Since unleashing his homemade masterpiece oxygène on the world in 1976, jean-michel jarre has been one of music’s most prolific and influential electronic composers and performers. He is an award-winning pioneer of the genre, with around 100 million albums sold. He also was the first western musician to be invited to perform in communist china, and holds the guinness world record for the top three biggest live shows in history—each with an audience of more than a million people.
The Time Machine, Jarre’s latest and most ambitious project, is a two-part series of collaborations with an incredible collection of musicians, including icons such as Pete Townshend, Tangerine Dream, Hans Zimmer, Vince Clarke, Cyndi Lauper, Moby, and Laurie Anderson—but also encompassing more contemporary visionary acts such as M83, Gesaffelstein, 3D (of Massive Attack), Armin Van Buuren, and Air. Volume One should be out by the time you read this, and Volume Two is set to follow in spring 2016.
We sat down with Jarre to discuss the project and, of course, his ongoing love affair with blinky things that go beep in the night.
What was your inspiration for The Time Machine?
When I started this project, I’d had in mind for quite a while this collaboration between me and some people who have been all sorts of inspiration to me, and covering more or less four decades of electronic music—people who have the same kind of instant recognizable sound and also the same organic approach to sound. Everybody said yes! So, I ended with almost two hours of music. I said, “I can’t release just one album.” So I decided to do two under the same umbrella, releasing one in October 2015 and the second in April 2016. But there’s no night and day, winter and summer [type of} concept. There’s no hierarchy.
Unlike the structure of some of your earlier albums.
Exactly. Actually, the first ones I wrote are the tracks I finished first. On Volume 2 you [will] have people such as Hans Zimmer, Jeff Mills, Gary Numan, and Cyndi Lauper. These people have the same love for keyboards, and are all analog animals and digital geeks at the same time.
[These] days, we have so many albums with featured artists, and most of the time the people never meet. You send a file somewhere in space, and somebody plays on it, and you don’t even meet. It was actually the reverse with this project. I physically went to every collaborator. I took a train to Vienna, and then a car to go to Tangerine Dream’s studio 100 miles from Vienna. I went outside London to Richmond to meet with Pete Townshend, and to Bristol for Massive Attack, to Brooklyn to meet with Vince Clarke, and Los Angeles for Gary Numan, Hans Zimmer, Julia Holter, and Laurie Anderson. Laurie lives in New York, but we recorded in Los Angeles.
Working with such a varied group of artists means you’re going to get a wide audience, but Time Machine definitely sounds like a Jean-Michel Jarre album. Did you worry about creating a cohesive sound from so many different sessions?
I didn’t hesitate because I knew somehow it would work. If you think about having an album where you have Pete Townshend and then you have Tangerine Dream and then Laurie and then you have Armin van Buuren and then Massive Attack, and John Carpenter, and Lang Lang, you might say, “What is all this?” But actually, I think that it really makes sense, which is very interesting for me in terms of [what it tells you about] electronic music—there’s this kind of timelessness about the idea of electronic music.
As we know, electronic music originated in Germany and France, coming from the tradition of classical music. It’s got nothing to do with jazz or blues or rock. Then later on, brilliant American musicians linked with electronic music. But the foundation is really coming from Europe. What is interesting is, if you take for instance the track with Tangerine Dream and the track with F*** Buttons, you have maybe four or five decades of difference. But you don’t know which track could have been done by people of the older generation or by newcomers.
There is this kind of timelessness in this project that I really appreciate. I can say that because I am not the only one responsible for this. What I really wanted to do was to merge our DNAs in a rather fair, balanced situation where you could listen to a track with Air, with Moby—you could instantly recognize who is doing what and try to find the right balance between their identity and mine.
So much electronica is percussion-based, but your music has beautiful interwoven, contrapuntal melodies that flow in and create a big picture. It was fascinating to me, listening to this record and knowing the different styles of all these musicians, and hearing the ways you reached out to each other.
It’s funny because I had lunch with Moby earlier today, and we were talking about the importance of melodies in electronic music. There are clearly two ways of approaching music, which is either from the beat or from the melody. Lots of people, like M83 or Moby or Air, believe in the importance of melody.
The melody is what stays; the beat just makes you shake your butt.
Exactly…and if you can have both, great.
I understand that for all of these pieces, you came in with an existing framework to build upon with each artist. Did you create specific frameworks with each artist in mind?
That’s right, leaving space for them to express themselves. What I was really moved by was, every artist involved in this project said, “This is your album, man. You have the final cut and we trust you. We give you as much as we can and then you finalize your project.” They trusted me, and that for me as a musician has been one of the most fantastic adventures of my life—this one project.
The past four years, I just worked continuously on this project. A friend of mine, a music critic in London, told me when I sent him the project, “You know, you invented probably something quite interesting: the never-ending album” [laughs].
Your project will probably lead listeners to discover new music. They’ll say, “I know M83. I know Massive Attack. This is interesting. What else is there?” And this will lead them to investigate other artists on your release.
I’m pleased that you got that because this project is really in phase with our times exactly because of what you said. You can actually approach this project by two doors: One is kind of a zapping Spotify/iTunes way by saying, “I know this. Oh I’m interested.” Because of this, you are going to discover something else. This project is also conceived as a continuous mix, as a journey. You have a version of the album with transitions where you can listen A to Z and there is a continuous story. I feel that in [some] days, you have an attention span of [one song], but then you can also have the kind of experience you have watching a movie.
And the cool thing is, by the time April rolls around, word will have gotten out and all a sudden there will be another infusion with Volume 2.
I hope so, because these days the record industry is in dire straits. Music is everywhere and nowhere, and the industry doesn’t know where to go. Actually, it’s interesting to say we’re going to propose a project that has a lifespan of 18 months, where you have remixes, which is another layer of collaborations and where every track, in my opinion, is a focus track. I’m not talking about singles; that’s something else. I’m saying that every track is interesting in and of itself.
What was the recording process like?
I used to be a Pro Tools guy and I started this project with Pro Tools, but I changed dramatically towards Ableton Live, and I finished the whole project with it. In the past, [Ableton] was more for DJ’ing, but with Ableton Live 9, suddenly the everything about it is so easy and so good. I made a test by bouncing on Pro Tools and bouncing on Live. The bouncing on Live is absolutely transparent, and bouncing on Pro Tools is not. If you do a bounce and you’re bouncing the track through the master, you can see the difference on the waveform.
Ableton is also very portable. I did the track with Hans Zimmer with 100 tracks, and one with Air with 90 tracks, with no problem. It’s improved so much—the quality of plug-ins, the quality of compressors. [We used] plug-ins from Ableton Live and Native Instruments. I started using lots of analog gear and mixing lots of digital as well. It’s a real mixture.
When you say digital, are you talking about things like a Korg Kronos, or are you talking about soft synths?
Both. A very interesting example of what I’m talking about is the track “Close Your Eyes” that I did with Air. When we discussed this track, we decided, “Okay, if we do this, we should do a track that would be more than Air and more than JMJ.” And we arrived at this idea of using every generation of synthesizers and keyboards from the beginning of electronic music to today, starting with the first oscillators. So [we used] the first oscillators built in the ’40s at the Music Research Center with Schaeffer and Stockhausen; one of the first synthesizers, even before Moog, which Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry put together in the late ’40s. It’s called the Coupigny.
What is the Coupigny synthesizer like?
It’s just a bunch of oscillators with an envelope, a ring modulator, and one kind of LFO—very simple. And actually I did my first electronic piece of music with this in the days of public radio—the French radio station where Pierre Schaeffer was working. I worked with this and also I did the first tape loop—and the beats with a tape loop.
In those days much before samplers, when you wanted to create a loop, what you’d do is, say at a tempo of 120 bpm—that’s two seconds. So two seconds at 15 inches per second of tape is 30 inches, and then you divide to get the quarter-note, eighth-note, and so on. Then you have a loop. Then you’d load the tape recorder and wrap the tape around a mic stand to get the loop! The beginning of the track I did with Air starts like this. Then, I merged that with one of the first drum machines, an early Korg called the MiniPops. Then we moved to early string machines, like the Solinas and things like that.
And you used your beloved Eminent U310 [organ], correct?
That’s right. And then the first modular Moog. And then we went to the Fairlight and the first samplers. Then we moved to the digital keyboards, such as the DX7 and things like that. And then moving into plug-ins. The last sound of the track, I did with an iPad—with the Animoog.
That little app is better than it should be, isn’t it?
It’s amazing—a revolutionary instrument.
Effects processors have always been an integral part of your sound. It’s almost like another instrument, especially the use of bucket-brigade delays. Do you find yourself coming back out of the computer when using a soft synth to do analog signal processing, to make it more organic?
Delay is like part of the orchestration. I’ve always been a big fan of the Revox. I used both Revoxes with varied speed and a click track, then sync the rhythm with the click track until the click track is giving me the right pace. I’ve been really frustrated with plug-ins and even hardware delays, because I could never find the same kind of thing. At one stage I said, “Okay, I would like to do a plug-in myself to get the kind of delay I want,” until [I found] Native Instruments Replika. It’s quite interesting, quite close. I also use analog stuff—an old Vox AC-30 on some sounds.
Were you re-amping it?
Yeah. I use also my Revoxes for delays and some extra outputs that I would put into the R2600 or R2500, for instance, for sequences I would make with a plug-in. And I would use some of the filters and audio outputs and those kinds of things. I also use pedals, like the Mu-Tron and Small Stone.
Do you ever experiment with tube gear?
Yes. I’m a big fan. Almost all synthesizers are made of transistors and resistors, not valves and bulbs. It’s very interesting that the new generation of young people are now making new gear using valves and bulbs, like Metasonix—great—and the Knifonium, which is one of the most incredible synthesizers. And it’s strange that there’s a kind of new trend of analog gear using valves and bulbs, which didn’t exist in the old days.
What was the last hardware synthesizer that you bought?
I wanted to compare my original one with the new Korg Odyssey. I was quite astonished to see that it was pretty close to the original. I have the one with the gold trim, which in my view is the best. And then the new one is pretty close.
What are some of your favorite gear secrets?
I love synthesizers that have been commercial failures, like the Seiko. You know my old album Rendez-Vous? I did the whole beginning entirely with this.
Are you talking about the DS-250?
Yes, I think so. Also the Alesis Ion; it is very interesting, but it didn’t work commercially because it [was introduced] in the middle of lots of other things that were coming out. Another one of my top 10 favorite synthesizers is the OP-1 from Teenage Engineering. It looks like a cheap Casio [with a] NASA approach.
Technologically, it’s brilliant. The sound is amazing. It’s a purely digital piece of gear. The screen is so great because the visuals are like a cassette when you’re recording—two wheels turning. And [there ’s] AM radio signal with an antenna, so you can sample strange noises from a radio station from Russia or whatever. You have a microphone built in. You can make lots of sounds mixed with the radio sound and sample into it. It’s a brilliant piece of gear.
I love a synthesizer that does what nothing else does.
Yes, me, too.
The Korg Wavestation was another commercial failure at first because it didn’t have a piano—wrong time.
And the Cobalt soft synth.
Or the Korg Z1—a fabulous synth, but nobody had any idea how to work it.
I also love the Roland V-Synth, which has the best vocoder in the world. Actually, it’s interesting: With Air, we worked at the beginning with the original Korg. They had a Korg kind of vocoder—I mean, kind of a harmonizer—but I was not convinced. Then we really started doing the vocoder part with the V-Synth. For me, my two favorite vocoders are the V-Synth and the one in the Novation MiniNova. Very simple, very good.
Otherwise, I love the EMS 2000—the old one. I have the 1000, the 2000, and the 3000. With the 1000, you have saturation immediately. The 2000 is the one. The Memorymoog for me is [another] one of my favorite synths. Also, the JD-800, the CS-80, and the Elka Synthex.
You picked that one up in the ’80s, right? Was it during the making of Revolutions that you started using it?
Yes. Also, the laser harp sound was from the Synthex. Very few Synthexes have been made, and I’m quite lucky to have three. I’ve had three Synthexes onstage!
On your last tour, you had to do four stations, right? Did you take the Eminent out with you?
We had 50 or 60 synthesizers onstage because on the last tour I had to play Oxygène entirely live without MIDI, without anything—pretty much the reverse of the USB or the SD card for DJs where they come traveling with one SD card these days. We said, “Okay, we’re going to play everything live.”
It was crazy because when we started [we had] the first Mellotrons with two keyboards and valves—400 kilos—and the Modular Moog and the ARP. 2500. And we had to use the ARP 2600 and add two hours before the concert to warm it up.
If you’re playing an Eminent part, are you comfortable using a String Ensemble, or does it have to be the actual Eminent?
I still can’t replace the Eminent. I made a very careful sample of it for when I’m traveling. But for me, it’s different from the ARP Omni or the Solina because you have a much richer chorus than the Solina.
From what I understand, the circuitry from the Eminent became the String Ensemble. How did the Solina factor into that?
ARP bought the technology from Eminent, the Dutch organ company. And they did the ARP Omni. Then from the Omni, the Solina appeared as a simpler version of the Eminent. But the Eminent is still incomparable in terms of choruses just because they have these three overtones; the three choruses are slightly not working at the same speed, so there’s this richness, where the Solina has only one chorus.
The Eminent actually has a bucket-brigade delay of its own, doesn’t it?
Yes, that’s right.
I’ve read that it has organ tones; are they like Farfisa organ tones?
Yes, more or less close to this kind of Farfisa. For organ sounds, I used it in some pre-Oxygène stuff. Also, the melody line from Oxygène 2 [mimics sound]—that is an organ percussion from the Eminent. Talking about organs, I’m not really a B-3 guy. I love the sound, but it’s not my culture. My culture is much more the poor European organ—the Vox, the Farfisa, and the Eminent. I really love this kind of dry sound so much.
Did you consciously use more analog than software instruments on the current album?
I started with the kind of conviction that some things should be done with analog, but the further I got into this process, the more I mixed both. I’m a big fan of the Monark from Native Instruments. For me, the Monark is closer to the Minimoog than some hardware that Moog is doing these days! Also, the Diva synthesizer. I also love Serum. And I love new plug-ins like Contour and Rounds from Native Instruments. They are brilliant because they have nothing to do with what we knew before.
Do you have any advice for electronic musicians who are just getting started?
I would tell a beginner, “Take one plug-in and stay [with] this plug-in for six months. Don’t pick anything else. Just explore one, whatever it is, because limits and limitations are the best. And these days, technology—since we started this conversation, there are probably 100 more new plug-ins or even more, and by the end of lunchtime tomorrow they will be history. So let’s choose one and go for it.