Nicolas Jaar is possibly the most exciting musical discovery ofthe last 12 months
The way Nicolas Jaar carries himself oozes class. Well-dressed and completely relaxed, he orders a plate of hors d’oeuvres and cooked meats in the hotel lobby, where he’s enjoying a casual morning before he heads to Berlin. As slow-paced and considered as his music, Nicolas digests his time with Crack with skill and precision, often pausing before answering and allowing us into the full spectrum of his exceptionally colourful world.
For someone so slight in years in comparison with the majority of his contemporaries, the respect he now commands in educated music circles is colossal.
Even if you forget for a second that Jaar is 21, being fluent in three languages and six instruments makes for impressive reading. However, it’s Jaar’s use of these talents on astounding debut album, Space Is Only Noise, that have twisted the parameters of contemporary electronic music. Many have the tools at their disposal, few deploy them is such an original and captivating manner. The fact he’s so young just makes it all the more astounding.
The Jaar package is made all the more credible by his nurturing by the Wolf and Lamb stable, and the fact he is in the middle of a Comparative Literature degree at the Ivy League Brown University in Rhode Island. On top of juggling these pressures, Jaar also runs his own Clown And Sunset label, representing musical talents closest to his heart.
Using the label as an outlet to release his own output, Clown And Sunset has seen notable recent releases from Nikita Quasim, Valentin Stip and Soul Keita. Infused with many of the multiple-genre influences that have made Jaar’s debut so instantly striking, the sound of Clown And Sunset was captured beautifully on last year’s compilation, Inès.
Beautifully spacious down-tempo sonics flow alongside natural sounds, morphed and twisted into jazz and house-infused rhythms. At times patient, at others beautifully immediate, the diversity on the label is as consistent as Jaar’s solo output. The originality of the completed sound on offer feels refreshing, but at the same time pretension-free and completely natural. No one is straining for anything on Inès. It all seems to come as naturally as Jaar’s success.
Creativity on such a prodigious scale owes much to a cultural upbringing that saw Jaar live in both Chile and New York and become accustomed to travelling and performing at a young age. His father, Alfredo Jaar, was an architect and hugely successful filmmaker whose passion for global issues (most notably those associated with Rwanda) meant culture and creativity was part of Nico’s childhood.
Crack’s live experiences with Jaar have varied hugely. Initially we caught one of his first full band gigs at clubbing Mecca Fabric, in which Jaar was visibly orchestrating his band in a wonderfully flawed, fledgling outing. We also witnessed a victorious outdoor set at Glastonbury in the summer sun on the West Holts (formerly Jazz World) stage; and finally, a solo live performance at Thekla which saw a more club-orientated set in response to this darker environment. A man for all seasons.
Sat in the hotel lobby Jaar the morning after the Thekla gig, Jaar bemoans the imperfections in his one-man show, suggesting “it might need some tweaking” and that “it’s not quite there yet”. It’s this attention to detail that has served to make Jaar one of the hottest properties in music at the moment and a catalyst for a new wave of slowed-down, stripped-bare house music that is effortlessly cool and at the same time musically fascinating. Congenial and polished, how far Jaar can push his own creativity in the future is entirely up to him.
First of all, Clown And Sunset – how has the label been going, and what was the inspiration behind starting it up?
When I started making music and releasing it I had two outlets – Circus Company and Wolf + Lamb, and they are both, obviously, quite club-orientated. And as you can hear from my album, that’s not the only type of thing that I do. I actually realised that it was on my 19th birthday that I started the label. It was probably the type of crisis that you have when it’s your birthday. So that’s how it started. I’d been working closely with two other artists (Nikita Quasim and Soul Keita), and then the roster kind of grew, and through 2011 and 2012 it’s definitely going to turn into something more than a collective – a bigger operation, but still remaining fairly small.
So while it started as an outlet for your own music, as time’s gone on you have discovered more artists? How did your relationship with these other artists start out?
I don’t always listen to demos because I want to have a connection with the person releasing the music. So for example, Valentin Stip, which is the next release – he was my first girlfriend’s brother. He is two years younger than me. When we were at school together, he was a;ways playing piano; Rachmaninoff and classical stuff like that. One day I told him ‘you should start recording yourself on the piano and start making your own music.’ Four years later he’s just making this beautiful music. That type of narrative, that is what the label is about, rather than just getting an e-mail – I’m not really interested in that.
There are some similarities between yourself and Valentin’s record, mainly in the classical influences. Would you say that you influenced each other? As you said, he is classically accomplished and there are elements of that on your record. Equally, perhaps you had some impact on the electronic elements of his record.
That’s true, and I guess I talk to the artists about the aesthetic that Clown And Sunset is trying to create. There is certainly a specific aesthetic we aim for, that’s for sure. If a track absolutely doesn’t fit that, then I’m going to be honest about it.
And the story behind the Clown And Sunset releases so far?
The first 5 releases were a combination of me and these two other artists – Soul Keita and Nikita Quasim, the first three were compilations, with just a track from Soul, a track from me and a track from Nikita, and then we had a big compilation called Inés with, like, 10 tracks.
There’s a real, wealth of effort for someone so young to get their tunes and their name out there in such a short period of time.
Clown And Sunset helped me do that, a lot. To have, like, five tracks out a year, on top of the 12”s.
So with the summer festivals coming up you’re going to be playing a lot. Does it worry you that you’re not going to have time to make as much music and get to work as you’d like? The sound you’ve captured on your record is not five minutes’ work, is it.
No, it’s not. But basically I’m touring for two months but then I’m going back to New York with the conscious intention of not playing any gigs. Then I’m working on music. Also, when I’m in school I’m making music; I make a lot of music in school.
How are your studies going?
Good – I have a year left.
Have they proved a hindrance at all? Have you found getting the balance right difficult?
Well yeah, it is a lot of work – last semester was a lot more work than I thought it would be. But, in general, they kind of help each other.
Electronic music producers are so often lazy with song names – given your interest in literature, how much thought goes into your naming of songs and records?
When I title something I don’t really think about it, but I did go through a period where I loved really long titles – like Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust, Space is Only Noise If You Can See, Love You Gotta Lose Again. Now I’m interested in one-word titles. I mean, you just have to go with the aesthetic of the song, and try to say something that is slightly meaningful – to you at least.
With your production methods, how do you source and gather the natural sounds, like the sound of rain etc. How do you go about integrating them?
It definitely has to do with seeing the sounds not as they are, but just as sounds. For example, one thing a couple of people just realised is that there’s me breathing throughout the whole record, not a lot of people have realised that. And for some of the other sounds, I used all my synths and tried to create a sound of water, but digital enough to mess around with your idea of water, so it’s not quite water. You know, trying to emulate, but knowing that I can’t fully emulate. So a lot of these things come out of my interest in giving you some kind of paradoxical sound, a double-entendre of sorts.
As a way to make people double take.
So how did the live band come about? Are the other members of the band friends? Are they musicians you’ve been working with for a while?
The saxophone player, who also plays keyboards – I’ve been friends with him for a long time. And I told him, ‘find me a guitar player and a drummer’ And he said straight away, ‘let’s get Dave and Ian, cause they’re the best that I know’. That’s how it happened – it was that simple. He knows exactly what I’m trying to do, and it turned out perfectly.
Is your taste in music as interesting and diverse as the perceived influences on Space Is Only Noise would suggest? People try and put your music in the house music box, but it’s not there. It has classical influences, but it’s clearly not ostensibly a classical record. Where does it all come from?
I’m constantly getting into new things. I just found myself listening, kind of obsessively, to Al Green for example.. It’s constantly changing – I don’t know why that’s the way it is. Also I’ve been listening to some sort of religious, ritual music and that’s also mind-blowing. Yeah. I don’t know why, It might have something to do with the fact I grew up in two different cultures, and so it’s hard to define influences.
Naturally moving on, I suppose with your Chilean heritage the obvious comparison is with Ricardo Villalobos, especially with the socio-political history associated with him. Do you feel any pressure associated with being marked out as his ‘heir’? Do people automatically place you alongside him just because he’s Chilean?
I really admire Ricardo. His music that is. I do admire his music. But to me, it’s random that people make that comparison. However, I wouldn’t make the music I’ve made if it wasn’t for him.
So he’s that strong an influence?
Massive. His albums Thé au harem d’archimède and Alcachofa.
The standard label assigned to your music is probably ‘house’ – do you see your slowing down of the genre as something that was an inevitable step? With you, the Wolf + Lamb guys, and Soul Clap, slower has become cooler maybe? It has more space, house has got its sexiness, or its groove back, and with a load more credibility than it had before. How do you feel about house music in 2011?
Me and Gadi from Wolf + Lamb were speaking years ago about how house should slow down and get popper with more vocals, etc… And now that it has, it’s not like there is better music. The grass is always greener.
There is a relationship with good pop music, exemplified by the Wolf + Lamb boys that there’s always a nice underlying, 80s pop sensibility, so it’s nice to have this fresh new sound mixed with a bit of nostalgia.
They do that really well.
So there’s obviously a real marked different between what you do live and what you do solo. The gig at Fabric was significantly different to the one at Thekla.
I think nowadays when you make a record it’s kind of obvious that it will turn into something else, if you play it live, it’s not going to be the same thing. And with the band, it’s definitely more of a rock concept, sometimes faster than the record – actually, most of the time it’s faster than the record, and it’s definitely more straightforward than the record. I love the idea of making a record then creating this live show that is like the record, but it’s totally new – like making a new record really.
Yeah – you’ll often see a live show and the main purpose seems to be to replicate the record.
Yeah, that’s not fun to me. I don’t see the point.
You appear to have had a great deal of success in a relatively short period of time. Has it shocked you and do you feel any pressure? As a young chap, there must have been quite a lifestyle change and a shock to the system.
Well I’m still in school so I don’t feel it as much as people in Europe might think I do. I just study and have fun and have a normal life. And now that I’m playing with the band, when I finish a show it feels like we all contributed to that show and that we did a good job, rather than I. It makes a difference with the band, cause I really respect what they do. It’s just absolutely humbling and wonderful that people are listening to the music.
So how did you initial relationship with Gadi come about – how did he discover you?
I was listening to a radio show and I heard Gadi talking about how he wanted to make ‘elastic house’ or something. He was talking about, or I thought he was talking about some serious, conceptual music – which he obviously wasn’t, knowing Gadi. And I was like, ‘that’s so cool, I have never heard anyone talk about music in these terms’, so I went to the Wolf + Lamb website and listened to a set by an artist called Brandon Walcott. It was very experimental, but definitely had that ‘elastic’ quality that he’d been talking about. So I sent him some of music and he said ‘we have to release that.’ So he released it.
I suppose the other question would be, what do you do next? Where do you go from here once the dust has settled on the record and touring’s done?
Yeah, well like I said, I have another year of school, but I’m putting out an EP with three or four tracks in September with a brand new direction that I’ve been taking lately – actually the last track that I played last night in Thekla is one of them. So I’m going to release that. But I don’t want to put out too much music, cause already the album’s out and some remixes are coming out. The EP is important for me because it’s the first EP that I’m going to put out on Clown And Sunset that is just my own music.
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