Interview: Low Jack

February 10, 2015

What used to be called industrial music by those on the radical fringes of ’80s post-punk is surfacing again in the techno sphere and beyond. French producer Low Jack (AKA Philippe Hallais) – who has been praised by some of today’s most prominent labels (In Paradisum, L.I.E.S., TTT, Delsin) –is currently contributing to this rich heritage.

His goal is not to take it back to basics and produce something you’ve already heard, but to take classic industrial aesthetics to the next level, extending the trance experience using raw, sharp and rough sounds. Besides being a dedicated crate-digger, he’s also a convivial, fun-loving gourmet, as eager to taste a new organic wine as he is to discover lost musical treasures. (Born in Honduras and raised in Brittany, between Nantes and Rennes, Hallais was bound to become a French cheese specialist – a passion he never gave up.)

Late last year, Red Bull France gave Low Jack the full run of the Red Bull Paris Studio for one week, inviting him to experiment with what he found there. The result – a free download and the inaugural release of the Red Bull Paris Studio Sessions – sits at the crossroads of cosmic jazz, musique concrète and shamanic ritual. In the interview below, we talked with the Paris DJ and producer to find out more about his musical upbringing and the session itself.

Did you grow up in Brittany?

Yeah. I grew up in a really small city in Brittany. It’s a little city on the beach, very quiet, with a lot of kids. Quite a beautiful city to grow up in, but I started getting really bored when I went to high school. That was around the time that early blogs were starting, before Facebook or MySpace. For people who were really into music, things were happening on internet blogs. At that time I started to interact with guys like Guillaume from In Paradisum.

At that time, I was really into hip hop. I wanted to create music because I was really into scratch music and turntablism. And around then there was the birth of labels like Def Jux in New York and, in England, you had grime starting. Both were really electronic, industrial, dark. Guys like Dizzee Rascal had some really dark industrial, stripped out instrumentals.

I was really a big, big fan of Def Jux. It changed everything when it came out. It was really confidential in France. A few people were talking about it, but we had the feeling that we were part of something really exclusive. There was only a small community of people in France who were into this stuff. Especially the first Cannibal Ox album. When it came out they were so amazing, so inspiring. It’s really this kind of hip hop that made me want to make electronic music.

When you graduated from high school, did you move to Paris directly after that?

I moved to Rennes, where I studied for a few years and then I moved to Nantes. I moved to Paris maybe three or four years ago. I was always that guy telling people that I would never move to Paris. I was really happy in Nantes, but a lot of my friends were moving to Paris. It wasn’t really a happy choice, but I instantly fell in love with the city and especially the neighborhood where I’m living.

I don’t know much about the different neighborhoods in Paris. Tell me about the 11th arrondissement and why you like it so much.

Right now I’m always putting Paris 11 everywhere on the records and everything. That’s almost a joke but also not; the neighborhood is really inspiring. Most of the record stores are in the 11. I wouldn’t say it’s the coolest place to live. There aren’t a lot of artists there living in squats. It’s more like a middle class neighborhood, a lot of families.

But a lot of my friends are living there and there are a lot of restaurants and food markets. My second passion, I must say, is food and good wine. We’re just hanging together, drinking wine and listening to obscure records. It’s quite funny. I’m always saying, “Yeah, Paris 11!” in some sort of a hood style, but it’s really not. The 11 is quite a middle class neighborhood with a lot of organic market foods and wine cellars. That’s the total opposite. It’s quite a joke and a game.

One word that keeps coming up in interviews with you is “naïve.” Why is it so important to you to keep that feeling in your music?

Yeah, that’s really an obsession for me. I like the idea that I’m going to start with an idea and I’m going to fail. That’s what I’m looking for all the time. For example, the record that came out on The Trilogy Tapes, I started with the idea to do a proper deep house record. I love FM synths, but I’ve never really used them. So I started making some tracks with them and sent them to Will [Bankhead, owner of The Trilogy Tapes] and said, “Okay, here’s a deep house record.” His response to me was, “Are you living in a cave?” I was like, “Okay. I definitely failed on this one.” That’s good. That’s really what I’m trying to do: Start with an idea and fail.

For example, I don’t know anything about noise music really. I know a few records, but not that much at all. When I started producing tracks, I was trying to create feedback and sonic textures, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and about the scene. So, yeah, that’s always what I’m trying to do on every record, trying to avoid the comfort zone.

Low Jack - Flashes

You’ve said in the past that In Paradisum – the label – is like a home base for you. When did that relationship start?

That brings me back to high school because the In Paradisum guys are really people like me, growing up in small cities in France and really passionate about music. That’s how I met Guillaume and Paul [Mondkopf] and also Qoso who’s another artist on the label. We are the same age.

We were always chatting with each other and especially with Guillaume. We were exchanging a lot of files at the time. Basically, he was the force who pushed me to record, so when he started In Paradisum, I felt that I had to send music to him first. I’m always going to release records with them, because I really believe in local scenes and to work with people who are in your city.

Why is that so important to you?

When I was speaking about the 11th district of Paris... I’m always hanging with the same friends who are living really close to me and listening to records with them. For me, relationships are really important. It’s not just like emailing with some label that I don’t know at all. Even if now I’m working with Ron [Morelli] from LIES, he’s now a local. He lives in Paris. The same with Will. We were hanging each time I’m in London or he’s in Paris.

I worked with labels where I had no interaction with people. It was just emails and that’s not really my thing. I don’t want to do that anymore. I’m really obsessed by late ’70s French music, labels like Saravah and Les Disques Du Soleil Et De L’Acier, that came out with a really strong aesthetic that wasn’t just about music. It was also about a crew of people. That’s something that I really like.

Can you tell me a little bit about the tape that you made for The Trilogy Tapes? It’s quite interesting – two very distinct mixes, one on each side.

Sometimes I’m producing at a really fast BPM and then at the end of the process I pitch down the results and see what it sounds like.

The idea started when Will Bankhead was in Paris for a few days and I was warming up outdoors at a party. I wasn’t doing a proper mix with techno and house, I wasn’t trying to make people dance. It was more like a selection, with people sitting down. Will Bankhead [from The Trilogy Tapes] came to the booth and said, “Hey, do you want to do a cassette with the EP?” I recorded the two mixes quite quickly at my place. The first is more like a selection of all different kinds of records. There was some French music mixed with industrial stuff. Some contemporary African music mixed with jazz. For the second part, I have been buying real hard techno but instead of playing them at 45 [RPM], I’m playing them at 33. That makes them really slow and really crazy.

I’ve read that you first discovered that with a Cristian Vogel record.

Yeah, exactly. When the party and the vibe allows it, I’m always trying to play really super slow techno. Even when I’m trying to make music, sometimes I’m trying to do the same. Sometimes I’m producing at a really fast BPM and then at the end of the process I pitch down the results and see what it sounds like. If it’s all right, decent at all, I’m like, “Okay, let’s do it.” There’s something quite naïve in this approach.

Can you talk a bit about the tracks that you made at Red Bull Studios Paris? How did that studio session differ from your usual sessions?

Basically the idea was to record drum tracks. Like literally tracks with only drums. Red Bull Studios Paris has a crazy backline with lots of percussion elements and drums; also microphones to record everything super well. So yeah, I played the drums and resampled myself later.

The inspirations I had in mind were dudes like Will Guthrie and Charles Hayward. Something between a proper drummer record and a dub record. That’s the reason why I also used lots of effects in the studio (mostly space echos and reverbs).

What about your show on Rinse? It’s obviously not just dance music that you’re playing. What kind of approach do you take with the show each time you go in?

There is not that much of an over thinking approach behind those shows. I’m just playing the music I really like. Obviously I’m not buying and listening to only ’90s Neil Landstrumm records at my house. My shift at Rinse France is on a Tuesday afternoon, so I’m also trying to stick to the “office listening” vibe. Depends on the mood but I’m down with pretty much everything: reggae, disco, calypso, EBM, industrial, yé-yé… I want to make people whistle at their office desks. (Even if I sometimes play ambient, but I guess you can also whistle drones. Why not?)

It feels like you’ve released a lot of material in the past six months. Do you feel like you’re in a creative place right now? Or is this just normal?

Paris is definitely a very creative place right now, but it mostly has to do with the people around me. Hanging out with crazy record collectors has introduced me to some sick influences. Gwen Jamois and Ron Morelli are obviously deserving of massive credit for that. Most of my stuff is based on very spontaneous motivations like, “Oh yeah, that early ’80s On-U Sound record sounds dope. I will now go home and try to have some fun at the studio.” Fun is good.

If you could work with any trio of musicians, living or dead, who would it be and why?

How bad and ridiculous would I look in a studio with Prince Jazzbo and Arthur Russell?

I’m a big fan of SO many artists, but that’s not a legit reason to want to work with them. How bad and ridiculous would I look in a studio with Prince Jazzbo and Arthur Russell? Dudes would be cracking up on watching some clown trying to sample a bongo with his shitty Electribe... Good collaborations are collaborations with people you’re hanging out with. It’s about a strong relationship outside of the studio. About getting drunk, saying some bullshit and joking about Curb Your Enthusiasm. That should be the only motivation to wanna make music with other artists.

Where do you think you’re headed in the next few years?

Hopefully with wife and cats. (Maybe dogs too?) A good mortgage on some farm in the countryside and A LOT of cheese. Cheese everywhere. And a 15 page Discogs profile with tons of overrated music on it.

Photos: Philippe Lévy

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