After-dark inquiry: Nicolas Jaar

The talented producer gears up for Electric Zoo.

Nicolas Jaar

Nicolas Jaar Photograph:

He's only 21 and will shortly begin his senior year at Brown, but Jaar is already acclaimed as a brilliant producer of dreamy mood music. He'll be playing with a full band at the Electric Zoo festival on Sunday 4.

Do you feel that your field of study, comparative literature, has had any bearing on your music career?
For sure. The only thing you can do with comparative literature is study some more and study some more, until you're tired of studying it. And then you teach it. But my idea was to just get inspired by what I'm studying. Comparative literature isn't really just about literature; there's a lot of theory and philosophy—basically a lot of ideas—involved as well. And those ideas can be applied to other disciplines besides literature. In the end, I'm really studying music and art and film. Just culture, really.

Speaking of culture—of a sort—you've been quoted as saying that Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" made a lasting impression on you.
Ha! I was pretty young then; I think everything leaves an impression when you're a kid. I was six or seven, we were living in Chile at the time, and my father brought it home as a kind of American artifact. For some reason, I really fell in love with that song. But I haven't heard it for years, so I don't even know if I still like it. It is pretty catchy, though.

Since your album, Space Is Only Noise, came out earlier this year, you've been playing out a lot with your band rather than solo gigs, correct?
Oh, yeah, lots. I treat the band and solo as two very different things, and I think that I really prefer playing live with a band. Every single night with the band is different. We sit down before the gig, and I talk to them about what direction we might want to go in that night. Like, the first time we played at Fabric, I was feeling like the band should be sounding completely ritualistic and kind of evil. And that's exactly what we did, and it was really crazy and went really well. That's what you can to with a band—you can improvise and contextualize.

And solo?
Nowadays, when I'm playing solo, I'm mostly playing my own edits, so it's not even really my own music. It's my version of other people's music, and remixes of my own music. The form and structure is totally different than it is when playing with the band.

I'm guessing that when you play solo, you're sometimes in situations where you're expected to make people dance a little bit, right?
Yeah, that's true, but what's funny is that I also love playing my more experimental stuff when I play solo. Since I'm controlling everything when it's just me, I can think more about texture. I can make this tiny little sound become bigger and bigger; I can move a sound so that it's coming out of this speaker rather than that speaker.

You'll be playing with the band at Electric Zoo. Have you guys been playing a lot of festival gigs?
Oh yeah, lots of them, even Glastonbury. It's really fun.

You were talking about how you tailor your sets to fit the situation. Does playing at a big festival determine your direction at all?
The thing about festivals is that you get people who really are interested in the music, want to hear the music and have an investment in it. Paying for a festival is a pretty big commitment! And playing for such big crowds is great, of course. It seems to add a whole new level to what we do.

You're still quite young, but your music has a mature, meditative, sophisticated feeling to it. Where do you think that vibe comes from?
I've been making music for a long time, since about when I was 14, and I've always been trying to make this kind of music—I was never a rap producer, for instance. And so I've been doing this for a while, and I've been questioning and thinking about this kind of music for a while. I have a long personal history with the music I'm making. Also, it's gotten to the point where a kid can be just as adept and accustomed to playing with a computer as they could be with a guitar, so the music that someone makes with a computer can be just as honest as any other kind of music now. You can do more than try to sound like Kraftwerk; listen to somebody like Mount Kimbie or James Blake. The idea of electronic music sounding like electronic music is kind of over, you know? And that's beautiful.

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