Saturday, January 5, 2008
Meeting the DJ: Laurent Garnier
I met Laurent Garnier a couple of weeks ago when he came to ATL. Laurent Garnier (LG) is one of the longest standing european techno DJs. Laurent is almost single-handedly responsible for kick starting the electronic scene in France in the early 90's. LG was living in Manchester, working at the Hacienda, during the late 80's acid house explosion. Coming back from the UK, infused with evangelical zeal, he started "wake-up Paris". His residency was the "Rex club", a mainstay of the Parisian night. Finally, he was the head of the influential "F communications" label, "what comes after E" was their slogan.
Where guys like "Daft Punk"are now touring the US and filling stadiums, Laurent manages to get booked in a underground club on a Tuesday night. To balance this, the crowd is good, many know who Laurent is and have showed up, many folks from the ATL scene, I recognize. I had never heard of the place called WETbar. After asking around me I learn that the WETBar is one of the popular gay clubs in ATL, post Backstreet, right down from the Cheetah, that paragon of a straight place.
Talking with the staff at the club, I learn they have been around for 2 years and that I should really stick around after the gig to meet Laurent. The sound system was really good. A good club with good music is a good club with good music.
I get there around 11:00 and LG is already spinning on the decks. I walk up to him to introduce myself and get an interview. As I walk into the booth, he has this expression on his face that says "eff off, I am mixing". It is not that he is french, it is actually fair game and I wait. When he is done, he turns around with this bright professional smile. I introduce myself, mention I write a blog and ask for 5 minutes of his time to do an interview. Laurent cheerfully agrees to it. We briefly talk about his book, "Electro-shock", he mentions that they are working on a english translation for the US market. He smiles again and goes back to mixing.
As I come out of the booth, this guy starts talking to me. He comments on the smile that was on Laurent's face when I was taking his picture. He claims he has driven all the way from Pensacola, Florida "just to see your boy Laurent". When I ask him how come he knows about LG, he mentions that he is 32 and has lived in Europe. He then smiles with a smile that says "and that is that" and it does explain it all.
Laurent plays a great 4 hours set. I find it lasts forever, others complain, including Laurent during the interview that "it is too short". Laurent is known for 8 hours marathon sets. He mostly plays House and Techno. Laurent has a certain emotion to his music, he likes melody, he likes pop, he likes techno, he likes house. Laurent is an oasis compared to the washed out Trance that seems to have invaded every modern dance floor.
He plays a rougher "acid" sound by taking snippets of music and playing them over. Laurent uses 2 CD decks, 2 vinyl decks, and like most DJ's nowadays also travels with CD jackets and pre-recorded loops. Laurent, hasn't lost the edge, doesn't sell out, plays great underground music.
There is something to be said for a DJ that is more interested in harmonic mixing than in dry high-hat patterns of drums. I think to myself that most french DJ's have that house emotion about them. It is called "the french touch". It is this uncanny ability to mix underground house music with hardcore drums and never lose "the girl" in the process. Really it is inherited from the 80's. Laurent actually *works* the dance floor and until the end, it is on. So many DJ's will cater to the skin-head faction of the techno scene, it too easy to gravitate towards the black hole hardcore drums and never come back. Laurent has been defying gravity with this melodic sound for 20 years.
The technique gets old
Laurent mixes on 2 CDJ decks (pionner) and 2 vinyl decks. No software whatsoever. When I visit his DJ booth, I notice that he is using "white labels" on the vinyl decks. The man apparently still carries around boxes of heavy records. White labels known in the early 90's Germany, were "labels" that really didn't care about the re-use of their material and in fact encouraged the mixing of the sounds free of royalties or obligations. My friends in the Open Source community will quickly appreciate this ethos. Much like the Open Source philosophy of today, the white labelers drew on a huge community of exchange. Some will argue that they were too lazy to take care of their copyrights others that they just didn't care about the commercialization of their music. While musically very successful and influential, the white labels, as a movement, quickly died as a movement.
In fact, in the case of Laurent, a white label reeks of smoked-up bedroom productions where the title is lazily scribbled in marker. The white label in this case just means "right off the press" and off to Laurent-who-is-on-DJ-circuit. I find this practice oddly out of date. Nowadays, people produce with software and distribute WAVs and MP3s via the internet and rendering on plastic seems like an unnecessary step for a modern DJ. Sometimes good old stuff just sucks. The sound is rough, less polished that what we tend to hear nowadays in clubs. The production value is not there but in a way that is also what is enjoyable. His mixing style is almost Acid, he takes a good loop from a record and keeps on playing it and playing it, leveraging his CD decks. This repetition and the bare sound of the production makes it sound very late 80's early 90's to me... I like it, reminds me of my youth. I thoroughly enjoy the way he plays, he is looking for those segments that have an emotion and replays them. The "signal to noise" ratio for me is quite high, I wanna say 30%. Something actually really rare for me.
I dance a good 3 hours my feet are bleeding by the end of the night, just like when I run a marathon. I felt the legs for a good 2 days afterwards. I thoroughly enjoy the evening, the club, the sound and the crowd. I wonder where I have been this whole time, why I haven't been following LG around like this guy from Florida.
Tonight I really understood why "DJ SKILLZ MATTER". LG's vinyl mixing is impeccable but it doesn't matter. Skills that take years to master for an average DJ, like beat matching and phrase matching, can be mastered in weeks with software like Live, VirtualDJ, Traktor, mixed-in-key, pick your poison. Some of the rougher mixes really come off badly. He has got the CD technique and the loop stuff works but with LG style software would had another dimension. I cannot help but think that he is not fully expressing his live talent by sticking to the "good old DJ stuff". Other DJs that care less than LG does about being live performing artists, have made the step of embracing and leveraging software as a result they have become better performers. Far from being an enabler, his technique is legacy, it gets in the way of the performance.
At some point there is this deep bass sound coming on like a heart beat. LG is using the old trick of tapping on the vinyl which gives the analog needle a wide movement resulting in a deep bass sound. The resulting sound is "boom, boom-boom". It was cool in 1992 but tonight, it sounds gimmicky. I hear it a first time, I like it. I hear it again half an hour later and I don't like it so much this time, I find it slow as molasses, like it takes energy out of the rythm. I hear it a third time during the night and I remember the words of my DJ mentor "DJ Reggie Reg": never sound like 16 year old that has just discovered an effect on his mixer.
Late into the night the sound starts skipping like a broken CD record. I chuckle to myself "heh, it happens to the best, a scratched CD". I am surprised when the sound persists in fact it gets worse. I look up and there is Laurent working his CDJ deck. It sounds like shit, really, just bad. What at first sounded like a skipping record is now being persisted. When I compare to other DJ's that have mastered the CDJ/Live connection and how good they sound (see Cox interview) I am floored. His CDJ technique sounds spotty and his software technique is non-existant.
Laurent should really make the jump that so many software programmers are wary of doing, that of realizing that your technique, no matter how good 20 years ago, today is quickly becoming obsolete if not a liability. Learning new tricks, new software languages or new DJ mixing programs can be a scary thing to do. If in fact you have been very successful with the old ways, but nowadays any punk can mix like a pro you probably feel threatened. But as LG is fond of saying "all you need is emotion", and Laurent has that emotion in spades. If only he wholeheartedly embraced the modern ways, he would emerge as a new artist and a great performer.