On Tour with Jean-Michel Jarre

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When you hear the word synthesist, what are some of the names that come to mind? If your list includes Jean-Michel Jarre, you’re not alone.

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Heidie Moreno Castelli

Jarre’s third album, Oxygène, was released in 1976 and went on to become one of the bestselling synthesizer albums of all time. In Paris on Bastille Day 1979, he became the first performer ever to attract a live audience of 1 million people. Seven years later, he exceeded that number during a spectacular outdoor show in Houston, with the city skyline as a backdrop for his gargantuan projections, lasers, and fireworks. He holds the Guinness World Record for the largest paid audience in history, half a million out of an estimated 3.5 million attendees, for a 1997 performance in Moscow.

In 2015, Jarre released the Grammy Award-nominated Electronica 1: The Time Machine, on which he collaborated with musicians ranging from Little Boots and Gesaffelstein to Pete Townsend and Tangerine Dream. He followed that up last year with Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise in May and with his second sequel to Oxygène in December, entitled Oxygène 3.

In the midst of his Electronica World Tour that began in October, this year Jarre will be playing a series of venues in North America for the first time ever. In the United States beginning on May 16, he’ll play shows in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with three additional stops in the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco areas.

At January’s NAMM Show, EM editor Gino Robair and I had an opportunity to meet briefly with the French synthesist. We asked if he’d be willing to do an interview by phone the following week, and he graciously agreed. A few days later, he called me from Paris, and we spoke for about half an hour.

After eight years with no new music, you've released three albums since September 2015. What has made you so productive after the long break?

Electronica 1 and 2 took me almost five years. I decided to gather around me people who were linked to the electronic music scene and who have been a source of inspiration to me, from different genres and different generations. Everybody said yes, so I ended up with almost two-and-a-half hours of music that I liked. I decided to divide this project into two separate albums.

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Heidie Moreno Castelli

During this recording process, I did a piece of music that was not fitting the Electronica project. I thought if I had to do Oxygène today, maybe I would start with a track like this. I kept that in the back of my mind, and then the record company said last year, “You know, we have this anniversary going on. Maybe you could do a special box set.” I thought it could be fun to use this anniversary as a deadline, as a pretext for me to continue the sequel process I had in mind when I did the first Oxygène.

The first Oxygène was made in different parts, no names; Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, like chapters of a book. I’ve always been interested by sequels in movies, in literature, in TV. It doesn’t exist that much in music. I always thought it could be interesting to do some sequels from the first album. The first one was done in vinyl days, and I did that in six weeks with very limited equipment on an 8-track tape recorder. I thought it could be fun, after the massive production that Electronica had been, to lock myself up in the studio for six weeks and say, “Okay, I’m going to do a piece of music like in vinyl days, to think about side one, side two—side one being dark and side two being more sunny or melodic—and also using never more than eight elements at the same time.

I know your studio techniques have changed a lot since the first Oxygène. Do you ever use synth presets, or do you program everything yourself?

These days, I think it’s great you can use whatever you want if you are lucky enough, like me, to have the original analog instruments. It’s like when you are writing a piece for symphonic orchestra or jazz. If you want clarinet, use a clarinet. If you want saxophone or double bass, use a saxophone or double bass. It’s the same thing in electronic music these days. If I want a warm analog sound, I would use the Memorymoog or the ARP 2600 or the VCS3. If I want something more edgy or more crispy, I would use a Native Instruments plug-in or some kind of digital hardware. It’s all depending on what kind of sound you want.

Do you use sample libraries?

Yes, absolutely. I like all kinds of sounds I can find. You know, my first contact with electronic music has been with Pierre Schaffer and musique concrète and electroacoustic music. That was the first guy who taught me, and he actually invented the idea that music could be made with noise and sound, that you can go out with a microphone and sampling—it was not called sampling at that time—recording the sound of the wind, the sound of an engine or the street or a car or the tube station or whatever, and then doing music with it. And that little idea changed the way we are doing music these days. So, of course, I’m doing sampling, and I’m using synthesizers to generate frequencies with oscillators and so on and so forth, and also using raw material. It could be a library. It could be a sound I recorded on my own—old school kinds of things.

What about commercial sample libraries?

From time to time I check LoopMasters or single makers of lots of different sound libraries. And obviously, you have plug-ins such as Omnisphere, which are actually like sample libraries on their own. You can also go on the Internet to get sample libraries made by other people, so it’s a never-ending story. But, you know, I have a tendency these days to be very careful about exploring more and more libraries because, by the end of the day, we all become archivists and spend more time exploring samples than using your own samples. Sometimes it’s better and quicker when you have an idea to sample your own sound.

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My advice to people is that limitations are the key in any kind of art form, and especially in electronic music. Since the beginning of our conversation, probably 100 plug-ins have already been released, and most of them would be obsolete by tomorrow morning. And then, you see, if you’re going to this kind of track, you may lose yourself by being confronted constantly on the technological environment, making you think that the new plugin is the solution for a new idea. It’s never the case. I mean, the new idea is coming from yourself, and the technology can help you to express this idea.

So my advice to a young musician is choose your plug-ins and your instruments very carefully, and when you have chosen one, try to stick with it for six months. You’ll be surprised by how original, specific, and exciting the music you create with this will be, because it will come from yourself. And then, this will be unique, in a sense, because it would be coming from your heart.

For your upcoming U.S. tour, what instruments will you be using onstage?

We are three onstage, and we probably have around 50 different instruments. My central area—my kitchen, as I like to call it—is made of lots of different generations of instruments. I’m using the new [Roland] System 8 with the System 500 as the central board with the [Moog] Sub 37, and also a Komplete Kontrol keyboard from Native Instruments for controlling some samples. I use the Grp Italian modular synthesizer, the Grp A4, which I like very much, the [EMS Synthi] AKS, and also the TR-8, from Roland. The Macbeth Elements, it’s a great, great synth. I don’t know if you know it.

That’s the one with the touch capacitive keyboard, isn’t it?

Yes, exactly. It looks a little bit like the AKS with a metallic keyboard, a flat keyboard that you can glide or slide on. A very, very interesting synth; fantastic sound.

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Eric Cornic

The ARP 2600, also, and I will add for the U.S. tour the new Rev 2 from Dave Smith [Instruments], ’cause I’m an absolute fan. I discovered this synth at NAMM, and it’s the only [Dave Smith Instruments synth with] 16 polyphonic voices, as you know—fantastic sound for brass, or for really massive sounds.

And, also, the MatrixBrute from Arturia. I just received it yesterday, and it’s a very interesting concept, because it reminds me of the VCS3 or the AKS matrix, where you have a patch board, where you can actually put everything into everything in a very graphic way, which is something different than cabling one module to another. It’s a different feel, and I’ve been quite used to it for a long time on the matrix of the AKS and the VCS3.

Also, I have a new, big touch-screen. We started with one touch screen from Smithson [the Smithson Martin Emulator Dual View System]. You know this touch screen for DJs? We changed the software entirely to create my own digital environment, to be able to play with samples and drones, and also control effects and do flanging and phasing effects and delays in a visual way. I’ve always been interested in trying to create a link with the audience to understand what I do musically. I think this big touch-screen is quite interesting beyond having just a bigger DJ-kind of set, but changing the entire software. Then I have my own digital environment, like a kind of Minority Report type of concert, like the movie. I’m also using an iPad onstage.

Have you used any of the polyphonic multidimensional controllers, like the Eigenharp, LinnStrument, Seaboard, or anything like that?

Yeah, the Eigenharp, I used it a lot. I used it for some projects, but in the studio, not really onstage. It’s always difficult when you go into an instrument, when you have to develop an entirely new technique, because it’s very time-consuming. This is the trap we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation. You have to make choices, and my choices are not necessarily the best choices for other people.

Many of your collaborators on Electronica 1 and 2 sang on the vocal tracks. Who will be handling vocal duties onstage?

The two other musicians are doing vocals on vocoder when it’s necessary. For instance, the track we did with the Pet Shop Boys, “Brick England,” we’re doing it onstage, and we’re doing the live vocals with vocoders, and it works very well, actually. They use a VP-550, which is my favorite one onstage.

You’ll have only two other musicians onstage?

Yes, two multi-instrumentalists. Both of them have electronic percussion, the Roland TD-50. Claude Samard also has the Moog Taurus 3, the Roland VP-330 vocoder and strings, the Aelita, the polyphonic Russian synthesizer—we love this one, the Aelita—and also some [Roland] Juno-106s. Stephane Gervais uses a lot of Elektron gear, almost all of them—the Machinedrum, Analog Keys, the Analog Four, and the Analog Heat, which I really like for distortion and giving more warmth to the instrument. He also has the ARP 2500, the big one, and some Nord Leads and the [Dave Smith Instruments] OB-6.

That’s an impressive collection of instruments. I understand the lighting and stage effects for your show are phenomenal, too. How involved are you in designing the visual aspects of your show?

It’s quite a big production visually. I devised the whole technical concept of all these sliding panels with low-res LED screens, and also every graphic content for each track. I had no idea if it would work, but it’s 3-D without glasses. We’re in the middle of all these screens, and it really creates a quite spectacular perspective. I always wanted to express visually when I’m doing electronic music by creating architectural soundscapes, creating perspectives in mixes and in music compositions. And I wanted to create this to get a visual correspondence with the music we play live onstage. I was not sure it would work, and we were quite blown away during the rehearsal, because it’s really quite spectacular.

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I have a team working with me to make all of this possible, technically and artistically. So it’s obviously teamwork on the second step, but at the beginning, I conceived and devised the show on my own.

I’m very happy to share this experience with the U.S. and with this North American tour. Have a look on YouTube, and you’ll understand what it’s all about. In that case, whatever the visuals are on YouTube, you cannot understand what’s going on live, because it’s a kind of total immersion in the visual. It’s quite exciting.

How do you physically prepare for a tour like this?

Actually, you know, having good food and trying to get some sleep, as much as you can, which is quite a challenge; especially, when you release three albums in 14 months and do a world tour at the same time and all that. But so far, so good. I’m touching wood, but it’s okay.

Let’s talk about your creative process. When you’re composing or recording, how do you choose sounds for a track? Do you conceive of the music first and then look for an appropriate sound, or do you discover sounds that suggest music you could make with them?

It depends. It works both ways for me. Sometimes I start with a melodic line I have, and sometimes I start from some sounds. But I think the most interesting ideas for songs are always happening when you lose control. You have the idea for a melody, and suddenly, you have an accident. Something happens and this melody is just shifting somewhere else. For me, it becomes interesting or not interesting, but most of the time, that’s when something exciting happens. It’s the same thing with sounds. I love the fact that, for instance, even if I know an instrument, sometimes I like to discover something in random mode by choosing one preset and then turning knobs or going into parameters in a kind of, almost, intuitive way, and suddenly it becomes something unexpected. I really like this kind of thing.

I think that electronic music is probably the only sector of music where you can do this, because when you are writing music on a piece of paper, it’s actually more abstract than people may think, and also more intellectual and more terrible, because you are always thinking about your harmonic system in a rather logical way.

When you are in an electronic music environment, it’s much more like cooking. It’s like being in the kitchen and mixing loops and textures and waveforms in a very sensual, intuitive, organic way. That’s why it’s the opposite of the preconceived ideas that people may have regarding electronic music, saying it’s cold and robotic and abstract. It’s the reverse!

Electronic music is probably much more organic and much more tactile and sensual than any kind of classical music you can write with a piece of paper and a pencil, because you are in direct contact with the maelstrom of frequency and noise, and then from this maelstrom of noise and sound, you give birth to a piece of music. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. It’s just something totally different.

You do make it sound a lot like cooking, but with cooking, you know when you’re finished with a recipe. How do you know when you’re finished with a composition?

This is obviously the main difference between cooking and electronic music, because, as we know, an electronic music piece is never finished. Like our interview, it could never finish, you know, but we have to finish it sometime. We have to say stop. It’s the same thing.

I don’t say that it’s true for everybody, but the old idea that less is more is so important. With Electronica, for instance, it was very difficult, because I ended up with pieces of music from Air or Hans Zimmer or Vince Clarke with hundreds of tracks. And this is a real nightmare, because to make this clear in a mix is very, very difficult. When a piece of music doesn’t work with more than four tracks, there is something wrong with it.

With Electronica, it was different, because we had a few collaborators, and each collaborator was adding things, so it was a very specific project. But most of the time, it’s more important to try to create your music with few elements. At one moment, there is a balance between the mix and the production and you know that you are there, more or less.

If someone had described your career to you when you were just starting out, how do you think you would have reacted?

I think I would have laughed, because I could not imagine that everything you would tell me at that time would have been even possible. At the beginning of my career, I was absolutely convinced that electronic music would become the major genre of the 21st century.

Because electronic music is not like hip-hop or punk or rock, it’s not a genre in itself. It’s a different approach, as we just discussed; a different approach of music composition, of producing music, even of distributing music these days on the Internet. It’s the reason that, doing music with sounds, we all became kind of sound designers. Even DJs these days are sound designers, as well as being musicians. It’s the reason why I was convinced at a very early stage in my life. That’s the beauty of the life of an artist, you never know what’s going to happen. It seems true for me today.

You’ve performed for larger audiences that anyone else ever has. What advice would you give to someone who aspires to perform for so many people?

I’d say in performance, whatever you do, the amount of people is not that important. It’s a paradox, but it’s true. Whether you’re playing for 100 people or 100,000 people, at the end of the day, a performance is a very strange and mysterious chemistry between two entities, the audience and the stage, and this chemistry works or doesn’t. It’s very difficult to know whether it is working or not, but you feel it.

Sometimes you do the same concert in front of two different audiences: One time it’s going to be fantastic, and you will have great feedback, and some other time it’s not going to work the same way. It doesn’t mean the audience will not be positive, but they will not react in the same way. So my advice would be, whatever you do onstage, whether you perform for one person or for 1,000 or for 100,000, it’s the same thing. You have to deliver the same concert and do your best whatever the context of the audience is.