Electro pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre on breaking boundaries and collaborating with Edward Snowden
Ahead of his 3Arena concert on Monday, electro pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre talks to Ed Power about breaking boundaries, playing to millions and collaborating with Edward Snowden
Jean-Michel Jarre is one of the godfathers of electro pop. With boundary-smashing seventies records such as Oxygène and Équinoxe he showed art and technology could co-exist and even flourish. He later became a master of grand spectacle mounting concerts for millions at venues such as the Great Pyramid of Giza and Red Square in Moscow.
He is currently touring his two-part Electronica project, a series of collaborations with Pet Shop Boys, Moby and more.
With a rare Irish performance taking place at 3Arena next week there is a lot to talk about: his headline-grabbing collaboration with Edward Snowden, the thrills and hazards of bringing electronic music to the masses and French ambivalence towards its native pop stars.
1: Have you been enjoying your tour? How has performance changed for you since the analogue era?
Has anything been lost as technology becomes more immediate and more reliable? I'm speaking to you today from Cardiff where we kick-off the UK and Ireland leg of the tour. I'm then on my way over to you all in Ireland for Monday 10th October. I am like a child on Christmas morning! I still have some analogue instruments with me on stage during my performances as they have a unique sound that are very much part of what I do - I have been mixing analog and digital for many years as I love and need both. I think some artists with complex productions use technology today as a safety net, and as a way of limiting human error.
I really believe, however, that the beauty of a live performance is exactly in that vulnerability and adrenalin rush that allows for human error and emotion. Every night one of my most stressful and unpredictable moments is when I go to play the laser-harp. I never know if it's going to work well or even at all, as it's highly sensitive to other light sources triggering it and at times it can over-heat and not react as it should. Technology does not always rhyme with perfection and reliability. Far from it in reality!
I’ve always been involved in the visual aspect of my work and moreover, it’s very important in days where technology allows us to push the boundaries even more than when I started-out. It’s a very exciting challenge to be able to explore different directions.
On this new production, I want to share with the audience a totally different experience from what I’ve done in the past, and also hopefully present them something quite different from a usual electronic or rock music show. The chemistry between myself and my fans and audience is a new love affair every night. It's always like our first date, even today. I have to surpass their expectations and that's the challenge I face every concert.
2:You were one of the first public figures to speak out on behalf of whistleblower Edward Snowden and even collaborated with him on the track ‘Exit’. To what extent did your family history and your mother's experiences with the French Resistance inform this decision?
I was really touched by the story of Edward Snowden. And yes, he reminded me of my mother who was a key figure in the French Resistance at the same age. She too was one of those people standing up for their firm beliefs and human rights, despite the authorities in power. Snowden became a modern hero today – not by saying “stop” but simply by saying “be aware” of possible (ab)use of technology and of our fundamental rights being violated. Our future needs whistleblowers like him.
One of the recurrent themes of of my last double album project, Electronica 1 and 2, is the ambiguous relationship we have with technology. On the one side we have the world in our pocket with our smartphones and on the other side the world is spying on us constantly. I wanted to give Edward Snowden’s key message resonance. It’s an important moment in the live concert performance.
3: What were your impressions of Snowden? How was he holding up after what was surely a stressful time?
I met a quiet, intelligent young man from a military family - a true US patriot who signed up to serve his country and fellow citizens at a young age and who was driven by commitment and dedication. It was his patriotism, commitment and dedication that brought him to take the singular action he took, and brought upon himself the wrath of his superiors and his own government, giving him the reputation of a traitor and the most sought-after man on the planet.
Edward is animated by the truth. He accepts his exile as part of what he had foreseen as his only possible action in the name of his convictions, however he hopes to one day resume some sort of "normality" somewhere where he is welcome and free. I have yet to see Stone’s movie - my tour has kept me too busy, however perhaps when I have a day off during the tour!
4: It has been some years since your larger scale outdoor performances. Why have you moved away from concerts at that level of spectacle? When you were performing at Pyramids, Moscow etc, were you conscious that you were breaking new ground?
With electronic music, you are not confined to the acoustics of a concert-hall, and that inspired me to bring my performances outdoors. I have also always been inspired by architecture and how we perceive our environment, whether it's manmade or natural and that's where the idea initially came for my "Cities in Concert" concept. I had this idea of hijacking a public space for a night and deploying all the tools available to me to create a unique sound and vision spectacle and experience.
I didn't consciously move away from this format either, but the world we live in has moved on. Mass public and civic gatherings are not encouraged these days for all the reasons we know too well. I've also wanted to experience another form of sharing with the audience and create a more intimate and contained environment. This current Electronica tour I believe encapsulates just that.
5: In the Seventies, was there are sense of artistic camaraderie between you and other electronic pioneers such as Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk?
At that time we were all doing our thing in our own corners and camaraderie came much further down the line. For my electronica double album project, I gathered artists around me that are part of my musical family over these past few decades - people with whom I feel we share a common music DNA from different generations like Moby, Laurie Anderson, Pet Shop Boys, Gary Numan, Primal Scream, Hans Zimmer and 3D (Massive Attack) to name but a few.
Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream also joined me on a great track I composed especially for them called Zero Gravity which really carries a marriage of both our sounds. This was the last work of Edgar Froese before he passed away.
6: You have just announced a Oxygène III. Recording the first Oxygène album in 1976, did you have any inkling that it would be such a success? Did anyone around you tell you it was going to be huge?
At the time Oxygène was considered a totally "far out" concept….What was "in" at the time was disco, hard-rock and the early days of punk….and moreover Oxygène was instrumental. And I was French! It was turned down by all record labels at the time! By some miracle, an independent French label believed it could enjoy some success and released it. It took off as a huge surprise to all of us.
Oxygène was indeed the meteorite that launched my career….and this year it is the 40th anniversary. I don’t necessarily like anniversaries that much but when I was recording Electronica two years ago, I did a piece of music, which then became Oxygène Part 19 that made me think about what Oxygène could be if I was composing it today.
So I took the 40th anniversary of the first album as a deadline to push myself to see if I could compose Oxygène today. I gave myself six weeks to record it, just like I did for the first one. Probably to avoid thinking too much about whether it was a good idea or not, but also to record everything in one go... The idea was not to copy the first album, but rather maintain the dogma of sending listeners on a journey from beginning to end with different chapters that were all linked to each other.
7: You clocked up a lot of air miles making the Electronica albums - did the records benefit from you seeking out the collaborators rather than just exchanging files over the internet?
Yes, that was my aim from the outset. I insisted on meeting and collaborating in person with all these great musicians that accepted my invitation. THAT was indeed the essence of this project. Everyone's personal involvement and sharing was to be true, sincere and enriching for all involved.
These days, when "featuring" artists are so common, and are often label and commercial driven, I wanted to do the exact opposite. Electronica took nearly five years to compose, record and produce and involved a lot of travel and commitment. That that is what makes it so special and unique.
8: How were you received in France as success came your way? Some French artists have told me that musicians often have to win acclaim abroad before they are accepted at home.
There is a French saying - "nul n’est prophète en son pays" which means no man is a prophet in his own country. Culturally, France generally undermines success and fame to a certain extent, and yes acclaim abroad does certainly help, but then that itself can open the door to judgmental critic of megalomania and that you are abandoning your roots and territory! It's quite complex, but when you are French, you know all of this, so you just get on with it and give a gallic shrug. Jean-Michel Jarre plays 3Arena, Dublin Monday.