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Photography Bongo Mills

Looking in the mirror with Nicolas Jaar

The 26-year-old Chilean-American producer discusses how he created his most personal – and most political – album to date

“Killing Time”, the first song from Nicolas Jaar’s new album Sirens, opens with the sound of glass breaking. It pours out of the speakers as stabbing piano notes rain violently down for the next three minutes, until Jaar’s voice finally appears. Each time it happens, it’s presenting the key story of Sirens and its creator to the listener. Though described in a press release as Jaar’s “most topically cohesive and politically minded record to date”, Sirens is more appropriately the result of a period of soul-searching and personal meditation for the Chilean-American producer. Smashing the glass, therefore, is a metaphor for Sirens: Jaar shatters the illusion in the mirror and contemplates himself as he collects the broken pieces from the floor.

Though Sirens is officially the follow-up to Jaar’s 2011 album Space Is Only Noise, he personally regards it as the final piece in a trilogy of albums that includes last year’s soundtrack album Pomegranates and the more dance-focused Nymphs EPs. Somewhat surprisingly, Jaar says that when he looks at the three albums side-by-side, it’s with regret. “I think every single one of those albums is a failure because they should all have been one album,” he says over the phone from his home in New York City, three days after premiering Sirens through his new project The Network. “I wish I could have made one album that combines all those things, but I’m not there yet.”

Jaar’s sigh of resignation isn’t due to being unsatisfied with what he has: instead, it’s another example of the consistently high standards that he sets for himself. For the past eight years, Jaar has been putting out music that, despite its prolific rate of release, has rarely wavered in its quality. Now, still aged just 26 years old, his ambition remains unbounded as he discusses both Sirens and The Network, the immersive new online radio station that he premiered the album on. According to Jaar, The Network was his idea of a “chance operation-based mix”: based on algorithms, it allows users to create a mix by inputting random numbers between 0 and 333 that connect to random music channels. The catch? It’s not completely by chance: Jaar created all 111 mixes for the station. “The way I see it, if you spent an hour in The Network, that was the mix: you searching, you fumbling around, you going down rabbit holes, waiting for something, and maybe having certain satisfactions and certain dissatisfactions,” he explains.

The Network may have delivered Sirens to the public, but it was never a marketing tool for it. The idea of chance and applying it to his music started to interest Jaar while he was creating the album. After a period without internet in his home, he forgot how algorithms similar to what you find in The Network determine people’s listening habits. “On YouTube, you have suggested videos or related videos, and on iTunes, you have ‘users who have bought this have bought that’, and on Spotify, you have the Discover playlists,” he explains. “Anywhere where you listen to music you have the something telling you, ‘Oh, here’s something you can discover.’” As his interest in these processes grew, Jaar found there was “something scary” about it, and became concerned by what the algorithms were doing to people. “I started feeling that these algorithms were creating a mirror gallery where if you like one thing, they’ll show you more of it and you start to lose a little diversity,” he says. “You start losing the idea of chance, the real chance of being surprised by something you’ve not asked for, which is maybe one of the bases of society – dealing with things that you did not ask for.”

Turning the mirror back on himself, these thoughts about existentialism and the universe’s indifference towards human beings – that Jaar believes he’s yet to reconcile – inspired Sirens and allowed him to add a new dimension to his music. What defines the album, beyond Jaar’s unparalleled talent for creating immersive, spacious ambience, is the poetic flair he’s developed to write about important personal issues. Sirens addresses Jaar’s feelings towards events in his own life (his parents’ separation) as well as a wider historical context (Chile’s history under the rule of Augusto Pinochet) and situates these within his own concerns about western politics today. His treatment of these themes perhaps helps to create a closure that was lacking in the past. Putting his own ideas of failure aside, it’s a purposeful step forward for Jaar, and there’s a sense that he’s only just warming up.

Before I listened to Sirens, I wondered how far the record could go in making timely protest music when you primarily focus on instrumental electronica rather than words.

Nicolas Jaar: I hope it’s not too timely – my hope was not to necessarily make something that was of the moment and therefore becomes a relic the second the year is over. At the same time, it was extremely difficult to keep all the issues that are surrounding us away from my own personal experience of them. It was impossible for me just to flat out ignore the realities of living today. Most of my friends say that it’s the most personal record I’ve made, so to me, it feels like as I’ve grown older, I become slightly more interested in the context around music. When listening to a piece, I’m more interested in what was going on around the time: why did the artists decide this? Why did the record cover look like that? I guess I’ve started realising that a lot of my favourite music from the past was made (while) bathed inside of a context that influenced the music. I suppose I hope that Sirens can speak for itself without the lyrics and words, but it would be a lie to say that I’m not most interested in poetry and writing today than I’ve ever been before.

Why do you think that was?

Nicolas Jaar: I’m a producer first, and that’s never going to change. I’m happiest when I’m producing, and I started out by producing stuff – which means that sound engineering and making sounds from scratch and recording are the things that define me. That’s how I define myself concerning music, that’s what I feel like I do, and therefore it’s normal that the purely sound-based side of things would be the first to pique my interest. But I guess in the past three or four years, maybe the scope of things that interested me became slightly larger.

What are you addressing specifically with Sirens?

Nicolas Jaar: First of all, I didn’t write the press release, so I didn’t say that.

“It was impossible for me just to flat out ignore the realities of living today” – Nicolas Jaar

Do you disagree with the line that it’s your ‘most topically cohesive and politically minded record to date’?

Nicolas Jaar: I think it’s a bit extreme to put it that way. At the same time, it helps people see the things that they might need to see. It steers people in the right path, but it’s not the full story at all. I’m not interested in making a purely political work, and that’s not what Sirens is.

At its base level, I tried not to talk about my feelings or myself. That was not interesting to me – to talk about myself. I had a lot of questions about to what extent we make a change today through culture, a tangible change, and whether it’s worth making our silly little songs when maybe it would help more to put hands on the ground or to work in legislation. It’s a question that I’m still chewing over, but there are a lot of artists and musicians and filmmakers that make me believe that change is possible through the means of culture. And then there’s a lot of music and art and film that makes me think that change is impossible through culture. So these are things I was thinking a lot, and I was thinking about the obscene amount of racial discrimination that happens in this country to African-Americans, Arabs, and Latinos. There is, of course, a system of oppression in this country that has not been worked out. But I think if there is one thing that is positive about the past two or three years, it’s the level of awareness that has grown with regards to how truly oppressive the system is to specific groups of people.

At the same time, from looking across the pond, the system of oppression seems to be getting stronger. As strong and aware as, say, the Black Lives Matter movement becomes, more and more black people are being killed unlawfully by police officers.

Nicolas Jaar: Absolutely. I think atrocities like that – and in Syria, for example – make it so that whether you’re making political music or not making political music, it is all political music. If you’re deciding to stay silent, then that’s your decision – and a political decision. If you see discrimination and oppression and decide to stay silent, that is a political decision. Therefore, silence in this specific respect – especially when we have the added threat of Brexit, Donald Trump, the right-wing parties in Germany, and Marine Le Pen in France – is not acceptable. I tell myself, ‘What does it do to say something?’ This is a question I don’t know, and so I want to impart that while I’m asking these things, I don’t want to sound like I’m very sure of myself. I’m not. I don’t know the answer to these questions.

It’s difficult to know what to do.

Nicolas Jaar: Yes, but to talk about the conservatism that is spewing back up, we just see it at an intense level. Another thing I was questioning was whether I could take something that happened in my country and where both of my parents are from and apply it now, to say, ‘Look: this thing that happened here, I’m going to use it to talk about something that is going on over there.’ So with the song in Spanish (‘No’), it’s about the Pinochet plebiscite where he said ‘Okay, do you want me to stay in power? Yes or no.’ The artists, activists, and the musicians took the cause of the ‘no’, and they won in 1988. What I’m saying in my song is, ‘Ya dijimos No, pero el si está en todo’ which means ‘We already said no, but the yes is in everything.’ What I was trying to say is that the ghost of Pinochet is still in Chile, like the ghost of Thatcher is in Britain, and the ghost of Reagan is in the US. We see it as tragedy and then as farce. Trump is a farce, and the ghost comes back in these different iterations.

To stay silent when you see that these forces are infiltrating our entire way of life is unacceptable. But it might not be; I don’t know. Again, maybe staying silent is like being monks in a battlefield and we have to ignore it. What if talking about it stokes the fire more, and that creates more violence and more aggression? Maybe that’s the case, and maybe music should try to appease, and ambient music is all that we should be making. Maybe ambient music would be the most political gesture to say ‘Hey guys, let’s have peace.’ That’s the thing that’s been difficult with this record: asking questions that I don’t know the answers to. To me, there’s a lot of failures implicated in asking these questions because I know that I have already failed from the outset, and I know there’s no way I can fully understand this stuff without levels of failure.

What are the messages behind ‘Leaves’ and ‘No’?

Nicolas Jaar: In ‘Leaves’, it’s me as a little kid speaking with my father a couple of weeks before my parents divorced. I see it symbolically as one of the last conversations I had with my father back then. The main thing as to why I put it in there is because I’m only two years old and I’m talking in funny, surrealist ways. I’m saying to my father ‘The statue wasn’t walking,’ and my dad is saying back to me, ‘No, Nico, the statues never walk. Statues don’t walk.’ For me, there was something honest at that moment, because I’m most inspired by something that works against all logic: something that kind of bends your idea of itself. The idea that a kid, with its elastic way of thinking, could think that the statue could walk, is to me a free kind of thinking. I do think that we need to make these statues walk, or we need to crumble them. There’s a certain level of fluidity that’s missing from discourse – as if discourse is a rigid sculpture. To me, the idea of making a statue walk was a utopian ideal for discourse.

So the tapes on ‘Leaves’ and ‘No’, could you interpret them as a dialogue between the past and the present between you and your father?

Nicolas Jaar: Absolutely. What his generation went through and what my generation went through. In the end, my dad says to me – because I’m telling him a sad story – he says, ‘Let’s stop all this sad stuff and put on some music so we can dance,’ and then a reggaetón song comes on before ‘No’. I think it was also a cheeky thing to do. Hopefully, there’s a lot of humour in Sirens too. I’m not interested in just having one tone. I like a multiplicity of voices happening at the same time.

“I had a lot of questions about to what extent we make a change today through culture, a tangible change, and whether it’s worth making our silly little songs” – Nicolas Jaar

How did you find a balance between making the album humorous, political, and personal?

Nicolas Jaar: One of the first steps was to realise that maybe the mirrors breaking at the beginning of Sirens were not just outside in the world around me, but were also inside of me. Once I started realising that, I realised that I also had to pick up the pieces inside and start looking at myself through these little shards.

So could you say that Sirens is about putting the mirror back together?

Nicolas Jaar: Yes – or desperately trying to find yourself in a sea of broken shards. I like when things mean opposite things. I think there’s always a little bit of one thing within the other.

The song ‘History Lesson’ is about sharing notes with someone who missed a history class, recorded in the style of a gospel or doo-wop song. Because the lyrics mimic the act of reading from a book, is the narrator your voice and is it, therefore, a comment on historical erasure?

Nicolas Jaar: I think you’re hitting it on the head. I was questioning a lot on how much fiction plays a part in the creation of histories and narratives and the other way around in how much history affects the personal. In the end, the last words of the record are a bit distorted, and it sounds like a guitar, but it’s my voice. I’m saying, ‘…don’t you decide it?’ And that’s maybe a little bit of a prompt: don’t we get to decide the way we’re going to act? Do we hold the key to the future or not? Are things already on a downwards spiral that is so quick that we cannot change anything? Don’t we decide it?