Interview: Joakim

by Sabrina


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Our New York-based contributor, Sabrina, digs deep into the inner workings of Joakim's creative process in an extensive interview, focusing on the gifted French producer's ambitious, challenging and ultimately extremely rewarding new album, "Tropics of Love."

I’m not satisfied with anything I’ve done so far.

It’s not a confession I’m expecting to hear from Joakim. But in the context it’s less of a confession and more of a banal statement. We are discussing how he decides when his work is finished. For an artist, it’s a question equal in significance and subjectivity. Joakim acknowledges this—but maintains it’s not about perfection.

If I look back at each album individually, I am not satisfied. But in each I can find things I like.” He pauses and takes a sip of his espresso. “Actually there is one track I am satisfied with… Fantomes.”

With an LP as ambitious as his latest, Tropics of Love, his casual attitude comes unexpectedly. Judging by his flawlessly produced albums and his meticulously curated DJ sets, it seems that perfection would play more of a role. But Joakim’s perspective is surprisingly fluid and continuous. Soft-spoken, in quiet French he tells me about his theory regarding artists.

I think there are two types of people who create; those who never manage to finish anything because they are obsessed with the idea of creating something perfect, and think that a piece of work can only be released in a particular state, or people aren’t going to like it. And then there are others like me who prefer to move ahead and let go…to perfect their work at each stage inside of doing something perfect on the first try.”

Tropics of Love is undoubtedly “progress” for the Paris-born, New York-based musician; it’s a step in a new direction, good or bad, an unexpected cry from earlier albums. Since it dropped on May 26, its reviews have been mixed, divided between wholehearted support, and accusations of being emotionally-distant, cheesy, or self-indulgent. (Three criticisms which in themselves, belie the range of the album.) Joakim takes it all in stride.

Of course the bad reviews hurt, especially if they are really mean, but it’s never made me too scared to put my work out there. Confidence in my work has never been a problem. I like constructive criticism.

Placing Joakim into any category has never been simple. This may be why critics seem to need multiple listens before they “get” his work, a common occurrence he explains to me. It’s easy to know what to critique when you know what you are looking for; when you don’t know what you’re getting into, you have to let go of expectation—much like the second “category” of artist Joakim describes. There seem to be a large amount of critics unable to abandon themselves this way as listeners.

For those who embrace his work, this inability to categorize his music has always been one of its greatest strengths. Where his albums “fail” as pop, or where his tracks become too polished to be experimental (despite using an army of modular synths), is where there gain their artistic value. Its these slippages that make his work significant. Love it or hate it, it’s definitely not something you can pin down in a few adjectives or hashtags. Which is exactly why a lot of people don’t know what to do with it. Can you dance to it? Why is a French DJ doing a Neil Young cover? Is there a psychological significance to using a vocoder to distort his voice? What about the interlude with snippets of Foucault? Is it pretentious? Is it a joke? My one question in response is: why do we have to know?

What we should know about Joakim is that it’s not success or criticism that surprise him, but the fact that he is doing what he is doing at all.

I never considered that I could make music,” Joakim explains. “I started off studying classical music, but it demanded too much commitment. I always had the feeling I’d have to become a monk to continue,” he adds, smiling.

Just by chance, when I was still student, 19 or 20 years old, a guy that I didn’t even know that well, but who knew I played piano, gave me his synth because he didn’t know how to use it and thought maybe I could do something with it. I’d never touched a synth in my life. It was a really crappy one. I started playing around with it and realized I could make entire songs using nothing else but that. I’d never thought it was possible to make music so easily, to create. I started spending all my time with that bloody synth—my entire vacation was spent inside, making tracks", Joakim explains to me.

Much like his first synth, the music world and its inner workings were initially just as foreign to Joakim. “I had no idea how to make demos. So I went to this label near Versailles with my synth and played for them and they were there there looking at me as if I’d come from outer space.” Joakim laughs as he recalls his unconventional start.

When you do classical music you don’t have any concept of production. Then I sent a few demos on cassette, made with a synth that was a bit better, but still shitty, and sent them to two or three labels. I thought no one was interested in my music. But then a guy at Versatile got back to me and said, it’s okay, but the sound is a bit cheap, you need to buy some equipment, so I bought a sampler, and then I continued making and sending demos. Eventually I made one with just two tracks that were only samples of jazz, and the guy there told me, this is great, if you do an album like this, I’ll release it.

And that’s what came to pass. Under the moniker Joakim Lone Octet, his debut album “Tiger Sushi” was released on Versatile sub-label Future Talk in 1999. His sound, style, and breadth as a musician and composer has developed from the early years, but Joakim regards his beginnings in a positive light.

For me it was a bit of a miracle just to make music. It was like a kid discovering new toys and playing around. I didn’t have any angoisse de création; it was very simple. My first records only took two or three months. Now it’s more difficult. I can look at what i’ve done, I know more about what people want and expect, the market…it’s more complicated.

If things are complicated now, it’s understandable. In addition to having 5 albums under his belt, Joakim also runs Tigersushi, the record label he founded in 2000. With signed acts such as Principles of Geometry and Maestro, it’s a gem in the French electronic music scene, producing some of the most innovative and strongest material within the Gallic borders in recent years. He is also just as known—if not more—for his work as a DJ. His sets are eclectic—an adjective that seems pedestrian nowadays in the world of underground electronic music. Yet for Joakim, it’s more than just playing obscure records and showcasing musical knowledge.

I think that when I started DJing, I was above all a record collector and not necessarily a good DJ,” he reflects.

Musicians are often bad DJs…so are music producers. DJing is a unique connection that relies on a dynamic of exchange. When you’re playing live, you just give to the public…with DJing you also get something back. You have to. You need listen to people and sense what’s going on. DJing also teaches you narration. When you do a mix, you have to play on the highs and lows and mood changes…it’s something important for musicians to realize. Working with Luke {Jenner} recently, he told me, it’s interesting, you always put these pauses, these breaks in everything you do. The first thing I do each time is take something the bass, which is a ‘DJ’ reflex. This creates tension and allow for buildup. Essentially, it’s playing on the anticipation of the listener…which is exactly what a good DJ does.”

To enjoy Joakim’s music it’s best not to try to place in a genre. Instead, it helps more to know a bit how he works and what music means to him. Joakim wants to make pop. His goal is not to be experimental or strictly electronic. Then again, it’s not meant to be universally pleasing either.

Naturally there’s a narcissistic element inherent in the creative process, but in the very least, I do always think about others,

Joakim tells me while he hands me the end of a cable. We are meeting for a second time to finish our conversation. His exceptionally long frame is seated Indian style on the floor of his new studio in progress, a year long effort launched shortly after his move to New York in January 2013.

The more I progress, the more I have the listener in mind how people listen, the image i’m projecting, what people search for in music,”

he continues. “I can’t end up doing a total abstraction. But at the same time, I don’t make music just for everyone to like.

But in Joakim’s universe, “accessibility” is not a dirty word. On the contrary, he strives toward it on a certain level.

Pop is what I would describe as spontaneously accessible. You don’t need an extensive knowledge of music and equipment to appreciate it.

It’s an interesting remark coming from a self-proclaimed “gearslut” who discusses his collection of synths in as much detail and with as much affection as one would members of his family; or from the vinyl aficionado whose new workspace-to-be is currently decorated with boxes upon boxes of records, which have just arrived (luckily intact) from Paris. But Joakim insists while likeminded analog geeks can appreciate the intricate workings of the composition, his focus is not on the audiophiles and experts.

Music isn’t for reflecting, it’s for feeling,” Joakim explains.

Naivety is a good thing. A good listener is someone who firstly takes the time to listen and also does so with open ears.

So did the negative criticism this time around matter?

In the past, I was a bit worried. Journalists liked all my albums, but they never sold that well. I didn’t want to just be making music for the critics. Now this is the first time I’ve received some strongly negative press. And I feel like maybe that is a good sign.

Even the especially brutal reviews, such as the particularly seething, and somewhat personal digs, at the hands of TV French program Audimat? Joakim tries to maintain a healthy perspective.

The problem with France is there is a strong musical tradition, but a strange relationship to pop. The journalists here usually believe in ‘high brow’ and ‘low brow,’ like they do with all forms of art. As soon as you put synth in a song, they think New Wave. And when it fails to truly meet that category, there is negative feedback.

On a macro and micro level, his music is a work in progress: each album follows a somewhat fluid creative process.

I go back and forth a lot. I work on one track, then stop, then move on to another. I try to find the necessary distance to let go and judge if the track turned out well enough. It’s a sort of like being a sculptor: you take something out, you add a bit there, and at a certain moment, you feel that the form is there—not that’s its perfect, but that it’s the overall shape the track should have,” he explains.

"Before starting a track, I have a lot of ideas and jot down notes, but in general, the things I write down are never things I use concretely. It’ s a more of a vague process. For example, with “Heartbeats,” I knew exactly the type of track I wanted to do, the sound, the mood, but other times, like with ‘Three Lasers Fingers,’ there are a lot of elements at play, and I think you can hear it in the track, it goes from one thing to the next. Most often I start with the rhythm, with a beat. I don’t have a very precise formula for how I proceed making an album …it’s like a puzzle. I add elements at the end sometimes, for example, on Tropics of Love, I added the interludes basically at end of the whole process to give an overall coherence—like putting punctuation on the end of a sentence. Sometimes it’s also to help the listener or sometimes it’s the confuse them.” He smiles.

Joakim may want to appeal to a large range of listeners who aren’t trained musicians or audiophiles, but he still believes in challenging them.

Tropics of Love is a challenging album, despite its immediate listenability and that in many ways, it’s Joakim’s most ‘mainstream’ work to date. It has a richness of influences and a persistent melancholy that make it somehow more grounded, earthy—sexy, I even add, much to its creator’s content.

Sexy? Really? it makes me happy if you feel that way,” Joakim tells me, with a hint of childlike excitement. “Everyone is always telling me how cerebral my music is.”

It isn’t without its intellectual and psychological elements. There is a sense of nostalgia and urgency, both in the instrumentation and lyrical content. This is not new for Joakim, whose last album, Nothing Gold (named after the Robert Frost poem ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’) also included the sweeping, bittersweet, yet danceable, track ‘Forever Young.” Is he afraid of the passage of time?

We all are,” Joakim, muses, adding, “creating things is a way of resisting time passing. It’s a hope for survival. A way to be eternal.

On a personal level, he blames his childhood as a possible cause for his obsession with the temporal—it was too perfect.

I had an idyllic family life, and apart from disliking school, there was something paradisiacal about it. Even when I was a child, I already had the sense of things passing and going, this dread that someone would disappear. Then there’s always the feelings surrounding music that I developed from my classical training, which still have a strong hold on me. I try to find those elements again when I think about music. There’s always a self-focused aspect of doing music. In my case, it’s to find lost things.

And if he could master the struggle against the clock? If he could time travel to find those things or to discover them? Would he return to the past or choose the future?

Joakim pauses. “It depends. After, can I come back?,” he asks. “To now?

Work in progress or not, for Joakim, the present moment seems to be a good one.

Words: Sabrina Tamar