having just released his latest album, no play no work, on esl, ireallylovemusic thought it good to catch up with chris joss, the french multi-instrumentalist in order to find out more behind what inspires the time travelling funkateer.
so, the new album, ‘no play no work’ has just been released on the esl label.
would it be correct to say that you have moved into the era of funky 70s for this album?
there are less 60’s pop inspired tracks on this one so it gives the 70’s vibe a push, the first track has a jazz funk vibe but there’s stuff on this album you couldn’t have heard in the 70’s, maybe because the instrumentation is the same as the first track it makes a continuity, it’s funky but not pure 70’s, i guess it just depends on what the listener picks up.
after all, there seems to have been a definite genre focus with each release, spiked = 60s + blaxploitation movie soundtracks, sticks : sitar heavy funk grooves, monomaniacs vol 1 : hammond organ jazz-funk. and the new album = 70s stevie wonder keyboards, sly stone vibes, zapp vocoders, and bootsy collins basslines (via the odd daptones styled funk workout !)
do you approach each album with such an intention, or, does it work out that way after a few tracks are completed, and a stylistic pattern emerges?
monomaniacs was the only one with a concept in mind before recording any tracks. for the other albums it’s more a case of having a certain number of tracks begun and as i progress on them i see there are some that don’t fit with the others so i work on finishing the pieces that could mix well together. i incorporate common elements in the arrangements and production to make them work as a whole, but i also don’t mind different styles in an album, i’m not into revival. you mention the daptones they’re re-creating a style that originally existed for a short period of time, like a year or two. i just can’t do that for a whole album as it means more than a year of hearing and playing the same style, i get bored very quickly and need to work on different styles after working on one track or two because i like music from different eras and genres.
4 tracks on the new lp were intended for monomaniacs volume 2, “the shakes”, “radium girls”, “morse attack” and “speed-o-sound” but i got bored with the idea of not using modern elements like on volume 1 and the predefined concept. so i treated them like the other tracks of the album. now i have 7 albums out, you could take pairs of tracks in each album and compile them in single style albums.
does this mean that in a couple of years’ time you will be up for making a dubstep album, or, do you have predefined limits as to which genres you are prepared to dive into ?
i’ve used electronic beats for a long time, the first instrument i ever wanted to play was the drums, it didn’t happen, so rhythm machines, samplers and programmed beats were an easier alternative and i loved using them, also they were new, refreshing sounds at the time, we’re talking early and mid 80’s, but they’re not anymore, and 10 years ago when i eventually was able get myself, play and record a drum kit i progressively lost interest in electronic beats and repetitive loops. i love playing drums and as a sound engineer it’s just so much fun to work on the sound of recorded drums, i just can’t do without it, and as a listener it’s such a live sounding instrument, i miss it when it’s not there.
one aspect of each release i have heard is how the music sounds like a real band playing in a studio.
for a solo studio producer, that cannot be an easy sound to recreate. do you ever miss out on the jam styled band set up, where a gang of you hit a groove and see what happens, or, do you find working with other musicians too stressful and enjoy the solo route?
i miss jamming yes, but the live sound is not that hard to create, i mean it’s the basis of my music, i record a lot of live improvisation, often with mistakes but that keeps it spontaneous, i also tend to have a loose feel when i play and i play all way through the tracks, everything’s recorded, i don’t play to a click on most of the track, so the speed fluctuates, that gives a live feel too. what is harder is structuring the jams and finishing them, plenty of little details that take time and it’d be the same with a band. it’s also a matter of meeting the right people to work with. keeping a band together is tough and it’s hard to change styles in a band, you tend to stick to the common grounds. i don’t mind recording 3 tracks of guitar and not using any of them in the final mix, which can be hard to get away with if i have to tell that to a guitar player or i can put some parts really low in the mix without hurting anyone’s feeling. so yeah i do enjoy this freedom. i’d love to jam with other people though if my hearing wasn’t so sensitive to noise level. so i do with what i have, but i never intended to be a solo artist, just happened, life you know.
surely such a method must be a painstakingly long drawn out process. you must be very disciplined and precise in your studio methods. do you have some little tricks that you use to keep a focus in the early stages of creating a track, or do you just go for it, and hope the magic will reveal itself via the mixing stage?
no i’m not disciplined at all, well i don’t know, just trying not to make the same mistakes again is a kind of discipline maybe, i just get immersed into whatever i’m doing , trying things, sounds, when i’m bored with the track, i leave it aside. in term of music playing, i have these cycles of sudden desire for playing this or that instrument, i see my guitar on a stand and i really want to play guitar, it’s gonna last a few days where i think yeah i’m gonna play guitar all the time now, and practice a lot, so i do practice then i feel like recording something and open one of the tracks i’ve begun and that’s when i record, at a moment when i really want to play that instrument. but after a few days or weeks, i’m gonna be attracted to keys, or drums or sometimes no instrument at all but will want to play with sounds, and that’s what i’ll do. the early stages are the easiest, i just play and record, potentially it’s the best thing i’ve ever done, and i often end up with 12 or 15 minutes tracks that i have to cut down to 3 or 4 minutes, making choices, cleaning up, cutting out parts i like but that don’t fit in once the track is shortened and it becomes increasingly long to finish. because of that, one trick is to remember not to record long takes, but you know i love playing and recording so i still record long takes of drums. that’s the case of the 1st track “you make me happy” which was 15 minutes long and is now 4. .
as in purely electronic music i’m building the tracks and mixing at the same time, and for most tracks i can quickly feel if it’s gonna happen or not. there are some tracks that go really fast to make, say a couple of weeks but spread over a year, and some that take 1 or 2 months spread over 2 or 3 years. because i want to stay spontaneous on the tracks, i record the drums and maybe a bass line or a keyboard, and leave it for a while, i forget about it, and one day -strangely it’s often a year later at the same period as i’ve noticed on this album while writing the recording date credits- i open the file, listen and start having ideas and record bits of guitars or keys, then leave it to rest, that’s how i ended up with over 60 tracks to choose from for this album, once i’ve chosen the ones i’d like to put in the album , i have to concentrate on these tracks to finish them, it’s at least 6 month of intense work. i often have several versions of the same tracks, with different changes and breaks.
i once read that for each track you lay down the drums/bass/guitar via old school analogue methods – i.e. playing the instruments live, before overdubbing keyboards via soft synths – is that still correct , or have you moved more into software based recording, or have you gone more analogue ?
since spiked i began recording in 2002 i’m using software based recording , i’m recording the parts, all the acoustic and electric instruments, some of the synths are outboard , some are plugins, but i record them as audio so they’re audio tracks like the other instruments, and then edit, mix and master on computer. the best thing for me in software based recording is total recall and this possibility, as i was saying earlier, to come back on a track at any time, and finding it in the exact same state i left it whereas before i had to finish a track once it was begun, or write down all settings of the mixing desks and effects, to be able to come back on the track but never getting the same sound, it was long and frustrating.
one aspect of the new album is that musically its in league with 70s funk – but unexpectedly you have added some dj scratching into the mix on a few tracks. did you just have an urge to let loose on the wheels of steel or was there another reason behind this sonic treat, as it could be said that its not totally in line with the genre of music?
[note : it should be said that this is not wild cut-n-paste dj scratching, the results are far more subtle].
the scratched sounds are in fact on every track, it’s the common point of the different styles of the album. i’d been willing to scratch any of my sounds for a long while, i bought this cd deck that scratches sounds from a usb source, so i have my custom sounds, i use it as a full-fledged instrument, a sort mad guiro that can have any sounds. apart for “monomaniacs” obviously as it was the concept, i’m never into revival, i’ve always added modern elements you wouldn’t have found in the 60’s or 70’s and mix different genres together. although there’s always a few tracks on my albums that don’t have obvious 21st century elements there are also always tracks that in my opinion are very personal, in the structure, sounds and sound production. i’ve been influenced by the 80’s a lot, you can hear it in the songwriting, tracks that start happy with the carefree vibe of the 60’s often go into darker tones, and that comes from my new wave, cold wave influences. the 90’s brought the sampling, recycling style which i use a lot, my blues rock side comes from the 50’s, a bit of jazz too. so from where i stand i’m influenced by 5 decades of music. to me, “pop music” has dramatically evolved from the 50’s to the 90’s, following technology advances, it slowed down and almost stopped when djs and non-musician producers became more important than musicians in the eye of the public, coinciding with mainstream labels giving up on artistic direction for short term profit and technology achieving the pinnacle for record making at low cost, giving the possibility to the non-musician with a better sense of business than most musicians, to make records. the era of recycling had begun and i don’t think that what is considered today as modern music is less revival than what i do. it’s mainly revival of the 90’s, whether it’s purely electronic music or nicking other people’s music.
when music was still evolving in huge steps, making a record that sounded like the year before was an unforgivable crime, so you can easily date a record if it was made before the mid 90’s. that’s not a crime anymore, you’ve got all these great records from different eras that inspire musicians or non-musicians to make music, that’s great. there’s this add on tv for a car or a bank probably (who else) using a john lennon interview circa the white album in 68 in which he says that people should make new music rather than imitate the past, “how’s that for rock and roll?” and a few weeks later he was recording the covers they used to play in hambourg in 62 for the let it be film, 4 years later he was recording “rock n’ roll” with 50’s and 60’s covers and it’s a great album. so you know, playing the music that inspired you as well as putting in your own thing is going forward. heard the same thing on youtube from siouxsie sioux, indeed the banshees had their own sound, but their biggest hit was a cover of the beatles “dear prudence“.
you can be very inventive as a musician/producer but you’re speaking to people and need a common language to be understood, that language is music people have heard before, you can add your new own made up words, new turn of phrases but you need the basis to be common.
i have many tracks that resemble nothing, maybe some people would like them, but you know…i need to eat
also, a few tracks have vocals, ok, they are not ‘singing’ vocals as such, they are vocoder’d and processed, but does this indicate that at some point you will be adding song based vocals to your productions as some point, or, do you acknowledge the fact that your style is predominantly in the instrumental world ?
yes i like instrumental music, there are often bits of vocals in my tracks but they’re treated as any other instruments rather than lead vocal against a backing track. in this album they’re more “in your face” on 3 tracks, but it still feels instrumental. with a vocoder you’re in between voice and a synth. i have so much admiration for african-american singers i certainly would love to make albums with vocalists
when you set about creating a track, how do you decide with sounds to use. do you listen to some albums of a particular genre/era, watch some movies, and then pick the sounds used apart and choose specific keyboards to help recreate that atmosphere?
except for the baldwin electric harpsichord which i don’t have in my sound banks and that i’ve tried to recreate, listening closely to records that have some, i don’t do any sort of research right before making a track. i try many things once the drums are laid down, but you know i listen to a lot of music and my brain analyses how it’s done, that i want it or not. if there’s a good bass line in a track i hear, a drum pattern, i’ll listen to it closely and maybe practice it. it’s always cycles of listening, learning, practicing, creating, overcrossing themselves.
for spiked, i didn’t have any 60’s records in the style of discotheque dancing or spiked and i knew 2 blaxploitation soundtracks, trouble man and superfly, in fact i’d never seen any. these influences were rather coming from childhood memories of movie soundtracks, stuff heard on the radio, and it was fun to make, i had some spontaneity i wouldn’t have now, as i’ve heard hundreds of tracks of that era. ignorance is bliss as always.
i mean i would suspect you’re not ever going to drop an 80s fairlight cmi orchestral stab into the mix of a 70s funk styled track. so, are there certain instruments that are ‘out of bounds’ due to the era in which their sound became synonymous?
yes and no, it’s more a matter of fitting in, all the scratching sounds on no play no work, as you said, weren’t there in the 70’s, so for narrow minded purists it can be seen as an heresy, for me it’s about creating new ambiances, the sound production is what i’m into once i have a good groove down. if the fairlight stab sounds good and is appropriate to achieve an effect, i’ll use it. seeing “fairlight” in the credits was enough to make me buy a record in the early 80’s and i’ve been listening again to some early art of noise lately, it was great, sampling pioneers, but “not ripping off whole sections from records” sampling, “playing with sounds” sampling, although they were sampling off records as well.
you obviously have done a lot of sonic digging into the 60s and 70s and amassed quite a collection of cool soundtracks/forgotten jazz/funk releases. as its impossible for you to play out live, do you ever spread the news of your groove via dj sets and drop your own material in amongst these aural nuggets to test reaction ?
no, i don’t do dj sets anymore, i haven’t done many, it’s just not my thing and my Hearing suffers in loud level environments. but when i did i didn’t feel at ease with playing my own tracks, i’d be happy to play my tracks with a band, but play my records while doing nothing feels very awkward.
if you don’t then, do you have an inner circle of people who you bounce ideas off, or, do you like to keep a tight control on such ways and trust your own judgement in such matters?
the truth is there’s no one around me that i could ask, when i ask people who are not really into music, they tend to point to obvious directions i took care not to go into in the first place. i get “oh it sounds like…” and they give you the title of a mainstream song, as i’m very impressionable i have to drop the track as i can’t help thinking about it when working on it afterwards. so only when i’m close to finishing an album i send it through the internet to friend musicians in different parts of the world with different tastes, to see what common reaction i get, and usually they all have different opinions, they hear different things. like you say for “no play” it’s more funky 70’s, i’ve been told it was more rock, someone else more jazz, another one heavier, another more electronic.
on this one i didn’t play any tracks to anyone before sending it to esl. my best friend for judgment is time. i often make weird choices due to fatigue and altered states of mind or being too immersed in a part i’ve just worked on, but with a bit of perspective and not listening to the track for a while, i hear what’s wrong and correct it.
also, just how did the us based label esl find a solo artist based in france?
they’d heard my first album in 99 which had had a good promo, and almost signed a re-release then, esl was just starting then, the french label i was signed to secretly negotiated for 6 months with them, then the offer dropped for some reason, but the secretive aspect made me leave that french label. for the second album we (my publisher’s team in la rochelle where i live) sent cd-rs to the labels that had released compilations including tracks of the first lp, which lead to my signing to irma in italy, which was in turn a very disappointing experience so we decided to release spiked on the label of my publisher who’s more into jazz and started prospecting for distribution in the us. a us distributor advised us to send it to esl, so we did and they called right back and after a couple of months of contract negotiations it was signed. they re-released it with a superb artwork.
having given your website a look, it would appear that a lot of the music you make is perfect for tv shows, as several tracks have been licenced. is this something you bear in mind when creating a new track. “this would be good for a late night cliff hanger’, or, do you not really consider that side of your work and leave the matching up of audio to appropriate visuals to the record label ?
no i don’t think about it at all, indeed the licensing of tracks is handled by esl and my publisher. it’s so rare to get licenses it’s best to see it as a lottery, the more you play the more chances you get but it doesn’t really matter what the numbers are.
i am assuming this tv sync’ing is a process that the record label do on your behalf ?
do the label try and coerce you into doing more public facing promo work, i.e. the video for ‘get cloned’ featuring you playing each instrument. did the visuals come easily due to the title of the track, or, did you get the idea of the visuals first, and build the track around the idea?
it’s all up to me, i chose to make a video of the track esl picked as a single for the promo, but i could have done a video for another track or no video, esl would have been just as cool with it. “get cloned” was picked as a single end of august2011 (3 years after i laid down the drums ;) and i hadn’t thought about a video until then. i almost didn’t put this track on the album, i thought it was too different from the others, heavier, the vocals are prominent. when i sent the album to esl i was kinda expecting they’d say they didn’t like it and was prepared to remove it but it’s the single after all. i don’t think it represents the album and might scare away a part of my audience but it may bring some new listeners.
for the video i had this live delay with feedback in my vjaying program that i thought could work well with the cloning theme and some of the lyrics. it was a one month intense hard work.
do you think as a solo musician the way you can be presented to an audience is very limited and making a video is one way to resolve such an issue ?
yes, of course, and i wish i could make more, each track should have its own video but it’s just so long, my creating process is the same with videos as music. i can’t afford to pay video makers, so it’s one video a year, and at the same time music is self-sufficient to me.
i once heard that an up and coming hip hop dj/producer released several ‘beats’ albums purely with the idea as the albums being a showcase in order to pick up major label production work. is this something you have at the back of your head when making music. i.e. would the ultimate payback be if a major film studio took you on to score a big budget movie, or, is would you rather being in control of the music that you make, as opposed to having to make a specific type of track to order ?
i don’t have that sort of thoughts because i live in a fantasy world where there’s no money nor necessities when i play and also, once i’m back on our planet i know how it works and they’re not going to call me after hearing my record, i don’t have experience in scoring, they would know, and i’m not in la nor ny, not touring so i don’t meet any of these guys whereas there are many musicians who are very good at scoring and selling themselves, at the right place at the right time. movie scoring is a very tough job where you have to change things all the time at the very last minute, you sleep very little, you need to handle big pressure, i can’t.
so when they license a track of mine it’s a perfect world. i carry on doing what i love thanks to these guys as the record sales alone wouldn’t let me carrying on making music.
as a fellow sufferer of tinnitus (thankfully, i only have a mild case, but i suspect it will deteriorate further), how do you cope with the demands of the job and having to listen to music loudly and closely and dealing with the effects on your ears ?
well it’s extremely tough, it’s hell, it’s a disability and it’s cut me from the live world. i can’t play live, can’t jam, can’t go to clubs, gigs without damaging them, so i don’t and by being careful in the studio, low levels, earplugs when recording loud things, i can still work and make albums, i’m always worried someone tells me there’s an obvious frequency problem in my mixes, something i wouldn’t have noticed due to partial deafness, or tinnitus covering some frequencies i would put louder in the mix to be able to hear them, like painters painting different colors as they grow old due to altered vision. so i don’t play music very loud, or very occasionally, contrary to before, and wear earplugs very often, i didn’t wear any until it was too late.
and, finally, now that the new album is complete and available for all to hear, what plans do you have for 2012?
i have all these tracks begun, will finish some, will definitely record new ones, so i guess the next release won’t be before 2013. i’d like esl to re-release my 2 first out-of-print lps with some extra tracks, so that all my albums can be available and on the esl label.