Jackson: ‘You don’t want to meet Debussy walking in the same park as you’

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When Jackson emerged from the lingering disco after-smoke of the ‘French Touch’ scene that nurtured Daft Punk and Phoenix among others, Paris and the rest of the world was changing. Slowly and methodically, strands of music were moving from warehouse raves into the global mainstream and at the time of his debut Smash, in 2005, he and his Computer Band embodied the bleeding edge of this transition. Shredding the filtered funk of his Parisian forebears and soldering the remains into an insane carriage of orchestral bombast, red-lined techno and gothic hip-hop, Jackson & His Computer Band had brought a sense of the post-millennial baroque to the rave. In 2015, Jackson returned with a new artistic proposal: VISIONS. Subtitled ‘New Machines New Music New Show’ the project from Jackson and His Computer Band started at the French Institute for Music/Acoustic Research and Coordination (IRCAM / Centre George Pompidou). At the end of 2015, Jackson took up a residency at the prestigious “Villa Medici” in Rome in order to create a new project based on a personal interpretation of the traditional Lyric opera. This interview took place during MUTEK Montreal in June 2016 (with a contribution from Susanna Niedermayr). 

Can you tell us about the inception of your project Light Metal Music?

It started after the tour for my last album. I felt a need to build my own instrument and have a more direct contact with the physics of sound and acoustic experience. At the same time, I got approached by IRCAM in France to play at their festival. I wanted to experiment with gesture, music and sound, so I came up with this project which started going into lot of directions – building a string instrument and lot of different controllers and techniques, and also working on their image and thinking of them as sculptures, and also working with resonating metal and sending my sound in suspended metal sheets. I also wanted to use light as a source and create a system that would be light reactive and deal with the spectrum of light and colour. The idea is to defract light and analyse its colour and position in space, and translate colour in space and sound frequencies. These frequencies are amplified in metal.

How does one start with such a big setup? What were the first steps?

It was simple, just putting light into a prism, like on the Pink Floyd cover. It’s this very basic physics-optics experiment. All of a sudden, you’re doing it alone, starting to work with it and trying to write and programme a system that would translate this phenomenon into sound, gradually understanding that there are physical properties of the phenomenon, but there’s also the perception of it. It’s this whole journey in understanding what is between those two axes.

How are the metal plates triggered?

One aspect is all about reverb, which is basically sending signals into metal and the sound resonating on the surface. And the other aspect is playing with the physical vibration of the metal, which reminds of a gong or a thunder sheet. It’s about finding a certain balance between both, which gives a second layer to a digital signal. This is what I was looking for.

It’s this huge instrument that you had to learn how to play.

It’s not like playing the violin. I’m very much interested in bringing people into my research. So it’s not like I’m going to play a solo of light, and it’s going to be a huge demonstration of a technique. I’m discovering it along with the audience. Increasingly, I get to understand how to position the light and the shape of my prism. It’s research, and it’s still in development. I like the idea of the show being an open laboratory with people.

What is the role of the audience?

This project is not meant to be played in huge rooms. As it is now, it’s meant to be presented in small spaces. When you’re near a crowd, you get to feel what they are going through. It’s kind of a meditative experience. One aspect of the work is synaesthesia, with associations of vision and hearing. When it works – which is not all the time – when you actually hear what you see, there is some sort of loss of the usual perception. This zone that I’m looking for is hard to explain; it’s meant to be a meditative experience.

Were you also inspired by Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Dept, who also used metal sheets and various industrial objects?

My main influence was Les frères Baschet and Cristal Baschet, and the way they used resonators. The way I’ve used them in sound installations or in certain shows is that the material is resonating and reflecting the light. This comes directly from Les frères Baschet and their instrument Cristal Baschet.

I was also wondering about the way you work in terms of performance – this project is more droney, meditative, immersive and maybe different to the stuff you were doing before, which is a structure that catches attention. How did you arrive there?

It’s a very different dynamic, but in the end, it’s kind of the same. The energy of the music is very different. It’s not the same strategy or process, but somehow I do it exactly like I would have done on my previous records. Maybe it’s a bit more relaxed because I know that I’m in a creative process that is pretty much open. And I think I’m putting myself in a position towards the audience where they know it’s not entertainment. This creates a different dynamic than being on the main stage at Supersonic in Japan, where it’s gotta happen right now, for 5,000 people. I felt a big change when I played this project for the second or third time in an art gallery in Paris, and all of a sudden it was like, “There’s 30 of us here, and it’s fine.” This was definitely a shift from being in an environment where you’re in a club and the idea is to be as loud as possible.

I guess it’s also more communal.

It’s hard to really be precise about what it is for me. I’m doing it with the same approach, which is about learning and exploration.

The musical and social contexts are a bit different.

Even when I was doing my previous record, it was a weird combination of hardcore and 60’s pop, techno, etc., so for me it was always about putting myself outside of my comfort zone, even if you’re playing with the language or the code of mainstream music. It’s not the same reception, but for me it’s the same process.

You previously said that you always want to be in a position of discovery.

For me, it’s the only way to survive. I’m mostly self-taught. The only way to keep this fire and make stuff happen is to do new things all the time. But sometimes you just don’t find what you want to discover. I like the idea of presenting unfinished work. Finishing something has always been a complicated aspect of my work. This is exactly why I wanted to come up with tools and ways of expression that could be open and reinvent themselves all the time, along with the audience.

Where do you practise with such a huge setup? Do you have a studio?

I was lucky enough to get a residency in Rome. I live in Villa Medici, and have a big studio filled with metal.

Apparently you are working on an opera there as well?

I’m doing research about making an opera. It will take a long time to make it happen, and it will be very different from what we think an opera is, but this is how I got to this residency.

What attracts you to opera?

It’s meant to be the total art; playing with narratives and getting the narration from unexpected mediums or materials or notions was appealing. Also, because it’s such a traditional form, you kind of want to corrupt it.

Jackson and His Computerband was also like a persona that you invented.

It’s a different dynamic. I’m here at Mutek, and I’m not presenting a record, I’m coming to create an experience with sound and light. A big part of Jackson and His Computerband was to emulate different musicians that weren’t there. There’s a futuristic twist and irony to it as well. It was also about emulating this 60’s way of performing – The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Bob Marley and the Wailers, etc. I was just this one guy accumulating operations behind the screen. I got rid of His Computerband. I actually don’t know why: maybe just to make it simple. And in this project, I’m definitely not emulating any instrumental approach or orchestration. It’s all about matter and fundamental forces.

Are you making the kind of music you did with Jackson and His Computerband at all, at the moment?

What I’m doing right now is basically research as I’m performing because I learn a lot from doing this and also because I want this to be visible.

Is the preparation/research part important in your projects?

It couldn’t happen without it. It’s also one of the best things I could do at Villa Medici because this is what this space is all about – doing things you wouldn’t be able to in your usual environment. You have a year when you don’t have to think about anything else but to create and come up with something that doesn’t have to find its place on the market straight away. I love trying things out, but I’m looking forward to reconnecting this to the language that I’ve been used to speak for the past ten years.

Is the rich history of the Medici family somehow also an inspiration?

You don’t want to meet your idols.You don’t want to meet Debussy walking in the same park as you. It’s a very charged place. The beauty is everywhere. It can actually suffocate you with so many signs of its glorious past. In my case, I’m just happy to see sculptures, fountains, birds, foxes and beautiful light and works.