EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Jean-Michel Jarre on Resistance, Edward Snowden and the Future of Electronic Music
Image by Marc Tso
Electronic music doesn’t have the best image these days. Enjoyed primarily as a soundtrack to dressing up in random headgear and getting wasted, and ‘performed’ by DJs who dance around a lot on stage and occasionally push a button, the EDM scene has about as much in common with serious music as with fishing. The roots run deep, however, with the first strains of solely electronically produced audio coming out of Germany (natch) in the 1950s, and with early electronic instruments dating back fifty years prior.
The ‘70s was the real dawn of the synthesizer, with Kraftwerk, Can, Pink Floyd and Genesis all early adopters. And then there was France’s Jean-Michel Jarre, whose 1976 album Oxygene, recorded in a makeshift studio in his kitchen, would go on to sell 15 million copies. Throughout his 40-year career since, he’s sold more than 80 million records, securing his place among electronic music royalty. His is considered, in a sense, the father of electronic music.
His live events are legendary and have involved complicated light shows, pyrotechnics, and his signature ‘laser harp.” When 3.5 million Muscovites showed up to witness his 1997 performance of Oxygene they comprised the largest concert audience ever. And while Jarre has continuously released albums throughout the ensuing decades, and toured to support them, he has never done a full-fledged tour of the states. Until now. This May, Jarre will play nine shows in the US and Canada including stops at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall. BlackBook dialed in the maestro for a quick chat from Paris, where we was putting the finishing touches on rehearsals for the coming extravaganza.
Tell us about the show you’re going to be launching in North America.
I’ve devised something quite special which is like 3D without glasses using different layers of screens. I was quite scared that it wouldn’t work, but we’ve been blown away with the results at rehearsals. I have an extraordinary team of computer whiz kids, it’s the kind of show you must experience live.
The venues you’re playing aren’t typical electronic music rooms.
I’m so pleased to do Radio City. When I was 18, 19 years old and first came to New York I still wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life; but I said if I ever played in New York that I’d want to do Radio City.
Why has a US tour been so long in coming?
My relationship with my father was a little difficult and America was always the territory of my father. And for one thing or another tours were postponed; but now is the right time and I am really looking forward to it.
How do you see the current state of electronic music?
These days a lot of electronic gigs are based on the principle of having a usb key and pushing one button. My idea is about playing electronic music live on stage with great musicians. We have three people trying to deal with around 50 different instruments, and I want to keep a live feel, which makes this quite different.
The future of electronic music is live, people are feeling like something is wrong; you can’t just push one button and clap your hands for two hours, its not enough. When I see a lot of festivals these days it reminds me of what I was doing 20 years ago with visuals and lasers. This show could be what the future of electronic performance is.
Your Electronica album last year featured a track with political whistleblower Edward Snowden. Will the shows include any sort of political messaging, considering the rise of anti-intellectualism and borderline fascism around the world?
I have huge admiration for him, he’s a modern hero; in this concert he’s appearing on video and we’re even preparing for a live “intervention.” He’s still in Moscow, it’s a shame he’s still there. Having him as part of the concert might explain to people how they should not be brainwashed by propaganda.
This tour in my head and mind plays under the idea of making noise in a country I deeply love, America. We mustn’t forget that America was founded under an act of resistance to the king. My mum was a great figure in the resistance in the Second World War and I was told by her that if the people in power were doing things that were harmful to society that we must stand up to them and we must resist. All social progress has been made through resistance, the abolition of slavery and prohibition, human rights, rights of women. More than ever artists and musicians have a role to play, and it’s where we can be relevant.
I have a big trust in the American people, democracy is never stronger than when there’s a risk; and in a strange way democracy is at risk when things are hidden. When you see people doing things that are harmful its easier to resist.
Is your new release Oxygene 3 a sequel to your groundbreaking album from the ‘70s?
It’s a brand-new project, when I did the first one I did the songs like chapters in a book, like a soundtrack, and I thought it would be interesting to keep the same concept here in season three of Oxygene. After the massive project that Electronica has been, I wanted to use the same approach as the last one where I made it in six weeks with a lot of minimalist equipment. And I did it like back in the vinyl days, where I thought of side one, side two, one dark and one light and melodic. Of course, I will incorporate some of this in my current tour as totally new material, and I’m also going to play some brand new music to make it a truly special experience.