20 Questions With Jean-Michel Jarre: ‘Electronic Music Has Really Been the Perfect Opportunity to Lead My Rebellion’

Listening to Jean-Michel Jarre speak is like hearing a pitch for a French arthouse film that is sure to be a frontrunner for an Academy Award. An early pioneer of electronic music, Jarre’s experiences start in the aftermath of WWII and traverse many cultural and musical eras, across continents and key moments of global change.

At 74, Jarre only looks to the past to tap into ideas that he can reimagine in the most futuristic way. This is what he has done with Oxymore, the 22nd album of his half-century-spanning career. Out today (Oct. 21), Oxymore is built upon stems and samples from one of Jarre’s early mentors, Pierre Henry, the godfather of France’s musique concrète movement, under whose tutelage at Paris’ legendary Groupe de Recherches Musicales Jarre cut his electronic music teeth.

Continuing the exploratory and experimental ethos of what he learned from Henry, Oxymore, taps into immersive audio possibilities. Conceived in 360 spatial audio and binaural, the album was mixed in binaural and Dolby Atmos at Radio France’s Maison de la Radio et de la Musique — one of musique concrète’s homes. Taking this same boundary-pushing ethos to the live space, Jarre is presenting Oxymore live in-person and as a VR experience. For the latter, he has created Oxyville, a VR world that include a custom avatar of himself and which invites viewers to become active participants in the experience.

Jarre speaks to Billboard from his native France, where despite designer shades covering his eyes, his excitement and passion come through loud and clear.

1. Where are you and what is the setting like?

Paris, in my flat, where I live and where I have my home studio. My real recording studio is outside Paris, not that far. I’m in the 8th district. Every Parisian seems to think they are living in the center of town. The 8th district is nice, because it’s on the west side and easy to get to the airport. It is business, but cool at the same time.

2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself and what was the medium?

The first record I bought was a single from Ray Charles, “Georgia on My Mind”/“What’d I Say.” I’ve always been fascinated by textures in music, even at an early age. What really impressed me about Ray Charles’ sound was, he was definitely working on texture, his voice, but also his sound as a producer. He was producing sound in a very innovative way at that time — still in some aspects innovative now, this mixture of spiritual with R&B and street art. He had this paradox. My new album Oxymore is the idea of putting two things together which are not meant to be together. Ray Charles is a very good example of an oxymoron by putting groovy textures and spiritual aspect, but also, joy and melancholia. Happy songs, but behind them sadness is hidden. I have really been touched by that.

3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?

My mom was a quite an extraordinary woman. She was a great figure in the French Resistance during the war. She was caught by the Nazis three times, and she escaped three times, even from the deportation camp. She was the central character in my childhood, because my father left us when I was five years old, and I didn’t have any contact with him for a long time. He was kind of an abstract figure for me. My mom played, with great talent and subtlety, the role of a mother and a father. When you are an only child, it’s always a problem to have a mom not being too invasive, too intrusive, and too protective, or not enough. She managed this beautifully, and I really respect that.

We were like a duet, where each of us was concerned about what would happen if we were to lose the other one. We didn’t have lots of money. We were living in the south of Paris, in a very small apartment. At a very early age, I was concerned with trying to help her financially, to try and get some jobs. She always took care of me saying it’s very important to her for get me a decent education.

My father was a great soundtrack composer, Maurice Jarre. He wrote Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia.

4. What was your parents’ reaction when you started doing music?

My mother was very open to arts. She opened my eyes and my ears. One of her best friends was a totally crazy woman called Mimi Ricard who opened one of the most influential jazz clubs in Paris, called Le Chat Qui Pêche, The Fishing Cat, where people such as Don Cherry, Artie Shaw, John Coltrane and Chet Baker were playing. My mom would visit her friend, and I would go down to the cellar where these musicians were rehearsing.

For my 10th birthday, Chet Baker sat me on the upright piano, and he played for me. That was, for me, my first emotion in terms of the impact of sound on your body, my first physical experience with music. Every time I think about this, I still feel the air of the instrument on my chest. Because he knew I was interested in music, and he told me, “Melody is very important, but what is even more important is to escape from the melody as soon as possible. That is what jazz is all about. What is important in jazz is sound.” This is something that I always kept in my mind. The electroacoustic music I make is quite close to jazz, because it’s all about textures. It’s all about sound design. Jazz has been quite influential in my life.

My father and I had a total absence of conflict. It’s better to have conflict with your father because at least you have somebody to build yourself against. The absence is something much more sneaky, much more difficult to deal with. It’s like a black hole. You have to build from nothing rather than from something, or against something.

We bumped into each other maybe 20 times in my life. Each time, he would ask questions, but in a polite way. It took a long time for me to accept this. I felt resentment for quite a long time. I realized later — and this is the advice I could give to lots of people, because, as Freud says, we all have problems with our parents, and it’s absolutely true — you have only one father and one mother. Whatever you do, you are the result of that. The earlier you accept this, the better you will feel for yourself. If my father was not able to express his emotions or his feelings — because it was the same with my half-sister, she was exactly in the same situation as me, so it was not because of me — probably something we ignored happened to my father when he was a child, which is why he had a handicap on the heart side. I was like a son without a father.

5. Did you have a job before you started doing music in a professional capacity? When were you able to leave the job and focus on music full-time?

I had lots of small jobs to help my mom. She had a stand at the French flea market, which was really cool and fun. The flea market was where you had lots of artists and writers. I was helping her every weekend, getting up quite early to put the stand in the street. Some people were selling paintings. I was doing some painting, but a kid of 13, 14 has no credibility, so I invented a fake older brother, and I pretended I was selling his work. And I sold some of my art so I was quite proud.

I played in rock bands. We were beginners in college, getting a little money in local clubs. When I studied electronic music in Groupe de Recherches Musicales in Paris, it really changed my life. I started to get money by writing music for commercials, producing artists, doing pop songs, writing pop songs for singers, music and lyrics. I built quite a reputation as a lyricist in my 20s when I wrote big hits in France. I went to L.A. to produce French artists. It was in the days where if you had hits, record companies gave you lots of money for studios and to spend time in studios. I spent time with the best session musicians in L.A., like Ray Parker Jr. and Herbie Hancock. It was a great experience for me. I learned a lot about the studio and how to produce a record. But I always had this idea of creating a link between experimental avant garde music and pop music, which I explored in my own recordings.

6. What was the scene like in Paris when you first started making music?

When I was a teenager we had lots of contact with rock music, American bands and British bands. It was a time where we had a very famous concert hall called Olympia where you had lots of unknown bands. The beginning of Pink Floyd, the beginning of Soft Machine, The Who. Olympia was open most of the time until 4:00 in the morning. This was the music of my generation, but it was not an evolution. When I went into electronic music, I thought, “This is my own revolution. This is where I can bring something different from what I listen to.” It was also in the middle of all the student revolutions in Europe and in the US. It was cool to rebel against everything, including the establishment of rock. Electronic music for me has really been the perfect opportunity to lead my rebellion.

7. What’s the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?

I think it was a car. I have a passion for old cars. I found a French car from the 1930s. It was an amazing car. I was so proud of it. Cars motorbikes, especially in the ‘60s, were a symbol of escape and freedom — particularly when they’re a convertible.

8. Was there an album that got you into electronic music?

When I started, there were no albums of electronic music. My first attempt at electronic music was by doing it at the music center lab where we were stealing oscillators and filters from the radio station, which were made for maintenance and not at all for music. We were just a bunch of crazy kids doing music with what was considered machines, not instruments. They are still called machines.

9. What the last song you listened to?

Just before this I was doing a radio show called Open Jazz for the release of the album. I had a very interesting session with talking about jazz, and they played an Ella Fitzgerald track. It’s not necessarily what I’m listening to, but it’s what I heard two hours ago.

10. What’s the first electronic music show that really blew your mind?

I’m saying this with humility, but it was my first show, which was in front of a million people. It was in 1979. It was the first time there was such a massive audience, and the first time dealing with mapping, giant projections on buildings, a format which is now very linked with electronic music.

At that time, to perform my music, you didn’t have a lot of choices. In Europe, small halls more for theater or jazz or rock, or you have this kind of multiplex hall where you have Tupperware or Toyota conferences and basketball, and you play music in this place where you have very strange vibes.

I really needed something else. This is the reason why I started to be involved in outdoor concerts. I always liked the idea of one-offs. You have no second chance for the audience or yourself. After COVID, we changed paradigms so much, we are somewhere else.

11. Is VR figuring largely into how you’re moving forward?

I’m very involved with VR, and I’ve done quite a lot of concerts in the past few months in VR. It’s democratizing a great deal for people who have ideas for stage design or architecture. You don’t have any gravity so you can play with things you cannot play with in the real world. People that were isolated for geographic reasons, social reasons or reasons of handicap can be connected live with other people, there is the social aspect of it.

When we presented the beta version of Oxymore earlier this year, we invited guests and fans. We had a Q&A session after. The beauty of VR is we were in the same room and there was a guy from Shanghai, another guy from Rio and this girl from Manchester, very energetic, asking lots of questions. I talked to her after and discovered that she was paraplegic. It was the first time she went to a gig in her life, and she was dancing. This is something which is quite great about the possibility of VR.

12. What is the best setting to listen to and experience electronic music?

Because of the COVID period where everybody changed their relationship with digital interfaces, the development of VR and the metaverse is going to be part of our DNA as creators, and also as an audience.

I’m much more interested to develop my music, ironically, and go back to what sound is all about. What I mean by this—and this is linked to my album, when we talk about VR, immersive worlds, everybody’s talking about visuals, and very few people are talking about sounds. We forget that the visual field is 140 degrees where the audio field is 360 degrees. Stereo doesn’t exist in nature. When I’m talking to you it’s in mono. The real thing is the 360 relationship we have as human beings with our ears and the environment with the sounds of our day-to-day life. It’s quite strange that we’ve had, for almost centuries, a frontal relationship with music.

The fact that you can deal with a totally different space is a game changer. It’s what I did with Oxymore. The specificity of Oxymore is that it’s the first album totally conceived and composed from day one in 360. It’s a totally different approach to music composition. We really have the feeling for the person to be inside the music, and that is the future of electronic music.

13. You’ve already implemented these ideas in your presentation of Oxymore?

What I am doing for the release of the album in Europe is a series of showcases almost in the dark where there is nothing to look at. The only experience is about sounds and multi-channels with 20 PA systems around the audience. The visual side will be VR where I have built imaginary city between Metropolis and Sim City where I am going to play live, and at the same time, in VR. VR is going to be another mode of expression, not weakening live shows but reinforcing live shows like cinema reinforced theater.

14. You said you kept the immersive audio component in mind when making Oxymore?

Yes. For centuries in electronic music the sounds you were using were fixed forever by the person who devised the piano, the clarinet, saxophone. Suddenly, you can become your own craftsman. This is another way to get lost. At the same time, it’s a new territory to explore, a new way of writing and expressing your imagination and your ideas. I felt a huge sense of freedom with this process. It was a huge relief. If I put all these elements in stereo, I would fight a lot to try to make them not a mess. Every sound has its own space, its own place. It’s like putting your head inside a painting. It’s very liberating.

15. Does the fact that immersive audio has moved away from being just for audiophiles and become very accessible as it gets integrated into basic consumer products motivate you to work more within it?

I feel very privileged to have been to have to have lived three moments of disruptions. The first one was the emergence of electronic music. The second one was the emergence of digital era with computers. And the third one is the birth and the dawn of immersive worlds. This one is probably the most crucial one. For young artists today, it’s a real opportunity because big moments of disruptions are always very positive for artists and creators.

16. What is one thing about electronic music now that is far better than it was at the start of your music career and what is one thing that is far worse?

What is far better is what would take me two hours can take me two seconds. I started with tape recorders and when I wanted to make a beat, I had to use scissors and tape to physically edit the tape to make a loop. That was quite time consuming. Now I just do it with a few clicks. The downside of this is because everything can be instant, you have less and less time to think about what you’re doing, because you’re almost doing things before having finished your thought. Every musician will tell you this is the problem: The time between the idea and the realization of the idea is long. Now, we have the reverse problem. The gap in time is quite interesting for maturing an idea, to make it different.

17. What was the best business decision you ever made?

To sell my catalog this year. It’s in keeping with a sense of nostalgia, and also, to reset and to feel, in a sense, like a beginner. It gives me the freedom to do whatever I want.

18. Who was your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice they gave you?

My best mentor was my teacher at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrète. This whole Oxymore project is a tribute to this French way of approaching the roots of electronic music. By actually dealing with sounds rather than notes and injecting the sound design approach to music composition, people have no idea about how big their contribution is in the way we’re doing the music today,

He told me two quite important things: Don’t hesitate to go to the unexpected, to mix the sound of a bird with a clarinet, to mix the sound of a washing machine with a trombone. This is what Oxymore is about. And he said, don’t waste your time experimenting, because your path is to create a bridge between the experimentation we are doing is here in this group and pop music and the audience. That helped me save a lot of time.

19. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

What people don’t like in you, do it, because it’s yourself.

20. Your life would make a great movie, don’t you think?

That’s very nice. What you’re saying is very touching. There are two categories of people. One category is people thinking that their life is so interesting that it should become the most beautiful movie. The other category is people who probably have a more exciting life, but they never realize it because they’ve been the main actor.

Katie Bain