Laurent Garnier: beginnings in the legendary Haçienda club in Manchester, scribe of the history of dance music, techno monolith – it’s at this point that one might reach for the phrase ‘needs no introduction’ but maybe it’s a bit late for that.
With five EPs out this year on five labels (Hypercolour, MCDE, Musique Large, Still Music, 50 Weapons) and a sixth release coming (as well as a hefty slab of book, too, hopefully), Garnier has made diversity the key focus for his output. It’s an approach reflected upon both in his mix and throughout our in-depth interview with him, where the veteran French DJ and producer lets off steam about the current musical climate, the contemporary auteurs of electronic music and the recycling of audio culture generally and especially over the last 25 years. There’s also a bit about his new records too.
The two things that drive our lengthy conversation are the stagnation of club culture – the sticking of the needle – and the tightrope of the modern DJ, on one side the devotion to honesty and on the other the necessity of exploration, Garnier’s navigation of which is perhaps one of the reasons why he has enjoyed such a mammoth career.
How are you feeling?
Good, very good.
Can you describe your surroundings?
I live in the south of France. The surroundings are very green and very sunny and very beautiful.
That’s good to hear. So you’ve had a big year, with your recent release on Hypercolour tying up this special five pack of Garnier EPs that span the best part of the globe in their influences and labels. Am I right in saying the EPs coded names are all flight names?
Yes, the flight is from Marseille to London for the release on Hypercolour.
Did you record each EP in the country that housed its label then?
No, no the music was all recorded in my studio here in the south of France.
To what extent would you say that the music you’re making does depend on the culture that you’re situated in, especially having moved around a bit in your life?
Well, in this case it was more that when I release an album I usually put a lot of different music together and sometimes it destabilises a lot of people and they focus on two/three tracks and maybe they don’t focus on other ones because they’re too different. And I’ve kind of realised after a few years of doing that that sometimes by putting too much music on the same album I don’t reach in the way I want to reach people. I mean sometimes people are very monomaniac – so they like techno or they don’t want to hear anything else and so I thought this time I do want to be myself – you know I have to be honest and I am not the person that is listening to the same music every day. I don’t… I never do that. And I don’t want to produce the same thing over and over again, I always hated that. So, because there’s so much music that is exciting me nowadays – the same as before – I wanted to carry on making lots of different stuff and I thought this time that maybe it’d be more intelligent to focus on very different EPs with very different flavours music-wise, and maybe put them in and release them in the right places. That’s why the release on 50weapons was very underground techno, and why the release in France with Musique Large was more like beats, downtempo, nasty kind of EP, and the first one was released in Chicago because it has this very Chicago flavour. And that’s why the fourth EP was with MCDE because I wanted to do some very deep house as well. Because, as a DJ, this is all the music I play. I’ve never been the person that is playing the same kind of music over a five hour set, you know, for me a DJ set is a journey and for me, as a producer, I need to have this journey to keep me excited about what I’m doing. So if I feel that I’m repeating myself, I hate it and then I don’t release it.
Would you say that, in its diversity, the batch of five Garnier EPs would be a good introduction to the music of Laurent Garnier?
Yes, very much so. I’m actually working on some more tracks now… but I think that the funny thing with the Hypercolour release is that it’s the most diverse EP. Even though there are only 2 tracks, the 2 tracks are very different from each other. If I were to release that as the first EP I don’t think people would have understood. But because it’s the fifth one, and I think now people have followed what I’ve done over this year with these different kinds of EPs, no one is shocked about this release on Hypercolour. And even Hypercolour asked me to release something that would tie up nicely with the five EPs because I did lots of different tracks for Hypercolour. Jamie [Russell, one of the label heads] was very into releasing ENCHANTé, which I wanted to keep for another EP later. And he said no ‘If we have pǝsnɟuoɔ and ENCHANTé’ – which are two very different tracks – ‘it will tie up very nicely your project’. It’s kind of like an epilogue in a book, or a conclusion. And it looks like a conclusion because the key thing is to tie together very different things.
Electrochoc, your book that follows the vast journey of repetitive and electronic music, is testament to the sheer quantity of music that is filtered into your work and especially into this collection of EPs. There is a new chapter for the book, adding some of the newer advances. How will it ever end?
The book was released 10 years ago, and we re-released it in November 2013 with a new chapter of 100 pages written about the last 10 years, so that now the book can talk about the last 28 or 30 years of techno music. It can tell the whole story. From the raves in England to the birth of house music in Chicago to what happened in the gay clubs of Paris all the way to the brand new producers of today, the new scenes, and what’s happening in Berlin and places like that. The book has been translated into English and we’re looking for a good publisher at the moment so hopefully – and I’m touching wood now – hopefully the book might be released in England sometime. If ever it doesn’t – if in a year or two – we can find no one who will have the guts to do it, I think I’m going to release it for free on the internet. Because I’m sick of it. It exists, it’s there and I’m not going to hold it all my life.
We think it should be a huge hit. It’s hard to imagine anyone who wants to know about electronic music, not wanting to read this as an overview of what they should know about electronic music, and even music generally, up to this point.
I think so, but if you’re trying to compare Electrochoc with the Garnier EPs I think they’re kind of two different things. A year and a half ago I was questioning myself because my manager was saying, ‘You know Laurent, you need to do a new album, you haven’t done one for a long time and as always for promoters it’s always easier to ask for an artist that has a new album out.’ And I was telling him that I don’t believe in the format of the album as we’ve known them for the last 50, 60, 70 years. Not anymore. I think things have changed so much in the last 10 years and writing the book made me realise that. Things have changed so much that, is it very coherent today in 2014 to release an album in the same format as that that it has always been for the past 50 years? I’m not sure. Because I don’t think the kids today are buying music in that way, and I don’t think that they are listening to music in that way. I don’t think a lot of people are concentrating on 12 tracks, put carefully one after the other to listen to a proper story. I think now, they used to listen to music differently. And I thought, how can I do some kind of an album, but do it in a different way? One thing you might not know is we released five EPs but then something is going to come out at the end of the year that will put everything together as a whole.
Any exclusives? Can you tell us what label?
That I can’t tell. Because that’s a big surprise.
You mention Ed Banger Electrochoc and you’ve got a funny history with them, reportedly being outspoken about their ‘marketing’ and then releasing an EP, Jacques in the Box, with them a few years ago.
Yes, the funny thing with that is – Pedro is a friend of mine. We meet each other about five times a year, although I don’t live in Paris so we don’t see each other so much anymore. For the last three or four years before Jacques in the Box we were seeing each other and Pedro was always saying ‘Laurent we need to do something together’. And I’m like ‘yes of course, but as we know now it will shock people, we need to do something intelligent. We need to have a laugh about it.’ And the funny story is when I did Jacques in the Box I put it behind a video I put on Youtube of a project I was touring with called L.B.S, which incorporated live music with the DJ set. And at the end of 2010 or 2011 I put it on Youtube and behind that I put the music of Jacques in the Box, which was called ‘The Happy Track’. And the first person that comes back to me in January is Pedro saying ‘Laurent, what is this track?’ and I’m like ‘It’s just a loop we’re using live and I think I’m gonna record it.’ And Pedro said – you know his partner Medhi?
Yes, DJ Medhi.
Yeah, well DJ Medhi had just died and Pedro said to me ‘There’s one thing I need to tell you. If Medhi had heard this track he would have wanted to sign it right away.’ And that really touched me that Pedro had picked up his phone and asked me what this track was. He said ‘Medhi would have always liked to have you on the label to do one thing and I think this is the thing.’ And I said yes straight away. This is when we came up with the name ‘Jacques in the Box’ because I was Jacques, the surprise coming out of Ed Banger, the box.
Laurent, you’ve been around for more than two decades now without your popularity diminishing. Is there anything you’d put that down to? What’s your secret?
Honestly? Maybe, honesty. I mean everybody knows by now I’ve never done it for the money or the business. Because I think after 25 years of DJing I would have proved at some point if I was doing it for the money or the business. I would have released some cheesy thing or made some compromise somewhere. I still haven’t – well I don’t think I have at least. And, I don’t know, maybe the fact that sometimes when the trend was going other way I didn’t change. I stayed myself.
Of course, I love music and this is my fuel for every day. Of course I’m a person of – in France we say ‘touchatou’ which means I touch everything. You know, I like trying things out and doing experiments. So I’m making music for a choreographer I’m making techno music I’m making acid house or making dubstep or UK bass music. You know, trying things out even if the result is not that good. At least I’m trying things out because I’m interested to know how they do it. It’s exciting to refresh yourself. So, it hasn’t worked all the time but maybe over the years that has shown the people who I am. They know who I am and they expect me to play different things and sometimes expect the unexpected. In my radio show and stuff like that. And some people like it and some people don’t but this is maybe why I am still there. At the end of the day the focus of the whole thing would be honesty – I’m very honest with what I’m doing: I’m not marketing things!
We think there’s some proof out there that diversity helps to keep the career of a DJ alive with people like Andrew Weatherall sharing a similar steady line of popularity. Your radio shows and the whole of your back catalogue show a great diversity of inspiration in your music. This doesn’t neatly coincide with the label or title of ‘techno DJ’. Do you have anything to say about the label of ‘techno’ or the labelling of genres and sub-genres generally?
No, the biggest problem I have now is the music that we’re listening to today. If you take any of the releases from any of the different styles – it can be the super underground stuff that is kind of a big Chicago, Detroit revival at the moment. If you take any of the more common records – I’m not saying the more commercial – but the more common, simple, minimalist between house and techno – the house music I mean because there’s a big revival of New York, kind of Kerri Chandler music. The deep house. If you’re taking anything, even dubstep or drum’n’bass because drum’n’bass is still another repeat. Nothing is new. There is nothing new. I’m not saying it’s bad because there are so many records I’m excited about. But sometimes I feel like, as a DJ, we are playing music to people who are 20 years old who are listening to exactly the same stuff as when I was 20 years old and that is something that bothers me. Because if you look at the history of music for the last 100 years, every 10 years something big arrived and shaped what was big and who you could be. Look at punk, look at disco, look at psychedelic, look at rock and roll, look at new wave in the 80s and acid house in the 90s. At the end of the day, we are still listening to acid house. I’m not saying it’s bad, all I’m saying is that it’s very strange that this music has stayed so big, playing in clubs for so long. This is strange. This is what kind of bothers me because there is no alternative. Because whatever alternative there is in hip-hop or rock or pop they are still the same as what it was. In the music world – and it’s not just about techno – there is nothing fresh there is nothing really new. I mean even the futuristic kind of music, people who are making kind of complex music today, Aphex Twin was doing it 25 years ago. It’s strange that, in the world of music we are getting to a point where…where the hell are we gonna go? It doesn’t seem to move forward. Have we said everything? I don’t know.
The landscape seems to have similarities to the point before punk…
Yeah, but look at the 30 years before punk: you had in 50s rock and roll, 60s you had psychedelia, 70s you had Hendrix. And then punk arrived. And as well as that you had disco and you still had a lot of choice that was fresh even though they were recycling. The first productions of dubstep were 16 years ago. And trap is only a recycling way of doing dubstep or hip-hop, the base is hip-hop.
Yeah, if you look at some newer underground releases it seems to be the destruction of something old rather than trying to build something new.
Yes, definitely, definitely. I think it’s a reaction, definitely. It’s really strange because I’m looking at myself and I’m looking at people and festivals and thinking ‘wow!’ This is the exact same thing, with the same music as when I lived 25 years ago. Because there is no revolution here. Not as much as there had been every 10 years in the music business [beforehand].
Maybe it’s because, where before you might only buy the records that came with the wave – and you’re paying for them – now with the internet you can browse the history of music at your fingertips for free. That is something that is completely different to before.
Very true, very true. And I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying it’s a fact. I’m watching it at the moment and I’m thinking ‘is this very healthy?’ I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying I’m looking at it. And it’s strange right now. For example, I’ve done a remix for this guy Bambounou – I love his productions, he’s a great kid – and I did his remix and I sent it to him and he rang me and it was really funny. He said to me ‘I really like the remix but the clap you used is a bit old school’. I said ‘what do you mean?’ and he said ‘the sound is a bit old school’. And I’m like ‘Actually, for that clap I used one of the last machines that came out for percussion.’ That was interesting. And he said ‘Why don’t you put on a 909 clap?’ and I said ‘Jeremy, I stopped using 909 claps 15 or 20 years ago because we heard so much of it back in the 80s that I haven’t used it. I know it’s the best clap but I haven’t used it for so long.’ And his reflection made me think a lot. We go in a big circle where the music which is being especially produced at the moment – all the really good underground music at the moment – is so exactly like was it was 20 or 30 years ago. It’s so funny. If you listen to the really good underground music in Chicago or Detroit or New York from back then, it’s exactly the same shit as what they produce now. It’s really funny. I’m not saying it’s wrong but it’s just strange that this is the only music that has survived so big for so long.
Everybody using the same framework of music programs and drum machines – the same ‘set up’ – has exacerbated that too. It’s very hard to break through that framework.
I think, as well, one of the big things is that maybe the most exciting, prolific, interesting people that are working in music and doing music today might be software developers. We are in a very geeky world and everybody wants to get his hand in his computer and start to change formats and programs and stuff like that. And before, I think, there were musicians who invented new music and today the sounds that we listen to are dictated by young guys developing software and programs. The kids are more into the machines and how the machine works rather the simple thing of just making music. Before we had people who were developing keyboards but they were working for a company or Roland and there was a new machine everyone one or two years. Now there is a new plug-in every week, every day. It’s a complete fucking revolution. You have a lot of people concentrating on the sound rather than just the music. It has changed a lot. And I don’t think it is bad, for me as a musician it’s great because I have new machines all the time.
Is it more daunting to sit down with the intention of writing a new track now or was it more daunting 20 years ago? How does it compare?
For me, I think now I’m putting together puzzles rather than before when I was writing more. 10/15 years ago I was writing every single drum pattern and interfering within the accents, within a lot of things when I was writing. Spending a lot of time on my hats and snares and writing everything. It was like you were really writing and playing everything and changing every bit note by note. I still do some of that, but now it’s like going to Ikea. You know, you go and buy something in a kit and you use different parts with different sounds. And then you’re starting very quickly to build something. It’s more like a puzzle today. You have so many more sounds, so many more solutions, so much more of everything. And you go around searching and searching. It looks more like a puzzle. You still write the basslines and the piano lines but now I’m more like a puzzle guy than 10/15 years ago. It took longer before. I was working very differently. I think everybody was.
Maybe we’re waiting for one software developer or one new music program that might change the whole way we approach the making of music.
Of course, of course, of course.
What are you up to today? Anything to put in your online journal?
I’m going to have some friends round and we’re going to rent a boat. This is the last weekend before the kids are back to school. This is the day off.