How did you discover your sound?
Improvising has always been the most exciting way to get at something new and internal. Music allows you to be in a state of mind where you’re just letting go. I think everyone is that way, even a soccer player, for instance. The best soccer player can be seen as a combination of pure passion and method. The passion part of it is letting go, even though you know all the rules. You’re in the heat of the moment. The feeling of freedom that comes from letting go and allowing your mind and body to speak is very important for creating anything. I guess I’m obsessed with that freedom. The real beauty in music is finding something sacred deep inside, but I feel like the older I grow the more distractions there are.
That freedom is something you mention a lot when speaking about your music – about being really honest when you’re creating.
It’s hard to be honest because it’s hard being honest with yourself, with others, and it’s hard just knowing what honesty is in the end. In music, everything moves very fast and you want to catch up. But the moment that happens you have to catch up to yourself and realize that you can only do what you’re meant to do in the first place. And that’s why honesty is hopefully timeless in the end. Because it’s not about speaking to this context or that context, it’s about speaking to yourself first and to the people that you love and to the experiences that you’ve had in your life. That’s the hope or ideal, anyway. Maybe honesty is not the way. Maybe rules actually help creativity more than free expression. I have no idea. I just hope it’s honesty. It sounds better; it sounds more real and truthful to me. There have been times where I felt if I wanted to do a really good job at a gig, I couldn’t be honest, and I had to act the whole way. And then that gig went really well.
But that’s a different animal, right? Performing requires a different mindset than creating does.
You have to be idealistic and crazy to make music. Going through a personal pursuit every day, whether it’s consciously or unconsciously, is not the easiest thing in the world. It’s not easy to stay on your path. These things sound so cliché and simple, but they’re actually so real. There are so many things that are trying to take you away from your path.
When producing a song, do you find that the music takes on a life of its own, or is it a deliberate authorship from beginning to end?
A lot of the songs from my album were actually made in very, very little time. And I guess that’s what I like the most about them. It was a state of mind. The idea began and finished there. And then I was able to look back at the idea and see it as a small signature in time. In that sense, they take a full life of their own. And I guess that’s how I judge a song. If it has it’s own life, then it’s really, really exciting. I like seeing it as other. That’s really amazing.
Looking back on your state of mind when making those songs, what was the specific setting or circumstance that you composed against?
What’s interesting about looking back is that the music is always tied to a person, and I guess that’s what I like most about it. It’s like an exorcism, to a certain extent. Even if I’m still friends or connected to people that I make music about, I do feel like I have to make little exorcisms once in a while and take them out of me.
Strong feelings that churn inside of you until something has to come out…
That’s the hardest thing about making music for me. That feeling happens maybe three or four times a year. I think most people must be this way. It’s not like every single day we have these incredibly passionate, crazy, strong feelings about a person. Usually the impulse starts in a similar place, where something will come out if you let it. And then it turns into something else. That’s the sacred repetition. But then how it comes out, where, for whom, that’s the thing that changes every time. And that’s what makes every song different I guess.
What are the themes you’re exploring in your latest work?
There are themes I’ve been really obsessed with in the past year that I’m trying to comprehend through my music. The first theme is noise. It’s very obvious for our time, but I just can’t get away from it. And there are a lot of layers to the idea of noise. I think for the past ten or fifteen years gadgets have excited us. But in the last few years, I started getting very grossed out by technology for the first time. I wanted to get away from it. There is a sort of insanity about being connected. Anyway, what started slowly taking shape in my mind was this idea of broken technology. That’s what noise then became to me. What does a broken computer sound like? What does a broken anything sound like? Usually you end up with clicks and actual pink or white noise. You end up with static and dial-up tones. I think we’ve seen a lot of music that deals with these ideas of technological noise. We’re all trying to get away from noise, and yet we’re getting this immense amount of pleasure from the amount of noise we can have at any given moment.
Aside from noise, America has been another theme. America, what does it mean? When Obama was elected in 2008, I was a freshman in college. We had all voted for the first time. I thought there would be peace on earth. I don’t know why. This incredible campaign of change really got to my head. Fast forward to now, and I think things are pretty dark.
Is this dark perspective evident in your music now?
I was in a very idealistic place during my first two years of college before Obama was elected and when I was making my first album. You can hear it. Idealism in music can be very beautiful. But I can’t be in an idealistic mindset anymore. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I feel like we’re living in dark times right now, or if it’s because I just graduated from school and realized the world is a big, bad, cold place. Reality just hits you. Everything that I was excited about when I was making my first record were these super idealistic things like: What is love? What is the sky? It’s not like I thought of these things explicitly, but you can listen to some of these songs and think of clouds, earth, rain, or water. Now, I can’t be in that state. I have to get this next project out of me, which is based around TV static, technology failing, and intensity. It’s not a passionate, beautiful, loving intensity, but the type of intensity that you don’t know how to be rid of. The place I’m in now is a much more difficult place to make music in. What I’m interested in saying is more complex. I’m just not interested in showing you a picture of clouds anymore.
Do you feel like you are cleansing yourself of these darker anxieties when making this music?
I would love to purge all of these bad, noisy things, and go back to a place where I just wanted to talk to you about clouds and birds and water and love. I’ve worked very hard to purge. I hope this is an exorcism. I hope it’s a good sounding one. I hope the screams are good. But I do hope it’s a balance. I hope you go towards the heavens, and then you’re just bored of it so you go towards hell, and back to the heavens. I hope the truth isn’t that youth is a heavenly place and life slowly brings you to hell. I hope it’s more of a beautiful balance where you have to go between one and the other.
What role does restraint play?
Restraint had a lot to do with Darkside. It was very easy to overload. One of the main concepts that I wanted to purge was overload, too much information. Like a CPU failing. The last thing I wanted to do was give too much. In a way, that amount of restraint can only come from heaven, or the other side of darkness. That amount of restraint is very difficult to have. Especially when you’re dealing with things like noise, which are not restrained and orderly in the first place. What’s scary about feeling darkness, in the most abstract sense, is that it might go on forever. That’s the scariest thing about making music that is coming from a bad place.
Are you still interested in what happens in the spaces between sounds?
I’m interested in space and what happens between sounds just as much. I don’t think that will change. I wake up in the morning to make everything besides the actual “hits.” The sounds that are not the piano are what interest me in the first place. The space itself inspires me and everything else comes after. It’s more interesting to create a space and then say what happens in this space? Then you have a storyline to work with. The thing that has changed is the process. Before it was simpler. I thought one sound could be changed by another sound I put behind it. I don’t believe in that anymore. I want to put the sounds through the pain of the process. It’s all a little darker, I guess. I like that the sound goes through an actual physical process that is more similar to the process we go through as human beings. The scariest part of thinking about concepts like noise and interference and too much information, is that I can’t stand them. When you make music about these concepts and you put sound though this inevitable process that you hate, you create something that is inherently very ugly. This music I’ve been making in the past year or so is not music that you can listen to and just say this is beautiful. In a way I wish it was, but I’m also trying to be true to myself and true to these ideas.
Was beauty always a goal for you?
I guess I have to say yes. I’m not interested in something that is only dry or smart or intelligent. I need it to be palatable in that other way, because I do feel that that other way is more important, in a way. My favorite works of art might give me food for thought, but at first they strike me as beautiful. Not in a formal sense, but that feeling of awe is the most important thing for me.
How does it feel now that you’ve finished the record?
People need to hear it. It’s the final step. I’m in the worst position now. My music is in purgatory. What would hurt the most is if I took in this noise and trouble and anxiety and these dark things and wasn’t even able to get rid of them. So first I have to give it to people, not to know if it’s good or bad, but just to communicate it.
When the music is out of purgatory, what type of journey do you hope listeners will go on?
I guess I want it to feel like a piece in a puzzle that just fits within people. It’s never been so difficult to make music. Before it was simply, look at this pretty little object. That’s okay. It’s just looking. This is more about incorporating. It’s more about here’s something, and will you take it? It’s a much more deep and beautiful exchange with the audience because I’m not making it for people to look it. It’s not a sculpture. This new music that I’ve made with Dave is much more personal because you don’t want to look at noise, whether it’s the beauty of noise or the coherence of noise or the horrible nature of noise. You don’t want to look at it because it’s everywhere around us. I guess I’m hoping that if you take the pill, then you understand something about how to deal with it. It’s what I’ve tried to do, but I don’t know if it’s ever going to be perceived that way because it was such a hard process in the first place.
Do you hope people will have a similar shift in consciousness that you experienced while making this album?
It’s a bit pretentious to think that anyone would have a shift in consciousness when digesting your work. I think most artists dream of provoking very strong reactions in people. You want to change the way people see things in a positive way. My favorite art has changed me for the better. I can’t think of an artwork that has changed me for the worse. But beyond that, I want it to seem friendly enough at first so people want to give it a chance. It’s not necessarily that friendly, but I hope we sugarcoated it enough in a certain type of beauty that is palatable. Because in the end, I felt like I had to get this across this year, with everything that’s been happening in my life, but also in the world in general. In the past four or five years a feeling of deficiency has been brewing up, especially with the financial crisis. We’re all losing so much idealism.
Learn more about Nicolas Jaar here.
This Interview has been realized by
Directed by Richard Parks / Produced by Callie Barlow & Bennett Barbakow / Director of Photography: Ian Takahashi / Gaffer: Josh Liberman / Production Assistance by Zoe Rüiz, Nick Lentz, & Jake Wolf Braitman / Edited by Bennett Barbakow / Music by Nicolas Jaar / Interview by Callie Barlow / Special thanks to Zuza Mazur & Simon Moore