Crying all the way to the bank
He's huge in open-air music spectaculars and big on sharing his feelings about tax, drugs, rock'n'roll - and his ex-partner, Charlotte Rampling.
To the cynical English ear, Jean Michel Jarre, the 51-year-old French musician, talks enough rot to sink a cross-channel ferry. He spent Millennium night in Egypt, lighting up the Pyramids with "an electronic opera" entitled the Twelve Dreams of the Sun, at which he and his audience were not "trapped by their day-to-day life, with tools around their arms", but "in front of themselves, not just in front of the past, but in front of time", and also "in front of timelessness". It was "a physical experience, a bit painful". They felt "the rust, the dust". It was, despite the multi-million-dollar equipment, 100%"organic".He has a new album out this month, Metamorphoses, "a blank page, a new chapter", in which for the first time in his career he has fully "experimented" with the voice, his own and others, using it naturally "as an instrument", the words as "audio-pictograms". It has an Oriental feel this album (it is also "organic"), and Jarre believes more and more that the next metamorphoses of Europe, in which "we grow up enough to succeed as Europeans", may come not from inside but from outside, from this Oriental connection, "this glue", we all share: "The Turkish connection for Germans, the north African connection for France, Pakistani or Indian for Britain."
He has a sensitive nature, he says. "At the end of the day the saddest thing for me was clowns. I used to cry. The more the other children around me were laughing, the more I was crying."
But Jarre is French after all. And handsome. And so charming. And so tiny. He sits in a recording studio in Paris, surrounded by crates ("Pink Floyd World Tour") and boys in Hard Rock cafe T-shirts, and all the wires and chrome and leads and cables and titanic speakers that attend his career as the man who brought the musical extravaganza, the techno tirade, to your local city centre (Paris, Beijing, Houston, Moscow... Docklands), like a Gallic Wizard of Oz.
He looks like a spaniel, with his puppydog brown eyes and dark hair falling around his line-free face like two floppy ears, a lean Dudley Moore with his easy grin and shiny school boy trousers. His hands are pale and slim and a bit damp looking and always on the move, scratching his eyebrows, tweaking the flies of his trousers.
"Oh, you English women, you are so cheeky," he says. "The guys in England are more cynical. It's funny, in France it is the reverse. English woman is more open and much less cynical, less knowing is the word, than the French woman. On my side I have this love affair with the UK..."
He has, however, separated from his wife, the English actress Charlotte Rampling; newspaper reports in 1997 said he'd left her for a 31-year-old French civil servant called Odile Froment. But he says he and Charlotte "are like twins. Really, we are closer than ever. Really, she is the woman of my life." So you are living together again? "Er, not really. We have separate lives but we will live together forever. Life is a long way..."
Jarre, who was born in Lyon, has been around almost as long as the Pyramids. He was experimenting at the Paris Conservatoire in 1966. Oxygene, his first international hit, was released in 1976, the same year he was voted Personality of the Year by People magazine. His first open air concert was on Bastille Day in Paris in 1979. (He fell into the whole outdoor scene by accident - in an attempt to make the performance of music based around a synthesiser interesting: "the instruments were not so sexy," he says.)
He's sold more than 50m albums along the way, but he found the 80s a bit lonely: "I followed my way more or less by myself." But the raves of the 90s have caught him up. "A lot of people joined the boat." He says he is a regular fixture on the rave scene. Does he take ecstasy when he's there?
"Er, no. But you know it is unfair to trap a movement with drugs. It is a never-ending story. Every movement has been linked with drugs, the beginning of jazz, the beginning of rock'n'roll, the beginning of heavy metal, punk, grunge, techno. Drug dealers have an impact when people are just starting a new way of expression, when they are fragile and vulnerable, but what is most interesting in the rave scene is the attempt to find an alternative to rock'n'roll."
He could never have been a rock'n'roll star himself. He's adamant about that. He uses painting or writing analogies for what he does, not musical. It's a question of humility. "I know that I'm a bit odd, or eccentric. But I never consider myself a pop star obsessed by my image. This image problem is a very 80s attitude, linked with a certain cynicism, that the image is more important than whoever you are. But mine is a more humble approach, to be part of a big picture, rather than going into a small theatre just with your guitar with a spotlight on yourself, thinking you are going to excite an audience for two hours."
Jarre is not short of theories, and he's generous with them too. He has a complicated family - he and Rampling have a son; she had a son from a previous marriage, he had a daughter (he had custody of her from the time she was 18 months). They're all in their 20s now - a magician, a graphic designer, the movie business: a perfect division of the family talent - but he's happy to share his tips for domestic harmony. "The 60s generated this silly attitude to leaving the kids to do whatever they want, which created a big mess.
"Charlotte and I always considered that you should give a framework where they could be as free as possible and then enlarge the framework as long as they are growing up. We are all very close, even among these mad crazy schedules. Yesterday I was with David. We had dinner at one in the morning until three. I had no other time and he was the same." As for he and Rampling: "We will never divorce. The whole family is very close."
There is one exception: his father, Maurice Jarre, who wrote the soundtrack to Dr Zhivago and lives in Los Angeles, "trying... I mean continuing to do his work". His son thinks he has met him about 20 times. "As long as you can count the number of contacts with one member of your family, it is not a good thing. I am only now starting to cope with this. A blank space instead of a father is not a good thing. It means nothing. It's sad because apart from the personal things, it is quite unusual from a professional point of view when a French person is internationally successful in music, but to have two in the same family, it is crazy not to share that."
His father has another son from a more recent relationship. "I think it's even worse with this one than with me." Have you met him? "No. Er, yes... I've met him, but, you know, I have enough responsibility with my own children. I'm not taking care of children from my father!"
For most of our encounter, Jarre fits easily into the role of the ageless celebrity, one of the most successful post-Beatles musicians. Everyone around him bangs on about how wonderful he looks for his age ("Fit, 50 and not a firework in sight!" begins his press pack). And he does. He was on "a silly" French version of This Is Your Life recently, and "suddenly you are in front of your mates of when you were 14 and they were these old, established people. I had the feeling they belonged to the generation of my father."
But, after talking for a while, he begins to act his age, giving a nice rant at the French tax system when I asked how rich he was (he and Rampling brought their children up in a 14-bedroom chateau at Versailles; he still lives nearby). "I am not at all like these English pop stars who are not paying taxes by having these big tours and avoiding any traps with the tax," he said crossly. "I am a victim of the highest tax in Europe.
"It's a joke in France. If you have so many people unemployed it's because people are living on this system, working to just the limit and getting paid in black [economy] money, while a small percentage of people are working day and night for really the rest of the country."
He's gone off America: "It's an old-new concept. It's a dated country." He's fed up with being associated with lasers. "I don't like lasers. I think it's very disco. I'm not a fan." He's against cosmetic surgery. "All these silly things people are doing. Charlotte thinks exactly the same. It's too much." And he gets a bit hot under the collar about cigarettes too. "Really I am fed up. In record institutions you have four people smoking around you, it's really affecting. I really hate this more and more." He screwed up his nose.
"But what I hate the most, I must say, particularly in London, is noisy restaurants. I can't stand that any more. More and more restaurants are like gymnasiums. This Conran is like a railway station.
"I was in this restaurant the other day and I looked around and it was like people were having arguments with one another and I thought to myself we should organise intercoms for people to talk to one another at lunch!"
By now he had completely forgotten himself. "The next step, the next luxury," he said, "will be to have a quiet place, and to shoot the pianist."