An Interview with Jean-Michel Jarre (2/13/17)

Jean-Michel Jarre Concert (Photo: JMJ Facebook)
We recently had the chance to speak with Jean-Michel Jarre, an innovator in the field of electronic music for over 40 years. His first international hit album, Oxygene (iTunes), achieved sales of over 12 million units. He has sold over 80 million albums to date. He has become renowned for spectacular city scale concerts and currently holds the record for the largest audience at a live concert (for the 4th time) with 3.5 million people attending his concert in Moscow celebrating the city’s 850th birthday. The last 2 years have been a prolific time for Jean Michel with the release of 3 albums: Electronica 1 (iTunes) and Electronica 2 (iTunes), and Oxygene 3 (iTunes). Still at the forefront of innovation, Electronica 1 was recently Grammy nominated. And on May 26th, he will bring his Electronica tour to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, as part of his first North American Tour. It promises to be a visual, as well as musical, feast so be sure to get your tickets here.

SF Bay Area Concerts: First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to speak with us and let me congratulate you on the success of your three most recent albums. To start with, what drew you back to Oxygene when you were so busy with the Electronica project?

Jean-Michel Jarre: It’s strange actually, because when I was in the middle of the Electronica project recording, I did a track that was not really fitting the Electronica project. I said to myself, that if I had to do Oxygene today, I would probably start with this track. And I kept that in the back of my mind. Then when the record company asked me last year about ‘maybe we could do a special edition box set of Oxygene or something like that?’ I said that it could be fun after this big massive production of what Electronica has been, in terms of recording in lots of studios and collaborators, the mix of tracks, and quite a massive production technically and logistically. To do something quite minimalist and to go back to the first Oxygene process where I did all the recording on 8 tracks with a tape recorder in 6 weeks! So I locked myself up last summer for 6 weeks virtually, and saying ok, asa dogma, there will be no more than 8 elements at the same time on this album.

SFBAC: So was that a process you enjoyed going back to, a time where it was almost ‘analog’ or ‘garage’ in your approach?

JMJ: Actually, I went back to the concept, I didn't necessarily want to go back to the same kind of instruments. I would say, if in 2016 I was doing Oxygene as a kid, what would I have done? And I certainly would not just use old analog equipment. So I said, OK, I choose within the equipment available digitally or the analog way, because I’m lucky enough in my studio to have quite a lot of analog gear, so I said OK, I’m going to choose a range of instruments and just keeping those ones for this project. So actually for Oxygene 3, I used my old VCX3 from EMS, a tweaked 2600 path, analog synthesizers from the first generation, but I also used plug-ins from Native Instruments or even an iPad. But what I want to tell you is that why Oxygene 3? When I did the first one, Oxygene, it was like one piece of music with different parts, and every track had no title, like the chapters of a book. I always said when I was doing the first one, it could be fun in my life to do sequels of that project. I had that in mind from day one, because I’ve always been interested in sequels in literature, in movies, in TV series. I’ve always noticed that it’s very rare to have sequels in music. And it could be fun, to have a sequel of Oxygene like this. And that’s even before it became successful. I had idea as a concept through time. This is one of the reasons why I did this Oxygene 3.

SFBAC: Certainly with your music, it really should be listened to all the way through in one sitting and it seems that in today’s world, most people listen to music in a constant shuffle. In the future, do you envision creating one overall continuous mix of Oxygene 1, 2, and 3?

JMJ: Well, it’s very strange because I think the past 10 years we all have a tendency to be in a constant shuffle mode for music, for visuals, everything on YouTube. And I think that now it seems that society seems to, is not necessarily fed up to this, but trying to find a new approach to cultural content, lots of people are ready to spend the weekend with their girlfriend or boyfriend to watch 3 seasons of House of Cards or Game of Thrones without hardly sleeping. So it shows that, in one way, we’re able to be in zapping mode on YouTube, and on the other side, we are able to stay a long time to enjoy something on a longer basis. And this is the idea with Oxygene and Oxygene 3 specifically, where for me, one track is 40 minutes. And obviously you can choose to listen to one track or another, because it has different parts, but actually, Oxygene 3 should be one 40 minute long track. When I did the first one, it was during the vinyl days, and I was obviously, consciously thinking about timing issues with side 1 and side 2 with 20 minutes on each side. But I would say that Oxygene 3 also has two sides. Almost unconsciously, I had two sides in mind. One side a bit darker, and the second one being brighter and more melodic.

SFBAC: I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been responsible for the most spectacular concerts ever staged with some of them being performed in front of millions of people. What is it about your music, do you think, that allows it to be performed at sites like the Houston skyline or the Place De La Concord, and then in more intimate concert venues, like the Greek Theatre, without losing any of its power?

JMJ: You know, in one way I was convinced that electronic music was made also to be performed along visual performances, visual stenography, and then I’ve been on of the first one to include so much visuals in my performances at the beginning because I’ve always been convinced that staying 2 hours behind your laptop or your synthesizer is not the most sexy thing in life and that it’s more exciting if people are buying a ticket to come to one of your shows, they have a visual expectation of the artist. For any kind of musical artist, unlike listening to their music everywhere, with your headphones in the street, in the car, at home, anywhere, if you go to a concert, it’s because you have a visual expectation regarding the artist that you like. I like the outdoor situation where you can have one-off, and integrating architecture or different outdoor elements in the music. But actually I realized after a while, the experience and the chemistry between the audience and the stage, is no longer today linked to the fact that it’s indoors or outdoors like it was when I started. When I started, you didn’t have really good indoor arenas for electronic music or for music. Lots of arenas when I started were just kind of arenas for omnisport, as we say in France. You can have baseball, or handball, or hockey, and then the following day, you’ll have a meeting with a political party, and on Wednesday, you’ll have a fair for a car company, and the the next day you are playing this venue. Now these days, you have very good arenas with very good acoustics. It’s changed a lot. This tour that I’m doing at the moment is something very very special. I’ve had in my mind for a very long time to try to express what I like doing in my music by creating architecture of sound, and creating perspectives and having a kind of depth and different layers. It’s what I designed this for. I actually spent a lot of time devising and conceiving the visuals of my concert. This time I really went with something very new and something very special, and I had no idea if it was going to work. Actually we were all blown away during the rehearsal about this kind of 3D effects without glasses that are created by these different layers of screens. I think it’s working very well as a visual correspondent and a digital bridge regarding the music we are playing on stage. It’s a very dynamic show and actually, sometime you can go to YouTube and you see some concerts and you can understand more or less what’s going on. In this particular case, you have to go experience it live, because otherwise you just don’t understand it on just a 2D flat screen, it doesn’t give it justice to the total immersion and impression you have when you’re showing the show live.

SFBAC: Where do you think that interest in the visual aspect of music started from? How far back did visuals become such an important aspect of your music?

JMJ: You know, I think funnily enough, I’m quite an anti-MTV guy. I mean, the videos, and telling a story alongside your music, where by the end of the day, sometimes the music is becoming the soundtrack of a short film. I’m not particularly excited about that. I always, and it’s partly true for this current project that I’m going to play in Berkeley, is the fact that for me, the graphic aspect and the shapes and the content is not there to tell you a story, but more, almost the orchestration of the music. And I like to see this kind of show, creating the kind of soundtrack or visual track of the story or the movie that someone can create in their own mind. I see these concerts as really interactive with the audience. When you’re watching a movie, you’re sitting in a passive way, just watching and following the story. The same thing with a video clip. What I hope, and expect, and try to create for the audience, is for them, because of the music obviously, but also the visual going with the music that will create, in the mind of the audience, something that will allow them to create their own story, their own movie, their own film.

SFBAC: In relation to Electronica, both 1 and 2, these were enormous undertakings with nearly 30 different artists involved over the course of the five years. How did this collaborative process work?

JMJ: Actually, the whole thing came together around artists linked to the electronic scene and who have been a great source of inspiration to me, whatever the generation or the style. I started to launch some invitations and they all said yes! So I ended up with over 2 and a half hours of music to do. I had two principles in mind, was first of all, to meet with people, to meet with every artist physically, to share our creative DNA and to share the creative process together in their environment or mine. And to also, for the first time I will meet them, to go in with an existing piece of music or demo, I would compose from a preconceived notion regarding the artist that I like. Maybe quite far away from his world, but something I wanted to share with him or her. And it’s what I did actually. And each time I was meeting with someone, I always went with a demo and an existing piece of music but obviously, a demo leaving enough space where they can express themselves.

SFBAC: That certainly shows across both albums. You can hear the influences of the collaborators on the album while retaining the feel of one of your pieces.

JMJ: Yeah, it’s exactly what I wanted to achieve, it’s actually a real piece where it works 50/50 and I’ve been very, very careful in the final cut because they’ve all been very generous saying 'listen, it’s your album where we collaborate but obviously you have the final cut and you do whatever you want in the final mix.' So in the mixes, I’ve spent lots of time trying to do, two things, first of all, to avoid that the album will be a patchwork with totally different songs not working with each other, and so I’ve tried to create something coherent all along the two albums. And the other thing, is to try and give justice to each recognizable world, and that’s what I’ve tried to do in each case.

SFBAC: You worked with Laurie Anderson on Zoolook (iTunes), one of your earliest collaborations, and now with "Rely on Me" on the current album. How did your approach differ between the two collaborations?

JMJ: With Laurie, I’m a great fan of Laurie's. As a human being, as an artist, she’s for me, one of the most influential artists of the New York scene even beyond music. As a visual artist and performer and she’s just amazing. It’s always a great pleasure to work with her. And in that case, one of the main topics or ideas of the concept of Electronica is the concept of the ambiguous relationship we have with technology. We went with this idea with Laurie doing a song, where it could be a strange love song between a connected object and a human being. And where she would play the connected object. This was before the movie Her, and I thought this was quite close to this. But it was quite different, because in the movie, it’s the software. And in the song, it’s more the object itself… when she says “touch me and explore my software”, it’s more the object and the idea that people are spending more time touching their smartphone instead of their partner. Everything started with this idea.

SFBAC: In relation to the live setting for the Electronica album, how did you get those collaborative albums represented in the live setting?

JMJ: From day one, I knew that due to collaborating to get everyone on the album will be difficult to go with me on stage. So I said ok, my next tour will be based on Electronica songs, but not necessarily requiring the presence of the collaborators. If they can join me, good news. But if they can’t, anyway the show will exist. With so many tracks, it was not too difficult to choose songs that are possible to be performed without the presence of the collaborators. All the instrumental tracks are easy, because we can play all the parts with the instruments on stage. But for songs, for instance with the Pet Shop Boys, we are doing the live version with vocoder parts which works very well actually. And we play on stage the vocals of the Pet Shop Boys with some live vocals that we do with the vocoder.

SFBAC: Do you foresee an Electronica 3 in the future?

JMJ: You know? Not necessarily. A great friend of mine tells me that I’ve invented the new concept of the never ending album. I have no plans for that. For me, it’s been a really interesting journey and I learned so much by sharing this creative process with a lot of people. So in the future, I would like to collaborate with people, not necessarily for Electronica 3, but maybe? Maybe, why not? But not now. I’ve just released 3 albums in the last 14 months, it’s OK. And also now I have some people asking to collaborate on their album, as is the case with Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, Damon came with his production team to my studio in Paris and we spent two or three days together and we’ll see what’s going on with that album. So this is one example of one collaboration.

SFBAC: Do you get satisfaction, in that 40 years after Oxygene, you’ve released 3 albums in quick succession that have received glowing reviews? Does that give you satisfaction that you’re still spearheading innovation within electronic music?

JMJ: It’s an interesting question, because as an artist, like a lot of other artists, we don’t do music for fame, recognition, money or whatever, we do music because we can’t do anything else. And I’ve always been convinced that one of these days that electronic music will be everywhere and I won’t have batteries anymore. And I must say, that I do feel myself as an individual and as a musician much more in phase with my time today than 20 years ago.

SFBAC: With our last question, do you think you can tell us a little bit about this upcoming Zero Gravity concert in Masada at the Dead Sea?

JMJ: Masada is a very interesting and exciting project and is linked to my work and activity as a UN ambassador at Unesco for the environment. And I went there a year and half ago, and I’ve been really shocked by the state of the Dead Sea. You know the Dead Sea is one of the ecosystems of the planet like the rainforest of the north pole? And you know the Dead Sea is losing 1.2 meters per year. And in 12 years from now, between the Jordan and Israel border, you’ll be able to walk. There will be no water there anymore. And I figured, it could be good to do a concert over there to improve the awareness of this. This is one side, and the other thing is the place, it’s like being on the moon. The area of Masada is 900 meters below sea level and ironically, it’s a place that has the most oxygen. You have 10% more oxygen than any place else.

SFBAC: Well, JMJ, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and we are really looking forward to your show at the Greek in Berkeley on May 26th.

JMJ: I appreciate the conversation and I’m really looking forward to this North American tour! Every night will be a one-off, where I try and create something specific every night obviously including the Greek Theater which is absolutely a fantastic place.

Interview by Eugene O'Callaghan for SF Bay Area Concerts

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