Interview: Jacques Greene
Posted in Interviews
That’s how we would describe Jacques Greene’s steady rise to stardom. From the release of his first single back in 2010 all the way to his most recent Ready EP, the Montreal native has made a name for himself providing quality over quantity—pouring his heart into each and every project he undergoes and presenting something not only impressive, but meaningful. It was a mere two years ago when Greene first uploaded “(Baby I Don’t Know) What You Want” to his YouTube account, a hypnotizing late night come down track that fused vintage analog synths with contemporary chopped up R&B vocals. Not only a wildly impressive debut, but this unique combination—blending the old with the new—grew to become Greene’s signature style; a classic soulful sound that innately looks toward the future.
Today, Jacques Greene sits in a class of young producers that have carved out a niche all their own, comfortably in the limelight but constantly pushing forward in search of new opportunities. In the past two months Greene has released an EP on Martyn’s 3024 label and toured with The xx—exposing him to unfamiliar territory in both situations. For an artist who’s received nothing but praise since his introduction, it’s clear that he feels there is more work to be done, more boundaries to be pushed and challenged. And at age 22, this just may be only the beginning of a very long, flourishing career.
On the Seattle stop of his tour with The xx, I caught up with Jacques Greene and talked with him about the background behind his eclectic sound, his undying love for analog, and the inherent physicality of club music.
Was it humbling to have a band as acclaimed as The xx to ask you to tour with them?
Yeah man, I’ve been a big fan of theirs for years. They are one of the most interesting bands in rock music. So much guitar music has gotten repetitive over the years. When that The xx album came out I realized how many fresh ideas were still left in band music and that was super inspiring to me. So to receive that sort of accolade from them in a way is really cool and humbling. And their live shows are great. It was incredible just to be able to see them play so many nights in a row.
Was there ever a point where, outside of the realm of electronic music, you found yourself listening to a lot of rock?
Not really, which is funny, because I am from Montreal, which is a place that is very steeped in indie rock lore. Arcade Fire are from here and I always see them eating at my café and I like them, but I was never an indie rock kid going to a bunch of gigs and all that. Even though I loved bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who are from here, but even that’s not really indie rock. I was never really a rock kid.
But you’ve always liked R&B, correct?
In high school, R&B was something that my friends and I would listen to, definitely. But I only became a fanatic when FutureSex/LoveSounds, the Justin Timberlake album, came out. You know, you are a teenager, you are in high school, and part of you always hates the mainstream and that kind of shit. But then that came out and it was like “OMG JT just made the best album of the year!” I was 16/17 at the time, and that’s when I first realized that there was so much value in pop music and that it had such an incredible wealth of good ideas.
I’ve been able to catch a few of your shows, and it seems like you always throw at least one or two really good but unknown R&B tracks in your sets. How do you keep up with R&B music so much? Do you read WorldStarHipHop everyday or something?
Everyday man, everyday. I am on Worldstar and HotNewHipHop and all the rap blogs like NahRight literally every single day. I download every random dudes mixtape and listen to it all. I’m mostly an album cut guy, you know? Like, I like singles, but my favorite R&B records are usually the ones that appear late in the album, the slow songs. That’s my shit. For example, with a guy like Jeremih, “Birthday Sex” is okay, but when you look at the deep cuts on that album, that’s where the real gems are.
What are your thoughts on R&B/pop music in today’s world, both on a mainstream, electro house level and an underground, more refined level?
It’s weird man. I think we live in a really weird time where nothing seems to be defined by region or underground/overground. For example, The Weeknd is one of the most popular artists in the world right now without any radio play, that doesn’t make sense. It’s also totally bizarre to think that pop music is now trance. That is really crazy to me and I don’t even really understand it.
So about music becoming more borderless, even though you are from Montreal, you seem to have garnered more support across the pond than from your home country.
Europe has been really great to me. Even though there is the Internet, there is still such an infrastructure for music in the UK that we don’t necessarily have here in North America. Things really started rolling for me when Bok Bok played a track of mine on his Rinse FM show and then Mary Anne Hobbs played one on BBC. It was all happening on UK radio and UK labels and stuff like that first. There’s more of an audience for that stuff out there so it’s just easier to make it work, but now I am really excited about trying to build that in North America. People are becoming more receptive to it here. But, my first ever stand alone European tour I played to nearly all sold out clubs. That was crazy.
But your sound, even though you’re from Montreal, sort of has this UK-ness to it. It’s not explicitly dubstep or anything like that, but it definitely has that underground UK vibe.
For sure. I think that’s why the UK DJs picked up on it first.
Have you ever thought about where that might of came from?
I think it’s because I first found out about electronic music through Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, who are UK artists. Then after that all I knew of electronic music for about two to three years was what came out of Warp Records. In fact, the first vinyl records I bought when I was 16 were some of the first ever dubstep records. I have all those old DMZ and Tempa 12-inches, and it was funny, because at the time the local record store didn’t have a section for it. When you went to the record store, those 12-inches would be in either the grime bin or the drum and bass bin. One time, when I was 16 or 17, I even found Skream’s “Midnight Request Line” in there. Those were records that I was really drawn to, because at the time there was no genre for them. I would ask the guy at the record store, “So, what kind of music is this?” and he would respond back by saying, “I don’t really know dude, it’s kind of 2-step.” Also at the time, I was very much into instrumental rap, and to me a lot of that stuff sounded like instrumental rap beats. “Midnight Request Line” sounds like a slowed down Lil’ Jon beat or something and I really dug that about it. As things slowly developed and got defined as dubstep or whatever, I sort of left it all behind. But those were important records for their time and the forming of my ear for electronic music. I was always more educated in UK electronic music than I was about the stuff coming out of my hometown.
So what’s bigger then, your analog synth collection or your vinyl collection?
Definitely, in worth, my synth collection. I try not to horde too much vinyl anymore. Every time I move I tend to give a bunch of vinyl away or sell it. I try to keep tabs on that. I do like synths though, I don’t have that many, but I think I just have good ones, you know? I’ve got like seven synths.
I’m sure you have a couple drum machines as well.
Yeah, I’ve got two of those, a Roland 707 and an 808 clone.
When you record your tracks, it’s always on analog equipment, correct?
Yeah, most of the time. I’m really trying to get better at using a computer, because I travel more. It’d really be great if I could write full songs on my computer, but I’m still not that good at it yet. I’m just more comfortable with turning on a synth, playing it really quick and then recording it and chopping it up. I do use a computer, but more as like a four-track, you know what I mean? I’ll just record all the drums, synths, and parts, and then I’ll splice and dice and arrange it all on the computer. Nearly every single track I’ve made starts in the real world though, in a real box. I mean, some of the drum sounds are samples through the computer, but most of the drum sounds and synth sounds you hear in my work come from my analog collection.
That’s a noble way of doing it though, in a time where any random person can pick up a copy of Ableton or what have you, right click their mouse twice, and call themselves a producer.
That’s true, but at the end of the day it’s all about process. I am so familiar with my analog equipment that when I record a track it almost feels as easy as clicking two buttons in Ableton. I mean, I’ve seen Lunice do incredible stuff in FL Studio on his computer and that is stuff that I don’t really understand or know how to do. Him and Hudson Mohawke, the way they work, I just don’t get it. It’s just a matter of how you approach things and what you like.
You’ve toured Europe with your analog equipment before as part of your “live” set, and you just opened for The xx alongside Ango with it as well. How does that work?
I bring my synths and Andrew (Ango) brings a couple of his. There is no laptop. It is ridiculous. Every show is not dissimilar to a two-hour sound check. It’s a real deal live PA. He plays keys and sings some songs. I play other stuff and we each have a drum machine. We use all 16 channels on the mixer. There’s a lot of stuff up there on stage. It’s really fun.
When you do DJ sets with CDJs, you can be more improvisational depending on how the crowd and you are feeling, but with the live set I feel like it has to be more set in stone beforehand.
We have a track order, but that’s it. Since there is no laptop, we control everything. I’m on an MPC and a few synths, and we don’t have any pre-sequenced drums really. When we want to go into the next part of the track I have to literally yell across the analog table and tell Andrew, “Okay, in four bars we go into the drop,” so we can stay locked into whatever part forever and then at the drop of the dime switch over to something else. Communication is key.
Speaking of Ango, you guys have done some songs together; most recently you produced “True Blue” off his Serpentine mixtape. Do you and Andrew spend a lot of time working together?
Yeah, yeah. Well, unfortunately, he just moved to Toronto for a girl. I mean, I am saying unfortunately, but I am really happy for him. When he was here we would work quite a lot together. We like a lot of the same stuff. We will geek out about the same Trey Songz track together and have a similar work ethic. So it’s a really natural process with him. He would come over to my house with a few lyric ideas or just a few melody ideas and we wound bang a track out in a few hours. I love working with him. He’s got this male Sade vocal presence going for him and I like that.
Another artist that you have a good working relationship with is Koreless. You two have collaborated on “Arrow” in the past as well as remixed each other’s songs. You even just released Koreless’ “Lost in Tokyo” on your own label Vase. How did you two get in contact?
We actually share the same manager, Joe. Shortly after he started working with me he found this college kid out of Glasgow that only had one song under his belt, Koreless. For our manager and for us it made all the sense in the world to collaborate. We have a similar vibe to our records. They seem to exist in the same universe. So working with him and remixing his stuff and releasing his record made perfect sense to me. We’ve been talking about making more music together, so hopefully it will happen. I want to make a bunch of tracks with him.
Let’s talk about Vase, your label. In past interviews you’ve mentioned how you wanted it to be more than just another label; that you wanted to get fashion designers involved somehow. How is that coming along?
I’m working on both ends right now. The fashion end of things ended up being much more expensive than anticipated, and if we are going to do fashion I want it done well. I am never going to release an American Apparel tee with my logo on it. I’ve been actively sourcing fabrics and stuff like that and looking into grants to making the fashion aspect happen, but to produce an item and make a few sizes and market it properly is actually an incredible undertaking. It is going to happen though; I am not going to rest until it’s done.
In what other ways could the label grow?
I’d like to explore a bunch of different possibilities. We are looking at different ways of releasing music other than vinyl and digital right now. I guess that is one of the good things about this day and age is that the possibilities are kind of endless. Next year I’d like to release a book of photography even. Sign a photographer and put out a photography book. I want to try to make it a creative house of sorts.
You’ve traveled a lot now. Is there a city that you get a really good vibe from playing in?
City wise I think that New York is my favorite place in the universe. Every time I visit there I think that I should just move there. As far as shows, because shows in New York aren’t always the best, I’d say Bucharest, Romania. The first time I played there was in an abandoned Soviet asylum with jail cells and everything. The second time, Andrew and I did a live show on the patio rooftop of the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. It was built in Communist Romania as a sort of Communist palace in the 50s and 60s. It’s the building with the most rooms in the world. It’s a huge place. Since communism fell, most parts of the Romanian government are actually located in this building, except for 1/5th of the building, which is a contemporary art museum. It has this patio area that overlooks all of Bucharest and we played up there. It was incredible. It was unreal.
Your music has always had an implied sense of sensuality to it. Not that it’s explicitly sexual, but the feel and atmosphere of it isn’t far off from R&B and what one might call “baby making music.” Is this something you’ve ever thought of?
Definitely, I want my music to be as sensual as possible, because club music is body music. It is music for your feet and your body. There is an inherent physicality and sensuality to club music. That’s why I can’t really get into electro-house or moombahton or something like that, because that’s very agro music. When you listen to underground house records, like MK’s stuff, there is a real sensuality and physicality to it that is more internal than external. Like there is this sort of internal physicality to it where you just want to feel human and get close to someone for a bit. Then with brostep or moombahton there is this aggressive, external physicality to it that is not that interesting to me. It’s not an expression of human emotions. So sensuality and internal physicality are things that I really really strive for in my music. I crave that.
Does that same sort of thinking of internal physicality and sensuality go into your DJ sets?
Yeah, it’s all about that same sort of energy. I’d like to say I want everyone to leave my sets with smiles on their faces, but that’s not really the case, because I like playing out sad stuff too. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I really try to reach for records and create an ambiance that is sort of welcoming, and a little intense...I do like the club to be intense. I don’t want to have a conversation in the club. Rather, I don’t want to want to have a conversation in the club. Last night, Floating Points played Montreal and I went to see him and he played for 2 hours and I did not check my phone once or talk to someone once. I was just absorbed and immersed in what was going on in that moment. That is such an important thing to be able to do that. I am on the Internet all day, I love the Internet, but the club is the one place that should exist outside of that. The one place where it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, if you are gay or straight, if you are rich or poor, if you had a shitty day or a great day—you are just there to listen to good music loudly and lose yourself in it. So that is my job as a DJ is to build that—a space where people can be comfortable and just lose their minds and let loose in.