Make no bones about it, Nicolas Jaar is an ambitious sort of fellow.
Jaar – still a stripling at 22 – started remarkably young, turning out his abstruse The Student EP way back in 2008. Subsequent releases, from 2010’s woozy Marks And Angles to the strutting A Time For Us single, showed an impressive eye for detail and craftsmanship. It was 2011’s Space Is Only Noise LP – a collection of brittle electronic miniatures and watery electro-pop – that really ramped things up for the American-Chilean producer, and he’s kept up the momentum throughout 2012. His Clown + Sunset label, previously a hothouse for his own productions and side projects, has recently welcomed The Notwist’s Acid Pauli into the fold. We’ve had a numerous collaborative projects (Darkside, Just Friends) an Essential Mix that runs the gamut from Villalobos to *NSYNC, and, of course, 2012’s most notorious bit of blue sky thinking. Before his flagship set at MUTEK, Jaar – clipped, composed, and thoroughly intense – talked Mount Kimbie, Sasha Spielberg and more.
“It can seem pompous, it can seem stupid, it can seem silly. But I prefer doing it than not doing it.”
“For this one we’re doing just me with a synth, two controllers and a mixer and a microphone and a computer. On my left, I have one of my best friends who plays saxophone and keyboards, he’s going to be doing that. And on my right hand, my partner in Darkside who plays guitar – he’s going to be playing guitar all night, and a lot of effects and electronics. That’s what my live set looks like now. One third of the material is my past album, and then another third is new material, and the last third is basically improvisation. I would shoot myself if I had to play the same thing every night. It’s just boring, and people enjoy it less.”
What does that live setup enable you to do that you couldn’t with a more conventional, Ableton-and-nothing else arrangement?
“You mean playing with the musicians?”
“There are these two things: there’s fucking techno, then there’s church. And then they start fighting. And I chose the church to win.”
Yes, and also having a degree of exigence and flexibility through the improv as well.
“This summer, I’m touring with the band the whole time, so this isn’t MUTEK-specific. What is incredibly different is that I refuse to play my remixes or my edits when I’m playing with a band. So that already changes a lot of things, because when I’m in a club and I’m playing at 3am, I’m playing a lot of my remixes, I’m playing a lot of my edits, because it’s 3am. Of course, I still play slow, but I also build it. With my band, I need to basically be playing my own music, and arranging – rearranging – and composing all my songs.
“That’s a beautiful, beautiful job for me. Just sitting with them and reimagining the music, you have to do that. There were really no saxophones on all the tracks in my album; there’s no guitar in any of the tracks, for one. So, reimagining the tracks with ‘What would the guitar do here?’, whether it’s noise, or whether it’s melodic – it’s fascinating. I love it. It adds a lot of excitement to me to be playing with other people. Playing alone gets repetitive. Playing with other people, it’s like: ‘Will played really well today’, or ‘Will didn’t play so well today. Will, what’s wrong?’. And that’s exciting.”
Moving onto your Essential Mix, which we enjoyed on our shores fairly recently. It went all over the place, it was a very rangy and exploratory set. What was your rationale behind the more unusual choices in there?
“So, here’s the problem with it sounding [making air speech marks] ‘unusual’. It sounds unusual to a lot of people, but I basically just tried to give, I promise you, the most honest account of what I’ve been doing in the last six months. These are edits I’ve been doing in the past six months, I didn’t do them for the mix. This is stuff that I used to play at university. My *NSYNC edit is something that I worked on. I was like, ‘I really like this *NSYNC track’. By itself, I feel stupid playing it, that’s the truth of it. I want to turn it into something that I can play. The time comes to make the Essential Mix, and I’m like ‘Wow, the *NSYNC edit would fit very well here’, because it starts with those bells and drops for a second. Same thing with all the edits.
Nicolas Jaar – Essential Mix
“The classical music in it, which might seem odd, is my favourite classical music of all time. That’s the stuff I grew up with. I grew up with that ‘Encore’ by Keith Jarrett. I didn’t go searching for it, it’s something I grew up with. So, it’s a personal set. I thought for my Essential Mix I wanted to give people actually what is personal. These are personal edits that show where I am now. This violin piece that I put on for ten minutes is something that I grew up with for ten years. I heard it so much, and I want to make you hear it so much that you understand how the music after sounds.
“One thing about the ‘unusual’ quality: there are, sure, a couple of unusual moments, but it’s because I wanted to try and say something. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s a moment where the violins are playing on one speaker, and Aphex Twin is playing on the other. Then Aphex Twin starts going through the speaker like this [he mimes the sound travelling from speaker to speaker]. I don’t know if you remember this – if you listen on headphones you can hear it, also with a good soundsystem if you go in the middle. So you hear Aphex Twin going into this side and leaving this speaker alone, and then finally the violins come in and it’s just the violins for ten minutes. This is after an edit called ‘There Is No God’. I’m just trying to say certain things, like ‘What do you do after there is no God?’ There are these two things: there’s fucking techno, then there’s church. And then they start fighting. And I chose the church to win. But then, in a way, it doesn’t, because it ends with my first techno release, called ‘The Student’. So, I’m just trying to build a narrative.”
“I wasn’t going to give you exclusive tracks that DJs sent me – who cares? I mean, I don’t care.”
What’s interesting about the Essential Mix in particular is that it offers an unusually big canvas, in terms of temporality. You have two hours to play with.
“It was difficult at first. And I said, the only way I can do this is if I’m honest and I say “Here’s the story”. I wasn’t going to give you exclusive tracks that DJs sent me – who cares? I mean, I don’t care. I don’t care to give you that. Personally, I think I’m better at giving you a story than some exclusive tracks.”
Another project with an interesting ‘story’ behind it too is the Just Friends project [with Sasha Spielberg]. Tell us maybe a little about how that came together, and what your modus operandi or aim is with that.
“Sasha went to school with me. We were best friends for four years – we just graduated a week ago.”
“Thank you. We always said we should make music together, and then finally we made five tracks – and my apartment got robbed, and I lost all of them. Only one survived. Why? Because it was so good, or at least I thought it was so good, that I instantly sent it to get mastered, and that was ‘Avalanche’. So I had many more songs with Sasha, but the only one that survived was ‘Avalanche’. Sasha’s been my best friend for a long time, and we just decided to make music together two years into knowing each other, and we’re going to continue doing it, for sure. It has its own sound, so it’s exciting.”
Are you going to try and reanimate those lost sketches, or are they just gone?
“Just gone. Too bad – it doesn’t matter. We’ll just make more.”
Another thing that’s been going on is your label, particularly your recent signing of Acid Pauli [of The Notwist]. How did that come about, and where do you see him fitting in to the roster?
“I’m the biggest fan of Acid Pauli. This man is incredible. I don’t know if you’ve caught him DJing, but he really, truly is doing something different. He’s just doing something different, it’s as simple as that. He’s doing it all with Ableton, he’s not trying to be a vinyl-only DJ, it’s not about that. It’s not about Serato. It’s about: here’s the music that he wants to show you. And the honesty of that appeals to me. The music that he wants to show you appeals to me as well. I asked him, ‘please send me the stuff you’re playing’, and he was like, ‘actually it’s an album I’ve been working on’. I said, ‘please send it to me, I’d love to hear it’. And he said, ‘I would love for you to put it out’. [clicks fingers] Done. Have you heard the album?”
“You can’t be honest with me, I can’t be honest with you, not 100%. But directness is important to me.”
No, I’ve not.
“It’s so good. It’s one of my favourite albums in recent years. For me, it’s up there with the…what’s the Mount Kimbie album? Beggars…?
Crooks And Lovers.
“Crooks And Lovers. It has a similar sadness and sensitivity to that, but it’s 100bpm house music. I think it’s the proudest I am for a release because I’m such a fan. I’m, just completely honoured for him to be on my label. And he’s been doing this for twenty years or something. It’s incredible.”
From what you were saying about how you approached the Essential Mix and from the qualities that you find appealing and important in his music, it seems that ‘honesty’ seems to be a vital aspect of what you’re looking for in your music, and the people you sign.
“Or directness, maybe. If you want me to be honest: ‘honesty’ is a fucked up word. Because what does it mean? It has a lot of things and being honest today…not even this is 100% honest, obviously. You can’t be honest with me, I can’t be honest with you, not 100%. But directness is important to me. The fact that Acid Pauli will not try to just do Serato because that’s what is expected. But the most direct way for him to give you what he wants is Ableton with a controller, even though DJing with Ableton is seen as a terrible thing to do. That amount of not caring and directness, I see a little bit of honesty there. ‘Here is the music I want to show you, just listen to the music’.
“With the Essential Mix, there’s also directness. Why? Because these are the influences and sorry if it’s a ten minute violin piece, but I will be honest with you, because I did hear it too much. Me. I heard it too much when I was little. Therefore, I’m going to be honest about it. I’m not going to put a two minute edit just to get my point across. In order to give you what actually happened, I’m going to give you the whole thing, because in the context of the mix it’s going to seem like it went on for ages. But it’s difficult. It’s difficult for that to get through. It can seem pompous, it can seem stupid, it can seem silly. But I prefer doing it than not doing it.”
“It can seem pompous, it can seem stupid, it can seem silly. But I prefer doing it than not doing it.”
“Of course. So much directness that the press cubes, we wanted to send them out as quickly as possible before we had the final prototype, because we were excited. The fact that some of them were malfunctioning was just so stupid. But, beyond that, the prototype for press was, ‘Hey guys, this is the idea. This is what it looks like. It has two headphone jacks. It is meant for sharing’. I think we should have waited until we had the final prototype to send, because now people are getting it and it has problems. It’s about directness. It’s about, ‘here’s an idea’. It might not be of our time right now. It might not be necessary. But let’s put that into the consciousness and start thinking about: why do we need CDs still? Are CDs saying what we want to say? I don’t know, I don’t know the answer. I’m not trying to say ‘CDs suck’ to everyone. I’m just saying, I don’t like them, and maybe we could find something that’s more appropriate to the music. Maybe we can’t. Let’s try it, it doesn’t matter.”
That philosophy fits in to what you were saying about the live setup. Anything that incorporates improvisation and risk.
“Risk? Absolutely. This fucking cube is the riskiest thing I’ve ever done.”
“It’s important, if you have an idea, and can make it happen, to put it out there.”
Do you think it’s paid off?
“Yeah, to a certain extent. I think it’ll pay off later. Maybe, maybe not. It has paid off for my friends, or people who email me and say, ‘We just had such an intimate experience with this, and such an intimate experience with music. Thank you’. That’s why I made it. I can go to sleep happy if one person tells me that, because that’s the point. I think in terms of risk, the way I see it is: first and foremost, I make music. I take risks with music, sure. But I’m confident enough that if I take a risk with a song, I don’t care, because I think it’s good. Here – you can do whatever you want with it. But a risk with a technology is more complicated, because it’s not what I do, you know what I’m saying? But I still think it’s important, if you have an idea, and can make it happen, to put it out there, and maybe somebody will create a Prism or a cube that’s much better. Then we will all benefit from it. And maybe it was influenced by what I did. Maybe. Or maybe not. The Buddha Machine, for example, is one incarnation of what I did. I think it’s all in a lineage. And why not? Why not try it out if you can?”
Are you currently working on new collaborations or recordings that we haven’t discussed?
“Uh-huh. I’m working on an album with Dave Herrington, our guitar player. We’re doing our first Darkside album, and that will come out probably in November. I have a third of my next album done, but I’m taking my time because I don’t see the rush, especially if the Darkside album is coming out in November. I’ve got no interest in trying to give too much.”