When DJs produce their own albums, the results can be mixed — but Laurent Garnier is not your average DJ, and his The Cloud Making Machine is anything but a conventional house or techno record.
Unarguably France's premier export in the world of the superstar DJ, throughout the '90s Laurent Garnier managed to build a parallel recording career producing quirky, off-beat techno, reaching a creative peak with his 2000 release Unreasonable Behaviour. Five years on, Garnier has finally completed its follow-up, the highly ambitious and surprisingly eclectic The Cloud Making Machine. A downtempo and far more filmic affair — until the tempo picks up in its more dancefloor-friendly second half — its direction is partly the result of the DJ having dabbled in short film soundtracks over the past few years.
Garnier himself insists that when he began work on The Cloud Making Machine, it wasn't actually his intention to make a more slow-paced, atmospheric album. "No, absolutely not," he says. "I started working on the album in January/February 2004 and made a couple of techno housey tracks. But I felt I was really repeating myself and I didn't like that, so I thought 'OK, forget about this and start doing other things, just to see where you're going.' But there was no special meaning to do a downtempo album, there was no special thing to do the first half mellow and the second half a little bit harder. It was more like I made tracks and once it was finished I put it all together."
The preliminary work on this album was unusual for Garnier in that he normally starts with a blank page of empty tracks. In this instance, he used elements of the film music he'd created as a starting point for the new record.
"The biggest thing I learned on Unreasonable Behaviour was from working with the sound engineer Laurent Collat," he remembers. "The thing he kept repeating for six or seven months was 'Never ever throw anything away.' The way I used to work before, I never used to build tracks, I used to just do loops and then mix live as if I was on stage. I'd record a live mix of, like, 15 or 20 minutes on DAT and then I'd edit it afterwards. As soon as I was finished I used to throw away all the files and never keep anything.
"Starting to work with Laurent, he said 'Keep everything, because you never know what's gonna happen and you might use something three years after.' This was the best piece of advice I had. So since working on those films and stuff like that, I kept everything in my computer thinking 'Maybe one day I'll need it.' The first thing I did for The Cloud Making Machine was I went into my computer and listened to absolutely everything in there.
"There were a couple of tracks — '9.01-9:06' and 'Jeux D'Enfants' — that were roughly made, but the sound wasn't right, the percussion wasn't right. So I kind of reworked them. Some of the tracks are quite old, but all the mixing and mastering, everything basically, was done within seven months. It took me a long time to switch on my machine, but when I started working, I strictly did that. I didn't do anything else, no DJ work, nothing."
The Cloud Making Machine was produced almost entirely in Garnier's Parisian home studio, The Kub. "Basically I live in a place which looks like a cube. Since I moved here four years ago I never really worked on an important project like this album. This is the first time I've spent so much time in my studio. It's not like I built a studio though — it's just a room and I just put my shit there."
While everything on the album was recorded and arranged in The Kub, the mixes were done by the DJ's musician and engineer friend Scan X on his own home setup.
"Basically the way we worked on this album was quite simple," Garnier explains. "I was making the music at home — it'd take me three or four days to work on a track. Then Scan X would come to my house, separate each part and record the live loops as audio and then he would go to his house and mix everything. I'd say to him 'I'd like this sound compressed with this echo,' and then he'd go home and work on it. That meant I could work on a track and he would come to my house and play me something else, so my ears were fresh for that. After you've worked for two or three days on a track, your head is really done in, 'cause you're so much into it that you can't really stand back and have any judgement."
Aside from their shared use of Cubase SX ("I'm not a computer wizard and it's quite simple"), Garnier and Scan X work in very different ways. "Scan X is Mr Software. He hasn't got a piece of equipment which is outside of his computer. We both use a PC — I've no idea what it is he has, and to be honest, I'm not really sure what it is I have! I haven't got a clue. But do you know what? I think that's quite healthy."
Still, the DJ has no trouble listing his favourite plug-ins. "I use Battery quite a lot for my drums. I like the Model E, I like the Arturia stuff, that's really nice. For the fourth track on the album ['Huis Clos'], I used [Edirol's] Orchestral for the piano. What else do I like? Absynth of course and the Waldorf and the FM7. Lounge Lizard has great Rhodes and stuff like that."
When it comes to his DJ work, Laurent Garnier has chosen to embrace the latest technological advances. While many other DJs are still dedicated vinyl-heads, the Parisian is keen to extol the virtues of Pioneer's CDJ1000 in particular.
"It's creating a real revolution," he enthuses, "because you can loop, you can trigger the very beginning of the track, you can play on the cue button and sample a little bit. The loop function is amazing because you can play a lot of tracks that are hard to mix because they were played live, so you can really have fun with that. Again the great thing with CDs is that I edit a lot of tracks now in my computer with Sound Forge and burn CDs of my edits. I receive tracks — particularly hip-hop tracks that have an instrumental, an a cappella version and a normal version — and I do a five- or six-minute edit which makes it easier to mix. The same with a disco record — I make loops at the beginning and loops at the end. And of course you can't do that with vinyl."
The other obvious benefit, of course, is not having to hump around as many back-breakingly heavy record boxes. "Yeah, you can bring much more music with you. Since the Pioneer came out and I burned myself a lot of CDs, now on top of having my normal six or seven hours of house or techno in vinyl — which I still have — I have enough to do two or three hours of rock, two hours of drum & bass, three or four hours of hip-hop and reggae, five or six hours of funk. And all this is with 45 or 50 CDs, which is nothing. So now I can basically adapt. Anywhere I go I can do whatever the hell I want. Which I couldn't do before if I was taking vinyl, because you have to make space. It's really, really changed my set and allowed me to play much much more than I used to."
What's more, Garnier isn't convinced by the purists' argument that vinyl sounds better to those on the dancefloor. "I mean, I love vinyl, I truly truly love the sound of vinyl," he says. "But let's be frank here — a lot of clubs are built with good sound systems, but a lot of them are built with really average or poor sound systems. And I defy anybody to go on a dancefloor for five hours and note each time the guy will play a CD or will trigger an MP3 from digital and each time the guy will play vinyl. I don't think anybody can tell the difference. Because anyway, from vinyl to vinyl, the pressing is really different. At the end of the day, our job as DJs is to play music, so we shouldn't stop ourselves from playing something because it's only been pressed on CD."
On the whole, though, Garnier admits that he prefers working with equipment of a more tactile nature. "I'm more a hardware guy. I've got two Nords that I use a lot — the Lead Version 2 and the small one, the Nord Modular, with all the editing stuff inside the computer. I like the texture of the Nord Lead. I'm not too much into the Modular because I'm not a software person really. I like tweaking knobs and having a straight effect. I really enjoy being able to touch the equipment and see what I'm doing, I relate much more to that. What I like about the Nord Lead is it's got tons of buttons and you don't have to go into pages and pages to actually have something happening.
"Funnily enough, you know, I bought a Kurzweil K2000 and I never use it 'cause it has too many pages. I mean I know how to use it now because I've had it for a long time and I love it, the sound is great, but I don't use it because at the end of the day I have to spend a lot of time on that keyboard just to create one little sound."
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the cutting-edge techno producer's other main tools is the Yamaha DX100 — the mini-DX7, and something of a forgotten synthesiser. "Not for everybody," Garnier laughs. "I have two, man! I use them all the time. The Juno 106 I use a lot. And I've got a [Studio Electronics] SE1, which is kind of like a Moog in a rack. I use that a hell of a lot for bass and that's the same, a lot of knobs to tweak. It's fat as well. I haven't yet found a software that has the same heavy weight in bass. You do have a very fat bass with a lot of software, but I don't feel it goes as deep. I like my old machines, man."
In fact, apart from trading in his old Atari 1040 for his current PC, the DJ's equipment list has changed very little in the last 10 years. "I know a lot of people dislike the JD800, but I've been using it for more than 10 years and there's a hell of a lot of it on the new album. The new stuff in my studio is all the software."
In terms of his desk and monitors, Garnier typically sticks with what he knows best or finds easiest to use, in this case Mackie kit. "I've got a 32-channel, eight-buss Mackie and there isn't anything in particular I like about it. It's just convenient. I bought it a long time ago and I didn't buy it for any special reason, I bought it for the price they gave me. It wasn't too big and there wasn't too many knobs, it was quite simple and straightforward.
"You've got to understand that when I started making music, I didn't understand much at all about all this stuff. So I'm learning all the time and I'm still not a good sound engineer. For monitors, I use the Mackie HR824s. I love them. The only thing is sometimes they've got too much bass. Sometimes they're not fully accurate. But once I kind of like a mix, I'll burn a CD and switch to my DJ gear and play it where I play all my records. Then I know straight away."
While the only reasonably expensive microphone Garnier owns is an AKG C414, he stresses that often he prefers to use low-cost generic mics. For Sangoma Everett's rap on 'First Reaction (V2)', the DJ says he used "the cheapest microphone I could find. Can't remember what it was. You can make dirt out of clean, but you cannot clean something really dirty. So sometimes I start from bad and get it even worse. That's my punk way of doing it."
The Cloud Making Machine features collaborations with musicians such as Norwegian jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and Tunisian singer and oud player Dhafer Youssef. This generally involved them improvising over tracks that were already written and Garnier then sifting through the results.
"There was quite a lot of editing, yes," he says, "because you know very well when you're working with a musician and they have all that space, sometimes they do a lot more than what they should do. I love music when you can breathe and I love having live instruments, but not having too much of it. Sometimes when musicians come for a session, they want to give you as much as they can. So there's always a lot of editing to do."
If Garnier's bone-dry sense of humour resurfaces in the DJ-is-God pronouncements of 'Controlling The House Pt.2,' then surely his finest comedic moment came with the circumstances surrounding the recording of 'The Man With The Red Face' from Unreasonable Behaviour. The title of this lengthy instrumental was inspired by the crimson-cheeked efforts of saxophonist Philippe Nadaud, who Garnier was impishly winding up in the studio.
"With that, I just had a loop and the guy playing saxophone for about 25 minutes," he recalls. "But I had a microphone linked into his headphones and while he was playing, I was saying to him 'No, shit, it's crap.' So he was trying really hard and getting crazier and crazier all the time, so he became bright red. I thought he was going to collapse and die, the poor guy. So that's why I called it that..."
One recurring feature of Laurent Garnier's music is his heavily effected drum patterns, which he explains are either generated using Battery or played by Everett on a V-Drum kit and then manipulated within Cubase. "Let's say the drums for 'Barbiturik Blues' on the new album, I really played around with the volumes a lot. There's about 18 different snares in there. Each one is put into a different plug-in, either distortion or echo or whatever, and I use them randomly in the track. This is why the snare changes all the time. This for me is editing. It's the same with 'First Reaction' — you have the talking and then the beat is funk and then it goes to drum & bass and back to funk. This wasn't a drummer, I wrote it all."
Despite his recent conversion to more software-based tools, a lot of The Cloud Making Machine was still created using Garnier's old tried and tested methods of improvising with hardware — for instance, layering Nord sequences with live parameter changes, recording them as audio into Cubase and then spending countless hours editing the results. "Yes, I do a lot of that. I mean, you've got to understand that because I'm not such a big computer wizard, I have to find ways to work out how to do what I really want to do. So I record a lot of sessions live and I really fuck around with them. I spend hours and hours on programming, that's the one thing I know how to do."
Possibly the standout track on the album, the tongue-in-cheek punk techno of '(I Wanna Be) Waiting For My Plane' features Garnier borrowing from the Velvet Underground's 'Waiting For My Man', with Scan X providing some real wasp-in-a-bottle guitar work. "Because I worked on that track last, I said to Scan X that it would be nice for him to have a bit more involvement and play an instrument," he explains. "He used to play the guitar, so I said to him 'Can you play that riff and then we'll just have a laugh with it.' It's just his guitar through one of those really nasty amplifier plug-ins. It had to sound cheap. I wanted that track to sound more like a demo than anything else. The rest of the album is quite well produced and I needed something to be different so people would just go 'What the hell is going on here?'"
Elsewhere on the record, the hallucinatory playground sounds of 'Jeux D'Enfants' feature one of the many field recordings that Garnier has done. "I always travel with my little Minidisc and I record tons of stuff. I was on holiday and I heard all these kids playing so I got closer so I could record them. It actually looked quite weird and the parents started worrying about me being next to the kids. But I was just recording them! I didn't have a microphone in my hand, I just had it in my pocket, but I was trying to look like I wasn't really looking at them. But it looked bizarre, I must say."
While he's earned his reputation as a musician and club DJ, Garnier admits that his heart belongs in radio ("This has been my dream since I was like 12 or 13"). Five years ago, the DJ was thrilled to be employed by French station Radio Nova as a programmer and, once he'd left, was determined to start his own web radio station. Now his dream has become a reality with Pedro Broadcast (www.pedrobroadcast.com).
"I went to see a web designer and got him to build a program for me. I said I wanted to have 10 or 15 different pages — one house, one techno, one reggae, one Latino and world music, blah blah blah. And I wanted to have five different timings — one clock for Saturday night, one for Sunday, one for during the week, so I could have different kinds of colours in the programming of the radio station. From that, those clocks are picking tracks and every hour you've got a new clock coming with new tracks.
"I have a normal playlist like any radio station, but the rotation is not half as heavy as a normal radio station. I work on it for a couple of hours every day, but I know that if I don't for 10 days, the radio station can just programme itself. You wouldn't know, as a listener, if I'm here or not. Basically a track is played every 12 days on a 24-hour basis. There's much more music in there than what there should be for a normal radio station."
Last summer, Garnier took Pedro Broadcast to Ibiza, renaming it FUFM and broadcasting 24 hours a day across the island. "I'd love to do it in Paris but within a day I'd be in prison. The radio stations are much, much more powerful there than anywhere else. For FUFM, I redid the rotations — I took off all the punk stuff because it's not really relevant to play the Sex Pistols in Ibiza at six o'clock in the afternoon. So I built a playlist that was faster at night and deeper during the day. I brought my two computers with me and I bought a transmitter and an antenna and put it on top of the house I rented."
You have to suspect that, techno skills aside, Laurent Garnier remains a devout punk rocker at heart. "Absolutely!" he exclaims. "We do what we can to get the music across. Rock and roll, man!"