Photograph by Richard Bellia
Laurent Garnier is a techno Buddha, and a French national treasure whose presence has been known since the late '80s at Manchester's Hacienda club. He's a jovial man with a wicked sense of humor who knows how to get down to some serious business when it comes to philosophizing on the nature of the beat or laying down jackin' Detroit techno, acid-infused house or whatever flavors he's feeling that evening. Which could be a lot of things given his notoriously wide range of music and body of work.
His latest project is a year long five-pronged release with an almost holistic approach. He's targeting five different labels with five very distinctive sounds, which will be tied together as a unified box set plus some extra special surprises. The onslaught of EPs is complemented by the tour journal, an interactive part blog, part tablet magazine experience that helps brings fans and newcomers into his weird and wonderful world.
THUMP: It's a true honour to meet a legend like yourself Mr. Garnier but I imagined your face would be redder…
Laurent Garnier: Really?
Oh, it's a dumb joke. I was just wondering why they call you the man with the red face.
Haha! I am not the man with the red face! That's Philippe Nadaud, my saxophone player. I brought him in to record a song and he did his parts but I kept telling him "you're shit, you're shit, you're so bad!" He kept playing and playing and by the end, he had this bright red face so I said, "okay, I'm good, I've got what I need." And he looked at me with his face all swollen up; the man with the red face. He toured with me for 15 years. We did a lot of concerts together, but I don't know what he's doing anymore.
So tell me about the new Garnier project.
The idea behind it is to put out a lot of music. Basically, I've been making albums for a long time and they usually feature many styles of music. The fact that I produce so many different styles means some can get overshadowed. I feel like some tracks didn't get the recognition they could have had because I thought they were stronger than what happened around them. I feel a bit frustrated sometimes when I listen to some of my old stuff. Not saying that I like everything I've done, but I thought some of my old tracks could have received a better rayonnement, or more exposure. This time I don't want to change my way of making music because this is who I am, I like doing all sorts of music, but I thought about how to release my music. Is it still a good thing today to release an album, as we know it today? Or maybe the way we make, sell and listen to music has changed in the last ten years. So maybe we should receive it differently, too. For my new releases, I thought instead of putting everything on the same record, let's go and target each EP, which will have a different style, to the right label.
I wanted to do Dancemania-esque Chicago house music, so I did AF 0490 in Chicago on Still Music. I wanted to do some downtempo music so I did AF13 with Musique Large because it's a label that does that kind of shit. Of course I did techno as I always do and I thought, "who do I really like now, and feel strongly with? 50 Weapons. Bang." The rest of the project will come out that way. The next release is going to be very slow, jazzy and super deep house. I won't say the label since it's a surprise but that will be in June. The fifth release is very techno, quite epic, and trippy. That will also be out on another label.
That's a very cool concept.
The idea of this was to approach different labels as different tribes with their own followings. After we release the five EPs, we will release a big box set with all the music, saying how instead of just doing one album with one label, we did an album with five labels! Even though they're all very different, for different crowds, we are all very similar in a way of working. We fight for underground music and we fight for quality music. Even though it's so different, it's all the same. Everybody will be under the same imprint respecting all the labels with the sixth EP on it. It will be very limited, with three vinyls that regroup all the tracks from the five EPs plus remixes and the extra EP which will finish the album off, as if to say, "by the way, here's your complete album!"
It's quite funny isn't it?
So why is the new project just called Garnier?
We thought about calling it just Garnier instead of Laurent Garnier as a French expression. It's like when somebody becomes part of your group or family, we just call them by their last name in an affectionate manner. I think I've been known in France for so long that I'm kind of part of the family. When they go and listen to me, they never say, "Let's throw on some Laurent Garnier!". It's always, "Let's throw on some Garnier." We felt it was closer to the people to just call it Garnier. It's very French; it doesn't really work in other countries.
I love the idea of your interactive tour journal, it's a real work of art for the digital generation.
Well, we thought about how we were going to put everything together because when we went to all these different labels, we completely trust them, We let them do what they would for their own artists, with their own way of doing the artwork, etc. We also discussed a lot about the music as you see in the emails from the journals, and it's a real collaboration. So we thought about how we could still have something to unify everything and have the same identity. We thought people would understand the projects a little bit better if we threw all these work emails in there so people would understand that it's not about me trying to force feed labels with my music. If they like one of my tracks, we work together and they give me direction. This is how I worked with all the labels for this project. I completely trust their tastes, and I wanted to be completely integrated into their families. We started thinking about how to create one full story arc. It's like a blog, well, it looks like one!
Tell me about the video for "Revenge of the Lol Cat." It's hilarious!
Haha, there's been a lot of bullshit about this one. I did the track and we talked to Musique Large about doing a video but they didn't have much money. It was all very low key but they told us they knew a guy, Emile Sacré, who could do something fun. The funny thing is, I never met the guys from the label before I released the records. We only had email communication; I didn't even know what they looked like. So I have a bit of a strange sense of humour, especially when I write emails in French. I'm very serious and business like when I write, but I love to end things on a very weird and stupid note—it's a French thing. So they started asking me why the hell I gave my songs such weird names like "The Rise and Fall of The Donkey Dog."
Yeah! Me too!
My wife has a horse. One day, I sent them a picture of my dog wearing my wife's horse's hat that has these two big ears for when it's too cold out. He's a really dumb dog and gave me this, hilarious "fuck off" look. I took a picture and sent it to the Musique Large guys saying, "I present to you, my donkey dog!" Naturally, they asked me to send a picture of my real life lolcat next. He's really dumb as well, so we started sending each other funny lolcat pictures from the net. I finally found this one of a cat that was covered in snow and the caption was "so much cocaine!" It was hilarious, because I'm not into drugs at all actually.
In the end we thought it would be funny for the video if we did something with the "Lol Cats" song, maybe based around that picture, but something a bit more politically correct. So they made this video of the cat trying to hack my computer but then they really upped the ante with the "drugs are awesome" picture. I told them, "look guys, you have to be really careful with this, people know that I'm not into drugs and they won't understand." So what we did in the end was stage this huge image with my face saying "drugs are awesome" and I got all these messages from people who were so upset! They were like, "Laurent, I think your computer has been hacked!" Or "Laurent, have you been doing drugs this weekend? You're a fucking asshole!" I realized that if I responded to comments, it would spoil it all, so we froze my website for five days which people thought was really weird. Then we posted the video and everybody got it.
Ok, I must ask you a serious question now. When you first started playing in the '80s at The Hacienda in Manchester, DJs were celebrated for having a very eclectic and mixed up style, playing everything from reggae to big band, with house and techno and disco thrown in. What was it about house and techno that really caught your attention?
At the time in the '80s, music was very clean and nice. A bit too nice, cheesy even. When I first heard Chicago house I thought, "WOW, this is GOOD!" Acid house was very raw, urban, tough and syncopated music, there were no vocals like New York house which came a few years after.
When Detroit techno came, I thought, "this is exactly the essence of everything I love about music." I can feel jazz in Detroit techno; I can feel disco and soul in Chicago house. I feel so many things I like with synthetics. I felt so much that makes this is exactly everything together. It's my music; it's who I am.
But I've never left reggae or any other style. I went all the way there without leaving the music I had been listening to all the years before, but house and techno were the essences of everything. Funnily enough, it's been 25 years and it's the last big revolution of the century. There hasn't been one since house or techno, which is very strange because when you look at the story of music, every ten years since the '30s through the '80s there have been huge revolutions with disco, rock 'n' roll, funk, psychedelic. But hip-hop and R&B were born before them. dubstep and drum and bass are part of the electronic music world. There has still yet to be another big music revolution. Very strange. I think it's because house and techno take from everywhere and they have an ability to mix so many things together.
You must be constantly scoping out new music. What is it that you look for?
Yes it's my job, but I'm not searching for anything in particular. What touches me is either the funk or the atmosphere. Does it feel very dark? Very druggy? Deep? Strange? That's one thing; the elements of the sound and their environment. If it's dance music, a lot of the time it's the funkiness, as in the bass line, the groove, or the keys. The sound is quite important as well. Again, this is why I got bored in the '80s with things being too clean. I like things that are raw, however, I like Radiohead who are not at all raw and very well produced.
I don't listen to the words even if it's in French. I am not trying to understand, I'm thinking, "is this song interesting enough to play it?" For me, voice is as important as one of the instruments. Lyrics matter but I don't search for a meaning in a song. The voice is what brings the atmosphere.
What are you working on next?
I'm writing a scenario for Electrochoc, the book I wrote. Also we might shoot next year. I work every week with Stephane Dri aka Scan X. He mixes all my music and we just finished producing an album for a French conscious hip-hop artist Abd al Malik. I would love to carry on the LBS project, but our third member is not in good health and has moved to Thailand, so we may have to continue that with just us two under a different name as a new live show.
After over 20 years in the game, how do you keep such a great sense of humour?
Haha! I guess that's who I am. I have a lot of very stupid yet stimulating people around me.
Jesse Ship is a freelance writer and former Juno jury member in the Electronic music category. You can follow his rants at @Jesse_Ship