LSD Magazine interviews Laurent Garnier

Issue Seven – Made in Space
May 9th 2011

Ever since Laurent Garnier dropped out of a clear blue, gastronomically tinged sky and surfed synchronicity all the way to the heart of the Hacienda, he has been forging a musical legacy spanning the years, the styles, the movements and the basslines. Staging a systematic prison break from the confines of French cultural orthodoxy he honed his inherently diverse musical understanding in the crucible of the acid house revolution, and stormed on to become an electronic legend and a passionately tenacious ambassador for the French scene on the global stage. A street fighter and an artiste extraordinaire in equal measure he defied all the attempts through the years to pin him down to a specific musical identity and his tireless drive and steely convictions saw him defy the shifting currents of the club world and chisel his beliefs firmly into our history.

Holding fast for the primal dynamic of time, space and the free flow musical journey through the barriers of the structured obvious into the recesses of experience where the magic really happens, Laurent became infamous for his 6 hour sets worldwide. Touching gorgeously diverse flavours and the fringes of consciousness on the wheels of steel alone, recent years have seen Laurent really open up the fusion of experience and performance both through his extraordinary Kleptomaniac tour with 5 live musicians and the resulting distillation into his current live show L.B.S.. Call it Laurent, Ben and Stephane, call it Live Booth Sessions – call it whatever you like – to name it is almost to miss the point completely. Whipping records, keyboards, synthesisers, drum machines and live production into the mix – LBS defies the rigid and the rehearsed by locking the crowd into a heady synergy of  improvisation and experimentation, keeping one foot firmly on the dancefloor while the other brushes the abstract. Working the feedback loops of energy that are the essence of a truly transporting live experience and learning, evolving, mutating and surprising even themselves alongside the crowd, LBS is taking things next level for Laurent. We caught up with him in the midst of the tour for some perspective.

How the hell did you end up at the Hacienda

I guess I was living in the right place at the right time! I graduated from catering school when I was 18 and immediately began looking for an opening in the UK to cement my English, as without a solid grasp of the language, there were very few decent opportunities in the catering world. I was lucky enough to land an excellent job as a waiter at the French Embassy in London, and during that period, I met a girl, as you do, whose sister ran a chain of restaurants around Manchester, and after nearly 3 years at the embassy, I made the fateful decision to move up north and take her up on a job offer. Now of course, alongside the conventional career I was developing, the passion for music that I’d had since the age of 12 was burning as hard as ever. I was a totally committed bedroom DJ, doing a few pirate radio shows, playing at a few small private parties between friends, and keeping my record collection nicely ticking over, but for all of that, it really did boil down to the strokes of fortune that got the right demo tape into the right set of hands.

This was 1987, and the Hacienda were looking to launch a new night. I was a regular already, and when a friend of mine, Danny who did a lot of the lights and the visuals mentioned that a new night was on the cards, he suggested I gave him a mix to pass round a few of the relevant people. Danny managed to get it to Paul Cons, the principal booker, and having given it a listen, Paul invited me up for an interview and on the strength of that, gave me a trial run… and of course the rest is history. I was a lucky boy…..a very lucky boy.

How aware were you at the time of riding a social and cultural movement that went beyond music alone.

Well the thing was that I started at the Hacienda before the explosion of acid house– as I say, this was 1987, and certainly in my first 3 or 4 months playing there, you just didn’t get the sense that something epic was brewing. You have to understand, I was spinning Wednesday nights and the music policy was EVERYTHING – plain and simple , you name it, we played it, – soul, funk, hip hop, rare groove –and of course a few of the original house records floating in from America even before it was called house. It was when we got our hands on Farley Jackmaster Funk’s first record that it began to dawn on us that a turning point had been reached, and within 3 months, the entire landscape changed. Up until that point we were playing to a ‘normal’ crowd in a ‘normal’ club, and then so suddenly, house music dropped and before you knew it, the scene was exploding at critical velocity as house rolled into acid house, ecstasy arrived with a sublime sense of timing and the whole thing blew.

We felt very much as if we were being swept away on something that was bigger than us, but at the same time, we were equally aware of being at the heart of the new movement. Something was happening around us, we were at the epicentre and even then you had the feeling that you were helping to write the book on it, almost as if we were actors in this unfolding movie and we felt very personally involved with the core. It wasn’t like you might imagine –  the idea that you were surfing this enormous external wave  – that was the thing, it didn’t feel external or weird at all – call it being at the calm eye of the storm or just call it being young, but we embraced what was happening very consciously and worked very hard to harness it and keep driving it forwards.

Coming from the heart of this empathic, renegade spirit of freedom, how on earth did you cope with military service

I was called up by the army in the summer of 88, which of course was deeply sad as I missed the peak of the Summer of Love. I managed to get to a couple of massive raves up north before the orders kicked in, and then that was it – I had to leave and there was no two ways about it. Naturally I was keeping in touch to the best of my ability, which basically consisted of forensically reading any magazine I could get my hands on to open a window onto what was happening back in the UK. In a way, I was actually very lucky in the grand scheme of things, because after the compulsory first 2 months in what they call the ‘class’ which is basically introductory training in an army camp, I managed to squeeze a job as a waiter in the mess serving the senior officers. The beauty of that position was being able to go back to my own house every day. I may have been geographically constrained by having to stay in France, but this was Paris now – not some rural camp and I was out every night playing house music in the clubs. Not only did that allow me to still go out, still play out and keep completely up to date with currents across the channel, but twice a week I was playing for English promoters in Paris which kept me in the loop and a lot of my friendships solid. In some ways it was like a parallel reality – I knew exactly what was going on, but I wasn’t living it – it was a really bizarre sensation – but then I was making the best of a non negotiable situation – it was compulsory and that was the end of it. The only way I could fight against it was to make damn sure I was going out every night, DJing every night, getting records from my friends in England and keeping my identity completely independent of my circumstance. But then it could have been so much worse, so I do have to recognise that I was lucky enough to stay on the trajectory and stay connected.

And then by around 91 / 92, it’s all starting to splinter into sub genres and you wouldn’t hear all the different strains of house music under the same roof as darker techno picked up momentum, the reggae influence hit breakbeat and each individual style was starting to carve a scene. How did you ride that transition From the very beginning I was never a narrow minded DJ. I came from the old school and from an environment like the Hacienda who had given me a residency in the first place because of the range of styles I’d play. Even though I was very young, I had a very broad range of musical tastes, and music had been the overriding passion in my life. From the age of 14 I was discovering disco by going out to gay clubs with my brother and living the high energy disco experience. I was crazy about funk, nuts about soul, loving my rock n roll, feeling my reggae and even flirting with pop. When that is your musical heritage, it’s virtually impossible to ever accept that one style can define you whether it be on the dancefloor or behind the decks. And that was the intrinsic element to why I embraced house and techno so openly when they arrived – they were the concentrate of all these styles distilled down into a totally new fusion. I felt there was funk, jazz, a new wave of synthetic pop music, disco, soul – all those characteristics were embedded into house and techno. But very rapidly when breakbeat landed, and small labels began speeding up the beats towards the genesis of jungle you noticed a fresh wave of change, but then I was already incorporating those new sounds into my sets. So even though I’ve always been tagged as a ‘techno’ DJ, I’ve never restricted myself to a single style – it’s something I feel fundamentally uncomfortable with. Which is not to say that I wasn’t bound to go and play parties where techno was the plat du jour, but I feel that I made my name as someone who wasn’t afraid to drop a disco record or slam in a fat hip hop track in the middle of a techno set. It’s part of my identity as a DJ and as a person, so while things did close off into sub scenes, I never really felt I suffered from the consequences.

As the 90’s unfolded, how did the French scene evolve in comparison with the UK

It took a long, long time. For starters, there weren’t many of us pushing, and while some people were trying very hard, back then, if you weren’t English or American, you had no chance. The Italians were doing well, and the Belgians and the Dutch had pretty thriving scenes, but there simply wasn’t room for anyone else to take their place on the international musical map. I vividly remember going to New York for the equivalent of the New Music Seminar on the back of our first couple of releases and visiting a few labels to play our music only for them to stare at us like we were fucking weirdos. I mean you wouldn’t believe it. We were getting comments along the lines of ‘You French guys, you do a mean perfume and some admirable cheeses…why don’t you just stick to what you know. Music has never been your thing, so best leave it to us’. We took a lot of dissing like that at the beginning, but then we slowly began to prove that we genuinely knew our music and when I signed Acid Eiffel to Transmat, that was the major jump for me on the production front. It gave me a name in Detroit which led to the forging of strong relationships there and things did gradually change, but realistically, it was only when Daft Punk arrived and what I would call the ‘second wave’ of French musicians hit their stride that French music really took off. It needed some talented young kids to come along, sell some records and prove to the French themselves that it wasn’t all wishful thinking or delusional optimism, but that we really could sell music outside our borders to give it the shot in the arm that it needed.

How much impact did the illegal scene that Spiral Tribe brought to France and the culture of hardware based liveset that they were pioneering have on the wider development of the French movement

Ouuff – Spiral Tribe were massive in France. But then you have to understand that in England, the same people who were going out to clubs were also going to raves and free festivals, whereas in France, there was a definite divide. It was far more fragmented in France and there was no sense of unity or crossover between the clubbers and the ravers which had made the illegal explosion in the UK so powerful. The music was very different by this point in the 90’s and the harder stuff you’d hear at the Spiral parties would never ever be found in a club. Ravers dissed clubbers, clubbers dissed ravers and that sense of a unified generation all riding the same moment that you found in England was a million miles away from the fractured realities in France. Add in the heavy police crackdown as all the raves started getting raided and sound systems impounded, and it all made for a real struggle throughout the 90’s. France has never been a musical country – never – with the possible exception of rock n roll, but perceptions of musical innovation in France were ambivalent at best and it was a non-stop fight for what we believed in. Everything we were trying to do was seen as strange, every step we took came laden with cynicism and doubt, and even though Spiral Tribe was huge, there were countless individual tribes outside that matrix battling for recognition and a breakthrough in their own right.

Toward the end of the 90’s we hit the age of high commercialism and the cult of the ‘superstar DJ’ – a label that was regularly applied to you. What impact did that dynamic have

I don’t know if I’ve been labelled a ‘superstar DJ’. I don’t play hits, I don’t pack out 10,000 person capacity stadium gigs, and I certainly never went down the glitz and glamour road that most of the superstar DJ’s did. I guess I became quite big, quite quickly, possibly because I vigorously defended my interpretation of DJing, remained implacably stubborn about what music I would play and battled hard for respect and recognition in a country where they were even more elusive than normal. Here, even if you could start to command some respect as a DJ, you still weren’t seen as a musician no matter what you were putting out and to be honest, even today I still feel that I have to be very careful about what I’m doing and work that much harder to get where I want to go with a project. So I wouldn’t consider myself a superstar DJ – well known, yes, although at one point, a lot of people liked to call me the DJ’s DJ, and that was something I really quite liked! Even when I began LBS and I was trying to approach people differently, sound fresh, and not repeat myself at a moment where I’m 45 and the kids I’m playing to are 20 there was a whole new set of pitfalls and obstacles. Things have changed so rapidly and just think about how many of the once superstar DJ’s have disappeared without trace. I’m one of the only survivors left alongside people like Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills and we’re still trying to keep our heads above water, stay energised and stay current. Times aren’t always as easy as they might seem and outside perspectives don’t always reflect the realities. So you try to survive and just make absolutely sure that that survival comes through heartfelt honesty rather than pandering for survival’s sake.

As nights have become more producer led in the last 10 years, what effect has that had on the art of DJing.

You used to be able to make a name for yourself purely by being a good DJ. I think that the real question is that as we stand here today – what is a good DJ? Twenty years ago, there was a different understanding of what a DJ meant – it was about playing the right record at the right time – someone with feeling, taste and the ability to work with the crowd to bring out the character of a night could become known for that craft, that artform alone. You certainly didn’t have to release music in order to achieve any level of success whereas nowadays, if you don’t produce, you’re absolutely fucked. There’s no way you’ll ever get beyond your small town or local bar if you don’t release a record because people just don’t listen to what a DJ does in the same way as we used to. The conception of what a DJ is there to do has changed immeasurably, and the radically shifting landscape where there was simply not a living wage to be had in production alone forced a lot of producers to become great DJ’s….and some not so great. Take a guy like Carl Craig. Now he was a musician, and when he started DJing, you’d get people moaning that he didn’t know how to mix, while we stood back and conseilled them to be careful, because he was playing some seriously shit hot music and learning to mix was a damn sight easier than learning how to produce quality music….beware. And before long, Carl was as well known for his DJing as he was for his production. But on the flip side, I don’t know a single young DJ who has made a name for himself solely through playing great music. They just don’t exist anymore.

Which takes us back to the question – what constitutes a good DJ today? It does sadden me to see so many people who are playing to crowds when they are so far away from being a good DJ. A DJ isn’t there to play 10 hits one after the other or play a 90 minute set that they’ve rehearsed to death rather than be able to freestyle, follow the crowd when needed rather than just dictate and be adaptable to all the undercurrents of the night. The way I see it, my job as a DJ is to share music and try and guide a crowd into certain headspaces where they might not ordinarily go. It’s about encouraging the discovery of new music, while managing to take everyone along for the ride and having enough sensitivity and flexibility to shape that unity wherever it may lie. And I just don’t see that many DJ’s around me now who think in those terms. Bottom line – the primary responsibility of a DJ is to make people dance. And to put it all in perspective, I just don’t know that many DJ’s today that like or even know how to dance themselves. That’s a critically important point Just watch people behind the decks. How many of them look fucking bored – as boring as the music they play. How the hell can you give the fever if you can’t catch it yourself.

You seemed to reach a point even before LBS when you took the initiative back and started saying ‘right – book me for 6 hours or don’t book me at all’. What brought about that new firmness.

I come from the school of DJing where you opened the club and closed the club. That was my job.  And besides the really cool parties at the Hacienda – I was doing all kinds of other gigs to earn a living and at those gigs, I’d be playing all night. 1 night, 1 DJ. A DJ set is like a performance, and certainly not about playing 5 records, drinking a bottle of vodka and shagging some birds. It’s something I really do take very seriously I’m afraid and I always try to invest my heart into a set, stay as honest throughout as I can and try to understand the crowd, so when I don’t get the crowd, I feel deeply hurt. As far as long sets go, you can only really discover someone if you have a long story to work from and an hour and a half is far from enough. I know that Derrick May is an amazing DJ, because I’ve heard him a hundred times playing 4 / 5 hours. I know how far and how deep Derrick can go. I know that Jeff Mills is a great DJ because through having heard his long sets, I lived those experiences with him and really got an insight into who he was and where he was coming from. You simply can’t go out and play 20 records and hope to touch the magic that a DJ and a dancefloor voyaging together can weave. You need the space to switch up the styles that you’re playing and again reveal what you’re about musically because I refuse to accept that someone really can just be ‘deep house’ or ‘techno’ because the influences and the core of your musical makeup have to come from a far broader range of sources. It’s when you start to break through the conscious boundaries that you’re tied to in a limited set and really release into wherever the night is going that things start to get interesting.

How did you evolve musically on the Kleptomaniac tour. It seems that there was a leap during that tour that then brought you to LBS

Well Kleptomaniac was an 18 month tour with 5 musicians, and we started with a fairly rehearsed live show, and if I’m being honest, the musical dynamic that we started with was a little bit poor. But what started to happen was that as the tour progressed and the creative relationship between us developed, we started to push for longer slots, and within that environment, a natural fusion began to emerge that took us ever further away from our starting point. And that was where we genuinely began to write and create music. I understood my band better, I directed my band better and by doing that, we began to increasingly relate to one another, feed back off each other, and ultimately, really surprise one another. The evolution of the tracks was stunning after 3 or 4 months, and while that may be true of any band, it was fascinating to feel the experimentation start to take on a life of itself from gig to gig as the versions got longer and more nuanced. The crowd were feeling it too as they began to understand that we were creating something live on stage and music was being written before their eyes and every gig became a test bed for new elements. We’d cherry pick what had really worked and use that as a starting point for the next night, ditch what hadn’t really come off and start the cycle from a new point of departure each and every time we played. It became extremely organic, and while at the back of my mind I knew that the tour had to end and I would eventually have to go back to the wheels of steel, but something had changed. I knew that I would never, ever be able to experiment as much with my records as I was able to with the musicians. There are limits to what you can do with a record – for starters, they’re generally someone else’s track and it’s a fixed format – unless of course you knock out a few edits, but still, you don’t have all the parts. I came to the conclusion that the way forward was to play the music of other people that I love alongside an experimental live dimension and it was then that the LBD concept really began to take root.

Good DJing has always been about a feedback loop with the crowd. Were you finding that you were getting circles within circles – one with the crowd, one with Ben and Stephane, one between the 3 of you as a unit with the crowd and so on.

Yes, totally. I’ve never experienced such strong feelings as I am at the moment. I think LBS is the best project I’ve ever done. That’s a personal view and people are welcome to disagree, but the way we work together and approach the crowd has revitalised the idea of techno for me in a world where techno music may not mean that much anymore. It’s a very techno project and the key fact of playing it and constructing it live ties the crowd more profoundly into the performance. People seem to be rediscovering my music and the feedback I’ve been getting radically exceeds the response to my DJ sets. We’ve had our fair share of tough crowds, but in the end we got them, we nailed it and they were strapped in for the ride. The three of us were sat together yesterday taking it all in and we are all amazed not only by the incredible receptions we’ve been getting, but by the overall direction the project has ended up taking.

How much of a framework do you bring to the LBS sets and how much is straight improvisation

Each track in my computer is basically a 10 second loop. That’s it. Then from there I can alter the filters, effects, compression, textures, tempos and so on. I look after the skeleton of the track – all the percussion, all the bass and some of the strings while Stephane takes care of the more complex sounds. Having tried to juggle the direction of a 5 piece band while holding down my role on the computer, I realised that I needed a little bit more time and freedom to look away from the laptop and maintain the overall oversight of the performance, so I had to delegate some of the musical responsibility to Stephane. I had to be able to walk across the stage and have a word or make a suggestion, and to step outside the focus of what I was doing personally to guide the wider synthesis. We’ve split the soundscape between me and Stephane on the understanding that what is coming out of my computer is the lead, which allows him to follow that direction and layer over it. Then Ben has 3 keyboards going, but the constant thread is what I’m playing and they have to be concentrated and aware enough to switch up where I do and roll with the changes.

You used the word organic which is a great description of the live performance. Has that energy led you to view something static like the production of a record for release in a different way.

It’s funny because we’ve got this one track that we perform live which lasts about 25 or 30 minutes every time we play it, and everyone is asking us to release it. Problem is that I just don’t see how the hell that’s ever going to be a realistic possibility. We were discussing it yesterday and we all came to the conclusion that if we recorded it in at less than 20 minutes, it would be meaningless, because the length and the space to breathe and really travel with the track is at its very essence. At the moment, the idea is to keep shaping and evolving the tracks, and for example, there’s this track, Back to my Roots that I released 5 years ago which I wanted to resurrect in a slightly revamped form. And so we did a new version live on stage with a new bass, new stabs and a fresh interpretation of something that had previously been in a fixed form. And then suddenly you’re thinking ‘hang on, these new ingredients would make a fantastic basis for an entirely new track’ and we were off building a new set of frequencies around it. That exemplifies how LBS is currently working and the nature of what the project is all about…’s organic. And I’m drawing my influences far more from the psychedelic funk bands of the 70’s than anything I’ve necessarily done in dance music.

Do you find that the more organic a performance is, the less likely a recording is to do it justice

Of course. I hate even recording a DJ set. Obviously I’ve released some DJ mixes, but I never ever believed that a set played live could or should be recorded. I don’t think I’ve ever listened back to one of my sets in the car or at home because the essence of a DJ set comes back to the point we were discussing before….what makes a good DJ? A set – whether live or on the decks belongs to a certain place at a specific time in a special moment. It might sound amazing there and then, but like complete shit when you play it back at home. A set is built alongside sound, light, mood, people and time and it’s frankly impossible to then try and recreate it. We’ve been recording a lot of the LBS stuff to try and gage where we are between shows and every time we play them back, I never get the same feelings as I had live. It’s normal though – that’s what live music is all about.

Do you feel freer than ever in your mid forties

Oh yeah. I feel that I’m in a position to say right – I’m 45, I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I don’t have to please everyone or necessarily explain everything I do. And yet I’m catering for crowds who are often less than half my age, and I have to respect them. There’s no way I can go up to a 20 year old and say ‘you haven’t got a fucking clue – I know better because I’m 25 years older than you.’ The second anyone starts thinking like that, they’re finished. Things have changed across the board – how we source music, how we listen to music, how we survive through music – everything has changed dramatically. And you have to channel those changes and speak to a new generation – surprise them, lay down something fresh, which is why I’m so encouraged by LBS. I felt that a lot of the young DJ’s were playing very short sets comprised of severely chopped up tracks which often had a schizophrenic quality to them –  almost seeming like 5 different tracks with 7 or 8 different themes going on within the same 5 minute tune – what they call the electro stuff. This wasn’t my culture, and while I respect it, I began to look for alternative ways to introduce people to the other side of music and to what I was doing. Time, space, longer tracks and a deeper flow than an action packed surface. I realised that taking it live with LBS would help open those doors and throw the difference into a sharper relief. And then some of the ironies start to hit you. We played the Bloc festival back in March to a very young crowd and so much of the feedback settled on this one theme – ‘that was so futuristic’. Which is classic. Playing long tracks live????  Sounds a lot like 15 years ago to me! Longer even!! I mean I’m looking at people like The Doors for my reference points on what I’m doing now with LBS – that space – those low moments where it breaks down to almost nothing and the idea of creating a mood and then taking it to the absolute hypnotic edge.

The point is not that it’s a new or futuristic idea, but people today aren’t used to experiencing music in this way anymore. It’s a wider phenomenon – you want information – it’s at your fingertips in 2 seconds, you want a video clip – bang – there it is. We’re a zapping generation and our brains are adjusting to absorbing vast quantities of information in very small doses, so naturally that shapes attitudes to music.

Looking out over the next few years, how optimistic are you about the wider health of dance music and about what you personally are doing.

Music will always reinvent itself. There are always going to be highs and lows and I think that techno has been in a trough for the last few years that it’s now bursting out of with a new energy and a new generation which is in glorious health. Saleswise on the other hand – it’s never been so catastrophic. You simply can’t conceive of becoming a musician and earning your living through the records you release so you have to think differently. Occasionally I get pangs of wanting to stop DJing for a while and bury myself in production, but it’s impossible. So now as a producer – you have to be good enough to get the tour booking and only then do you have any chance of eating and paying your bills through music alone. But we have reached a point where people’s ears and tastes are more open than at any time in the last 10 years. It used to be that you were into techno and that was it, but now people are curious and have a far wider musical spectrum to choose from and incorporate into their idea of good music. It’s become more eclectic – which doesn’t always mean good taste, but at least its eclectic and shows that we’ve moved on from the closed mindsets of 10 years ago.

I’m very optimistic about what I’m doing. We really feel that something magical is rising up within LBS and that something major is happening. We see it in the crowd, and we see it in the feedback and when I’m getting emails from the people at Bloc saying how we had really made the festival for them, it makes me incredibly proud. The fruits are starting to grow. We’re on the road until May at which point we’ll start with another live show as the 3 of us crystallising the essence of LBS into slightly more festival friendly time-frames but adding in more of a show element with visuals and the holistic experience. We have a 3 year plan in our heads that may or may not survive contact with reality, but that’s where we are right now.

laurentgarnier01Laurent Garnier Website

May 9th 2011