I’m not one to throw titles around much, but I think I can confidently say that Jean-Michel Jarre deserves the name of Godfather of electronic music. My earliest memory of him was as a little girl watching his trippy but very danceable “Zoolook” video on MTV. It was one of those videos that both fascinated and scared me at the same time because of its uber-futuristic feel. What’s insane about Jean-Michel is that his work today seems as current and relevant right now as it was 40 years ago when he released the first Oxygene album.
Holding the Guinness World Record for having the largest outdoor audience, he is also the king of spectacle. At the time I interviewed him over the phone, he had just kicked off the first three gigs of his “Electronica World Tour.” Watching the show post-interview was something I couldn’t describe in words. It was theatrical times 100, so layered and intricate that I feel like I had only uncovered the surface with one viewing. And I could see how this maestro has managed to do entire shows on the Dead Sea, in the Great Pyramids of Egypt, by the Eiffel Tower, in spaces so massive that it was almost like he was orchestrating his own small nation of fans.
Electronic music is linked with cities. It’s linked with Berlin, with Paris, with London, with New York, with Bristol, with Detroit, with Chicago…
Hi, good afternoon. How are you? It’s great talking to you.
I’m great thank you! It’s a big honor to be speaking to you and I appreciate your time, I know you’re really busy being in the middle of a non-stop tour.
It’s my pleasure, no problem.
So firstly, how were the first three dates of your tour?
I must say that I’ve been really touched by the sense of warm welcome from Toronto to Montreal to Boston last night. And also I’ve prepared some new songs especially for this North American tour that have been very well received.
And you know, I really wanted to share with this audience this new project because it’s very special to me. First of all this is essentially creating a bridge between some classics and some new trends of electronic sounds based on my collaboration with different artists like Armin van Buuren and Moby. And so there is a kind of blend of something that is quite in sync with 2017 in terms of sounds.
The way we are listening to music today has evolved a lot. For the past 15 years we are listening to sounds and music with lots more bass points so I reworked and revisited some of my classics to be coherent with the project.
And from the visual point of view, I wanted to express for quite a long time this kind of 3D approach I had in my mixing and in my music. And I conceived the stage design as a kind of 3D without glasses, with some sliding panels of 3D with transparencies and creating really impressive and immersive graphics. It’s visual orchestration with the music. And I must say that the first three gigs I’ve been really blown away by people have welcomed the project.
I’m so excited I’m going to be there on Monday to watch your show and I’m so looking forward to it!
Oh great! I’m so excited because electronic music is linked with cities. It’s linked with Berlin, with Paris, with London, with New York, with Bristol, with Detroit, with Chicago…and I will have a special thought in Chicago when I play this track called “The Architect” because I collaborated with Jeff Mills. He’s very linked obviously as a pioneer of Techno and he’s very linked with the city [from living here] and for me it means a lot to play Chicago on Monday.
Have you been to Chicago before?
Yes I’ve been to Chicago when promoting one of my albums back in time but I’ve never played there. I love the city and it means a lot for me to play, especially this project. And I’m so excited to share this project with the people of Chicago. I think this is an appropriate concept that I hope the people will enjoy.
I’ve seen videos of your past shows and they’re really beyond words. So what I wonder is, do you conceptualize everything from the very beginning, from every light to every sound? I mean, how long does it take you to orchestrate an entire production like this, especially one this massive?
You know when I do some music and when recording my albums, I’m not thinking about the visual performance. I don’t know why – I’m really immersed in the sound and music. And then with Electronica and after Oxygene 3, I started to think about how I could visualize this whole project and creating the set list and then creating every graphic idea for every song I’m working on the graphic principle. And then I’m also working with a great team to develop every idea I have for every song. And for this one, because I love concerts and especially concerts of electronic music, I go to a lot of them, and most of the time I see that after one or two songs I know what I’m going to hear and what I’m going to listen to towards the end of the show. In that case, I really try to create a kind of tension and suspense where after the second track you say, “Oh okay I get it.” But then the third track you say, “Oh it’s not that,” so then you go from surprise to surprise. It’s a kind of progression in the way I conceive the show from A to Z.
Also this is one of my first modular projects. Three weeks ago I did the same production outdoors, by the Dead Sea in Israel. And ten days ago I did a concert on top of a mountain in Spain, I’ve done arenas, clubs, theaters and it’s quite exciting to present the same project in different contexts and locations.
You know it’s clear that you have predated the electronic dance music spectacle that we have today. You were so before your time, and they weren’t just concerts they were full out grand scale productions with combinations of lights and sound. And now we can see that festival culture is very common. Probably in the last 8 to 10 years? So I wanted to ask you your thoughts about this, how can you differentiate with is good and what is not?
I think it’s not because you have more books in a library or bookstore, but it’s a problem to write a novel. In other words: if you have something to say, you can say it. It’s all a matter of content. What I see in a lot of EDM festivals is there is almost a kind of format – some of these festivals from a visual point of view make me think about what I was doing 25 or 30 years ago. And I say that with a lot of affection. It’s not a critique.
If I’m going on tour, it’s obviously with the ambition to do something else. It’s a very interesting question, because nowadays technology makes you think you have no limits. And then the limits of the creative process are always coming from yourself? It’s not that you can add more lasers, more lights, more graphics and that will make you more interesting or more original. What makes your show and your work exciting or not is the fact that you are being specific, relevant, or not.
I have the ambition with this tour for instance to be different. I think it’s a matter of creativity. You have painters 5,000 years ago using oils and brushes and you still have great paintings today. So it’s not because you have the same tools everywhere that’s the problem, the key is what you want to say and how you want to present your work. This is the most important thing.
And obviously of course, you have lots of shows going on where you just have lasers and lights and four on the floor with a kick for five hours and some of them are great and some of them are easy going. But that’s like anything else in life I would say.
Have you ever done an opposite type of show, where it’s more intimate? Can you do a venue with say, 50 people? Is it possible to create that kind of romantic quality or do you feel that your music is more meant for a bigger audience?
That is a very interesting point. This project has been conceived to be modular, so I can play in a small theater as well as in a very big outdoor situation. And I think that’s the beauty of it. It’s like when you’re writing: what can be said in one sentence is stronger. Always. Whenever you have a clear idea, you can explain it in one sentence. The same thing for a show. If you can do it in a small venue and be relevant in front of 200 people, it means that your show is strong and it has a spine, a skeleton. I have the feeling that what I’m going to share in Chicago has that kind of strength and that kind of skeleton. Whether it’s in front of 200 people or 200,000 people, it’s just a matter of scale. But I think that the core of the project is really strong enough to also be presented in a smaller venue.
And finally I wanted to ask you… you said once that as artists we are eternally young but you also can’t always be happy because of the eternal search you have. It’s almost like having a dangling carrot in front of you always with your art. So do you think that although it’s still early, when you’re done with this tour, do you think to yourself, okay, I can rest for a bit? Or is your mind already on to the next thing?
You know I always consider that for it’s a kind of addiction. It’s the eternal quest for the ideal piece of music, the ideal show, and I think that I’m getting better. But I already have ideas for the next project for albums, shows. I would also like to develop a theater show that’s parallel to what I’m currently doing at the moment and having maybe two or three kind of shows at the same time. I consider my life as an artist is a constant quest to try to improve what I want to share with my audience.
You are so amazing. You know I was so intimated at the thought of interviewing you. You’ve just done… everything! Not to mentions all the interviews that you’ve done. I really want to thank you, you are such an inspiration.
[Laughs.] That’s very nice of you! I don’t have that feeling. I always feel like a beginner and it will be my state of mind before the Chicago concert believe me.