Interview with Yan Wagner at NY CMJ Party
French-American synth-pop musician Yan Wagner was in New York City, performing at the Bureau Export CMJ Party at Union Square Ballroom, we caught him a little bit before his set and talked about his passion for techno, his collaborations with French techno icon Arnaud Rebotini and French new wave legend Etienne Daho.
What is your musical background? What made you want to make music?
I began as a self-taught musician. When I was 13 years old, I went to a Chemical Brothers show and I had some sort of revelation. It was this concert which made me want to make music. I bought a synthesizer - a pretty shitty one, a Yamaha CS1X, and a sequencer and I started writing my own music. I was also in a few bands with friends, but it was never serious. I was always writing music on my own. In 2006, I started a band with a friend, called Chairs on Backs. We released an EP but the band eventually split. Then I went to New York to work on my PhD thesis in history, as part of an exchange program between La Sorbonne and Columbia University. It is here, in New York, that I really started the Yan Wagner project, drawing on my experience in Chairs on Backs, my first ever “serious” experience as a musician. I played my first show at Glasslands Gallery in Williamsburg, and then I had the chance to meet the right people, who booked me at a bunch of DIY spaces and lofts in Brooklyn (Shea Stadium, Market Hotel). Back in Paris, people started to talk about me as the "guy who has played in New York," and things gradually got more and more exciting for me. I was offered a lot of opening slots, including a 12 show tour opening for Air. I also met Arnaud Rebotini at a show that we both played. We immediately got along and he offered, while a little drunk, to produce my first LP. Obviously, I was really excited. I talked about it with my label, Pschent Music (Discodeine, Slove, Tristesse Contemporaine), and they agreed. And there we go, the album came out on October 1st.
We read that you are a fan of techno music, and that "Dig Your Own Hole" and "Public Enemy" by Chemical Brothers were landmarks of your teenage years, can you tell us more about your background in techno?
I am fascinated by analog gear, whereas guitars never made me shiver. The Chemical Brothers introduced me to electronic music in general. I saw them at Le Bataclan, the bass was huge, and I found it captivating to watch two guys make the crowd go crazy while turning and switching a bunch of knobs and faders. I also loved the simplicity of these guys, who were not showing any type of on-stage attitude and humbly left the stage despite the crowd going crazy. Chemical Brothers were also at the crossroads between techno, rave culture and hip-hop, and that attracted me a great deal. I still find the first two albums a pleasing listen, even though I’m not that into them anymore. Also, my brother, who is five years older than me, was somehow a child of the techno generation and therefore handed me a lot of records. My first crushes were DJ Hell (My definition is house music), Ron Trent, Joey Beltram, and of course, Juan Atkins. I also love The Hacker, who has always done his thing and followed a certain path without ever trying to make "teenage music". More recently, I loved releases from the Comeme label (Daniel Maloso, Rebolledo), from Get the Curse label (Clement Meyer, Darabi) and a few tracks from Steve Moore.
Your dance music influences are also reflected in your DJ sets. What is your approach to DJ-ing?
Initially, I would do it just for fun, with friends. I consider myself first and foremost a musician, being a DJ is secondary, even if I do enjoy it. I find it exciting that you somehow get enslaved by the audience. It is a real challenge to find this delicate balance between pleasing yourself and pleasing the crowd. Playing a DJ set is much more risky than playing a live set - you don’t play your own music and you have to conform with what the audience wants to hear. Yet, I would never play too many crowd-pleasers and trashy tunes. This is why I respect guys like Gesaffelstein a great deal. He makes thousands of American kids dance, while dropping here and there a Dopplereffekt track (Ed. note: a legendary electro duo from Detroit).
And yet you chose to write pop songs, despite your influences being deeply rooted in the culture of techno.
I think that the starting point of this is singing. Singing is what I like most when I’m on stage. It is somehow a “selfish pleasure”. I chose to write pop songs also because pop and techno music have a lot in common. The idea is to find a very simple, catchy pattern, a “hook”. I find writing pop songs much more fun than writing straight up techno tracks. I love the variety of textures that pop demands. I try to keep this aesthetic in mind even when I remix other people’s tracks.
Can you tell us a few words about your collaboration with Arnaud Rebotini, who produced your first LP?
This collaboration went very well. The recording of the album lasted for a month and a half. When I got to the studio, I had a bunch of demos that were quite accomplished in terms of composition. I needed the expertise of a true producer. Arnaud Rebotini, who I trust and greatly respect, was the perfect person. He has participated in some arrangements, made choices when there were choices to be made. He did a really good job of creating a sense of coherence between the 12 songs of the LP. Pretty much all of the 12 songs were played live at the studio and drum machines were recorded in one take. I expected a lot from this collaboration and Arnaud really managed to make the whole thing sound "rough" enough, actually quite “techno”, which is totally what I was going for when I wrote the songs.
How about your collaboration with Etienne Daho? It is also the only French song of the album, why is that?
I would simply say that English comes more naturally. Not just because my father is American, but also because my musical background is rather “Anglo-Saxon.” When I was younger, I would listen to a lot of Depeche Mode, New Order and all these new wave bands – which I still do. I did not listen to a lot of French music, but Etienne Daho was an exception. He is the only French musician that I’m really obsessed with, whether it be his first singles or his more recent records. I remixed his cover of "Amoureux Solitaires," which appeared on the tribute compilation to French new wave singer Jacno, "Jacno Future." We met at the release party for the compilation at La Villette. I was covering "Les nuits de la pleine lune". He came up to me after my performance. We talked quite a bit, and then I finally asked him if he would like to collaborate with me and participate in my first LP. He said yes. I felt just like a child, I was so excited. He proved to be very humble, easy-going, he made a lot of suggestions without ever imposing his ideas. We wrote the lyrics together. I am very happy about the collaboration. Now, I would just love to invite him on stage so we can actually sing it together ..!
Could you recommend a recent record that you liked?
When I was in New York, I worked for a while at Le Poisson Rouge and I met Charles Damga, who became a friend and now runs the label UNO NYC, on which I released my first EP - "Turmoil". UNO just keeps putting out amazing and weird releases, such as transgender rapper Mykki Blanco and acid house revivalist SFV Acid.
Could you recommend a cool spot in New York?
A1 Records, an amazing record store in the Village. I go there every time I come to New York.
Yan Wagner’s "Forty Eight Hours’ is out now on Pschent Music.
This interview was made with collaborative support from the French Music Export Bureau.
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