|Breaking through: Nicolas Jaar
He may be younger than techno itself, but Nicolas Jaar's unconventional take on the genre is turning heads. RA's Philip Sherburne talks to the Wolf + Lamb affiliated producer.
I don't mean to make a big thing of it, but Nicolas Jaar, the New York-based producer affiliated with the Wolf + Lamb label, is only 19 years old.
In any number of different contexts, that might be unremarkable. In indie rock, you're expected to be young. Same goes for hip-hop. Surely there's no shortage of under-20s manning the barricades of nu-electro's fluo revolution. But house and techno? I'm sorry, but aside from the Martinez Brothers, we're generally a generation aging rapidly.
Which makes Jaar an especially interesting case, because the music doesn't sound adolescent. It doesn't beat you over the head with punk-rock bravado. Confident but understated, Jaar doesn't sound like he has something to prove. The roots dig deep into house and techno, but this is not necessarily music made principally with dancing in mind. Jaar contributed two tracks to this year's Snuggle & Slap compilation on Circus Company, and one of them, the lilting "Your Waltz," is easily one of the album's strangest affairs, a dreamy, 104 BPM fantasia for gently rustling percussion and what sounds like mandolin. The other, "Love Teacher," is pneumatic deep house in a Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts vein, deftly balancing synths and samples and turning out that rarest of grooves: a kind of chameleon vibe that appears uptempo or downtempo according to the set it's played in. Sophisticated stuff, in other words.
"At first, I don't think I saw music as something you learn," says Jaar by phone from Providence, Rhode Island, where he is currently studying at Brown University. "When I was really young, whenever there was a piano around, I'd start improvising. But nothing formal—I was just really into the idea of a piano being able to make sounds." That might sound tautological—if you're not into the idea of a piano making sounds, there's not much need to get near one. But Jaar's music suggests what may have tickled his ear upon those early encounters with the ivories.
Because, despite the piano's central role in his productions, this isn't exactly "piano house," at least not in the "Strings of Life" sense of the term. "The Student," Jaar's debut release, begins with a sound that might be that of a guitar pick being stroked along a piano string, a slow "pukk-pukk-whirrr" suggesting the prickly fizz of the Wighnomy Brothers—but unplugged. A proper piano melody provides the tune's centerpiece, but just as interesting are the improper piano sounds that needle into the high end, percussive and atonal. Whether it was conscious or not, it's reminiscent of John Cage's experiments with "prepared" pianos, the strings kitted out with small objects to alter their frequencies. When Wolf + Lamb released "The Student" in 2008, along with two other originals and a Seth Troxler remix, Jaar was still just 17.
Jaar was born in New York, but he spent his childhood in Chile, moving back to New York around the age of 11. (His father is Alfredo Jaar, an acclaimed artist and filmmaker. Nicolas downplays the connection, but I can't resist mentioning that I saw the elder Jaar's Lament of the Images in a gallery in New York in 2002, and was moved to tears by the force of the installation. Talent, seemingly, runs in the family.) By the time he was 14, Jaar had begun "messing around" with Reason as a means of recording and composing, but he had no concept of making expressly "electronic" music. "Being able to play piano, and knowing something about chords, I wanted to put drums with it, and I didn't really know how," he says. "But there was no shift from guitars to electronics, or anything like that. It was more like, 'I like to play piano, I like improvising, I like recording my stuff, how do I do that? MIDI keyboard and Reason.' I started from that." A combination of chance occurrences around the same time quickly gave his experiments a new focus.
"Thé Au Harem D'Archimède was the
sexiest music I'd ever heard."
"I think it was the summer of 2004," recalls Jaar. "I was at this photographer's studio in Chile, and the photographer was blasting Tiga's DJ Kicks mix. Being 14, I was like, 'This is incredible!'" He promptly and volubly declared a newfound love for electronic music—"even though I had heard nothing, just Tiga. So at Christmas, my dad goes to this record shop and says, 'Give me the most forward-thinking electronic music album right now.'" You can almost see the punchline coming: the CD the clerk handed over the counter was Ricardo Villalobos' Thé Au Harem D'Archimède.
"The guy wasn't like, 'Oh, I'm gonna give you the best Chilean artist'," stresses Jaar. "We were in Santiago, but my dad just said, 'Give me the most forward-thinking thing you've got.' [Villalobos] just happened to be Chilean. He gives me that for Christmas, along with a Luomo CD, Vocalcity. When I'm 14. This is all thanks to my dad being pretty good at doing this type of shit. So I listened to Villalobos at 14, and this is definitely a little bizarre, almost maybe a little sad, but it was the sexiest music I'd ever heard in my whole life. But it was also so complicated, there was so much stuff going on—even though I didn't really purely enjoy it like I enjoyed jazz or African music. There was this weird love for the techno aspect, even though I had no direct experience of that until then."
There's something almost too perfect about the story: of Villalobos, the bi-continental figurehead of Latin American electronic music, almost singlehandedly introducing a young Jaar to techno. But Jaar, who has roots on three continents, downplays any particular "Latin influence" in his music. "I don't really know where I'm from. In France I'm not really French. In Chile I'm not Chilean. Here I have an accent. I don't think, 'Let's try to be Latin-tinged.' That's the easy connotation. I've been obsessed with African music my whole life, and Western music, and yeah, the Chilean techno of course hit me really hard. Those are all influences, but not just because I come from there. I don't know, there's something bigger."
Nicolas Jaar in love at The Marcy Hotel
At 17, Jaar chanced across Wolf + Lamb's Gadi Mizrahi speaking on NYU radio. Mizrahi, whose label-cum-collective is known for a particularly woozy, psychedelic take on post-minimal house and techno—as well as epic afterhours sessions at their own venue, the Marcy Hotel—was talking about techno's "elastic" qualities, where time stretches like a rubber band. "I took it as a beautiful metaphor for music," says Jaar, who lists his principal influences as the minimalist Modernist composer Erik Satie and Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke. Perhaps not coincidentally, both artists display a particularly elastic approach to timekeeping: Satie, the godfather of ambient music, in his telescoping phrases and Astatke in his weird, modal rhythm and blues, a pooling of African-American, African and Middle Eastern influences on warped tape, with grooves spreading out like the ripples in an oil slick.
His interest piqued, Jaar looked up Wolf + Lamb. "I sent 'The Student' to Gadi, and he liked it," says Jaar. "He got me into the Marcy"—in order for Jaar to experience firsthand, and for the first time, the culture of the music he aspired to make—"and told me, 'Do what you did for that track, but put a kick drum on it.'"
That demo, recalls Wolf + Lamb's Zev Eisenberg, "was actually not dance music, it didn't even have a beat to it." But it also wasn't exactly not dance music, and Wolf + Lamb released it digitally, along with a more uptempo Seth Troxler remix that would eventually be included on Troxler's own Aphrika EP, W + L's second vinyl release. Jaar's music, unconventional as it was, inspired the label as much as the other way around. "At this point," says Eisenberg, "the only constant in our label seems to be a constantly evolving context, and Nico's very comfortable leading us all in exciting new directions. He's like a sponge, which is why he keeps on making such relevant music. We hear his live set enough and it's constantly changing, even surprising, and somehow always appropriate for the show."
Jaar's first live set was, appropriately enough, at the Marcy, in the spring of 2008. Since then, he's gone on to play at Club der Visionaere and Arena in Berlin as well as Boulder, Colorado's Communikey festival and MUTEK events in both Montreal and Mexico City. Those experiences have fed back into his own productions, he says, and you can hear it in the bouncing embrace of "Love Teacher," for Circus Company, and the springy disco of "El Bandido," released this year on Wolf + Lamb's Significant Others compilation EP along with tracks from Gadi, Zev and Lee Curtiss.
"At first," he recalls of playing live, "the annoying thing that happened, that would piss me off, really, was that I kept thinking how I could make my set dancier, harder. Then I realized that that was such an immature way to do things. People just going harder and harder, that's totally going the opposite direction from what I want to bring to this, if I can bring anything. I realized that people will respond to feelings, and not just crazy beats. It's more about playing with people's expectations."
When I mention that playing as a relative unknown might have its benefits in that respect, Jaar says, "No! This is the great part. They do have expectations. The fact that they don't know who I am doesn't matter. They know what the space is. I know what a techno night is like, and they do, so when I start a show with [Balkan composer] Goran Bregovic, that's different." His goal in playing live, he says, is to translate his own, idiosyncratic tastes into something that can move a room. "One thing I adore about playing at clubs or dance events is that most of the people go there to listen to an artist play, but also to dance. It's a cliché, but I love how the movements, even people's unintentional movements and gestures, change when you play different types of music. How a whole crowd dances, rather than just one person. Watching how that changes is amazing."
"That's influenced the music I'm making now," he continues. "I'm making very slow techno right now, super slow techno, around 100 BPM. Now, when I play around with that in my live sets, you can see people having more time to do things between the beats. More unintentional things happen between the beats. I'm going to keep taking beats even slower."
There are a lot of "unintentional" things in Jaar's music, which might be unsurprising, given his love for the approaches taken by artists like John Cage or Brian Eno. Relying heavily on sampled piano and voice, unconventional percussion sounds and collaged swatches of sound, even his most straightforward tracks thrum with fluid pulses and chance collisions. One of the most remarkable things about his music is the way it develops, with grooves modeled after dance music and melodies hinting at folk song, but following a long, undulating arc that's almost impossible to trace. The idea, says Jaar, is to "give the music a certain structural element so that it's not just loops looping at the same point." By setting forces into play in a certain way, "the music is making itself. You might have to shape it afterwards, because it's just a draft, but you can really create a system in which you're not doing it, the music is creating itself." But there's also a deeply emotional impulse in Jaar's work—just listen to "John the Revelator," released on his own Clown and Sunset label. Under four minutes long, and treading an implied 4/4 rhythm as subtly as Carl Sandburg's cat-footed fog, the song combines brooding Rhodes chords with sampled acapellas from two opposite sides of the globe into an expression of something like sensual dread.
"Before I began to release music, I was just recording impulses, whatever came," says Jaar. "Then I started shaping the emotions, trying to create this thing that is like a rhythmic anguish. A rhythmic melancholy. This idea that there's a really beautiful waltz to sadness. That's something you hear in Ethiopian jazz, where the rhythm is incredibly groovy but the sax is just wailing. This weird mix between dance music and… a cry. It's a lament."
"What happens when I make music is that I try to get the technical aspect of techno and its textures in there, but that's always the base to make a song, not just a track," says Jaar. That's certainly the sense you get from listening to drafts for his album ˆtre, which Circus Company will release next year. The grooves are there, sometimes pumping, sometimes only nominally 4/4, but they're washed and wrapped in layers of gauzy, organic sound—pianos, accordion, home-recorded percussion grazed with the afternoon light of a lazy Sunday. "I'm interested in making songs that people that are not in the techno world will listen to, not just tracks for DJs," explains Jaar.
That might sound like youthful hubris. But in the case of Nicolas Jaar—an artist younger than techno itself, and yet one with an unconventional and rather uncanny interpretation of its principles—it also sounds quite reasonable.