Dance music eventually found him, though. After years spent playing in bands, including his longtime project Zombie Zombie with Cosmic Neman, Jaumet wound up on the French label Versatile, the home of acts like I:Cube and Joakim. And his first solo album, 2009's Night Music, was produced by none other than Carl Craig, who helped bring the dance feeling out from the background of his sound. (As he explains below, he had another dance music artist, Blackjoy, help shape the sound of the follow-up, La Visite.) Jaumet now straddles a number of musical worlds. He's created music for multimedia art pieces, blown sax for James Holden and been sampled by Lady Gaga. Whatever he's up to, though, he brings his deep knowledge of synthesizers with him. When I spoke with him earlier this year in between Zombie Zombie tour dates, that's what I wanted to pick his brain about—particularly the modular system that's been the centerpiece of his studio for the last few years.
You're a busy touring musician, spending quite a lot of time on the road.
Yes, because I've made a lot of collaborations, I have several things to do at one time. Like last week I was with James Holden—I was playing saxophone with him. And tomorrow I will play on my own. Next week, I have to record stuff with my band Zombie Zombie. I have to think of which instrument I'll have to play, because I have to—I don't know how to say, all my gear…
You have to figure out what needs to come out on tour with you or to another studio, and what can stay at your main space?
Exactly. For me, I make no distinction between recording and playing. I am improvising a lot on each. I just try to find the intention of a first take.
That's something I wanted to ask you about. I've read that when you're recording, you always try and cut a part in one take. So how do you get started on a track?
I just try stuff with my synth. And when I catch something I love, I build something. If it's good, I record it. That's it. This is the only way I know how to make music, in fact. I'm not very brainy. I trust my feelings more than my brain. When I record, I try to forget everything and just let my feelings go.
Do you write anything down, or is it purely improvisational?
It's improvisational. For example, for the first song I ever recorded, I wanted to use my voice. It was a bit odd because I'm not a singer. So I tried a vocoder on it and had fun with low frequencies. I used on this song a kind of amp, a metallic resonator, which gives a lot of harmonics and resonance. The words came by themselves in the recording, and then it was finished. I'm sure there were mistakes, because my English is not so good. The most important thing about it was the immersion I got in the images that came at the time. This is my way of making music—just let the feelings flow, take risks. I love taking risks. I'm not a very good musician, actually. I can't produce everything always in the same way. Because I'm not a pianist, for example, I don't know how to [write for] piano. I can only play with one finger.
How did you discover synthesizers?
It was in the '90s. At the beginning of the '90s, I was a saxophonist. I learned saxophone at school. The sound is magic, and it's an instrument you play with your body. It's very intense. If you feel sick, it's very hard to make good sound. I like this way of playing an instrument—you play with what you feel, with your state. I was also a sound engineer at the time, and I was fascinated by the sound of the synthesizer. But in the '90s in France, analog instruments were very out of fashion, so you could find them anywhere, in secondhand shops for cheap. This is how I got my first synth. I think the name of the shop was Cash Converters.
A pawn shop, in other words.
Yeah, that's it. So I tried it. And I was very happy, because it was monophonic, so I didn't have to play several notes at one time. And this sound was amazing. It reminded me a lot of music I loved. At the time, I was really into electronic music but not into techno at all. Early musicians weren't really using it as a synth but as a guitar.
So you were more interested in synth pop than in club music.
Yes. I was born in the '70s, so in the '80s, I was a teenager. New wave was very big, and I loved very much how they used the synth in a cold way. It reminded me of cartoons I saw on TV, especially one, from when I was very young, like eight, called Chapi Chapo. The music was made by François de Roubaix, a great musician, and it was really crazy for a show for children. When I tried to use this synthesizer, it reminded me of all of this. So at first I couldn't really do composition. It took me a long time to know how to use it, to find my own sound with it. For me, the synthesizer is a real instrument, you know? It's like a guitar or something. You need time to know how to use it.
It sounds like the early '90s were a lonely time to love synths, but because of that they were amazingly cheap. Did you buy a lot of gear during that period?
I was not so rich, but I bought an SH-101 and a TR-808 for really cheap. Now it's ten times more expensive. But at that time, nobody cared about them, because it was the beginning of digital, and everyone was fascinated with the new possibilities. I'm not so much into computers. I learned saxophone, so I wanted to learn my synthesizer as an instrument, not to coordinate with a computer. I just wanted to play with it.
Did those Roland pieces help you get further into techno?
It didn't happen like this. At first I used them to do some production, to play some arrangements for friends, not making electronic music at all. It was more pop music. I very much love soundtracks, especially horror movies, so it reminded me of the sound of John Carpenter scores. So at first, I was more reproducing the John Carpenter way of making music, doing very simple tunes with strong atmosphere. I had a friend who played the drums at the time, Cosmic Neman, and we started a band together [Zombie Zombie]. After several shows, someone came to me and said, "I want to sign you," and the label was Versatile Records. I was a bit afraid because I was still not listening to dance music—because I was a child of the '70s, I was into rock music until that time, into very little electronic music except new wave. So Versatile introduced me to electronic music. I decided to do the same music I loved, like trippy music with strong atmosphere, but add some club rhythm to it. I just tried something. You know, each time I make music, it's a combination of experience, of people I met, of thousands of things. I didn't decide to make dance music at all. My first solo album was mixed by Carl Craig, but it was me who recorded it. In fact, I didn't know the music of Carl Craig.
So Carl Craig was Versatile's suggestion?
Exactly, because I didn't know him at all. I thought, why not? The things I recorded were closer to Klaus Schulze. Carl Craig, when he mixed it, he put the rhythm from the background to the front, and [emphasized] the arpeggios. So I was greatly surprised when I was sent the mix. But in fact, he didn't edit anything—he just deleted some tracks, tracks with too much sound. He just chose what he thought was strongest. After several listens, I thought it was the right way to mix my music. Since that time, I decided to do a more simple music and try to explore the club with my musical background, which is not electronic or club music.
Did you feel like you learned a lot from listening to what Carl Craig brought to your music?
I was a sound engineer, so I knew how to mix my music. But the interesting thing in his mixing, he brought his point of view—it gave to my music another point of view. And it was the right one for me. It was something I didn't expect. I didn't expect he was hearing in my music this club context. So at that time, I was still exploring dance music, but still doing very simple tunes with a lot of melodies. He taught me a lot, but not because he explained it to me, it's because he doesn't have the same point of view as me. It was a really good surprise.
Having someone else mix your music—do you think that's an important part of the process?
For me, it's two different jobs, mixing and recording it. I'm very happy not to do it. There is not only one way to make good sounds. The same sound, you can make in different ways. I make my songs very quickly, so sometimes it's very hard to see what is good in a song. I don't see the good parts and the bad parts, I don't see the quality of it—I just do it. So bringing in people from outside, it's more to see the quality of a song, for me. I'm not afraid to let people express something with my music. There is not only one way to mix a song. A good song, you can make it in a dub way, you can make it in a punk way, you can make it in an acoustic way, and it's still a good song. For me, if you take a guitar and play the song and sing the words, it's good. You see it's a real song even if you don't use a synthesizer at all. The most important is the song, not the way to make it sound.
Did you have someone mix your second album, La Visite?
Yes, but it was not so easy. I tried three or four people before I found a good one. This time it was Jérôme Caron. His musical project is called Blackjoy, it's dance music from France. Jérôme understands that my music—you need to mix it in a natural way. You don't have to put a thousand effects on it, you don't have to mask all the little mistakes, all the little accidents. To arrive at the sound, you have to follow the music. He understood that, so I think that's why the mix is really good.
Let's talk about the modular synth you have in your studio. Can you tell me about it?
So with the album Night Music, I got a little bit of money, because it was out on Domino in US. I decided to spend a lot of it on a modular synth. It's a really great instrument. I'm not using it all the time, it depends on the project because it's not so easy to carry. And it's not the same way of making music because you have to make your own sound. You have to patch it, so it takes time. You need time to practice. But a few years, more and more, I put it on my records. On my last album, there is a lot of modular synth. But I can't bring it with me on stage, it's too heavy. I will use it for Zombie Zombie, for [the shows accompanying] the next release. But it takes time to organize everything, to find an easy way to carry it, to use it on stage.
What's the make of the synth? It doesn't look like a Eurorack system.
It's by someone who's trained to copy Moog. It's not a modular that tries to make crazy modules or crazy sounds. I like crazy sound, but it's made more to make music with it. It's not to impress people with things other people can't reproduce. With the synth, I cannot produce the sound.
I can travel. It's very stable. It all takes two hours to play with it before you get on tunes. So you can really play with it and do real songs.
What sort of sounds are you using it for? When do you use this synth instead of another one in your collection?
As with all modulars, you have to patch to make your sounds, so I need a project with long tracks. I need time to develop the sound, and the song, too. I have six oscillators on it and three filters—I have lot of modules. But in one patch I can only make three or four different sounds. And then, if I have to change, I have to unplug everything. I can use the project with only three or four different sounds on it, and when I have time. For example, I used it once for an exhibition. Someone asked me to do some collaboration with a sculpture. The sculpture was moving by itself, and they asked me to do some kind of dialogue with it. I had four hours to do, so it was very funny. And I made some atmospheric sound with it. It was perfect, this kind of situation to use the modular. But if you want to do [composition], it's harder. All you have is a plug. Me, I'm not a technician, so I don't play so many notes. I don't want to, in fact. I prefer to explore the feelings I get with an instrument, doing very complicated arpeggios. There are so many things to do with synths, but I try to find good sound. I think with modular synths, you can make bad sounds, too. I've found bands with big modulars making very boring music. It doesn't even sound good.
It's not really about the instrument you have, but about what you do with it.
Exactly—the inspiration you get with it.
A big part of your music is the atmosphere—not just the notes and rhythms, but what's happening in between them. How are you achieving that in the studio? Are you using lots of effects?
No. I just try to be in the right mood. So for this album, I didn't have so much time. I just had one summer. But in the summer, I wanted also to go on holiday. In fact, I had only one month left to release my album. The studio I use, I have to share it with other bands. I couldn't have it all day long. That's why I decided to do songs in one afternoon. I just came two or three times a week. But each day, I'm not waking up very early. So I came at 10 or 12, but at 7 or 8 o'clock everyday, I made a song. I love working with some, how to say—in French, we say constrainte.
Constraints, exactly. Anyways, nothing was prepared when I was recording this album. I just wanted to do something quick, with the energy of a first take. I didn't make songs for a lot of months. It was kind of an experiment for me. I wanted to see if I was capable of doing it very quickly, because I like to surprise myself. I don't want to produce the same thing over and over. I just try, and something happened. I could sing on it. I'd never really sung on songs before. I tried once with Zombie Zombie, the song "Rocket Number 9." It was a kind of success. Even Lady Gaga sampled us. You know this story?
I know that it happened, but I don't know the backstory. Perhaps you could share?
One morning I got a call from the States, and they said Lady Gaga wanted to use some part of the song. At first it was very funny, because she was thinking it was us who were making the song. So we tell her it was a Sun Ra song—we didn't write the words. But she used a sample of our voice, just the words "to the planet." So we get a little money of it. It was very funny for me, because I was the link between Sun Ra and Lady Gaga [laughs]. I would never expect such a thing to exist. The good thing is that I knew at that time I could use my voice. As I said, I tried first with vocoder, and then I tried with my natural voice.
Yeah, vocals are very important in your music. And that's all you singing, right?
Yes. It's very new.
You mentioned before that you'll use a vocoder. Is there any other processing that you like to use when you're recording your own vocals?
The effect I use is not a vocoder, actually. The name is the Roland Boss VT-1 Voice Transformer. It's an orange box, very small. I think it's digital. But you can transform your own voice. There are no presets—you make your own. That's why it's very fun to use it. I didn't want to do the Daft Punk gimmick, I wanted to explore more of the harmonics of my voice than to have a vocoder song. It was not a vocoder song that inspired me, but more of the hidden part of my voice. I've got a high voice, but I'm not sure I've got a beautiful voice [laughs]. To explore things I've never suspected in my voice was very, very fun.
And you're still playing a lot of sax as well?
Yes. It's my first instrument.
We talked about how it's a deeply expressive instrument—like the way you're feeling physically can have a huge effect on how you play it. Do you think it's the same with synthesizers? Can a synth be as expressive as a sax?
Of course. It only matters the way you play it. The saxophone is very close to the reaction of your body. But I think you can find the same feeling with a synth. I don't know. I think you can make great music with all kinds of instruments—with a saxophone, with a guitar, it's the same. You can make blowing sounds with the most interesting synth. It's only the way you play it. So I found a kind of synthesizer—I think it was made for guitar, but it works very well with saxophone, the Roland SPV355. You can really mix the saxophone with synths. I've got so many things to explore with my saxophone.
Have you picked up any new gear recently? And if not, is there something you're really loving right now?
I try not to buy new stuff—but I failed again. I got a friend who is making some really interesting effects. They could almost be instruments. The name of the brand is Oto. One of the boxes is called Bim. Before he has made another effect called Biscuit. But it was such a big success, it's out of stock. So now he made a delay called Bim. This is what I bought. It's really, really good. It's a 12 beats delay. But the analog part of it has a filter, an LFO. And everything you use it with sounds very musical. There is also a very nice function, freeze. You sing on it, you make delays, then you freeze the sound. After you can add some modulation, change the pitch. So it's really an instrument, it's not only delay. Because with digital delay, when you put the feedback, the sounds don't change. It's a bit boring. But this one, the sounds destroy themselves, gently as an analog delay. You have to use it. It's a really good one. He made this Bim, and after he will do Bam, a reverb. This is effects more for production, not effects for guitar. I know it's a delay, but it could be compared to an Eventide. But Eventide has too much pages, it's not so easy to use. This one is easier. You have all the controls—it's very accessible, more automatic. There aren't too much buttons. When there are too many buttons, it's too complicated for a delay.
So much of the music you make is in collaboration. Do you find it difficult to work alone in your studio? Is it hard to get the vibe going?
I don't know how to say it… For me, in a way it's easier to be alone, because I can develop my own idea, instead of the ideas of someone else. I go more fast by myself. I do it very fast—I like to go fast. But on stage, it's more fun to play with several people. For La Visite, I wanted to do by myself, because I'm collaborating all the time, so I want to show people I can do things by myself—to prove to myself the songs can exist with only me onstage. It's like another test for me, to myself.