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Words: Kerri Mason
Published in Mixmag January 2012
It’s another night in New York City’s slow journey into winter: too warm for November, but with occasional blasts of chilly wind hinting at what’s to come. Nicholas Jaar is smoking outside a Swiss café, wearing a wool cap and no coat. Inside, past the dining area and lively bar where downtowners toss back oysters and Wednesday-appropriate cocktails, through the clamouring kitchen and through a secret door sit his personal salon of thinkers, collaborators and companions. Their small, sequestered room sports a decommissioned cigarette vending machine, strings of Christmas lights and a giant disco ball, turning slowly.
It’s almost too perfect a setting for Jaar, an artist who deals in strange combinations. His work is rife with unnerving transitions, decontextualized sonic artifacts and moments of enveloping, unexpected warmth. Take ‘^tre,’ from his breakthrough long-player ‘Space Is Only Noise’: playground sounds paint the background while a jazz piano improvises in the fore, punctuated inconsistently by an nonspecific winding noise that agitates like an itch you can’t locate, let alone scratch. Then, suddenly, it all goes away – except the itch.
“If what you give to people is a very simple beat with a very simple hook you’re giving them a lot of freedom to misrepresent it,” he says. “But if you them something that’s very experimental and difficult but still with a lot of honesty, then maybe they don’t know what to do with it, and maybe they just take it as it is.”
2011 was a tremendous year for Jaar. ‘Space...’ was released in February to resounding international acclaim, following up a string of buzzed-about originals and remixes for top labels like Get Physical, Crosstown Rebels and Wolf + Lamb. In July, his live band set at Glastonbury – a hybrid of instruments and synths which combined to make an uncomfortably glorious, improvised symphony – captured the imaginations of balls-to-the-wall ravers and bookish techno nerds alike. He continued to develop Clown And Sunset, the label he launched in late 2010 and which he describes as “a discourse” and “the parent company”, and plans to take it beyond music in 2012 (more on that later). And in the autumn, the 21-year-old entered his senior year at Brown University, arguably the most selective of America’s prestigious Ivy League, and undoubtedly the coolest.
Such a year has not gone unnoticed on the international stage, and Jaar is already being touted as a kind of Luke Skywalker: a brave young Jedi who can balance the light and dark of post-modern electronic music, inspiring cerebral dancefloors and gutsier living-room listening sessions. But despite the perceptible confidence that talent, youth and an expensive education can bring, Jaar remains a comparative literature student with a weird and wildly successful side project. The primary goal of music, according to him, is not innovation or genre-play: it’s honesty.
“It’s not about mystery. It’s not about mystery at all,” he says insistently. “It’s about making music that I feel is honest. And when you make honest music and it doesn’t come from a genre, it just ends up being more difficult to talk about.”
Indeed, Jaar’s work can have the same effect as an ink blot: the way people describe it might just say more about them than anything else. You could pick up on the TrentemØller-esque space and bass on his latest single ‘Don’t Break My Love’. Or maybe the light swats of speedy techno synths. Or perhaps the disembodied voices cut and pasted into a gospel dirge, first emerging from the silence at minute five. Jaar himself has called his music “blue wave” – but a quick look at how Beatport categorises it demonstrates the subjectivity it inspires (‘deep house’, ‘electronica’, ‘minimal’ or – Jaar’s favourite – ‘chill out’).
Tonight, Jaar is playing an unannounced DJ set to mark the release of his new ‘Don’t Break My Love’ EP. The show is around the corner at subMercer, a cave-like venue quite literally beneath the trendy Mercer Hotel, with subwoofers embedded in the banquettes. It’s known for its selective door and throwback burlesque nights.
“I’m so excited, because I haven’t played solo in so long, so it feels just as new as playing with the band,” he says.
Best not get too excited. Jaar has to be back at Brown – in Providence, Rhode Island, about 300 kilometers out of New York – in time for a 10:30 a.m. class. But the prospect of an early morning drive followed by a late morning think-fest doesn’t seem to faze him; he dines on a plain hamburger and black coffee, while his friends laugh over a pot of fondue and wine.
“For me, going back to Brown feels like going back to some heaven where it’s important that you do a five-page paper, as opposed to it being important to make music that’s better than all the music you’ve ever made before – which is the type of thing I tell myself I have to do,” he says. “And socially I’m just hanging out with friends all day. It just seems like a bubble in the most incredible ways – and the worst ways.”
Tonight, the protective bubble has followed him. Nearly all the friends at the table behind him are Brownies or Clown and Sunset label-mates, including Quentin Pistol and Valentin Skip, who will open for him tonight, and Noah Kraft, the label’s manager. According to Jaar, the desire for companionship prompted the formation of his band.
“[The band] was just me realising that it’s healthier for everyone involved if I’m touring with musicians and doing this thing collectively,” he says. “Me waking up in Budapest alone at four in the morning to play, that turns into a job, and then what’s the point? Plus, I felt like it could be good if I had musicians improvising with me, especially during festival season. I thought it would just be better, and I think it was.”
The band, featuring Brownie’s Will Epstein (saxophone), Ian Sims (drums) and Dave Harrington (guitar), has criss-crossed the globe with Jaar, from the Sunday School for Degenerates party during Miami Music Week to Fabric in London and Leipzig’s Melt Festival. “I don’t know what people see or feel with the band, but I hope they feel there’s energy between the four musicians that’s honest and real,” says Jaar. “That’s all that matters to me.”
But what will happen next year after Brown commencement, when the band is off the road, and the comfortable routine and built-in community of school life are gone?
Jaar sits quietly for a moment. “I don’t know,” he says finally.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Nicolas Jaar was born in New York, the son of noted artist and sociopolitical commentator Alfredo Jaar. He spent most of his childhood in Santiago, Chile, and went to a French school. English is his third language, and yes, that’s him in the stroller on the cover of ‘Space’.
While his star is rising in DJ-packed NYC – the band played a series of buzzed-about gigs on the rooftop of the Standard Hotel this summer, as well as at homegrown outdoor festival Electric Zoo – Europe is, so far, giving him more attention than his native land.
“Europeans fetishize American artists, for sure,” he says. “What’s funny is they can’t they can’t really do that with me, because it’s not like I have a Detroit sound, or a Chicago sound, or a New York house sound. I don’t even really have a European sound. That’s not really my taste. I’ve been playing in European clubs since 2009, and it felt like there wasn’t a difference between good independent house music and good independent indie rock. It was just good independent music. It was just as cool or just as good. In America, that wasn’t the case. The people who were into good underground house were ravers. But that’s not even true any more; things have changed drastically here in the past year. 2011 was fucking crazy. It’s insane.”
Fondue devoured and vino polished off, the party moves to subMercer. There are so many pre-existing friendships in the room that it feels like a party at someone’s flat. As his opening DJs drop slices of reimagined Americana – 1920s ragtime set to a faraway synthetic beat, or Panamanian band Los Mozambiques’ 1970 dream-funk interpolation of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ – Jaar makes the rounds and says his hellos, still wearing his hat. When he finally takes to the decks his set is quick: he seems to be enjoying the crowd-mingling. He closes with the title track from ‘Space’ and sings the vocal line live into a vintage microphone, his distorted voice reverberating around the room. The crowd goes wild.
“I didn’t consider myself a singer until maybe six months ago,” he says. “On the album, I wasn’t even trying to sing. And now I can actually do it, and it’s adding a whole new dimension to what I’m doing. But I’m still kind of processing my voice and changing it, because I’m not interested in singer-songwriter stuff. Whenever I hear electronic musicians doing that, it turns me off. That’s the last thing I’d ever want to do.”
Jaar’s next release is ‘Darkside’, an EP/live venture with guitarist Dave Harrington that the press release promises will offer “catharsis that’s worth the sin”. But many of his projects scheduled for 2012 are still secret, for now. Jaar hints at a piece of hardware in development – “It’s a way of showing music to people that I’m so excited about, I can’t wait to be able to talk about it” – and a series of new initiatives under the Clown And Sunset umbrella. These include film, design and even fashion, all amounting to what he quite academically calls ‘an aesthetic discourse’. “I’m very interested in fashion when it’s creative and not about power,” he says; “when it’s truly an art, and not art used in terms of social class. I’m not interested in someone wearing a Chanel watch because it’s a Chanel watch. But I’m interested in that same watch because it’s fucking gorgeous.”
The tension of a lively and trained brain is always behind Jaar’s words: a fear of the potential contradictions between the imperfect acts of feeling, thinking and speaking. He wants to be understood, but not labelled; felt, but not interpreted.
He wants, very much, to be honest.
“We’re not trying to say, ‘This is a house night,’ or, ‘This is an acid techno night’, as so many nights are,” he says. “But we showed you a bunch of different stuff, and hopefully at the end you’ll leave with something scrambled in here” – he touches his temple. “It’s kind of utopic, but I want to strive for that. It seems like a lot of my generation is striving for it.
“A lot of the new music that’s happening right now, people don’t know what the fuck to say,” he continues. “They’re scrambling for words when they hear Mount Kimbie. They’re like, it’s post-dub stuff, but it’s not, but it is. Same thing with James Blake; they just say it’s James Blake. And hopefully they just say: it’s Nicholas Jaar.”