Nicolas Jaar: Take A Look Outside

© Teddy Fitzhugh

Words by:

Nicolas Jaar sits in the living room of his apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Surrounded by modular synths, cables, a piano, countless books and records organised neatly on shelves and a vintage mixing desk, the home studio feel defines the space in which he worked for nine months on Sirens, the album he announced this morning. In just a few hours, Jaar hosts a listening party at a warehouse venue in Ridgewood, Brooklyn, where he will air the album to the public for the first time.

Jaar lives just a short walk from where he first rose to prominence playing Williamsburg house collective Wolf + Lamb’s parties at the age of 17 almost a decade ago. After releasing a string of underground dance tracks on their label in 2010, he wiped the slate clean with his first full length, Space Is Only Noise in 2011. It was an album no 20-year-old has any right to record. As indebted to the skewed house he had been producing up until its release as it was the sonic explorations of composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Cage, the record introduced an artist pushing the boundaries of where modern electronica can go.

Five years on, and Nicolas Jaar has produced a multitude of projects under his own name, including his Nymphs EP series from last year, Pomegranates – an alternate soundtrack to Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 avant-garde film The Colour of Pomegranates – and remixes for artists as wide ranging as Brian Eno, Grizzly Bear and Florence + The Machine. He’s also worked alongside Dave Harrington as Darkside, and produced material under a multitude of pseudonyms including Against All Logic. Up until the news of Sirens earlier today, the only glaring omission over the past five years has been a full-length-proper follow up to Space Is Only Noise. So no pressure.

“It’s the first time strangers are going to listen to it,” Jaar tells me over the phone. “Which is scary for me.” Softly spoken and deeply considered, Jaar occasionally apologises before pausing to consider questions. Today he’s been fielding calls from people anxious to make it to tonight’s album listening party. To Jaar, these kind of events have become an important part of launching a new record. “I like it as a ritual,” he continues. “It feels like a physical manifestation of a beginning. There’s not much to the release process these days. It just goes up on iTunes. So all being present in a room feels like we’re giving birth together. But a part of me is still very afraid.”

The album he’s set to play makes up a trio of recordings steeped in Greek mythology alongside Nymphs (the divine spirit) and Pomegranates (the fruit of the dead). But as the name suggests, Sirens feels the most daring and dangerous of the three. The previous projects in the trio were originally earmarked as follow ups to Space Is Only Noise, but Jaar felt they didn’t reach into the right musical territory. “My original follow up was Nymphs. But when I listened to it, it wasn’t right… It’s not that I didn’t believe in the music,” he enthuses. “It was more like there was something missing.” So last year, inspired by the work he had put out, he began investigating that space in his New York apartment. The result, victoriously, is Sirens.

The cover art to the album is made of scratch card paper which can be removed with the American quarter that comes with LP, and it reveals a piece of artwork by his father, Alfredo Jaar, entitled A Logo For America. The piece shows an image of New York’s Times Square in 1987 along with a billboard that reads “this is not America”. The statement summates much of what the album is about. A recording steeped in parallels, Sirens is an opaque protest album, as well as a deeply personal love letter to his listeners, all born from concerns over the politics of the modern world.

“Old values are being reinstated, and these ghosts are coming back on a very scary and deep level”

The immediate shift when first listening to Sirens is the presence of a discernible voice throughout, as carefully crafted lyrics jump out of Jaar’s experimental soundscapes. “There’s more songwriting on this album than anything I’ve done before,” he explains. “I’ve always tried to tell stories with sound, and my voice was just an instrument. But by looking at the world around me, and the political situation of the past few years, I felt I wanted to tell a story with words; for the listener to be able to read the lyrics as a poem and decipher the meaning. And that’s really fucking hard, as it doesn’t come naturally to me.”

Despite this new focus on songwriting, there’s still the underlying chaos that flows through much of Jaar’s back catalogue. For each carefully constructed verse, delicately placed piano or soaring synth, there’s a drum track going off the rails or a screaming saxophone fighting against it. And that’s what makes Sirens an unquestionably Nicolas Jaar album. “Against all logic is very much my motto,” he explains. “I like questioning why sounds don’t go together, and going against what should make sense in terms of that. Personally it allows me to be creative. I guess I’m more interested in chaos than cohesion, I believe it’s a little more realistic.”

Speaking to Jaar emphasises just how personal an album Sirens is. Despite looking to the outside world, it deals with issues of racial profiling, entrenched conservatism and the parallels between the current political climate – he cites both Donald Trump and Brexit as key to his thought process on Sirens – and the feelings of otherness he experienced in his youth.

Born in New York, Jaar’s parents separated when he was three years old so that his mother could return to her native Chile. “I was seen as a gringo there,” he explains. “Even though my Dad is Chilean, because he was still in New York I was seen as an American. Then when I returned to the US, the kids at my French school saw me as Chilean. So I became super American. I’d skateboard, wear Phat Farm and only listen to hip-hop. I had this feeling that if I became really American, I’d finally belong somewhere. But then when I went to college in Providence, I was suddenly seen as a French kid.”

© Teddy Fitzhugh

Subsequently, Killing Time, the first track on Sirens, was part inspired by the #IStandWithAhmed story that went viral on Twitter last year, when 14-year-old Muslim, Ahmed Mohamed, was arrested for possessing what was believed to be a bomb, after he took a homemade clock into school in Texas to show his engineering teacher. ‘We are just waiting for the old folks to die/ We are just waiting/ For the old thoughts to die/ Just killing time’, Jaar sings, hoping that his generation can outlive racial prejudice while exploring the imagery of Ahmed building his own sense of time.

No is named after the plebiscite campaign that ousted Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990, who faced various accusations of fascism before his death in 2006. The album’s Times Square cover is adorned with the Spanish phrase “ya dijimos no pero el si esta en todo”, which roughly translates to “we already said no but the yes is in everything”, with ‘Ya dijimons No!’ (‘We said No!’) making up the bombast of Jaar’s vocal throughout. “That was the time of Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Pinochet in Chile and Regan in the US,” Jaar explains of the Chilean No campaign. “I think there’s a lot in that statement,” he pauses. “Especially today. Old values are being reinstated, and these ghosts are coming back on a very scary and deep level. It’s insane that we’re even talking about Donald Trump, but if he does get elected, the last 100 years of America have been tragic, and this is a new low.”

“Drake is making house music now. It’s a really cool time for pop music. But it makes releasing dance tracks very complicated”

Sirens sees release through Jaar’s Other People label, which has also put out Nymphs and Pomegranates, as well as material from William Basinski, Lucrecia Dalt, Lydia Lunch and DJ Slugo, the Chicago veteran who collaborated with Jaar for the moving spoken-word piece Ghetto. The imprint follows Clown & Sunset, the label Jaar founded in 2009 before stopping it in 2013, having taken its sound as far as he thought it could go. “I like the tradition in electronic music of artists putting work out on different labels and the flavour each creates,” he explains. “But the main reason I’ve run them is that the second I started making a living from touring, I felt a tremendous guilt, as I see it as an ecosystem. If I’m making money, it should be going towards jumpstarting other people’s careers onto the same path.”

And while many think Jaar left the dancefloor focused material from his Wolf + Lamb days behind, his label has been home to many of the pseudonyms he’s used to continue that work. “I see things like Against All Logic as a continuation of that,” he explains. “I always find it funny when announcements say something is ‘the first Nicolas Jaar single in three years’, as I’ve put out work under many different names.”

When he released Space Is Only Noise in 2011, Jaar spoke about how he felt electronic music was going through something of a renaissance, perhaps due to the proliferation of affordable production software which enabled more people able to produce music without the need for a studio. But five years on, Jaar finds it in a remarkably different place. “Drake is making house music now,” he enthuses. “And so is Justin Bieber. The biggest songs in the US are house. In no way am I shitting on any of these people, as it’s actually a really cool time for pop music. But it makes releasing dance tracks very complicated. That’s one of the reasons I knew Nymphs wasn’t my follow up. It didn’t feel right.”

As well as being an imaginative remixer, Jaar is also a notable talent behind the decks, and having previously released one recorded mix per year since 2012 – including his BBC Radio One Essential Mix of the Year winner – Jaar has blown that right open in the lead up to the release of Sirens with his project The Network. The culmination of months of work, it’s a 333 channel online radio network, based entirely upon the basis of chance, where a user inputs a channel number to hear the Jaar mix assigned to it – the uppermost channel has also been used to premiere Sirens ahead of its release.

“Every time you play a piece of music online now, an algorithm provides you with a recommendation,” Jaar explains. “I had a
realisation that chance is being squeezed out of the internet. Capitalism doesn’t necessarily want chance. It wants to give you
the feeling like you’re discovering something, but to a certain extent you’re being watched. It’s part of that insane mirror gallery that the internet allows, and that’s why Sirens starts with the sound of them breaking, as the idea of a website built on pure chance excited me.”

And this sense of freedom flows through everything Jaar is working on at the moment. Having finished his study of comparative literature at Brown University since the release of Space Is Only Noise, he says it’s since calling a hiatus on Darkside in 2014 that he saw his biggest shift into adult life. But for all his maturity, Jaar is still hugely confused about what it means to be an artist in the 21st Century. “That’s one of the biggest questions for me,” he says. “Are we just creating comfort with art and music? Are we clowns talking in an endless vacuum? Or can we go further and affect a positive change? If not, should we just down tools and resort to physical labour? Would that be more helpful? I still don’t know the answer to these questions.”

Reflecting this sense of curiosity and, perhaps, discontent is the melancholic feel that defines Jaar’s music. He assures me it’s a source of inspiration. “There’s something creative about being close to your suffering,” he explains. “It has to be on a level that’s healthy, as if you’re too close you can’t do anything. But when there’s a latent melancholy inside you, that’s a very creative place to be.”

While it’s wise to refrain from describing Jaar’s material as “blue wave”, a term he blurted out early in his career (“That was a joke that ended up biting me in the ass”) it’s clear the 26-year-old pours all his emotion into his work. “Some people speak as if there’s a separation between me and my music,” he says. “As if this is some kind of career. But there’s zero separation between the music that I make and who I am. And that’s why I’m so nervous about playing Sirens out tonight.”

And with that, Jaar starts collecting his things, ready to back out onto the Brooklyn streets and begin his next chapter at the vanguard of experimental electronic music. “I don’t buy it that the only thing culture can do is make people happy,” he concludes as our conversation draws to a close. “I would hope there’s the potential for more. But I guess that’s for us to decide.”

Sirens is out now via Other People. Nicolas Jaar appears at Dekmantel São Paulo, Brazil, 4-5 February 2017

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