electronic music and improv/paris
interview by NICOLAS BECKER
portrait by JONAS UNGER
One day my friend Sébastien Devaud [the producer, composer, and DJ also known as Agoria] said to me about Jacques: “This dude, he’s gonna floor you. He carries his whole life around in a backpack, and he totally improvises his electro shows. He has the audience bring stuff in and samples it on the spot. Then he adds keyboards, guitar, and vocals. And then there’s his haircut. It’s actually worse than yours.”
The kid has already set up a bunch of squats, an artists’ colony, a record label, and a recording studio. He seems completely in control of his own creativity. It’s all about improv, the unexpected, the absurd, risk, free-thinking, sound engineering, sound effects, travel, field recording, Gilles Deleuze’s theory of the fold, quantum physics, and so on. My dad used to play piano at home. The purpose of music was simply to brighten up the day. That was my first experience of live performance. My father played all sorts of tunes on the piano. When he was 22 or 23, he went to Paris, wrote some songs, and finagled his way onto TV. That’s pretty much what I’m doing now. So I’ve never had to go against my parents, and they’ve never pushed me toward school. I was sort of living freestyle. After taking the baccalaureate exam, I spent a year in Strasbourg giving guitar lessons to children who couldn’t have cared less.
When I left Strasbourg for Paris, I didn’t find the kind of comfort I’d enjoyed at my parents’ house since birth. For the first few years, I crashed with other people, which was convenient but put me in an uncomfortable position. Some time later, probably out of survival instinct, I fell in love with a girl. I was with this girl, Marine, for two-and-a-half years. She was my first girlfriend, and together we had all kinds of adventures. Then we established several squats, the last of which was called the G-Spot. Together we were kings of the castle. It was great, wonderful. Everyone would come by and tell us how cool and daring we were. But we weren’t putting on some show of courage. On the contrary, the squat was just an obvious and easy solution right in line with my MO. I didn’t want to work to pay for the place where I slept. It seemed totally absurd to me to spend 70% of my time paying for the place where I spent the other 30% sleeping. For me, a squat is like a big backpack. Everything in my bedroom fits in my backpack, and every day of my life I walk around carrying a backpack that contains more stuff than what I’m going to use. In fact, I’m now making myself a jacket with multiple pockets where I can stick as many sensors as possible, so that I can produce thought embodied in video or sound.
“Master of Puppets,” as the Metallica song so aptly puts it, speaks to the dichotomy between the master and mastered. If I’m the puppet, who or what is pulling my strings? That’s a question I’m always asking myself. After 2011, when I read Jimi Hendrix’s biography, I played guitar all the time. Jimi Hendrix would say, “Man, if you want to be as good as me on the guitar, you’ve got to work every day and have the guitar in your hands all the time.” So I played the guitar all the time. The guitar was my means of transport. I got to a point where I could think of a melody and play it on the spot. That kind of control let me follow my intuition while improvising. After Jimi Hendrix, it was Jim Morrison who opened a new chapter in my life. He said, “I see a guy with recorders and loops and a mic, and
I see him all alone onstage, hitting play and pause on his loops and talking into his mic.” When I saw that, I said to myself, “Wow, that dude’s talking about me.” It’s funny. It’s like he’d seen me. Pretty stupid, huh? And so, just so you know, that’s what I do. I’ve got loops, and I do it with my guitar, and Hendrix isn’t far off, and it all leads to new material, which in the end amounts to a more complicated version of my guitar, which allows me to express myself in the most transparent way. In fact, I’d like my material not to influence my playing too much.
I can’t remember how to say “I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I’m on my way.” It’s a line from my next Chinese song. China is the most life-changing land I’ve yet come across. The United States — which is a very interesting place, especially because it’s the Golem of Europe, which is where I’m from — didn’t affect me as much as China did. I’ve decided to go to China this coming November and do another, slightly longer tour. I’ll take advantage of the time to get better acquainted with the Chinese people, who have a hidden wisdom that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. I found it fascinating to talk with the Chinese about quantum physics as it applies to music. It’s more fun to go over there. The road is less well paved. I’ll be able to lay my rose-patterned cobbles, instead of the square cobbles that have been laid everywhere else. China is also living a delusion all its own because they’re not connected with what I think of as today’s inner loop: that is, SoundCloud, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. That means starting from square one, with new networks and different rules. I find it invigorating.
A lot of journalists have tried hard to portray my relationship to objects as fetishistic because of their preconceived notions of who I am. Maybe there was a point to doing that, or maybe the sensationalism of that view helped them sell more magazines.
I don’t have a complex relationship with the objects I use. I need them to produce music, but there’s no deep pareidolia. I’m not into active animalism. I think all objects are magical enough as they are. There’s no need for me to add another layer. If I lose some, I’ll find others. They’re totally replaceable. The objects and piezo pickups I use for my live shows aren’t expensive. That allows me to have plenty of them on hand. And that’s cool, too. That wouldn’t be the case if I had a lot of guitars. During the spells when I didn’t have much money, it was helpful to be able to base my music on minimal technology.
THE FIRST SHOW
Well, the first time for me was that day with Michael Mayer and Agoria. It was my first live show since my return from the United States. I’d done some improvised concerts over there incognito, just letting myself go completely, because I felt a need to stop doing the same show over and over. It was breaking my balls. I felt like an imposter. So back in Paris I said to my road manager, “Listen, let’s just forget the show you know. I’m just going to improvise for an hour. When I’ve got 45 minutes, I’ll improvise for 45 minutes. When I’ve got three hours, I’ll improvise for three hours. Period.” He was lukewarm about it at first, so I gave him a little musical slap in the face. This was at the Showcase, in front of people who were in no way expecting me to do this. I told them I was going to live out an old fantasy of mine and do a concert where I didn’t know how it was going to start or end. That was my first time. It was short, but there were some good parts. Still, it was far below my current level, naturally enough. To do improv, you have to accept that bad concerts are just part of the deal. It happens less and less. More and more often, I manage to avoid falling down a rabbit hole of boredom.
I listened to a lot of chansons françaises when I was little, because my father was deep into people like Michel Fugain, Michel Berger, and Starmania. Later, my brother started downloading MP3s, and we started listening to rap: IAM, L’École du Micro d’Argent, Philippe Katerine’s first bossa nova albums before he became a star. Later I shifted to classic rock, the stuff my mother listened to: Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Deep Purple. Then that led me to today’s rock, like Franz Ferdinand, the Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes, and The White Stripes. Since I played the guitar, I was a fan of guitar players, like Eddie Hazel from Funkadelic, Tommy Bolin, Dave Hamilton, Angus Young, and Jimmy Page. Angus Young all the way. I was discovering live performance and downloading AC/DC’s live shows. Another time I saw The White Stripes in concert, and something just clicked in my head. A friend introduced me to the music of George Clinton, which confirmed what I’d already sensed with James Brown: that funk wasn’t bad at all. Then came Parliament, and I found that all those guys were together, and I dreamed about that stage. I tried playing funk, but I was coming from rock, so people said I was trying to cop the Chili Pepper vibe. But I didn’t dig the Chili Peppers, so that was annoying. And then, I’ve got to admit, Daft Punk was always part of the scene for me, and when Justice came along it confirmed what I’d sensed with Daft Punk, which is that electro wasn’t bad at all. That’s also when I moved to Paris, and we didn’t have a rehearsal space. It was just so much simpler to do live electro. For three years, I played nothing but disco and electro-disco and just got drunk on it. I went to Berlin and discovered Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Mr. Oizo. Experimental music, guys like that who really experimented with sound and didn’t give a fuck. Right now I’m listening to Jan Jelinek, who’s got a project called Farben that’s crazy good, and Martin Stimming, who does this super-subtle acoustic techno. I like Autechre, too. They’ve got a neat project called Empty Set.
I also like Tony Conrad, who died recently. On the other hand, I haven’t listened to much Matthew Herbert, and I haven’t heard much musique concrète from the ’50s.
If you look at how the five senses work — you can close your eyes if you see something ugly, and when there’s something absolutely foul on your plate, you can either not eat it or spit it out, and when something stinks you can plug your nose and smell nothing, and when you don’t want to be touched you can split. But sound is the one thing you’ll still be able to sense. It’ll penetrate you no matter what, even if you put in earplugs. It’s a kind of inner surrender. So there’s a mission to this. You’ve got to be careful what you do. Sound is also the voice. You’ve got to be careful. With sound, you can hint at something or truly manipulate someone. You can make people do things just by sending them auditory signals. Producing sound is a heavy responsibility. Hence the idea of saying intelligent things when you talk. You can also fuck up your life by expressing yourself wrongly. Sound is also like a liquid that’s too slow to be a gas but too fast to be a solid. That’s what sound is. Speech is liquid, thought is gaseous, and action is solid.
It’s conceivable for me to do something other than music, maybe have a big pop career, because I spend my time thinking about it. It’s physical, too. Throw the ball often enough at the hoop, and sooner or later you’ll make a basket. When I was 23 years old, I decided to give myself a seven-year window to express myself, lay down some sound and video, do some writing. But afterward I thought I’d try to go deeper into action rather than just expression. I think art, in the end, is really an idea thing. You act on the future. If you act on people’s thinking, you act on the future.
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