'Apart from music my biggest love has always been film'
Interview Marisa Brickman
Photography Julia Soler
Even though I lived in New York from 2000 to 2005 right down the street from Wolf + Lamb HQ, I never actually made it to one of their parties. I always meant to, but usually by the time I was rolling home at 7 a.m., the last thing on my mind was more partying. Those infamous nights are still going, and in the last year, Wolf + Lamb are proving to be one of the most interesting new dance music labels around. The music they’ve been releasing of late is slightly off-kilter, warm and melodic. It’s hard to describe the label as a whole, but the music spans several electronic genres and you’re likely to find vocals over a minimal track, near-tribal beats or something that sounds a bit like techno meets fucked up R&B. Wolf + Lamb certainly stand apart from the more traditional-sounding, deep soulful house music released on NYC’s Underground Quality.
One of Wolf + Lamb’s rising stars is undoubtedly Nicolas Jaar, a 19-year-old New Yorker who produces and sings (but doesn’t DJ). His two standout tracks are the beautifully lush “Time for Us” and the rhythmic Latin-inspired “Mi Mujer”. The Time for U EP is out now and if you haven’t heard it, we highly suggest you go get yourself a copy. These tunes are ripe for spring.
With artists like Matias Aguayo proliferating the whole South American-influenced, textured electronic music, there are a lot of artists playing in a similar style, but Nicolas Jaar is one of the best. His music is punctuated with new sounds and soulful organic instrumentation, created with sophistication seemingly beyond his years.
I got the chance to catch up with Nico just after he finished his mid-term college exams. He was on break from school (Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island), back at his parent’s home in SoHo, New York. During the formative college years, before you’ve been let loose on the big bad world, you have an insatiable desire to question, to explore and to create. The fervor with which projects are approached is untainted. Nicolas Jaar epitomizes this sentiment and I found his intelligence, his innocence and naivety completely refreshing and inspiring.
Where are you from exactly?
My parents made me in New York and I lived with them until the age of two, here. Then we went all together to Berlin for a year because my dad had some form of residency there. Then my parents separated and I left with my mother to Chile. I lived in Chile just with my mother for six or seven years.
Then what happened after?
Then my parents got back together, so it’s a really happy, happy ending. Or a happy beginning, I don’t know. They got back together and so I came back to New York, not speaking English. I’ve been living in New York since I was eight or nine years old.
When you came back to New York, you had to re-learn English?
Actually I just found a video of me speaking in English when I was teeny tiny. Its so weird for me because in my mind I never spoke English until I was nine when I was reading Harry Potter and trying to understand what the hell was going on.
It came back naturally though.
Yeah, very weird.
Were your first memories of electronic music from Chile?
In Chile, the only musical memories I have are listening to Queen.
Kids love Queen!
(Laughs) It’s so weird. I left Chile when I was eight or nine, but I would still go back every year for Christmas. What happened was that I was always into trip-hop and stuff out of my own doing. I always started listening to new music. I was into that kind of electronic music from a very young age, and then one very specific moment when I was at this photographer’s studio and he was playing electronic music. It was more club music than trip-hop or whatever and I was like, ‘Hey that’s cool.’ It was cheesy like everything else I’d heard before. And then he gave me a mixtape, which was the Tiga DJ-Kicks. I thought that was the most amazing thing ever when I was young. So for that Christmas, I got some gifts and one of them was this really important album by Ricardo Villalobos [Alcachofa, Playhouse, 1993]. I didn’t really think it was so amazing. More intriguing more than anything. After a while, I started realizing that’s what I wanted to do. It was a slow process. I’ve always wanted to create things and music seemed to be the right way. It wasn’t because of a certain artist or a certain genre that I actually started making it.
You start your musical process with the piano, right?
Yeah, exactly. I always improvise with a piano. I actually had two piano lessons but I didn’t like my teacher, so I was like, ‘This has to end.’ But the moment my piano teacher taught me the scales, music kind of got ruined for me. It was because there were these certain combinations that make things sound good. It wasn’t a mystery anymore. From that point on, the piano itself wasn’t enough. I wanted to explore texture and different sounds, and what you could do – politically, not politically, well, a little politically – what you can say through music, through melody and aesthetics.
Do you have a studio where you live in Providence?
I go to Brown and I live in a house, so I have a little studio there. What I make music with is mainly a computer that’s running Logic and a keyboard that I can do whatever I want with it, but the most important thing is the microphone. I really like to hit on things in general and make sounds out of it, sampling them and making them sound more melodic than they should. Stuff like that. The microphone’s a big deal. I hate when electronic music doesn’t have a texture. I don’t like it when it’s so clinical. I hate it when it’s clean.
Yeah, that’s not the type of stuff that I like. The more vinyl-like qualities it has, the more dust, the more scratchiness, the more I’m happy with the piece.
What are you studying at school?
I actually just picked my major so I’m pretty happy. I’m going to major in Comparative Literature, which is kind of like all of the things I really like at Brown, but all in one. It has a lot of intellectual history, it has philosophy, it has theory and we talk about books. Its not really literature. Comparative Literature is literature, but its more theory and comparing ideas and stuff.
Is there much of a scene in Providence?
I don’t know to what extent people know this, but I think the U.S. is maybe 10 years behind in contrast to Europe with electronic music. Its really crazy, if you want to throw a party where you play electronic music, it has all these – it’s supposed to have – all these connotations like ‘It’s a rave!’ People don’t get that. They get me playing slow stuff, which is almost rap. When you’re not sticking to what the formula is, it’s hard to get a big crowd of people that are interested.
Electronic music hasn’t really taken off anywhere besides some of the bigger U.S. cities, and New York is obviously its own thing.
It’s a big scene, and there are a lot of people and a lot of different shades.
What’s your affiliation with Wolf + Lamb?
They’re really my home base. I lived at the Marcy all of last summer actually. When I was 17, I sent them a track and then I got signed. I started understanding the good and the bad side of club music through them. My whole electronic music education is really through Gadi and Zev. I would make music, but I wouldn’t make the music I make, and I wouldn’t have that range. I wouldn’t make dancing music if it weren’t for them. It’s the most important tie I have to anything else.
Each issue we’ve started doing a genre feature from a specific city. Last issue we did UK reggae. This time we’re doing a feature on new New York house. The writer we commissioned chose to focus on all of the Underground Quality stuff like Jus-Ed, Levon Vincent, Fred P and DJ Qu. He said that scene is a separate scene from Wolf + Lamb.
Well it’s definitely different people. I would say undoubtedly no matter what that for seven years, Wolf + Lamb was totally underground. I guess people think they’re not underground anymore. Now, with the resurgence and interest in Wolf + Lamb, they’ve become better known around the globe. When I started hanging out with them we were all listening to minimal techno and making it. I think it’s the perception of Wolf + Lamb that’s changed. But the Marcy and the vibe has always been the same.
Do you think the people and the music overlap? Like, are the same people going to Wolf + Lamb parties the same people going to the Underground Quality parties?
Yeah, for sure.
From friends who live in New York now, I’ve been told that the dance music scene’s been reinvigorated with people from Europe and South America. It was like that back in the early ’00s when places like Centro-Fly were really happening. I think a lot of foreigners had to move away after 9/11, and recently they’ve all started moving back.
It’s definitely international. The past year or so has been quite different for underground house. There is definitely a lot going on in New York right now.
You’re a sophomore, so still two years of school left. Have you thought about what you want to do when you graduate? Do you want to make a career out of music?
I really like music. I like all types of music. I don’t like only club music. The thing that I love about dance music is that when you play live you change the way people dance. People dance according to what you’re playing. That kind of interactive quality to dance music is really important. But I like other types of music. I would love to have more experimental projects and have the medium and the way to actually present those. Apart from music my biggest love has always been film. I’m always having little ideas for films and filming things. When I go on tour, I’m going to be filming the whole tour with this little, very unassuming but very good HD camera. I’m hoping to make films actually when I get out. For now the music stuff is really fun. A combination of music and film would be my dream.
When are you touring?
Kind of the whole summer. I’m going to have five dates in May and then all of June starting from after Mutek [Montreal’s electronic music festival]. Three quarters of June are going to be spent touring, then I’m going to have a little break in Italy with my parents and my girlfriend, and then I’m resuming the tour the last two weeks in July and the first week in August. It’s a lot of places.
Are they all new places?
Yeah, I’m filming this because I’ve never really gone touring. I’ve never really played anywhere in Europe with people actually knowing who I am, and so its going to be exciting. The main thing I’ve done is play live. I just played live in the U.S.
What do you do when you play live?
It’s very important I play live. I never DJ. I’m thinking about learning, but not yet. When I play live I have my computer and a lot of knobs that control various things. And usually if I’m feeling up for it, which I usually am, but sometimes I’m not, I have a microphone and I sing. I have a keyboard and I play the piano and stuff. When I’m in New York, I try to get some of my friends to play with me; I have a saxophone player who is really brilliant, some percussionists, guitar players – I’m not really interested in the whole techno thing really. I really try to do a hybrid of a musical experience and a dance experience and a club experience and a concert. I try to put that all together.
How will you do that when you’re on the road and when you’re touring?
(Laughs) That’s the main problem. If it were up to me, I’d be playing tiny afterparties with 30 people that really want to listen to music and not get fucked up and dance. But you have to deal with whatever. Usually singing, it’s a big thing. Not everyone sings. I don’t particularly sing well. I want to push it and make it into more of an experience. And I guess playing the keyboard – anything that has some physicality. Just a computer and a person behind it just does not – I don’t know, it’s just so stupid. It’s crazy that we’ve gotten to the point where that’s what a musical experience is. Anything that has more physicality than just a computer is a step forward.
Are you interested in promoting yourself and trying to sell records?
I really hate that stuff. The main thing about this is that I like music and all of that, but it’s not really want I want to do in the end. I really like doing it and I want to make music my whole life and I want to play my whole life. But my dream was never, ‘Oh, I want to be a musician,’ or ‘Oh, I want to be famous,’ or this or that. It’s not about that. It’s really about promoting. If you like it you like it. I actually just saw this movie, We Live in Public [Interloper Films, 1999]. Have you seen it?
No, but it sounds good.
It’s the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. It’s basically about the digital age. I felt so stupid because the music I make is totally part of this digital age. It’s made me sick of Facebook, of E-mail, of this and that. It made me sick of everything. You have to watch the movie to understand what I’m talking about.
Even with ’SUP, we’re forced to use all of these digital channels to promote ourselves. I know that for other magazine’s websites over half the traffic comes from incoming links from Twitter and Facebook. It’s not really enough to just hope that people discover you. We’re forced to use all these channels, and it’s just more shit to worry about.
Right, and the thing about it is – I can’t help bring this into the equation – but all this promoting stuff and the more digital everything gets, the more theoretical it gets. As digital gets more abstract, it’s the same type of abstraction that leads us to have an economic crisis or leads capitalism to do crazy things all over the world. It’s all so connected. I had a tiny crisis a couple of months ago when I realized that the type of music I make – it’s digital, it’s made with computers and everyone can share it. There’s something beautiful about it because it’s kind of like a community but at the same time, it’s completely an instrument of all of these things that are slowly doing a lot of harm.
That’s where your desire to keep it more organic comes from.
Exactly. If someone were to give me $10,000, I would create my own space and have people over and everything inside that place would be so you could touch it and it would make sounds and everything would be absolutely organic and physical. The way things are going is the complete opposite and it’s a little scary, you know?
(Laughs) Don’t get too freaked out man! Speaking of organic, are you vegan like the other Wolf + Lamb dudes?
(Laughs) No, I’m not a vegan. I eat meat. Who’s vegan?
Zev’s vegan, but I think he’s kind of a cheater vegan. I had a brunch party and he did eat some dairy, but I know he’s really healthy anyway.
Gadi is definitely not a vegan.
I sent a few of my girlfriends some of the photos from your shoot, and they were all like ‘Omigod. Nicolas Jaar is so hot!’
Oh, please. Omigod.
You’re the techno teen heartthrob.
(Laughs) No, that is completely what I’m against.