Exclusive interview

Jean-Michel Jarre: ‘I feel sorry for those who are scared about the future’

Sarfraz Manzoor meets the electronic music pioneer to discuss his new album ‘Oxymore’, his absent film-composer father, being obsessed with making music, and why David Guetta is like his ‘little brother’

Wednesday 19 October 2022 06:30 BST
Jean-Michel Jarre: ‘We have changed our relationship with the outside world – we care much more about the environment’
Jean-Michel Jarre: ‘We have changed our relationship with the outside world – we care much more about the environment’ (Francois Rousseau)

It’s a sunny afternoon in Paris, and I’m sitting in the famous circular Maison de la Radio, headquarters of Radio France, looking out over the Seine and across to the Eiffel Tower in the company of Jean-Michel Jarre. The pioneer of electronic music, who rose to international fame in 1976 with his album Oxygéne, is wearing lightly tinted glasses, a black T-shirt and skinny jeans. He looks at least two decades younger than his 74 years.

Twenty-eight when he made the cult independent release that became a classic, Jarre has come a long way since then. Oxygéne was recorded on a synthesiser that “looked like a telephone exchange”, a primitive Korg drum machine modified with Sellotape, and an old Mellotron that had only a few working keys. Almost five decades and 80 million album sales later, we’re having lunch after listening to his 22nd studio record, Oxymore, in 360-degree spatial audio. In plain English, this means that the music is played via 29 speakers arranged so they surround the listener. “For decades we have had a frontal relationship with music,” Jarre says. “It is the same relationship to music that you have with a painting; with modern technology you can go back to a very natural way of listening to music. I am convinced this will be a total game-changer.”

The origins of Oxymore go back to 2015, when Jarre was due to collaborate with Pierre Henry, one of the foundational figures in electronic music and an early proponent of musique concrète – a genre of composition that utilised recorded sounds as raw material, from musical instruments to field recordings. The two had intended to work together on Jarre’s Electronica Project, which was released as an album in 2015. Ultimately, though, the collaboration didn’t take place. Henry died in 2017. “A few months after his death, I contacted his widow,” Jarre says, “and she told me that Henry had left some sounds for me in case I might want to do something with them one day.” It was these fragments of sounds that Jarre used as the starting point for the new record, which Jarre hopes not only honours Henry but also spotlights the continuing influence of concrete music.

“These guys had a major influence on how we are making music these days, whether it is hip-hop, or punk, or rock, or electronic music,” he says. “They opened the field of sampling when they were just going out with a microphone and a tape recorder recording the sound of life and mixing it with acoustic instruments. They created so many things [that are used] these days by DJs, like scratching, playing vinyl backwards and sampling. We are all the children of these guys.” Jarre always considered himself one of those children, but it was only making the album that led him to revisit his own childhood and earliest adventures in sound.

Jarre was 10 years old and living in Lyon, in central France, after his parents split up, when his grandfather gave him a tape recorder. His father Maurice was a film soundtrack composer who had left for America. “My dad was totally absent,” Jarre recalls, “totally focused on his work, and he ignored his family – his parents and his children.”

The young Jean-Michel would spend hours on his balcony recording the sounds of the street. He didn’t know it then, but it was a very similar approach to what Henry had done with his concrete music. Jarre later studied classical musical composition and, in the late 1960s, fronted a proto-punk band called The Dustbins. “It was around then that I first visited Radio France,” he says. “I was playing in a band and the drummer’s father was working here as a music journalist. I remember stealing oscillators and filters from the radio studios to use to make music.”

Jarre released his debut solo album Deserted Palace in 1972, but it was the ambient and spacey etherealism of his follow-up, Oxygène – with its cover art featuring Earth peeling away to reveal a skull – that turned Jarre into a global superstar of electronic music. It was turned down by every major record label before eventually being released by a French independent label in the winter of 1976. “I remember being on the Champs-Élysées and seeing Elton John coming out of a record shop with 10 copies under his arm,” he recalls. “My publisher, who was with me, said ‘I think this is going to be a hit.’” The album would go on to sell 12 million copies; subsequent records, while not as commercially successful, continued to see Jarre innovating with the art of making noise. There was an echo of concrete music in 1984’s Zoolook: it was constructed from recordings that Jarre made of the human voice speaking in 30 languages, which he sampled and electronically manipulated.

Jarre was influenced in his music not only by the likes of Henry and the German electronic band Tangerine Dream, but also by the work of American abstract expressionist painters. “Jackson Pollock has always been a great source of inspiration,” he says. “I always thought that abstract expressionism was less intellectual than landscapes. When you deal with textures and wave forms you are working in a very sensual, almost sexual way – instead of calling it abstract painting, it should be called concrete painting.”

Jarre’s live concerts became the stuff of legend. He was the first Western performer to be invited to perform within the People’s Republic of China. He played to gigantic crowds: a concert in Paris was attended by 2.5 million people, and one in Moscow seven years later was witnessed by 3.5 million. These epic performances were inspired, he tells me, by opera. “The fact you had musicians collaborating with carpenters and painters just to enhance and visualise their music,” he explains. “Electronic music was so abstract for the audience, so I thought my music should also be influenced by opera. I needed to surround myself with the carpenters of my generation – lighting designers, video artists and projectionists.”

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‘Electronic music was so abstract for the audience, so I thought my music should also be influenced by opera’ (Francois Rousseau)

In recent years, Jarre has embraced the possibilities of virtual reality – he played in a virtual Notre Dame on New Year’s Eve 2020, and for the new album he has created a new VR space where he can perform in front of avatars of audience members from around the world. Does this mean that, post pandemic, the days of mega live concerts are over? “We have changed paradigms,” he says. “We have changed our relationship with the outside world – we care much more about the environment. Nothing is going to replace [the live experience], but VR should be considered a mode of expression in itself – as another possibility.” He tells me about a recent VR performance, during which he played the new album and then met his virtual audience. “There was one girl from Manchester who had danced all evening,” he recalls. “I started talking to her and she told me she was quadriplegic – this was the first time she was sharing a live event with some other people.”

Jarre’s enthusiasm for the future, how it sounds and how it might look, is particularly impressive given that he has been making music for half a century and is at the stage where he has little, if anything, left to prove. “There is a mysterious aspect to creativity,” he says. “I don’t understand what I have done, and I don’t know how I did it. I still feel like a naughty boy in front of his new toys.” He may be unsure how he did it, but his music has been cited as an influence by artists such as Moby, who recalls: “When I first heard Oxygène it sounded like it was coming from a different universe.” Film composer Hans Zimmer has said of Jarre, “I don’t think there is an electronic musician who isn’t influenced by him,” while Gary Numan once said that “he started it all and we’re all just following on from what he started”. I ask Jarre what he makes of the next generation of French DJs, such as David Guetta. “They are like my little brothers,” he says, “but they are more on the pop side, producing songs with vocalists – which is a talent, but it’s different to my music, which has roots in classical music compositions.”

Oxymore is Jarre’s seventh album in seven years – an acceleration in output that is in part due to an awareness that time is not on his side. “Your relationship with time changes,” he says. “As long as your parents are alive, you think of time passing by. When your parents are no longer there (his parents died within months of each other in 2012), you think of time in terms of the time you have left. It is a game-changer – you are the next one in line, and you start to think ‘I have to start to complete what I have in mind.’”

When your parents are no longer there, you think of time in terms of the time you have left

It isn’t just getting older that explains his productivity. Jarre has talked in the past of music being an addiction. “It is a passion that is all-consuming,” he says. “It can sound very selfish, but I prefer to spend time with machines more than human beings.” Jarre may say he prefers spending time with machines, but in person he is tremendous company. Our conversation was scheduled to last an hour, but stretches on for three hours and only ends because he has a hospital appointment he cannot miss. Jarre’s single-minded obsession with music inevitably comes with a price tag – and the fact that Jarre has been married four times, including a 20-year marriage to Charlotte Rampling that ended in 1997, may not be completely unconnected. (The allegations of infidelity cannot have helped.)

Jean-Michel Jarre with his partner, actor Gong Li, at the Venice Film Festival in 2022 (Getty)

“I have missed a lot of things,” he admits – “like spending time with my children, spending more time with my family, like my mum, who was a fantastic woman and I know that I missed very important moments with her. I [might] seem to be a bit like a spoilt brat, because I had a choice; but in a sense I didn’t – it is a path you follow, you have no choice. If you want to have a quiet life and a quiet private life, then don’t become a musician.” I remind him that he said exactly those words in an interview with The Independent back in 2017. “It is a sort of joke,” he admits. “I am very lucky. I have an excellent relationship with my partner [the Chinese actress Gong Li]. We have been together seven years; she is an extraordinary person. I recently talked to my youngest son [he has three grown-up children] and he said he felt I was always there for him, so maybe it is about what I need rather than what he needed.”

And what Jarre needs more than anything is to keep making music. Time is short and he has no time to be looking back. “Nostalgia is very negative for the human mind,” he says. “To be stuck in nostalgia is sad... it is a bit sick. I feel sorry for those who are scared about the future.”

‘Oxymore’ is out on 21 October

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