In the Studio with Musician Nicolas Jaar by SOFIA CAVALLO
It’s always a treat to pick the brain of a creative who’s as articulate about their work as much as they are innovative, like the electronic artist Nicolas Jaar. Since starting out at the age of 17, he’s amassed the following that most bands and artists could only dream of, touring all over the world and even running his own record label Clown & Sunset. His sound––deep and ambient, where time and space feel warped and basslines hit you like someone dribbling a basketball on your chest in slow-motion––is fascinatingly unqualifiable. I visited his Tribeca studio along with OC photographer BRAYDEN and OCNY’s KYLE to get the 411.
Sofia Cavallo: Let’s start by talking about your Comp Lit undergraduate studies at Brown. You’ve talked about how your schoolwork inspired a lot of your music. But that almost sounds too good, too academic to be true.
Nicolas Jaar: Well I guess if I worked it in reverse: now that I’m not at school, the feeling that I miss is having to write a paper and not really wanting to write it. I would finish it, and then all I would want to do is something fun. That would usually mean making music. So schoolwork would give me this very strong desire to make music. It’s not like I was reading Derrida and it inspired me, but more like I had to write a paper on Derrida, it was annoying––though I still enjoyed it because it’s what I was studying––but the music still ended up being influenced by the thing I had done right before.
SC: Now that you’re no longer in school, has making music become the tedious thing that makes you crave an intellectual outlet?
NJ: That’s interesting. Making music isn’t tedious for me, thank god it isn’t. I’m still obsessed with it. I am in a very good and happy phase of wow, I can make music every single day for ten hours a day. Maybe at some point I will get sick of it. But I’m definitely not bored of it now.
Kyle Wukasch: When did you realize that music was more than a passion, and that it was going in the direction of a career?
NJ: I never really realized it because I was in school for so long. I was so hidden away in Providence and doing my thing, that even when I was away from school touring for two months, I was like, oh it’s just the summer. I guess now that I am out of school, it does feel like I’ve woken up.
SC: You did send a demo to the label Wolf + Lamb when you were 17. Was there a specific intention behind that?
NJ: I saw the Marcy [Hotel, where Wolf + Lamb held parties] as a place where people only drank champagne, and listened to music that I only thought existed in Europe. [Laughs] So I sent my music more as a, hey I’m doing this too––not as a hey sign me up, publish my music.
SC: You were still in high school at that time. The first time I saw you play was actually at one of our school talent shows, when you took over the stage with a bunch of synthesizers. I remember the sound just tripping everyone out. In what ways has your music changed since then?
NJ: I’ve always been drawn to certain things. Looking back, they were executed in a very intuitive but simple way. It was like, I’m really into Middle Eastern music so I’m gonna sample this Middle Eastern loop and put it on top of a beat. That’s all it was. But the way it has evolved is that I’m finding ways to say what I want without being referential. That’s the main thing. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of more experimental stuff, it’s just what comes naturally now.
SC: When you’re creating music with borrowed elements, how do you remain non-referential? Do you meld them until there’s a weird unfamiliarity that signals a step in the right direction?
NJ: Weird is a weird word, and it works––but I almost prefer to say psychedelic. Like if you were listening to Coltrane and the sound of a TV going static, you know? It might be weird but it also might be really psychedelic. [Laughs]
SC: So now you have your own label, Clown & Sunset. What makes you want to sign an artist?
NJ: I think intuition and friendship. It’s been very based on people that I have strong connections to, like my best friends from school. Or my first girlfriend’s brother, who is a classically trained pianist.
KW: Did you have any classical upbringing in music?
NJ: I took a couple of piano lessons when I was 14 or 15 because my mother was like, Nico you could do this. My mother has always been very, very supportive of me making music. So I took three of these classes and I said, Mom, I understood something important, but I don’t want to do this anymore because it’s going to take me somewhere I don’t want to go. I guess I didn’t want to know so much. I just wanted to do music and see what happened.
SC: Brown has a really exceptional electronic music program, yet you chose Comp Lit as your major. Do you think that academicising a craft is actually unconducive to creativity?
NJ: I think the best thing is to have the most distance from what you do, but at the same time the least distance. I know that sounds like an impossible feat, but what I mean is that you go through a period of three months listening to what people are really loving at the moment, and then another two months not listening to anything at all, so that you can become yourself again. So you take those influences but you don’t use them as translations. Instead, you let them churn psychedelically in your mind, and you use the result of that combustion. I think you really need a lot of distance from what you do in order to make something new and unique. That’s why it’s so hard!
SC: You’ve talked about your live sets as being similar to the work of an architect. How do you alter your performances based on the space around you, beyond the basic DJ intuition of feeling out a crowd?
NJ: Touring is a strange thing. You arrive at the airport, where a friendly face is there to take care of you. They bring you to the hotel, then the club for soundcheck, then to the restaurant to have dinner before the show. Every single time, there’s a cast of characters. I can’t tell you how many cities for me are shaped by that experience, which is a completely subjective experience. It’s very nice, but it’s people taking care of you and trying to show you certain things depending on the music you make. So I’m just complicating a question that I could answer very easily. Yes, the context changes the performance every time. The simple answer is that the crowd’s reaction in the first five, ten minutes is the most important thing. If they’re silent you say holy shit, they’re listening. And if they’re talking, then you’re just up there and you think no one cares.
SC: How can you tell when they understand the music?
NJ: You can just tell. There’s a silence. The first time I went to Tel Aviv, my first drop was really subtle and not very bombastic––and the whole floor went crazy. It actually startled me that people understood what I did, because it just doesn’t happen that often.
SC: In interviews, you’ve talked about your music coming from a very honest place––your BPM resembling a heartbeat, and your sound tending towards melancholy and sadness. Do you equate existence with sadness?
NJ: [Long pause] My favorite music in the world is sad, for sure. But I’m realizing more and more that not everything has to be in a minor key, or sad, or dark, or bass-y in order to be special and effective. That was the first phase of my creative thinking. Now I’m getting to a point where I’m thinking that what you have inside that comes off as pain or melancholy is actually something really beautiful and complex. It’s not sad energy, it’s not happy energy. It’s just really really strong energy.
SC: Are there any artists in literature, film, or music that you think achieve this?
NJ: Yeah, a lot. One of my favorite artists is Gordon Matta-Clark. He used to cut buildings in half or put a hole through them right before they got demolished, and take pictures. Just the poetry of a building that’s going to be demolished, and making art the second before it dies––already that hits an amount of complexity that, to me, is huge. To immortalize the building not in its true form, nor in its dead form, but in its most ephemeral place. That’s a work of art that I admire.
As for films, one that speaks a lot to me is The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci. It’s so important and beautiful because it’s like, are you part of this grand scheme of things? It’s all about Paris 1968 happening and these kids are basically doing nothing in their parents’ house, and the last shot is them going out and joining the protests. And I think we’re all this way in the saddest way possible––there is so much to fight against and sometimes we fight, but do we do it for completely psychological and subjective reasons, or because we think it’s morally important to fight against X, Y, and Z? I’m sure we would prefer thinking it’s a moral question.
Thanks to Opening Ceremony for sharing this.