Photo Credits : Nicolas Kern
Figure of a music that’s been shattering for more than 15 years the boundaries between techno,disco,new wave, punk,rock and pop : Pascal Arbez-Nicolas aka Vitalic slides through generations since his debut EP « Poney » released in 2001 on Dj Hell’s label (Gigolo Records). Very inspired by both french touch and electro-clash which side-tracked him from 90’s techno, Vitalic is that hyper vitamined mix between live, musical discoveries, colorful sounds and all kinds of hardware. Indeed « La Rock », « My friend Dario », « You Prefer Cocaïne », and the more recent albums Rave Age and Voyager explore different chapters of our commander in chief. Without any embelishement and very boldly Vitalic’s music is powerful and direct, as it’s creator’s image : realistic, almost pragmatic but always instinct guided. This interview preceedes his ODC live before the Nuits Sonores that will take place in the 1rst Hall of the old Fagor-Brandt factory.
Dima,Vitalic… Why do you use russian-like nicknames?
I think they sound well and they remind me of my first travels to Russia and Ukraine. I started travelling there from a young age, I was 16… i went there to discover the language and the country.
Russian producers that have inspired you?
I went there right after the fall of the Berlin wall so there was little to no electro, there was a little club but nothing too amazing. So no, not really.
You had vinyl releases first : Dima, that explores techno/acid, Hustler Pornstar that flirts with Chicago House or the dark rave universe with Vital Ferox. At what moment do you wanted to open the doors to Vitalic and do something else?
At the end of the 90’s , I couldn’t stand techno anymore and I wanted to change projects completely with the aim of opening up to something else in electro. Bring more melody to it, too. The end of the 90’s put an end to Dima, it was the time where electro arrived with Gigolo Records, there some kind of supermarketed Jeff Mills everywhere. It didn’t fulfill me anymore, and I wasn’t the only one. We listened to that sound from 1993 to 2000, 7 years on the same sound that’s also making a big comeback today ! That’s why when Gigolo arrived, it shook up everything. I wanted to change sound completely and be a part of it. It happenned very simply : I sent a demo.
Is it the electro-clash and french touch vibe that inspired you?
Yes, I think it was something new in the way that it was electronic but not only, it brang funk to acid, it went beyond the rythms of the TR-909 and classic techno sound.
Is it something you would do again?
Yes maybe, why not ! But I would release only if thought I could bring something new not to do something that already has been done in 1993. This is a little bit what I hear nowadays, and I like this nostalgia it ‘s great source of inspiration in music but i’m just not interested in making almost the same thing. There are some things that are very popular at the moment and that use too much TR-909, and I think it’s a shame, because electro is a very small industry and it would be good too bring new technics to it.
I produce techno, for lives and for fun, but making a disc with it is a whole other question. I think I will do it when I’m satisfied with what I’m doing. It’s very efficient though, raves are having a come back, kids are rediscovering (a bit more safer actually) going to warehouses, going outside clubs… It’s good that it’s changing, that’s it’s rotating, but when you’ve made a full circle, there is nothing new musically speaking. We’re kind of only copying disco and new wave, even if Gigolo did it : they had something new, the way of bringing the vocals, the techniques had evolved and it’s this permanent non-research that i’m a bit critical about. It would have been good to change it a bit, not make it better.
Talking about machines, what was your first one? Where you excited?
It was Korg’s MS20. It was really fantastic because I didn’t know anything about it, and I was just sitting in front of this thing that looked like a phone standard without understanding nothing about it ! I was completely blind for the first few weeks, and then I slowly realised that this button led to that sound etc etc. It’s this unknown that made my sound the way it is.
With the expansion of softwares, do you think prodiction has become kind of normalized or on the contrary that it pushes more boundaries?
I think that the easier the access, the better. When I started, the machines where crazy expensive and was hard to find information with the start of internet even if there was few forums. To resume, it was very different then what it is today.
You also did a live with the magazine Future Music in your studio. What’s your vision on the democratisation of producing ?
To be honest there are some kids with a much better level then me, and I’ve been here for 15 years ! And It’s because they start very early. When I started producing was very secondary, it was cool if you were good at it but I did’t matter if you sucked at it really the most important thing was to find a tune. It’s really starting from 2006 that we completely integretated the producing aspect in a tune.
Are you happy that you lived the 90’s era?
I’m happy that I started at that time because I kind of got to live the vinyl era, the CD era and the turnover was slower, so we posted more as musicians, and it required a certain effort to go search a track. But I love our times, I can search a track on my phone at 3 am if I am in Spain as if I where in Romania. I’m glad I goth to live both.
And how did you live the intervening period?
I think we experienced badly this period while still appreciating all that the internet had to give. We saw this level of producing rising, becoming more and more professional, but we also saw a backlash « shit, we’re not selling records anymore what are we going to do ? ». It was scary and exciting at the same time because we were right into it, we were heading into the unknown.
Did you start with lives before turning to records. What freedom does one or the other give to you?
I never really mixed on vinyl because I’m not a DJ, I play live. With lives I have a direct contact with the machines, I think that’s what I like. I really like this immediacy where when I want to jump from a sequence to another one, I can. This momentary aspect is very pleasant, and it’s less possible with a Dj set. For sets I cut a lot of tunes, I flip them, I remix them. You can always change brutaly change styles in a Dj set whereas in a live it’s more complicated. But I find more and more freedom on the length and the content, depending on how you bring it. I really have fun when I Dj, it’s refreshing to play other music than just yours, but my main exercise is live.
I think we can be creative in both, some Djs have the talent to really feel the crowd and adapt, whereas on my part i’m really more closed then most of the Djs because I kind of impose my style even if it’s not in fashion. If I decided that I wanted to play a certain old track, i’ll just do it. I’m not really a Dj that looks at the dancefloor and follows it, you either like or you don’t (laughs).
To talk more about the Gigolo era, at the time I lived in Britain and Dj Hell was the boss of The End club, and one night he completely emptied the dancefloor because people where expecting something more techno, something more like Jeff Mills. I remember at the end we not a lot anymore and it’s at that moment that I really understood that it was the Dj that was going to change everything about me. He played some Donna Summer, some crazy stuff and that’s what made me transition into Vitalic. I do not claim to be a grand Dj and bring with me the future of music (because lives are what I prefer) but that’s what keeps me alive. If people don’t like it, too bad !
While we’re talking about that, I’m under the impression that the more you risk, the more you’re trying to make heterogeneous things and shake up your public, the more your public becomes harsh and categorizes you as « EDM » for your album Rave Age for example. How do you deal with criticism?
I think you have to agree with yourself at the time. When Rave Age released I was happy with what I was doing. With the time, I don’t think it’s my favorite, even if « Stamina » became the banger of my live, everyone goes nuts on it. A the time I was really into it, I wanted to mix this live techno really made for the crowd with something more pop. It was badly interpreted, I don’t think it’s my best but at the time I really poured my heart into it. I don’t regret it. It’s true that the critics where harsh when Rave Age was released, but all the concept surrounding it – do a live album in a studio to be a tour soundtrack, with very rock pieces and more pop tracks, I thought it was arty. In my opinion at least. I tried to do a wharol-like/inspired electro something between pop, flirting with boundaries. In the end I think that was the dangerous idea. It’s true that it’s a hard listen because of the destination that it was made for, a soundtrack for a live.
I think there has always been this criticism around. When I was a teen people where super hardcore.
There where certain records that I was not ready to listen to, and that I appreciated really months or years later, but I think this period gave me a meaning, because the crowd in electro is young it just follows.
You have to look at your work, everything that I did starting from 97/98, and see what it tells, with some moments matching with people and other when it doesn’t but I think it’s the whole that counts. At the time I did something, it had a meaning for me, and that’s all that counts.
You said in a previous interview that « sometimes you felt slaved by the expectations in terms of energy about your music ». Is music a way to out do yourself?
When I succeed, that’s when it’s very fulfilling. If you only listen to your public, it can be dangerous for sure. That’s the difference between a producer and a musician. Even with Rave Age that’s a little different, I didn’t listen to my public, I didn’t do what was expected of me and sometimes that requires an extra-effort. But it doesnt mean it’s a success, because in music it’s really a question of moment. There is still talk about « La Rock » or « Poney », people liked those tracks because they where at a certain moment, today it would be very different if I where to do it again. That’s also what makes the beauty of composing and music in general.
Your albums have all kinds of « different colors and their own direction » but they still have the same « musical vocabulary », did you want to recreate the history of your life in different chapters?
The musical vocabulary comes from my way of doing music, so there are some similar elements on all the albums. It would be hard for me to not use this vocabulary. I think it’s a chance but at the same time it’s a handicap, if I want to do something completely different it will require a lot of effort. It’s like a revealed « diary », so not that private, like a soundtrack to my life, of my rock moments, my techno moments, my disco moments. It’s true that if we put all my EP’s together, it tells the story of my life, of course. But there are some screens, multiple interpretations, that make it not so easily readable.
What are the subjects and themes that have inspired or that inspire you?
It’s funny because I realise that the themes come after, they kind of come up unanounced, at the end of the work. I never do brainstormings, I like it better when it pops up. For example when Voyager arrived it was a bit like the result of the album because I realised that everything was cosmic et that it talked alot about travelling. I really let myself drift, it’s my subconscious that’s speaking.
On my first album (OK Cowboy) there was even a journalist that explained my album to me, and i thought « wow that’s really it !», and didn’t even realised it before. It can be personal stroies, other’s music, movies, feelings etc … When I was pilot I was really into planes, cars and even road movies.. I have periods.
In another interview, you said « I wonder sometimes what I didn’t do ? ». You have different things in your career : breed techno, new wave, disco, punk-rock and pop… Is there a style that attracts and you haven’t played around with yet?
I would like to do an album with a kind of synthetizer piano/voice. Not mine because unfortunately it’s not amazing (laughs), I don’t think I have this talent or else I would use it more often . For the moment it’s more for the little vocals.
Vitalic is the presciption we take when we need a shot of energy. Are you an impulsive person? Or is it just a side of your personnality that you showcase in your music?
Not really to be honest. I’m more like the calm river that you have to be careful about. I really like the term « music to drift off to » because I see artists that really know how to do it, long tracks that make you space out, I don’t have this talent. It’s where I’m best at, so I listen to what other people do without doing it myself. But I really like it.
Was the retro-futuristic side of your album Voyager wanted?
Yes ! It was completely wanted. Again it was a theme that came up by itself and that just takes it’s own course. If you had said to me two years ago that I would do an ambum with on it’s cover two girls with a rainbow between their mouths, I would have said no way ! But things never go as planned ?
You will present your ODC live at the Nuits Sonores this year. We still remember your incredible live with VTLZR. Can you talk to us about it?
We’re going to present a whole new live that tells a different story. VTLZR, it was in sync with Rave Age, so only based on it’s energy, lot’s of power with a 3D sceneray of the crowd with a play of lights. This is another album, another stroy and it will tell something different. For the musicians it’s the same, I’m in sync with my last album. VTLZR it was a very rock vision of techno, I was with two musicians and we considered this restructuration like the fourth musician behind the scene, whereas this time it’s about travels, cosmos, the spacecraft and I wanted to be alone orchestrating everything and at the commands of all my machines.
Like a pilot?
Exactly ! I said to the crew « I want a cockpit and I want to be the captain of it ». It’s a good comparaison.
You seem to have a certain fondeness for the Buchla synth. What more does it have?
It has a soul ! And also a certain instability, something very random that most of the time it takes control over you rather then the contrary. You have to let it be, it’s the philosphy of the company : let the machies do their own thing. Because I don’t do purely experimental music or sound design, I tried to let this randomness enter my music. You let yourself go on the machine for ours and it determines very interersting things sometimes even unuseable. I’m an expert at insect noise at the moment (laughs), I do it like just for fun, it still bangs though !
I’m under the impression that we are coming back a little to concrete musique, with Jacques for example, like we are trying to break free from sampling and coming back to the pure creation of sound. What is your opinion?
Jacques is still sampling, it’s just that it’s looped. But I find it very interesting. Musically speaking it’s not really my thing, because it’s loops that just have a lot of lenghts and that’s not new, but what I LOVE is that he has his own thing going on, he’s a comple outsider and it’s clear that there’s only one Jacques on this earth. That’s what I like and find appealing in musicians, it’s when the project is unique compared to people that produce a lot but that are easily exchangeable.
Are you a musician to begin with?
Yes I played trombone when I was younger.
What do you think of the useless debate between « instrumentalists » and « musicians »?
For me, you can be a muisician without even doing music ! I think a philosopher could agree with me: we can be things without practicing them per se. That’s my opinion. You can just create music in your head and that makes you a musician.
I heard a lot about that famous tour bus that follows you around, does it have a little name?
No (laughs). It actually changes name at each tour, for example a few years back there was the « Kangor Raclette Sexpop Tour ». We give it the name of the towns and we do in them, it depends !
How do your tours go?
We usually get together at Nation thursday night, we are generaly 10 people of the technical crew and some guests and then we wake up the mroning after in another city. The live is crafted in the morning, the balances in the afternoon. We play and then we leave to the three dates of the weekend. I actually love that. When I don’t play I tend to get a little bored. I’m incapable of leaving on vacation 5/6 days just to rest, If I don’t play somewhere i get restless. In april I played 12 times in 12 days. That was too much but generally speaking two weeekends without playing for me is not a gift. I like everything about touring : being with a crew, having a common project, the on the road pat. There’s a very fun side to it, we all get along and it’s very nice. It’s also very satsfiying to have a very perceptive public. It’s an ensemble of things.
Your tracks always have a video clip, and the album covers are always very worked on. Do you think an image can mark as much as a music?
I think it can even be as important as a song sometimes. It’s not just about my image it’s also about the project image, the personnal history… I think if i Had called my Poney EP just « Pascal Arbez » (he’s real name) on a little french electro label it wouldn’t have had the same impact. My fake bio, the fact that I came out of nowhere, all that contributed to the mystery. On Voyager we find the photos of Charlie Le Mindu, great videos of David Huguenot Petit, and all that contributed to add something arty to my project. I want the clips to be narratives or not, sometimes descriptive. Depending on the track.
Talking about image « Vitalic » is a pseudo that talks to everyone. Some Dj’s bet everything on their appearences and their persona, you on the contrary are a very discreet person.
Yes, it’s wanted. Because for starters, it’s very short term to bet on your appearance and it’s also about your nature. I really like the new wave with it’s very discreet dudes that reveal the minimum about them. Sometimes I look up people on instgram that have nothing else than beauty for them, there’s no substance. I’m more on the new wave side, 80% is reserved to my music and 20% remaining to myself. When I’m not on the scene playing music I don’t like talking about myself, I don’t think it’s interesting or important. These 20% make you breath, trust me. I don’t want to take pictures of me everyday with a half smile or to comment the elections. It’s not my style and I like keeping things secret.
And finally what makes your life sweeter?
The disconnected moment, with my family. Simple things.