Together with David Guetta, French producer and composer Fred Rister created the hits that made EDM a global phenomenon.
A couple of weeks after SOS’s interview with Fred Rister takes place, a small parcel arrives. Inside are two bracelets bearing the inscription “He made the planet dance. ♥ FR.”
These words are both pertinent and poignant. Pertinent because the world did dance to tracks that Rister co-wrote and co-produced; we’re talking blockbuster mega-hits like the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I Gotta Feeling’ and many of David Guetta’s biggest hits, amongst them ‘When Love Takes Over’ (featuring Kelly Rowland), ‘Love is Gone’ (ft Chris Willis), ‘Memories’ (ft Kid Cudi), ‘GRRRR’, ‘Without You’ (ft Usher), ‘Who’s That Chick?’(ft Rihanna), ‘Lovers On The Sun’ (ft Sam Martin), and more. As Guetta’s main collaborator for many years, Rister played a central role in the creation of the three multiple-platinum Guetta albums from which these songs were culled: One Love (2009), Nothing But The Beat (2011) and Listen (2014).
The poignant aspect of the inscription is reflected in the fact that it is written in the past tense, and that Rister’s output since 2014 has become sporadic. Earlier this year, Fred Rister released a single under his own name. Called ‘I Want A Miracle’ and featuring Chris Willis and Sam Martin, the song contains the lines “I want a miracle, show me a sign / ‘cause I don’t feel ready now, to say goodbye”, and all proceeds go to the Kidney Cancer Association. Not much reading between the lines is necessary here.
“I have had cancer since 1985, when I was 24 years old,” he recalls. “I had intestinal cancer, twice, and then kidney cancer, cancer in my bones, and so on. I’ve had cancer nine times, and now it’s in my liver and spreading everywhere.”
In April 2017, he decided to stop treatment. “I had chemotherapy for many years, but it has a lot of side-effects, and these simply became too hard to deal with. So I decided to live shorter, but more fully, without medication. It is difficult to live with and, also, people have asked me why I have gone public with this. Cancer and sickness are taboo. But I don’t want fake news and rumours around me.”
At the time, doctors gave him a year more to live, so the fact that Rister is alive and capable of giving interviews in August 2018 is already a minor miracle. Releasing ‘I Want A Miracle’ and assigning all proceeds to cancer research also meant that Rister could so something positive with his situation, and give, in his words, “a bit of hope for all those fighting cancer”. Moreover, the very act of making the song proved healing. “When the subject is music, I forget everything,” says Rister. “Music is therapy. When I make music, I feel totally normal. Music is a real love affair for me. I wrote ‘I Want A Miracle’ when I decided to stop the chemotherapy, and my friends asked me: How can you write a song called ‘I Want A Miracle’ when you stop treatment? My reply is that the real miracle is to survive without chemotherapy. I don’t have a lot of hope, but I also don’t give up.”
Born in 1961 in the North of France, the young Frédéric Riesterer built cardboard drums at the age of 10 or 11, while requests for keyboards and a piano went unheeded, because these were too expensive for his parents. His one year of formal piano lessons also wasn’t exactly a source of joy. “If I played more than one note, the teacher would whack me with a cane!”
Mercifully, this did not put Riesterer off music. He began DJ’ing in the late 1970s, in Dunkirk, and went on to work as a DJ for a local radio station. During this time he took on the artist name Rister. In 1989, Rister moved to Paris, where he became increasingly active as a musician. Amongst many others he worked with arranger Bruno Sanchoni and French-Gabon singer Abyale, and they had a European hit with a track called ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover Too (1990). Later that decade he released material under the artist name Mory Klein, and founded a duo called Ixxel, with Jacky Aru, and they had a hit with a track called ‘Drop That Beat’. In the early ’00s Rister worked with Portuguese singer Isabel Algarvio, who took on the artist name Anaklein, and became his wife. The two enjoyed several hit records in France.
“When I arrived in Paris,” remembers Rister, “I did not have the money to construct my own studio, so I worked with just one keyboard and a small four-track tape recorder, good enough to create demos, but not to pitch things to labels. After a while I started composing on the Atari 1040ST, with Cubase software. I bought many synths that I could connect to the Atari with MIDI, like the Prophet 6, Juno 106, Oberheim Matrix 1000, and also the Akai S950 sampler. Using this gear I initially created New Beat music, a Belgian genre that was created when a DJ by mistake played a 45rpm track at 33rpm. I wrote in this style for a year, because it was simple, and more based on ambience, with heavy percussion and lots of reverb.”
When Hits Take Over
Fred Rister was thus already enjoying a successful career as a music writer and producer in France when David Guetta first approached him in 2004. Their collaboration became a momentous episode in both their lives. Guetta, in the interview elsewhere in this issue, says he recalls “every detail” of his collaboration with Rister, and the same appears to be the case for the latter.
“One day a friend of David, Joachim Garraud, called me and asked whether I wanted to work on David’s new album. I told them I couldn’t do it, because I was working on an Anaklein album. So they went ahead and David made Guetta Blaster without me. Two years later, in November 2006, they called again, and asked me to make a demo. I did, and they called me about it while I was in a meeting in Paris. They said: ‘That’s good, but for sure, you can do better.’ I was pretty disturbed by this, and cancelled all my other meetings in Paris and went back to my place in the north of France, where I lived by this stage, and created a new demo.
“This new demo was eight minutes long, and David and Joachim tested it during their DJ sets. After a month they called me and said, ‘It’s good, but something is missing.’ They said that it needed a change at two minutes, and a big electro bass. It was a Thursday evening at 9 o’clock when they called me, and at 9:20 I called David and Joachim back and played them the two bass lines I had come up with, and they chose the second one. That’s how the backing track and electro bass of ‘Love Is Gone’ were born. I added a guitar sample, and David and Joachim worked with Chris Willis on the vocal melody and vocals.”
The first big Rister-Guetta hit had come into being, and many more were to follow. ‘Love Is Gone’ was released in June 18th, 2007, on the same day as the album from which it came, Pop Life, and was the most successful single from said album. Guetta asked Rister to work exclusively with him, to which the latter agreed, on the condition that he could also continue to work with his wife. Pop Life and ‘Love Is Gone’ proved stepping stones towards Guetta and Rister’s jump into the pop stratosphere, which came with Guetta’s next album, One Love (2009) and the monster hit ‘When Love Takes Over’, which has lyrics written with Australian DJ duo Nervo.
“’When Love Takes Over’ was the first song David and I worked on for the album. David said to me, ‘Fred, I would like that we create a song with a piano.’ So I played him a piano arpeggio, and he said, ‘What if you play an F# instead of an F?’ I initially thought it wouldn’t work, but it did. So that’s how we developed that chord sequence. We constructed an instrumental, and when David played it two weeks later in Cannes, Kelly Rowland heard it and asked if she could sing on it. The song went to number one in the UK, which was great, because I had always dreamt of having a number-one hit in Great Britain. However, while we worked on that album that I had a scan, and was told that I had kidney cancer, and we were all quite disturbed by that. David suggested we go to Los Angeles, and that is when we composed ‘Memories’ with Kid Cudi. Just before that we’d done the instrumental of ‘I Gotta Feeling’. Will.i.am heard that via telephone and really wanted to use the song with the Black Eyed Peas.”
The gear that Rister was working with around this time centred around Apple’s Logic. “I had Mackie speakers and a Yamaha CS1X and CS2X keyboards, and often used my Roland Juno 106 for the bass. The problem was that when I started to work with David, I had to be able to work anywhere: in the airport, on the plane, in the car, a hotel room, and so on. If I printed my MIDI as audio, and wanted to change the sound, I would not be able to do it, and also, I could not carry any keyboards with me. So ever since I worked with David, I’ve been entirely in the box. I adore Logic, and was on Logic 8 at that time, and I use a lot of plug-ins and soft synths like reFX Nexus and Lennardigital Sylenth and so on.”
More major success followed, and Rister has particularly fond memories of working on Guetta’s next album, Nothing But The Beat. “Making that album was a lot of joy for us, with lots of good energy. It was an album of two parts, with one half pop and the other half electro. In general I prefer the words electro and electro-pop. I never liked the term EDM. What I do is electro-pop more than dance. On the next album, Listen, I worked on the title track and on ‘Lovers In The Sun’. It was around the time Avicii had done some songs with country, and I suggested to David to do something around the concept of a spaghetti western, and he thought it was a great idea. After that I had chemotherapy, and I was really tired, and only contributed to a couple more tracks for that album: ‘Listen’ with John Legend, and ‘I’ll Keep Loving You’ with Birdy and Jaymes Young.”
Although he continues to be on an exclusive contract with Guetta, his health problems have meant that Rister has gradually contributed less and less to Guetta’s music, and was only involved on one track on 7, ‘Think Think Think’. According to Rister, there are two other factors in play here, one being that Guetta has a strong hand in the making of his own tracks, regardless of who he works with, the other that he has in recent years gravitated to more urban music, a genre with which Rister has little affinity.
“There have been voices in the French media who have said that David doesn’t contribute to the music on his albums, and I cannot let that stand, because it’s simply not true. First of all, David’s presence brings things out of people that they would not normally think of, and he comes up with very enlightening ideas, like changing that F to an F#. He also programs and plays keyboards. I’ve pushed him a lot to play keyboards, because he always says, ‘You play better than me.’ But I say: ‘Hey, it’s your musical idea, you know how to play it, so play it!’”
Today, Fred Rister continues to live and work near Lille in the North of France, refusing to be drawn into the jet-setting lifestyle of Guetta and many others. “I was born in this part of the world,” explained Rister. “I don’t want to live in LA. It’s sunny there every day. I need to have some clouds in the sky and some rain, and I love fog! I used to have another studio 5-6 km from here, in a small house in the words, and eight years ago I built my current studio, which I call Catfield.”
Catfield still contains many of the keyboards that he collected over the decades. His setup today consists of, “Logic X, which I adore, and I work with many of Logic’s soft synths, which are top class. I have a pair of Barefoot MicroMain 27 speakers and a pair of Genelec 8351A speakers, hardware synths like the Juno 106, Clavia Nord Rack 2X, Oberheim Matrix 1000, Korg Triton, Oberheim OBX8, Arturia MiniBrute, Prophet 6, Yamaha CS1X and CS2X, Yamaha Motif Rack XS, Access Virus TI, and my soundcard is a [Prism Sound] Orpheus. I also have an outboard API 2500 compressor.”
Rister composed ‘I Want A Miracle’ at Catfield, and very deliberately constructed the arrangement so that it functions as a recapitulation of some of the music that inspired him throughout his career. “The song has a French touch, like Daft Punk. I played the bass, and there’s a vocoder and a Chic-inspired guitar, which reminds me of the 1970s. I asked Nile Rodgers to play but he couldn’t do it, so instead Dom Brown from Duran Duran played guitar. These are all elements I have enjoyed, and brought together in one song. The vocals were recorded at Jason Evigan’s place, and he and Sam Martin wrote the lyrics with me. I didn’t use Nexus or Sylenth for this song, but Native Instruments’ Kontakt, which is really good for piano and strings. I did some of the drums in Kontakt and some in EXS24, the Logic sampler.
“I had many different tracks in the original session, and then I started deleting any tracks that did not add anything to the song, and that take needless space. I also work like that with David. We add many tracks, and then listen to the sessions together, and remove as many tracks as we can. You listen, mute a track, and if it does not make the song less effective, delete it. This also makes mixing a lot easier. Veronica Ferraro mixed the song, and she was very happy, and said that everything was in the right place. She didn’t have a lot to do, just boost a few things and that’s it.”
At the time, Fred Rister announced that ‘I Want A Miracle’ would be his last release; but since then, he’s released his own remix of the song, with substantial changes to make it more danceable, including a faster tempo. Another new venture is an autobiography, which will be published on October 18 under the title Faire Danser Les Gens (‘Making People Dance’). Note the absence of the past tense, and rightly so. Whatever way things turn out for Fred Rister, and we wish him the miracle he’s hoping for, the world will be dancing to his music for a long time to come.
Too Much Of A Good Thing
Having worked in the music industry over four decades, Fred Rister is well aware of both the progress and the absurdities of the modern digital world. “In the past we cried because we didn’t have enough sounds. Today we cry because we have too many sounds! Because I am from an analogue generation, I like to add things to prevent the music from sounding too digital, like white noise, pink noise, you push your compressors a bit more, and so on, because there’s something lacking in digital. Also, today it is so easy for anyone to create a complete song in a DAW, yet at the same time it’s more difficult to get a song released by a record company than ever before!”