The French Connection
Jean Michel Jarre explains his current views on music, synthesisers and synthesis in an in-depth interview.
Sam Hearnton talks to Jean-Michel Jarre about Zoolook, synthesisers and synthesis.
"Magazines like yours are a trap." Oh no, shades of the Cube here. Five minutes into the interview and it's already clear that Jarre is not a regular reader of ES&CM or any other music magazine. "The British press is probably the worst in the world" he continues. Yes, we love you too, Jean...
"People have this feeling, even if it's not what you are in particular are saying, that synthesisers are just a matter of pushing buttons but the fact is that to learn any synthesiser takes exactly the same amount of time as learning a guitar or piano. These days, you probably have one new synth released every month. If you fall into the trap of following industry too closely it means you change your instrument every two months before you know the possibilities of them, so I think it's very important not to be obsessed by the fact that one keyboard has this trick and another has that."
Okay, truce. Even I agree with you there.
Now that we've laid down terms for this encounter, could you explain why only one copy of Music For Supermarkets, your 1983 project, was pressed?
"Sure. Some European artists had a quite big exhibition in Paris, using the supermarket as a concept for art. I liked their work very much and thought it would be possible to give them a 'spot' vis a' vis the media to help the exhibition, so I decided to compose the music for the event. It was played for a month in the gallery and at the end of the exhibition we had a big auction at the French version of Sotheby's. We really did only do just one record and after that we destroyed all the lacquers. However, it was broadcast on Radio Luxemburg..."
Moving onto Zoolook, this is your first 'proper' LP since The China Concerts. It's pretty easy to trace the link between Oxygene, Equinox and Magnetic Fields but this album is quite different from your previous works in some respects.
"I don't like to repeat myself too much. I've been a bit... not fed up exactly, but I wanted to change. I didn't want to use the traditional sound of synthesisers anymore. Much before Oxygene even, I was one of the first European musicians to use only synthesisers and at certain times in my life I was quite excited working all by myself in my 'bunker'. Then I wanted some fresh air.
"A few years ago the director of the French Opera House asked me to think about a sort of rock opera. But for me, the opera is more of an art form of the 19th Century than the 20th Century and today the opera makers are probably Spielberg or George Lucas rather than musicians. Also, I had a feeling that you could use vocals in other ways than just the traditional song rather like the opera used to use voices in a musical piece. I tried to think of vocals as instruments rather than just as lead parts.
"It came to me that with today's technology I could use voices transformed by digital devices and processors and produce complete orchestration made almost entirely by vocals of different languages. I stole vocals from television in China, Africa, United States, Germany and mixed them together to give a sort of human zoo. Zoolook!
An 'Ethnologist' is credited on the sleeve of the LP. Presumably he helped you collect the different sounds?
"Yes. This guy and myself travelled quite a lot trying to collect and record a lot of different languages. The only criteria of selection was the phonetic and musical qualities of the words rather than what they were really meaning. The idea was to extract a lot of different sounds from these languages."
Can you give an example of the editing techniques you used? I believe you take perhaps just one syllable from, say, a three syllable word and sample that into the Fairlight CMI.
"That's right. For instance, if you say 'treat', you just take 'reat' or 'rea'. You sample just that on the Fairlight and then you can use that exactly how you are using the sound of guitar or anything. The challenge for me was to try and do a whole arrangement with just vocals. "
I notice that you have an Emulator as well as the CMI. Do you need both?
"Each instrument has qualities. It's like the difference between the 'cello and violin. They're part of the same family but they're slightly different. What I like about instruments is their mistakes. I try to use the weak points of an instrument in weird ways. That is why I started using the Emu-1 because it has what I call a lot of mistakes. The sound is not all that good but if you use it in a certain way you can achieve quite interesting different moods."
Another departure for you is that you've collaborated with a number of other well known musicians on the fringes of the avant garde like Laurie Anderson. How did that come about?
"I've always been a fan of hers. She is a multi-media artiste and I like this conception of work, which I have myself in a certain way. When I was recording in New York I got in touch with her and she was quite enthusiastic about the whole project. She listened to the tapes and we decided to work together on one song Diva. Apparently she's very pleased with it...
You've also been working with the Fripptronics side-kick, Adrian Belew, although I'm not too sure of his contribution.
"He's one of my favourite musicians. One of the few guitarists able to make guitar sounds other than guitar sounds. He can make steel drums, squeals, cries... everything! He does a lot of sounds but not many guitar sounds as such, and we had a lot of fun together. A good game is to try and recognise what he's done on the LP!"
Zoolook was recorded in three different studios. Were you bored with your usual environment?
"No. The basis was made at my studio in France and then I moved to a new studio called Clinton Studio in New York. Then I went back to France for the final overdubs."
But didn't you do some work at Trident when you were in London?
"Yes. I went to mix with David Lord because he knows how to cope with Fairlight sounds. However I was not entirely satisfied with the mix so I went back with David to France and we finished the final mix in my studio."
One notable point about the digital sounds on Zoolook is their clarity...
"It's almost hard to tell the difference. Between the natural sound we sampled and the sound we actually recorded, we did various tricks — I used a lot of compressors, limiters and noise gates. David Lord was amazed because he worked with the Fairlight when he produced Peter Gabriel and he (as we all do) had problems with high frequencies".
Trident has a SSL desk. What did you think of that? I know you have a MCI in your own studio.
"Frankly, I am not too convinced by Solid State Logic. I really do think it's a bit too electronic. The sound is 'soft' because you have too much electronics in it. What I like with MCI is their stuff is as transparent as possible from the source of the signal to the tape.
"I now realize that it's much better when you replay on the same machine and board you have recorded on, particularly with synthetic sounds because you have very many harmonics with synthesisers, so the slightest difference could be very important. So, if you go to a different mixing board you have to know 'Will it change the music?'. It's much better to use the desk you know."
But that's how you normally record anyway...
"Yes, that is so, but with this LP I really wanted to see how big studios compared to my control room. I have been very surprised because the best results I have achieved have been in my own. I worked for so long on all the problems with mixing electronic sounds. My entire control room is designed especially around my work so the best result I can have is in there.
The design was done by a French acoustician and the stereo image is precise. In a lot of studios because the control room is so big the stereo image is not so precise and also you have a lot of phase problems. I'm not saying that my control room is the best in the world — I don't know — but it's much more precise than either the studios I worked in London or NY."
Did you master Zoolook on PCM?
"I made three different masters. I made PCM, ½", 30 IPS on an Otari and 15 IPS, ¼" on a MCI. It's funny because on some pieces the result was much better on PCM but sometimes better on ½", even sometimes better on ¼" depending on the frequencies or the structure of the song."
So the compact disc version of the LP is a different mix?
"Yes. It was actually done on a Sony 1610 not a PCM F1. The mixing took a very long time because of the noise problems. A lot of peripherals are quite noisy so for CD I really took great care about fade-ins and fade-outs."
Going back to your MCI, is it computerised?
"Oh yeah: I have the MCI 600 automated. When I was in England I used the SSL computer for some of the parts but I'm not necessarily convinced about the computer mix. I think it's okay on some stuff but also it's a very static way of a mixing because when you have a rough balance you tend to record that on your computer and then improve that version, but nothing proves to you that the first version recorded is the right one or the best one. Sometimes you're transforming the music little by little and after a while, because the computer is there in front of you, you find you're interpreting your mixing much less than when you're doing it live.
"It's the same with everything. We must not be trapped. We must not be either too positive or too negative about technology. It's very important to keep your distance and sometimes it's much better to play a mix live."
The list of instrument credits on the sleeve of Zoolook makes interesting reading. I notice you still use a lot of old analogue equipment whilst a lot of people won't touch anything without MIDI.
"The big trap with the musical instrument industry at the moment is they have this tendency to make big claims like 'The DX7 can replace everything' and it's obviously untrue. It's like asking a violinist why he's still using a Stradivarius built in the 17th Century and not the latest violin. Each instrument has its own qualities. Instruments that used what electronic engineers are calling 'discreet circuitry' — I mean the first generation after the valve technique — they used to give you a wider sound because the technique was different and also the tolerance of different oscillators was not as precise as they are now. That's the reason my only new synthesiser is an old Moog 55 (owned by Robert Moog a long time ago). With analogue equipment you get sounds you can't get on any new Japanese digital synthesisers.
"I have a feeling that because instruments are becoming big business, the people manufacturing instruments are obsessed by how easily you can program, rather than thinking in terms of how an instrument can help you develop sounds.
"For instance, it's a nightmare to program a sound on a DX7, it's a nightmare changing just one parameter. If you want to change your sound on a Moog 55 or an EMS you just turn a knob. On a DX7 it will take you half a day maybe and I think that's a mistake a lot of manufacturers are making at the moment. A DX7 with knobs or an analogue envelope generator would be much better. This is why the Emulator II seems to be quite interesting. E-mu are trying to do that. A digital instrument with an analogue filter and everything.
"The main analogue synthesiser I used on Zoolook was the ARP 2600 and the Moog 55. The EMS VCS3, the ARP and the Moog are for me the best analogue instruments made so far. If you want a brass sound for instance... you take a brass sound made on the Yamaha and a brass sound made on the ARP 2600 and the Moog 55 — it's a joke! There's no comparison, because on the Moog there are a lot of different oscillators that can really shape your sound exactly the way you want. The music you have in your mind needs a particular sound, not a preset sound. I'm quite convinced that Japanese synthesisers are great for percussion, bells and things like that, but for stuff like brass, strings, choirs and big fat sounds they're not so good."
So after all that, do you think synthesiser design is progressing?
"When you see the new Linn 9000 or the Emulator II or the projects Fairlight has for the future, I think it's progressing, no doubts about that. I'm even rather optimistic. For example, the Friend Chip SRC Synchroniser is great. A lot of problems I had two years ago or even in 1984 could have been solved if I had a SRC. Also MIDI. I've not been too involved with it but it will obviously solve a lot of sync problems. A lot of manufacturers are, obviously for financial reasons, trying to catch as wide an audience as possible, so they design their instruments a lot more in terms of super home organs!"
Who do you listen to these days? Anyone in particular?
"Oh yes. In a lot of different fields. I like very much Annie Lennox. Also the last Peter Gabriel album... people like Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Orchestral Manoeuvres, Police... Probably the biggest robbers of all time were the Beatles. They stole Stravinsky, jazz, blues, everything — to make probably the most original music of all time."
So what of the future? Will you be touring or playing in the UK? I hear your plans to do that in 1982 were cancelled-due to lack of interest...
"Yes! The Falklands War — quite a major reason, really! I think the technique of recording in a studio and playing on stage are so different that it would be much more interesting to think of music specifically to do on stage and that is what I would like to do. But obviously, that takes even more time — also it's not a thing that record companies particularly like!"
Interview by Sam Hearnton