Wally De Backer on the Lasting Influence of Jean-Jacques Perrey and the Ondioline

The musician otherwise known as Gotye reflects on his personal relationship with the French composer and the process of restoring his signature instrument

The Ondioline Will Joines

The Ondioline is a proto-synthesizer invented in 1941 by Georges Jenny but popularized by French electronic music producer Jean-Jacques Perrey. Built upon a tube-based oscillator circuit and encased in wood, the Ondioline was capable of producing truly far-out sounds as well as it mimicked more traditional instrumentation, and Jean-Jacques Perrey exploited this emotional and timbral expressivity to the greatest extent possible on formative albums such as Perrey-Kingsley’s The In Sound from Way Out and Kaleidoscopic Vibrations, as well as a slew of quietly influential solo compositions.

Before Perrey’s death in 2016, he was befriended by the musician Wally De Backer, otherwise known as Gotye, who had become enamored with Perrey’s work on the Ondioline and the instrument’s beguiling power. De Backer spent several years tracking down all the Ondiolines he could find, and has since painstakingly restored them as part of an ongoing effort to preserve and celebrate Perrey and the instrument’s legacy. This culminated with the compilation Jean-Jacques Perrey et son Ondioline, which was released in early 2017 via Forgotten Futures, an imprint of the reissue label Light In The Attic, which De Backer set up in order to present the lost or unheralded music of “pioneering composers, recording artists and musical instrument inventors.” In this interview with Vivian Host on Red Bull Radio’s Peak Time, De Backer discussed the Ondioline’s persistent allure and the powerful personal relationship he formed with Jean-Jacques Perrey.

How did it come to be that you were introduced to Jean-Jacques Perrey’s work in the first place?

That was about 12 years ago. I was mixing my second Gotye record with a man named François Tétaz, who has since become a really good friend and regular collaborator on my other records. At the time, in some of the whimsy of a couple of tracks on my second Gotye record he heard resonances of Perrey and Kingsley’s records in the ’60s. I wasn’t aware of this music at all, so he played me some of their stuff, and I flipped out. I was like, “This is incredible.” Right around that time I lucked out. I chanced upon all the classic Perrey and Kingsley and Jean-Jacques Perrey’s solo records on Vanguard in a thrift shop in Melbourne, where I was living. I got really deep in his music then.

Perrey-Kingsley - Girl From Venus

It took a few years, but as it settled in and as it became some of my favorite music, I really homed in on that so many of the sounds that I loved - even more than what I recognized as Moog sounds - were these very varied, earlier synthesizer things, and finally realized it’s the Ondioline that Jean-Jacques Perrey played. That led me to dig into some of his rarities, listening to more of his early work with this particular instrument, the Ondioline, and finding out more of what it was about. Years later, that led me to make an original tune in tribute to the man, that in turn led me to meet him. It’s been a very tic-tac-toe thing that’s resulted in a lot of archival work that is leading towards this compilation.

So you made this track and you sent it to Mr. Perrey, who was living in Switzerland, and then he wrote, “Well, if you’re ever in Switzerland come see me.” Then you got on a plane nearly immediately. I guess one doesn’t get an offer like that every day.

No, it’s true. I’d been digging really deeply into his work because I knew I wanted to make this tribute song to him. This is an unreleased track. It’ll be on the next Gotye record. I sent a demo to Jean-Jacques, and him and his daughter, who manages his career, both responded really warmly. They said, “Come and visit anytime you’re in the neighborhood.” I couldn’t just wait until I happened to be in Europe, so I booked a flight in a few weeks.

What was it like when you got there? What was he like as a human?

He’s a wonderful, warm-hearted person, just so welcoming. I instantly felt like I met one of the most open-hearted and generous people I’d ever come across in my life. That’s a wonderful experience, when you are attracted to someone’s music, and then you meet the person and find out that they also have a beguiling personality. He was just very, very hospitable to welcome me into his home and spend time talking, and answer a lot of my early questions about the Ondioline and about his music. It was like a little dream come true for a megafan for a lot of years.

We got to know each other over a number of visits, and through the time I spent with him in his apartment in Lausanne in Switzerland, he and his daughter Patricia started to produce all sorts of other interesting early recordings that hadn’t been released - test pressings, alternative arrangements of things that are better known in his work. As I started to listen to these things, over time I realized this whole collection of stuff that he never really put out is amongst his best work.

It’s like the universe has been saying, “You need to bring these instruments back.”

A lot of people know his work as being very whimsical. It almost sounds like library music, or what you associate with 1960s synthesizers, very kooky, very personality-filled and fun. The kind of stuff that you released are a lot more full songs. There are some melancholy moods. It’s not necessarily what you think of as the far-out sounds of Perrey and Kingsley.

This is what I was hearing as a fan, too. I thought, “There are so many other shades to this man’s musicality, and as a composer/producer.” There are definitely pieces in the compilation that point towards the better known Perrey and Kingsley stuff and the really beautifully boisterous, effervescent thing that is really his personality. There are also these very yearning, very melancholy pieces. I thought the contrast of those things, to me, really spoke to the romance of his music. I think even though it’s beautiful and he’s celebrated for being such a great purveyor of unbelievably joyful music, it maybe does a disservice to the breadth of his musicianship. I hoped maybe this compilation would point towards more of these corners of his work.

The Orchestra of Paul Durand feat. Jean-Jacques Perrey - La Vache et le Prisonnier

When you hear Jean-Jacques Perrey demonstrating the features of the Ondioline, you can kind of hear how for early synthesizers they were really trying to duplicate the abilities of traditional instrumentation.

A lot of them, yeah, from the theremin or the Ondes Martenot. Almost any of those early period of instruments. It’s interesting: You have these instruments that were right at the vanguard of technology and promising all sorts of new sound possibilities, but then to legitimize them it was always pulling back to the deepest Western art music traditions.

That sort of thing is a thread that runs really deep in Jean-Jacques’s work, because he’s a huge classical music fan... Songs like “Swan’s Splashdown” with Kingsley on The In Sound from Way Out, it’s an incredible arrangement of Swan Lake, but it’s beautifully exploded into these great cartoony, wild, kaleidoscopic sounds. He’s a big classical music fan. He draws on that. You can hear in demonstrations that he’s got a real sensitivity for playing beautifully on the Ondioline.

Perrey-Kingsley – Swan’s Splashdown

What is it that draws you to the sound of the Ondioline in particular, as compared to maybe other synthesizers? Why do you think that your ear picked that out on the record, too?

A big part of it is Jean-Jacques Perrey, because his playing of the instrument is so light-footed and so much of his personality speaks through that instrument. You could say it was his first love. He spent 20 years developing such deep technique on it. He speaks through the instrument in such a playful, beautiful, expressive way. He is a big reason I think why the Ondioline has spoken to me.

Digging further into the history of the instrument, and its inventor Georges Jenny, it’s definitely an instrument that has so many expressive and tonal possibilities that to me it’s just always stood out amongst any of those early electronic instruments, and a lot of synthesizers that have been created since. It’s really hard to put into words. It’s a very textural thing. It’s the breadth of textures that can come out of it, having in the last few years had the luck to be able to find some Ondiolines and worked with a wonderful technician here in New York to have them restored and started to learn how to play.

It has an incredible depth of possibilities for expressively playing, like moving the keyboard for vibrato side to side like you would on a guitar or a violin string. The knee lever gives you this beautiful control over the overall envelope of your sound. Certainly more than any contemporary synthesizer, I can think of it as such a performer’s instrument. You can dig your body and your hands into it, and I feel like you can play so musically on it. The fact that it also has so many sound options just makes it my favorite electronic instrument. I find myself on almost any other synth and feel like, “Oh, I just want to wiggle this a bit and get some vibrato, or a little wobble here, or shape the front-end.”

How many Ondiolines do you have at the moment?

It’s become a bit absurd. I actually looked for years and years to try and find even one, and just couldn’t find a glimpse of any. Ebay and Craigslist never seemed to come up with any options, but I was going to the extent of calling French rare instrument shops and leaving my details. I remember this really clearly, one particular man, leaving my details with him, saying, “Yeah, I’ll take your details down and let you know if I have something that comes up, but you know the Ondioline is very rare.”

You’re like, “Yeah, I’m aware.”

Somehow, when I found the first one, it was a huge effort to restore it with this incredible technician here in New York named Stephen Masucci. It took about a year. I had the original manual of the instrument translated into English, and had been working on recreating it as a publishable document so that other people can dig into the technology itself. With that in hand, and with his really deep, excellent electronic expertise, after about a year we managed to restore that first instrument.

Somehow in that time, and through my searches, all these other instruments have come out of the woodwork. It’s like the universe has been saying, “You need to bring these instruments back.” Now there’s ten between my studio and my house.

You’ve magnetized all the working Ondiolines in the world to you.

The hope is we restore more of them. We restored five, which represent significantly different models over 20 years of the instrument’s development. As we restore more multiples of the later, more classic models that you hear Jean-Jacques playing on a lot of these tunes, I’m hoping to be able to place them in public places, like studios where other musicians can access them. Have them in a state and with enough technical documentation supplied that other technicians could also just keep them running.

What me and Stephen have learned in the couple of years we’ve been dedicated to restoring these instruments is that even when you do this very deep work and get an incredibly functional, stable electronic instrument that offers all the great expressive possibilities that it had in the ’50s and ’60s, within a matter of months - a little bit of dust, just not being turned on for a few days - it immediately starts to get crackly and requires a little bit of playing. It’s very much an instrument that needs to be played. You can’t leave it dormant for months and then expect it’s actually going to play well again. I guess we’ve realized that if I have the aspiration to allow other musicians to access these instruments and actually have them working, then we need to also have really well-organized documentation so that other technicians can just keep them alive, so other people can turn them on in future years and actually play them.

The Ondioline is a very cute little instrument. It’s like a little piece of furniture.

Unfortunately, Mr. Perrey passed last year, but before he did you had the opportunity to play some live shows with him.

Unfortunately not before he passed. He was actually due to join us here in New York at National Sawdust. We did play the show, but it was just after he passed. It was all set. We prepared about nine months, restoring the instruments, learning how to play them, me and Rob Schwimmer, the other Ondioline player in the band, and putting all the arrangements together. [Perrey] wasn’t sure at some point that he could even make it because he was feeling... He’d never been a big fan of air travel. He always preferred traveling by ship, so he said, “I’m way too old to do this, but this is incredible. Thank you so much. I wish you the best. I can’t wait to hear a recording of it,” and then towards the last few months before the show date he said, “I’m coming over.”

His daughter had booked business class flights. We had it all prepped to make sure he could travel comfortably and make it to the show. Then, a matter of weeks before the gig date, he got a terminal cancer diagnosis and died only eight days later. Maybe about as swiftly and gently as you could go in old age as you could hope for. That was merciful, but a shame that he couldn’t come and celebrate it.

I really felt like he was here with us, though, in the room. I’d never been in a music environment where I so felt transported by the presence of someone beyond the physical space we were in, like he was guiding us through performing this show. It was still an incredible experience even though it was a little more bittersweet than I hoped it would be.

At least he got to know that you were re-releasing some of his work that probably otherwise may have been forgotten or may have been in a dusty archive.

Yeah, I think he was thrilled with that. I flew over just before he passed away, and I showed him a pre-release copy of the vinyl. He was looking at the booklet and the record. I could tell he was stoked that people would hear this music.

There’s another track on the compilation called “Danielle of Amsterdam.” Can you tell me a little bit about what’s special about it?

One cool thing is that it’s a collaboration been Jean-Jacques and Angelo Badalamenti. They did a lot of work together in the ’60s. At the time, Badalamenti was not using his proper name. He was going by the name Andy Badale, and Jean-Jacques met him here in New York through the Carroll Musical Instrument Service, which is the most prominent musical instrument rental house, at a place where Jean-Jacques had been set up with a great little electronic studios. They met through that building. They did a bunch of writing together. They wrote for television’s Captain Kangaroo.

Angelo actually produced Jean-Jacques’s first solo record,The Amazing New Electronic Pop Sound of Jean-Jacques Perrey, even though he’s not credited on the record. They did a lot of musical things together. This is a song they made in the late ’60s around the time of The Amazing New Electronic Pop Sound record. For one reason or another it wasn’t put on that record, and then was never released at all. I think it’s one of the best tunes that Jean-Jacques played Ondioline on.

Angelo Badalamenti & Jean-Jacques Perrey - Danielle of Amsterdam

Now that you have ten Ondiolines at your service, are you using those to write your next Gotye record?

There’ll definitely be some Ondioline on a number of tracks. The main two instruments that we’re using in the tribute show to Jean-Jacques are the ones I’m mainly exploring because they’re the, I think, most completely restored. They’re the instruments that date from the mid-’50s, kind of like the classic period after about 15 years of development. If you listen to Jean-Jacques’ recordings, you mainly hear him playing one of those models.

The earlier models we’ve restored are still more difficult, which is interesting because circuit-wise they’re a lot simpler. But you really see how there’s a lot of functions that weren’t quite worked out... They’re still works-in-progress. We’re still learning a lot about the early models. Then five out of those ten are unrestored at the moment. They’re still to come, and then hopefully to be placed in some places around the world.

I’m hoping I can place them with some of Georges Jenny’s family. His oldest daughter is in LA, and she’s really excited that I’m doing this work to revive her dad’s instruments. There’s a public studio in Melbourne, Australia that I’m supporting called MESS - Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio - which aims to try to give greater access to more difficult-to-find, and often too expensive electronic instruments, where you can get a membership and then play all these things, and go do sessions and use them in your work. I’d love to get an Ondioline there at some point. Hopefully, yeah, you’ll hear it on a bunch of Gotye tracks on the next record for sure.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think when Georges Jenny created this instrument, he was putting ads in newspapers. This was intended to be something for consumers. A lot of these rare synths are big and unwieldy... Unless you have a mansion, it’d be hard to have a Buchla in your house or whatever, or the early version.

The Ondioline is a very cute little instrument. It’s like a little piece of furniture.

That was really intriguing to me, that back in the 1950s Georges Jenny was thinking, “Somebody could buy this and have this in their house and use it on their recordings.”

He was very actively looking for that to be the way that people could engage with his instrument. In France especially, before then you had in electronic music the Ondes Martenot, which was quite influential and was very established in the conservatory. Martenot’s influence was quite wide. You had people learning the Martenot actively with teachers and courses at the conservatory, and the Martenot had been composed for by “serious composers.” It was well-established.

I think Georges Jenny’s more like the underdog outsider, coming along with a real reaction to those instruments, because I think he made an instrument that is way more timbre-ly versatile, and in some ways more expressively versatile, than the early generation of electronic instruments in the period. He really wanted kids to be able to play it. He wanted families to be able to afford it. I think at the time to buy an Ondioline was about a quarter of the price of an Ondes Martenot.

It’s quite portable - I’d say more portable than the Martenot with its separate, though beautiful, very large and cumbersome speakers. I think he pre-empted a lot of things about what the modern synthesizer has become. He probably went even further with some facets of it that a lot of people just haven’t even thought to explore since. Sometimes on contemporary instruments I really feel the absence of really deep musical potential that this instrument has from 70 years ago. It’s nowhere near the plastic keys you’re playing on certain things these days.

There’s a clunkiness about it, and yet it has this kind of elegance and sensitivity in the way you can express things that seems totally out of step with how mechanical it is.

I wonder if your interests in this and the release of this compilation will prompt some synth manufacturers to take into account some of the features that the Ondioline had, and put those on some modern gear.

There are some people - certainly Roli and their Seaboard range of instruments are doing really well. There’s a very deep gestural controller, and they’re also making a lot of soundpacks. They’re definitely attempting to bring more expressive possibilities to new electronic instruments. It’s really different because, for instance, they’re exploring very contemporary materials, very squishy rubbers and sensitive kinds of grids where lots of information, control voltage and MIDI can be gleaned from that. Whereas the Ondioline is so mechanical. It really dates from a mechanical period. That’s one of the things I like about it. There’s a clunkiness about it, and yet it has this kind of elegance and sensitivity in the way you can express things that seems totally out of step with how mechanical it is.

I take it that you were a synth guy before you ever discovered Perrey’s work. Or did this catapult you down a wormhole of getting into other synths and other things besides?

It has, and it’s a big part of the new Gotye record I’m working on. I think I was really into it as a teenager, and in a way I actively decided to move away from it, or I got so into sampling in my early 20s that I felt such a magical sound while digging for records and the seemingly endless world of sounds that already exist on different recorded mediums. I just didn’t look into hardware too much. I’ve come back and found my interest goes very much to early 20th century and hardware, for whatever reason. Something about it, whether it’s some of those circuit designs, tube circuits and expressive possibilities an instrument like this offers that I just find more... Seem to call me forward more than a lot of things that are currently being supported.

I think it’s a meeting point of all those things. A guy like Georges Jenny, even at the time, he canvased everything people had done up to a certain point, and then tried to take that further. I’m excited about the possibility of what has maybe been forgotten that actually still has a lot to recommend it, maybe more than what’s being explored at the moment, but then still bringing that into the contemporary sphere where you have another meeting point. You have different periods and different technologies and see what happens when you bring those things together.

Do you already have plans for other releases on Forgotten Futures?

I’m putting others together. I would say this one’s been such a deep labor of love. Two to three years worth of collecting and getting restorations done, and trying to get a feeling for what this should be to pay tribute to Jean-Jacques’ early work. Not to say that the other compilations won’t be very lovingly put together, but I have more of a clear idea of what they’re going to be. They do relate to some other pioneering electronic instrument creators from the early-ish side of the 20th century.

Are you going around to meet all of these different people in different places?

I’ve met a lot of family members. Unfortunately, everyone else I’m looking to has passed away in the later part of the 20th century. I feel very lucky that I got a chance to meet Jean-Jacques even for a few years. But it’s wonderful still to meet family members and find that they either haven’t thought to dig so deeply, or haven’t thought that anybody’s interested, and then get a lot of energy when you come along saying, “This is really incredible work. There’s stuff to be done here. Is there some way we can dig this up together and present to people in a way that might tell this story in a richer way?”

By Vivian Host on July 25, 2017

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