Q&A: Young Dance-Music Guru Nicolas Jaar On Whether His Acclaimed New Album Is "Dance-y" Enough
"A lot of the instruments I know how to play, I don't really know how to play."
New York's own Nicolas Jaar has been creating a stir in electronic-music circles since he was a teenager; now, at 21, he's released his first full-length CD, Space Is Only Noise, on his own Clown and Sunset label. (Get a sample via YIMBY here.) Early singles like "Russian Dolls" and "Time for Us" were more dancefloor-friendly than the album, which is meditative and slow, with lots of acoustic instruments (notably some decidedly jazzy piano), sampled vocals, and even a drum solo (the 23-second "Trace"). Despite being assembled from several years' worth of recordings, it has a circular structure and a unified feel -- it's spiritual without being cheesy about it, psychedelic without requiring drugs for full enjoyment, and clearly the product of someone whose vision of himself and his music is ever expanding, but with a strong core concept. Like a lot of 21-year-olds, probably. Jaar recently completed a brief tour of the U.K. and Europe; now he's back to studying at Brown University. We reached out to get answers to a few basic questions.
You started making music at 14, right? What drew you to making music? I guess I've always been interested in the idea that I might have this interior reality different to our exterior reality, that there's a separation there. So I think from the very beginning I was trying to come to terms with how to express what I felt internally and to put it out. And also, even if it was just at the beginning, being free to create anything was a thrill. I think that was the first idea, just feeling like I could do and sculpt whatever I wanted.
You're currently in college . . . what are you studying? How does your school schedule impact your DJing and recording? I'm going to Brown in Rhode Island, so it's just a normal American university schedule. When I'm at Brown I'm making a lot of music, because I'm reading all these texts -- I study comparative literature, so I read a lot of philosophy and theory and everything, so the main thing pushing me to make music is reading these texts and absorbing these ideas and trying to put them into music.
Did you conceive the album as a single statement, or as a collection of individual tracks? I had a lot of songs to pick from, because I make quite a lot of music, and so it was very much "I have these 50 tracks, and what am I going to say?" I really wanted the tracks on the album to be incredibly honest to what I felt at the time when I conceived of the songs. I didn't want it to be, "I'm trying to do this, I'm trying to do that." I wanted it to be kind of devoid of ideologies or whatever, even if that's idealistic. So in the end, I tried to make it form a kind of story or arc, and a real thought process.
The Can't Tells, Reputante, JLP, Controller, Vamos
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Your singles were much more uptempo than the album tracks. Are you gradually moving away from dance-floor-oriented material? Yeah, well, at the beginning, in order to get any form of recognition, you kind of have to play the game of the system to a certain extent. So I was lucky to have made those tracks and have labels to put them out on, but right now I see the future as more showing exactly what's really inside my head, not something that is pushed by any kind of monetary impulse or trend -- I think more and more with Ines, the compilation I put out, and now the album, it's getting more honest, things that are coming from deep inside me.
And did that fuel the decision to start putting things out on your own label? Yes, of course. Exactly.
How much of your music is composed and recorded on live acoustic instruments? Maybe one-third.
What instruments do you play? I play piano; I took a couple of lessons when I was young, but I didn't like knowing what to do. A lot of the instruments I know how to play, I don't really know how to play, but I experiment and work really hard at it until it sounds like something that I want to put out. I play a lot of instruments, but not knowing how to play them helps me get out of preconceived notions of how to play the instrument. Sadly, I can't do that with the computer, because I've been making electronic music for seven years, so while with instruments I'm very loose and very experimental, with a computer I know exactly how to frame it and how to compose things so that it's very clean, how I want it to be.
What kind of software and synths do you use? It's funny 'cause I really like the Juno 106, I like the Roland SH101 as well, but I use them very little because they're so obviously electronic, and I really try to record most things so that they have the illusion of organic-ness. I like it when it's neither organic nor electronic, when it's really a bizarre mix of both, when the ghost of each is inside the other and you don't know where the organic stands or where the electronic stands.
It sounds like going forward, you're gonna be doing shows that could be billed as "An Evening with Nicolas Jaar." [Laughs.] What would that entail?
More of a sit-down experience than a club gig. That would be incredible, if I could really take my time and people could sit down and I could really play a bunch of the much slower stuff. That's kind of what I've been waiting for this whole time. I really like playing in clubs, but that's a different thing. It's not so much about thinking, it's more about engulfing yourself in sound. I also like the idea of giving sound to people, and people having a contemplative sort of stance towards it.
Do you concern yourself with . . . I hate to use the term "backlash," but the idea that people who are interested in electronic music might get pissed off and start saying things like, "Who does he think he is, he's too good for us now"? Yeah, right. Well, I mean, that's always going to be a problem. It'll happen to anyone, once you're well known for something and then you start evolving as a person. But I think I'm always going to make dancier tracks and less dance-y tracks. I don't think I've ever truly made dance music per se, it's just been on a spectrum of more or less dance-y. So yeah, there's probably gonna be a backlash, but I'm being very honest, this is my music, it's what I do, it's what honestly comes out of me. It's not me thinking I'm better, it's just where I am at the moment. But I'm always gonna make dancier stuff also, for sure. It's something that very much interests me.
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