A New Album And A Graceful Exit: Laurent Garnier Interviewed

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How old is too old for a touring techno DJ? That’s the question that Laurent Garnier, now 57 years old, started asking himself during the pandemic.

The result of that lockdown soul-searching was a new album and a decision to wind down his busy schedule over the next 12 months. Out on May 25th, the multi-format LP’s title roughly translates as 33 Tours and Then Go Away, which is essentially the plan, but what of those previous 33 years in the game?

From growing up with a disco ball in his bedroom, in 1984 an 18 year-old Laurent got work as a waiter for the French Embassy in London, before following his girlfriend north and getting a job in a kitchen in Manchester a couple of years later. He fell in love with house music at the Haçienda and eventually managed to blag a night there under the name of DJ Pedro.

Unfortunately, he was called back to France for mandatory military service, missing the 1988 second summer of love, but managed to fulfil his duties while sneaking out at night to dance and DJ across Paris. He stayed there and started running the Wake Up parties at the capital’s Rex Club and L’An-Fer in Dijon during the early 90s, before early releases on the FNAC label. 

When it went out of business, he formed F Communications with Eric Morand, with debut album Shot in the Dark released in 1995. Two years later, this was followed by 30, which included perennial favourites Crispy Bacon and Flashback. He returned to production with Unreasonable Behaviour, released in early 2000, which featured perhaps his most famous track, The Man with the Red Face.

In 2003, Laurent created Pedro’s Broadcasting Basement (PBB), a 24-hour online radio station, programmed entirely by himself. The next 20 years have seen him DJ in just about every city on earth, pop up on labels like Kompakt, Rekids and Ed Banger, write a semi-autobiographical history of dance music (Electrochoc) and compose for cinema, television and theatre. These dabblings culminated in the creation of a Kickstarter-ed dance music documentary, which was released in 2021.

After 30 years devoted to music, Laurent was made Chévalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2017 – a title he then used to complain to the French culture minister about a rejection of clubbing from her remit during Covid-19.

With the timeline roughly up to date, it’s time to hear from the man himself.

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From personal experience I can attest to the fact that you’re one of the most genuinely expressive people behind the decks, with an almost unmatched ability to enjoy yourself, keep things eclectic, but also clearly please the crowd – how has your technique/style/philosophy evolved over more than 30 years DJing? 

There are no rules, but the essence of DJing, the hard task, is to understand the mood, the moment and what you have to do to tell the best story. Every night is different, every sound system is different, things change from one year to another, but as a DJ you should always try to make the best of any situation.

I was explaining to someone the other day, in the same club but with a different crowd and a different year, I may end my set with a techno classic, or a weird French song; but you can’t force things. We need to stay open minded and read the crowd. 

I want to get to the new album, but if you’ll allow me to stay with this theme, can you talk me through your decision to slow down the touring schedule – how does one begin to exit this scene gracefully?

I don’t have the answer, but I’m doing things how I feel is right. I’ve been DJing for so long that I think it’s healthy to ask these questions. 

But it’s not just about age, I’ve always been aware that things can drastically change, I always told my team the day that happens we must be prepared. I was born in 1966, so when I was growing up, every five years there was a new musical movement, and I was always thinking that something was going to come and push techno and house away. Now that hasn’t happened yet, but if something does come along that talks to the kids better and makes us look like old farts, we’ll have to clear the space. 

I’ve always said I don’t want to end up as a 60 year-old DJ having to play parties for old school types, people saying ‘the music was better in the old days’, having to only play the classics; that’s just the saddest situation. The essence of my job is to dig and search and play new music – the classics are only the cherry on the cake. 

My biggest fear is becoming an old dusty DJ, like one of those geriatric French singers going on cruise ships. I played in Paris recently, we did three clubs in the same night, and 80% of the crowd were around the age of my son (18), so I suppose I’ll keep going as long as I’m still relevant.

I want to slow down, but I can’t stop, because DJing is my life; it’s in my DNA. For my health I have to be careful though, I’d still like to do gigs until the end of 2024, but then to start doing things in a different way, to stop flying – because I’ve always hated it – and only take the train, perhaps eight or 10 weekends in years, staying in the same city for the whole weekend. Like I did in Manchester recently, playing at the Warehouse Project on Friday, then on Saturday popping up at a really small club and focusing on hip hop, soul and disco. 

These days I sleep before the gig, I don’t have dinner with promoters anymore, but it would be nice to have time to get back into that again – really seeing a city and meeting the people. When you have a family, you want to go back home after a gig, but I want to really enjoy travelling again. Limiting myself to the train means I might never go back to Australia, or the US – I might still go to Japan – but mostly it will be places within Europe.

We get to see it on social media of course, these big DJs playing increasingly big rooms and shows, but that’s not what I like about DJing, I like sharing intense moments with a crowd – of any size – I need this interaction, I’ve dreamed of it since I was 11 years old – but I’ve done it for a long time and I’m aware of the age gap, so I’d like to land the plane in a soft way. I want to carry on my relationship with the fans, but on my terms.

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Given your reassessment of techno during the pandemic, I was almost expecting this to be an ambient record – but this is the most dancefloor-focused LP you’ve put out in some time – presumably these are tracks you’ve been testing out for the last few months?

You have to understand a bit of the background, the album’s title is a reference to a sentence from the most popular nursery rhyme in France, about puppets making three turns, as well as being the French name for vinyl records, related to the 33 rpm speed, so the idea is to make people dance, but to slow down my work and eventually go.

The proper context is that I started making music during Covid, the first lockdowns, when for a lot of us life was just paused. My first reaction was a complete rejection of techno – I always pictured it as the future music and I couldn’t see this light at the end of the tunnel – it was a situation out of our control, we were completely helpless.

I couldn’t understand how people could release techno at that time – I didn’t listen to any promos, or my electronic records. I found comfort in really old music, French songs, soul stuff, pop-rock albums. I did that psychedelic album with The Liminanas, and that really helped. 

Then after about six months, things began opening up and summer gigs started, we had a better idea of the future and I started feeling the frustration of not being able to DJ. I was getting withdrawal symptoms from my love vibes drug; the crowd is my power source and my batteries were low. So I switched on the machines, I needed to make tunes for my sets, dancefloor music was going to be my contribution. 

Many DJs used the internet very well during that time, but I refused to do any of those online streaming sets; I need the crowd. I did question my place in all this – if I come back, I need to have some new tracks – so during my first gig, half of my set was unfinished things. 

I also like the fact that you’re putting out the record across various different formats, in different ways; what was the thinking behind that?

For the last 15 years, formats have changed, the ways of listening to music have changed, doing an album in the old way doesn’t make sense. As we worked through peer-to-peer file sharing, the rise and fall of CDs, the vinyl resurgence, cassettes coming back, I started telling the people I was working with that albums don’t make sense anymore; I mean who is it for? 

So last year we tried to do it in a different way, going digital, with five different distributors, not putting tracks on platforms. That worked well, so for this one I wanted to do something which touches every different format – you get the whole album only if you have every piece of the puzzle. The vinyl is for DJs, the CD is a classic album format, the seven-inch in a box set has lots of different remixes, then the tape has tracks that are nowhere else, and it’s mixed. Each has its own part of the story. I think we need to make releases interesting, people consume in a different way, so we need to find new ways to give back to the fans.

Perhaps this is a difficult question to answer, but might this be your last album – and if so, would there be any other musical plans on the horizon?

At one point I thought this would be my last album, it might be my last proper techno album, but I can’t say anything for certain – I make things when it’s the right time. I’m quite slow, I mean I make music quickly, but I don’t do that many projects – once I finish something I need time to digest it.

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You’ve spoken about the pandemic and how it changed your approach and made you reconsider your career – things like helping out a Japanese restaurant and getting involved in other projects – will it be things like this that will now fill the touring gaps?

I actually haven’t stopped working at the restaurant, I still go there once in a while, last time I was there was New Year’s Eve, because they needed staff. I’m very close to them and in fact a few months ago I cooked at a food festival with that chef. Catering was my first job, which helped pay for my first records.

I’ve also got the Yeah! pop-rock festival, so that will continue – it’s 10 years old this summer – and I’m always very involved with the local community. 

For instance, 22Carbone – who are on one of the new tracks – they’re kids from my community, one of them is the nephew of my friend and neighbour. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to work, but I figured let’s try something. In France, the track is huge, the kids love rap – and I love the contrast with having Alan Vega, who was at the end of his career, also there on the album. 

You’re known in the industry for keeping up a prodigious listening schedule – I heard that you get through up to 500 tracks a day – presumably this rate will slow down in the coming years?

Not only for my DJ sets, I need to do it for the radio show, so I would still listen to 200 or 300 records a day, even if I stopped DJing tomorrow. I heard it was something like 100,000 new tracks a day added to the major music platforms, so listening to 500 records is nothing, and whenever I travel I can’t listen to things, I feel guilty because I’m missing a fuck-load of music. I’m not narrow-minded enough music-wise – it can be anything from reggae to d’n’b, pop, hip hop, house music – I’m too greedy, so I’m definitely going to keep the habit up. 

I’ll be starting a new radio show soon – I’ve already done the pilot – while PBB Radio is also asking a lot of my time, so I need to put up new playlists. I’m the biggest customer, I listen to it in the car, when I cycle – I basically made this radio station for me – stupid jingles and serious music. 

You’ve called it ‘uncontemporary techno’ and I’ve seen you thin out crowds by dropping dubstep or drum’n’bass tracks into a techno set before, so how important do you think it is for a DJ to keep things eclectic – playing for themselves, but also maybe educating a crowd?

I’ve found a lot of people are too narrow minded, music sounds better when it breathes alongside other things. I played the Unlimited festival in Chamonix last week and given it was outside in the afternoon sunshine, I played quite a lot of deep house, trippy stuff, a lot of melodies, but I thought that if I carry on playing four-to-the-floor, I’ll be like all the other DJs, so I stuck on some drill and two-step – the crowd went berserk – and it allowed me to come back to techno, with even more of a reaction when I did. 

Bringing in more diversity makes certain parts of the set stick out more, it’s all about contrast. It’s like food, if you don’t use herbs and spices, it becomes boring. 

On that night in Paris recently, my first set was a house set, but I also played disco, some Masters at Work-style stuff, but also tribal, afro-type tracks, as well as UK garage, so even within one genre you can be so rich. 

That’s the essence of the job – there’s nothing worse than a DJ who stays in one lane strictly, playing only 140 bpm techno, or just tech house – it’s so boring.

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Laurent Garnier will release new album ’33 Tours Et Puis S’en Vont’ on May 25th.

Words: Peter Walker