Jean-Michel Jarre comes from Lyon, like the Lumière brothers. Much like them, he wanted to venture into unexplored territory. At the age of 13 he came across an old tape recorder of his father’s (the composer Maurice Jarre), and experimented with playing guitar recordings backwards. It was the start of the sixties and, for him, rock was already an old way of making music. Seeing him manipulate sounds like this, his father encouraged him to visit the ‘Group de Recherches Musicales’ (GRM), a laboratory of musique concrète managed by Pierre Schaeffer who became an inspiring mentor for Jean-Michel Jarre. ‘Today he’d be an American, a superstar. In France he was completely ignored. But it was he who invented everything: sampling, the locked groove (which came about by mistake with a scratched record), the loop, reverse sound, varispeed mode… Most of all he conceptualised the idea that music isn’t made of notes but of sounds. You can make music by manipulating sounds. Today, every DJ is a sound designer, consciously or not, and that comes from Schaeffer.’
Inspired by his visit, Jarre passed the difficult entrance exam at the GRM (just 4 places for 200 candidates!) and discovered modular synthesizers, which he would go on to use over the following twenty years across all his albums: his beloved ARP 2600, samplers, drum machines and Revox tape recorders, which he would use to create delay effects. This was more or less the recipe for Oxygène in 1976, which allowed a whole generation to discover the sound of the synthesizer. The album wasn't just successful in France: it sold 1.8 million copies on home turf but a further 15 million copies worldwide. Without knowing it, Jarre had just won his place next to Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream among other pioneers, whetting future producers’ appetites for electronic music, from Moby and Jeff Mills to Air and Carl Cox.
And yet, nobody wanted to release the record. 'I was completely marginalised. Electronic music didn’t exist back then, so I was just seen as a nutjob. Tangerine Dream and also Kraftwerk were just starting out around that point. The first time I heard Autobahn, I thought that it was an American group singing in German, and I found that so cool. I thought that it was a Californian thing, a bit like the Beach Boys. I discovered it when it first came out, in 1974. At that time, I was in the middle of preparing Oxygène whilst they were just gaining recognition in Germany'.
Having worked with Disque Motors before as a songwriter, Francis Dreyfus’ label agreed to sign him, following the advice of the boss’ wife, Hélène Dreyfus. 'When I did Oxygène, you mustn’t forget that it was turned down everywhere. People would say "It makes no sense, there’s no singer or drummer. And besides, he’s French." That’s what they’d say in English-speaking countries. The aim was to break out of the shackles of experimental contemporary music and move towards pop or rock. I wanted to bridge the gap between the popular and the purely intellectual.” Upon its release, Oxygène part 4 was playing on every radio station, spreading the French producers’ romantic electro and offering an alternative to Kraftwerk’s cold and industrial aspect.
The other way in which Oxygène was revolutionary was its production. Jarre embraced the concept of homemade music and demonstrated that home studios are not synonymous with amateurism. 'People thought I was a freak when they saw me making music at home. If you made music professionally, you had a studio with a sound engineer (who was the king) behind a window and you’re on the other side, the victim of the guy who runs everything. It wasn’t at all how I wanted to work. And today it’s become the most popular way of working.'
After Oxygène, another door opened for Jean-Michel Jarre. Dreyfus set up his new label Disques Dreyfus around his new star, who was shining even more brightly after the release of Equinoxe in December 1978, which was almost as successful as the previous one, carried by the hypnotic track 'Equinoxe, Part 4'. But the best was yet to come. Seven months later, on 14th July 1979, he organised a free surprise concert at Place de la Concorde, without any promotion apart from a few messages on the radio station Europe 1. A million people waited in front of the stage that evening for a performance that would go down in history, or at least in the Guinness Book of World Records. “When I got up on stage with the stage manager and we saw all the dark spots on the Champs-Elysées we thought it was a trick of the light. We couldn’t believe it was the crowd! It took me a year to get over it. I was so shocked to see that many people. It all came from an idea I’d had (which came a little before the rave scene took off) to play music in free places, to hijack somewhere for a day or a night. And this idea came at a time when people wanted to feel less controlled.”
After that, Jean-Michel Jarre made huge concerts his speciality: 800,000 people on 5th October 1986 in Lyon, 2.5 million in La Défense on Bastille Day in 1990, and 3.5 million (the record) in Moscow’s Red Square in September 1997. Among other somewhat megalomaniacal moments, there was the concert in front of the Pyramids of Giza on 31st December 1999 and two others at the Acropolis in Athens in 2001. Not to mention the concert in Houston, 5th April 1986, for the album Rendez-vous, three months after the space shuttle Challenger disaster. On board was astronaut and saxophonist Ronald Erwin McNair, who was going to play a solo during the track Last Rendez-Vous for what was set to be the first musical piece professionally recorded in space. As a tribute, the track was renamed 'Ron’s Piece'.
Did Jarre go too far? Even he admits to having let himself be carried away by the machine. 'With success, we often fall into excess. That’s what happened in the eighties: we were touring with 40 trucks and it became a delirium where you could no longer control everything. I was a victim of that.' But that didn’t stop him from continuing to perform and create, like when he secretly went to Moscow to meet with the American whistleblower Edward Snowden. Together they composed the track 'Exit', released in 2016, accompanied by a music video that warned about mass surveillance. Jarre had always been an activist. The album cover of Oxygène – a skull encased in a scorched earth – was testament to his ecological awareness even as early as the 70s. In 2017, he held a concert by the Dead Sea to warn of the gradual disappearance of the area. And since 2014, when he became president of CISAC (the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers), Jarre has been fighting against GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) for fairer payments to musicians online.
His role as a spokesman is undisputable, thanks to the respect that he’s earned from his peers, both young and old. As for those who thought his career was over, JMJ returned in 2015 with his brilliant album Electronica 1: The Time Machine. He surrounded himself with the biggest names in the electronic music scene, all of whom accepted without hesitation, forming a varied cast that reflects his breadth: trance superstar Armin van Buuren, the iconic 3D from Massive Attack, the troublemaker Moby, veterans such as John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream (for the last track ever composed by Edgar Froese, the founder of the group, before his death), younger artists such as Gesaffelstein, M83, Boys Noize and Air and even Pete Townshend from The Who! And as Jarre always goes against the current, in an era where music relies heavily on email communication, he decided to meet them all in the flesh. 'Each time, I would prepare a piece with the artist in mind. And in doing so, I realized that I had a vision for Massive Attack, just as I had one for Gesaffelstein. For me, Gesaffelstein is a kind of dark, gothic techno... So I made a track with him in mind. I did things their way and they did things my way, it was pretty funny.'
Eight years after his album Téo & Téa (which wasn’t very successful), Planet Jarre has allowed Jarre to realise that his aura is still intact and very much relevant: 'We always need to reassure ourselves, but not necessarily at that level. Mostly in relation to yourself. The image we convey depends so much on presence, success… You’re out one day and in the next. And finally, you just don’t care, it doesn’t matter. You go your own way. When you reach a kind of humility, people recognise it. And it's true that there's a whole Anglophone scene that considers me a bit like a godfather to electronic music. It makes me laugh. I don't see myself like that. But over time... As we used to say with Air, "there’s oxygen in the air"'...
And in 2022, Jarre has come full circle with Oxymore, his 22nd album with Sony - a record conceived in 3D spatialised audio. The credits are shared with Pierre Henry, the French pioneer of musique concrète, who is known for his avant-garde hit ‘Psyché Rock’. Henry, like Jarre, had a history with Pierre Schaeffer, the founder of GRM. A collaboration between the two had already been suggested in 2015 for the album Electronica, but Pierre Henry’s faltering health and subsequent death in 2017 meant that the project never came to fruition. Nevertheless, Henry left a series of sounds to Jean-Michel Jarre, which he used to create Oxymore - a tribute to the late composer, whose signature sound becomes apparent right from the first track. It’s a Jarre who sounds like he’s having more fun than ever before.
Translated by Abi Church.
(Citations: interview by Smaël Bouaici in Trax Magazine, October 2015)