Laurent Garnier

Published on September 19th, 2012

Laurent Garnier is one of those people who seems to have been around forever, but no one ever gets bored of him. It is a rare beast indeed that manages to retain a loyal fanbase that stretches back to the late 80s, but also appears right on the cutting edge as a performer at the likes of Ushuaia, Circus and The Warehouse Project.

I booked him to perform his LBS show at The Gibb Street Warehouse in Birmingham, and no sooner had we left the airport it was clear that Laurent’s personality was a story in itself, never mind what he’d done in his career. So this is the account of a day and a half with Laurent Garnier: some of it was a formal interview, some of it wasn’t, but most of it was worth sharing.

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“At least I’ve got Garnier”. This was the thought that kept me going for months whenever the shit hit the fan; and when you’re a DJ booker trying to get a new venue off the ground with a strict music policy, there’s a lot of shit being lobbed about. Quite quickly I felt like the fan, being hit constantly with the shit that comes with the territory: if you close a deal quickly it’s because you paid too much, if you don’t close a deal quickly it’s because you’re lazy, and if a DJ is unavailable owing to being in a different hemisphere, that’s still your fault… but what the hell, I had Garnier, and nobody was going to take that away from me.

So the day comes, and Garnier arrives, accompanied by Scan X (Stephane Dri: long term production partner and fellow member of LBS), and manager Fred, all furiously munching sandwiches. “M & S has the best sandwiches,” Laurent proclaims. “Surely not better than France?” I counter, but apparently so – for sale in shops anyway – and he quite rightly points out that the English invented them, and then goes into detail about the relative pros and cons of the French equivalent.

And this is the thing about Garnier: the detail. No topic too small, but every topic can become a detailed discussion if you want it to be. In the 20 minutes it takes to get from the airport to the venue, there are a frightening range of discussion points; from the meaning of the name of his track Gnanmankoudji (it means ‘ginger juice’ in an African tongue… “I just wanted to use a really obscure word to make it difficult for people,” he says), to the link between Jazz and Techno (more on this later), to the much-debated point that he was sure that the French invented the board game Monopoly.

Monopoly debate suspended; it was time for the sound check, and you wouldn’t believe his excitement. This was a brand new LBS show that Laurent and Stephane had put together the previous fortnight because of the absence of Benjamin Rippert (the keyboard player and general Jazz influence on LBS); apparently taken ill and unable to tour ever again. The new show would be more Techno and more dancefloor than the LBS of old, they said.

The amount of times a DJ tells you from the back of the car “I”m looking forward to trying out some new stuff tonight”… it rarely has any meaning beyond standard small talk, but in Laurent’s case it certainly did. With the lights on and playing to a crowd of a bar manager, promoter and sound engineer, Laurent and Steph were performing like it was peak time… more of a dress rehearsal than a sound check.

Then the big guns came out – Gnanmankoudji and The Man With The Red Face – and you should have seen Laurent’s reaction when he dropped these; it was like he’d never heard them before. He was going nuts up on that stage, and remember, this was to a crowd of three in a near empty warehouse, at dinner time.

People don’t like Comedians when they laugh at their own jokes, but this was different somehow – you can’t help but admire how enthusiastic he is about music: playing it, making it, talking about it… he just loves it all. How many times do we read positive DJ feedback from Laurent Garnier on promo campaigns? I collared him over dinner about this. Surely it wasn’t actually him that gives most of those reactions… he must have someone that listens to his promos for him… how would he have the time?

“Until a few months ago, I used to listen to everything I got sent, absolutely everything,” he said. But now even he can’t find the time to do that because of the sheer volume promos in his inbox. So presumably, the overall standard must be worse than the good old days of vinyl? Not so according to Laurent. Unlike most, he thinks the overall standard of music has risen in the last few years, and he gave a reasoned argument as to why.

It was at this point over dinner that I decided he needed to be interviewed… the sheer volume of quotable material that was coming out of his mouth in the course of general discussion… so much of it was just disappearing into the ether. So the next day we would do it, in the car, on the way to his next show in Manchester, which postponed the musical conversation for the night. Laurent moved things back to the trivial world… “Did you find out about Monopoly?,” he asked. You bet I did. As entertaining as the sound check was, I’d found time. I just knew he’d ask about it later.

His enthusiasm for being right pretty much matches his enthusiasm for music, but on this occasion, he wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t enough to simply tell him that it was invented in Philadelphia – he would need the full story – so the Macbook was produced, then placed onto the dinner table, where he intently read Wikipedia’s synopsis of Monopoly. He conceded: “Charles Darrow, yeah – he definitely sounds like an inventor,” and that was the end of the matter. Another fact logged in his head.

The show itself was expectedly excellent. Dreamy and almost progressive-sounding first up, and then a range of peak time Garnier bangers. It felt more like a DJ set than a live show, which as it turned out was because Scan X’s laptop failed a couple of times during the performance. But this was seen as a positive; the kind of live improvisation that they live for.

Laurent explained his philosophy on live performance during the interview the next day: “When you go on stage you have to have risk. I hate bands that rehearse so much – they go on stage and there’s not one minute that they give to the crowd ‘at the moment’… I think you have to capture the moment and make the moment special, so with LBS, I really try and extend the moment.”

He’s off. “It’s really easy to put a band together to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and make an American show. What I mean by an American show – you can go and see the same band 10 times, and you will get exactly the same fucking thing, every single night.” He’s almost shouting at this point. “This is the most horrendous, and boring thing that can happen to a band. I hate going to see a band and seeing the same thing over and over again – to me this is a complete disrespect to the fans.”

On the matter of risk in live performance, he cites The Doors as his inspiration: “I’ve got this massive obsession with the Doors because for me the Doors were one of the best rock and roll bands ever. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie When You’re Strange… when you see that scene when Jim Morrison is at the front completely drugged out of his eyeballs… the band don’t know whether he’s going to faint and they don’t know what the fuck is coming up next, and every time Jim says a word they’re pronouncing it with a drum roll or a key… they just carry him. Those guys are carrying Jim Morrison for the whole song, and you know they are ready for anything. Anything can happen on stage, and those guys will just carry on.”

“What I want to do with LBS is I don’t want anything to be comfortable. I want us to be a bit on the edge, a bit risky. I’m absolutely fascinated by the Doors for that… if one guy’s collapsing then the rest of the guys will do their thing. It’s not going to sound the same, but it will still sound good, because those guys are proper fucking musicians… they do their thing.”

It’s good to know that Garnier is using that systematic, trainspotter’s mind to try and innovate with his music and his performance – it’s the kind of output you’d associate with a mad creative that doesn’t know what day of the week it is, not someone as conscious as he is. We’ve all seen those ‘conscious’ DJs who have a great grasp of how the system works and who basically make an entire career out of playing it. They have their style, they have their sound, they have their own label that churns out the same sound, they happily take their £1,500 per set, and they have a perfectly good career. If Garnier put his mind to it, he could do that, but thankfully, he loves to challenge himself far too much for it to ever happen.

He wasn’t always destined to be challenging himself as a musician though. He didn’t play any instruments as a child, and actually came to this country as a Chef at the French Embassy in London. His next job as a Chef in Cheshire put him in range of the Hacienda, and it was there that he had that moment, some time on a Friday night in 1986, with Dave Haslam at the controls.

“It was there when I heard for the very first time ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ by Farley Jackmaster Funk. It was the very first House Music track for me; something that stood out so much that I thought ‘what the fuck is this?’. I remember, I ran up to the DJ booth and I banged on the door… I didn’t know those guys back then, I was just a punter… and I banged on the door and said ‘what the fuck is that record?’. It was such a punch in my head, it was such a strong moment, and I thought whatever happens, I’m getting that record.”

“I think it took me three months to get the record because you only had one or two small record shops in Manchester, and I remember I got it from a record shop called Spinnin’, and I was ringing them every single week saying ‘did you get that record?’ and they would say ‘yeah, but you’ve got to come quick because everybody wants it’… I lived half an hour away from the shop, and every time I would drive down and get there and they’d say ‘sorry mate, it’s gone’.”

But he eventually got it, and within a year he was actually DJing at the Hacienda, at the inaugural Wednesday night, Zumbar. He got his break when he was spotted DJing at a couple of parties by Danny, who was one of lighting techs at the Hacienda. “Danny was friends with my girlfriend’s sister – I kept flooding Danny with tapes, and when they started talking about this new Zumbar night, Danny gave my tape to Paul Cons at the Hacienda, and they asked me would I like to do a trial?”

This was September ’87, and by March ’88, he was playing Wednesday nights with Mike Pickering. “Spring 88, the whole thing absolutely hit the roof,” he remembers. “It went from a black crowd to a completely white crowd. It went from a crowd that was a bit dressed up, to complete scallies that didn’t give a shit about what they were wearing. All they cared about was listening to House music and raising their hands in the air and going absolutely apeshit on ecstasy. The whole thing, within three months, just swept across Manchester, and it was probably the same in London.”

Zumbar was the precursor for the legendary Wednesday night Hot, which it was renamed to in June ’88. “At the start with Zumbar we were playing 50% house, but within a year it was 100% house.” Garnier and Pickering were presiding over the changes that helped create the legend of the Hacienda: “We were young and we were discovering something fresh,” he says. “We were writing the first chapters of the book.”

But then disaster struck. Laurent was called up for compulsory national service, and had to return to France, completely missing the second summer of love.

“When I came back after one year of the army, I felt like I missed the train. I left just before the thing exploded, and I came back and there were bits and pieces everywhere, but I didn’t have my part of the cake. I felt really uncomfortable with that. So I went back to the Hacieda, DJing the Saturday nights for 6 months… that was summer ’89 to December ’89, and in December ’89 I said to the Hacienda – ‘listen, I have to go, because I wasn’t there when it exploded, so I will never be part of it from the inside’. And I thought it hasn’t exploded yet in France, but that it might come. Maybe it was going to be more difficult in France, but I felt like something was going to happen, and I’d rather be at the centre of the thing, and I’d rather be one of the main actors. So I went back to France and said ‘I’m gonna do it there’.”

You could write a whole separate article about his memories of the Hacienda, and another article about what he did back in France, but it would be a waste of Garnier to sit in a car with him and just ask him to keep documenting history – it was far more interesting to get his own interpretation of the history – so we move to Acid House, and what that means to him.

“Acid House is a ghetto thing,” he opens up with, and then goes on to tell a story of when Mike Pickering went out to play in Chicago in 1988 to a club full of white kids… they were going up to him asking him where he got his music from, and didn’t believe him when he told them that it was mostly made on the other side of town.

Sleazy D – I’ve Lost Control is what he likes to say was the first truly Acid House track. Not DJ Pierre then, Laurent? The man who many credit with the invention of the Acid sound? “If you listen to Sleazy D the 303 sound is sequenced… he made a bassline pitched up from what you would expect from a bass which makes it sound like an Acid House record, but he didn’t tweak the knobs to make that ‘wa-o-wah-o wah-o-wahh’ sound… you know, the kind of thing that makes an Acid track sound like an Acid track,”… he trails off and looks at me for some reassurance. “You mean the wobble?,” I blurt out. “Exactly!!! The wobble, yes.” He’s back in full flow: “Pierre was the first one to tweak the knobs and go ‘yeah, I’ll record this’, but you know, you don’t have to make something wobble to invent something.”

He then stretches the definition further. “If you listen to Donna Summer – I Feel Love, take off the vocals and you’ve got one of the first Acid House records.” I wasn’t convinced. “You call that Acid House?,” I put to him. “Haven’t you heard the remix from Patrick Cowley which is 20 minutes?,” he fires back. “There’s no 303 but Acid House doesn’t have to have a 303, because there’s different machines that can make you think of an Acid bassline.” He’s riled again. “We shouldn’t be so fucking narrow-minded. Acid House is a way of making music. Yesterday, for me, we did some Acid House tracks, but we didn’t use a 303. Acid House is a trip – it’s not one unique sound.”

Interesting. You would never have expected Laurent’s 10 minute dissection of Acid House to end in the land of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, so goodness knows how he was going to quantify the next item on the agenda in the back seat, Techno… isn’t practically everything called Techno these days?

“Techno has followed the same pattern as Jazz music. Jazz has always been a music with no boundaries. The real essence of Jazz and the real essence of Techno is just a freedom of expression. You use machines all the time, but one thing’s for sure, you don’t stay where you are, you always move forward.”

That link between Jazz and Techno… he goes back to it throughout the interview. It’s something that genuinely moves him. He’s utterly convinced. “I’m absolutely sure that Miles Davis today would work with Carl Craig and people like that.”

“For me, Techno was the best combination of everything that I liked, because I grew up in France… because I grew up with white music, with Falco, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode… my father was listening to Kraftwerk when I was 12 years old.”

The influence of those acts and other ‘white music’ on Detroit Techno is well documented. Radio jock The Electrifying Mojo is cited as an inspiration by all the leading lights on the scene in the 1980s because he introduced so many people in Detroit to the electronic sound of Europe. “All Mojo was playing was 90% European music… he was playing New Order, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode… he was playing all kinds of different synthetic music… so Detroit always had this white imprint in the music they were listening to.”

“Detroit knew more than New York and Chicago, because Detroit was listening to what was happening outside. New York and Chicago was always, and is still, very closed into itself. This is why when Techno came out, it sounded completely different.”

“I think Techno broke the rules. House Music couldn’t become anything else other than House. House has to be a dancefloor thing, Techno doesn’t have to be something to dance to. For me, ambient is Techno.”

He then proceeds to cover the history of House and the demise of Disco, just for good measure, before coming back to the original point of what makes Techno, Techno.

“New York and Chicago has always been a big club thing. Detroit is a really different place. People make music in Detroit because they struggle, they make music to feed their family, they make music to survive. In Chicago they make music because they go out and there’s a club scene. Detroit is a complete warzone. It’s fucking tough as hell in Detroit, it’s a warzone.”

And then he puts the genre topic to bed with characteristic controversy:
“House is not a way of life – House is just music. It’s good music, I love House, but Techno is much deeper in the mind. House today is only a branch on the tree of Techno, and Techno has bigger roots. For me, House is part of Techno, but Techno is not part of House.”

This genre debate could have gone on for another hour just off the back of that contentious statement, but there were matters more urgent. Was I right to suspect that he started performing with a live band so as to prove himself as a musician; that DJing somehow wasn’t taken seriously in the wider sphere of music?

“Yes, absolutely. It was very hard in France to make people accept that Techno could be a stage thing.”

“You’ve got to remember that 20 years ago, dance music producers were not DJs. In people’s minds, DJs were DJs, musicians were musicians. When I started producing, I was still a DJ that was producing a little bit of music, but I was not a musician. And one day with my partner Eric I said ‘I’d like to go on stage.’ And we thought ‘how can we make a real live show?’ and I said to him, the best thing is Jazz. We went to Jazz musicians, because they can improvise.”

It all goes back to Jazz.

“I learnt so much from these musicians. Again, my connection with Jazz and Techno is so strong… the whole frame of mind for making this music is the same, exactly the same.”

“It took me a long time to get the right musicians. Finding the right musicians is a hard thing, especially when you’re 25 years old and you haven’t got a clue how to play an instrument, and you haven’t got a clue how to direct anybody. Believe you me I struggled, and it took me 20 years.”

The Man With The Red Face was a pretty inspired piece of direction though, and that was well before his 20 year rite of passage was complete. His method of direction there was to completely wind up the saxophonist he’d booked for a studio session, thus making him ‘the man with the red face’. “We were in the studio and we put a pair of headphones on his head so we could speak to him while he was playing,” he remembers, chuckling slightly. “He was playing and we were going ‘nah, this is shit, this is really shit’.” But was it actually shit? “No no, it was great, I just really wanted to piss him off. We did it for about 20 minutes, the poor guy just couldn’t breathe, he was bright red, and we were going ‘this is fucking shit, go harder, go harder’… and this is why the track goes nuts.”

We’ve hit another rich seam of analysis; Lauren’t production process, and the changing of the production process in general. “Back in the day, it was much harder to make music, so it was much easier to fuck it up. Now it’s hard to make a really shit production.” This goes back to the point over dinner about the current standard of music: all these digital releases… that mountain of daily promos, but actually, the lowest common denominator has risen according to Laurent, not that this is necessarily a victory for music. “20 years ago, the biggest inventors were the musicians. Now the true inventors of the sound are the machines and the software developers,” he says.

“I can see the way I make music now compared to 20 years ago… I don’t write my rhythms any more… I scroll through a 100 million different kinds of things… I do puzzles.” He’s referring to all the grids – that kind of visual interaction that didn’t really exist when he started out. “95% of musicians these days are doing puzzles.”

“Before, like Crispy Bacon, it took me a whole night to get that sound – I tweaked my JD800 for nearly 12 hours to get that sound. Now there’s so much choice. Yes, you retouch the sound, but you never spend 24 hours on one sound.” Is that a good thing? That things are more accessible now? That it’s easier to make music?

“It’s a different thing – I don’t have a judgement. You still have to have have a good ear.”

Only a few more miles to go, but still it seems, so much more to discuss. It lurches from the French attitude (“we believe we’re the centre of the world, and we’re the most arrogant mother fuckers”), the Euro (“Gordon Brown was right”), powerful and unfriendly British promoters (“they’re so hardcore”), Carl Cox’s motorbikes (he has 35), and the tragedy that surrounded the classic Hacienda track, Hardcore Uproar.

And then it was over. The Manchester Mal Maison had crept up on us, and Laurent was gone. It was an entertaining couple of hours, but also quite draining. His rapid-fire delivery can be fierce, and he certainly isn’t afraid to put interviewers in their place when they interrupt him mid-tangent: you can see how he could have put a few people’s noses out of joint down the years.

He makes his points in bold and in capitals, which makes for interesting copy, but on matters which are not an absolute, like the differences between House and Techno, it’s very easy to be swept away by the quality of his delivery and to wrongly assume that he is the oracle of everything. When you look back at some of the points, there is the odd contradiction, like Acid House being a ghetto thing, and yet he also defines the House genre as being entirely about partying and being happy – a more light-weight pursuit compared to Techno from the ‘warzone’ as a he put it – so surely not the preserve of the ghetto?

But despite the moments of grandeur when talking musical history, he’s actually very down to earth as a character, and at times, hilarious. Rightly lauded as a DJ and a producer, Garnier also manages to command a stage when he’s stuck in a traffic jam.

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