At Dekmantel festival in Amsterdam last summer, on a gorgeous sunny day, I watched Laurent Garnier play an equally gorgeous and sunny set that had punters grinning from ear to ear. What made it special too is that, being the Boiler Room, the crowd were probably young enough to be Laurent's kids - and to have one generation come together to the sounds of an elder in such an easy, carefree way was a moment that confirms what makes house music's old guard so revered still. They just really know how to work a crowd.
French house producer, DJ, radio host and near 30-year mainstay of the now-global house music scene, Laurent Garnier, is touring and releasing as frantically as ever in 2014. With 5 new EPs coming out on five different labels this year - down-tempo hip-hop on Parisian label Musique Large, Chicago-flavoured house on Still Music, darker techno on 50 Weapons all announced so far - Garnier's hunger for the new sees precious little sign of abating.
In conversation, he's infectiously energetic; singing endless praise of the capacity for the underground to hold its grip on the public imagination, of the independent labels that keep him inspired, and how, after 25 years of life as a touring DJ, he still feels the magic of the dance floor.
THUMP: What's new with you Laurent; you have 5 new EPs coming out on five different labels this year, right?
Laurent Garnier: When I make an album I usually produce lots of different styles of music together, so the idea with doing five EPs instead was to find a more intelligent, targeted way of continuing with these various styles, but targeting them; a Chicago house EP for Kill Music, the more down-tempo, hip hop-leaning release for Musique Large, the darker techno side for 50 Weapons. When I concentrate on the styles I care about, I think it makes for a stronger EP. If I'd put all these together in one album, it would have lessened the impact.
I'm surprised that you're releasing with Musique Large; a great label, sure, but also really underground and more experimental hip hop-leaning than the style of house listeners would have come to associate with you. How did that come around?
Laurent Garnier: The idea of sending tracks to Musique Large came very quickly to me. I've been following Musique Large for a long time now. I had a show for the last four years on French radio, and I'd been pushing their music a lot. I'm a big fan.
How did you find working with each label on each release? It must have been quite a juggling act?
Laurent Garnier: When I work with someone, I need to adapt. I cant force feed the label with my music. It's more of a collaboration. When I sent them some of my tracks we went back and forth: "Oh, we like this direction, maybe you should do a track in that direction", and so on, you know? I see these projects as a process of natural selection. When you want another label to get involved with you, you need to get involved with them too. I cant just turn up and say "Hey, I'm Laurent Garnier and I do what I want!" - it must be an immersive experience. Hooking up with Musique Large it might shock some people, but it's not a million miles away from what I've been doing musically.
Why split it all up though; why 5 EPs rather than one LP say?
Laurent Garnier: I've always wanted to do too much and - I don't know - maybe it was a mistake? I'm an eclectic person. I don't want to change my way of working so much, but channel my work in new ways so that the sounds can be best represented. Usually when I think of making lots of tracks I'm aiming for an album, so I wasn't thinking of having a certain flavour per se. I can understand that both you and the listener can lose focus if you put out too much information. On some of my albums there are strong tracks I care about, but because they're in a place with too many things going on, sometimes they haven't stuck out as well as they should.
I think if I'd have gone to a huge label, people might have thought I was just trying to get publicity, but the idea of small labels? They're all very underground. People understand that I've never sold out. I never do something to sell more, it's always been about passion. It's not just a release. I've been talking to the labels for 3 or 4 months, so it's not just a one night stand. Once we've done those 5, were going to release something that includes everybody at the same time.
What's the reaction been like? I can imagine after producing for over 20 years, it can be difficult to get honest feedback.
Laurent Garnier: I recently programmed 24 hours for a French radio station – I think I gave them like 300 or 350 tracks - and there were a couple of tracks I programmed that were mine, too. I didn't bill them as my own though, so when I was playing them the others at the station were like, "Wow, I love this hip hop track!" Ha, it was rewarding in a very strange, underhand way. I saw how people reacted to my material without it being "Laurent Garnier's New Track", you know?
I saw that you recently stopped doing your most recent radio show. Are you calling time on radio work for now to concentrate on other things?
Laurent Garnier: Well no, I'm talking with another national radio station in France to start in September. I love radio.
How do you keep passionate about radio after being on the air for so long?
Laurent Garnier: I'm lucky because I'm in a position where I don't have to make any concessions. If I do a show, I do my thing. They don't have to force me to play anything. If I feel like playing an hour and a half of punk rock I'll do it, and I think radio has to be represented like that. Radio is great because it allows me to play music that I cant play out in clubs. As a DJ my job is to make people dance, but when you have listeners you don't have the same concerns. I like that I can select for people alone, in their house - it's such an intimate relationship. Because of talking, and taking time over each record, they get to know more of your personality. You open yourself more than you would if you were DJing in a club.
Having played in the UK for over 25 years, what do you make of the evolution of the UK dance music scene; cities like Manchester in particular? You're always singing its praises.
Laurent Garnier: Manchester went through a dark phase in 90s. Gangs and violence really fucked the whole thing up completely, and for a long time the city was not a fun place to go and DJ. That changed thanks to Warehouse Project - and others before them - who rebuilt a proper nightlife and bringing good DJs to Manchester. It's true that Warehouse Project has a very important role for clubbing in the north of England, because they've been bringing in really big crowds and still promoting underground music. Now, you go out in Manchester on a Friday or Saturday night, and there's 5000 to 6000 people going nuts to some very underground music. Manchester went through some hard times, but the city never sold out. It still feels healthy.
What's the scene like right now in France, in Paris especially?
Laurent Garnier: Paris is exploding right now. There must be 10 or 12 clubs promoting good underground music, and they're all super busy every night with amazing line ups. There's so many new artists, DJs, labels, clubs - I've never seen it like this before! There's a huge excitement about underground music in France right now, a real return to the underground.
I ask because there's really not much of a culture in the UK of talking about French dance artists. The last real surge of interest in Parisian dance music in the wider conversation was surrounding Ed Banger, but that was nearly ten years ago now.
Laurent Garnier: The thing with Ed Banger is that it belongs to 8 or 10 years ago. Alongside their music though - which I've always enjoyed, I have a lot of love for Ed Banger – they had a constant hard sell of the whole Ed Banger package, and the new generation goes very much against that. They want music. They focus on quality, and little else. This is a very "post-Ed Banger" phase but, without Ed Banger's success and reach, we might not have this generation fighting for the underground. It's all been very positive.
Is that what you meant by working against marketisation and globalisation in your recent posts about the EPs?
Laurent Garnier: I'd say that, maybe 10 years ago, the way DJs were marketing themselves became more important than their music. Everything changed from faceless techno to superstar DJs; where guys were asking for indecent fees, having huge logos and promotion around themselves, constant Facebook bullshit marketing – it was more about image than content. Then 3 or 4 years ago, the new generation that had never grown up with vinyl came through and thought, "What's the point of all this shit?" They found a new message, a new fight, for the music they care about. Many went back to vinyl, rejecting mass distribution, all the media bullshit. They came back to a fight we had 20 years ago, maybe.
I'm preternaturally wary of DJs and producers who insist that vinyl is better, or more sincere, or more worthy than other mediums. I feel that "taking dance music seriously" and being a vinyl head don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. Is it even an absolute now, to care and invest in the culture, to be into vinyl?
Laurent Garnier: I don't think its a fetishism. I'm part of a generation that grew up with vinyl and along with vinyl, I know what it is to invest in artists I care for. If you put your hand in your pocket and get 15€ for a record, that you know a guy has slaved over, you know you're buying an artefact. If you're 18 or 20 years old, you've grown up in a world of music where everything is free. Switch on your computer? You can find pretty much anything for free. We have a generation that doesn't know what it is to invest.
I can understand that vinyl is stored and moved, and has a value, but that weight means something. More than that, it's a rediscovering of what it is to invest in someone. When young people invest in this way, they find a new sense of the artist. They care more. I'm not overly nostalgic and as much as I'm happy to work with vinyl only labels, I still play on USB. As long as you play a good track, it doesn't matter where it comes from. Especially when your focus is the dance floor. That's my job as a DJ.
Laurent Garnier plays the UK and Ireland next weekend, with a London date at Egg London on March 14th. More details here.
You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums