Parisian artist Philippe Hallais aka Low Jack feels at home in the world of postmodern sonics, where one can freely borrow tropes from styles and genres of the past and merge and mix them with their own experience – update them to v. 2.0. From power electronics through techno and house to dub to ambient, Low Jack embraces music without any preconceptions. After the success of a series of club-oriented EPs on GTC Music, Delsin and In Paradisum, he released the LP Garifuna Variations on L.I.E.S., emphasizing the secret link between tribal sounds and industrial music. Imaginary Boogie EP appeared in October 2014 on The Trilogy Tapes and his latest outing is Sewing Machine, a techno album which has just come out on the aforementioned In Paradisum. He also runs his own label Editions Gravats. This conversation took place before his set at the ICAS Festival in Dresden in May 2015.
Apparently hip hop has been a major influence for you.
Low Jack: I started being into music through hip hop. When I was about 12 or 13 in the middle of the 90s, there was a really big hip hop scene in France. Obviously, like everybody else, we focused on the stuff from the US, but we also had our own scene.
Like MC Solaar?
LJ: Yes, and the majors were also investing a lot of money in hip hop. I bought my first turntables when I was fifteen. I was interested in the weird and dark hip hop. I was also into turntablism, building beats with vinyl and playing around with the feedback, scratching. I’ve been recently thinking about that time and realised that even then I was into these cross-bridges between funk and soul on the one hand, but also into the more weird, industrial fucked up influences. I think it’s something that has been following me since many years now.
Do you have an explanation for this? I guess kids at that age are not really into these avantgarde approaches.
LJ: At that time it was very naive. I was a teenager, I wasn’t thinking about it. I was also into skateboarding and the music around it like Def Jux, and also the more grime-oriented stuff when grime first appeared in the early 2000s with Dizzee Rascal. I guess it was radical like punk rock in the 80s. I was skateboarding and I hanging out with friends who were into the same lifestyle.
Were you also into the social and political aspect of hip hop?
LJ: The French hip hop that I really liked was more of a French version of gangsta rap. Also, when I was 15 years old, I couldn’t understand what they were singing about. Vocals were more like instruments to me, I liked their flow. I wasn’t into the jazzy, funny, positive lyrics. They can sing about tough stuff, but do it in a really funny and ironic way. The perfect example is Kool Keith and that was exactly what I wanted to listen to.
With your own music – you have the more dance-oriented guise, and then also the more offbeat, ambient side. Is it like a Dr Jekyll&Mr Hyde thing?
LJ: I’ve been a DJ for many years and I started to focus more on the production aspect only three or four years ago. I’ve been collecting records for fifteen years. My approach to DJing has always been to try to cross bridges – play Cristian Vogel next to some funk stuff next to post-punk. When I started producing music, it was kind of the same. I can’t really jam on something and be like, ok, I’m going to do this type of thing and reproduce it over and over again. It’s more like, I don’t really know what I’m doing. And if it ends up as ambient, industrial or straight techno, that’s fine with me.
It is creation without boundaries.
LJ: It’s more like a very naive thing, just trying to have fun actually. If I’m in my comfort zone too much, it’s not fun anymore. I’ve been focusing on a lot of dub recently. That’s something really new for me because actually, a year ago, I knew nothing about dub and reggae and dancehall. Last year, it was the same with noise and power electronics. I just wanted to have fun trying to do doomy power electronics without knowing anything about the style. It comes from some sort of imagination. It was the same when I was doing house music, which came out this year on The Trilogy Tapes. At that time I was trying to do deep house in a very authentic way using pads and drum programming, but when I sent it off to the guy who runs the label he was laughing and said it was no house at all. And that’s why I called it Imaginary Boogie.
Why is it important to keep this the naive approach in your work?
LJ: When I started making music, the first stuff I was doing was really naive. I was sending it to some friends and they were connecting this music to some producers, and I had no idea what they were talking about. This naive thing is also a kind of a pose in a way. It’s not that naive, I know what I’m doing, but it’s through this thing of doing a different genre on each record, yet keeping my own style at the same time. The trick is to rediscover the naivety.
In dance music, there has been lot of merging with other styles recently, like the noise techno wave. In the 90s it used to be very rigid, with separation into genres and subgenres. Now it seems like a big hybrid. I guess it’s also because of the internet, people discovering obscure stuff.
LJ: When I was 15, Napster came out followed by Soulseek. Few years later, fast internet connection became accessible alongside the first blogs. That’s the way how I discovered all this weird hip hop, all the UK grime and Detroit techno. Now it’s different because I’m older and have a more old-fashioned attitude about it. I like paying for records. But it would be a lie to say that internet wasn’t a major tool in discovering music. I think it’s the same for a lot of producers of my age. Nowadays, it’s not a shame to play a lot of different stuff. But that’s also a cycle. In the 80s everything was allowed, especially in cities like New York, with the no wave scene, hip hop, Italo, disco, and the proto-techno stuff. Then we had the 90s, when everything became closed into one genre. I guess now we’ve returned back to the 80s approach.
You can be a kid in Poland accessing Pakistani noise and adding it to your own context, thus changing the whole topography of music.
LJ: I’m also very curious what’s going to come out of this. Most of the new artists that I like right now are taking something and recontextualising it, like Lee Gamble with drum’n’bass and jungle and Lorenzo Senni with trance.
I guess these days it’s very hard to do something totally new in any art.
LJ: With industrial/postpunk, it was kind of the same thing. Most of those musicians were really good. They had jazz knowledge about how to use an instrument and mixed it with everything, for instance traditional African music with jazz, free jazz or blues. That’s also something that we share with that era, using music from the past in very different contexts.
You are based in Paris. There were times in the past when the Parisian electronic music was at its peak globally. What has been happening there since? Ron Morelli, on whose L.I.E.S. label you also release, has also recently moved in.
LJ: The thing is, a few years ago Paris was a really boring city. That was a weird time, because we had the French touch with filter house, then the Ed Banger era, but after that there was nothing. It’s helping the city that Ron has moved to Paris. There are a lot of interesting labels, like Antinote or In Paradisum. When you take, for instance, Antinote, it’s not that similar to the L.I.E.S aesthetic, but I would say that the spirit is there – the DIY approach and working with a small crew of friends. L.I.E.S. became a flagship for this typical New York stuff from Brooklyn with four friends doing their thing. The way how this label is run has been influencing a lot of people in Paris right now. With my own label, I only want to work with people I really know. When I met Ron, it was really important because he always plays me tons of music. I’m like a sponge. When he played me the early Adrian Sherwood productions, I was amazed and wanted to do something like that myself. We always interact about music, we argue about it, we record shop.
If you could mention three things that inspire you right now, what would they be?
LJ:Dub, reggae, dancehall. Also the process of making those records. It’s funny to approach it in a naive way, since I don’t know that much about it. Then I would say cheese, the way cheese is made, is a big influence right now. It might sound weird, but I love cheese, I’m French. I like discovering the maturation of cheese, I was even thinking of becoming a cheesemonger. I don’t know if I’m going to be a musician and DJ forever. It’s also connected with the way I’m running the label. All those cheesemongers are really serious about their craft and region they are living in. With my label, it’s kind of the same. I’m from Brittany and I really want to put the culture of this region into the label – with the graphic design or even the name. We’re going to release a guy who plays a bagpipe, a popular instruments in Brittany, but in a fucked up way. I’ve also been digging a lot of old French movies lately. I like the way it’s filmed and also the dialogue.
What are you planning in terms of your own music?
LJ: I have a new LP on In Paradisum. It’s really strange to talk about it. At the time I was making those tracks, it was a response to the noise techno and nihilist approach. I was like ‘We get it, it’s very loud, it’s very punk’. And as a joke I wanted to do the most noisy power electronics record possible. I’ve had this conversation with Powell, who’s putting a lot of irony into his music and the way he’s running his label. With this album, it’s kind of the same. I’m also going to put out my side project on my own label Editions Gravats. These are basically the first tracks that I recorded three or five years ago when I started making music and they are really different from what I’m doing now. It’s almost shoegazy with lot of melodies and my voice without any effects. There’s also the dub record I was telling you about, which is going to come out on L.I.E.S. Lots of things.