On an uncharacteristically overcast and rainy day in Barcelona I had an opportunity to sit down with one of the most influential figures in electronic music; Laurent Garnier. His career began in 1987 with a residency at the legendary Hacienda nightclub in Manchester. He would later play a pivotal role in the development of France’s electronic music scene.
He has held residencies at some of the world’s top clubs such as the Robert Johnson, The End, The Rex in Paris and Yellow. He has produced a string of dance floor anthems including “The Man with the Red Face”, “Crispy Bacon” and “Acid Eiffel”.
Garnier is an esteemed radio broadcaster who spends 6 to 7 hours a day into listening to new music and downloads up to 500 tracks per session. He spends on average 6 months preparing his live sets. He released a semi-autobiographical book titled Electrochoc in 2003 which was re released in 2013 with additional chapters and published it in English.
While at Sónar Festival in 2016 I had an opportunity to speak Laurent about his career, the power of radio, his relationship with Sónar, his F Communications imprint and his book.
Was there a defining moment where you decided to get into music?
Since I was 8 or 9 music has been very important to me. I was living in Paris and I was very young so the only way to discover music was through radio. I was listening to a lot of specialist shows. Back then they were playing funk, disco, new wave and rock and stuff like that. The shows were mixing all these kinds of music together.
I had an older brother and he used to go to all these gatherings and they would talk about music. Everyone was older than me but I knew the bands they were listening to. Music has always been my interest since I was very young. I had a very big fascination for dancing, clubbing, lights, night clubs. I didn’t know what it was but I was very fascinated by it.
There was a time when we had a tv presenter in france and he was doing a lot with disco. He was presenting some shows from clubs and he would have a lot of disco artists. This was the music that was really exciting me. What I could see was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to belong to this world. Very quickly radio became more and more important to me and I was taping more shows and sharing them with everybody. Music was becoming an obsession.
I was spending all my money on records. I was just buying disco records and stuff like that. It was very clear from an early stage that I wanted to make people dance and to have people shake their body. It became stronger and stronger over the years and I just never let it go.
Do you still believe that Radio is an important medium for exploring music and the curation of music?
Radio should be. I don’t think it is that much anymore. Radio unfortunately like every other media is now thinking about money more than anything else. But it shouldn’t be. Some radio stations are doing their job right. Look at what’s happening in England and France. 95% of the radio shows are not specialist anymore and just play super commercial boring stuff.
Their job should be to dig out and search and push people forward. Help them to do some kind of education music wise. Now they don’t educate any more because they just play the stuff that everybody already knows. Radio stations were like that back in the 80’s. They were really forward thinking. You had your specialist punk radio, specialist disco one, specialist reggae one, but they were playing it 24 hours a day. You had a lot of different radio stations playing super amazing music and you could really pick a lot of things.
Now you just have a couple of specialist radio shows on some station that dared to put out something different but this is very rare. Radio should be a media that is helping music and pushing things forward, but unfortunately the percentage of people doing that is very small. This is a shame because there is space for it stations should be pushing things forward. I still have a radio show after all these years but now my show is on the internet. Online is more upfront in thinking than normal FM radio.
How did you get into radio?
The first radio show I did I was 14 years old and my neighbour built his own transmitter. We were broadcasting every Friday. It was during the explosion of FM radios in France before the (broadcast) rules came so anyone could set up a radio station and pick an FM frequency. We were broadcasting for 10/15 kilometres around ourselves, a very small thing and we were just talking to our friends from school. My first radio show was there and we did this for a year before it got super regulated and we had to stop.
After that I started my first professional radio show with a station in Paris which were the first ones to accept house and techno. I had a weekly show there. Then I moved to Radio Nova and I stayed there for 16 years where I had a show and became the program director. Then I did my own internet radio station which I have been running for 10 years and I started “it is what it is” which is the show I am doing every month.
When did you decide to set up a record label and how important was that for you in terms of curating and communicating a sound?
Before I decided to do a record label I met Eric Morand. Eric was doing FFRR in France at the time. He told me “when I leave FFRR I want to set up a new label in Paris and I would like you to be one of the first artists”. So I came, signed a record, dealt with him and he started the Fnac Dance Division. Because I was DJing every night and he was at the office every day he would give me the DAT tapes of all the tracks he wanted to sign and I was trying them out at all the clubs. He had a direct feedback for the records he wanted to release. So this is how we became very close. He did Fnac for about 2 years and when he had to leave, the company wasn’t doing very well, he said to me that he was going to set up a new label and that he would like me to be his partner. This is when we did F Communications which we did for a long time and this is the label we all know.
What advice would you give to people setting up labels now.
Well it’s a different world. Back then you could make a living out of making music. A bad sell for us was 25,000 copies of a single. My second album we sold 250,000 but that was a normal sell for an album. We could make a living having a label and having 5 people working for F Communications where it was a bit of a golden age for Techno music and labels. Today if you sell 2,500 copies of a release this is super great, brilliant.
So today you don’t make a living out of having a label. The artist now has to perform. You can’t just produce music if you really want to make a living as a musician. You have to go out and you have to play live. So everything has changed compared to back then. Running a label now you have to be ready to survive and to not make money. Be honest with the music you release because it is so tough now. At least please yourself. Don’t do it for the money because it’s the wrong reason. Be as honest as you can and try to have a good time doing it.
What was your connection with the Hacienda and how did you get involved there.
I gave a tape to the right person at the right time back in 1987. That tape travelled from one person to another one and that person was Paul Cons and Paul was the guy who used to organise all the parties back then in the Hacienda. At the time they wanted to do a new night at the Hacienda and they wanted to open on Wednesday nights. They had this idea to do a night called Zoom Bar where they wanted to have more trendy crowd and have the fashion people from Manchester. They were looking for new DJs and wanted something fresh. My tape reached this guy and he contacted me and said I need a new tape. If your tape is good you will get a job. So it took me 2 or 3 days with no sleep, doing my tapes, I had no pitches on my turntables so I was doing the pitch with my finger trying to mix things together. I mixed house and disco and acid house and I got my job. That was it.
I did Zoom Bar for one year and then when Acid House Arrived and got super big, during the first year of the rave scene in England I had to go back to France. The army was compulsory in France still back then, so I left just when the whole thing exploded in England. So I left for one year and I went back to the Hacienda to DJ on the Saturday night for 6 months. Then I decided to go back home because I didn’t live the explosion of Acid House from the inside. I was there before then the whole thing exploded. Then I came back and everyone was going crazy, doing E’s, talking differently, listening to different music and I was not part of it. I left for a whole year and I felt like a tourist. I felt there was something wrong here. I am always going to be looked at like a tourist because I wasn’t there from day one.
I thought it hasn’t yet happened in France, maybe it’s more clever for me to go back home, do it there. And if I do it at home which is going to be harder. I will keep my connection with England. I will keep on travelling between the two countries. I will bring music from England and play it in France. Then they had a different way of looking at me in England. Which was a great thing because I became a French DJ who was travelling a lot and I became an interest for them, because I was bringing something different. I was playing different things because I was as well influenced by Belgium. I was bringing different music to them so it kept me alive in England and the story happened after that. There is a book and everything is in the book.
That was my next question. When did you decide to the book and how did you approach it.
You know it’s funny, every big project in my life it comes from a meeting with a person. Usually in my life I don’t go see people to bug them to get something. To do a label I met this guy who happened to open a label who happened to ask me to join afterwards. The book was the same. I was having dinner with two friends of mine. One is a journalist and his wife is a publisher and they are friends so we just talk about holidays and normal things. Then we get quite drunk and I start talking about my job. They start talking about their holidays in India. The only time I was in India was when I was DJing so I start to tell them stories about me travelling and DJing. I went to Australia and saw this, I went to India and saw that, I went to Detroit and nearly got shot. And you know you try to keep up with cool stories. My friends wife (the publisher) goes “man you remember everything, you have to do a book”. I’m like come on it’s not my job I don’t know how to do things like that.
That’s it. Dinner finishes. Everyone goes home. She calls me a week after and she says “I’ve had a publishing meeting, I came with the idea, I know Laurent Garnier, I think he’s got great stories, he should do a book, what do you think? And everyone said go for it.”
She calls me and says “everyone is waiting for you now.” You still don’t want to do the book??!!! I’m like you bitch!! (laughs) so I said to her listen, give me two or three days and let me think about it because I don’t want to do something stupid. I ring Eric, my all time favorite partner and we think, come back to her and say alright. We do a book but we do the whole story. We go to belgium, we go to Detroit, we go everywhere. We focus on the whole story, not just focusing on me but focus on what happened everywhere. Try tell the story from the inside without too much names, something not too complicated. Let’s do something simple.
She’s like yeah, very happy with that. It took us two years to write and released it in 2003. Which was the first copy of the book. Then 10 years after that, I ring the journalist that we worked with say say listen it’s been 10 years. A lot labels have closed. Digital has become the king of the castle. Now we are playing on USB sticks. Festivals have changed a lot. Berlin has become the place to go clubbing. England has changed. A lot of things have changed so let’s do another chapter. We went back for a year and wrote 6 chapters. We re released the book in france and in England which covered 25 years.
What is your relationship with Sonar and what is your role here this year?
I’ve been here since the first Sonar. Out of 23 I must have done 18. We have become very close friends. For me Sonar as an artist is a festival where I come and discover new artists because there is so much stuff you have never discovered before. For us it’s a playground. Its great, I really like Sonar. As well as being an artist and always wanting to try do different things there. They have always accepted my projects, even the stupidest craziest ones.
One year I said I would love to play reggae music all night. If we bill it as Laurent Garnier they are not going to accept it so let’s find a stupid name like “DJ Jamon” so even stupid things like that. We’ve done a lot together. Cinema mixes and really crazy stuff. And Sonar has always been there to think forward and try to do different things. They try do something different for the crowd and not the same story over and over. This is what I like about Sonar.
They are about thinking forward and thinking about tomorrow. They push you as an artist outside of your boundaries. I like to be pushed. If you always do the same thing, after a few years it’s boring for the crowd and it’s boring for you. So Sonar is there to trying to push you and say “well you’ve done that last year. What can you do different next year.”
Last year I did the closing of the central stage, you know the one outside, and when I finished I said to them I’m feeling frustrated here. “Why?” because I’ve only played for an hour and twenty minutes. It’s not enough records I need to play more. “OK what do you mean?” Next year I think we should go back to where we come from, the clubbing thing. So let’s do 7 hours I take the room, the room is completely empty and I build it from there. Lets try to bring people in the room and make sure they don’t leave. You know we take them on a journey. “Can we do that?” And I think yeah if we create a club environment somewhere somehow lets do it. They call me a month after and said “done”. Next year you’ve got 7 hours, I’m like yeah cool. So it’s an experience. We’ll see.