Nicolas Chaix has been quietly crafting sublime electronic music for more than two decades. Matt Anniss spoke with the French artist about his craft.
By his own admission, Nicolas Chaix is not the most high-profile producer. Throughout his 22-year career as I:Cube, the Parisian has shied away from talking to the media, preferring simply to make music and, on rare occasions, perform live. His profile has shrunk further since he all but quit DJing earlier in the decade, despite producing some of the most memorable music of his career in recent years.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated about this," says Gilbert Cohen, AKA DJ Gilb'R, Chaix's friend and production partner in Château Flight. "I think he really deserves some more recognition because I don't know many producers out there who have been making music for so long—especially in the 'dance' scene—who actually get better every year. Nicolas is making some of his best music right now."
Cohen knows Chaix better than almost anyone. He was the first artist he signed to Versatile Records back in 1996. "The first time I heard his demos I knew that it was exactly the sound I was looking for," Cohen says. "Even though I have been running the label, I consider it totally his, too. I think he has somehow defined the sound of the label. He's been carrying our flag for 22 years now as an artist, but also now mixes a lot of the records we put out and does some of the artwork."
It's hard to disagree that Chaix has shaped the sound of Versatile—after all, alongside their collaborative Château Flight project, he's the label's most storied act. His releases, which have variously put a unique spin on classic deep house, Detroit techno, electro, future jazz, dub, hip-hop, ambient, krautrock, Balearic, Yorkshire bleep and cosmic disco, mirror the label's celebrated eclecticism.
It's clear, though, that he's a far different character from the enthusiastic and gregarious Cohen. So when I received an email from him, out of the blue, six months ago, it came as a surprise. We exchanged countless emails discussing various aspects of electronic music, confirming that Chaix is, first and foremost, an obsessive music fan. It's this, coupled with impeccable production and mixing skills, that defines him as an artist. Over two hours in May, we spoke on the phone about his inspirations, history, studio methods and what the future might hold for I:Cube and Château Flight.
A lot of people don't know much about you or your life because you've never sought publicity.
It's not very interesting, to be honest. I grew up in Paris and I've lived in various places around the city, in the suburbs but also closer to the studio, which is near Père Lachaise cemetery. There was a year when I lived in Rome when I had a residency at the Villa Medici. That was in 2013-14.
What did you do there?
It was kind of a break. It's in a beautiful, fairytale castle so you can get lost in this crazy, meditative, out-of-the-way life. I learned to listen more and take time to do something else—more ambient and less dance floor music. I think I needed that because DJing at the weekends had become a routine. At one point I got a bit stuck because it takes a lot of energy to do that.
How have you managed to keep motivated and creative over a career that has spanned two decades?
At one point you need to explore different things. I've always been into visual art, like drawing, photos, graphic design and graffiti. That's another way to escape. It's a good way to reset your ears, if you go to see an exhibition of some paintings. Also, I had kids quite early and that helped me keep my feet on the ground.
How did you first access underground electronic music? Was it by listening to the radio?
Yes. That was very important for Parisian kids at the end of the 1980s. That was the only way to get access to new, interesting, fresh music, from hip-hop to early house. When President François Mitterrand was elected in 1981 his government decided to open up access to the FM frequencies.
It was a bit chaotic, but there were loads of strange stations. Of course there was Radio Nova, which was really interesting. Their slogan was "sono mondiale," which means "worldwide radio"—they could mix up everything. They could play zouk and jazz and new wave and reggae and punk. There was also a show on Radio Libertaire where some industrial, post-punk and experimental music was played. There was another station called Radio FG. In the '90s they were playing hardcore and garage all day long. All the DJs who were playing at the raves would play on the station.
What were the key DJs and shows that you would listen to as a teenager?
First there was Dee Nasty, who was a very influential hip-hop DJ. You could hear early, then current hip-hop from the US that you wouldn't find anywhere else. This was very influential on me for the sampling aspect—a lot of people discovered soul and funk through the samples in the records he played. There was also Loïk Dury, who was playing a lot of soul and funk, and then DJs like Laurent Garnier and Guillaume La Tortue.
I think it was Guillaume La Tortue who really exposed me to underground house and techno through his show. He played really strange, underground records—Nu Groove records, with some UK bleep techno and some Italian and Dutch stuff, all mixed together. I'm so happy to have discovered this music at that time, because it is very incredible when you look back. Without wanting to sound nostalgic, it was a very creative time. I was a bit disappointed when I went to my first raves because they didn't play that kind of intense music—it was a bit cheesy to my tastes. I was a bit sad [laughs].
How did the move into making music come about?
I started quite young, playing drums and stuff, and then I got a little Casio keyboard with a sampler in it. Of course, the sampler was not very good. I would also go into Tandy, which sold cheap consumer electronics, and pick up some things. That allowed me to make music and record some tapes. When I go back and listen to these tapes, I really like it because the music is very naive, rough, not really produced and in a way has this teenage energy.
When was this?
Around 1989. Later on I started buying more equipment. I saved money to buy a more advanced sampler, a small drum machine and a small synth, until the point around 1993 or '94 where I could have released music. That's when I started sending tapes out. It was 1995 when I sent a tape to Radio Nova and that's when Gilbert decided to set up Versatile. I was 21 at the time, 22 when my first record was released a year later.
That was slap bang in the middle of the French touch era in Paris. Was it as exciting and thrilling as we've been led to believe?
I think sometimes people over-romanticise things and it's not the strict reality, but during that period you could feel that there was something really fresh going on in Paris. With the French touch era it was like a release. We knew in a way it wouldn't last for long and I got bored quickly when it became a formula. I was already in other fields, so I never really connected strongly with that scene.
Perhaps "Disco Cubizm" was the closest you got to that sound, but other early releases such as "Mingus In My Pocket" and your debut album, Picnic Attack, are very different.
I haven't listened to that album for a long time, but the last time I listened to it I was quite surprised. Some of it has dated, but some of the other stuff is a bit outside any style—a bit like Pépé Bradock, who as an artist is a bit similar in that he is outside a lot of styles. I don't know whether we can connect the two of us, but we have one foot on the dance floor and the other in… I don't know, in the clouds or somewhere.
Sometimes I would love to do a very minimal, straight techno track for example. I would love to have the knowledge and confidence to do that, but I always feel like I have to add some stuff. I get lost in the middle and I end up going in another direction. Tracks never turn out the way I planned when I start them.
Have your production methods changed over the years? Is there less reliance on sampling than there once was?
Yeah, that's true. I try and find ways to disguise it so that it is not so obvious, but most of the time there is still a sample somewhere in the track. Sampling is what I tried to work on for years and years. It is still relevant today. Creatively you now have tools that were impossible to think about 20 years ago, and the tools to make music are way cheaper and simpler to use. I'm waiting for the next technological advance that defines a new genre, like hip-hop or house.
A lot of younger producers have been embracing modular synthesis or making tracks using old equipment to try and get a vintage or retro sound, rather than trying to create a fresh style.
Sometimes records are great because they refer to an old period but have this "now" sound. But when it is too much like a tribute to old New York house for example, then sometimes it's more like a museum piece or a replica.
I understand that a lot of DJs and producers can be suspicious about that nostalgia aspect of dance music culture. What was exciting about dance music in that formative period was the futurist ethos.
Exactly. That is how I felt when I first heard bleep techno records. I knew nothing about them other than that they came from the UK, but I could feel that it was the sound of the future in a sci-fi way—like Detroit, where they also had this sci-fi vision. I was drawn to this kind of escapism and records that allowed me to imagine things.
Yes, exactly. I was listening to these records and they took me to some place outside of reality, with some new, futuristic sounds but also some romanticism because I didn't know who made the records, anything about their lives or the scenes associated with them. I have this feeling with Ibiza and the Balearic sound. I have never been to Ibiza, but when I Iisten to some of the records from that scene I always imagine that it is the craziest place. Sometimes, when you know the reality it is not so special.
It's now been six years since you put out an album. Do you still have a desire to make albums?
Who listens to an album today? Most people buy one or two tracks. They don't have time to digest the same amount of information everyday. For albums you have to think about the time afterwards promoting it, too. I am not on social media and I do not have Facebook, which doesn't help. If you release an album, a week later it is already old news. I don't want to be constantly releasing stuff to say, "Look at me, I am alive!"
I don't want to do a dance music album. It doesn't make sense and it isn't what I'm interested in nowadays. I want to do some EPs rather than a proper straight album. At least with the more downtempo stuff you can make albums to listen to at home, outside the club. I am planning to release a more home listening album.
Your next release, which we'll get to hear in September, is the new Château Flight single, which is the first the two of you have released for over four years.
Gilbert moved to Amsterdam a few years ago and I had not had the opportunity to visit him until last December. We made some tracks, but with nothing really in mind beforehand. When you have been making music with someone for such a long time, you don't even need to talk, you know. It's second nature.
I don't really know how to describe the tracks. It's hard for people to categorize what style we are doing. We are not really into a scene, we're not really into a precise style, so a lot of people can't read clearly what is going on. That is why we have suffered. Sometimes it is a bit difficult, to be honest, but then I prefer this. I could not do one style for years and years. It is impossible. I would get bored.
Your career, and that of Château Flight and Versatile Records, has been built on trying different things.
That's the point for the label and my music to a certain extent. Gilbert wants people to be surprised and for the label not to become formulaic. He just goes on instinct. If he listens to some tracks and really likes them, he will just say, "We have to release these." Nothing is planned and that can make it a bit hectic when it comes to the release schedule, but it is good when people follow us and understand the way we do things.
The label definitely has a following. I would also suggest that these days, the labels and artists who come to you and Gilbert for remixes are people who really respect the way Versatile does things and therefore allow you to do whatever you want.
That is the way it works usually, yes. I like sometimes when you get a remix offer and the original music is great but really different. Then you can try and take it somewhere else while keeping the spirit and vibe of the original—giving it your own context and background. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Because there is less ego involved as it is not your music, you are less precious and can experiment with things a little bit more.
I can imagine it being a really interesting experience in some cases, because you can be inspired by a particular sound or an aspect of the track that can be explored in a different way.
Every time it is different. Sometimes it is more about the atmosphere of the track that you can transpose into another… context? I don't really know how to explain that. When it has a vocal it is easier, because people find it easier to relate.
The Tornado Wallace remix you did recently had some of the original vocals in it. I found myself singing them round the house the other day.
He is very clever with hooks, like pop gimmicks. He knows how to write hooks. I don't.
Writing great pop songs is not easy.
You can reach people emotionally on another level. But then in synth pop in the '80s, you also had crazy B-sides and dubs, where they would deconstruct the hit and make it something completely different.
Trevor Horn and his production team were very good at that—just look at the Art Of Noise project and how experimental that was.
I was a huge fan of Art Of Noise as a kid. They were very inventive and poetic in a way. Also, the mood—I don't know whether it's especially British, but you can feel it, especially in Anne Dudley's chords and the way it was produced. Paul Morley, the writer, his concepts were crazy—sometimes pretentious and snobby but they were obviously having fun. I like it when people do things like that. When you look at promo sheets now it is so depressing. There's no surprise. I really like it when there is a story, I can really get into that.
You've been making music for a long time and released a lot of records. Looking back at your catalogue, which of your releases are you most proud of?
Well, that's very hard. If I'm honest, I can say some of the tracks on my first album because they have this spontaneous, free, naive vibe that I like. And perhaps some tracks from the recent period, because I think I'm finally reaching something close to the music I want to make. On one side you have this primitive, unsophisticated thing, and on the other, something more elaborative and full. I don't know if you understand what I'm saying.
I think I do. One of the things I noticed on Double Pack is that some of the tracks are more musically complex than standard techno or house tunes, using things like counter-melodies.
That's right. It's because I stepped out a bit more from the pure dance floor sound. I am a bit more confident in putting in stuff that not everyone will notice or you can find. It's not at all being experimental or weird for the sake of weird, more like adding textures, patterns and moods to make it richer than a classic dance floor tune.
You have a lot of experience and have enjoyed a long career. What else would you like to achieve in music before you finish?
I have no idea! I don't have a plan, I don't have a career—I should have by now. The future career of a lot of producers today is working on soundtracks. I would be really happy if somebody approached me to do something like that. Apart from that, I actually don't know.
What about DJing? Is that something you would return to?
I've not been DJing much for four years now. The issue is more the travel connected to it. I'm not complaining—who would complain about being a DJ and traveling the world? It would be totally gross to say I am complaining about that. Perhaps that's the reason I make more music, because I love making records. I also love playing records but it's more the context of traveling all day, all week that puts me off.
Do you think it is more difficult DJing in certain circumstances when you're older?
If you are playing to an older crowd and they expect the same records from 20 or 30 years ago it can be bittersweet. But then if you play to an audience that is a lot younger, the generation gap can lead to weird situations. I mean, you ask yourself questions: am I still relevant? Should I be doing this, or should someone else be doing it?
I:Cube in seven records
Released at the height of the French touch scene, this sublime, jazz-flecked early single showed that Chaix wasn't afraid to battle against the prevailing cultural winds.
Surging, far-sighted techno futurism (with jazz cymbals) from Chaix and regular studio partner Gilb'R, featuring some glassy-eyed synthesizer melodies.
Original Wu-Tang Clan member RZA adds his distinctive rhymes to this fusion of hip-hop, electro and deep house, from Chaix's 2003 album, 3.
This nine-minute ambient movement, rich in field recordings, chiming bells, starburst electronics and shuffling rhythms, offered a memorable opening to the I:Cube live performance that was later released as Live At The Planetarium.
I:Cube in full-on rave mode, this track appeared on both the 2011 Lucifer En Discothèque EP and 2012's freewheeling 'M' Megamix.
Made in tribute to his love of early UK bleep techno, "Cryptoporticus" is the missing link between "LFO," modern new wave chuggers and Château Flight's creepy Les Vampires silent movie soundtrack.
Having gleefully accepted the parts to Mei Tahat's experimental, freestyle jazz-funk jam, Chaix decided to turn it into a sunrise-friendly, saucer-eyed mid-tempo workout. The results remain stunning.
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