House and Techno music are, today, the victorious victims of their own surging renaissance. The cultures and music of both genres have historically enjoyed a, mostly unerring, symbiotic relationship with underground and counter-cultural tastes. But now the juggernauts of hyper-commerciality, forever-desirous consumption and the inescapable commodification-cum-monetization of everything have shunted techno and house music into the mainstream.
Laurent Garnier has spent 25 years in a celebratory marriage to these musics. Holding past residencies at the legendary Hacienda, the sadly defunt ClubYellow in Tokyo and the self-founded Rex Club in Paris. Producing tracks that are as differing as the lauded dance floor destroyer ‘Crispy Bacon’ and the avant-garde cultured textures of critically acclaimed soul-wrencher ‘Gnanmankoudjii’.
The acclaim he has garnered is apt reward for works that testify to Laurent’s longevity, holistic scope and uncompromising artistry. Including his 2009 genre defying LP ‘Tales of a Kleptomaniac’. A techno record flecked with obvious allusions to the dubstep insurgency of that period, interspersed with productions informed by his long held affections for jazz, hip-hop and early jungle music.
Laurent has also experimented with form: touring with a live jazz-techno-hip-hop show, L.B.S., as well as taking techno straight to the bourgeois establishment at The Salle Pleyel. Whilst his writing commitments have resulted in two published editions of the semi-autographical Electrochoc. Part encyclopedic investigation into the history and social-effects of electronic music; part travelogue; part unabashed love letter to a music he promotes so evangelically.
He has, previously made public, plans to transform this jointly-penned book [written with David Brun-Lambert] into a quasi-fictional film. Considering these polymathic artistic interests, electronic music appears to have found itself a pulsing retort to guitar-based music’s Nick Cave.
Laurent’s career, life and passion for dance music have progressed, almost interchangeably, with that of the dance music he so loves. From his formative years immersed in Manchester’s late-80’s acid-house movement – a seemingly omni-present time period for noted members of the British music press as they continue to forge an image of Laurent: the perennial Manc’ youth and yet-to-be-rightfully-returned prodigal son – to his successes as a DJ, club and festival promoter, producer, label boss, radio presenter and author-cum-music-journalist. Laurent is afforded a wholly unique vantage point.
I, however, ask the wrong first question: “How are you feeling to be headed back to Manchester [for the WHP series] Laurent?” “I go there every year, yes, it is good. [pause] They are great parties.”
Short shrift from a man whom, by the end of our conversation, I note for his passionate, anecdotal talkative nature. His blunt reply shouldn’t be misunderstood as dislike for the WHP parties. Rather a tired resignation that after 25years of artistic output, my lead question would be Manchester centric – ignoring a vast cannon of more recent experiences and projects.
Deeper into our conversation, Laurent clarifies his respect for the WHP parties. They [WHP] allow the length of set he feels should be a base standard for a DJ: “I say I want to play three hours… If I play only one hour I would feel like I’m stealing money from the promoter.”
Often playing in excess of 6 hours, Laurent transcends the traditional remit of the modern techno DJ. Dubstep, jazz and African drumming rhythms are interwound in his marathon sets. This versatility, he believes, offers creative alternatives if techno ‘were to become a big fucking circus because everyone suddenly wants to listen to over commercial bollocks.’
As it stands the current auters of techno are still active and widely respected DJs from the first generation of the genre’s explosion. Laurent names Richie Hawtin, Sven Vath, Carl Cox and Josh Wink as a few examples. Because of these guys, he doesn’t believe techno will lose it’s artistic and counter-cultural roots. Even though the genre has enjoyed recent commercial success.
The conversation shifts to a discussion of a genre that did implode under commercial strains: dubstep. Musically, Laurent enjoyed the dubstep sound, particularly TEMPA releases, and has experimented within the genre. Yet being a techno DJ his fate was not inescapably tied to the dubstep’s popular standing. Unlike those who brought the sound to the public’s attention.
Laurent laments the fate of the dubstep pioneers – especially those who kept their music credible. ‘It went so commercial at one point it was becoming something [with] no other exit. One exit was we [dubstep DJs] follow dubstep and become clowns or we make a big change now as my heart is not in it.’
He addresses the issue of Skream and the ensuing furore that followed his self-stated creative divorce from the music. Laurent is adamant that Skream has nothing to answer for because he has always been honest. ‘Skream has always done his thing and never compromised. It takes a lot of courage to say I’m big in that music but I think that music has had it and I want to go somewhere else.’
According to Laurent, this artistic honesty is shown in Skream’s techno productions. ‘He sent me loads of his last tracks and it makes so much sense music wise. His way of making dubstep and his way of making techno is very similar. [It’s] very trippy and it works.’
For Laurent, Skream has ‘always been on the good side of music.’ Yet there are too many of the current generation that he believes are making ‘disgusting’ music and ‘making an indecent amount of money.’ Putting and their ‘facebook image’ ahead of artistic vision and a true dedication to DJing.
‘It got to the point about 2 or 3 years ago where promoters were making us play alongside the super commercial people. I played with Martin Garrix. 17 years old and his music is disgusting. The year before I played with Dadalife and it was really disgusting. It was horrible. I’ve never heard of them before because I don’t listen to shit music like this because it doesn’t talk to me.’
His sensitivity is unsurprising. Laurent makes me believe that the DJ is not the product the punter should be paying for. Rather DJing is the medium of communication used to achieve the actual product: those ‘special moments’ found in the club. Moments of ecstasy. Moments of unencumbered joy. Moments of inclusive rapture whereby every being in the club becomes part of a grander synchronicity. Moments that are more likely to occur with one DJ, rather than many, playing for a longer period of time.
This utopian vision is out of step with today’s marketing of raving. Promoters are keen to have more than one and often three or four headline level acts on a bill. This, bemoans Laurent, makes the story of the night ‘chaotic.’
If not sympathetic, he understands their anxiousness at trying to fill a club. Today there is increased competition, with different festivals, club nights and concerts erupting at a sonic rate. Even Laurent has started a new annual pop-rock festival: Festival Yeah!.
Yet when curating Festival Yeah!’s line-up, he makes this clear: both of them [he runs this festival with his business partner] are only concerned with booking artists that they are ‘dying to hear live.’ Guests are treated exceptionally. Artists are greeted personally and a chef is employed to take care of their culinary needs. Though ‘there is not much money because the festival is only 1000 people’ he hopes that because he is ‘honest’ about the need to ‘create [an artistic vision], to share and to have a community’ that the acts will return to the festival in years to come.
By his own admission, this genial approach is working. ‘Baxter Dury [indie rock musician] I’ve never met him before but since [the festival] we’ve been emailing and become close in a way and he’s even [since] been on holiday around here [South of France].’
From experience, he believes most ‘promoters don’t give a shit’ [about the central vision or treating artists with respect] and this lack of respect is now being mirrored by the DJs they are now booking for shows: ‘some kids [referencing younger DJs]’ he moans ‘just want to play 50 minutes!’
‘How on earth can a DJ just play 50 minutes,’ his vitriolic monologue in full flow. ‘If promoters are stupid enough to accept that [sic] it’s their fault for not laughing in their face [DJ] and saying you must be fucking joking. What the fuck! It’s a joke. 50 minutes!’
Laurent is unrelenting in his belief that commercial interests should be subordinate to artistic vision. Adamant that if DJing resulted in anything but ‘special moments’ he would have stopped ’20 years ago.’ But Laurent is an anachronism. In the modern culture of dance music, most DJs are happy to ‘come in, play three records, take a big wedge of money and go home.’
‘For me, this a hold up.’
‘Maybe I’m part of the old school but… I cannot understand this young generation, these new guys on the scene who are like fuck I’m gonna make a lot of money! It’s not about the fucking money! It’s not!’
These anti-commercial sensibilities put Laurent at odds with the current en masse appropriation and transformation of techno and house music into a mainstream commodity. Even when Laurent himself is in danger of becoming commodified.
He applauds festivals such as Sonar, because of their creative ethos and their treatment of artists. ‘[They] want you there for sure, they don’t just want to buy you because you’re Laurent Garnier.’ Whilst disparaging other large European festivals for booking him and other artistically minded contemporaries just to sell more tickets.
‘I’ve done festivals where I’ve thought, I’m not coming back. What’s the fucking point. They don’t [really] want me. What’s the point? I’ve been on stage and the stage manager has said “What are you doing on Stage?” And I said “Im playing after.” “Oh, okay.” Ten minutes later he comes back and says what are you doing on stage and I said [he emphasizes slowly now] “I’m performing.”
Prima donna behavior? Of course it is but after holding residencies around the globe for over 25 years and having solidified beliefs about the role of the DJ, it is logical that he would be upset: ‘When you have the stage manager trying to kick you out you’re like – why the fuck am I here? You know what, that gig was horrible.’
These experiences, only serve to enhance his inherent unease at the current mania for packaging dance music within an extravagant show-cum-festival ‘circus’. ‘I’ve always found myself very uncomfortable when I’m on my own in the middle of a big stage.’ ‘Now when [he] speaks to festivals’ his feedback is frank. ‘Next year, think about changing [it] because the moment you put someone much higher on the stage the perception is different to what you can get in the club.’
‘Why in the club do you get so many magical moments? It is because the DJs are next to the people and you can touch people. You [the DJ] are with them. DJs should be with the people and they should share things with the people. It’s a relationship.’
His own vital love for techno and house was born out of those first overwhelming, and crucially formative, clubbing experiences. Experiences that still sting today. ‘I remember the very first time I saw Derrick May play in Manchester. I was very young but I remembered it for the next 20 years. And the first set I saw him play in Paris? I was crying it was so beautiful.’
But the elongated mode of Djing that was prominent in the late 80s and early 90s, the sets that reduced a young Laurent to tears, are now rare. Yet it’s a mode of DJing that Laurent believes is inarguably more interesting than playing ‘hard music for 50minutes just to kick some arse.’
Not that he’s considered unsuited to playing shorter sets. His 50 minute Boiler Room DJ set from Dekmantel Festival 2013 has recently topped 1,000,000 views on Youtube. Testament to his ability to weave a complete story and experience into, what he worries is, a too-short period of time.
Boiler Room’s recent rise, allowing music fans the choice to stay in and enjoy DJs playing, is part of an accelerating and disappointing but ultimately inescapable culture of voyeurism. Piracy has always been prevalent Laurent tells me. ‘Even twenty years ago we had guys recording on tapes, it was not as easy but you could do it.’
Now the voyeurs are aided by legal avenues which encourage people to stay at home to experience live music – as if you were in the club. Laurent finds this unappealing. ‘[Rather than experiencing the DJ it is] being in your bedroom, in your pants listening to some DJs playing music…then I find that is not exciting.’ It tempers those haloed ‘special moments’ found only when clubbing.
Commenting on the manner in which the internet has transformed music, Laurent becomes agitated. Arguing that the urban centres that became the underground base of techno music during it’s first conception, would not be so today. ‘Because of the internet, we have lost the way of each city having an identity. We are so connected that even if you want to keep it [a scene or music] underground within a couple of weeks people will hear of it – even on the other side of the planet.’
It’s due to the internet he tells me that ‘things will not be able to develop their own strong identity.’ But does the quicker saturation and subsequent ubiquitous take-up of techno bother Laurent too much? ‘No. Absolutely not. It just means that the best techno music today is made in Paris or made in Japan!’
It’s the transformation of DJing into something that is ‘like a show‘ that truely irks him. ‘You shouldn’t misunderstand our job, because at the end of the day, a DJ is someone who is playing records. It is not a show!’
‘Earlier this summer I took my son to see Skrillex, and he put on a show. But he doesn’t mix anything! It’s all from home. It was pre-recorded of course! You cannot play live with all these effects and explosions and stuff being cued. I spoke to his French manager and she said “Yes, of course, it’s a show.”’
He is careful not to criticize Skrillex directly. Not clarifying whether he accepts that the performances of artists like Skrillex should be considered part of a different musical category altogether. Rather, Laurent admonishes those on ‘his level’ that are part of a culture which he believes have ‘lost the notion’ of what it means to DJ.
‘The core of being a DJ is to improvise with the crowd because it’s a simple as this.’ He is plaintive as he re-emphasizes his sacred understanding of the role of the DJ. ‘Every single night is different and it’s not a live show. It’s not a concert. It’s something where you completely, completely improvise. You do something with the crowd. And you do not impose on them. It’s a relationship.’
He tells me that it’s this passion for the music, the belief in it and uncompromising artistry that have prolonged his career. Not money. He cites those who ‘sold out’ as evidence: ‘Who is still here after 20 or 25 years of techno music? Is Snap [commercial German eurodance band formed in 1989] still here? Are these commercial bands still here? They’re gone.They’re products and as such [they’re subject to market forces] they make a fuck of a lot of money and then they disappear.’
To empathise with Laurent’s anti-commercial leanings, it is integral to understand, at least in part, the history of the techno genre. Laurent re-emphasizes this several times. ‘Just fifteen years ago we were in a place where people were saying techno music is no music and there was a fight for us to go and fight for the music and then, then house music was everywhere. There was no more fight. You could hear it on the TV. It became something you could do without being controversial.’
Today, house and techno music have percolated into mainstream listening tastes. Yet even Laurent, with his prevalent anti-commercial ideology, can be stoic about this. He laughs, telling me that though ‘there is a lot of shit [being made]’ there is also a lot good stuff too. ‘We’re drowned in shit but we’re also drowned in good music too.’
He points to the labels which have housed the releases of his five New E.Ps as examples of those pushing music in the right direction. Telling me that he also buys everything that Warp puts out, as well as Ninjatune. Not forgetting Domino records for their rock releases.
But though there is so much techno music being made, Laurent offers a stark warning about the perennial lack of ‘musical revolution.’ ‘Kids now are listening to the same things that there parents listened to’ and though this isn’t a bad thing – he would rather his son listened to Prodigy than some ‘commercial bullshit’- he worries in the clubs, particularly in England, that kids are becoming ‘disabused and apathetic’ and aren’t going out for the music any longer.
‘What I’ve found extremely strange is that if you look at the evolution of music every single year since 1930, there has been a new thing. Rock n roll, Soul, Funk, Disco, Psychedelic, House Music, Hip Hop but since House music there has been nothing new. Nothing. There has been no strong musical revolution!’
Although he is not unduly negative about this – commenting that in France there has been a surge of positive energy in the underground music scene, if not an evolution of music itself – it doesn’t stop him reminiscing about the days when ‘we were finding tracks that were so fresh and new, for example tracks by Lee Lewis, that you wanted to play them ten times in a night.’
But he fears for the new generation coming through, because they do not have to fight the older generation about their musical tastes – just as he had to with his mother when he was listening to Sex Pistols.
‘I hope that when my son comes through he’s going to be able to live a musical revolution that was experienced in the ‘80s, ‘70s or ‘60s because I truly hope he’s not going to listen to the same music as his Daddy!’
And with his final comment on his hopes for the future of music, I have to bid Laurent goodbye. His manager explains that Laurent is on a tight schedule this weekend, playing three gigs. I’m sure they’re gigs that Laurent has selected carefully himself, lest he falls out with his manager about the ‘commercial shit’ he has to share the bill with. Because Laurent embodies a true on ‘paie de sa personne’ attitude – a maxim that all self-stated artists ascribe to.
Presently, Laurent is not only an artist and musician but a guardian and tastemaker for underground electronic music culture. Able to offer unique insights that only a select number of his acolytes are able to match. My conversation with Laurent, complete with seemingly endless anecdotes and mini-lectures on the narrative arc of electronic music, leaves me unable to shake off a quotation from Two-Face in Batman, so I’ll finish with that.
‘You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.’
In techno music, it seems this wisdom runs in a contrary direction. The longer you stick around, the less likely it is that you’ve done the music and culture any wrongs.
Words by Dan Cave