the haunting, intimate III
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The French electronica pioneer waxes philosophical about concepts of composition, finding inspiration in both vintage analog synths and state-of-the-art plug-ins, and collaborating with the likes of The Orb and Edward Snowden (!) on his latest project

The shadow of Jean-Michel Jarre’s career spans five decades, stretching from the structural exercises of musique concrète to accessible synth-pop. Studying in the late-’60s electroacoustic studio of Pierre Schaeffer, the conservatoire-trained musician found oscillators and magnetic tape to be his medium to invent celestial soundscapes, to “be in an aquarium with clouds around my head.” His elegiac 1976 album Oxygène sold 15 million copies as punk raged and compact synthesizers joined the DIY aesthetic.

Over the course of nearly 50 years, Jarre has amassed quite a menagerie of iconic and idiosyncratic gear, as well as an appreciation for the analog-like “unpredictable character” that digital instruments such as Native Instruments Monark mono synth can produce. He is quick to celebrate the purity, quirks, and abstraction of each component, a concept that extends to his latest releases: Electronica 1: The Time Machine and Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise.

Compiled over four years, both mobile and in the studio, these two albums feature 30 organic collaborations including Air, M83, Gesaffelstein, Tangerine Dream, Massive Attack, Rone, Julia Holter, Jeff Mills, the Pet Shop Boys, and The Orb. A sonic sketch in hand, Jarre visited each participant to exchange culture and context and capture far more than a top line before finalizing all the mixes at his console on the outskirts of Paris. The resulting co-productions range from billowing and ethereal to paced EDM.

Speaking from Berlin, Jarre shared his thoughts on everything from electronic music’s historical architecture to his embrace of Ableton Live to sequencing Matrix-like “bullet time” moments in which Edward Snowden delivers a message on the tenuous relationship between man and technology.

What does the word “electronica” symbolize and encapsulate for you?

I know that ‘electronica,’ especially in the U.S., is a genre of electronic music linked to the ’90s, a word used to mark a difference between pure club music and non-dance floor music. But the idea for me was not influenced by this. To me the word is divided in two parts: ‘Electronic’ and the letter ‘a.’ What I am actually trying with this concept is to personify the muse that could be the granddaughter of Elektra and what Elektra is all about in mythology, which is a link to energy and light and all that. So this is the little sister of Elektra in the 21st century.

Is there someone that for this project was your muse?

For Electronica I found my own muse in Julia Holter. She brought this mix of innocence, but also being very into electronic devices. She has done some tracks by recording in the terraces of cafes and doing songs from noise, but at the same time having this quite haunted ethereal world between Lori Anderson, Bjork and Kate Bush, but more spacey in a sense. So I thought that she was symbolizing what this Electronica character had in mind.

For the track I did with Julia [‘These Creatures’] the idea was to not use any drums, just to add layers as the song progressed. So all the bass lines and synth tracks were minimal leading into her choir, all the voice we could process with octaves and play one or two down, so it would create this kind of ethereal but quite massive, complex pad effect building to the second half of the track - these alien and human worlds together. I recorded the demo at the Chateau Marmont [in Los Angeles] with a Korg [M-500] Micro-Preset, which has a very interesting filter, then she took it back to her studio to add vocals and EQs before I took it back to Paris to process. But the purity, the aura of Julia’s voice deserved not being processed too much. That is probably the most minimal track of the album.

These concepts of the muse and intimate, salon-like performances are very classical, which ties in to your views on electronic music’s very nature compositionally and culturally.

I have been always convinced from when I started in electronic music that it would become one day the most popular way of composing, producing and distributing music. Its birth was in Continental Europe a long time ago with people like Luigi Russolo in Italy with his futuristic manifesto of 'The Art of Noises,’ Theremin in the 1920s in Russia, and people like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer. And it had nothing at the beginning to do with rock, blues, jazz … it’s something more linked to classical music, these long instrumental pieces not at all in a pop format.

It’s not a genre like hop-hop, punk — it’s a different way of thinking of music. Before people such as Schaeffer, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry, music was based essentially in the Western world on notes and solfège. And suddenly you had some people thinking of music in terms of sounds, and thinking we can make music with a microphone and tape recorder by recording noises. Suddenly the difference between noise and music is the hand of the artist. And this changed the way we compose music to this day.

For the Electronica project you kept the compositional process directly in hand to the point you traveled to each collaborator’s studio. What influence did cycling through these different settings have in the final arrangements?

Music and inspiration for any artist are linked to space and time, and electronic music specifically is even more linked to cities: Berlin, Detroit, Paris, London, Bristol, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and so many other cities in the world have their own sound and surrounding culture. So traveling and going physically to meet people in their environment has been a big source of inspiration for me and it is a big change in the days when ‘featuring’ albums are so trendy. I don’t like sending files to people you never meet and talk to just for the cause of marketing reasons. Moving from point A to point B allows time to compose demoes systematically for each specific artist I was visiting, and many different elements including the sight and specificity of the light, architecture, so on and so forth of their cities did have its influence. If I had not been a musician I would have been an architect, I think, like Jeff Mills, who studied both an abstract and mathematical approach to buildings and came from Detroit as a pioneer of techno because he understands the multi-dimensional structure of music.

The whole idea was to gather people who have been and are a source of inspiration to me. Vince Clarke, Gary Numan or the Pet Shop Boys, for instance, have absolutely unique ways, almost protean op art approaches to sounds, and are convinced that melody, not just the beats, is the most important thing in electronic music.

Also, for instance, Pete Townshend is the one in rock that introduced sequencers and synthesizers on songs like ‘Baba O’Riley.’ And he has been a pioneer of pushing the boundaries of the rock performance by conceiving the rock opera as an art form. For Massive Attack, I was absolutely fascinated by the fact that they have this kind of sensual, almost sexual approach to sounds and being able to create this sense of space around the sounds, which is so important. It is something I battle with myself. I have a tendency to compose in a more horizontal way, creating space like in a landscape where you have different layers of information, and Massive Attack are just placing sounds with space around them. And also it has been a journey for me through both the past, present and future, working with people such as M83 or Rone or Gesaffelstein, as well as interesting artists from the Berlin scene in their late 20s or early 30s, while also working with people even older than me like Pete Townshend and Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream. We come from different generations, but at the end of the day there is a timeless relationship to music through sound, because as futurist musicians we are dealing with the same concepts. We all pull from the infinite timbres of noise and electronics, discovering new ways we are linked and ways we as individuals can build something greater than what one instrument can provide.

And I think each of these artists are all geeks, with the same kind of mad approach like me. I always considered music as an addiction, as something I do because I can’t do anything else. I would dream of painting, doing astrophysics, fishing, but I travel most through my music. I could go on and on for each collaborator, as there is a very subjective and personal desire for why I wanted to collaborate with them.

Would you ask each collaborator their feelings on the ARP 2600 and the EMS VCS3 to gauge your compatibility?

You’ve pointed out my two favorite synthesizers of all time. I have lots of other great favorites, but if I had to pick two monophonic instruments I would pick those even before the Moog. I always preferred the sound of the filters on the ARP 2600, where the transients are very sharp. I always found the attack of the Moog more spongey — great, organic, warm, but not as sharp as the 2600. So that created for me something unique in terms of sequencers. Also, even the size, it’s ideal on the 2600 in terms of ergonomics. And the VCS3 is the ideal synthesizer for doing uncontrolled effects. After awhile you don’t know what you’re doing and you create sounds in a purely intuitive way, as you have so many tiny pins you are playing with, you discover things like a child with toys and I still have that experience 40 years later. I never had that experience with another instrument.

Sounds are like characters, and the best ones grow, finding autonomy. I create them, and I think I control them and then they grow up being quite independent. I remember a very interesting conversation I had with the British writer Anthony Burgess, where he told me that when he was writing a novel and he had the characters that every morning they were around the table. And suddenly he was controlling them less and less until they revealed themselves as the final versions. And that is what I feel about sounds: I am just waiting to use them like independent actors in my scenario. It’s something which is quite interesting, when the organic and abstract part are slightly beyond my control, and it’s always when this happens that I’m quite OK with what I’ve done.

As you were composing demoes tailored to each collaborator, how many tracks on the two albums were mapped out conceptually and how many emerged from a scenario of melodic and rhythmic elements you allowed to grow?

It’s entirely depending on the collaborator, but what comes to my mind instantly is the track [‘Switch on Leon’] I did with the Orb. It’s actually a triple tribute to electronic music, first of all a tribute to the Orb who are one of the most exciting bands of all time to electronic music because of their use of collage, a Marcel Duchamp surrealistic approach to music. So I started from this idea of collage to integrate the history of electronic music. By coincidence I met the grand-grandson of Léon Theremin in Moscow last year and he gave me as a gift a sample of his grand-grandfather, so I used that for the intro of this track. And the third tribute is one to Robert Moog, because he was heavily inspired by Theremin, so I used some samples of his vocals.

Alex Patterson and Thomas Kehlmann of the Orb are both deeply influenced by dub, filtering it through different cultural prisms to create imaginary space. As in dub, reverb and delay have played a large part in your sound. Tell me about your relationship with manipulating samples and the stereo field.

Delays and reverbs are probably 50 percent of my sound. Take albums such as Oxygène and Équinoxe, the analog delay coming from two Revox B77 tape recorders is probably making almost 50 percent of the sound of these albums. I’ve always had a love and hate relationship with delays, because I’ve never found anything matching my Revox machines, but they can’t tour — they are too heavy and difficult. But in Replika from Native Instruments I have found something very handy for me to create what I like in electronic music, which is a total fantasy world. In Oxygène I was recreating the idea of the sound of the wind, the ocean or the seagulls. I don’t want to sample the rain, I want to recreate it as something more poetic and interesting. At the end of the day any art form is a kind of fantasy of reality. In Van Gogh, Stanley Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Stravinsky or John Cage, it’s a recreation of the environment and it’s what I like in synthesizers, creating the sound of the ideal orchestra or something like that.

For quite a long time I was quite against the idea of using more like one general delay and one or two reverbs, because after that you are confusing the space you are creating. Recently I have been changing my mind, but only as long as you are using mono sources. If you record delays you have to record them systemically apart, because otherwise you will be stuck in the mixing. In my opinion it is best to record as much as possible your first sound dry and in mono because the stereo of synthesizers are just fake, kinds of choruses. It’s fine if that’s part of your sound, the way you put your guitar into a flanger pedal, but if you want to create space it’s very dangerous because you are going to be stuck in the mixing later on.

On this track did you adopt or adapt any particular sound-on-sound and splicing techniques to complement the Orb’s style?

The track is a good example of something using lots of different styles of equipment, from samplers and analog synthesizers to digital plug-ins. It’s interesting, actually, that probably by an unconscious respect or desire to share the creative process all the vocal samples are coming from my side and lots of sequences you’d think are coming from me are coming from the Orb. It’s like we wanted to be each other: they wanting to work with me to make electronic sounds, and I wanted to do a collage of samples. So we started with a piece of music with this dialog I found from Boob Moog in an old conversation and little by little the sound Alex Patterson and Thomas Fehlmann did in Berlin gave me the idea to complete and structure the track in a different way involving more Theremin.

So in this track are some vocal recordings done in the 1930s, linked with some digital plug-ins such as Massive and Razor, linked to a Theremin I have in my studio dating to the 1960s, linked to some analog instruments Alex and Thomas did, and also sequences I did with the ARP 2600. I sampled my own voice processed through Electro-Harmonix pedals and reversed the sound. And I am using also a very old synth that is quite unique: the Coupigny, a French 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 to create this kind of organic low frequency and some effects, mixed with VCS3. It’s an interesting collage of different techniques coming from various times.

The bass sound at the beginning is also something I really like in this one, and it’s actually something I did from a mixture of three sounds: an ARP 2600, a bit of Moog and some electric guitar being sampled. The trick was to get rid of some transients of some of the tracks to keep it as one sound, and you know how hard that is to get without any phase or shift on the attack, but I think this mixture of analog and digital sound created this almost 3-D and powerful sound.

In contrast to ‘Switch on Leon,’ ‘Exit’ featuring Edward Snowden is very linear. If in some songs you are trying to invent the shape of new horizons, what type of construct did you conceive for this track?

The whole ‘Exit’ track inspiration came clearly from this idea I had about the Edward Snowden situation. 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. That is not very popular most of the time, but Edward Snowden is for me, whether the American government likes and accepts it, is a modern hero for saying be careful of the abuse of technology.

I wanted to really 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 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 and then having a breakdown, and I wanted that 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 a lot of sequences with this, using sounds from the ARP 2600, some of the FM8, of Razor from Native Instruments, and also samples that I had from my bank of the Fairlight CMI that I sequenced in that tempo. Also I recorded my breathing to evoke a kind of chase. I also made the pad in the middle with a Memorymoog 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.

And it’s a perfect example of mixing in recent plug-ins like Replika, one of my favorite delays of the moment, and some plug-ins like [Plogue] chipsounds that are software for creating kind of 8-bit type of sounds, early Atari sounds.

When presented with an emulation of hardware, such as the EMS VCS3 or your DigiSequencer, do you go for digital’s ease and portability or do you prefer the physicality of the original hardware?

I love both, because something like the Xils-lab XILS 4 [matrix modular analog synthesizer] plug-in has 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, even when the result will be different in terms of sound.

You’ve watched the synthesizer industry progress from analog to digital to analog again. How do you feel about the rise of the new modular?

When I was in Berlin 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 System 55 I have in the studio, is actually one philosophy created by one man. And the whole thing sounds the same from A to Z. What I like about the Eurorack is this patchwork of modules you have in one box. So when you go from one 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.

All of these add to my cast of unpredictable characters. 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 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 Memorymoog 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. Technology can send us so many surprises, good and bad, even though at its base technology is neutral. It’s all part of the same idea of what technology has to offer, how we as creators and just human beings can use it to connect with others in the right way.

Working with such a wide range of sources and circumstances, how did you assure coherence throughout the Electronica albums?

When I would travel I use my MacBook Pro with an Apogee Duet recording 24/48 to Ableton Live, which I like for transparency. When I used Pro Tools I always felt in bouncing mixes there was a slight phase in the high frequencies. Ableton Live let me work on the road with 100s of tracks without hardware.

At my studio I use something I really like, which is a Focusrite [OctoPre MkII Dynamic] preamp with eight inputs where it’s very simple with just the level, one switch for a compressor and a knob for setting the level of compression. It’s really magical for synthesizers. Or I go into either an RME or Universal Audio interface. I like them both for different reasons. Then what I try to do is stay in the same Live session until the mastering stage. I tried to save all the conversions and bounces. I did the mix for mastering in my studio with Genelec 1301s and an SSL AWS 948, which I like for its flexibility. You can go from recording analog instruments to having a controller for Ableton Live.

I think it’s much better to do the mastering from the sessions, because sometimes, for example, if you feel you have too much low frequency on a stereo mix you are going to have to adjust and EQ the lows of the entire mix when most of the time the problem is coming from one track. So it’s better to go there and EQ the problem and not affect the other tracks in the same frequency. And also, in terms of level, when we say in the digital era levels aren’t important … well, they are. The level you send to the mastering is very important to not be too high.

They are basic tricks that lots of sound engineers know by heart, but it’s strange to see that when you are working because of time or being tired you forget these basics.