New York-born, Chilean-raised 21-year-old Nicolas Jaar has ascended rapidly within the world of electronic music. After releasing two 12″ singles, “Time for Us” and “Russian Dolls,” and two EPs, The Student and Marks & Angles, as well as several mixes and online-only “edits” of other people’s music (many of which can be heard on YouTube), he’s preparing to issue his first album, Space is Only Noise, on his own Clown and Sunset label. His compositions mix 4/4 house/techno beats of a sensitive, organic nature with “real” instruments (piano, saxophone), vocals (sampled and otherwise) and influences including ambient music, sounds from Africa and more. With the album, he’s moving beyond the dancefloor and toward a more ambitious sound that’s meant to be heard on its own merits and all at once, not mixed into a DJ set track-by-track. I spoke to him by phone while he was on a brief tour of Europe and the UK, before returning to Brown University, where he’s a student.
You’re currently on tour—are you DJing, or performing your own music?
I’m actually performing my own music. It’s really exciting, because in Europe there’s actually a market for that. In the US there’s absolutely nothing. I play either in clubs or sometimes in actual concert spaces, and I play with a computer, a keyboard and I sing live, and I try to make it as much of a real show as possible.
But it’s still just you?
For now. This is actually the last tour in which it’s just me. From now on, for all the festivals et cetera, I’m going to be doing a band so that we can play the stuff from the album.
You started making music at 14, right?
Yeah, I was 14. I started with this software called Reason.
What were your earliest ideas? What drew you to making music?
I guess I’ve always been interested in the idea that I might have this interior reality different to our exterior reality, that there’s a separation there. So I think from the very beginning I was trying to come to terms with how to express what I felt internally and to put it out. And so even if it was just at the beginning, being free to create anything was a thrill. I think that was the first idea, just feeling like I could do and sculpt whatever I wanted.
You’re currently in college, right? What are you studying? How does your school schedule impact your DJing and recording?
Well, I don’t DJ, first of all, I only play live. I’m not really into that. I’m going to Brown in Rhode Island, so it’s just a normal American university schedule. I’m on winter break now, and I’m going to go back to Brown in a week. So it’s kind of like, instead of having a vacation like most people do, I’ve come to Europe and played some shows. It’s really wonderful, you know. When I’m at Brown I’m making a lot of music, because I’m reading all these texts—I study comparative literature, so I read a lot of philosophy and theory and everything, so the main thing pushing me to make music is reading these texts and absorbing these ideas and trying to put them into music.
OK, so if you don’t DJ in the traditional sense, what was in the mixes you did for Wolf & Lamb? Was that all your own stuff?
Right. Almost all of the mixes have exclusively my material, and sometimes there’s one edit or two that I’ve made. Remixes of songs that I know, but those are all usually just my music, and the things that are obviously not me are just edits.
The vocal on “Too Many Kids Finding Rain in the Dust” reminds me of Leonard Cohen. Is he a big influence?
I’m a huge, huge fan. He’s one of my biggest influences for sure.
Did you conceive the album as a single statement, or as a collection of individual tracks?
I had a lot of songs to pick from, because I make quite a lot of music, and so it was really up to…it was very much, I have these 50 tracks and what am I going to say? I really wanted the tracks on the album to be incredibly honest to what I felt at the time when I conceived of the songs. I didn’t want it to be “I’m trying to do this, I’m trying to do that.” I wanted it to be kind of devoid of ideologies or whatever, even if that’s idealistic. So in the end, I tried to make it form a kind of story or arc, and a real thought process. The whole thing is kind of—it really hurts me when people just play one song, you know?
How much of this material makes its way into your live sets?
With the band it’s going to be different. It’s going to be almost all of it, plus other tracks that I’ve made before. But right now I’m playing probably half. The rest is the other stuff I’ve done.
Your singles were much more uptempo than the album tracks. Are you gradually moving away from dancefloor-oriented material?
Yeah, well, at the beginning, in order to get any form of recognition you kind of have to play the game of the system to a certain extent. So I was lucky to have made those tracks and have labels to put them out on, but really right now I see the future as the more honest I can be, the more showing exactly what’s really inside my head, not something that is pushed by any kind of monetary impulse or trend—I think more and more with Ines, the compilation I put out, and now the album, it’s getting more honest, things that are coming from deep inside me.
And did that fuel the decision to start putting things out on your own label?
Yes, of course. Exactly.
I don’t know anything about how the electronic music scene works…
Neither do I. [laughs]
Well, what I mean is, I come from more of a jazz and heavy metal background and don’t go out to dance clubs, so I’m wondering, do you feel your music is reaching everyone it could, or are you looking to expand your audience beyond a small group of clubgoers?
Oh, of course. I never really intended for my music to be listened to by club people only, so it’s actually a relief that you’re telling me you know more about jazz. This is the type of person I’ve been wanting to speak to for a long time. It’s like, at the beginning you have to make these kind of concessions to—okay, you want people to be listening to your music, and it’s difficult to navigate that. So for a long time my music reached out to people in clubs, but I think when you listen to the album, you can tell I’m influenced by much more than just electronic music.
I’m interested by the edits series – what attracted you to those pieces? The first thing I heard was “Mini Calcutta.” What’s the process behind that?
The original piece was Dave Brubeck. The piano is by Dave Brubeck, and the beat behind is a very, very slowed down version of a track by Ricardo Villalobos, who’s an electronic music artist. That’s my favorite edit that I’ve ever done, because it’s in a nutshell what I’m trying to do as an artist, is slow down this kind of thing—because there are these textures in electronic music that are very interesting, there’s this bass work that’s very interesting, but sadly, for some reason it’s not being brought into actual music, it’s just staying as a beat, a pull to make people dance. I’m really into the idea of combining the melodic genius of jazz and of thinkers like Dave Brubeck and Keith Jarrett and Erik Satie, trying to combine that with the textures and the beauty of the soundscapes of electronic music. And that’s what “Mini Calcutta” is, those two things at the same time, at least for me.
How much of your music is composed and recorded on live acoustic instruments?
What instruments do you play?
I play piano; I took a couple of lessons when I was young, but I didn’t like knowing what to do. A lot of the instruments I know how to play, I don’t really know how to play, but I experiment and work really hard at it until it sounds like something that I want to put out. I play a lot of instruments, but not knowing how to play them helps me get out of preconceived notions of how to play the instrument. Sadly, I can’t do that with the computer, because I’ve been making electronic music for seven years, so while with instruments I’m very loose and very experimental, with a computer I know exactly how to frame it and how to compose things so that it’s very clean, how I want it to be.
What kind of software and synths do you use?
It’s funny ’cause I really like the Juno 106, I like the Roland SH101 as well, but I use them very little because they’re so obviously electronic, and I really try to record most things so that they have the illusion of organic-ness. I like it when it’s neither organic nor electronic, when it’s really a bizarre mix of both, when the ghost of each is inside the other and you don’t know where the organic stands or where the electronic stands.
It sounds like going forward, you’re gonna be doing shows that could be billed as “An Evening with Nicolas Jaar.”
[laughs] What would that entail?
More of a sit-down experience than a club gig.
That would be incredible, if I could really take my time and people could sit down and I could really play a bunch of the much slower stuff. That’s kind of what I’ve been waiting for this whole time. I really like playing in clubs, but that’s a different thing. It’s not so much about thinking, it’s more about engulfing yourself in sound. I also like the idea of giving sound to people, and people having a contemplative sort of stance towards it.
Do you concern yourself with…I hate to use the term “backlash,” but the idea that people who are interested in electronic music might get pissed off and start saying things like, “Who does he think he is, he’s too good for us now”?
Yeah, right. Well, I mean, that’s always going to be a problem. It’ll happen to anyone, once you’re well known for something and then you start evolving as a person. But I think I’m always going to make dancier tracks and less dancey tracks. I don’t think I’ve ever truly made dance music per se, it’s just been on a spectrum of more or less dancey. So yeah, there’s probably gonna be a backlash, but I’m being very honest, this is my music, it’s what I do, it’s what honestly comes out of me. It’s not me thinking I’m better, it’s just where I am at the moment. But I’m always gonna make dancier stuff also, for sure. It’s something that very much interests me.
So you’ll release singles between albums, and stuff like that?
Oh, of course. And it’s exciting. I like that. I just wouldn’t want to be known only for dance music, because clearly, as you see from the past six months, it’s not the only thing I do. Actually, I do dance music less than the other stuff. And the problem with the other stuff is, I don’t know what to call it. I don’t know what to say it is. Cause it’s not jazz, it’s not world music, it’s not rock, it’s not indie, the way it’s marketed is like “electronica” or “chillout,” but that’s kind of sad, you know? [laughs] But that’s not the way the market works. The music that works the best is the one that’s the most sellable. Basically the one that has that easy target, that easy marketability. So that’s why I’m more known as a dance producer than as whatever else I do, because the other type of music I do is more difficult to pin down.