A rendezvous with electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre

Jean-Michel Jarre doesn’t normally do things by halves.

But that’s exactly what he’s up to when I meet him at his plush Paris pad in one of the city’s more opulent streets; situated in the 8th arrondissement, it’s a stone’s throw from the underpass where Princess Diana’s car crashed in 1997. By day, he meets members of the press to promote Electronica 1, and by night he mixes Electronica 2, set for release in April 2016. It’s a tiring schedule, but he’s in fine spirits. What’s more, Jean-Michel looks remarkably well preserved for his 67 years; in jeans and racing driver jacket, he could pass for a man half his age if you were to squint a little bit.

He’s not lost his sense of adventure either. The Electronica albums feature 30 collaborators in all, from Pete Townshend to Fuck Buttons, Gary Numan to Gesaffelstein. As one of the true pioneers of electronic music, he could be excused for putting his feet up and letting others come to him, but instead Jarre waited patiently for the artists he wanted to work with to become available, crossing continents to collaborate in person on a project four years in the making.

“We all think we are connected to the world now, but we are not talking to our neighbours anymore,” he tells me. “And also with so many featuring albums, you send a file somewhere and you never meet the people. They do a top line or a keyboard line or a guitar part independently, and most of the time it’s put together for marketing reasons. In this case it was totally different. I really wanted to meet everybody, so I travelled to meet each collaborator.”

Jarre only had to go as far as Oberkampf to meet Gesaffelstein (although they came together in L.A. as well), but to work with Tangerine Dream he had to drive 250 kilometres outside of Vienna. Then he went to Berlin to meet Boyz Noize, to Richmond for Pete Townshend, London for Little Boots and Fuck Buttons, and Bristol for 3D from Massive Attack. He took a plane to see Vince Clarke in Brooklyn, while Hans Zimmer, Gary Numan, Laurie Anderson and Moby were all in Los Angeles.

“These days you’re more like a writer or painter working in your atelier,” he says, speaking in the second person, “and it’s rare to share. You can join forces on stage, but most of the time you’re working in your studios separately. I’ve been really grateful and moved by people being so generous welcoming me, and welcoming the project.”

Jarre himself hardly needs an introduction, though a brief recap of some of his greatest achievements to date would note that he sold 12 million copies of his 1976 album Oxygène (making it the best selling French album of all time), and breaking the world record for most people at a gig three times, a record he still holds to this day with 3.5 million people attending his show in Moscow in 1997. Jarre can be considered one of the undisputed founding fathers of popular electronic music, alongside the likes of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. He studied under the sonic innovator Karlheinz Stockhausen and musique concrète progenitor Pierre Schaeffer in the late 60s, and in the 70s he bridged the gap between the avant-garde and pop music to huge commercial success. He was the first western artist ever to play in China in 1981, and in 1983 he put out Music for Supermarkets, releasing only one record and destroying the master (an idea that precedes Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin by about three decades). A critic of file-sharing and streaming services, Jarre was elected president of the Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Auteurs et Compositeurs, an organisation that advocates for copyright holders, in 2013.

How are you, Jean-Michel?

I’m fine, surviving.

Are you busy?

Yes, very busy. I’m still finalising the mixes, mixing at night and meeting you during the day.

So not much sleep involved?

That’s right, very short nights.

Is the second album all collaborations as well?

Yes, it’s the same project, but when I started to work on it I had no idea everybody would say yes. It ended with two hours of music and I said, “I can’t have everything on one album, so I’m going to divide the project into two parts.” There is no concept, like night and day, it’s just the fact I divided the project into two separate albums.

Can you tell us who is on Electronica 2?

To be clear, the artists on the second are not there due to some sort of hierarchy, but just because some tracks I had not finished, so I said they’d be on the second one. There are plenty of interesting people – Gary Numan and David Lynch and Hans Zimmer and Julia Holter. Different people covering four decades of electronic music who are all a source of inspiration to me, and who I feel I share a special link with.

So presumably you travelled to everybody’s studios, taking your own software?

For every artist it was slightly different. With somebody like Air in Paris, we worked first in separate studios, and then we joined forces in my studio. Nicolas from Air had this idea where he said it would be great if we used all the different generations of musical instruments. We started with the first oscillators from when I was a student with Pierre Schaeffer [at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales centre in Paris], synthesisers from my time with Stockhausen, and then also doing the first loop with scissors and Sellotape and magnetic tape. Then we used the first drum machine, the first modular synth, the monophonic Moog synthesiser moving to the polyphonic analogue synthesiser, the Fairlight, to samplers, to the first digital keyboards, to plug-ins and the last sound of the track has been made with an iPad. We said it shouldn’t be visible, it was more an exercise for us.

Do you keep your ear to the ground with new music? A lot of these artists – Gesaffelstein, Boyz Noize, Little Boots – aren’t necessarily household names.

Fuck Buttons also. Yes, I’m listening to lots of things constantly, and besides myself, I think you can see that all of these people have something in common. First you notice they all have a very recognisable style. Take Gesaffelstein, take Air, Moby, Tangerine Dream, Vince Clarke. It’s quite interesting when you take, for instance, ‘Zero Gravity’, the track I did with Tangerine Dream, and ‘Immortals’, the track I did with Fuck Buttons. If you played these to people who have no idea who they are, it would be very difficult to know who’s in their 20s and who’s in their 60s.

What about Pete Townshend? What DNA do you share with him?

Funnily enough, Pete Townshend was very high on my wish list for various reasons. Because first of all he was the first guy to put synthesisers and sequencers in British rock with Who’s Next and ‘Baba O’Riley’. And ‘Baba O’Riley’ is a tribute to Terry Riley, and actually at the same time he did this – he’s a bit older than me – I was at the Château d’Hérouville, an old studio on the outskirts of Paris where I was an assistant, and I was preparing some sequences for an album for Terry Riley. Pete is also the creator of the genre of rock opera, always with this ambition and idea to push the boundaries of pop music on a visual and conceptual level, which is what I tried to do with my own shows and concerts, thinking a little bit like opera as a form with the visual media of my generation such as lights and lasers.

I was surprised and delighted to see you’d worked with John Carpenter too.

Yeah, because as you know, but a lot of people don’t know, apart from being a brilliant filmmaker he’s a brilliant musician, and he did all these soundtracks with synthesisers. It’s a unique situation in the history of synthesisers and the movie industry, especially Hollywood. The classic thing in those days was a symphonic orchestra with strings and John Williams, and he was an absolute cult figure for DJs as you well know. It’s one thing to do soundtracks, and another thing to use synthesisers, but another thing altogether is to have a recognisable style. You listen to John Carpenter’s music and you know it’s John immediately. I was so excited, he was also high on my list. And David Lynch, not so much for his dark garage blues that I really like, but more for the direction of the sound design he did on Twin Peaks. It’s a very unique, strange soundscape.

You say you got everybody you wanted. Would you have been interested in working with Daft Punk?

Daft Punk absolutely, we come from the same country and I love their work, it was just a matter of timing. When I started this project they were releasing their last album [Random Access Memories] with the idea that they wanted to take some distance from the world of electronics, going back to disco. I felt that it didn’t fit in with where I was going, and I was also working with Air, and Daft Punk are of the same generation. As we say, there is some Oxygène in Air, so at that time it made more sense to work with them. But I would be delighted in future to work with Daft Punk! This is always the trap when you are doing something like this, because you can say “What about him? What about her?” But you know, what I really enjoyed in this process was working with people I really wanted to work with for a good reason. A deep reason for me.

Like who?

I really wanted to work with Fuck Buttons, for instance, because the first time I heard their music I was amazed. This wall of sound and these distorted soundscapes… it’s quite amazing to come from that generation, where you have so many sounds and music all over the world these days, to be able to create something visible with a special touch. It’s very unusual. I like Julia Holter also – she’s probably the muse of this album, she has that kind of freshness. Laurie Anderson on this side, Julia Holter on the other side.

You’ve collaborated with Laurie Anderson before haven’t you?

Yes, this is the third time. Once in the early 80s with an album called Zoolook, and also for the millennium. We filmed her in the Centre Pompidou, she was doing an exhibition. I filmed just her face, and she was kind of MCing the concert, and we recorded one track also with her [on Métamorphoses]. For this album I had in mind this idea of writing a kind of dark love song based on the idea we are touching and having a relationship with our smartphones more than we are touching our own partners these days. I said it could be interesting, imagining a dark love song between a connected object like a smartphone and a human being. It was just before the Spike Jonze movie Her. It’s similar but it’s not the same – in that case it was software, which is more abstract. So she loved the idea and we had to delay the recording when Lou Reed died.

Did you know him at all?

I met him but I was much closer to Laurie. Then a few weeks after Lou passed away she called me and said, “I’m ready to do it now, I’m in Los Angeles.” Suddenly she was in L.A., so I had to write the lyrics during the night, and then we completed the lyrics together. And then after her concert at the UCLA we recorded her vocals around midnight. And she’s so great at processing her vocals, she’s such an innovator in sound, but she has such a magical voice, and as soon I recorded the voice I said, “We should not touch anything.”

She’s an amazing avant-garde artist, and you yourself come from the avant-garde. I know you were a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen in the late 60s. How do you go from this atonal, quite difficult music to selling so many copies of Oxygène, which everybody seemingly bought and tapped into?

You know, when I was studying with Stockhausen, and mainly with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry at the GRM Centre, we were all experimenting in a contemporary way. “Contemporary” doesn’t mean anything, but it was contemporary music, more atonal, more experimental. After a while I realised a lot of artists were doing it in a very intuitive and autodidactic way, such as Soft Machine and Pink Floyd. It was more or less the same kind of sound approach we were doing there, and I said I’d really like to create a bridge between pure experimental music and pop music, with the idea that I always considered melody in music very important. And in those days melody was considered something quite cheesy [makes a cross with his fingers to denote “forbidden”].

Especially in that kind of company I would have thought.

Yes, I remember Iannis Xenakis one day at a masterclass telling us “emotions in music are bad” [laughs]. It’s very interesting that all these avant-garde artists such as Boulez and Xenakis – I’m not talking about Laurie because she’s younger – most of that avant-garde period is the classicism of 30 years later. Stravinsky is avant-garde when he’s doing The Rite of Spring, and then it becomes a classic, and now when you listen to this music from the 50s and 60s it’s retro, it’s vintage. It makes you think of 50s or 60s architecture, of the Atomium of Brussels or the beginning of Oscar Niemeyer and the cathedral of Brasilia. But it’s not linked to the 21st century, it’s not the classical music of today. The beginning of electronic music, rock and pop has become a sort of classicism.

“It seems strange now, but Oxygène was refused by almost all record companies.”

To come from that company and then to sell 80 million records must be astonishing. Duran Duran have sold 80 million records and you’re just one French guy who doesn’t sing.

It seems strange now, but this album [Oxygène] was refused by almost all record companies. They said, “There is no drummer, there is no singer, there is no three-minute pop song to play on the radio”, and from the Anglo Saxon view, “He is French.” And then we released the album on a small label in France, and then Radio 1 played the entire album one night, and it started. And I remember when they released the album, some people sent it back to the factory complaining there was a technical problem, because on one side it started with a kind of white noise. So when you look back it sounds funny, but it was not obvious at all. When I did it I had do idea it would become as big as it did.

Musicians often say the most nerve-wracking shows are in intimate surroundings, but what about when you have two million, or three and a half million people in front of you?

I totally agree with you, I’m always more intimidated in a room with 200 people. When you’re part of a scenography on a bigger picture you are one element of the project. I’ve had this discussion with people such as Pink Floyd. But having said that, I would say it makes no difference, because on the day it’s the relationship between two entities – the stage and the audience – and whatever the scale of the audience it doesn’t change the fact that it either works or it doesn’t.

So you don’t look out and think, “Ooh, that’s about 4% of the population right there”?

No, and also in those kinds of projects I’ve been involved with, I’ve been so busy until the last second that it was very difficult for me to have time to realise what was going on. The first concert I did at Place de la Concorde when one million people came along, it was an absolute shock for me. It took one year for me to recover! Because I remember we went on stage around 6pm before sunset, and we saw some dark figures at the Champs-Élysées and thought it was the sun’s reflection, but it was some audience, some crowd, and I didn’t realise. In these days where we’re behind our TV screen, our computer, we don’t have so many occasions to be together sharing the same moments physically. It’s more difficult now with terrorism and everything, but it’ll come back. Lots of people think I initiated these concerts, but every time it came from a proposal, people asking me to do this or that project. An outdoor project like that has to be done with the cooperation of the state or the city.

Is that how it happened with China?

That’s right, exactly.

What did you think about Laibach playing North Korea recently?

Laibach? I know Laibach, I’m a big fan.

They just played North Korea.

Really? I didn’t know that! It’s the same kind of thing. I can imagine Laibach’s music in North Korea actually. It’s quite a shock! [laughs] It’s exactly the same, it was exactly like that. When you think after Mao’s time of 25 years, Chinese people had no idea about western music or even western culture, they had no idea about James Dean or the Beatles or Charlie Chaplin, modern music or modern cinema even less. So it was like playing on the moon in both instances. This show would have been considered futuristic in London, Paris or New York, but in China it was like an alien had landed. And then China closed the door again after that. It just opened for one year and then closed again. So it created something very special between lots of Chinese people and myself. We did a movie with the BBC at that time, and that film was shown 500 times on the sole black and white TV channel after that, so obviously it created this special relationship with the country.

So tell me about Music for Supermarkets. You destroyed the masters and kept one record, which was played once on radio, and for a long time people could only get bootlegs of the recording of that broadcast. Kind of inevitably it is on YouTube now.

It never has been available. It was recorded by some people through the radio station, and obviously now with everything being on YouTube, somebody has put a recording from the radio station on YouTube. I didn’t even realise it was on YouTube.

I checked today. It is there.

It’s there? Okay.

Did you reuse some of the music on other projects? Because it’s a good album from what I heard on YouTube this morning.

I did lots of things with the Fairlight, so some samples and things… I had some of the elements which I used again on the Zoolook album, but I destroyed the master and everything. The beauty of the project was just to do it, otherwise it’s not fun. And the idea behind it really was that it was the beginning of the CD as a phenomenon. It was a protest at the fact music was going to be sold like toothpaste and yoghurt.

Would you consider it an art prank, like the kind of thing the KLF might do? Or the Wu-Tang Clan of course. I think the music is embargoed for 80 years on One Upon A Time in Shaolin, but it’s similar isn’t it?

Absolutely! I saw that, yes, it made me smile. Somebody 30 years later did it in a different way, selling it for a fortune, etc. When I did it, it was also questioning not only the value of music, but also the support network for music. This whole CD era, it was quite premonitory about the whole internet era, in that it would kill the emotional link between the musician and the audience.

You hate CDs don’t you?

I think the CD now is going to be like the cassette of the digital era. Or the VHS of the digital era. Or the 78 of the digital era. And it was presented as the holy grail of quality at the beginning – “This product is going to allow you to keep your music forever” – and it’s not true. Try playing a CD from 25 years ago and it doesn’t play. Also very quickly I noticed the CD was not as good as vinyl. Vinyl was not perfect but it’s still far, far better than the CD. And the irony is we invented the MP3, which is even worse than the CD.

Vinyl is making a comeback of course.

For good reason. There is this colour and warmth that we all know. It’s unique.

You were evangelical about Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound and recorded your album Aero with it, but 5.1 didn’t quite take off, did it?

It’s interesting that you’re talking about this because I’m really into audio 3D and the kind of surround sound experience. The 5.1 is great – the Aero album on 5.1 sounds great. I know they use this album to set the sounds up in theatres in the US. But the problem is nobody is using it at all, so it just died like Quadrophonic [four channel sound, the earliest consumer-focused surround sound]. I’ve done some tracks for this album in audio 3D and it’s quite interesting because you don’t need an app, you don’t need hardware. It’s coded and it’s in the file, so you can download that for any kind of platform. And the idea is to get a real 3D sound.

How do you manage that?

When I talk to you I talk in mono, and the space around you creates the depth. And actually in the 50s, one clever guy created stereo as a fake system, to give you the impression of space, but actually it was just delaying the left side and the right side to create this psychoacoustic effect, but it wasn’t quite true. The true way of listening to music is actually in surround. At the moment you are listening to me, you are at the same time listening to cars in the street and it’s a 3D experience. I worked with some people with a complex algorithm to create – in my opinion – the next stage after mono and stereo. Audio 3D will be the next step. As an experiment I’m releasing four or five tracks from each album in audio 3D that will become available.

You’re now the president of the Confédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Auteurs et Compositeurs. What does that entail?

That’s right. CISAC is an international organisation promoting intellectual property not only for musicians, but for writers, filmmakers, painters, etc. It’s a kind of small UN for creatives. There’s an idea that copyright is this old European way of thinking and that everything should be free. We are not trying to define these people on the internet as our enemies, but are trying instead to reinvent a new business model in the 21st century. It’s like ecology 30 years ago. Intellectual property is not just your problem or mine, it’s the problem of future generations. In every family you have a photographer, a musician, a writer, who now needs to get a job on the side, and tomorrow he or she will have to abandon his or her dream for something else. Music and cultural content has never generated so much money, and the authors or creators have so little of it. So it’s not even unfair, it’s just not possible this way, and we have to adjust that.

Just one more thing to add to Jean-Michel’s to do list…



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