Jean-Michel Jarre: “Electronic music has nothing to do with the United States”

Dressed all in black from his jeans down to his leather boots, Jean-Michel Jarre looks like a former rocker who quit drugs and now lives between Camden and Regent’s Park. Aged 67, the French electronic music pioneer maintains a kind of vigour, enthusiasm and interest in our time and the future that most younger artists will never achieve.

And yet, since his ground-breaking debut with Oxygène in 1976 — an electronic bridge between experimental and pop which sold 12 million copies — Jarre has done almost everything.

Like a sonic conquistador, Jean-Michel Jarre has played all around the world. Being the first western musician invited to play in the People’s Republic of China in 1981, he has also played in Egypt, at Gdansk’s shipyards, and in Moscow in 1997, where he gathered a record-breaking 3.5 million people.

Jean-Michel Smart. (Image: Jean-Michel Jarre)

In 1986, his Houston concert project was meant be the first time that a musician was to play live in space and be broadcast live, before the explosion of the shuttle mid-flight that killed 7 astronauts.

On October 16 2015, Jean-Michel released his 18th studio LP, Electronica 1: The Time Machine, collaborating with a wonderful line up including Moby, John Carpenter and even The Who’s Pete Townshend.

Preceding the release of Electronica 2 in 2016, we met up with Jarre to think how we need to “reivent our future.” For rock music, Jarre has an excellent idea: “In 50 years we will still be making rock, but maybe with guitars implanted in the womb.” For the rest, we’ll have to think deeper…

Konbini: Are you happy to be in London? When did you arrive?

Jean-Michel Jarre: I arrived very early this morning and a little late because someone stole an electric cable from the Eurostar. In fact there are guys who come and cut the cables during the night. These are huge copper cables filled with power. Apparently it’s quite a trend, it happens on both sides of the tunnel. They take the parts and sell the copper.

The more that time passes, the more you feel you’re living in a science fiction movie…

Totally. It’s awful because the big fences on each side of the Euro tunnel aren’t there to protect the migrants but just to stop some guys nicking the copper and selling it on. We’re coming to the realisation that the science fiction we love is a bit more shady when it becomes reality.

My connection to technology isn’t just that naive idea that the internet is Euro Disney, that everything’s rosy. It’s when you see the dark side of the web that you admire people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange even more. For me, they are the true modern heroes.

Jean-Michel Jarre at the Ecuadorian Embassy would make a great concert. Or is it too small for you?

That doesn’t matter! I’m all in! I’d do it tomorrow morning! We have the internet to show the people. It would be good for him [Assange], after being locked in a room like that for three years…

We aren’t brave enough in Europe, we should welcome these people. I feel really close to them: my mother was part of the resistance during WWII — a heroine, who was caught three times by the Germans — and they are part of today’s resistance. Like always, those taking part in the resistance are considered terrorists, traitors, just like back then.

At the start of your career what was your vision of technology?

I have always been convinced that electronic music would become the biggest musical genre. Because paradoxically, it isn’t a genre like hip hop, rock or punk. It is a new way of thinking about musical creation, composition, writing and even distribution, [taking place] via the internet.

I owe everything, and electronic music owes everything, to Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer who changed everything from the 1940s onwards by saying, before anyone, that music wasn’t just made up of notes but also by sounds.

“Electronic music has nothing to do with the United States. It has nothing to do with English-speaking countries.”

That’s one of the things that I enjoyed the most with the Electronica project: remembering that electronic music has nothing to do with the United States. It’s not related to jazz, blues, rock, it comes from continental Europe.

It has nothing to do with English-speaking countries, it was born in Germany with Stockhausen and in France with Pierre Schaefer, then with the Germans on one side, or me. We each come with our own particularities and we have held this legacy: these long instrumentals are the legacy of music tied with technology.

[With] this poetic vision we had of the future — “after the year 2000, cars will fly, we’ll be bionic” — what is strange is that when got beyond the year 2000, it was as if we were orphans of our own future. Today we have a totally shrunken and paranoid vision of the future, where the heroes symbolising the future are the heroes from Marvel: heroes of the 1940s transformed into digital copies. We no longer have heroes to refer to. We have to reinvent a vision of the future. That day will arrive.

It’s like if as if the start of the 21st century was the end of the century, and as if the end of the 20th century was the start of a century. Back then the vision of technology was poetic, there was an appetite for science fiction.

For me, when Oxygène came out, it wasn’t music related to science fiction but it was immediately considered as such. For example Moby, with whom I worked, when he got the disc in his hands, it stuck with him because it wasn’t related to American ghetto culture. And at this time, for him, there was an aesthetic that was different to the American aesthetic; with a dark side, a side connected to space.

Oxygène, 1976. (Image: Jean-Michel Jarre)

It is true that, among the pioneers, Kraftwerk is the machine, the mode of transport, while you are more connected to space.

At the beginning, on one side there were the Germans — Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream — who had this cold, robotic approach to music, saying “machine will replace man”, this pre-Terminator vision.

On the other side, the more impressionistic vision that I have redirected the machine in saying that sounds should never be identical. Exactly like when we watch waves. We can watch waves for a whole day, we can watch the clouds without getting bored. If we filmed waves and made a two-minute loop, we’d be fed up within ten minutes: it wouldn’t work.

For me, music has always been linked with space. We do nothing perceivable, it’s invisible. We are the people who make air vibrate. According to how we make it vibrate, we can make people want to move, cry, want to engage in sexual activity, be moved.

“Electronic music is the classical music of the 21st century.”

You should really perform in space one day though…

Well that’s funny. I think you must be the second person to say that exact thing to me and the first was Arthur C. Clark who wrote 2001: Space Odyssey. I was a big fan. When he did 2010, the sequel, I rushed to London to buy the book and at the end of the book I saw my name. I was totally flabbergasted. And actually in the acknowledgements he wrote that he listened to my music while he wrote the book.

So we started writing to one another — there wasn’t email yet — and he told me: “But you know that one day, you’re going to play on the moon.” I told him “but we can’t”, he told me “yes, yes, there will be a way.” But it’s not an aim in life.

We interviewed Gary Numan last year and he told us that he stopped electronic music because it was no longer the music of the future, that artists only look to the past. What do you think about that and what will be the music of the future?

I think that what he meant was that he approached electronic like all the people in England: as part of a movement. This kind of glam-techno 80s pop movement with the Human League, Soft Cell and him. He had a glam-rock side as well, which I love.

He was a kind of techno Bowie, Gary Numan, with this vision of the future that we just spoke about. For me, electronic music is the classical music of the 21st century.

I think that the music of the future will be related to digital technology but maybe also to quantum physics or something else, we’ll see. We are at the very beginning today. I see the start of the 21st century like the start of the 20th century. iTunes, files from platforms will be digital gramophones in 50 years time.

Equinoxe, 1978. (Photo: Jean-Michel Jarre)

A few years ago at a festival, I overheard a conversation. Someone was trying to make a guy believe that Nicolas Jaar was your son. Have you ever been asked that question?

I really like Nicolas Jaar. But, as you know, there is no link because it’s not written the same way, there are two ‘a’s and I have two ‘r’s. But he is somebody who I like a lot. As it goes, I thought about working with him at one point. I don’t know what happened but it ended up not going ahead.

But I loved his first album, which had a real connection to Schaeffer in my opinion. Something very poetic. There’s also this aspect between Latin America, the United States, Europe… he has a really poetic universe: a little ‘Shaddock’, a little ‘handyman’.

“Keith Richards has always been tearing apart those who don’t make blues or rock’n’roll.”

Do you listen to rock and hip hop too? Are these genres in decline?

It’s been 50 years that we have been saying that rock is dead. It’s a kind of reactionary nostalgia and it’s funny that with music, people act like our grandparents. In 50 years we will still be making rock, but maybe with guitars implanted in the womb, I don’t know. It’s ageless, like jazz.

Speaking of musical reactionaries, what do you think about Keith Richards saying that you’d have to be deaf to like Kanye West ?

But that’s part of the Stones’ DNA. Keith Richards, since he was born, has always been tearing apart those who don’t make blues or rock’n’roll. So that is part of the folklore. If Keith Richards said “Kanye West is good”, we’d be disappointed. He wouldn’t be Keith Richards anymore. Keith Richards is right to say that.

Every time that Mick Jagger tried to add something new to the Stones, whether it be a synth or whatever trend of the moment it was, the other said it was shit.

At one point, there was even talk of me collaborating on the album Emotional Rescue (1980). Because Mick Jagger always wanted to play something other than blues and the other [Keith Richards] was the statue du commandeur, the guardian of the temple and there’s no changing that. And I think he wasn’t wrong.

You have played everywhere, in incredible places for very special occasions. What was your most memorable concert? Socially, politically…

I think, without a doubt, China and Egypt. China because I was given the opportunity to play just after the Mao era. I was the first western artist to step foot in the country for 25 years. People didn’t know rock, they didn’t know the Beatles, didn’t know James Dean, they knew nothing at all! It was like playing on the moon. On both sides. So that was an incredible memory.

Then in Egypt, celebrating the year 2000 at the foot of the pyramids, you feel so small. We are overwritten by time. And at this time it was, of course, before the revolution, before the Arab Spring. Corruption reigned in a crazy way, so it was hard to work in these conditions, and, at the same time, there is an amazing poetry to be in the desert passing into the third millennium.

“Suzanne Mubarak has done a lot for women in the Middle East. She’s a wonderful woman.”

Did you meet Mubarak ?

I met him. And I met his wife who is a wonderful woman. And I must say, very honestly, that meeting him like that, even if he was very harsh… However, after the concert I did create a petition to help homosexuals who had been unfairly imprisoned simply because of their situation… I was shocked having heard that he was considered to be like Khadafi. There is a difference between the two.

But I met him very sparsely, I mainly met Farouk Hosny, who was the minister of culture, someone really great. And Suzanne Moubarak who did a lot for women, for violence perpetrated against the women of the Middle East. She’s a wonderful woman.

The Arab Spring was a kind of Phyrrus victory, it led to led to quite a bit of destabilisation in the region…

These countries were destabilised for western interests. We replace a dictator with nothing and we know very well that it is Al-Qaeda or Daesh who are going to fill this gap. And why? To have better control of the area in terms of economic and financial interests. So there is a western cynicism for which we are all responsible and for which we are paying today.

With the migrant problem, we have not been concerned about these populations for decades and today, like an ostrich with its head in the sand, we are looking up and saying “Ah look, there’s a problem.” Well yes, it’s a problem we created.

There was a better way to help the transition. Not in this cynical and savage way. Passing from a dictatorship to nothing, from nothing to terrorism.

Would you like to play in any other countries? Cuba? North Korea?

I am no longer engaged in this process. For five years, I’ve been trying to centre things back onto music. That’s what I did with Electronica, by leaving out the concert part. When I started this project, I didn’t think about being on stage at all.

People always seemed to think that I had a strategy, that I went to places where I wanted to go. That has never been the case. From the time that I did the Concorde concert [Jarre’s first concert in 1979, held on Bastille Day] I always received propositions from nations to play in their countries.

“I have less and less time for the people who sit with their ass on a chair in the Café de Flore putting the world to rights without having set foot in it.”

Another thing: to play outside in countries not necessarily in line with human rights, to travel around them, to make films; I have thought for a long time that it’s better to go to them than to not go to them.

I have less and less time for the people who sit with their ass on a chair in the Café de Flore putting the world to rights without having set foot in it. And saying “there’s a dictatorship, so as there is a dictatorship, we’re not going to go, because the people who are deprived of freedom, they are deprived of music, deprived of cinema, they are deprived of everything.” You have to go! And the risk of being captured isn’t that serious. What is important is to go to engage with the people.

That’s why I’ve always tried to go to places where the people are suffering. Music, cinema, culture are all made for that. That’s why I’ve been involved with UNESCO for over 20 years.

Gary Numan said that electronic artists look towards the past. In cinema, they are bringing Blade Runner back. It would be interesting to take on a retro-futuristic dimension and to use electronic music pioneers for the soundtrack. Numan agreed and would even like to feature in it…

Gary Numan, in my opinion is a Replicant. I loved working with him. He’s somebody who I really like and we have a lot in common. We agree about this. The science fiction heroes of today are the Marvel heroes, the heroes from the science fiction of the 1950s, so we really are in retro-futurism.

Blade Runner is obviously a pivotal film which really left a mark on me and influenced me. The music from Vangelis is extraordinary. It’s always dangerous to make a sequel. The first was a book and the second won’t have Philip K. Dick writing it… There is the fear that it won’t have the strength of the first, regardless of Ridley Scott’s talent, who I love. But to remake Blade Runner isn’t any more incongruous than remaking Batman or The Avengers. It could become something completely cult, in line with 2015. We’ll see how it’s done.

But from that point of view, Interstellar is a film that is much more in line with the vision of the future that we could have; connected to quantum physics, which is a big ethical and moral issue today.

For the Blade Runner soundtrack, I’d love to, I’d do it tomorrow morning!

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Originally published at www.konbini.com on October 27, 2015.