LAST TANGO IN PARIS - EMusician

LAST TANGO IN PARIS

Gotan Project's latest effort depends, in no small part, on the several thousand miles of ocean separating Paris, France from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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Gotan Project's latest effort depends, in no small part, on the several thousand miles of ocean separating Paris, France from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Without that distance, Lunático (XL/Beggars, 2006) might have been a vastly different album. After all, few eyebrows would shift upward if the group once again melded the same urbane, cosmopolitan beats with the sly rhythms of tango, as it did on its stunning debut, La Revancha del Tango (XL/Beggars, 2001). But for Christoph Müller, who represents one-third of Gotan Project's core (with Phillipe Cohen Solal and Eduardo Makaroff), Lunático reflects a clear shift in his and his colleagues' musical interests. “I don't know if it's really conscious,” he shrugs. “The first album was really DJ-friendly. It was club-oriented in a way. We don't go to clubs a lot anymore. This album is more for home listening or for listening when you travel.”

After four singles on ¡Ya Basta! (Müller and Solal's label) landed in the record boxes of influential radio jocks and musicians such as Gilles Peterson and Jazzanova, Gotan Project recorded its seminal La Revancha del Tango with an assortment of Argentinean expats. The music was inescapable, moving beyond the international downbeat scene and into U.S. popular culture. Some tracks ended up on scads of chill-out comps piped into restaurants, lounges and retail outlets around the world; several ended up on television (Sex and the City) and film (the Richard Gere and J.Lo remake of Shall We Dance). The album is sophisticated, alluring and mysterious — a portrait of continental Europe eagerly propagated around the world.

MAKING SCENES

Müller, Makaroff and Solal altered their approach for Lunático. As with La Revancha del Tango, Gotan Project started by recording a tango quartet: two bandoneons (the distinctive accordion-like instrument that provides much of the melodic interest in tango), a drummer and a bassist. But this time they packed up their audio files and headed to Buenos Aires to record at the mythical Studio ION (favored by the famed tango composer Astor Piazzolla). There they recorded a 15-piece orchestra (led by Pablo Agri, son of legendary tango violinist Antonio Agri) and local MCs found through MP3s and records, as well as several session musicians found through their string arranger, Gustavo Beytelmann. After recording at Studio ION, the trio went back to Paris to put the finishing touches on the album.

Gotan Project's songwriting and recording process favors more traditional techniques, using technology to amplify and accentuate rather than to create. After writing outlines for songs, the group gathers musicians together — a pianist, a violinist and so on — for short recording sessions. From those recordings, the trio makes its own samples and files them for use in other compositions. “We have the musicians play the themes we write but also improvise material, and we edit and reconstruct the songs,” Müller explains. “It's like doing a film — you shoot a lot of scenes, and then you rewrite your story.”

Carefully guiding each session kept their studio time to a few hours a pop, but their efforts, together with the recording in Buenos Aires and the final tracks and production back in Paris, add up to nearly two years of work for Lunático. “It's a long, long process,” Müller acknowledges. “But it's sometimes good to take a break, have a bit of distance.”

The electronic flourishes woven throughout Gotan Project's music come courtesy of Müller, a self-taught musician who cut his teeth on what producers consider to be vintage treasures. “In the beginning, I was really an electronic-music purist,” he laughs, recalling his early techno-pop compositions similar to those of Depeche Mode, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk. “I was really involved with the music making as well as the engineering and production side of things. I started making music in a home studio in the basement in 1983, so [I had] sequencers, analog synthesizers, drum machines — things like the Roland TR-606, 808, 909.”

These days, Müller relies on Steinberg Cubase for most of the arrangement duties. “I came quite naturally to Cubase,” he says. “I started with analog, then I got into MIDI and started working with Steinberg — early Steinberg Pro 24. I just stuck to that!” Despite his preference for an analog desk, Müller made the switch to digital and hasn't looked back. “Pro Tools came in mainly for practical reasons, because Cubase arrangements can get quite messy, having the MIDI and all those things,” he explains. “I wanted to record down everything in the end to Pro Tools to have a real master tape to mix with and also to be able to send it to people in Argentina — people have Pro Tools everywhere. I'd prefer to stick to my old analog desk, but it is just not possible for recording from one track to another quickly or for working on other projects that come up in the meantime.”

PARIS OF SOUTH AMERICA

Initially, Gotan Project was just another side project. In the mid-'90s, Müller met Solal through mutual friends and began a collaboration that drew on Müller's experience with electronics and Solal's background in film. “We got in touch initially as a business relationship, and it became an artistic relationship later,” he recalls. “That's how it all started. It was one project among others, and maybe the one we believed the least in, you know?” Some years later, Solal brought Makaroff into the group, and their respective influences fused harmoniously in Gotan Project.

While tango unites Müller (a Swiss electronic pro-ducer) with Solal (a Parisian film-score composer/DJ) and Makaroff (an Argentinean guitarist), the influence of Parisian culture shapes their music almost as much as their own respective backgrounds. Buenos Aires and Paris share some strong cultural ties, thanks to famous Argentinean musicians such as tango singer Carlos Gardel, who came to Paris to pursue a film career; and Piazzolla, who arrived in Paris to study with famous composer/conductor/teacher Nadia Boulanger. The two cities apparently bear some resemblance to each other, with travel agents touting Buenos Aires as “the Paris of South America.” Some years ago, the famed Parisian club Le Trottoir de Buenos Aires (“The Sidewalks of Buenos Aires”) drew tango musicians and aficionados from across Europe. “It's a strong connection,” Müller asserts. “People keep coming here because they hear there are many artists who live in Paris, and they attract young musicians who want to play with the masters and study with the masters. There is a strong feel of really talented tango musicians in Paris.”

As the geographical center for tango in Europe, Paris not only provides a source of the sound for the many expat Argentineans living there, but it also offers a release from the pressures of tradition. “The feeling is that all Argentineans have some kind of homesickness for their country, that's for sure! But at the same time, living in Paris and being surrounded by a different environment, it's maybe more creative and more open to other things,” Müller says. “And I think, apart from that, living in Paris, you have more creativity than in Argentina itself. The weight of the tradition isn't there. It often explains why Gotan Project was born in Paris and not in Buenos Aires. We have respect for tango, but at the same time not so much respect. I don't feel the weight of traditions. My father isn't going to scream at me because I fiddle around with tango. In Argentina, he would.”

DISCRETE AND SYNTHETIC LAYERS

Substudioz, Gotan Project's home base, is where the group's musical collaborators gather and ideas develop. Müller does the bulk of the beat programming and electronic manipulation, yet he maintains focus on live instrumentals over digital trickery. “I really like warmer, organic sounds. I think it's an unconscious thing, a personal taste,” he says. As for software effects and outboard, Müller admits that finding the balance can be difficult, but he does turn to Native Instruments Reaktor for more experimental sounds and his outboard setup. “I do like the transient design,” Müller says. “I thought it would be great to record live drums. I thought it would be a good tool to work on live drums, to make them sound more crunchy. And we use the [TC Electronic] Finalizer just a little bit in our digital chain for extreme effects, compressor effects.”

Much of the character in Lunático, as with La Revancha del Tango, comes courtesy of Barcelona-bred singer and composer Cristina Vilallonga. Like many singers trained in a Latin tradition, her voice is dark, smoky and passionate — she has a good parlando, or manner of speaking, Müller says. “Singing tango is linked to how you speak, in a way. It's important to have feeling and emotion…. It's very different from pop singing. I don't think you can learn it.”

Müller emphasizes Vilallonga's distinctive, sultry vocals throughout the album by recording on Focusrite preamps and cutting the low end slightly to brighten up her voice. “I record almost flat on Focusrite preamps for the voice. It's really good for getting a transparent sound,” he explains. “I like to use discrete reverb. I really like and used on this record the TC Electronic Reverb 4000. And I like the emulation of the EMT plate reverbs. I wish I had one. The emulation is quite good. It is really discrete, as if it were not there. I also use the delay to create a little bit more space.”

On “La Vigüela,” Vilallonga takes a backseat to make room for an unusual new lead vocalist — a voice synthesizer. Müller recorded a synthesized reading of the famous 19th century poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro (by Argentinean writer José Hernández) by typing the words into his Mbrola synthesis program. “I used the speech synthesizer in Spanish, which I tricked into speaking with an Argentinean accent when I typed the text,” he says. He then processed that through a Korg VC-10 Vocoder and had Vilallonga do backing vocals, adjusting her tone and phrasing to accommodate the synthesized voice reading. But that wasn't it for vocals on the track. Müller also treated the bandoneon as if it were a voice. “The bandoneon is one of the instruments which comes closest to the human voice in terms of possibilities and expression,” Müller says of the diatonic squeezebox first invented in Germany for churches that couldn't afford an organ. “I treat it like I would a vocal line, just compressing less or not at all and trying to find the right panning between left and right — I try to avoid putting it in the center.”

Such integration of Argentinean tradition is very important for the group, not only in retaining authenticity to some degree through melody and lyrics but also through percussion. “I'm not interested so much in what they call world music,” Müller says. “I'm more interested in folk music from other countries. I wouldn't call it world music in that sense. I'm really interested in the percussion. I'm always looking for new rhythms, new percussion instruments, new things. I'm still doing that right now.”

In many tracks, layer upon layer of percussion round out the bottom end. In “Domingo,” Müller blends several different drums with a programmed bass drum and some electronic touches. “All the acoustic percussion is live,” Müller says. The key is using instruments in different frequency ranges, such as a bombo (a cow skin — covered drum). “The bombo is very low, the congas are more midrange, and the small percussion is more in the high range, so they blend really well.”

THE NEW ANTI-TRADITION

Lunático is undeniably an international, collaborative effort that examines the interplay between old and new, contemporary and traditional. In the process, the group reframes familiar sounds in an unexpected context and vice versa, depending on the listener's point of view. Gotan Project is pushing its sound forward while showing reverence for the past. Since its inception in 1999, Gotan Project has explored the venerable tango tradition from a distance, recording and interpreting the genre from an ocean away in Paris before venturing into tango's homeland with Lunático.

In some respects, the group's experimentation with tango is the ultimate tribute to that rich tradition. Gotan Project's music has revived a great deal of interest in the musical style and spread it around the world. “It is really quite an important movement, the new wave of tango,” Müller says. “I think the tango was the big musical style of the 20th century, like jazz. It's become universal, and it's been around the world a couple of times. I think it will continue to interest the young people, and they will start composing. Like with jazz, for a long time, people would just play standards. But now, young people use tango to express themselves. It's like a spark that sets something on fire. Latin music is now being played by young people who break free of the tradition.”

TANGO TECHNOLOGY

Computer, DAW, recording hardware

Apple Mac with a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system running Pro Tools
PC running Steinberg Cubase SX, Native Instruments Reaktor, Sony Acid and Sound Forge
Panasonic SV-3800 DAT recorder

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects

Brauner Phantom C mic
Ensoniq DP4+ effects processor
Focusrite ISA 220 preamps (2)
Lexicon LXP 1 effects processor
Monacor EEM-1000 Analog Echo
Neumann U 87 mic
Røde NT2 mic
Sennheiser MD 441 U mic
Semprini Stereofon Eco tape delay
SPL Transient Designer dynamics processor
TC Electronic D-Two Multitap Rhythm Delay, Finalizer Studio Mastering Processor and Reverb 4000
Tech 21 SansAmp stompbox

Console

Yamaha DM2000 Digital Production Console

Samplers, drum machines, turntables

Korg Electribe ER-1 drum machine
Roland S-760 sampler, SP-808 Groove Sampler
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntable

Synths, modules, instruments

Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth
Korg VC-10 Vocoder
Roland JV-1080 sound module, SH-2 synth
Wurlitzer electronic piano
Yamaha AN1x synth

Monitors

Dynaudio AIR 15s
Yamaha NS-10Ms