Interview by Paul Salfen
While many consider Jean-Michel Jarre the godfather of electronic music, that title only partially covers what the man has achieved. The legendary French composer, performer, and record producer first made a splash with his 1976 album, Oxygene, which was recorded at his home – a rare move at the time – and sold 12 million albums, making it the best-selling French record of all time. In 1979, Jarre played to over one million people Place de la Concorde, which is a record he has personally broken 3 times. He’s also performed to two million on Bastille Day, three and a half million in Moscow, performed at the pyramids in Mexico, at the Eiffel Tower, near Giza in Egypt, and at the fortress of Masada. He was also the first Western performer to be invited to perform within the People’s Republic of China – and played for Pope John Paul II.
While known for his record-breaking live performances, his recorded music has sold 80 million records. If that wasn’t enough, he’s been an accomplished painter, is a classically trained pianist, and has been a rock guitarist. But his foray into tape loops in 1968 is what started it all. But even at 69, he hasn’t slowed down at all. His latest album, last year’s Radiophonie vol. 9, has received high praise and he was nominated for a GRAMMY for his previous album, Electronica 1: The Time Machine. But of all the incredible shows he’s done, Jarre cites Rendez-vous in Houston as his most memorable. Two thousand projectors shone images on buildings and on 1200 foot high screens complemented with fireworks and lasers to a record-shattering million and a half-plus audience that caused a shutdown of the freeway. But he hasn’t been back since – and that was in 1986.
Here Jarre shares some insight to that special time, all of his achievements, and what audiences can expect soon in Texas and at Coachella.
AMFM Magazine: We’re very excited that you’re coming back to Texas, although the last time was in Houston around the Challenger tragedy in 1986, so there has to be some mixed emotions there.
Jean-Michel Jarre: Absolutely, yes. I’m very excited to be back in Texas almost 30 years after one of the most extraordinary concerts of my life. I’ve been very privileged to do concerts all over the world from the pyramids to China or Moscow – or in Paris with 2 million people but the most extraordinary and memorable concert in my life was in Houston, Texas. And you may not know that it was the first time NASA was involved in something like this and you know everything being big in Texas, I decided to use the Houston skyline as the backdrop for the concert. This is the first time a visual statement like this was made to use nothing but the buildings so this was very special and premier and we all met at NASA and we were supposed to have an astronaut playing live in space and as you know, he passed away. He was a very good friend of mine. We all had this idea of having an astronaut playing an instrument in the weightlessness of space. We all became close with Ron McNair and I wrote a piece on saxophone because he was a really good sax player to be able to play out there. It was quite a challenge because there are a lot of technical problems we found to be able to play saxophone in space. It was very special but you had unexpected problems like how to get rid of the saliva from the instruments because there’s no air and all kinds of things we had to solve. Ron told me, “OK, watch me on TV this afternoon and we’ll rendezvous in three weeks time for the gig. Then, of course, The Challenger crashed and of course it was difficult for all of us and I just wanted to cancel the whole project. Then the astronauts called me and said, “You have to do this project as a tribute to the astronauts and then I did it and as you know, it had 1.3 million people and had the Guinness Book of Records for the biggest show in America. And this shows a very special spirit from Texas. I’ve really been moved by the soul of Texans during this period because this concert became very significant. We realized that these men from space – these astronauts – were not abstract objects but real human beings and we can do a lot as human beings. The spirit of that day will remind my heart for the rest of my life. I’m very excited to do these two concerts in Dallas and Houston to introduce something new that will be a premiere before Coachella, which I play just a few days after Dallas and Houston. It is based on the idea of a strong visual path that I devised myself that is based on the principle of 3D without the glasses. There are three layers of LED screens with light moving that creates a total immersion to go with the music. We’ve had amazing feedback from the audience – and all over the world – and I’m really proud to share this with the Texas audience.
AMFM: With all of the amazing shows that you’ve done from the pyramids to playing for The Pope to the Eiffel Tower to millions of people, maybe space is the only great and magical setup you haven’t had. Maybe that is next, right?
JMJ: Yes, absolutely. [Laughs] You know, I’ve had this extraordinary link with space – from this event in Houston and in Moscow in front of 3 million people with a live link to the station. I’ve also been close with Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He became a good friend of mine. Like a lot of us, I was a great fan of 2001, Stanley Kubrick’s movie, so when 2010, the sequel was released, I ran to the bookstore to buy the book and I discovered he listed my name as a source of inspiration when he wrote the book listening to my music. We created contact and became good friend. That is another link to space and this appetite we had for the future. Especially in Texas, where people had high hopes regarding the future that after 2000, cars would fly and the social education system would be better and, of course, [laughs]when that time arrived, we were disappointed because it was not what we were expecting. But these days we are going back to a kind of hope and excitement for the future. There are all of these movies and this interest in artificial intelligence so it seems we are starting to have these kinds of visions for our future.
AMFM: You’ve been doing music that people have called “futuristic” and “ahead of its time” for years. But when you were making it – and I say this after listening to a piece from 1969, did you know how different it was and how special it would be to people?
JMJ: Yes, I think I’ve always considered it to be unique but when I started, we were a bunch of crazy kids working on strange machines making noises and not mainstream at all. I always thought that in the 21st century it would become a major genre for one reason: not only is electronic music based on sounds but in the electronic era, technology allows every young kid to produce music and release it to the internet. So we changed the relationship to music – and art in general. I’m excited to see what I started as a student is everywhere in both technology and electronic music.
AMFM: Electronic music took a long time to hit in the US for some reason. But now that we’re immersed, it seems to be perfect timing for the collaborations with newer artists that have likely been very influenced by you. Who were some of your favorites?
JMJ: I have a special project in my life that I started five years ago called Electronica, for which I was nominated last year for a GRAMMY, and the idea was to collaborate with people that have been an inspiration to me in technology and electronic music from Massive Attack to Armin Van Buuren or Moby, Air, Pete Townshend, Tangerine Dream and lots of people from different generations and because they have a different sound but a special relationship to technology and that was something I wanted to explore – especially with the great artists you have in the States like deadmau5 and Skrillex that are influential artists that are more EDM. That is made more for the dance floor and festivals and not necessarily electronic music in the case of John Carpenter or Hans Zimmer – two great composers for soundtracks that I collaborated with. But you’re right – in the States, electronic music is starting to grow more and more.
AMFM: You’ve accomplished so much, having sold 80 million albums and playing all of these world events in record-breaking numbers. What’s left that you want to accomplish?
JMJ: Actually, you know, I’ve always considered that with each project, I’ve always been convinced an artist is following his path, his way with every album or movie that you think about what you’ll be able to do one day. It’s like a mirage in the desert. The more you think you’re close to it, the more it goes away and you are chasing it. So I still have the same excitement I had when I was in my 20s. For instance, when I was saying about this project in Texas, you have no idea how excited I am to come back to Houston. I love the state, I love the spirit of the people – how strong the dream is and being willing to achieve and this is what we need these days.
AMFM: Well, that certainly seems to be what’s keeping you looking and feeling young and incredibly sharp.
JMJ: Yes, well, also with the thought that everything I do I think I can do better next time with the hope that it will be less worse. [Laughs]
AMFM: And because most everyone won’t be able to answer to this, what is it like to play in front of a million people – much less three and a half million? Can you even make out the scope at that point?
JMJ: It’s a very interesting feeling because at the end of the day, playing in front of one million, three million, a few thousand or a few hundred is more or less the same thing. It’s a magical and mysterious moment between where you are as the performer on the stage and the audience. It’s like a love affair between two entities and it has nothing to do with the state of the unions. You can be in front of 200 people and have an extraordinary evening or a complete disaster. Whether it’s a one-off like I’ll do in Dallas and Houston, it’s something unique. We won’t be there next Saturday. I love this idea that – like the caravan of a circus I used to see – making the tents for the performance and gathering everything the next morning. I think there is something special there for performers sharing these unique moments and the magic is there or it’s not. That is something that is your responsibility and the responsibility of the audience. That is something shared and it’s the way you convey the emotions. It goes both ways.
AMFM: I’m sure a lot of aspiring musicians and producers would love some advice from you. What do you say to them?
JMJ: I would say something very simple. These days with technology, there are no limitations. There’s always the latest software or instrument on the internet and these are hundreds of programs. My advice in electronic music – or anything – just focus on one thing. One instrument, one piece of software or hardware – try to stick with it for six months or one year and nothing else. Try to find it in yourself what makes your music special. Don’t expect that technology will have the answer for you. What makes your music interesting is yourself. Create your own limitations. When I started, I wanted to achieve one or two goals because I did not have the money and the technology was not there and it forced me to try and explore within myself and try different instruments and create something unique. It’s a timeless recipe.
Jean-Michel Jarre performs at Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie (Dallas) on Monday, April 9th and at Smart Financial Center in Sugar Land (Houston) on Tuesday, April 10th.
Tickets can be found here:
For more information, go to www.jeanmicheljarre.com