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Jean-Michel Jarre: an audience with the godfather of electronic prog

How many musicians have influenced Tangerine Dream AND Princess Diana? One – and his name is Jean-Michel Jarre

Jean-Michel Jarre’s collaboration on a track with ex-CIA “whistle blower” Edward Snowden has been grabbing the headlines as his new album Electronica 2: The Heart Of Noise emerges. It follows last year’s Electronica 1: The Time Machine. Like that album, which featured Pete Townshend, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter, it’s an eclectic set of musical hook-ups with young and veteran like-minds, from Gary Numan to The Orb, from Pet Shop Boys to Hans Zimmer. Speaking about the Snowden cut, Jarre, a ridiculously young-looking 67, says, “It strangely reminded me of my mum, who was a great figure in the French Resistance. She taught me that the line between a traitor and a hero is quite subjective and fragile…”

Jarre’s life story was fascinating even before he found fame. His father Maurice Jarre was a giant of film music who won Oscars for his Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage To India scores. Yet Jean-Michel barely knew him. “That was out of the picture,” he responds when Prog probes his musical genes, in the only terse moment in an otherwise chatty, convivial interview. The young Jarre studied music at the Conservatoire de Paris and had Pierre Schaeffer (father of “musique concrete”) as a mentor, spending time working at Stockhausen’s studio

Falling in love with synthesisers, he set up his own makeshift “studio” in his kitchen. There, in 1976, he recorded his third album, Oxygène, which struggled to find a release. When it did, despite sneering reviews, it sold 12 million worldwide. Equinoxe, two years later, was followed by a Place de la Concorde concert which drew a million-strong crowd, placing Jarre in the Guinness Book of Records. He went on to surpass that with 1.5 million in Houston in 1986, and then 2.5 million, again in Paris, in 1990. In 1997, he attracted 3.5 million in Moscow. His shows became orgies of futuristic, sci-fi spectacle, replete with lights, lasers and fireworks. The 1988 shows on floating stages at the then-desolate London Docklands, subjecting his fan Princess Diana to apocalyptically bad British weather, are carved in London folklore.

Jarre’s now sold over 80 million albums and was the first Western musician officially invited to play in China. It’s safe to say that his electronic/ambient/trance/New Age music – while, at heart, is closer to experimental than commercial – “translates”.

Off duty, he hasn’t been dull. He married Charlotte Rampling, his second wife, in 1978. They separated almost 20 years on, and Jarre, after a high-profile romance with Isabelle Adjani, was married to another actress, Anne Parillaud, for five years from 2005. So it’s been quite a life, but the man previewing his album to assembled guests in a chic London club today has the demeanour of a bright-eyed enthusiastic newcomer. He’s evidently thrilled with the latest work.

Settling down with Prog, he says he’s so eager to hear feedback that he wishes he could ask questions rather than answer them. He soon remembers that’s not how the “oxygene” of publicity works, and relaxes into discussing his deceptively left-field music, his links with the moon, his visual extravaganzas, and his symbiotic relationships with prog, Krautrock, cinema and art. He describes his track with The Orb as “a spacey Pink Floyd vibe meets a Marcel Duchamp collage”, while Hans Zimmer is “my only serious competitor for collecting modular synthesisers”. Then there’s the matter of NASA naming an asteroid after him…

The album is a lot to take in; there are so many different sounds and styles. Yet overall it feels more contemporary, more 2016 than some might expect.

That’s interesting. Having spent so much time in the studio, for five years with the two albums, I wanted to create something that took a journey through all of electronic music but could be perceived as very much now in terms of production and sounds. This was one of my dogma from the beginning. Utilising the mixing, the digital sounds, it’s something that wasn’t possible for me only 10 years ago. Now I consider digital sounds able to compete with the warmth and precision of analogue.

Where it’s getting interesting these days is we now have digital instruments that do things analogue instruments cannot. It’s something else. You have virtual synths now which can make sounds a Moog or classic synth cannot. I took great care with the production because I worked with people from different generations. Every day I asked myself: “What is the right sound for today?”

When you collaborate, do you have to reduce your ego? Or give it free rein? When you’re used to being in full control?

I didn’t think about this during the process, because it went very naturally. Perhaps for different reasons with each artist. On my side, I went, OK, I have to prepare this exercise by composing something in the function of the artist I want to collaborate with. I did a piece of music based on the fantasy I had of that artist, from their music.

I remember a discussion I had with Pete Townshend in the early stages. I said: “Y’know, I’ve done something with electronic instruments which are my fantasy of you and The Who.” Because from Baba O’Riley from Who’s Next, Pete had been the first to integrate synthesisers into rock music. But then I left enough space, so that he could go into that space, could be a lyricist, could sing, could do some processed guitar riffs – and it was an immediate connection. Because I left the maximum of space for, not the ego, but the personality, the talent of these artists to enter.

And on the other side, every artist told me – and this was a surprise – that this was my album, and that I had the final cut. Obviously they wanted to hear the final mix and mastering, but they trusted me, they let me produce it the way I wanted to. So that’s the reason I think it has a coherence. I spent a lot of time trying to create a kind of invisible link between tracks, so it wasn’t a compilation. There’s an overall colour, I think.

When you were young, you were a painter. Does that come into the colours in your music?

Yes, I’ve always been heavily inspired by visuals. When I started electronic music I had no references, because nobody before was doing it. So my influences were coming from movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey and all the great sci-fi movies. But also Italian and French movies from the 50s and 60s, like Fellini. And the bright pop colours of Technicolor, as well as the black and white of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Then later on, abstract painters like Jackson Pollock or Pierre Soulages. They were also inspirations for me, and for my visuals…

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