Priya Ragu’s post-genre sound champions her Tamil heritage
It’s midnight on what was a grim, grey, cold Monday a couple of weeks back. I am full of fever, jacked up on Beechams and possibly slightly delirious. The only thing keeping my spirits up, aside from the meds, is the JACQUES GREENE playlist I’ve got on repeat. If I close my eyes, I could be lost in music in a crowded club somewhere. I’m certainly sweating enough. Seemingly outta nowhere, Jacques has two phenomenal releases on the boil: an already classic-sounding debut EP ‘The Look’ out on LuckyMe on December 14th (listen to Tell Me on the right) and (Baby I Don’t Know) What You Want, which for me is the standout on Night Slugs’ brilliant ‘Allstars Volume 1’ compilation (yes, even above Girl Unit’s wow track Wut). Jacques’ sound speaks direct from the dark heart of the dancefloor and taps into that intangible something we want from club music right now. It’s House but it owes much to R&B and Garage. It’s warm and emotional but its heart is heavy and melancholic. It’s absolutely the sound of House music now but it’s also timeless. This Montreal native might only be 21 but he has the makings of a future master. He’s even scored a Mark Flash remix on his debut release (you can get it on the digital release of ‘The Look’). Having tried to chat earlier in the day over AIM while Jacques was at work (he’s also a graphic designer at an ad agency), we finally catch up properly on the phone when he gets home.
You’ve literally just got in?
Ah, y’know, it’s okay. I guess especially this time of year…
Yeah… So I love the EP. It’s fucking awesome.
Oh thank you.
I’ve literally not been able to get Tell Me out of my head.
It’s really good. How do you know the LuckyMe guys?
They were kinda friends of friends for a while and, er, I think the first time I ever heard of them was from – do you know Giovanni Marks, the rapper?
He was playing a show in Glasgow and he came back and was like, ‘yo guys, there are these tunes out in Glasgow, like y’no.. [click, line cuts out]
Oh fuck… [redials]
Hi…sorry. It cut out.
So anyway, our friend brought back a few MP3s, kind of thing. [Puts on growly voice] ‘Yeah, these Scottish kids are doing some crazy shit.’ It was really fun to hear some people into pop, contemporary music and all kinda stuff in the same way we were. I guess I’ve been emailing and keeping in touch with them for a long time. Dom who runs LuckyMe was always asking me to hand in – he called it a ‘disco demo’. He was like, ‘send me your disco tracks’. And I did at the beginning of the summer and they’re putting them out now.
Awesome. So how did you…what brought you to music? When did you get into it?
Really early I guess. My parents are not musicians by any means but they were always huge consumers of music.
Instead of childhood tapes, y’know, we would only listen to Talking Heads or Beck or whatever.
So I was guess I was kinda steeped into music consumption in a big way really early. And all my favourite toys as a kid were tape recorders, little keyboards and stuff. Yeah. I’ve always kinda liked bashing away at something. [Laughs]
Ha. Did you used to play different sort of stuff before you started getting dance-y/clubby?
Er, yeah, yeah. The dance-y/clubby thing has always come and gone in what I’ve made. Um, I would say it was definitely very different until I bought a few select pieces of 80s drum machines. Once I got those old drum machines the only way that seemed right to use them was, y’know, making House music or something.
Being true to their origins.
I don’t know. I’ve never sat down and thought ‘now I’m going to making a Trip-Hop track’ or Hip Hop track or Techno. It just comes out that way. I guess what I do now is dictated by a few drum machines and things that I acquired a year ago or something.
What’s going on in Montreal, music-wise? Do you go out listening to stuff, do you go out dancing to stuff?
Quite a lot. I have friends who do a party called Night Trackin’, they’re the guys who have bought a lot of house music to the city that young kids can get into. They had L-Vis 1990 play in the city recently and all that.
But there’s also always been like a strong Techno culture here. Turbo Records was based out here, and the Mutek festival and all that, so there’s always a good club night going on, on any night of the week, any time of the month. It’s a lot like Glasgow in that sense. I mean, we don’t have Sub Club but we have parties that have that vibe and a lot of kids that wanna go out, want to go to a party so that’s good.
I really like that – cities finding other cities that have the same kind of heartbeat, kind of thing.
I mean, over the last couple of years, what’s been happening in Glasgow with LuckyMe and Numbers and everything – it’s such a big impact on music generally, underground club music.
It’s been really exciting.
It is, it is. I’ve visited Glasgow a few times, just travelling and stuff in the last couple of years. It does seem very similar to Montreal in that sense, that – both are fundamentally techno cities but both also have new emerging artists. Like we have Lunice…
I love Lunice!
Yeah Lunice is great, I’ve known that guy for a few years now and that’s always been a great scene – a great new sound emerging out of the city. But since it has these good club roots, it manages to… y’know I like what comes out of LA but that seems to be beats and a more heady mood – whereas Montreal, a lot of music it makes – even rock – it’s got this very kind of good-time approach to it. People like to enjoy it and support it and all that, which is really great.
What’s happening in the city at the moment – socially, culturally, politically…?
That’s an interesting one. Montreal is interesting for that because it’s a predominantly French city. One of the only major, if not the only major, Francophone city in North America, but it does have a strong Anglophone population. All our American friends call it ‘Europe Lite’ because it’s kind of very European in attitude and culturally speaking and food-wise, what have you. It definitely has this kind of resilient one-man-stand against the rest of North America. Y’know, not as much junk food or whatever – even though we have some of the worst food this side of…Texas. We have our famous poutine dish – that’s fries, cheese and gravy. That’s the national dish round here. [Laughs]
Sounds like a classic.
But yeah, I’d say culturally and socially it’s really interesting because it’s two very distinct cultures living together: a European and American thing, like colliding in a very real way in the city and, er, that’s great. Politically, it’s weird. We have a separatist movement that’s been strong for the last 40 years or so and every few years everyone will vote on trying to get Quebec and Montreal separated from the rest of Canada, their own country. So there’s all that kind of nationalist movement, who are often very xenophobic or racist towards other races. Like, you won’t see many Canadian flags round here. It’s very anti-patriotism, anti-nationalism. It’s kind of a unique thing, like the South of France I guess.
Yeah, definitely. That kind of thing.
Do you feel that…I mean, going out to clubs at night is always some kind of escape and coming together…does…do you feel that in the clubs?
It sort of happens in the clubs. A lot of the more underground or avant-garde club nights seem to have a predominantly Anglophone attendance. But in the actual artists making music in the city, everyone is friends, everyone kind of hangs out with each other. There’s no animosity, with like the younger kids or anything like that. I wouldn’t even be able to explain why there are some nights that are more French versus English but there definitely is that. You’ll step in a room and you kind of feel it: there’s a predominance in the language being spoken in that specific place, which is kinda weird.
I can’t really imagine that. If you’re English speaking, there’s this arrogance. Not intentionally but everyone speaks English, it’s really bad. We’re the worst at learning other languages in the UK.
Well, sort of. I’m perfectly bilingual. I was raised by a French Canadian mom and an English dad, so I can kinda switch over to both sides without anyone noticing…[laughs]
That’s really cool.
Earlier in the century the Anglophones were all the business owners in Montreal and it was associated with the rich, American affluence and all that. So, there’s still this kind of weird, pretentious or arrogant thing of someone shows up and only speaks English, kind of thing. A lot of Francophones will get very insulted, say if someone working a retail job won’t serve them in French. That becomes a big deal and complaints are filed and all that.
It’s really interesting to find out the situation, the context for what’s happening – how the music is shaped. What I really like about your music – particularly on Tell Me and The Look – is that it’s kind of somewhere in the middle of House and R&B and something gritty and UK. People chuck ‘Dubstep’ at everything, and it’s not that at all – it’s House. But there’s just something grittier and darker there as well.
Is that what you’re listening to?
It’s funny because we’ve just been talking a lot about the city I live in and I think it has a huge impact on what I make in that sense. Because what I make – when I listen to my records, I think there’s a very bittersweet thing to them.
Some parts are very happy and shiny, and other parts are extremely gloomy and sad. In Montreal, for 6 months of the year we have amazing, beautiful weather and for the other half it’s 30 below zero and horrendous. And awful. So that and the mishmash of cultures – all that. I guess that also represents what I listen to. Today I divided my time between listening to the new Rihanna and Kanye West albums and some dance music. I’m kind of all over the place in what I listen to.
That’s good, that’s good.
I think that shines through in what I’m doing.
Well, I think ultimately what is at the heart of House music is this just really sad love.
Yeah, yeah, which is why the diva vocal from the late 80s and 90s are always so good, right?
Totally, totally. Even if it’s not romantic love, if it’s human kind love or whatever – whether it’s something political, something social or something romantic.
Yeah. Throughout the whole history of House there’s always been that, right? The vogue-ing culture of New York – homosexuals showing up the club and doing their dancing, trying to escape that.
Yeah. I mean being a young black homosexual male in New York in the late 80s and early 90s was probably not a really easy thing to be.
Going out to club and vogue-ing and dancing and dressing the way they did was their way of kind of celebrating that – defying society and all that. Yeah, House does have that happy/sad thing going for it which is really nice. It’s nuanced in a cool way.
I love the vocals on your EP – where did they come from?
It’s all pretty contemporary R&B stuff – I mean, I’m someone making music in 2010 and I didn’t want to be going all for old stuff. I wanted it to be contemporary sample sources and stuff like that. I guess it’s all taken from R&B hits from the last 10 or 12 years.
I’ve read that you’d love to work with The-Dream and Rihanna. What is it about superstar level R&B that you love?
I guess what I like about it is that it’s not very nuanced or complicated. It’s like the equivalent of a Will Smith tearjerker box office movie. You put on a Dream album and it’s kind of a very satisfying, very honest, uncomplicated version of human emotions. It’s like going to see a Broadway musical. It’s not in the subtleties or self-pity or anything like that. There’s an honesty in how simple the emotions are in R&B that I really like. It’s very upfront – it’s not trying to subdued or pulled back like a lot of contemporary art or self-important indie rock.
It does what you want it to do?
Yeah, it’s not ashamed…if we want to go all epic and out with this emotion, then we’re going to go all out with it. It’s not pretentious in any way.
Totally. What’s 2011 looking like in terms of working with other people? Is getting in the studio with a vocalist something you want to be doing?
Yeah, it is. It is. I think for now I’d to do it within the workframe of the House template and getting some vocalists and doing some straight up vocal tunes. But I’d also like to do the – get a pianist on a track and get some really able musicians. That would be an interesting thing to do. I guess with ‘The Look’ record, I was trying to do something… I talking to Dom about it when I sent the demo in, we were talking about something that’s between a serious artist EP and a dance 12”. It’s not just tracks but it’s not quite full-on songs. If you know what I mean?
Yeah, I completely get that. You can feel that.
Because I don’t want it to just be a record that the DJ plays and forgets about the next week but I don’t know if I’m quite ready to make the artistic statement of the all-out song. So I’m kinda between, which is a comfortable space. I’d like to push that, get a vocalist and musicians and go further. There are definitely a few people that I want to collaborate with over the next year, go to their studios, have people come to mine and exchange ideas.
I thought it was interesting that you said in the Dazed Q&A that your dream was working with a big collective like The Clutch or something.
Yeah, yeah – that would be…I mean, I do that at my ad agency, right? Like, I’m working creatively but within a bigger team, with a bigger common goal. I think that’s such a cool thing to do.
Yeah, it makes it into something…into a sustainable kind of creative lifestyle, or lifecycle? The goal isn’t to reach the top, it’s just to keep on trying to get to this perfect song or perfect expression. Then moving on to the next perfect expression, kind of thing?
Yeah…and back to the R&B thing…with The-Dream and Tricky Stewart of The Clutch, it would be so amazing being in the studio with those kind of people and being, like, ‘why don’t you just go for it’…oh wow. That would be great. [Laughs]
Ha, yes. So tell me about the Underground Resistance remix…
Oh my god, yeah. My manager knew the manager of quite a few of the members from Underground Resistance and, um, I guess one of them owed the other a favour or something. So we got a UR-078 to do a remix, Mark Flash. It was…I didn’t even talk to the guys much or anything. But I’d love to go down to Detroit and meet them. It’s kind of a mystical connection to have.
I used to be involved in a night in Leeds called Technique, around ‘99/’00. We had DJ Rolando play a couple of times.
He was incredible. It was when he was also doing his Los Hermanos thing.
Yeah, yeah – DJ Rolando’s put out a lot of great stuff.
When people talk about techno, that’s my favourite kind – really focused on melody.
Yeah, the Mark Flash remix is really melodic. It’s good. Underground Resistance are kinda huge. I don’t even know what the comparison in rock music would be.
It’s like having New Order cover your song, your 12”. It’s huge for me! [Laughs]
Totally, it’s massive. When do we get to hear it?
I think it should be on the digital version of the EP coming out at the end of the month. We’ve kind of been toying with the idea of waiting on the mixes and pressing them on 12” because they’re really something special. The other one’s from Braiden. I love his remix so much. To me, MP3s aren’t really real [laughs]. With my releases I’ve only agreed to them if there was talk of a vinyl release for the track as well. I kind of want that for the remixes as well because I really like them.
Yeah, totally. I really hope in the next couple of years there’s going to be a little bit of a turnaround with that…
It’s the eternal question. Are you going to be coming over here at all to play?
I don’t know when the official announcement of dates are going to happen but a few things are being worked out. I’m going to be doing an all-vinyl DJ set thing.
I’m preparing a live set with no laptop – all drum machines and synths – and hopefully I can roll that out by next summer but for now I’ll have a bag of records. So I’ll be flying out to Europe in March, which is just crazy. [Laughs]
Who’s getting you excited musically at the moment?
I gotta say I never used to really like Kanye West but this new album of his is pretty good. It’s the most ambitious album I’ve heard in a little while. Otherwise, I don’t know. Umm. Obviously everyone with the Night Slugs crew is continually blowing my mind. Like, I’m really excited about what Egyptrixx is starting to do right now. He was doing a bit more dubstep kind of stuff before but he’s starting to explore this really dank area of techno that I really like.
‘Dank area..’! I love that…dank.
Like, really humid, kind of sweaty 5am techno stuff, which is really great.
And there’s a lot of stuff coming out now on Turbo here in Montreal that I’m really liking. Do you know Sei A, who’s actually from Glasgow?
He’s just had a full album released on Turbo and it’s beautiful. It’s really kind of dark techno. I’m really into techno this time of year I guess.
Montreal gets cold, all the trees are dead and I just end up listening to really bleak techno all the time.
We’re creatures of seasonal habit.
Yeah, definitely. I’ll be all back on the David Morales next spring…big room house. But for now it’s techno. [Laughs]
Ha. So you’ve got ‘The Look’ EP in the bag. What are you working on at the moment?
I want to do a follow up. I kind of want to surprise people with stuff – or surprise myself. I don’t know. I would like to start working on an album at some point. Sit down and lock myself up for a couple of months and do something with even more vision or something. But I guess there’s no need to rush it but that’s what I’d like to do next year. Write an album. [Laughs] It’s the big novel for the artist I guess.
What would be your theme?
My theme? Hmm, that’s a good one. I guess my city. A love letter to Montreal. Because all these old techno guys always shout it out to Detroit or Chicago. I don’t want to claim someone else’s scene. [Laughs] Which is why my stuff might have touches of 2-step or UK Funky or whatever – but I don’t want to be a Canadian making music from London or Chicago or wherever it is. I want to make a Montreal dance record.
I think you’re doing that…
I’m trying. I don’t want it to sound pretentious – like I’m making the soundtrack to my city but I want to make something that’s very me.
A personal thing.
Well, we can’t wait to have you over here in March. As I said before, the EP’s awesome.
Ha, thanks. It’s finally coming out. The Night Slugs thing too. I’m just kind of sitting here until these things come out. I mean, I’ve never had a record out so…[laughs]. I don’t even know what it’s going to be like.
What do your folks think?
For my parents, as much as they love music and things like that, their first initial reaction was: ‘People still buy vinyl?’
[In a parent voice] You mean it’s coming out on vinyl?’ So I sent it to them and they were like, ‘okay but you said you had a record but there’s only four songs on here, it’s not an album?’ I guess they don’t really understand the dance music side of it. They’re obviously happy for me…they were kinda worried when I spent years dropping money on synths and stuff. It’s sort of an investment now. [Laughs]
It’s pretty exciting times right now for dance music.
Yeah, definitely. But that’s a specifically UK kind of thing. I’ve listened to the BBC and Rinse for quite a few years now. It’s sad that the whole rewind culture – where a whole club will like a track so much that it has to be stopped and go back to the top and listen to it again, it’s a beautiful thing. But in North America, there’s definitely not that same rapport with radio and music. There’s not as much hype or attention or love for that side of things.
Well, maybe you’re going to start that off with your album…
Er, yeah…start a new era [laughs]. Usher in a new era of dance music in North America…
Not to put too much weight on your shoulders there.
Well, it’s pretty late here now but one last thing. You’re not showing your face – you’re being mysterious…
I mean, I don’t know. If I wanted to be a model, I’d have been a model instead of a musician. [Laughs] People can come see my face when I play a club. But I mean, I’m not a Facebook either. I don’t need to be there.
Yeah, I left a few months ago. I feel much better.
You can usher in an era of no Facebook.
Ha. Well, great talking to you. Have a good week!
You too. Good night.