Ghosts And Machines - Nicolas Jaar

How he changed the game by conquering his loneliness
Ghosts And Machines - Nicolas Jaar
Nicolas Jaar is isolated by his music, imprisoned by his ideas, and vilified by his ambition. Paradoxically he’s jet-setting the globe, playing the biggest clubs, and being championed by the glitterati.

We first meet a couple of months before his debut LP ‘Space Is Only Noise’ is released in the shops. He’d taken four days out of his university schedule at Brown to play Tel Aviv, Berlin, Barcelona, and Manchester - with his equipment in hand luggage, he traveled alone. Nico had been heralded as a game changer following the release of seminal tracks, ‘The Student’ (2008), and ‘Mi Mujer/A Time For Us’ (2010) via NYC collective Wolf+Lamb. At the time the label was also residing over the city’s hottest venue at the time. Of course there’s a plurality of these depending on who you speak to, but amongst the techno community the Marcy Hotel, Williamsburg, is held in high esteem.

“I was lucky Wolf+Lamb got the attention they did, and that I started speaking to them four or five years ago, and I was lucky that people started picking up on my music, but as you can see, I started a label to put out the music I believe in - not to put out ‘El Bandido’, not to put out ‘A Time For Us’, nor ‘Mi Mujer’, which are tracks I think are fun, but are not…” He pauses for a moment knowing that his outspokenness might, in this case, be too self-effacing, “…but sadly in this day and age you have to put out those tracks for anyone to care about you.” For someone who adamantly does things on his own terms, such a concession is visibly painful.The record - for all its ambition, creation, and experimentation - is impossibly easy on the ears, arranging progressive computerised sounds in freeform structures. By the time it hit the shops the newness of ‘Nicolas Jaar’ was beginning to fade. Such is the fate of the modern listener and the eternal pursuit of novelty. For some the record will slowly fade, whether onto a pile of music that would never be heard again, or into the abyss of an external hard-drive.

An email arrives in Clash’s inbox: “I found curious how huge the press jet-lag effect between the US and Europe is and also how the album was almost treated like a European artifact - while it was made in an American college dorm,” finding that the US press were playing catch-up both chronoligically and culturally. Indeed the sophisticated techno of his debut could easily be associated with a cultured, if reserved, Euro Bourgeoisie - a sound steeped in decadence, void of irony. Something Nico is moving away from.

“I felt very sad to see my first album in CD form,” he admits. “It didn’t feel right and instantly I started thinking of alternatives. I really just didn’t want to put out a CD compilation.”

Far from conceding to the status quo, appeasing his audience through a multi-format release, Nico was looking to say something about the way we listen to music.Snap forward to the present and Nico is about to release ‘Don’t Break My Love’, a compilation of music from his label Clown And Sunset on a digital music player called The Prism. Unlike a screenless MP3 player, with which it bears closest resemblance, the music is designed to solely exist within the device. Curiously, in constraining the product to strict songs the music becomes free, with tracks bleeding together, entertaining an ethereal tone throughout.

It’s a simple, brilliant idea. In an age where music listening is more private than ever, where we isolate ourselves behind laptops, or cut ourselves out from the world with headphones, Nico has responded with a clear retort - a new medium, one which battles digital isolation.

“I think music is a great cure for loneliness. And so it should inhabit some of that loneliness inherent to the listening experience. It’s also a great cure for ghostliness - whenever I’m in a haunted room, music calms the ghosts down. The most important thing about the Prism for me, and the kernel of the idea is that it has two jacks: the full experience is one of sharing, listening, with another.”

Beyond the notion of the device as a unifier of ears, Nico’s label is an outlet for him and his friends, including long-term collaborator and saxophonist Will Epstein, combatting notions of isolation through the communal creative process. The music itself is loaded with grainy crackles, and eerie ambience. As ever with Jaar there’s an easy play-off between the progressive and the inviting. For all the experiment, and the aggressively avant nature of the music,in its warmth and aesthetic it is disarmingly likeable, balancing between comfort-music and melancholia. We return to the club, chat, and watch the night draw to a close.

“It’s difficult for me to be on tour because of the sense of isolation, when I wish that I should just be creating my medium myself. That’s why you see some journalists not knowing what genre to use because, I mean, I guess that’s the point. That’s what I love doing. I love making whatever comes out. And so it’s not rock, it’s not hip-hop, it’s not whatever, it ends up being just weird. The isolation I feel is to do with the fact that I am in this world, the club world.”As conscientious of the medium as he is the message, Nico rallies against playing the venues he is typecast in, opting for museums, cathedrals, and more austere concert halls, such as London’s Roundhouse. Less Academy, more academic.

“It’s just I think I’m making music without thinking about trends. That I’m interested in the idea of a club. Maybe not what it is right now, but the idea of an amazing sound system, of an amazing space. As opposed to a concert sound system, with just amps. It’s an amazing idea, you know, it’s very different. So I think that there’s an isolation in that there’s still not a form in which to show this music in.”

Nico is regularly described as audacious. Conversations can quickly descend into philosophy; “When I’m creating, as opposed to the Platonic notion of absolute truth, is nearer to the Derridian notion that I am constantly in the search, and I’m never comfortable whatI’m thinking,” or, “I think, the best work - Nietzsche has said it, and I still believe it, [although] I wish it wasn’t this way - comes from when there’s no foundation inside of you, when you’re anguished and incredibly sad about bigger things in yourself.” It’s quite clear that what propels Nico is his effervescence, his fearlessness, and his ambitions of originality.

Hellbent on doing something different, even at the cost of looking foolish in the process, Nico has exiled himself. Clash climbs into a car and waves him goodbye. Our parting shot is him, waiting for his taxi at 5am, the weekend before Christmas with drunks and the ghosts of Manchester’s industrial past to comfort him. An image we can’t get out of our head. For Nico, the end game is to free up music from the ridged structures it has built for itself. One release at a time he is attacking the assumptions many restrain themselves with. Not only is his music gamechanging, but he is out to change the game. We ask him recently where his head’s at, and where he wants to take his music from here?

“I’m not really interested in making songs anymore,” he admits in our latest correspondence. “When a track sounds too much like music I start speeding it up or slowing it down in order to retain an otherness that I’ve been experimenting with.”What becomes apparent with Nico is that for all his seemingly implausible ambitions, they more frequently than not come to pass.

Words by Samuel Breen
Photo by Dom Smith


This feature appears in the new issue of Clash magazine, out 3rd May. Find out more about the issue HERE.

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