Laurent’s energy, like his music, is expansive and magnetic. This man has delivered more life affirming DJ sets than most of us have had hot dinners! A multi-talented DJ, producer, film composer and demon remixer with an international reputation for innovation, making him one of France’s most precious exports. As an early pioneer of US house in Europe and one-time employee of the French Embassy in London, he made his way up north and began DJing at the Hacienda. In France he established the influential Wake Up Club at The Rex and his PBB pirate radio station. Paris label F Communications followed, along with his own colossal recording career. His output since has gone on to make him a towering figure in dance music, touring from continent to continent. While the title ‘Best DJ in the world’ is regularly bandied about, Garnier is one of the select few who can truly lay claim to that title.
You mentioned last year you were finding it hard to listen to music. That must have been quite a strange period for someone like you.
For me techno since the beginning has always been the music of tomorrow, of the future, about looking forward never back. When covid arrived, everything stopped suddenly. I felt for the first time in my career there was no light at the end of the tunnel. We couldn’t plan anything, and the future seemed unclear. We had to cancel all the dates, everything we have been doing in our normal life, the parties, visiting my family, everything stopped. I had to concentrate on my family, my wife. This lack of vision for the future really changed a lot of things. Music didn’t seem relevant. Music is the thing of the moment. I listen to soul in the morning, I like classical music on Sunday. I don’t listen to techno at home, but techno was very a big part of my life. Receiving techno music from PR companies was weird. I mean, why the fuck would you release techno music when there’s no clubs? Of course, you can listen to techno outside clubs, but its main purpose is to make people dance. The whole world stopped dancing; techno was not relevant for me at all. For the first two or three months of lockdown I went very much back to my roots with disco and funk and soul. I am not someone who is nostalgic at all but it’s like I felt that the stop was so sudden, I needed to go back into my past to understand why I was doing what I was doing, why it drove me all my life to go forward, to DJ and to play music. It was a big moment for me to stop, press pause and think - what did I do all this for? I felt like I stopped in front of a big gap in the road, and I couldn’t jump over the gap and I needed to look back and study the road behind me. In March I reclassified all of my music. I produced an album with a French psychedelic band, without even talking about it our influences were Ennio Morricone, Serge Gainsbourg, Massive Attack. All sorts of stuff but old stuff not new. When I finished doing the album, I made music for a movie. In November after the movie project, I started to feel that I would try to make another dancefloor record. I’m back on track and I can only make techno. I can see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I got vaccinated. I needed to find a purpose again to DJ. You’ve got to understand I’m 55, I’m not young anymore and I know I’m playing for crowds that are much younger than I am. I believe as a DJ you need to stay relevant. I always say to my friends please tell me when I’m too dusty. Before 60 I will have to draw a limit. I see some people hanging on to it, but you have to have the right crew around you to tell you when it’s time. I’m not sour or sad, I’ve had a wonderful career for over 30 years. I never sold my soul to the devil; I always played the music I love. I haven’t had to make many compromises. I’m lucky. But it would be nice to finish my career in an elegant way. I think in five years I will move on to a different stage, still with music but in different ways. The whole process of Covid made me realise a lot of things, which is a really good thing. I am now at that point where the frustration of not being able to play out is kicking in. I needed to find a purpose to come back. I made a lot of music for the last 4 months, so I will have lots of exciting new things to play that represent who I am. Perhaps the beginning of 2022 I will release a new album, my final album.
When did you first get the bug?
There was a friend of my parents who was looking after us when we were young when my parents were working, the guy was the Director of CBS France. Since I was a baby, this man was coming to the house bringing piles and piles of records. As I was the youngest, I got the last choice after my father and then my brother. But I got to steal a lot of it off them as music was more important to me. My brother is gay and is six years older than me, when I was 11, he was 17 and was already going out to gay clubs in Paris. Back then the gay clubs were the most upfront musically. Music has been present around me since I was very young. At the age of 12 I knew I wanted to be a DJ. I was obsessed with clubs, I had a fascination for clubbers, club nights and loud music. I had spotlights and a mirror ball in my room. I had a mixer at 13 and my parents were always coming to dance in my bedroom. At the age of 13 there was a free radio explosion in France on FM. I approached a radio station, and I was doing radio at 13 before I went to clubs. At the same time in France, clubs were open Sunday afternoon for kids. I was going to a club every Sunday, a little club 20 minutes’ walk from my house and the DJ there was playing amazing funk and soul. He was the first guy I discovered DJing. I remember he played a 16-minute version of James Brown ‘Sex Machine’. I started to buy as much stuff as I could afford, but it was expensive, so I was listening to radio shows and recording them, making tapes and replaying those tapes on my radio show. It was the time of mega mixes and long versions and I was editing it and playing them on my own shows.
Can you remember your first club experiences?
I was going to the first gay night club night when I was 15. Gay clubs were much looser on the door than other clubs. I was working in my brother’s restaurant, only because they were going out every night. I knew that if I washed the dishes, they would take me. My brother and his boyfriend were quite well known on the gay scene because of his restaurant so they were able to get me into the clubs. This was the time when gay clubs were listening to hi-energy which is very hyped-up disco. It’s the closest thing to techno I know. I loved that music. They were going off into the back rooms in the clubs and doing their stuff (laughs) and I was just on my own on the dancefloor. I’d seen the gay scene for a long time before I left for England. This is why when I came back to France, gay clubs were the first clubs I approached to bring house music and techno to because it really wasn’t happening in France. First it was Le Boy and another club La Luna that I played at, and I was basically DJing in both. Le Queen came after and then of course Le Palace. And I was doing the gay Tea Dance on Sunday afternoon which was strictly boys. I became the DJ who was playing at big gay parties for 600 men, and I was the only straight guy in there. I was just going with the flow. Techno and house started in gay clubs in France. The first house and techno parties were gay parties organised by English guys. These guys had a party in London at The Pyramid Club, and they came to do The Pyramid in Paris.
You came to London at 18 to work at the house of the French Ambassador.
Yeh it was in 1984. I was living in Notting Hill and working as a waiter at the house of the ambassador.
How did you get involved with London nightlife so quickly?
I was out every night. I was going to Mudd club, I was going to Heaven every week, I was going to a huge club in Camden Town. I was following guys like Mark Moore and Jay Strongman, following them everywhere. I was going to gay nights at the Hippodrome in Leicester Square, I remember I went to see Divine play live. I loved it. I went to The Mudd Club every Friday for three years. I could not miss a Friday night! I’ve got all the flyers still. This was my total education. After that I moved from London to Manchester as I had a really good job opportunity there.
You know there’s been a longstanding debate about where Acid House began - London or Manchester. What did you observe?
The Londoners are gonna say Shoom and Manchester will say The Hacienda. Acid House started with DJ Pierre doing ‘Acid Trax’ okay! And then a club in London and a club in Manchester played them at the same time. Each one of them had their story. Nobody’s got the right to say they were first. You know what, who gives a shit! People were listening to this music and then the revolution began. When you look at the story of the revolution it didn’t start in a club. It happened because it was a social thing. You had Thatcher - she was trying make people think only of themselves, House music was about people being together. It was a time of a lot of unemployment, a lot of unhappiness. It all happened with the arrival of ecstasy combined with the social situation in England. Over the course of six months when I started playing at the Hacienda and I did Zumbar, in September ‘87 my record box was thirty percent house, thirty percent hip hop and the rest went from soul to disco. Within six months my record box was ninety nine percent house. I mean, record boxes never changed as fast at any time in history! In six months, it was an exit for disco, soul and hip hop, no more ‘Fight the Power’, let’s just play ‘Strings of Life’!
House music was taking Manchester by storm and you must have been right in the eye of that storm when it hit. What was happening in France at that time?
France was playing rock ‘n’ roll. France was one of the first countries in the world to invent the Discotheque. During the war they were playing jazz and at that point couldn’t afford to book rock ‘n’ roll bands, so they started to play records. France is big on disco because of artists like Cerrone, who had a really big impact on disco because of ‘Super Nature’ in America. If you look at the history of clubbing in France some of the biggest clubs that are part of our history, they were all gay clubs. The leading club, which is closed now, was Le Palace. It was run by a guy called Fabrice Emaer. He was an icon in the gay scene and ahead of everybody in booking DJs. Apart from that France is a rock ‘n’ roll country. Leather jackets, cowboy boots, proper fucking rock ‘n’ roll! When house music arrived in France in ‘88, it was first consumed by gay people and the rock scene was very against it.We had to fight in France much more than you did in England and the fight was super violent as they saw us as a threat for the first time since the 60s. Radio stations, musicians, they all felt very threatened. The first clubs we brought techno to were rock ‘n’ roll clubs. La Locomotive is a place I DJ’d for a long time. You had to find ways to bring techno to the people and the only way to do that was to mix Depeche Mode and New Order in tempo with acid house. You were doing 20 minutes of acid house and then going back to Depeche Mode ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and then playing a bit of rock stuff and coming back to acid house again. The parts of acid house grew to thirty minutes, then forty minutes, slowly taking away the rock. At the first parties in Paris, we had to play Happy Mondays for people to understand it! It took six months in England; it took two years in France. This is why the gay scene jumped on it because they were listening to disco already, and house isn’t far from disco.
What did it feel like playing in Manchester with a load of nutters off their box on ecstasy?
It was heaven! You leave your parents, you go to a place which is mad. I was working, getting a nice little salary, and buying my records, asked to play at The Hacienda. It was my dream; I was living in dreamland. I didn’t worry about a thing! I did the Hacienda from the summer of ‘87 to summer ‘88.
When you had to go back to France to do your national service in ’88 how pissed off were you?
It was the first hard thing that had happened in a while when my mum called me and said the army had phoned, and you’ve got to come back. It was horrible. I was living with a girl, we bought a little house, we had a mortgage, and everything came to a stop. I had to come back to France for one year. It was pointless I left Manchester after the first ‘Hot’ night. This was a night where acid house exploded for the masses in Manchester. It was the second summer of love. I did my service and as soon as I left the army I went straight back to Manchester. But when I got back, I felt like I had missed everything. I left and the thing was gonna explode, and then I came back, and everything had fucking exploded and there were bits everywhere, and I wasn’t part of the game anymore. I felt really frustrated, like it’s gonna happen … and then I go, I get back and I missed the fucking train. I felt like I was always going to be looked at like the guy who came too late because I wasn’t part of the explosion. So, this is when I decided after six months, I was going to take this music back to France. As soon as I was back, I looked for clubs to play in and we started this story in France. We didn’t have the same drug culture that you had in England and we didn’t have the same music culture in France. We didn’t grow up with Top of The Pops. England had been leading the music world for decades. The rest of the world had a
point to prove.
Did you spend time playing in New York?
My dream was always to go and play in New York. I met a guy in one of the clubs I was playing in Paris who was a promoter in New York. I should have cut my hand that day! He said I can bring you to New York. I was on a plane and headed straight out there, I didn’t have a manager or anything. I didn’t know the guy and he actually ripped me off completely. I ended up in the street sitting on my record box, no hotel, no money, no ticket to go home. I felt like I was going to be eaten by wolves. My first experience in New York was tough. But I ended up meeting someone who kindly helped me buy a ticket to go home. I just stayed five days that time. After that very quickly I was booking DJs coming in from New York. I had a connection with these guys because of what I was playing. I went every year to New York to seminars where I met everyone including Frankie Knuckles, we had a great connection. What I love about the New York guys, is they were examples for me because they understood way before we did, that having a residency was vital to building a scene. Frankie always has a residency, Junior had a residency and these guys, by the music they were playing, made clubbers aware they were playing. We talk about the Sound Factory because of Larry Levan, we were hearing about Studio 54 because of Siano, these guys made the reputation of a place. I’ve always been quite stable with the people I am working with. When I was at La Luna, I said I’m gonna be here four or five nights a week. I believe that if you bring a community to a club, they are going to want to trust us and they need to see us there all the time. I learnt that from the New York guys.
The Rex Club has been one of the driving forces of Parisian nightlife. You propelled that nightspot into the upper ranks of international clubbing with the ‘Wake Up’ parties.
When I left La Luna, I dreamt a little bigger and I met the guys from the Rex. That was a real rock ‘n’ roll club. When I first met Christian of the Rex, they knew fuck all about techno! I remember he looked at me like I was a complete fucking alien and I said to him, tonight we have Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, and he looked at me…said…’Okay…’ - and I said it’s like if we had the Beatles and The Rolling Stones together, would you be happy to do that night? He was like okay let’s do it! I started my residency ‘Wake Up’ every Thursday for thirteen years. Christian later became my tour manager for twenty-eight years.
I read a story about you playing in Paris and asking random strangers if they wanted to get in your car and go to your gig in England.
I was playing in Le Boy. Think I was going to London and Brighton, two gigs. I finished the night at 7 in the morning, there was about 40 people left in Le Boy. I was a bit drunk, I got on the mic and said - I’ve got a car and I’m going to England now. I’ve got space in my car, loads of crisps and Coca Cola, we’re not going to sleep but does anyone want to come? So, a couple of guys came with us, ha!
I know you love to play long sets. Is it true you once played for 3 days at Sir Henrys in Cork?
No that’s absolute bullshit. I might have done two ha! Or maybe it was three? The longest set I ever did was for the closing of the Yellow Club in Tokyo. I started on the Friday night at 12 and carried on until noon. They closed the club for a few hours. Then they had Francois K, Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit playing. They played from 12 to 8 in the morning, and I said to Francois I’m coming to help you and basically from Saturday until Monday afternoon we played nonstop. Two and half crazy days. When I play, I want to have an experience. I like playing long sets it allows me to really do my thing. After four hours you can really start to take it somewhere else.
Your book Electrochoc is an interesting insight into the rise of the global dance scene with contributions from Jeff Mills, Mike Banks and Francois K.
The idea of writing a book came after a big dinner and a lot of drinks and storytelling. A publisher who hosted the dinner said you should do a book! I wrote the book with David Brun-Lambert. We did two and a half years of interviews. Every Wednesday we did four hours with very specific subjects. I had kept all my diaries and all my flyers; it was easy to find where I was twenty years ago. David is a great journalist, and he picked my brains. We released the first edition in 2003. Ten years later we felt that a lot had happened with the explosion of dub step, festivals had become bigger, there were techno festivals, the explosion of Daft Punk and the huge events, and the arrival of very greedy managers. We felt there was a lot more to say. We added six chapters to the book telling what had been happening between 2003 – 2013. We released the book again in 2013 but it took a long time to get published in England. In England as much as it’s very prolific musically it can be a bit closed. Some publishing companies said we love the story and if it were Carl Cox, we would do it. But you’re not Carl Cox and you’re not English. I thought, you’re telling me that the same story with a different name you would do it, I thought fuck you! You don’t care about the story you just wanna make fucking money with a big name. In the end I got it translated myself and we brought the story to different people and one guy accepted and we did it. The book did really well.
The idea of the book was to tell the story of house and techno through my career but it’s not a book about my career. We use my career to help us travel from A to B to C. There is a huge chapter on Detroit. We went to Detroit and interviewed Carl Craig, we interviewed Jeff Mills, we interviewed Mad Mike to talk about the reality of being black and making music in a country that’s formerly quite racist. The book goes way beyond the fact of just telling the story of house and techno. When we go to Manchester we talk about Northern Soul, so we explain the similarity between the Northern Soul explosion and the explosion of rave culture. When we go to Germany, we talk about the swinging kids during the war that were listening to jazz in cellars as they weren’t allowed to listen to jazz. So, we have a lot of parallels with a lot more than just the techno scene and in New York we talk about the disco scene. We use the trajectory of my career, but we use it in a much bigger perspective.
You are involved in the Yeah festival in the South of France.
Everything I do, I try to do it with a purpose and making a festival in the place that I live, making noise in a very small village in the middle of summer, the idea was to do something elegant, while protecting the area, creating a beautiful experience. We bring amazing artists once a year to a stunning place to open up mentality. I work with a team that are like family, I like long relationships. We wanted to make a festival that talks to kids and older people as well as serving people in their 40s. It’s over a weekend in the amazing grounds of a castle. We have good food and nice wine. We wanted people to discover the area as well as listen to music. The line-up is no compromise. It’s not techno, it’s varied. Unfortunately, it’s cancelled again this year. We work with a lot of charities and a hospital for mentally handicapped kids. We bring a lot of artists there that we look after very well, we give them amazing food and good wine and they give us a great concert.
Off the Record – the documentary. Is it out soon?
The documentary is telling the story of techno music, the story in Detroit, some of it linked to my story. There is a much more poetic way to film it. We included other things not to do with techno too, for example there’s some kids that I work with in a school not far from here. We talk about music, we ask them to draw after listening to music, we ask them to work on some concepts writing lyrics for ballads and then drawing the CD cover and telling the story of their imaginary band. We’re trying to make them creative. The documentary is also factual like the book, where you learn a lot about the music movement. We have Dave Haslam talking about Manchester and the explosion in England, it’s brilliant! But within that, there’s much more social stuff. We referred to the Black Lives Matter movement a year before it happened. We talk about being black and making music in America and that sometimes you have to play music to say something political. That when something is happening you have to make a statement, and we talk about this in the documentary. We talk about this club in Georgia. It’s very anti-gay, anti-everything in Georgia. We go to this club in the documentary, and we explain that it’s a political statement to go and play there. We really wanted people to understand the depth of things.
Off the Record I hope shows my passion for the music which is what I wanted to share. Not to preach in our own church, but to go further to show people that techno isn’t just a bad noise with a load of people on about drugs. We show them it is so much more.
The Off the Record documentary has a world premiere in Copenhagen in June. There is a screening in Manchester in July at The Manchester international festival this summer.
Laurent Garnier’s book Electrochoc is available through https://laurentgarnierbook.com/ae
Laurent is playing in London 29th August at Junction 2.
Interview by Sharon Andrews