Veteran French producer Ivan Smagghe has proven to be adept at dodging expectations throughout his career, and he continues this trend with his new album on Vladimir Ivkovic’s Offen Music label, Ma, a collaboration with esteemed film and theater composer Rupert Cross. On that, Smagghe sets aside the dark disco and electro sounds he’s best known for in favor of something more experimental, ably fitting in with Offen Music’s adventurous output. To coincide with the release of the LP, Smagghe spoke to Shawn Reynaldo for Red Bull Radio’s First Floor about the experience of collaborating with Cross and how he continues to embrace being a musical contrarian. Read an excerpt from the conversation below, and listen to First Floor on Red Bull Radio here every Thursday at 1 PM EDT.
You’ve done a number of collaborative projects over the years, but this new one is with Rupert Cross. Can you tell us who Rupert Cross and how this project came to be?
It’s funny that you ask that, ’cause there’s been quite a few people thinking he doesn’t exist. He does exist – he’s actually a real person. Rupert is a friend of mine and we met working on other projects.
The Offen album is actually not the first one we did together. The first one we did together will come out later in the year, in June. It’s true that I’ve done a lot of collaborative projects over the years, but this one seems different – I’m not sure why. It’s probably more personal to me and to him as well. Rupert is not someone who comes from the electronic music world at all, which made it very interesting, actually. I think the album is about us meeting.
Listening to the album, one of the first things that jumps out is that it’s not dance music at all, and I assume that was an intentional choice?
Yeah, I’ve always had this kind of contrarian thing when I make music. I wouldn’t call [this album] dance music, ’cause I do that as well, and Smagghe & Cross also does that – people will see a bit later, ’cause we got other things coming out that are way more dance-y. But I don’t really like making DJ music. I’m a DJ – that’s a fact – but music is too important and it has too many things to say. To put myself in that little box that is club music or DJ music doesn’t really interest me. Culturally, [that kind of music] is not Rupert’s world, and to be honest, it’s not really my world, either... Yes, it’s not a dance music album. I don’t even know how to describe it. Some lazy people are gonna say it’s ambient or neoclassical. I just don’t like tags. I will leave the tags to you.
I was looking at some of Rupert’s history earlier – he’s worked with a lot of big names and organizations over the years. Was it at all intimidating to sit down in the studio with someone coming from that background?
No, absolutely not. That’s what I meant by collaboration – when we work together, we work together. Obviously there are things that I know more about and there are things that he knows more about, but no, it’s absolutely not intimidating. He’s not like that. The talent can be intimidating, but it’s not played in that way, not at all.
If it works, just keep it, if it doesn’t work, move on.
What’s the working dynamic in the studio when you are both in there together? Do both of you have certain responsibilities?
There’s always the rule that we both need to agree on something... The person who doesn’t agree wins. If one of us doesn’t like something, it goes. There’s no ego, because if you start going into the ego clash – and I’ve been there way too many times in bands and things before – it doesn’t work.
Obviously, piano writing or piano playing, the way it was done in the album, on a couple of tracks, that’s definitely Rupert. But the intent or even some kind of references... There’s quite a strong reference to Virginia Astley in one of the piano pieces, that came from me. It’s a bit tedious to explain how people work. We work fast, for instance – there’s an element of speed and trying to keep a bit of spontaneity. But if it sounds like it’s a very “worked-on” record, it’s actually not. We did work really hard, but it’s a natural process... Just sit down and work. Work on it. If it works, just keep it, if it doesn’t work, move on. It needs to be enjoyable.
Most of the music that you produced over the years has come out of collaborative projects. Do you not like working alone in the studio?
I do on certain things, probably because DJing is a very lonely thing and I do like the dynamic that comes from working with someone. If you find the right person, it saves you from the mortal enemy of procrastination, which is just being in the studio and going on a loop forever. If you find each other, it’s gonna be quicker and then there’s that element of, “OK, well, this is what it is. If we want to do something else next time, we’ll do something else.” But working with Rupert is probably the most collaborative thing I ever done. Rupert, when we started working together, he didn’t know who Richie Hawtin was. It was very, “Let’s do this together, let’s make music together,” but there’s no relation to each others’ world. It’s only about us together. I’m not gonna use the record in my DJ world and he’s not gonna use it for his. It’s just very focused on the two of us, and... I’m not gonna say the meeting of minds – that sounds terrible – but it is a bit that.
The album is being released on Offen Music, which is a label run by Vladimir Ivkovic. How did you make the connection with him?
From DJing. He’s probably, if not the best, one of my favorite DJs. I loved all these artists from Offen. We talk a lot, Vladimir and I. ’Cause when [Rupert and I] started working, we did the whole album without knowing... We make music without thinking of where or when it’s gonna be, where it’s gonna go, which label. We did the whole thing ourselves, like about 99% of the stuff we do, and I had just played it to Vladimir and he says, “Well, I just wanna release that.”
It was almost as if we were doing it without thinking it would ever be released, or maybe it would be quite hard for people to get it. And Vladimir’s part in this project and this album is gigantic, I must say... I couldn’t think of a better home, really.