Off the record
Before Lauren Garnier was a world-acclaimed music producer and DJ, he was determined to be so. Having moved to England from France at an early age, he worked as a waiter at the French Embassy in London. Determined to DJ but also keep his day-job, he would play five nights a week, get home at 7am and be up at 8am to start catering. “For one year I only slept one hour per night,” he tells us below.
This commitment, obsession even, became a constant energy source through Garnier’s career, and is now studied in a new music documentary by Gabin Rivoire titled Off The Record, which not only examines Garnier’s work, but the techno world during its most tumultuous time.
The film is almost a parable for techno and its development in modern culture. With Laurent Garnier as a key figure at its centre, we’re taken through subversive sociocultural factors in France and England, a time when techno was widely perceived as dangerous and even targeted by both governments. Raves and dancing kids alerted an archaic British government to the point where parties were declared illegal, to which Garnier offers first-hand anecdotes alongside club promoters and other DJs who were forced underground in their battle for acceptance.
Off The Record begins with a statement by Garnier himself: “I love all types of music, punk, soul, rock, disco…. and house music is the essence of it all. Techno is a revelation. It doesn’t dictate to you what to think.” A trailblazer and a techno icon, he never ceased to push forward, to revolutionise the movement he so strongly believed in and defend a then-considered controversial culture. Here, Garnier opens up about his formative years in Manchester, the importance of Donna Summer and the intense emotions within the party scene.
Arijana Zeric: The film is more about techno music itself rather than you personally, was that intended?
Laurent Garnier: Completely, 100 percent. I’ve been approached by two or three different production companies in France over the last few years, and as soon as I understood that they wanted to do a film about me myself and I, I said, “No.” I don’t find it interesting to focus just on me. I’m OK with being the leitmotiv of some sort but I wanted it to be more global. I met director Gabin Rivoire at a small festival I co-organised in the south of France. There was so much poetry in his images, especially the way he juxtaposed music was very touching. He knew nothing about techno, which I thought was great. So he started coming along with me, but he approached me with the pitch much later. We’ve been on the road for four years now and I think he had his epiphany in a club in Lyon called Le Sucre. There’s a couple who have been following me for the past fifteen years. She is 78 and he is 83. At first, he thought they were my parents. They went to about 30 of my gigs in one year. Gabin couldn’t understand why they would do it but they just loved the music. I think that was a revelation to him. He came out of the club and said, “If I have to tell a story, it will have to explain to my grandmother what the techno movement is all about.”
We knew we couldn’t tell the whole story of techno in an hour, but the idea was more to do a film for people who know the scene and those who don’t know it at all. It had to be more open. At the end of the day, when you DJ, you play other people’s music. So with that in mind, it would be very strange to focus on yourself.
AZ: You tell a comprehensive story about the development of techno.
LG: There are a lot of music documentaries that try to tell what happened but without going deeper into the social aspect of things. I find it really interesting why house and techno became so big at a time in England where it had Thatcher and unemployment issues. A lot of people know about the Manchester Hacienda scene and such-and-such records but they never really understood why it happened there and not in a different town in England. It was there for a reason. That’s what we’re trying to explain in the most simple way.
AZ: You mention briefly that there is a sadness in the party scene, can you explain that.
LG: The image of the party world is glittery and full of laughter and fun, being together – it’s a beautiful image. But it’s lying to some extent. After all the intensity, there are moments of loneliness. Especially when you’re on the road. You can have beautiful gigs, but once it’s over, you’re on your own. You don’t wanna lose yourself in the fakeness of the party world, you shouldn’t be fooled by the fact you’re always with people. First, you’re getting all these strong adrenalin shots, but then you finish your gig and an hour later you’re on the plane to go somewhere else. These comedowns can be harsh and it takes a while to adapt. It’s sometimes a bit violent, you know? The contrast is too strong.
“A lot of people know about the Manchester Hacienda scene and such-and-such records but they never really understood why it happened there and not in a different town in England. It was there for a reason.”
AZ: You seem to have an obsessive and almost scientific streak when it comes to discovering new music.
LG: I can’t go to a restaurant without noticing the music and wondering why they are playing it [laughs]. It’s a passion, I absorb it and share it. It can be quite intrusive sometimes and I find it hard to let go. I’m quite bulimic about it. When I discover something, I want to know everything. I’m all over specialist blogs. As a kid, I had groups of friends who would listen to soul, others to punk and so on. I would go around and pick music because I was starving. And I’m still starving. I’m the same with films. I need to be fed with culture.
AZ: Do you have a favourite film?
LG: I don’t have one. Movies are like music. Some films are markers in your life but nowadays it just depends on my mood. Soy Cuba [I Am Cuba, 1964] has some of the most wonderful cinematography, every shot is mind-blowing but it’s not an easy film to watch. I’ve rewatched some scenes probably 100 times. I can’t say it’s my favourite but it’s a film that is very important to me for special reasons.
“There’s a couple who have been following me for the past fifteen years. She is 78 and he is 83.”
AZ: You played the Techno Parade in Paris in 1998, it looked like a french revolutionary act.
LG: Yes, I agree for the french scene. At the time, every single techno rave was getting closed by the police. There was great incomprehension and towards raves, it was very complicated. You haven’t seen this in other countries. Germany was very open to the arrival of techno, as was England at first, before the problems started. The techno parade in France was a key moment in our history. We literally took the streets. If you haven’t lived in France during that time, you have no idea how hard it was. Major newspapers labelled techno as Nazi music on their front page. This shit was nasty. To be able to go dancing on the street and finish at the Place de la Nation in front of 200,000 people felt like we won a huge battle on that day.
“When you take New Order’s Blue Monday for example, it’s a techno track. Just take off the guitar.”
AZ: You’ve described Donna Summer’s I Feel Love as the essence of everything you were looking for in music, can you tell us why you feel this?
LG: For sure. I Feel Love is a very important record. It was in Detroit where they made the first techno tracks. These guys grew up with a radio DJ called The Electrifying Mojo, he was some kind of a mystery. He played stuff they never heard before. Next to disco, funkadelic, soul, etc, he played foreign stuff such as Kraftwerk, Falco, New Order, Depeche Mode, The Cure, all of it very synthetic. When you take New Order’s Blue Monday for example, it’s a techno track. Just take off the guitar. So all these kids were listening, and by trying to copy those sounds they made techno. Making music in Detroit was done in a jazzy way. Techno has the same roots as hip-hop. Take Africa Bambaataa, he actually played melodies of Kraftwerk. We are all from the same roots.
AZ: How do you see the techno scene today?
LG: I think it’s like every other scene or type of music. You have the big kahuna, huge fairground parties with large crowds where the DJ is more of a hype man than anything else. That doesn’t talk to me at all. But there are still loads of clubs that focus on quality. You choose the places you want to go.
Lauren Garnier: Off The Record is in UK cinemas and streaming on Doc’n Roll TV now.