26 April 2011
Articles | Interviews

Interview: Nicolas Jaar

This rising superstar of techno is patronising, pretentious and insanely talented

Words Alex Denney
Photography Rob Low

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Twenty-one-year-old Nicolas Jaar flicks his wrist at the clink and chatter of an East London café and, with a meaningful glance, says: “John Cage said that everything is music. So all of this is music. If I went and recorded this and played it to an audience it would be music. Everything gets encompassed. It’s an absurd idea because it obviously never stops, but conceptually it’s not an absurd idea. Music has grown immensely, and as a musician you have to think how you’re gonna deal with that. I’m not interested in the idea of having bass, drums and guitar and that’s it. There has to be some form of use.”

Such is the quiet aura of self-possession surrounding this disconcertingly young prodigy of the electronic scene, it’s difficult to tell if he really is as bored as he sounds with all this expositional stuff. Either way, get him on the subject of his music and it’s a bit like stumbling in late on an art philosophy 101. “Like if the guitar’s dirty, or if the kick drum is broken — it’s texture, for sure, but it’s beyond that. I like the idea of drummers using a broken kick drum, and that having a specific sound. Emotionally I like that — metaphorically. If you can make that sound beautiful, that’s another question. ’Cos a broken kick drum sounds bad, right?”

Suddenly aware I might be looking slightly gormless, I rally my mental faculties: “Right.”

“When we listen to Flying Lotus, he’s doing everything on a computer so everything should sound shiny and beautiful but it sounds fucked-up through the process… that’s the one thing I feel like I have in common with him; I’m trying to do similar things as him in that sense. He’s just got his own way of doing things and I have my own way… obviously. But it’s this dirtying process, trying to show history inside the music, trying to fake history, if you will.”

Jaar’s own personal history spans a childhood move from New York to Santiago de Chile, where he lived with his mother until in his teens. Returning to New York after his parents reunited, Jaar’s interest in composing electronic music was sparked by an early encounter with Ricardo Villalobos, whose record Thé au Harem d’Archimede was bought for him by his father when he was still only 14. If that seems like a peculiar record to find favour with a child of such tender years, that’s probably because you’re not Nicolas Jaar.

“I mean, obviously that music is difficult,” he says, crunching his way through a bowl of yoghurt-coated muesli. “I find it difficult even now, that’s the magic of it. I was listening to that and a lot of Pink Floyd at the time. And actually what made me ask my father to get the CD in the first place was I’d heard Tiga’s DJ Kicks record. Because they’re very different things obviously. I didn’t know who Tiga was and didn’t really understand the DJ Kicks thing. But there was something exciting there, I loved how everything went together as a compilation. And then I heard Villalobos, and it also was just so far away from me, so different. It was like, I could grasp something about it. And if I could grasp it, I could make it. With Villalobos I just wanted to make those sounds. You don’t go to Villalobos for a melody, you go to him for rhythm and for texture.”

A first EP, ‘The Student’, appeared in 2007 when Jaar was just 17 and elicited rave reviews — exactly the kind of precocious coup which, along with his eloquence in addressing the conceptual implications of his music, has led some observers to whisper his name in the same breath as Aphex Twin (Richard D. James’ early masterwork, Selected Ambient Works ’85-’92, allegedly contained tracks written when the enigmatic maestro was just 14).

Of course, none of this would matter one jot if Jaar’s music was little more than an aural footnote to these rangy disquisitions, and his elegant debut LP Space Is Only Noise succeeds in locating a kind of muted melancholy to match the cool, genre-defying intelligence that’s at work here. It’s an understatedly soulful set, in fact, brimful of neat little touches like the lonesome cut-up sax that punctuates ‘Keep Me There’, and the sad-robot vocals on the very Villalobian, inhuman spaces of  ‘Problems With The Sun’.

Where the record is underscored by a beat, it’s generally a dreamy, narcotic slow-creep, hinting variously and tantalisingly at ambient techno, deep house and haunting, minimal trip hop. It’s a trick Jaar has performed in DJ sets to the consternation of crowds waiting for a more conventional fix, but more recently he tells us audiences have begun cheering the arrival of these 100bpm slow-burners as his star has gradually risen. Neither response seems particularly pleasing.

“It’s funny, even in the world of electronic music there are still conventions, there are still ideologies you can go against,” says Jaar. “I mean, you’d expect that in the world of, say, marketing or business, but in culture, in the world of electronic music which is all about losing yourself… Everyone’s losing themselves in the same way, when it should be a personal process. [With crowds] it can be so mechanical you know, it’s like [pumps his fist] for fucking ten hours, and you can’t do that when it’s slowed down. But in the end it’s not about tempos. I’m into creating a form of aesthetic that is elastic enough to have fast and slow music together.”

Space Is Only Noise is uncanny at times in its suggestion of a kind of buried collective grief, and Jaar has been vocal on the topics of ghosts and haunting with reference to his music in numerous interviews already. It’s a feeling which he believes comes in part through the rigorous selection process he uses to pick out songs, Indeed, he told one interviewer recently that he only deemed around 5 per cent of the music he made to be worthy of release.

“Here’s the thing,” says Jaar animatedly. “For me it’s all about going out with a feeling and a point I want to reach, and then failing miserably. Failing beautifully, you know? I can never get to that thing in my head, and I’m aware of that. But for me [when the music works best] is when I don’t know why I like it. It’s the not knowing. If I set out to do a very specific job and I did it, and there were no surprises along the way, I wouldn’t enjoy it. I enjoy everything that comes out of me that isn’t me. That’s why I talk about ghosts all the time, whenever a ghost comes out, that’s when I enjoy it. Because it’s not me, it’s something else.”

Some commentators have used the music’s minimal, ghost-like qualities as a jumping-off point for discussions about silence in music; a topic that’s become fashionable with the recent successes of The xx and James Blake. But once again, Jaar is wary of such talk.

“It’s become sellable,” he says. “I started getting questions about silence, ’cos people felt like my music has silence in it. But I say listen to my album, there’s not one minute of silence on there, I even made it so there are no gaps between the fucking songs. And there’s actually lot of noise; a lot of shit happening. There are kids singing, there’s the sound of water almost the whole time… And there’s no silence. I do think it’s really fashionable to think about it because of the music some people are making. But I just think that the moment it becomes such a marketable thing, it becomes almost a marketing strategy.”

Jaar’s insights are not limited to the shortcomings of other people, however. Amusingly, he acknowledged in one interview how his record could sound like background muzak if listened to in a certain kind of way.

“It depends where you are,” he says. “If you played it in here right now, it could come off OK. But I can just imagine some contexts in which it might sound absolutely terribly loungey. I’d just be hearing my music sometimes in places and be like ‘woah’. But at the same time it’s like, you could turn Portishead into that. And Portishead are awesome, I can listen to it with my headphones and the production is just genius. But it could be heard that way.”

Do you think those considerations will affect your approach to making records in the future?

“Yeah for sure, the stuff I’ve been making very recently is not loungey. You have to work against that, you want your music to set its own space. And the moment it can be used to sell things and put people in the mood to buy more coffee, that’s a problem.

“I’m going to put an EP out on my own label next. Before I was interested in between the hits for there to be moments to think. Now I’m interested for there to be confusion. So before I had this ideal in mind where if I gave you (clicks his fingers) this much more time between the hits then you would maybe think about the music that much more. And now I’m thinking that much more time is that much more time for chaos.”

Perhaps that chaos will extend to the sort of jazz soloing evidenced in Jaar’s show at Fabric later that evening, his third with three-piece live band in tow. Those moments spoke to his love of virtuoso musicians like Keith Jarrett and Mulatu Astatke, but bordered on being smug and served to remind this renaissance man of electronic has his work cut out for him escaping the shadow of his heroes.

Not that Jaar seems in the least bit phased. The dude’s as cool as a drink of water in his quest to tap into a music that quenches a deep and ancient thirst. “You can’t have your ego making music,” he says. “Just being an honest person with yourself will make you make honest music. If you’re lying to yourself in some way it’s not going to happen.”

Hear Nicolas Jaar open our issue 31 mixtape here

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