Jean Michel Jarre and Edward Snowden might seem an unlikely duo, but the electronic music pioneer tells Ed Power why they were an ideal match
ON THE face of it, Jean Michel Jarre is an unlikely thorn in the side of the establishment. He is famous for his grandiose synth pop and even grander outdoor concerts, which have raised public spectacle into an art-form.
Some 120,000 saw him play at the pyramids of Giza on New Year’s Eve 1999, more than 1.5m attended his 1986 Rendezvous Houston performance, staged amid the skyscrapers of Texas’s financial capital. How strange, almost perverse, to imagine him as a subversive figure.
But Jarre, the public face of machine-created music, demonstrates a markedly different side on new record, Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise (Electronica part one appeared last year). Here, the key track is ‘Exit’, an unlikely collaboration with US whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Jarre believes Snowden demonstrated tremendous bravery in exposing the CIA and NSA’s industrial scale surveillance of private electronic communications. It brought him back to sacrifices made by his mother, a member of the French resistance in the Second World War.
“One of the themes of my new album is the ambiguous relationship we have with technology,” says Jarre, 67, in his distinct French accent. “On the one hand we have the world in the palm of our hand with our smartphones. On the other, we feel as if we are being spied on by the outside.
“When I heard Edward Snowden’s story it reminded me of my mother in a strange way. She was in the French resistance from early on, 1941. At that time, the Resistance were considered troublemakers — even traitors — in France. I have always been of the opinion that when those in power are promoting actions and ideals that risk harming or impeding us, people should stand up to this.”
Snowden is a fan of Jarre’s and jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. However, he is not a musician and had few ambitions in that direction. Hence his performance comes in the form of a spoken-word contribution: A moving plea for the public to assert their right to privacy in the digital realm and elsewhere (“If you don’t stand up for it, then who will?”).
“Snowden has demonstrated true love for his country,” says Jarre. “He has done something to improve the lives of people. That is very inspiring, especially at a time when so many young people are attracted to opportunists such as Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen in France. People are rejecting the power of the elite but individuals such as Snowden are doing so in a positive way, trying to change things for the better. He is a very intelligent man and obviously interested in electronic music.”
Jarre has had a singular career. He was initially seen as an enfant terrible and contemporary of pioneers such as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. But success distorted perceptions with the multi-platinum Oxygene album cementing his status as once-and-future king of synth-based easy listening. If he is famous for anything in the decades since it is a marshaller of events — a designation that does not necessarily sit easily with his idea of himself as someone who has helped make electronic music credible and popular.
The media has long been inclined to downplay his contribution (in the UK Oxygene was slammed as new agey Mike Oldfield rip-off). But he has always been highly regarded by musicians, who lined up collaborate with him on the Electronica project. Volume one included M83 and Pete Townshend, while the follow-up includes Pet Shop Boys, Primal Scream, Cyndi Lauper, and others. “All these artists are geeks like me. I made a point of meeting the people that I recorded with rather than doing it remotely. So for the past five years I travelled the world. Everyone I approached said yes — which is why I ended up with two albums of material.”
Jarre was born in Lyon in 1948, the son of a composer and a mother who had also spent time in a concentration camp. Jarre’s parents separated when he was five and he was raised by his mother (he did not see his father again until he was 18).
At the Conservatories de Paris he was a student of Pierre Schaeffer, the father of the “musique concrete” movement from which electronic music would evolve.
In 1976, Jarre released Oxygene. He had assembled the record on a shoestring at his home studio, using analogue instruments he had in several cases built from scratch and an 8-track recorder installed in the kitchen of his apartment.
Nobody wanted to put out an album that lacked singers, conventional instruments, or even song titles (the tracks given minimalist numeric designations). A local record label was persuaded of the project’s merits and printed 50,000 copies. At the time of writing, sales of Oxygene stand at over 15m.
This was just the start of an avalanche of success that would see Jarre sell over 70m records. He has been named Time magazine’s man of the year, was briefly married to actress Charlotte Rampling, and, in 1981, became one of the first Western artists to perform in China.
In a recent interview, Jarre seemed to distance himself from those bombastic concerts of the 1980s and ’90s, saying he was “vampirised” by the experience. But today he defends those extravaganzas, which he says helped bring electronic music to the masses.
“Whether indoors or outdoors I always focus on bringing an aesthetic component to my music. If you buy a ticket you have ‘visual’ expectations of the artist — especially with electronica. When I started, there was no real place to present this kind of music. You had to find your own way.
“So I went outdoors and brought it to a another scale. Even today, I’m always thinking of new ways of presenting the music. I’m quite tired of seeing these shows where the artist is just performing against a video backdrop. I want to try something different. My new tour is going to be 3D without the need for 3D glasses. It is very different but, I hope, quite spectacular too.”
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