Cover Story: Rodriguez Jr.
Cover Story: Rodriguez Jr.May 16, 2023
A full seven minutes before the scheduled time, Beatportal gets an email to say that Rodriguez Jr. has joined our Zoom meeting. This is unheard of in dance music, especially for a Frenchman who recognises his nation’s often laissez-faire attitude to timekeeping when we share our shock. What’s more, it’s only 9:23 am where he now lives in Miami.
“Well, we have a toddler in the house,” he smiles, “so we’re up whether we like it or not!” The now three-year-old arrived during Covid and started off a chain reaction that involved Olivier Mateu and his life and creative partner Liset Alea leaving Paris to move across the Atlantic.
Mateu is sitting in his home studio with a bank of keyboards up the wall behind him and lush greenery outside the window. He wears a warm smile, rugged stubble and often slicks back his mid-length silvery hair as he talks about how life in Miami has changed him, and his wardrobe: when we ask if he would have worn the same bright floral shirt – and quite so liberally unbuttoned – back in Paris, he laughs. “Well, it reflects my mood, and my mood here is as bright as the sun.”
He is keen to point out that he wasn’t escaping anything in Paris, but felt “caught. French people are constantly complaining and I just wanted to be free and fly around and discover the world with my wife and son. But we have a saying, ‘Cracher dans la soupe,’ which means don’t spit in the soup (the French version of ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’), so I don’t want to talk shit about France because I still love it.”
That said, the move has brought with it the sense of freedom the mid-40-year-old craved. Initially, it was literal freedom – pandemic lockdowns in Paris were strict and Olivier and Liset were restricted from performing. That took a toll, and their perception of the city changed as a result. “Paris suddenly seemed to be very dirty, high pressure and expensive,” says Mateu. Add in the baby and the pair figured life no longer worked in the city. “I’m very sensitive to signs,” he says, leaning into the screen. “We just had this feeling that it was the right time. Something had changed. It was a big effort to pack everything into containers and move to America but, you know, no pain no game.”
Privately, Mateu had been dreaming of returning to live by the water for a while. He grew up in Montpellier, a city in the South of France near the Mediterranean. He often read Ernest Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea, so he feels the ocean is a part of him. “It keeps me grounded and gives me balance,” he says. “I have a jet-ski at the front of my house, so I go out into the bay every morning. I go play with the dolphins, and it’s such an important ingredient in my life. When I’m away touring for a month, I soon get sick and need to get back to this horizon.”
Right now he is in as good a place as any, with real peace of mind and away from the noise of living in a big city. Of course, that is shown in his music. He says he is feeling as creative as ever and free to go where he wants to go. “I’ve always felt a bit apart from what is going on in the scene. Back when I first started in the South of France in the late 90s, everyone was into banging, tribal techno and I was more into the Detroit sound and melodic side of things. I like having my own niche, it’s where I feel comfortable.”
Never has that niche been more singular than now with the arrival of his new album, Feathers & Bones. It is a 10-track opus with Mateu’s signature pristine synth work defining each track. It brings real clarity and elegance to the power of his smooth grooves and heightens the impact of the album’s many different emotions. Drill down into each track and you will find complex layers that he has poured over for endless hours both back in Paris and then in the new home studio in Miami, but never do those details detract from the overall picture.
There is real potential for crossover success on this album, from the plaintive piano chords and soft shakers of the title track to the old-school breakbeat menace of “Turn The Light On (feat. Stereo MCs)” via the taught basslines and angelic vocals from Liset Alea on “Amplify“: these sophisticated and meticulously crafted sounds will work as well on a sun-kissed dance floor as they will drifting from a radio, and that was in part Mateu’s intention.
We put it to the self-confessed studio nerd that his sounds are not very French when compared to the tobacco-stained techno scuzz of Ivan Smagghe, say, or the raw machine funk of Daft Punk and sleazy electro of labels like Ed Banger. “A lot of people actually think I’m German because I have such an obsession with the details,” he laughs. “But the melody in my music has definitely got a French side, maybe it’s the romantic aspect. But even when I make something distorted, I like to be in control. I like to do something that I will be proud of in 10 years. And, you know, it’s like painting, I’m obsessed with work by Jackson Pollock that looks and feels like it’s a mess, but it’s not. It’s totally controlled. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
An unlikely influence on the record was a Spotify playlist, Lullaby Renditions of Radiohead. “I became obsessed with it, and I still listen to it a lot. It’s great to hear the music played with music boxes and I channeled some of that in the first two takes of the album, and of course, having a toddler taught me a lot. I bring him into the studio, he plays with the modular synths with such innocence. He isn’t thinking about what he’s doing, and it sounds great sometimes. There is so much freedom and I have tried to get into that same mindset, to connect with my inner child.”
The clean lines of Mateu’s music can in fact be traced back to his own childhood. Aged seven or eight, he heard his first electronic music in the form of Jean-Michel Jarre. “He’s our French electronic music hero and when you listen to his albums Oxygene or Equinoxe, they are extremely polished even though they were made on [early magnetic-tape sound recording technology] eight tracks. To get that sound requires a level of sophistication that is absolutely insane and that for sure affected how I create music.”
Being a teenager in Montpellier in the ’90s opened Mateu’s ears further. The culturally rich city has a vast student population so has always welcomed some of the world’s most influential artists. “I went to my first rave in 1995 and I remember seeing Underworld live and being like, what the heck is this? They had walls of synths, stacks of machines and gear, and from that moment on I knew what I wanted to do.” Further digging turned him on to the likes of Warp Records, LFO and Boards of Canada, the pure melodies of which can be heard referenced in Mateu’s new album.
Young Olivier’s parents were happy to support him back then so as well as letting him experiment on an old Atari and a cracked copy of Cubase, they bought him a Roland JD 800 synthesiser which he still has on the rack behind him. “I’m very lucky because this is how I learned programming and producing, you know. But it was horrific,” he laughs, “Hard work but worth it, trying to replicate the Warp sounds, Detroit styles, you know, just by copying things.”
Although he went on to study Mathematics (“I liked maths but it didn’t like me, so I had to stop”) music was always Mateu’s main focus. He released his first record in 1998 as one-half of The Youngsters alongside the older Gilles Escoffier. They hooked up after Mateu took some music he had made into Escoffier’s Montpellier record shop. They soon embarked on a number of Detroit techno-influenced EPs for French labels G-Funk and Teknic, and then signed to Laurent Garnier‘s legendary F-Communication label in 2001. “It was a pivotal moment in my career because, overnight, I was suddenly touring the world and travelling with Laurent, playing in Manchester, London, Russia, all over. I was 23 years old, it was insane, but I learned so much.”
The Youngsters became a core part of the new wave of French techno. They were prolific, too, releasing 24 EPs and two albums in a decade. Back then, Mateu still DJed on occasion, whereas these days he only does it at home. He most often played live with “a mixer, a big screen, the tower and my massive Pentium computer.” He is now one of the scene’s most revered live acts, but the memory of carting about all that huge retro gear tickles him. “It was a lot of work. It still is in other ways with the amount of preparation you have to do, because it’s a different challenge to DJing. When you face a crowd with only your own music, you don’t have that many options if they don’t like it. You can’t you can take a radical decision and start playing disco for instance. That’s impossible.”
He might never have found himself in this position had The Youngsters not broken up. But the transition from that project to becoming Rodriguez Jr. was “a challenging time.” F Comms stopped releasing music in around 2008, so Mateu went two years without performing. “From one day to the other, I didn’t exist anymore. No bookings. It taught me a lot about the reality of the music scene. If you don’t release music, if you’re not on stage, you don’t exist anymore. You don’t have friends anymore. It was very tough, very difficult, but I’ve learned how to protect myself from the reality of the music scene.”
As music was the only thing he knew, and with a newborn daughter to look after back then, Mateu had to make something happen. He had to come up with his own music, and he did. Within months he was making new grooves under the Rodriguez Jr. alias, and by 2010 he’d formed relationships with the Mobilee label and its founder Anja Schneider that remain strong to this day.
In fact, Feathers & Bones is his fourth album, but his first not to come on that home label. His last was Blisss in 2020, a lush soundscape inspired by the literary atmospheres of Modiano and the monochromatic paintings of Pierre Soulages. Mobilee has also been home to some of his most successful singles such as 2017’s sublime and serene “Radian” and 2020’s spine-tingling “What Is Real.”
For reasons of creative control, Feathers & Bones now comes on his own new label of the same name. It’s a decision that has afforded him the chance to broaden his horizons and work with the likes of Stereo MC’s for the first time. The idea came to Mateu while making the breakbeat tune ‘Turn On The Lights’ on an old sampler with floppy disc drives.
“It just made sense to contact them. They made the music I was listening to back in the 90s, which is what inspired this track, and they delivered such strong vocals with a great message as soon as I sent them the instrumental.” On the album collab with his partner Liset Alea – the Cuban born vocalist who has toured the world with Nouvelle Vague and Terence Trent D’arby – Mateu says they “come naturally. She will hear something from another part of the house and will come in and know what to sing. It’s so organic.”
Working with final guest Giorgia Angiuli had been on Mateu’s mind for a while. “We share an approach to making music, it’s not experimental, it’s not commercial, but it’s trying to do something that is exciting and engaging but also new. Like what David Bowie and Bjork would do back in the day – very challenging music, but that was also pop, you know.”
As of yet, the affable Frenchman is unsure how the album will translate to the live area. That aspect wasn’t in mind during the writing stages because of his pursuit for “total freedom”, so he expects he will edit and remix the tracks so fans will hear totally different versions up on stage.
But translate it will: whenever he is not working on music, Mateu is tending to his machines, cleaning them, resoldering them, removing dust from the keys, tidying up cables, and re-patching his modular synths.
“They are more than just instruments, they are my friends,” he says. “An extension of myself. I have been working with some of them for 30 years. When you know them inside out, you can really push them to their limits.”
Feathers & Bones sure is a testament to that.
Rodriguez Jr.’s album Feathers & Bones drops on May 26th. Buy it on Beatport.
Kristan J Caryl is a freelance journalist living in Leeds. Find him on Twitter.