Nicolas Jaar interview: "Ghosts that appear inside the silence." Nicolas Jaar discusses the silent way and the thoughts behind one of the year’s most distinctive albums, his majestic ‘Space Is Only Noise’.
Nicolas Jaar is tired. It’s just past 9pm on a Sunday night and he’s got back to London not so long ago from playing a show at the Sub Club in Glasgow. The next morning he’s got a Gilles Peterson session to record. He shifts position and gaze, asks to move to a different table because he’s cold at the one opposite the door of the hotel lobby we start off at. His conversation starts off sharp, clipped, to the point and no more. He’s intense, focused, radiating a tough intelligence which properly takes off once directed away from the humdrum of biographical detail and onto the music itself.
Listening to his music, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Jaar should have his guard up. His songs exist with complete singularity. Terms like techno or deep house producer don’t cover nearly enough ground. His first release on Wolf+Lamb at the age of 17, The Student from back in 2008 stood out through operating with a jittery trickiness, never quite sinking into one comfort zone or another. There’s something about a track like WOUH that begs peak time, but it’s so languid and restrained, moving forwards in an unbendable fashion, exactly the speed and way he intended it to be. His debut for Circus Company ‘Space Is Only Noise’ walks its own line far more again. The album format suits Jaar. Textured with dialogue, natural sound, strings, songs operating along their own course, elements of blues, jazz, destabilized and treated into a unique and strikingly complete whole. If you removed one track, one piece of this off-kilter puzzle, the overall effect would shift.
Currently he’s touring heavily following the album’s release. On March 30th he’ll play Fabric accompanied by a full live band. His own label Clown And Sunset, which last year was responsible for the endlessly interesting Inès compilation, collecting together such distinctive producers as Soul Keita and Nikita Quasim alongside Jaar himself, is due to put out more. Furthermore, he’s finishing off his degree in Comparative Literature at Brown University. He spoke also of the possibly putting out a more dance oriented 12” later in the year. In the meantime, we talked over his beginnings growing up in Chile and New York, the thoughts behind his composition choices, recording ‘Space Is Only Noise’, Clown And Sunset, and working with a live band.
What made you decide to move into making music in the first place?
Other music. Art. Things that have already been made. But I’ve always treated the creative process as complete chaos. You know? Whatever comes out. I’m not trying to do a specific something. Just trying to be honest with what’s inside.
You grew up for a bit in Chile. Do you think that influenced how you approach making music?
A little. But most importantly I think the fact that I was separated from NY and then went back – there was that break. That has influenced a lot I think.
Yeah, so when you moved back to New York were there any particular sounds or music that interested you?
Right before coming to New York, my dad sent me like a small, MTV compilation and it had Coolio in it. You know Coolio? And it had Gangsters Paradise in it. And I thought that was the coolest song in the world. When I was like nine. Or eight. Yeah. And that’s kind of the first American song that I remember, that was kind of… And New York is very like that. I don’t know if he’s from New York or anything but to me Gangsters Paradise is a very New York song, and when I got to New York I was like this is a very New York song. So hip hop in a way. That’s the first thing I started really liking for sure. Because on the radio they were playing hip hop and hip hop was good back then. You could listen to the radio and it was amazing. Now it’s…different. There was a moment in between 1999 until 2003, mainstream hip hop was like, good. So I lived through that, listening to the radio. That really was what I was listening to when I got to New York.
You’ve been involved with Wolf + Lamb for quite a few years now. How did that start out?
I sent Gadi a track when I was seventeen. It wasn’t a dance floor track at all. I don’t know why he even answered. I had nothing to do with Wolf + Lamb. But I was into minimal at the time and so were they. They were kind of in a darker minimal techno idea than me, I was more into an experimental Villalobos type. So I just started, I made a couple of songs thinking like why not put a kick underneath or whatever. And that’s how it kind of started.
I want to ask about your approach to songwriting. The low BPM, slow pace, is something people always bring up. What appeals to you about working within that?
I think people bring it up because they need a nice little catch phrase to sell. But there’s more people probably making slow music than fast music in the world. I’m just making music in a tempo that is I guess experimental for dance music, but kind of normal for any other music. The heart, it’s not going that fast, you know? I’m just trying to make something honest, and honestly, it comes out around 100 or 105 BPM. That’s just what comes out of me.
It gives it this timeless, sort of elastic quality… I mean is that something you think?
Yeah, right, well, Time For Us is kind of supposed to be elastic and really weird to like experience that change in tempo. That was like the point of the song for me. It wasn’t that it was… The music was almost not the point. The fact that it slowed down was almost like the whole thing. I mean I made the music so I like it but… Playing with time is super interesting. I mean it’s been done, but with electronic music it’s so easy to not do it. So like the moment you start doing it you kind of realize the limitations of electronics themselves, because it’s like not easy to play with time with electronics you know? Time, it’s difficult to mess around with. So… it’s difficult, it’s really fun. And I try to do it a lot. But I mean you could hear a like 180 BPM Nicolas Jaar track in the future. It’s not about it being slow to me, it’s about being honest about where I’m at. You know. I’ve been in a slow place lately.
Yeah. So is that something you’re always interested in, playing around at the limits of electronics?
I like the idea of playing at the limits of things. Just I’ve always been excited by that. I actually don’t think I would make music if I didn’t feel like I could do that. I wouldn’t make a normal tech-house track. That wouldn’t be exciting for me. Not to say that I don’t like normal tech-house. I just wouldn’t be excited by it.
There seems to be quite a sort of understated quality to a lot of your music. Is playing with space and silence and all those things important to you?
I got a little bit into John Cage when I was younger. Before I started studying at school, and I was really into silence and like, oh, you know, I shouldn’t make music. And it’s like, John Cage did it all. It’s kind of a moment that I know a lot of people that make music, at least that I know, have. He did it. Like, that’s it. It’s over. It’s kind of like that turning point moment. So what do you do with it? And I realized that I didn’t like referring to silence as silence itself. I was not interested in like a… a lot of people are doing this now, just like silence without… How to explain it? I’m not interested in real silence in music right. I’m not interested in a space with no noise. I’m interested in the ghosts that appear inside the silence. So I don’t believe in silence in music, but I do believe in like a ghostly… silent moment, you know what I’m saying? (laughs).
I suppose again it’s the playing at the limits thing.
Right. So it’s almost silent but there’s still ghosts there, there’s spirits there. Because I don’t like mechanical silence. Because I think that’s not, our era should be beyond that. A lot of people are doing just silence and that’s ‘really cool right now’. But I think that it’s not as honest as possible. Because there’s actually… I think noise is always there.
Also what I really like about the music is there’s a lot of emotion…
Ghosts and emotion have a lot to do with it. Memories…
You know, 95% of the time I make music that I’m not happy with. But when it’s good, I can feel it.
When you’re writing a song do you have something, a mood, in my mind that you’re trying to create, or does it just happen naturally?
You know, 95% of the time I make music that I’m not happy with. But when it’s good, I can feel it. I make a lot of music and most of it is really bad. The beautiful moment is when I surprise myself. Almost never happens – very rare and completely left up to chance.
Something I like about the album is that it’s not necessarily geared towards a dance floor. I mean do you ever think about, when you’re writing a song, about where it should be played or how it should be listened to?
Umm… I mean I make actually more dance music than a lot of people would think. I make a lot of dance music, I just never put it out. And there I do think about, oh, what would be cool and amazing to just like feel in these clubs or whatever. My album is not supposed to be played in a specific space, it’s actually supposed to be taken anywhere. You can play it in a club, and I play a lot of the songs in a club and I think they sound ok. But unless I’m making dance music I’m just trying to make music that sounds good in my own space, in my own room.
Another thing I really like about your music is the textures there. The elements of jazz or blues or piano used in a not typical piano-house way. How do those make their way in?
Actually it all starts back from when I heard Villalobos for the first time. I’m still obsessed with that. I’m still obsessed with the idea that texture can have a, umm, can have like an emotional resonance? I mean to me it does. I don’t know. I mean I don’t know how many people, but to me it like, very subjectively it has like a resonance. It adds a lot to the emotional kind of quality of a work.
So your vocals. What made you decide to use your own voice as opposed to just sticking with samples?
I used to use a lot of samples. Now I’m just getting to the point where I… I started singing when I was 17 and my voice couldn’t go as low as I wanted it to. The aesthetic that I’ve been into has always been slightly lower. And now my voice is starting to get to the point where I like the sound of it. You know, it’s just been like a maturing process type of thing. Like my voice slowly getting to the point where I feel like it sounds good when I sing. It’s more like that.
I really like the album.
Did you find it a challenge to move to an album format?
No. I feel like I’ve always been doing that. Like I feel like I was fragmenting it, putting it out as EPs. Yeah, if you listen to like the batch of songs that came out before the album, that could have been an album. I wish I could have had a chance to do a first album with all the songs that I put out first. And that would have been actually a real album. Instead, because the music business is this way, you know like even to be able to put out an album and people care about it, you have to kind of give people other stuff.
Play the game.
Yeah. Play the game. So that was me just playing the game. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I… I want to do some EPs because I have been making dance music like I told you, but I don’t want that in my albums. But with an album I feel that I’m in my own… I like telling stories. I don’t like just giving, you know, five minutes. I like chapters.
Would you say there is a definite story running through the album?
Maybe not one definite story, but a microcosm in which I kind of tried to have, like, different storylines that, you can kind of understand. You can get from A to B or from C to D. Like, as long as you create this tiny little world that people can look around and… So I guess less a story, more like a language?
A landscape idea?
A sort of landscape, a 360 landscape. Really the idea that you can focus on a small thing or just go big picture. And most people that actually don’t like the album I think it’s because when you look, and I’ve realized listening to it, three months after I made it, that if you look at it in a very landscape-y view, just hear it like if it was playing right now, it would be really bad. Like really lounge-y. It can be really bad… I don’t know how to explain it. I just feel like it really depends how you treat the album.
I want to ask about Clown & Sunset. What made you want to start that?
I’m just trying to like give a voice to these people who are making really interesting kind of complicated and pretty experimental music that wouldn’t be able to be heard.
There’s some amazing stuff on there.
Thank you. I mean more and more people are listening but it’s like, it’s difficult to keep up… When it comes out it has to be really good. So sadly it’s difficult to keep people’s attention if it’s not happening all the time. But I’m going to keep that philosophy because I don’t want to be, you know, forcing the label to keep putting out stuff like every two months. Because then obviously the quality would go down. But that’s the idea. Just put out really honest, but as experimental as they want to do it. You know, I don’t care. As long as it’s good music I’ll put it out. I’m finding more people for Clown & Sunset. The roster is going to grow in 2011.
How do you go about finding people?
I don’t find them. There’s like two or three people who have been added to the roster who I’ve known for like six years, that just started making music like a year ago, who are making really different stuff that’s super exciting to hear. Yeah. I’m lucky that I even know them. And they’re all super young so it’s exciting to put out these really new sounds.
Definitely. What’s happening with you in the near future?
The Clown & Sunset stuff takes up a little bit of my time. Because I’m doing most of the logistical stuff as well. But I’m also looking to distribute in different ways. I don’t know if you got the USB? We did a little necklace. Yeah, so I’m interested in putting out stuff not in obvious ways. And the USB was kind of obvious in the kind of non-obvious way, so there’s weirder stuff in the future. So that’s going to be fun. I’m touring with a band also…
How are you finding playing with a band? Does that liberate you more?
Oh yeah. I enjoyed playing live alone, but playing live with other people is amazing. It’s been a beautiful learning experience, to like talk to the drummer and get him to see the way that the music is thinking. You know what I’m saying? Really interesting. A really interesting kind of just new thing that I didn’t know music could be about. I didn’t know I could deal with that in music. Like talking with someone and changing music like that. With language.
I mean do you think you’d ever record with other people as a band as well?
Later on, later on. This band, these people specifically, it’s made to like re-create the album. Because they’re like technically super, ten times better musicians than I’ll ever be. Like really. But later on, getting out of my own project, doing something collaborative with people, for sure. Someone that could sing better than me, that would be great. And who could perform better than me. There’s a lot of stuff I can do that I can see like the future in. And producing people. I would love to do that. I haven’t done it yet.
I’m sure you will be asked.
I hope I so! I’ve always wanted to produce someone. Always. I don’t know why. I guess taking the pressure off a bit.