Laurent Garnier is a name which has gracefully battered dancefloors around the world for more than a quarter of a century.
His diversity of sound traverses the musical spectrum, whilst his enigmatic yet humble character, and continual search for new and intriguing projects, are attributes which earn this Frenchman the respect of a truly global audience.
Ahead of his performance at The Social Festival, Garnier reveals his secret of maintaining a seemingly immortal dancefloor presence, whilst drawing similarities between DJing and his passion for fine wine.
You’re one of the most well-respected and genuine artists out there, approaching every project and set with such energy whilst garnering support from both the younger and older generations of listener, how have you managed to keep yourself going at such an intensity for over a quarter of a century?
Trying not to drown myself, making sure I don’t do anything for the wrong reasons, and being as honest as I can. Playing honest records that I feel good with, so I feel comfortable with everything, like my body. I mean, I’m not 20 anymore. I’m just taking it a bit easier, you know? I never did gigs for money or anything, I just did it for the pleasure, otherwise I think that’s where things start to go wrong.
Your book Electrochoc, published in 2003, with an updated chapter in 2013, describes your journey through electronic music history. Recently you’ve been working on transferring it to the big screen, how is that coming along?
I’ve been working on it for 10 years, it’s not going to be the adaptation of the book, I don’t want to repeat myself – the book exists, it’s really a proper fiction. The book is about the story of my music, someone who fell in love with the music and dived into it 100%. So the book is like, how can I move forwards and tell a little bit more about what the DJ life is like? Maybe not the most glamorous parts of it – not that I want to make a dark film. DJing is about more than the obvious things that people see; you spend a lot of time on your own, it can be a lonely life, and to stay alive you have to refresh instead of drowning yourself in your job. I tried to work on that idea, not myself, but another DJ who starts off with a super passion for music but maybe goes down a different path, and I thought this was the most creative way to do this.
There are already a lot of very good documentaries about techno music and the whole story of it, so I thought, what else can I do? Not a documentary… I’ll do something people wouldn’t expect me to do and write a story and use my thoughts to create a different character, it was a very introspective time to write this. We have the cast, we couldn’t finance it until we have the cast, that’s how French film works. Now we can do the financial bit and find out if we can make the film or not, so in three month’s time I will find out if I have worked 10 years for nothing, which is a bit tough, but that’s the game. It is based in England and France, and a little bit of somewhere else.
During your earliest years as a DJ, you played the Hacienda which must have been a great experience, but you played under the alias DJ Pedro, what is the story behind that name?
At the time I was a completely unknown DJ, I’d never played pro before that, and in the summer of ‘87 they wanted to start a new party in September. The name of the party was Zumbar, which is a Spanish name, so they wanted to use Spanish names for the DJs and they asked me to go under the name of Pedro because I wasn’t known as anything else. Then in the summer of ‘88 I had to go back to France because the army was still compulsory then, and this is when I started using my normal name.
You’re an artist who absorbs sounds from all over the globe, but you went to America very early in your career, spending a lot of time in Detroit, were the Belleville Three one of the biggest influences on your early sound?
Yes, I spent a lot of time with the Detroit guys; Jeff, Derrick, Kevin, I was very close to Kenny Larkin, and of course ‘Mad’ Mike Banks from Underground Resistance. I was so obsessed with Detroit and in particular Derrick May’s music – for the first 10 years I was actually obsessed. This was because I think he was the funkiest one of them all in my eyes, his way of programming the beats and the accidents in his music were very different from what you used to hear back then, he had his own way. I felt the funk, the warmth in his music, I was very moved by it. But as he produced less, and more and more artists came along, I widened the range of music I wanted to do. But I guess when you were young back then you were less open to things. Whereas now, you have access to everything. Back then you had to go to record shops and it was time consuming and there wasn’t that many magazines to read about everything, it was just more difficult so I think we were specialising more, it was more, “I’m a techno boy, I’m going to listen to techno.” It took me a while to open up to other things, apart from disco which I loved before techno of course, but it took me a while to open up. It made me who I am today, I guess.
I have to ask, did you ever experience why Mike Banks was called “mad”?
I didn’t quite experience why Mike was called “mad” no, thank god! But Mike has always been an elegant warrior, he’s a very nice man in fact.
What genres would you say you were attracted to when you used to dance around your room with your disco ball and strobes as a 10 year old, as you state in your book?
It was always disco. Disco and funk from such a young age, and reggae actually because reggae was very big in France back then too, but disco and funk were my first experiences, for sure.
Some of your tracks have very intriguing and vague names to the unassuming listener, like ‘Crispy Bacon’ and ‘The Sound of The Big Babou’, to name but a few. What are the stories behind some of these names?
Well ‘Crispy Bacon’, this is actually linked to Jeff Mills, and back then my English was not so good. When I listened to the bassline I thought it sounded like some bacon in the frying pan sizzling, but I fucked up and used “crispy” as the name. Then the first person I ever played the track to was Jeff, and he came to my house and I said “Oh, I did this new track and I want to play it to you”, so I played it to him and he really liked it and asked me what I named it, and I said ‘Crispy Bacon’. He looked at me very surprised and said, “this is the stupidest name I’ve ever heard”. I found this so funny, so I said “sorry man I’m gonna keep it just because of your reaction”, even though I fucked up and meant for it to be “sizzling bacon”.
‘The Sound of Big Babou’… basically when I used to do a show on Radio Nova, the guy producing the show, David, who is the guy I wrote my book with, he used to come in on the microphone to present the track and spoke to me on the headphones. Every time he used to hand me the microphone saying “go on Big Babou, go on”, and the track’s sound is quite huge and quite nasty, so I just called it ‘The Sound of Big Babou’, because I am Babou.
A lot of the names of my tracks are a bit stupid, I know I have a serious side to my job, but a lot of people don’t know the other side, which is a bit crazy. I organise a festival [Festival Yeah!] in the south of France and the way we promote it is always a bit crazy, I don’t like to be serious all the time!
Does music still give you the elation that it once did when you were a child listening to disco in your room?
I mean, I think I’m less naive for sure, luckily! But it is a really interesting question. Sometimes I’m playing a record in a club or a place, and the vision I get in the DJ booth, the lights, the way the crowd is responding to a record, I feel hit with these thoughts about what I was dreaming about when I was a boy in my bedroom. And this is usually when I dig out my old ‘You Make Me Feel’ from Sylvester, or maybe a little ‘I Feel Love’ [Donna Summer]. Usually when I play these tracks it’s because these thoughts come into my head, and really, it’s like, this is what I was dreaming of when I was a kid, and I’m there, and really I feel very happy, very lucky. So yes, I never forget that time when I was young, it’s very powerful.
You’ve written pieces for theatre, ballet, and film, and I can’t help but draw similarities between yourself and Jeff Mills, both being veterans within the electronic music scene but constantly reinventing and shaking up what is expected of you. You both undertook the ‘Expect the Unexpected Tour’ 12 years ago, have you both thought of a future collaboration once again?
It’s more like trying to stay alive, you don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over otherwise you start to get bored. Even though DJing is very exciting, at one point you must get bored, so you have to get out of your comfort zone, try to push yourself to do different things. Because I’m somebody who is interested in lots of different things I kind of refresh myself – always doing different projects. Me and Jeff do very different things because he has gone into contemporary art. Jeff has always tried to look a bit further, and yes I feel quite close to the way in which he is managing his career. We haven’t spoken for quite a while, I asked him to do something for the movie but he never came back, I think he’s very busy doing a lot of different projects like he has always been. The thing with Jeff is that we can be very close for two years, and then not speak for the next two, and then the night we see each other and go for dinner, we speak for six hours. So it’s like that really, there is a lot to be said, it’s always a matter of the moment, but I haven’t seen him for quite a while I must say. I know he lives in Paris actually, so I should hook up with him more often.
You were an obvious driving force behind the Paris nightlife scene from the ‘80s and ‘90s through to today, how are you finding the evolution of the Paris and Lyon music landscapes?
Paris has never been as exciting as it is now. Paris is vibrant, super exciting and super underground, loads and loads of new clubs and labels and musicians, it’s never been as good. I run a club in Lyon so know Lyon very well, but Paris is amazing. It’s really underground so doesn’t come out as much in the press but there is so much happening.
Is there a particular young artist that we should be watching out for?
Man, there are so many new labels, so many new labels – it’s unbelievable. In Lyon there is a new distributor that distributes tons of super exciting stuff. To name one person would be silly because there are so many of them, it’s crazy. However, one who I find really exciting is called Voiski, he is very musical. And on the house side – Jeremy Underground, he’s cool.
On your Resident Advisor Exchange you said you could see yourself working with rappers in the future, have you followed that up at all?
Yes yes, I produced an album last year with a French rapper called Abd Al Malik. He’s not a young guy now, but I’ve just approached a new guy who is very successful in France, and we’re talking about maybe doing something together. I am very into hip-hop and I absolutely love grime, I’d like to do some stuff with some guys like that. And I’d love to work with a band, I would love to produce a more rock band-focused thing because I think there’s quite a lot to be done there. When you listen to Radiohead, to me the best albums from Radiohead were when they were made with someone who knew shit about electronic music, and for me this is where Radiohead were absolutely magic, so that’s the direction I would like to go.
So we are to expect a Thom Yorke collaboration soon?
I don’t think he needs me at all to be honest! He is so creative and so amazing he wouldn’t need me! It would be wonderful to meet him, for sure. I’m a big fan of Radiohead, and if he comes to me tomorrow and says “let’s do some shit”, I’d be like, “Wow yes of course!”. I’d love to start working in that direction, keeping the techno ideas and my way of making music, and bringing it more into the rock aspect – keeping it with a techno feel. It doesn’t mean fast and it doesn’t mean dancefloor. The best example would be one of the EPs I released last year on Musique Large. One track, ‘The Rise & Fall of the Donkey Dog’, and another ‘Revenge Of The LOL Cat’, these two are more of the sound I want to adopt one day, which I think adds a more pop vibe. I run the pop-rock festival, Festival Yeah! in France, and besides the festival we have a label which we only release bands on. There’s a lot of things that people don’t know actually, because we don’t really talk about it that much! We had Fat White Family and the Night Beats, and bands like that which I think are great, Suuns also. Suuns were great, I think they’re exactly the type of band I’d like to work with.
Your Instagram has a lot of wine related pictures on it, you seem to be somewhat of a connoisseur, and with watching Moodymann at Dekmantel pouring out free shots, I wondered if you liked to indulge whilst you DJ too?
Well he has always been crazy, always. I mean, I love wine. Yeah, I like a lot of Spanish wine, but when I play I don’t really drink, for me drinking wine is all about sharing pleasure with your friends and family, and is something very close. I can’t drink wine when I’m DJing anyway because it makes me tired. I get a beer sometimes, if not, it doesn’t matter, but wine for me is always connected to a good dinner, there’s no wine without a dinner. Wine is the same kind of pleasure as DJing but on a very different front, you know, it’s something which gives people pleasure and I love all of this in the same way. I’m there to play records and do my job well, really.
There have been several notable closures of clubs, most recently the temporary and perhaps permanent closure of fabric, all due to fatalities from drug misuse. Drugs are an evident part of the culture attached to music, however, it is a topic which is usually avoided and overlooked by icons within the scene. What would you say is the way forward to avoid club closures? Or is it just a risk that is taken when clubs host music events?
Drugs have been tied in with music since day one, it’s no more related to techno culture than anything else, it’s really big in the cinema business, for example. I get really pissed off when the press are like, “You’re bringing drugs into clubs”, and stuff like that, because we’ve been fighting this for a long time. Drugs have always been linked with the music business. Authorities need to think about why people feel the need to get off their face. I mean, why in England do you have so much binge drinking? The culture of drugs in England is absolutely everywhere, if you watch any kind of film or series, there’ll always be a reference to drugs, always. It’s part of the culture, and clubs have completely incorporated the culture of the English youth, it’s a normal thing.
My wife is English, and when you talk to her mother, there were drugs around in the ‘70s when she was listening to The Rolling Stones, it is just part of youth culture. To stop it you need to stop it being such a “cool thing”, drugs are not a good thing in clubs because they are fucking up a lot of things, and a country like England should approach the problem with a wider perspective rather than just pinpointing the club and closing them. It’s becoming like that in France too, drugs are becoming kind of “cool”. Shutting clubs is not going to help anything.
Laurent, for some reason you find yourself on a lonely island – with Wi-Fi – and are only able to take three things, what would you take?
Oh, a computer of course, so I can be linked into some kind of cultural thing. My wine, of course! Fuck, I would be so bored, I would have to take my wife, my boy, my twenty friends so then we could get bored as hell on an island, but at least we’d be together.
Thank you Laurent.
All the best!
Laurent Garnier plays The Social Festival at Kent County Showground, Maidstone, September 9–10. Buy tickets here.
Images: Richard Bellia
Words: Samuel Asquith