Laurent Garnier: “Techno is the Last Revolution of the 20th Century”
Laurent Garnier: “Techno is the Last Revolution of the 20th Century”June 28, 2023
Reading interviews with Laurent Garnier, you get the impression that he’s a warm, generous, funny and fascinating person to chat with. And all of this is absolutely true. The French techno and house legend — a title he resolutely disputes — generously gave me two hours of his time, in an inspiring, energizing conversation that went deep into his new music, falling out of and back in love with Techno, finding his creative flow, Daft Punk, and his positive outlook on the state of techno today.
On May 26th, he blessed us with his seventh studio album — his first solo LP in eight years — 33 Tours Et Puis S’en Vont. It’s a driving club-oriented journey consisting of 10 stellar, intricate Laurent Garnier techno tracks. Its title translates to “33 turns and go” which is a nod to a French nursery rhyme, “Les Petites Marionnettes,” vinyl records, and fairground rides. His dad worked at fairgrounds until he was around ten years old, so he spent a lot of time at them as a kid. It was there that he first encountered and became fascinated by dance music.
While Garnier’s fans may have been patiently waiting for him to release a techno album, it was not something he was ever planning on doing. And he didn’t even realize he was making one at first, it came together as he was working on it. “I didn’t work on an album,” he explains over Zoom from his studio, surrounded by thousands of vinyl records.
“The funny thing is, I always said making a full-on techno album is a silly thing. And then I thought, you know what, I’m gonna do a full-on techno album because this is my mood at the moment. And I carried on making a few tracks and I decided to release a couple of singles. Then I had this idea of doing a big box set with different formats. It all came together along the way when I was making music. At the beginning, I had no clear idea,” he explains.
Working on the music actually provided him a return to techno, which he turned his back on for the first time ever during the pandemic. “When COVID arrived, I completely rejected techno for the first time in my life. Because for me, techno has always been the music of the future, even though now it’s today’s music, it’s not as futuristic and advanced as what it was 30 years ago. But I always pictured the future with techno,” Garnier explains. “[I saw] no light at the end of the tunnel, because we didn’t have a clue how long this was going to last. I felt very uncomfortable listening to futuristic music in a time where our future was [uncertain],” the “Crispy Bacon” producer reflects. “At one point, I thought, ‘Should I stop now? COVID stopped me. If I come back, what is my task after all?'”
During his break from techno, he returned to the music of his youth in the ’70s, listening to more soul and psychedelic music, even some French music, which he’s never been a huge fan of. Serendipitously, the French psychedelic rock band Las Limiñianas, who he’d booked around seven years prior at Festival Yeah!, the pop and rock festival he throws in his hometown, reached out to finally work on a collab album they’d been talking about for years. It was the act of working on this project, the trippy, jingly 2021 album De Película, that helped him “switch on [his] machines again” and get back into the flow and joy of making music.
Afterwards, he kept making music — a lot of music — and soon he began to miss techno and DJing. So, he made tracks that he could play whenever he could return to the decks and get his “dose of love” from the dancefloor once again. “I had about 10 or 12 [new] tracks when I came back DJing. I still did not have the idea of making an album then. I started playing these tracks, which were not properly mixed or anything, just demos, and the feedback was kind of amazing,” he states. “Was it the tracks? Or was it the excitement of coming back on the dance floor? That I don’t know, but it felt good! After a few times, I thought, ‘I have some good tracks.’ And I carried on making music.”
The tracks that would become 33 Tours Et Puis S’en Vont also came together easily, and eventually, he decided to package it as an album — with different versions tailored to each format — when he was only two songs away from finishing it. He also decided to mix the album himself, something he hadn’t done before but decided to learn — that part took time.
“I’m super happy with it. I think it’s me, it’s who I am and who I am when I’m DJing. Each album has a very different story because [they’re] from a very different time in your life. When you look at the album I did 15 years ago, The Cloud Making Machine, it was a time where I got bored with techno; it was not a good time for this music in Paris back then,” the “Reviens la Nuit” producer says.
“And when you compare the two albums, you can’t compare them because they’re so different. But this [new] album is exactly what I wanted to do then. It’s an album, which was born from a frustration of not being able to DJ, a frustration from wanting so much to meet people and make people dance. Looking at it that way, I think it’s a very fresh album, because it’s just a very straightforward feeling. That’s why I like it so much. But if COVID hadn’t happened, I really think the album would be extremely different.”
“Au Clair de ta Lune” is a dark, driving and glittering track, a dreamy, moody trip through space, and one of his (and my) favorites on the album.
“It’s quite a sad track, it has a monster voice [that sounds like it’s] crying on it and a very melancholic vibe. It could almost be the full moon and you have wolves going crazy. It’s funny, because when I first played it for my wife, I said to her, ‘Don’t you think it would be nice to finish the set with it?’ And she was like, ‘It would be a bit difficult to leave people with this one,'” he shares. “It’s a very personal inner kind of trip. For me, it’s one of the strongest tracks of the album, but that’s very personal… I like Detroit music because it’s melancholic.”
The title of “Au Clair de ta Lune” is also an adaptation of a French nursery rhyme, a cheeky one, literally. (It translates to “the light of your moon.”) The title for the anthemic “Sake Stars Fever” came from a pandemic ritual he and his wife created, drinking sake and staring up at the bright stars in their quiet French town. Laurent Garnier loves silly song titles—one of his most famous, “Crispy Bacon,” was named as such because he thought it sounded like a sizzling pan, but he didn’t know the word sizzling in English yet. Jeff Mills liked the track but thought the name was stupid, which made Garnier like it more.
“You should make music seriously, but the rest should be fun,” the French techno hero states. “There’s nothing serious about what I do, but I take making music seriously because I want it to be good.”
“Multiple Tributes (to multiple people for multiple reasons)” is dedicated to “a lot of people,” the many house and techno producers from Detroit and beyond that have influenced Laurent Garnier and whose records fill his massive collection. This includes Ron Trent, DJ Deep, Chez Damier, Mike Banks, and Mortiz Von Oswald, whose Basic Channel moody dub techno sound influences the whole album. “It’s a tribute to all these people who basically nourished my record collection, who believed in me and let me play. It sounds a bit general, but it’s all these people I’ve been listening to for years that helped me become who I am,” he says.
While Laurent Garnier has made many notable contributions to house and techno, dating back to 1996 with “Crispy Bacon” and 2000 with “The Man With the Red Face,” if he tries to sit down and make a Chicago-style acid house track, for example, it won’t happen. He will end up shaping it into something completely different. At first, this frustrated him, but over the years, he’s learned to get out of his own way, and find flow with the way he works.
“The problem I have is, if I have a very clear idea of what I want to do, I never get the result… Somehow, somewhere there’s the Garnier side that comes in. [Laughs.] I could really want to make a Chicago track and at one point I’m gonna say, ‘Fuck it, I need strings!’ And it would bring me another twist to whatever I wanted to. So I never get to do what I really want to. Never. I’m always wanting to touch a lot of different things because I’m a very curious person… Before I was restricting myself to try to get somewhere. And the more I make music now, the more I kind of free myself and let myself go and, and do whatever the fuck that comes out.”
When working on a song, he usually starts by adding layer upon layer to a loop, until there’s too much. Then, he moves to arrangements and goes from there until he’s happy with what he has.
“I feel that now I have a way of making arrangements and using strings and stuff like that. I think I have kind of found my own personality in my music, and I’ve let it come out more now. Even though I hate repeating myself, I feel that there are ways that I do tracks that you can maybe feel the Garnier touch. I don’t know what that means,” he reflects. “But I think I do have my own personality now more in the tracks from the last eight or ten years than [in] the first 20 years. I think I’m getting more to the core of who I am when I make music.”
Here is Laurent Garnier, a hard-working, highly respected DJ and rather prolific producer a full 35 years into a very successful music career, explaining that it took time to come into his creative flow and he always paints outside the lines. I find this deeply inspiring, and mentioned that I think a lot about how, as a music journalist, I want to write about lots of different things, but I also want to find my voice and niche. His advice was also impactful.
“If you’re like me, you will have phases and there will be ones where people who follow you will not understand. But that doesn’t matter, you shouldn’t be upset with that. Because what you should follow is always your heart. And I always did,” he offers.
“I knew I was releasing something very different [with 2004’s The Cloud Making Machine], but I had to do it. And I’m glad I did because I wanted to start working with choreographers. It was a time where I was very into contemporary dance and it’s the album that brought me to work with some of the best choreographers in France. For you, for your career, don’t hesitate. Be curious. There will be phases, which is good. I think the worst thing is to keep repeating yourself.”
While a lot has changed since he started out, he only has positive things to say about the state of house and techno today. “I think it’s amazing because, like hip-hop, it’s a genre from the ’80s that it’s still relevant today to the kids. This is the first time since the last 100-odd years where a style of music has stayed so relevant for so long for the kids… Techno is the last revolution of the 20th century,” Garnier muses poetically.
“We’re very lucky because there is still an amazing amount of good music. The problem now is with the amount of music that is coming out, which is totally exponential. I think there’s 100,000 tracks released every day on Spotify [and other DSPs] or something like that. I spend five hours a day listening to new records, about 500 records a day, and I must listen to two percent of what’s coming in,” he continues.
“We know nothing about what’s going on in the techno world because even those 500 records are just a drop in the sea. It’s very, very difficult to have a proper view of what’s going on. We have to accept that. But within that, there’s a nice percentage of the young generation rewriting the story and moving it forward. I think what’s going on is wonderful. It’s very interesting. And there’s still amazing clubs to play at.”
As for the whole superstar DJ thing, it doesn’t really bother him — he sees what he does along with the fellow old-school DJs and the younger ones keeping the tradition alive — as separate from the massive mainstage fanfare.
“I feel that DJing nowadays has changed a hell of a lot. It was bound to change because of social media and the exponential amount of festivals that need DJs… The problem with social media nowadays is we’ve gotten to a point where the package has become more important than the content, which I find a bit sad. Luckily, we have a lot of amazing DJs — and young DJs — who really do the thing properly, who are digging for music and really have a personality to what they’re saying, music-wise,” he posits.
“Especially since COVID, I’ve seen a whole new generation, which seem to play faster, in a bigger place, with more people and a higher stage and all these very big dimensions. I don’t feel any relation to that world. But it’s not a problem because it’s a new way of seeing things. I accept it. And I don’t play places like that. I like playing in small clubs. I like playing long hours. At the end of the day, we don’t really do the same job.”
He accurately describes himself as “an old-school DJ,” and back in the ’90s, when he was a young, bright-eyed DJ himself, he put in the hours to famously help establish house music in Paris, after falling in love with it in the UK. He played residencies at gay clubs — where dance music always thrived — across Paris, and centered his mission of spreading the gospel house at the Rex Club. There, he brought in the music from the source with regular guests from Detroit, Chicago and New York, and later England and then Germany.
“I really believed the way to do it was to find a place and set something there and be consistent and be there every week. I knew the first week we would have 200 people and maybe only 50 would like it and then slowly it would build. And this is what we did,” he reflects.
“We grew as the French scene grew up. The Rex was a very important point in Paris. It was a pivotal time where things flourished. It really helped. But a residency is the only way to make something happen. And we had the label as well, F Comm . We were signing French and international artists. We were listening to demos, playing them on Thursday at the Rex Club. We were getting feedback from the crowd and then we were signing them on Friday. We made ‘Acid Eiffel‘ on a Wednesday, I played it on Thursday and Eric signed it on Friday… It was a total experimentation. It was a very good time but I’m not a nostalgic person, I’m not nostalgic for it, not at all.”
Pre-helmets Daft Punk were one of the French acts to play at Rex. Garnier thinks they helped the scene a lot, but feels that French touch / filter house was distinct from their scene. “They were touring a lot and inspired kids to make music,” he says. “We never felt implicated by French Touch. I think it helped [bring about] more producers and labels, but it didn’t make the clubbing scene bigger in France. There was already a rave scene.” Although, he adds the fun fact that he had jackets made that said “We give house a ‘French Touch’ before the term was coined by a journalist.
Another club that he felt that he saw as vital to the Paris underground was Concrete, which closed in 2019. He sees it as a great example of the next generation shaking things up to keep the underground thriving. “The younger kids are more about community than we were, which is great. I hope it’s going to develop more like that… 2000 was a really bad time for clubbing in Paris. But then in 2010 there was a new community who came and opened a new club in Paris that changed the whole thing. They completely made France amazing regarding clubbing,” he states.
“So, nowadays, if there’s things we don’t like in the music scene, it’s not gonna last forever. Because at one point, you will have some young kids who will look at it and see it like us… and they will do their thing and draw new people in.”
Back when he was a kid — literally, when he was only 10 — he had his bedroom set up like a disco and forced his mom and brother to come and dance to his music. All he wanted to do was DJ and make people dance. So, it’s safe to say he’s living the life of his dreams. “I’m surprised I’m in the position I’m in now. I’m very lucky. I have great fans, and a close relationship to them. Now I have young and old fans. Yes, I knew I’d be a DJ but had no idea I’d last so long,” he says humbly.
As for stepping back a bit from DJing, he’s not ready to completely leave the decks behind, as the thing he dreamed about as a child still gives him great joy. He just wants to stop and smell the roses with less shows and more time in each city. After taking off a few months this year for health reasons, he’ll return to a regular tour schedule in 2024. After that, as the beloved DJ approaches 59, he’ll do things at a more mellow pace, with more time in each city and eight to 10 weekends behind the decks.
“I want to be able to play perhaps two gigs in the same city and do one night a Laurent Garnier set where I play house and techno and then the day after, I’ll play a disco set or drum and bass set mixed with hip-hop, something a bit different, which I love doing. [I want to] use my record collection and give a bit more to the people who haven’t seen me for a while,” he explains.
“I want to do things by train, I want to be able to have dinner with the promoters and be more social… I will carry on doing what I absolutely love. But I don’t need to do it live. I’m only doing it for pleasure and I want to carry on having pleasure. I really want to slow down and spend more time with my wife and go on holiday and just take it easy. I’m at a point where I’m allowed to,” he says with a chuckle.
While the term legend gets thrown around a lot, it doesn’t feel misplaced in Laurent Garnier’s presence. He disagrees. “What does that mean?” he asked with a hearty laugh when asked how he reacts to people calling him legendary.
“Carl Cox and Jeff Mills are legendary. Mad Mike [Banks] and all these guys from Detroit are legendary because they made the music that we play. I’m only a DJ. I know some people like what I do and, and I know a lot of DJs like me as a DJ, which is funny, but it’s nice to be the DJ’s DJ. It’s an amazing thing. But for me, the legendary guys are the guys who put the bricks in the house. I didn’t put any bricks in the house. I made music. I made some tracks which were quite successful and stuff, but I didn’t invent the thing,” he continues.
“I would like to be remembered as somebody who helped the scene as much as I could and really helped it develop and to be where it is now… If I have influenced some people who are now making music or DJing, that’s absolutely wonderful. I’m super happy.”
The Laurent Garnier album Tours Et Puis S’en Vont is out now via COD3 QR. Buy it on Beatport.
Ana Monroy Yglesias is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City. Find her on Twitter.