Interview: Laurent Garnier
Laurent Garnier is one of the world’s most celebrated house and techno DJs, but also one of the most elusive.
French by birth, it was in late-Eighties Manchester, England that Garnier first heard Chicago house. Instantly hooked, he soon became a DJ at the legendary Hacienda club, owned by Factory Records head Tony Wilson, and widely credited as the birthplace of acid house.
Upon returning to Paris, he took to spreading the gospel. To this end he started his own club night, Wake Up, and eventually a record label, F Communications. By the mid-Nineties, he was working on his own productions, tech-house workouts based on the robotic funk and slinky, swinging soul of his beloved early Chicago and Detroit records.
Then earlier this year came Public Outburst, a jazz-techno experiment based around a live band, with an extensive European tour in support of the album. In fact, he plans to hit the road again with the group next year.
In the meantime, Garnier is flying solo in traditional record-spinner style. Rather than doing the weekly grind of the world’s superclubs, Garnier prefers quality over quantity, with highly anticipated gigs at boutique venues. Still, he hasn’t played in the states in at least five years, and in Miami in over ten. This Friday, Shine hosts his much-heralded return. After the jump, read the full interview with Garnier, with whom I caught up by phone as he relaxed before a gig last week at Chicago’s intimate Spybar. – Arielle Castillo
Laurent Garnier performs with Stryke Friday, November 16 at Shine, 1801 Collins Ave, South Beach. Doors open at 10:00 p.m., and tickets are $20. Those 21 and older welcome with ID. Call 305-341-1318, or visit www.shinesouthbeach.com.
So you’re finally back in the States. But do you get home much, or are you playing elsewhere in the world a lot?
Oh, I get home quite often, as much as I can! I’ve got a home in the south of France, about half an hour away from Aix-en-Provence, and about an hour away from Marseilles. I do have a family, you know, so I get there as much as I can. Basically I play every two weekends, so I’m home quite often. Unless I go to the States or the Japan and then I go out for two weeks.
So what’s your lineup for this time around?
I’m here for ten days, playing Chicago, New York, Tampa, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and of course Miami….
Okay. I’m a big fan of the “Madchester” scene in England in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and Factory Records and anything having to do with the Hacienda. So let’s talk about that. How did you end up in Manchester, and how did you end up first playing at the Hacienda?
Well, I actually took, between the ages of 16 and 18, a catering course. And if you want to be successful in catering in France, you have to speak English. So I went to work at the French embassy as a waiter in London for a year-and-a-half or two years. And by meeting people, I got a job in Manchester with the head of a big chain of restaurants.
But of course, music was the only thing that was really interesting to me, so I started distributing tapes to people, and meeting people by being out everywhere, in all the clubs.
But what happened to catering?
I couldn’t care less about catering. I love eating, being in a restaurant, drinking wine. But the only thing that was a passion was music. I received a lot of emotion by listening to music. I just wanted to share that, that feeling.
So did you play an instrument?
No. Usually it was other people’s music I was reacting to. And at the time in France it was quite hard to get records, American and English records. I just spent hours and hours, isntead of playing football with my friends, listening to records.
You mentioned distributing tapes in Manchester. Were these official mixtapes you made with the intention of getting a DJ gig?
Well I distributed tapes to friends all through my childhood. In Manchester I already had a huge music collection, and I was buying records all the time. I knew a few people in the industry; I knew the people doing lights at the Hacienda. So I gave them these tapes that I was mixing at home.
What kind of music were you playing back then?
Disco, funk, soul. All sorts of different types of black music. I was really more about black music, even though I was also going to a lot of punk clubs. It was go-go, soul, the beginnings of electro, hip-hop -- until I heard house musuic.
When was the first time you heard house music? And do you remember what the song was?
The very first house record I heard was “Love Can’t Turn Around” by Farley Jackmaster Funk, which of course is a Chicago record. It was at the Hacienda, and the DJ was a guy called Mike Pickering. This was back in 1987, and that was it for me. There was no return.
What were some of your favorite tracks of that period?
“Love Can’t Turn Around” of course, “House Nation” by the House Master Boyz, “No Way Back” [by Adonis]. It was only Chicago music at the time. Also the beginning of DJ Pierre, all the acid tracks, stuff like that. Then Detroit came, and the first record from Detroit I heard was either Model 500 or something by Derrick May. Those just came like three or four months after that.
How did you even hear or get these records back then?
I was living half an hour from Manchester, and there was a shop called Spinning. You had to call them to make sure they’d save the records for you, because they’d only have five copies of each and it wasn’t sure if you could get them. With “Love Can’t Turn Around,” it took me months to finally get a copy. And of course to hear the songs this DJ, Stu Allan was on theradio in Manchester and I was listening to his show and taping the show.
It was a real struggle back then. Record shops could not get the amount of records they can get now. You really had to start to be well known by the shop owner for him to save you records. But things changed within a year, and then it was much easier to get music.
How did that situation change so quickly?
I don’t know, I guess it was the fact that England went crazy for this music. We’re talking about music which was dedicated to only a few people at first, and then in six months -- I don’t know what happened here in America, but in England, you have to understand that it went from 1000 people liking this music to two or three million people. It’s true! The numbers are right. A whole generation went completely mad for this music! From one day to the other, there was a demand for ten copies of one track and then there was a demand for thousands and thousands.
The first night I was playing house music at the Hacienda was a Friday night, and it was also Mike Pickering and another guy. They were bringing house into their set. It was black music, like electro, go-go, disco, whatever. The crowd was mainly black. There would be an hour of house, and it was a jacking thing – people were jacking and it was a special dance. Then all the whtie kids came in, and that’s it. This jacking thing went away, and it became a mass thing.
You have to understand how it happened in England! It was like a tsunami!
So, what about the bands at the Hacienda? Did you see many of them?
Pffft! There weren't that many! The Hacienda, yes, it was a venue where you would have bands, but it’s more known for the absolute craze of acid house. Of course, I saw a few bands play there, and a few of the New York and Chicago bands came in. The live performance back then was nothing, it was a reel-to-reel tape and they were singing on top of it. Well, wait, I'm talking about house music.
There were other nights with rock music. The thing that happened in Manchester is that all the kids who used to go to festivals, they became addicted to house music and began to come to the Hacienda to hear it. So it was almost this festival type of idea where you could see the Charlatans and the Happy Mondays as well as Paul Oakenfold and Sasha.
Everyone was basically taken by the same wave. The people who were making music in all these rock, indie bands, they were coming to Hacienda on Friday night to rave.
The rock scene and the house scene was exactly the same! So they were listening to this and incorporating it into their music! It was a whole attitude, style, way of dressing. It was all together, everything was together. And it's all so codified now, which is pathetic.
Did you listen to any of that rock music back then? Did that crossover influence your Djing style at all?
I’ve always been into rock music. I’ve always been a very across-the-board DJ, so I’ve always played all sorts of different styles of music. I’m quite far away from your normal techno DJ. Of course I play techno, but I allow myself to play everything else. It’s never been a problem for me. To me, I can’t understand people who would only play one style of music, especially techno music which is coming from so many different sources.
So why did you go back to France when all that was happening?
I felt like if I stayed in England I I would be a seasonal fruit, who would be cool because he was French. I just wanted to be Laurent Garnier, not Laurent Garnier, this cool DJ who’s coming from France. In England they’re very kept to themselves; I felt I would have never maybe gone as far as where I am now if I would have stayed there. I felt I had to do it for myself, and I had to fight for the scene.
I mean the thing is, I was in Manchester right before the whole thing exploded. I saw the explosion. But actually I was forced back to France for the army. Then the actual explosion was everywhere. So when I came back, all I saw was the results, and I felt frustrated like, ‘Shit, I could have been part of the explosion, but I missed some of it, because I was away.’ So I went back to France because things hadn’t exploded yet.
Was there any house scene in France at all back then?
There was. There were a few gay clubs playing house music, and some of the English promoters were coming to France and doing parties. As I said to you at the beginning – in England it was more than a tsunami. It was crazy. From one day to the other we saw hundreds of thousands of kids begging to come into the Hacienda and dance all night to house.
So how long did it take to break in France?
It took quite a while. The first scene that was really into it was the gay scene. In France it all works with reactions -- so if one thing goes, there will be a reaction against it. So from the gay, sort of glamorous club things came the underground raves, around 1992.
What kind of tracks were you playing at that point?
I was playing a lot of English stuff. I was always traveling to Manchester and the north of England, was becoming quite big in Liverpool. I still kept all my friendships with all the promoters in Manchester. I was very influenced by what I saw there in the beginning. I was playing a lot of European stuff, and Belgian things -- new beat was very big there at the time. And I’ve always been into Detroit and Chicago music.
When and why did you get into working on your own productions?
That came naturally, like it does for everyone, you know. That was the whole thing about house music, making your own music at home with no equipment. Of course one day I was bound to go to somebody’s studio and ask how the hell it worked. You’d go somewhere, and within five hours you’d have something laid down. There were no rules, no contracts. Everything was really easy and free!
So I took the first record I made to a company and I said, ‘Hey, could you sign it?’ And they did, and that was that. I never took it totally seriously until maybe ten years ago.
What happened then?
Maybe I grew a little bit older, and at one point I thought maybe I want to be respected in what I do. Now the great thing is even without being a professional musician I can make music and express some feelings and some emotions through the music I will produce.
It’s great to make music because you don’t have to do the same things as a DJ. As a DJ, people pay to come to the club, and my job is to play music and make them dance. But when you make your own music in your own studio by yourself, there’s no rules. You can do what the hell you want. I felt I could express myself much deeper, and show other aspects of who I am.
You talked a lot earlier about buying actual records. Do you still play vinyl, then?
I play half vinyl, half CDs. I love vinyl, but I’m not a very nostalgic person. As much as I love vinyl and love the sound of it, I already use a lot of CDs -- which is even maybe a little obsolete by now! But I play both, but not for a nostalgic thing. It’s that I don’t even have time to put all my vinyl on CD. I don’t use Serato.
Are you working on anything currently, production-wise?
I always do. But not so much lately because I’ve been touring all last year until last month with my band, and we released a live album with my band called Public Outburst. I’m going in the studio right now to release something by next September. And from May onwards we’re going to start touring again. I toured for maybe like six months with the band, and then I stopped.
The last time you were in Miami was over ten years ago. What took you so long to come back?
It’s just America. I haven’t been to America in five years. I think I only played once in Miami, for conference. I haven’t been very often to the States, full stop. The last time I came, we just didn’t have time to go to Miami, because I think I only had a weekend, so I only had three gigs and then I went home.
And it’s not just a Miami thing; there are a lot of places around the world who ask me the same thing. I made the choice of not working every single weekend. So when I go somewhere, I want to really have fun. So I’d rather go less and do it better.
So why did you decide to come now?
Well I have an agent here. The poor guy is suffering so much, because he’s always asking for dates and I always say no, not now. I know he really likes me, so he’s asking maybe more than a lot of other agents I have.
I know there’s a demand, and I’m aware of this. But on the other side I’ve never done this for the money or the fame; it’s always been for the pleasure. So I’ve always told him, oh, I’d rather do a small club.
The most important thing for me is have a good gig. I’d rather have 300 people in a room and give them a great time, than have 2000 people in a big room and struggle to give them just a good time.