Synth God Jean-Michel Jarre Breathes New ‘Oxygène’ Into Electronica

Jean-Michel Jarre

Jean-Michel Jarre. Facebook

Jean-Michel Jarre is an electronic music legend.

The French composer and performer, who has sold 80 million albums worldwide, is known for pioneering synth-worship albums like Équinoxe and Magnetic Fields as well as spectacular visual stage shows in front of massive audiences like 3.5 million fans in Moscow in 1997 (still a Guinness world record). In Europe he plays arenas, and he’s not just doing the DJ thing; he’s actively immersed in his banks of keyboards.

2016 was a banner year for Jarre. His recent two-album “Electronica” cycle (Electronica 1: The Time Machine and Electronica 2: The Heart Of Noise) was well received and featured an impressive array of collaborations from peers and successors as varied as M83, Peaches, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, The Orb, Fuck Buttons, and Moby. Electronica 1 recently garnered him his second Grammy nomination, this time in the Best Dance/Electronic Album category.

His latest album, the superlative Oxygène 3, was just released in America and completes a trilogy started in December 1976. He hopes to tour the States around May and June.

Jarre recently spoke to the Observer about his new music, legacy, and how a 68-year-old musician can look 20 years younger.

Oxygène 3 has finally arrived!

The idea for Oxygène 3 came when I was doing the “Electronica” project. Three years ago, I did a piece of music that was not fitting Electronica. I said if I had to do Oxygène today, I would probably start with this track, and I kept that in the back of my mind and on the side. Then last year when the record company said it was the 40th anniversary of Oxygène, and maybe we could make a special box set with bonus [material], I said to myself it could be an excellent pretext to fix myself a deadline to do the final chapter I had in mind for Oxygène.

I’ve always loved series in literature, in movies, and television, and it doesn’t really exist in music. The idea of taking the same kind of actors or sounds or principals and just putting them with a different script, with a different context, in a storytelling type of approach—Oxygène was based on that in the beginning. You don’t have proper titles—it’s part one, two, three, four, five, and six, like a chapter of a book.

I did the first Oxygène in six weeks on eight tracks with a very minimalist approach. I didn’t have so many electronic instruments at that time and they were very expensive, so we had technical and financial limitations. After doing this massive project “Electronica,” I thought it would be fun to lock myself in the studio for six weeks and do an album in that time with very few instruments and no more than eight elements at the same time during the album.

Also, the first Oxygène was done in the vinyl days and we were all consciously thinking about 20 minutes for each side. I would say that Oxygène 3 has two sides—one side is darker, and the B-side is lighter.

Jean-Michel Jarre.

Jean-Michel Jarre. Daniele Dalledonne/Flickr Creative Commons

Tracks like “Oxygène 16” and “Oxygène 17” make me think a lot of the ambient techno that came out in the ’90s, although that music was a lot more beat-heavy than what you’re doing here. You tend to use beats in a more subtle way than a lot of EDM.

It’s very interesting because one of the dogma I had in my mind for the first Oxygène was to use drum machines but not in your face. After working on “Electronica” with some really heavy beats, I said I would really like to create an album where the groove is coming from sequencers and the melody.

If you take “Oxygène 17,” the groove is coming from electronic patterns. It’s not coming from the beats and the drum machine. I think there is a kind of evolution today of this kind of approach to electronic music, which is not ambient, but which is groovy, but not creating the groove from the kick or the kick and snare.

What do you think of a lot of current EDM?

The U.S. has the tendency to put all the electronic music under the umbrella of “EDM,” but obviously electronic music was not invented with Avicii.

EDM is one sector of electronic music in which sometimes EDM artists and DJs are doing some music for the dance floor, and sometimes they go outside and do something else. It seems that the EDM scene today is now going into pop. If you take all the EDM hits of the last two years, they’re less and less linked with electronic music and more and more with just mainstream pop.

It is just pop with the vocals and the beats. It’s more dance-pop than EDM. The electronic music part is less and less prominent.

“Oxygène 18” is very ambient. When ambient music became popular in the mainstream in the ’90s, it was ambient dance music as opposed to the ethereal music being made in the ’70s. The acid jazz music of the ’90s wasn’t really acid jazz, but it was that kind of music sampled and cut up and put into a more rigid format. It feels like those genres got confused in the ’90s by people who got into the really beat-heavy stuff and didn’t really know what the original stuff was like.

That’s very true.

Many artists in the ’90s were trying different things and working in genres where they were being mistaken for the real thing. Those established genres were being co-opted by other people.

It’s absolutely true. What’s interesting in what you’re saying is actually sometimes people are talking about ambient because there is no kick.

For instance, if you take “Oxygène 18” or “19,” you put in a big kick and suddenly you can have an EDM remix [despite] the fact that you have no heavy drums. It makes you feel about the music in a totally different way.

I’ve always been interested in jazz albums like Focus from Stan Getz or Sketches Of Spain from Miles Davis where they basically got rid of the drummer. The drummer is not in front. Sketches Of Spain is one of my favorite albums of all time because you have an approach to jazz that is totally organic and completely different, and not based only on the beat but based on the texture. What’s interesting when you get rid of the beats sometime is you can actually focus on the texture and the organic aspects of the sound you’re using.

While technology gets better and better all the time and allows for more possibilities, there is something to be said for the more laborious analog process that you went through back in the ’70s.

In a sense, the process in the ’70s was much more innocent because you had no reference. It’s a real privilege in life when you can start your life in music by opening doors on virgin territory because before you had almost nothing. Whereas a guy today starts doing some electronic music and he has 40 or 50 years of pretty heavy stuff behind him. He starts “old” with lots of things on his shoulders.

It’s like the beginning of rock—there was a kind of innocence that created this kind of freshness, which is more difficult to get these days probably because of the fact people are always relating things to each other, between this genre or the other genre.

I remember at one point my albums were in the New Age category in the U.S., and I always loved that because for me New Age is this artist doing yoga on the top of a mountain with flute and bells and smoking weed, which is very acoustic and not linked with technology at all. New Age was absolutely going back to nature and not linked with modern technology.

The “Electronica” albums have a lot of exciting collaborations on them. How did you coordinate them all?

For this project, I really wanted to meet people face-to-face and share in the creative process. The second principle was for every collaborator I wrote a piece of music, I left a space for them to collaborate. This is why it took me so long. It was an initiation journey for me going to different cities.

It’s funny because electronic music is quite linked with cities like Berlin, Paris, Detroit, Chicago, New York, and L.A., so it was a very enriching process. Also, everybody said yes, so I ended up with two half hours of music to do, and this is why I divided this “Electronica” project into two albums.

One of my favorite collaborations here is with the late Edgar Froese from Tangerine Dream. Was that the first time you two had crossed paths?

We met very briefly [in the past], but we never really met. It’s very strange because I was convinced that Tangerine Dream and myself started at the same time [in the early ’70s], and Edgar said I was wrong, that I started before them. I said why? He said when Tangerine Dream started they were a prog rock band, and they went to electronic music later on.

What we have to understand was these were in the days much before the internet, and we were like vampires in our cells with hardly any connections. I remember the first time I heard Autobahn from Kraftwerk, I thought it was a California band singing in German, [like] an electronic version of the Beach Boys. It was so cool. It shows you how little we were connected back then.

But it was really moving to work with Edgar. I love this piece. It’s one of my favorites from the project, “Zero Gravity,” and also the fantastic remix that Above & Beyond did as a tribute to Edgar at the same time. I took the train to Vienna, and I took a car from Vienna to his place in Austria. He had no idea about the reason why I was coming, and they prepared a Tangerine Dream version of Oxygène as a present. It was really cool.

Are you going to release that?

Yes, maybe one of these days. It was a medley of one or two tracks.

You also collaborated with film director and composer John Carpenter. How aware were you of his soundtrack work before you collaborated with him? Had you seen a lot of his films?

I’m a massive fan. I love all his B-movies, absolute masterpieces made with small budgets, but saying so much about the American society of those days. They are timeless, and he is also the one who did most of the soundtracks using synthesizers and only electronic instruments. He was very high on my wish list because I couldn’t do this “Electronica” project without John Carpenter. It was not possible.

You have a new kind of 3-D technology that you used on your recent European tour. Could you discuss this?

It is something that I designed. I hate 3-D with glasses. I think this is the dark ages. I think you’re losing 50 percent of the brightness. I think it will be considered as the first days of cinema when you were watching movies in the circus. It doesn’t mean anything, just creating very simplistic effects.

I think the real 3-D will be without glasses, and I wanted to express a visual point of view for what I’ve always been interested in in music, to create perspectives, architectural sounds, and soundscapes, and how to express this. I have screens that are lo-res with a lot of transparencies, and I was very scared that it wouldn’t work. Then we were blown away at the first rehearsal because it worked really, really well.

It’s very linked to the music and to the sound, which at the end of the day is what makes the visuals in the concert very interesting. I’m more and more of an anti-MTV guy on stage. Having just a series of video clips doesn’t mean anything. You can see that on the computer. If you go to a concert, it’s a totally different experience.

Jean-Michel Jarre.

Jean-Michel Jarre. Facebook

It feels like many rock and pop groups today don’t have to do as much on stage because there’s so much technology around them. It’s not so much about the performance as a technological performance. You watch a lot of live clips from the ’70s or ’80s when people didn’t have as much technology behind them, and they had to put on more of a physical performance. It feels like these days people don’t have to do that as much.

You’re right. In my show, I try not to fall into this trap, to be sucked in by the visuals—you could be there or not, it won’t change anything.

It’s a problem I have with lots of concerts. You go there, and the artists, especially in electronic music, get sucked in by the visual and the visual is all the same. After one song, you know more or less what the show is going to be from a visual point of view and a musical point of view. It’s what I tried to do with this project.

When you listen to [and watch] the first song, you have no idea how it’s going to evolve, both in terms of performance from a visual and musical point of view. I also try to keep the performance part important, to share with the audience the sense of performance because with electronic music it’s something that doesn’t exist these days, and I think it is very important to share and make people understand how you do these sounds on stage.

By the way, I can’t figure out how you’re not aging. You’re either a vampire, you have a pact with Satan, or you have a really good diet.

The vampire syndrome. Actually, it’s mostly due to genetics. My mother passed away at 96 years old, and she looked like 60 years old. It was amazing. And my father was also the same. I think it’s genetics more than anything else.

You certainly don’t stop making music. You just keep going.

It’s strange. When I was doing Oxygène 3, it was quite frightening in a sense because I said that I probably spent more of my life with machines than with human beings. I don’t know if it’s a good sign or not, but it’s a fact.

On Friday, Jean-Michel Jarre released his latest album that featured a collaboration with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The track is called Exit, and features Snowden's vocals recorded from a 90 minute Skype conversation with the French Electronic musician. Jarre recently expressed his admiration for Snowden's stand against the United States National Security Agency's surveillance program. The musician even compared Snowden to Jarre's own mother who worked against the Nazis in the French Resistance during World War 2. The song "Exit" is meant to depict one man fleeing from the authorities.