St. Germain On New Album, Grego Masks, South African Electronic Music [Interview]
2015 has been a year of comebacks. Acts like New Order, The Libertines, Sleater-Kinney and Dr. Dre all returned to music for the first time in a decade or more and have only helped cement their legacy as pioneering acts within their respective genres. The closing stages of 2015 sees one more name add his name of esteemed luminaries, French producer, live musician Ludovic Navarre, better known to the world as St. Germain.
He burst onto the scene exactly twenty years ago with the album Boulevard that established a groundbreaking coupling of electronic music and jazz. It would go on sell over 1 million copies worldwide. His 2000 followup Tourist, continued that celebrated formula to even greater success, netting him nearly 4 million albums sold.
Now Navarre is back after an extended hiatus from touring and recording to release a brand new album, St. Germain that completely flips the script on what he has been doing in the past. This new album, which he started in 2006, but took years to record and complete the mix. As he told us, the album "was something that was very hard to do." He ripped up his past script of jazz and electronic music, in favor of a stronger Malian influence, mixed with the softer, ambient and textured electronic sounds he is known for.
We had a chance to catch up with the Ludovic during a brief visit to New York City to discuss the new album and why it took so long to do another one. He also discusses the current state of electronic music, his mask collaboration with Gregos and plans for an upcoming tour in North America.
MT: Why was making St. German so hard to do?
SG: It's actually taken me quite some time to do it. What I started to do after I finished touring with Tourist was to work again in music and I found basically what I was doing was putting out a Tourist 2, which is something that I didn't really want to do. I didn't want to repeat myself and work in the same way. The compositions were similar, the musicians were the same, so I decided that I really wanted to depart in a different direction because I wanted something that I could really be proud of.
I wanted to do something that didn't come too easy and a little more complicated. I always had this desire to mix African music in with my music and so I thought that perhaps this was a good time to be able to start working in that direction. I started out in Nigeria and I knew a little bit about Nigerian music but I was there for a while and I did some work, some mixing, but it wasn't really working for me. From Nigeria I moved on to Ghana and I didn't really know anything about music in Ghana. It was something that was completely new for me and I couldn't really find the musicians to work with and so, once again, it was something that I put aside because it wasn't working for me.
Then I moved on to Mali and I already knew something about Malian music, but when I was there I was able to deepen my knowledge of it, to learn more about the musicians and I realized this was something that I wanted to focus on. It actually became a very complicated process because I originally wanted to work with the same team that I had worked with on the Tourist tour but was very difficult and also musically it wasn't working. I did some auditions and I listened to a lot of musicians. I was able to finally find the right kind of musicians that I wanted to work with and we started to do a lot of recordings. There was a lot of mixing that was involved with doing this. It took place over a very long time.
MT: How did you meet your collaborators and musicians?
SG: There's a large Malian community in Paris. I met them through musician friends of mine who knew musicians from that community. Two of the voices on the album are actually two musicians from Mali. One is a woman named Nahawa Doumbia and other is a gentleman named Zoumana Tereta and both of them were recorded in a studio in Mali.
MT: Was it easy to mix traditional Malian music with jazz and other types of music you use?
SG: No, not at all. It was actually quite a difficult process because first, I had to find the musicians and when I wasn't finding them I spent about six months just thinking about whether or not this was a plausible project. Once I was able to find the musicians and things fell into place, I did see that it was plausible to do. I had never done anything like this before so the process itself was something that was completely new. So there again, it took more time because it was something that I didn't have experience doing. One of the things that really was very helpful for me was South African house music because it has a very, very specific style. It had become more popular and it's something that mixes very well with acoustic instruments of traditional Malian music.
MT: At what point were you able to say this album is done?
SG: Well you know, there was a whole question of had I reached the limits of what was possible in the editing process and also in the mixing process, but truthfully if at that point somebody had said to me it wasn't good I would probably still be working on it.
MT: How would you compare this album to your others?
SG: I can't really compare the album to my previous ones because it's not a progressive evolution from what I did before, which was mixing jazz and house music. So here it's something, in terms of sound, it's something that's completely different. But actually in the process, in the way we were working, it's something that's the same. I began with recording the musicians one by one, then I began by editing the recordings and mixing it and then tweaking them to see which worked and which did. And finally the outcome is what you hear on the discs. So while the process is the same as before, what the content is in terms of sound is totally different.
MT: How did the mask collaboration with Gregos come about?
SG: He's an artist from Montmartre and like I told you before I live in Montmartre and I think it was, I first really got to know his work around 2005/2006 because he had done this mask and he had put it up right opposite where I live. So everyday when I woke up, I went out my door and I saw it. One day I just decided I'd like to work with him so I gave him a call and we met. We got along well together and we decided that it would be fun to work together. I love his work. If you look on Facebook and you see all the photos that he's taken of his masks in various situations. I really like the expressiveness and the granular quality of them.
MT: How big is this going to be a part of the marketing for your tour and album?
SG: It's going to be really important. It's something that's going to be really important and it's something that we're really going to play with. It's not something finalized or definitive yet but certainly it's going to be on the posters, it's going to be on the album covers, the disc covers, and already we have some where we have the mask with the flags from the different countries. There's all kind of different things that we play with, how we're going to do them, but it will certainly play an important role.
Are you going to anymore official collaborations with producers?
SG: No. This is our project that we're working on now and then we have an international tour that's coming to North America connected with the album, so there really wouldn't be any time to work with another producer.
MT: How big would the band be for the tour?
SG: Eight on stage. The kora, which is a string instrument like a harp but it's from Mali, guitar, the Ngoni which is the traditional guitar string instrument, bass player, percussionist, keyboard, saxophone, and me.
MT: How did you do the Gregory Porter remix?
SG: It was really Blue Note that contacted me and asked me if I wanted to do it and I said well okay send it to me. I listened and I realized they didn't want to do the same kind of house, dance remix but because at that particular time I was involved in doing all the mixing with the Malian music. In the remix you hear those influences of the Malian music. It was really their initiative, their calling me.
MT: You expressed your dissatisfaction with electronic music in the past. Have you seen it change for the better or for the worse in the past decade?
SG: I haven't really been paying that much attention. I haven't changed my mind about electronic music and I think now perhaps I'm not the only one who feels the way that I do. I listen to it much less since around 2003. I just look at it more generally just as an overview and it's something that doesn't really give me a great deal of pleasure to listen to, except for the South African house music. It's got a very fine quality to it, it's very rhythmic, it's not vulgar, it's not aggressive, it's something that you can listen to and it's something that you can also dance to. So that's the one exception that I make.