King of Techno: An Interview with Laurent Garnier
The DJ understands the need for telling a story and making a statement. With his live sets, a new release, a radio station, and a book, he's finding plenty of opportunity to do so.
My sole experience with Laurent Garnier took place at Coachella, 2004. Inside the tent, the temperature rose to fevered levels as dancers kicked aside soda cans and balls of ravaged grass. Our faces were moist with a combination of sweat, tears, and condensation dripping off the roof of the tent. Perched atop the stage was Garnier, playing a deft and furious mix of then-current hits (the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers"), now-classics (his own "Man With the Red Face") and obscurities (no time to trainspot, too busy dancing). In a span of maybe two hours, he reduced my legs to collapsible sticks and for that I thank him.
For dance music fans in Southern California, a DJ set helmed by Laurent Garnier is a rare, memorable treat. Garnier's sets always seem to be the stuff of legend. There was the night at Manchester's Music Box club where his selection echoed the sentiments of those marching the street in protest of the Iraq War, stories of marathon sets and, of course, his stint at the legendary Hacienda club in Manchester.
Garnier's second home might be in the DJ booths that dot the globe, but his influence on dance music extends far beyond that. Recently, Mute records compiled Retrospective, a compilation of the French tastemaker's productions, including the heavy hitting techno of "Crispy Bacon" and the jazz-inflected "The Man With the Red Face." Coinciding with the release of Retrospective, BBE has issued The Kings of Techno, a double-disc set featuring Garnier's choice of essential Detroit tracks alongside Carl Craig's pick of European tracks that influenced the sound of the Motor City. Additionally, Garnier continually updates his web radio at www.laurentgarnier.com and completed a score for a performance choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj. And if it didn't already seem like Garnier's schedule is filled, the DJ's collection of travel tales, Electrochoc, was recently released in Spain and several other European countries.
What are you doing these days?
Working a hell of a lot. At the moment, I am just finalizing a mix I did for a contemporary choreographer here in France. We are doing the show next Monday. I have been working on this for three and a half months. I am going tonight to the opening of his contemporary dance school. Monday we are doing a big show together. I have made all the music and he is doing all the choreography. It is going to be very exciting. [Angelin Preljocaj] is a very famous choreographer in France and he is opening a new school. For the opening, he is making a whole show and I made the music for that.
How do you approach collaborating with a choreographer?
Basically, it came with the idea of doing a modern version of The Firebird, so I listened to a lot of the original music and read a story about it. Then I go and make some music. I gave him the music and basically, he wrote the choreography on top of the music.
Are you planning on coming out to the US again?
I think so.
That, I don't know. We are talking with my manager about coming back to the States, if it's not too hard to get a bloody visa.
How hard is it for you to get a visa to come out here?
It became hell when America went to war with Iraq and when France said that they didn't want to go to war with them. It became hell. I think now things must have cooled down. I don't know. I hope so. I haven't tried since because I got so pissed off, but I'm sure it's easier. I really want to come back. One of my best friends is living in New York, so I really want to come back to New York.
How did your book Electrochoc come about?
Basically, the girl who became my publisher, she was a good friend of mine. Three or four years ago, we had a long dinner at home with some friends and we started talking about traveling and things happening during traveling. With her, it was about holidays. All of my tricks about travel, all the funny things that happen to me while traveling are linked to work. She said, "You have so much to say and you seem to remember so many things that you should write a book." I said, "Oh, I'm not really into writing a book or anything like that." She said, "Yes, you should really do it." She carried on with the idea. She went to the publisher in France and she told them, "How would you feel if we did a book with Laurent Garnier?" They said, "Yeah, we should definitely do it." She said from where the idea came and we worked on it for two and a half years and the book came out about two years ago in France.
The chapter on Detroit is really interesting. When was the first time you went there?
I think it must have been 1993 or 1994.
I am actually releasing a compilation on an English label called BBE. All the music I did was all about Detroit, just to prove to people that there was more to Detroit than techno music. Of course, there was Motown, but besides that you have a very strong hip-hop scene, a very strong jazz scene. Just to name a few people, like John Lee Hooker, from blues, he wasn't from Detroit but he recorded basically every single one of his records in Detroit and they became hits. All of his stuff became hits in Detroit before anywhere else in the world. This is [what] strong music is all about. Detroit is a very strong, intense city about music.
When you and Carl Craig were working on these discs, did you discuss with each other what you were planning?
No, we never did. Basically, I got the idea and I rang Carl and said, "Look, Carl, I've got this idea regarding this compilation." I knew they wanted me to do this with Carl. I said to BBE, "I've got this great idea. I think Carl should do Europe and I should do Detroit." They said, "Yeah, we've got to do this." From there onwards, I never spoke with Carl. We only spoke to each other last week. That's the way it goes. We're too busy.
How did you end up playing at the Hacienda?
I was living in Manchester and I think I gave the good tape to the right person at the right time.
When did you realize that you wanted to DJ?
Oh, I must have been about 12. I explain all this in the book, but it's quite a strong story from the beginning. I always wanted to express myself through records. It was the only thing I wanted to do in life. Finally, I did it one day. It's from very young.
When you started out as a DJ, was there something specific that you were looking for in the records?
I was just trying to share. I was loving music so much and I was gaining so much power, so much energy, from music that I knew that I wanted to do something sharing with people. I think playing music was the best thing I could do because I had a strong relationship with music and I wanted to share that with people. I didn't know if it was good or bad, but at least I could share it with people.
Has anything changed over the years in terms of your style or your technical approach?
Not really. Of course, I must have got better at mixing. I think playing at the Hacienda made me more aware sometimes of playing the right record at the right time or working a crowd. I think that the major thing in DJing is sharing. It's definitely sharing. It's all about sharing and I think I had that before. It was something that I felt strong about before. I don't think that I really changed my style very much. I have always been a very open-minded DJ. I have always tried to play as much music as I could. I actually do it more now than ever, but I don't think that I have changed that much.
Have you started using Serato or other types of DJ software?
No. I still play vinyl and CDs. That's it. I have nothing against people who use any of the programs because, at the end of the day, our job is to play music. I feel more confident with CDs and with vinyl. That's me, it's a personal thing.
I had read that it takes you a day to pick out all of your records. When you are going into the DJ booth, do you have an idea as to how your set will sound?
Absolutely never. What takes a long time for me is re-listening to every single record just so that I know them all by heart, not preparing mixing or sets. I never do that. I just make sure that I know all of my records so that I have more choice in my head.
When you re-listen to a record, do you start to notice new things?
It depends on the soundsystem you are listening to. It's really funny how your perception of a track at home and in a club is completely different. Many times, I have put a record in my box and I have felt it's okay. It's good, but it's a transition record. It's not that strong. Then I will carry it for two or three weeks and I don't play it because it doesn't stick out for me. Then, one day, I will feel like let's try this out. Then I play it out and the record sounds amazing. Sometimes, you have to be really careful of your perception at home and what it is going to sound like on a big system because two of the same record can sound so different.
Has the opposite ever happened?
Of course. You play it at home and you say, "Ah, this is really funky!" or "This is really good!" You are so eager to play, so excited to play it. Then you play it out and it sounds like nothing.
I also read about your DJ gig in Manchester where you played Edwin Starr's "War".
Yeah, and before that I played "Not in My Name" by Pharell Williams.
How important is it for you that the music you select is reflective of what is going on in the world?
It depends when you do it. When I did it then, it was such a peak time in the news and such a heavy time for everybody. America went to war, but you still had a lot of people protesting against it in America. England went to war. You had millions of people in the street protesting against it. France didn't go to war, but we still had millions of people in the street to talk about it. It was such a strong topic at the time. You just couldn't avoid it. I think sometimes, like that, you have to get on your horse and say something. It's doing my job, trying to play the right thing at the right time and making myself heard. Sometimes you do it politically and 99% of the other time, you are making it with music. Whenever there is a big election in France, I have a couple of records in my box that say "Don't vote for National Front," "Don't be with those bastards," stuff like that. I usually play it when it is the right time to play it. I think quite soon with the election, I am going to start playing them again, just to make sure that you tell people in the crowd that we are all living in the same time and I say this at the moment. I think you have to use the moment sometimes to prove a point or to say something.
I used to go to Body and Soul and places like that and I really felt that the DJ was being very careful with what he was playing and he was trying to tell a story within the records he was playing. I really felt that strongly in the States. You are quite lucky for that.
You have to understand another thing. In Europe, people understand English, but they do not listen to what has been said in the records, so the voice in Europe is used more as another instrument than anything else. It is very different from America. The perception is different.
How do you program your radio station?
I am actually working on it right now. I have been working on it all day. It takes quite a while to do it, but it's a very exciting process to actually work on a 24-hour basis of music nonstop. I spend four or five days a month on it. It's not full days. I'm working on it maybe two or three hours. I always travel with a computer, so I fill music in the computer and then I come back home and download it into the radio. It works like that. It's like a non-stop process. Once I listen to music, because I listen to tons of music. When I catch the train for three hours, I will listen to 150 CDs and will mark everything up. Some of them will go in my DJ box. Some of them will go on the radio. Some of them will go on my radio shows. I always have things to use it for. I sort it out so that it's easier. It's not like my head goes one day for the radio and one day for another thing. It works a little bit differently.
Are there some songs that you would never want to play again?
No, because you always find the time to play them. There are songs that I have played and played and played, like Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" or stuff like that. I haven't played it for a long [time], but I know that one day will be the right time. I just went to Japan a few weeks ago with this Morales mix of "You Make Me Feel" by Sylvester and, again, playing the right record at the right time. It was such a strong trip. It was so mad over there that the only thing I could say to those people was "You make me feel so real." So every time, we were playing it twice and every time we were getting on the mic and saying, "Thank you so much for tonight." I played the whole thing, which was ten minutes long. Maybe six months ago, I wouldn't have played this record, but I still play it now. Those kinds of records, you play them for a while and then you stop. But, they mean something to you, so you never get bored of them. Treat your records like that and you will never get bored of them.
When you pack your records, do you consider where you are playing and what the crowd might be like?
No. Absolutely not. I think that when somebody books a DJ, they want his music. Even though you have to understand the crowd and watch the crowd and make sure you work with them, I'm not there to force-feed them anything. It's a relationship. I always bring music that I feel good with, but I bring so much music that I am ready for any situation. I never pack a case and think, "Oh, I am going to Germany I can play this. I can get more with this and that." I carried the same box to Germany that I had in Japan two weeks ago.
What is your favorite gig from this past year?
Japan, without a doubt. Without a doubt. In Japan, you can do drum 'n' bass nights and then the day after you can go to reggae nights and you can play reggae and they are going to be happy and the day after you go to a techno night and you will be able to play reggae, drum 'n' bass, hip-hop, soul, and Brazilian music and then play salsa along with house and techno. Nobody will say anything to you. They will all be happy because they know music. It's just the most open-minded crowd ever.
What are doing over the next year?
I've got quite a lot on my plate for the next year. I am going to work with another choreographer. I'm going to do music for another show. We're going to do some live shows. I've got this compilation coming out, which I'm very excited about. We've got some big gigs to do and we signed Electrochoc for the cinema, so we're starting to write the story of Electrochoc.