It's as though Pascal Arbez-Nicolas has been driving a '94 Dauer 962 LeMans under the radar of electronic music for the past five years, crushing vinyl records in his path and blowing by the standard DJ fare, leaving uninspired electronic artists in the wake of his dust. Take a peek inside the hypothetically owned hot rod, and you'll find a tall, thin, debonair, unassuming Frenchman who has taken a genre overloaded with repetition and unoriginality and kicked it square in the nuts.
From his debut EP Poney (Gigolo, 2001) to his first full-length album OK Cowboy (Uncivilized World, 2006), Arbez-Nicolas — known as Vitalic — has been tearing up the dancefloor and setting it on fire. Those with their fingers on the pulse of electronic music — including 2 Many DJs and Aphex Twin — have been bitten by the Vitalic bug, sampling tracks from Poney to beef up their DJ sets.
Although Vitalic isn't a household name in electronic music in the States, his status is about to explode with the U.S. release of OK Cowboy. So far, he has played DJ sets in places such as Philadelphia's Fluid, Chicago's Smart Bar, San Francisco's BOCA and Miami's Versace Mansion.
While Vitalic's musical taste runs the gamut, from Daft Punk and the White Stripes to Belgian new beat, he meticulously combines techno, electro and house with elements of rock, metal, disco and folk all into one thumping and aggressive melody — a sound purely all his own. OK Cowboy is packed with his precise knob-tweaking and lever-sliding skills.
One of the most entertaining sounds on OK Cowboy is the crunching, spastic, metal guitars on “My Friend Dario,” for which Vitalic used Dave Smith Instruments Evolver synth. “Because they're fake guitars, you have to make a very muddy mix to hide the fact that they're fake,” Vitalic says. “If you clean up too much of the track, then you can totally hear that they're fake guitars, so it's very tricky. The sound engineer, because it's his job, was trying to make the track sound as large as possible, with a good stereo image. But that didn't work on that track. I really had a particular sound in my head, and I don't give up until I achieve the sound that I want. It's like I don't really have a choice. In the end, we finally got the sound we wanted.”
It's hard to tell from the intricate layers of sound on tracks such as “Newman,” with its buzz-saw tone; and “Valletta Fanfares,” with its marching-band-on-speed beat, but Vitalic believes in the less-is-more approach to making music. “When you have just two or three pieces of equipment, it forces you to improve your knowledge about that equipment,” Vitalic says. “At that point, you can reach something different than other musicians. I don't spend a lot of time deciding what to use. I've got only a small number of synthesizers [including the Alesis Andromeda, the Moog Minimoog and the Alesis Ion], and I've got to finish the tracks using only those synthesizers.”
At the heart of Vitalic's live setup beats a Mac PowerBook G4 running Ableton Live. After destroying three Korg MIDI controllers, he now uses the Kenton Spin Doctor MIDI controller. Rounding out Vitalic's live rig are a Clavia Nord Rack 3 and a Roland V-Synth. “The Roland V-Synth is really cool live because it's easy to use, and it has a big screen, so you can have direct access to many things at once.”
With just a few pieces of gear that he's mastered, Vitalic creates intense tracks with expert attention given to every detail. Perhaps Vitalic got his minimalist (at least equipmentwise) approach to music from one of his mentors, Daft Punk. “When I first met Daft Punk when I was a newcomer, they gave me some advice. They said, ‘Don't fart around with your machines too much. Make music; make songs.’ They said that you can do a very good track with just one cheap synthesizer. When you spend too much time farting around with machines, you're not working on the tracks. That advice is very precious to me, and I'm still using it today.”