When it comes to electronic music, there is a godfather and his name is Jean Michel Jarre.
Jocelyn Clarke talks to him about joining up the dots.
On his new album, "Metamorphoses", Jean Michel Jarre uses the stuttering electronic interference of a mobile phone to underpin the rhythm track of the song "Tout Est Bleu". It's a technological prank from a maveric composer who has defined and redefined electronic music over the last 25 years, ever since the release of his seminal and groundbreaking album, "Oxygene". The mobile phone gag, along with the sample of a chattering lawn sprinkler ("Miss Moon"), the vocal appearances by Laurie Anderson ("Je Me Souviens"), Natacha Atlas ("C'est La Vie"), and Jarre himself ("Gloria", "Lonely Boy"), not to mention the eclectic cross-pollination of music styles and references (from Algerian rai and Irish fiddle to the signature sounds of Underworld and Orbital) mark a new and innovative direction in Jarre's musical career. And of unexpected accidents.
"This mobile sound happened because my mobile phone was close to a speaker and each time I tried to record this bloody song, the phone went off and interfered with it. Then I realised it might be nice to involve it. It's also nice to integrate a bit of humour into technology as well. Accidents are the basis of any arts form, even songs. When you are composing a song on the piano, what makes you find the next note vis a vis the previous one is an accident in a sense. I love to exploit any kind of accident."
With "Oxygene" (1976), "Equinoxe" (1978) and "Magnetic Fields" (1981), Jarre liberated electronic music from its domination by wireheads and academics - think of the early IRCAM performances with boffins twiddling knobs on stage - and brought it to the forefront of popular culture. All three albums sold several million copies each, and Jarre was voted Man Of The Year in People magazine. With his first outdoor Place de la Concorde concert in Paris for Bastille Day in 1979, and the later 1986 Rendezvous Houston and 1987 Destination Docklands concerts, Jarre brought an unparalleled showmanship to electronic music, combining video projection with laser displays into uber-spectacles which transformed cities into arenas - both Paris and Houston set records with attendances of one million plus.
"When I discovered the idea of electronic music, I didn't think that it was just an odd or eccentric way of doing music, but one which could become a style or a genre in itself. I always considered that electronic music, the fact that music was made with electronic instruments, was not the goal in itself. I really tried to explore how electronic music could be an alternative because I was always convinced that it would be a true alternative to rock & roll, and by also exploring how to perform electronic music with instruments that were not devised for stage performance. That's why I have been involved in an experimental way with these big shows, and by trying to integrate visual techniques with the music, I have tried to find the right vocabulary and grammar to translate and convey electronic music on stage.
"Our grandparents used to say that they were going to listen to somebody playing in a theatre or a hall. These days, we say that we are going to see somebody. It means that because of CD and mindisc technology, we are listening to music at home, in our cars and even on the internet, so when we go to see artists performing, it is with a different expectation - of something more on the visual point of view. The main difference, for me, between electronic music and any other kind of music is the fact that you can deal not only with notes or arpeggios or chords but also with sounds. I always considered electronic music to be like cooking, about mixing all the ingredients. And then when electronic scene exploded in the Nineties, it was really like a lot of people joining a tribe with this very intuitive, organic tactile approach to music. And each time electronic music acts tried to express themselves from a performance point of view, they used projection, video screens, lights lasers, either on stage or in clubs. It's now become a real grammar for electronic music."
Though he defined the technological and visual grammar for electronic music with his early albums and live performances, after the underrated and experimental "Zoolook" Jarre's musical output (1984), took a turn for the bland. He began recycling musical ideas from his earlier work for his large-scale spectacles that emphasised the visual at the expense of musical-his Houston and Lyons albums were little more than soundtracks for the eye. The late Nineties found him at a curious crossroads, with Jarre both the subject and sample source for club and rave acts - the remix album "An Odyssey Through O2" - and revisiting his own past with a sequel album, "Oxygene 7-13" with which he tried unsuccessfully to "complete" the original "Oxygene".
"Metamorphoses" is therefore a new adventure for Jarre. "After having revisited the past with the previous album and not being too happy with it, I really wanted to open a new chapter by having a more sensual and organic approach to the electronic sounds, concentrating on the groove and the drumbeat, and involving vocals of my own and of other people, processed or not. "Metamorphoses" came from the idea of change, and the changes I wanted to express were coming from my own feelings. I wanted to express them and myself in a different way"
While long recognised as a formative presence in the electronic music scene, Jarre is happy to acknowledge its influence on him on "Metamorphoses" - the Orbital dubbiness of "Bells" and the Underworldly "Hey Gagarin". Equally in its cross-pollination of musical styles and cultures, Jarre, notoriously against the "neo-colonialism of World Music", embraces the polyglotism of dance culture with its eclectic sampling, notably with Natacha Atlas on "C'est La Vie". On "Metamorphoses", Jarre reaffirms his stature as the eminence gris of electronic music while still retaining his maverick credentials - he once famously shocked the music world during its hysterical "Home Taping Kills Music" campaign by telling the public to pirate.
"Sometimes people ask me if I have considered myself as having been an influence on some bands in the electronic scene. Frankly I think that all this talk of "godfathers of techno" and all that is marketing bullshit from record companies, because I have no claim on that. I think it is rather ridiculous. You do things on your own, and people can be influenced by what you are doing. People such as the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Aphex Twin, Leftfield, Orbital and Air are all people who have been very influential on my music. I think that music is about sharing. People forget that music is about the sharing of emotions and feelings. Music is about recycling emotions and remixing ideas. If I have any legitimacy to do electronic music, I think it's because I have always done it. I wouldn't do a record if it was not with the ambition of trying to contribute to the electronic music scene by doing something personal or different."
"Metamorphoses" is out now on Epic Records.>