The Gallic legend is back to discuss his latest album, Planet Jarre
“I am pleased to be talking to Computer
Music,” says a very-happy-looking JeanMichel Jarre. “You see, I have spent far more of my life with computers and machines than I have with human beings. I think that people reading this interview will understand my situation. It’s a good situation as far as I’m concerned. I always feel comfortable with my machines!”
The Godfather of Electronic Music is one of those phrases that always sparks intense debate and, occasionally, bitter argument. For some, it’s Kraftwerk. Others favour Pierre Schaeffer and the Musique Concrète movement. Perhaps you’d prefer Stockhausen or Subotnick. Or Delia Derbyshire – the Godmother? Then, of course, you have to throw Moroder, Numan, Detroit, Chicago and Krautrock into the ring. And King Tubby. And Bambaataa. And Morgan Khan. And Eno. And… Jean-Michel Jarre.
Whatever your musical preferences, there is no denying that Jarre has had a huge and groundbreaking impact on the development of electronic music. His best-known album,
Oxygène, was released in 1976, a time when synthesisers and drum machines were seen as little more than musical gimmicks.
“Back then, people bought synthesisers to make some silly noises on their next album,” laughs Jarre.
But Jarre was intent on proving that machines needed to be taken seriously by the music business. And, as we all know, the only way the music business will take something seriously is if you shift units. So that’s what he did. Oxygène topped the French album charts, made Number Two in the UK and was Top Ten
“We are curious creatures, and electronic music offers us another way to explore the unknown”
across Europe. To date, it has sold 13 million copies, and is the best-selling French album of all time.
The album’s single, Oxygène, Pt.4, went to Number Four in the UK, which meant that, excitingly for enthusiasts, synths were all over
Top of the Pops and burbling out of breakfast radios in Billericay, Mansfield and Swindon. Thanks to Jarre, the VCS 3, the ARP 2600 and the Korg Mini Pops were now part of the mainstream musical landscape.
Sipping water in his London PR’s office, Jarre looks ludicrously healthy and could easily pass for mid-50s – he’s 70! Over four decades after that initial success, he must have talked about music and technology thousands of times before, but the mere mention of Arturia’s Solina V string machine, Ableton Live or the latest MacBook Pro seems to light up his face and he’s off… excitedly explaining a story about his grandfather’s home-made portable turntable or the all-round capabilities of Kontakt.
Jarre is in the UK for the release of his latest album… well, that should be ‘albums’. First up is
Planet Jarre, a mammoth project containing 39 back-catalogue tracks and a couple of unreleased songs that have been generously tweaked and sub-divided into Soundscapes,
Themes, Sequences and Explorations & Early Works. Vince Clarke and Armin Van Buuren are on there, he revisits his mysterious Musique
pour Supermarché album, and has another crack at 5.1 production. That will be followed in November by Equinoxe Infinity, the longawaited follow-up to his 1978 album, Equinoxe.
“These albums are helping me celebrate 50 years of making electronic music,” he adds. “Thank God I never listened to my mother. She told me that music and machines would never be a good partnership. She wanted me to learn the violin!” Computer Music: You say that this album marks half a century of electronic music, but weren’t you, in reality, actually tinkering with noise even as a young kid in the late-50s and early-60s? J-MJ: “Yes, I was. My main inspiration was my grandfather, an engineer and fantastic inventor of strange things. He made one of the earliest mixing consoles that was used in France… and he also invented the iPod!”
: Hang on a minute… J-MJ:“OK, I’m not being completely serious, but he made me a portable turntable that ran on batteries. I could sit in the garden and listen to my favourite records. It was an exciting moment. Like a kid who’s getting his first Walkman or iPod.
“I used to love visiting his workshop because it was so full of imagination and ideas. He would tell me about a new device he was working on or explain how an amplifier worked. This was the atmosphere I grew up in. Technology was part of my everyday life.
“One day, he gave me his old Grundig reel-toreel tape machine. It was very small and portable, so I would record all sorts of strange sounds on there. By accident, I played one of the tapes backwards and… wow! I heard a whole new universe of sound. At the time, I was a member of a few local rock bands and I started to introduce this backwards music into my guitar solos. I tried to find melodies and fills that would sound better when they were being played backwards.
“This led me to other kinds of investigation. I was no longer just interested in the notes… I was interested in the sound itself. Processed sound. My friends began to notice this and one of them said, ‘My father knows a place where there are lots of people like you. You should go there’. It was 1968 and this place was the Groupe de Recherches Musicales in Paris, run by Pierre Schaeffer.” [The GRM came into existence in 1958, following the dissolution of the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète, which itself had been formed by Schaeffer and fellow pioneers, Pierre Henry and Jacques Poullin. During its short life, the GRMC attracted a long list of musical innovators including Stockhausen, Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Edgard Varèse and Michel Philippot.]
: Ah, 1968. Hence we’re celebrating the 50-year anniversary… J-MJ: “You have to remember what was happening in 1968. There were riots not only in Paris, but all over the world. Revolution was in the air. For me, making electronic music was part of the revolution. It was rebellion; it was punk rock. We were trying to fight with the traditional world of music… against classical and mainstream rock.
“My big argument was that music does not always have to be about the notes. There were people at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales who could not play a single instrument. Mathematicians, philosophers and painters who had no traditional training, but they were brilliant musicians. They didn’t approach music with notes – they approached it with sound.”
: But you also studied ‘traditional’ classical music… wasn’t your tutor from the famous Conservatoire de Paris? J-MJ: “Yes, yes. Of course. But I was always in trouble with my tutor because as soon as learned a new piece of music, I wanted to improvise. I heard new ideas and melodies in my head. I couldn’t understand why music had to be in this rigid framework. Why do I have to play this over and over in the same way? There were times when it was almost destroying my love of music. I could not just stay in the same place… I was already keen to know more.
“And that is probably the main reason why I had so much faith in electronic music. At the time, people thought that we were just stupid kids playing with machines, but I was absolutely convinced that electronic music – the mix of technology and music, working together as friends – would become the major genre of the 21st century. We are curious creatures, and electronic music offers us another way to explore the unknown.
“At first, there were only a few people who felt like this, but the prophecy has come true. Technology and music have become a partnership. As technology develops, it pulls music into the future. Because we must never forget that, throughout history, it is the technology that has dictated the musical style. It
was the violin that led Vivaldi to his music. It was the 78 RPM record that dictated the length of a song. Elvis sang three-minute songs because that’s all the information he could get on the record. It was the long-playing album that allowed groups like Pink Floyd and myself to create concept albums.
“And once we introduce the computer into the list of technology, the doors are smashed open. The computer is as important as Gutenberg and his printing press almost 600 years ago. It has fundamentally changed our lives. And, for us musicians, it has changed the way we make music. Technology gives us the impetus to make our ideas become real.”
: You’ve also argued in the past that there are inherent problems that come along with new technology…
J-MJ: “Hmm… yes, yes. Definitely! How can I explain this? OK, so I come from Lyon in France, which is one of the great centres of French cuisine. These days, we know that cooking is a real art, because you’re mixing different flavours and ingredients… you are adding your emotions in there too. You are cooking with your soul.
“There are some people who are in the kitchen and they say, ‘I must get this book because it will help me be a better chef. It will solve all my problems’. Thanks to Gutenberg, the bookshops are full of cook books, so that person will have plenty of choice. Unfortunately, even though the book shops have many books, not all of them will be useful. Some of them will never be opened and go straight to the recycling plant.
“But even when you find a useful book, it will not solve all your problems. That book alone will not make you a brilliant chef. Attempting to make some crazy recipes will not make you a brilliant chef.
“It is the same with music. Like cooking, it is an art. Instead of vegetables and spices, you have samples and reverbs. In cooking, you have cookbooks, and in music you have plugins. There are lots of them. There are some that will be uploaded at the time you start reading this interview and they will be already obsolete by the time you finish. If you fall into the trap of thinking that one hundred new plugins will get you a career in music, you are finished. You run the risk of murdering your creativity.
“My advice is – and this is the same for hardware or software – choose carefully. Take three or four instruments and use nothing else for six months. Get to know them. That is the best way of nurturing your creativity. That is
“Technology gives us the impetus to make our ideas become real”
how you will learn to express yourself… the music will be guided by the technology, but it will come from inside you. It will be filled with your emotions.”
: You were an early advocate of Pro Tools, but your last few projects have all been created using Ableton Live. Was there any particular reason for that choice?
J-MJ:“Pro Tools went over the top. It all became too expensive. Every year, they were making big changes and you have to surround yourself with all the extra hardware, otherwise nothing would work. Then I tried Ableton and… yes, it changed my life. Finding Ableton Live was as important for me as seeing my first multitrack or my first synthesiser. It has made my time in the studio so much easier.
“In fact, I no longer need to be in the studio, or even on the ground. When I was finishing off this new album, I was listening to what I thought was the final master on a plane to the Middle East. I heard two or three very tiny changes I wanted to make. With Ableton Live and my laptop, I made the changes, sent them to one of my production team while I was changing planes, and then had the new master ready by the time I arrived at my destination. It’s crazy… crazy, but wonderful.
“I think Ableton 8 was the first version that held my attention, but it still felt a little bit too much like a DJ tool. The sound quality wasn’t quite as I would like. But, from 9, it has been perfect. Lots of people say that the sound quality of Pro Tools is better, but I compared a bounce from Ableton and Pro Tools, and Ableton was more transparent. None of that ‘phasing’ effect. One of the tracks on the new album had 110 tracks, but Ableton remained stable and very flexible. Even when I was adding more plugins. With Pro Tools, you only need one bug and the whole thing crashes. Then it takes 20 minutes to get everything set up again!
“I have been working with the Ableton team recently, trying to improve and contribute a little bit because I think it’s a fantastic platform. Pro Tools started to feel like you must pay to play. Every year, you must give more money… a bit like Dolby used to be in the early days. Pay a yearly rental or it won’t work. You are making a Faustian pact and I don’t like that.”
: And third-party plugins?
J-MJ: Dune, the Korg Legacy Collection. Native Instruments Reaktor and Kontakt – if I could only use one plugin, it would be Kontakt because it offers you so many possibilities. The Arturia set, of course. Their latest version of the ARP 2600 is so close to the real thing. I am a big fan of the ARP… and, you should remember, I have been using one for a long time, so I do know what I’m talking about!”
: Presumably there’s still some hardware in the setup?
J-MJ: “Always! The ARP, VCS 3, Moog 37, Dave Smith OB-6, the new Mellotron M4000D. I like to keep my old string machine, too, the Eminent 310. That is maybe the one area where digital tech has not been able to match the sound of analogue. The Arturia Solina V is pretty good, but then again, there is something that happens inside the hardware… something with the chorus that cannot be reproduced. Yet it will happen eventually. In five or ten years, we will see the technology.
“We have to accept that, sometimes, there are delays with technology. Look at 3D in the cinema. I don’t think it will be accepted until people can access it without those terrible glasses. And 5.1. I have re-recorded some of the tracks on the new album in 5.1 because I think it is fun, but I know that not everyone has the luxury of being able to sit in the middle of all those speakers. I’ll say it once again, technology is delayed in this regard, but it will catch up one day. It will evolve naturally for your mobile and your headphones.
“What an exciting period in history, eh? And, more than that, what an exciting time to make music. In the past, we were limited by the technology we had, but now… the only limit is your imagination.” The album, Planet Jarre, is out now
J-MJ on a recent US tour
Jean-Michel splits his time between his studio in LA and this one in Paris