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The Politics of Dance Music

“Meet Nico at the triangle on 66th St. next to the head.”

So goes the cryptic message from Nicolas Jaar’s publicist, in advance of my meeting with the 26-year-old producer. While hard to parse or plug into Google Maps, the directions seem fitting in this instance, in that Jaar’s own restless muse can make for slippery listening. But when I emerge from the subway station at 66th Street one Tuesday at dusk, such ambiguity becomes clear: The triangle marks the intersection of Broadway and Amsterdam on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the head is a bronzed bust of a famed early 20th century tenor of the Metropolitan Opera. Nondescript in an Under Armour cap, olive tee, khaki pants, and a pair of camouflage Crocs, Jaar could still pass as a particularly devoted music student about to take in a performance at nearby Lincoln Center.

But for the past eight years, he has occupied a rare spot in American electronic music, a vanguard talent constantly nudging toward wide acceptance. He’s popular enough to headline festivals while never giving in to bigger trends. Ever since he released a string of singles and his 2011 debut album Space Is Only Noise while studying comparative literature at Brown University—turning him into an in-demand DJ before he was legally allowed to drink—his music has continued to slither away from easy tags. It’s slow and sensuous, bristling and foreboding, noisy and elegant. And with each new release over the last few years, Jaar has expanded his ambitions, moving from the brooding psychedelia of Darkside, his project with guitarist Dave Harrington, to Nymphs, a series of mercurial 12″s, to the noisy and abstract Pomegranates, a 20-track (imagined) score to Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 avant-garde film The Colour of Pomegranates, to the (legit) soundtrack for Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning 2015 film, Dheepan.

Now comes Sirens, with its cover art obscured like a lottery scratch card. Take a coin to that silvery surface and an old picture of Times Square becomes clear. But it’s not just any old picture. It’s a photo of the animated piece “A Logo for America,” which was created by Jaar’s celebrated Chilean visual-artist father Alfredo and played on a billboard in the middle of NYC in 1987. “A Logo for America” calls into question the way many people think of the United States as “America,” implying the erasure of Latin America. “It would be like the French calling themselves ‘Europe,’” Alfredo once told The New Yorker. The Sirens cover focuses on a particularly powerful still from the piece: an outline of the U.S. with the words “THIS IS NOT AMERICA” on top. The image’s confrontation of identity permeates the album, which is now streaming in full at Jaar’s site.

Though Sirens references current issues—“It’s hard for me to notmake a record about America right now,” says Jaar—it’s not the type of thing that will turn into a relic following Election Day. The record is Jaar’s most political work but also his most personal as it strikes a masterful balance between several sonic and emotional crosscurrents: from spiritual jazz to the menacing lurch of Suicide, gorgeous piano melodies to slinking reggaeton beats, furious white noise to charming old tapes featuring Jaar as a young boy talking with his father.

Sirens also alludes to the producer’s Chilean heritage and scenes from that country’s harrowing history; churning highlight “Three Sides of Nazareth” has Jaar repeating a harrowing hook—“I found my broken bones by the side of the road.” When General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Unidad Popular government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973—a military coup trained and supported by the CIA—Jaar’s parents left Chile for New York City, where they remained for many years. They were the lucky ones. The atrocities carried out by Pinochet’s junta are innumerable, and exact numbers are hard to come by, but during his nearly 20-year dictatorship, it is estimated that around 3,200 people were executed, nearly 40,000 were tortured, and another 80,000 were interned, while many more were “disappeared,” never to be heard from again. Jaar himself was born mere months before Pinochet’s reign came to an end.

The scratch-off cover of Sirens, featuring a photo of “A Logo for America,” an 1980s art installation by Jaar’s father Alfredo.

Near the triangle and the head, Jaar suggests we head south to the infamous tourist snake pit where his dad’s art once looped on repeat. Even though both of us are hearty New Yorkers, there’s something so grotesque and appalling about those blindingly bright blocks in Midtown: the density of vacationers outside Bubba Gump’s, the topless women with American flags painted across their nipples, the most ominous Spiderman imaginable. We last only a few blocks before ducking into a side street and hopping a train downtown, far from the hustle of grungy Elmos.

As we move through the city, our conversation drifts between nerdy music talk and larger political themes. Jaar can be both chatty and enthusiastic as well as cautious and considered. He deliberates over some answers for a full minute, as if arranging the entire thought in his head before uttering a single word. We touch on Carmen Miranda, the popular Brazilian samba singer and movie star of the ’30s and ’40s and her place at the center of the proto-psychedelic vision of Busby Berkeley’s “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” and the modern realities of a musical monoculture that makes certain acts unavoidable. The phrase “Potemkin village”—that is, a showy facade that diverts attention from a real problem—gets uttered often to describe American political and cultural life circa 2016. He enthuses about Alice Coltrane’s ashram tapes, laments the closing of revered NYC indie music store Other Music, and notes how the shuffle functions of algorithms falsely mimic the true notion of chance. “For good or for bad, I’m very curious,” he shrugs.

That inquisitive streak leads us to a performance by No Wave legend Lydia Lunch near Canal Street. While their work is separated by more than three decades, Lunch currently acts as a beacon for Jaar. Last year, he remixed one of her songs and had her perform as part of his residency at Queens venue Trans-Pecos. He also reissued both her 1990 spoken word album Conspiracy of Women along with a compilation of live recordings by her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks on his label, Other People.

Jaar admits that Lunch is one of his first mentors, teaching him to pay attention to words and lyrics and their intent. “Time is too short to not care about those things,” he tells me. To this day, her growled words still arise in the middle of his DJ sets, lending the music a distinct character and ferocity. He talks about how the potent way Lunch maneuvers between politics and abstract fiction turned a latch in his mind: “I’m excited by those two poles being so close to each other, because in the end there’s something in each of them that strengthens the other.”

The venue Lunch performs at is in the basement club of a ludicrously upscale luxury hotel. But despite the trappings, there’s a bit of the grunge and straight razor edge in Lunch’s set that brings to mind the danger of old New York City. Jaar takes in the scene like the intense music student he is.

“I feel an affinity with the political aspect of dance music—maybe it can increasingly become a place of protest.”

Photo by Callie Barlow
Pitchfork: You received such universal praise with your first album more than five years ago, but you decided not to follow it up with another solo LP until now. Do you feel like getting those early accolades made you reactionary?

Nicolas Jaar: [long pause] It’s very difficult for me to say whether I’m reactionary or not; that’s not for me to be able to see. But I can say that Space Is Only Noise had all these little tunnels in it, and I’ve tried to go into every single one of those tunnels ever since. And I see a way to imagine Nymphs—which is an album—and Pomegranatesand Sirens as a triangle of records. I don’t necessarily see Sirens as LP number two. I see the three as equally indicative of something, in equal measure. It’s out of happiness that I go down these different little tunnels. Darkside was definitely one of those too.

Is Darkside something you may go back to at some point?

Dave [Harrington] and I really love each other a lot, and that project was very much about how much pleasure we got from making music together. In a way, it’s the most musical thing for me because it’s really about jamming and having a lot of fun. And I can’t wait to potentially do that again. But, again, I’m just very curious. Also, if you go on a year-long tour, you need some time to re-adjust and think about things.

You talk about Nymphs and Pomegranates and Sirens as being of a piece—was the process linear?

At the end of 2014, I had finished Pomegranates and Nymphs and I thought there was one record in between them that I would put out. But it never felt right. There was something missing. There was something that I was not delving into in both Nymphs and Pomegranates, so out of that lack came Sirens.

How would you define that missing piece?

Nymphs and Pomegranates was very private, intimate music for me, on a personal level. In the moment, I was making them for myself. Making music everyday is how I cope with life, and I love that. At the beginning, Sirens wasn’t supposed to be remotely about me. But, as most things go, you end up seeing yourself in some of the things that you make at one point or another. I sent all of my best friends the record because I wanted to know what they thought, and every single one of them said, “This record feels like you the most.”

With Nymphs and Pomegranates, I had not questioned my idea of identity and I was just doing them as a constructed “me.” But in the months leading up to Sirens, there was a lot of change in my life—when you come back from a long tour, you really have to pick up the pieces in a way. I realized how much of a construct I had created for myself. This may be the trouble with the idea of one firm identity. I ended up being able to see myself in Sirens only when I realized that the broken mirror that I was seeing outside was also inside.

Considering how you reference your father’s visual art on the Sirenscover, do you feel like there’s a creative dialogue between your work and his?

At one point while making the record, I thought that I was starting to see a path but then I realized that it was very similar to my father’s path, and that in itself was an illusion. You see the struggle of that in the cover—only when you scratch off the lottery paper do you see his work. A part of me wonders whether it’s the last exorcism of my stuff with him. It’s hard for me to say, but I definitely put a picture that he took of me as a kid looking like I’ve been abandoned on the cover of Space Is Only Noise. So there’s that.

You sing in English as well as Spanish on Sirens. Do you write a song differently depending on the language?

The song “No,” which is in Spanish, happened after I had just been in Chile for two weeks. I go every year. When I was 2, my parents split up, and I went with my mother back to Chile. Then they got back together when I was 9, and I returned to New York.

So when I was in Chile this time, a newly created museum that documents the Pinochet dictatorship asked me whether I wanted to have a show there. I had already been thinking a lot about that stuff, as it was the reason why my parents came to New York; I was born here in NYC because of that, just before Pinochet finally stopped being in power.

I knew the history, had seen some movies, read some stuff, talked with parents and cousins about it. But after going to the museum, I started putting more physical details and imagery to it. What interested me a lot was that, in 1988, there was a referendum that asked the Chilean people: “Do you want Pinochet to stay for eight more years?” That simple, yes or no. So the resistance—which was artists, leftists, activists—created a campaign for the “no.” They effectively turned a negative message into a positive message, which seems like the most elemental change that you can do.

What is it like to understand more about your heritage and what was going on around you as a child as you grow up?

If I have any trauma, it’s from the time I was in Chile. So for me to get closer to that history and my father’s presence and absence is very heavy. It’s strangely tied with this period in Chile with reconstruction after the terrible atrocities of Pinochet.

For this album, I wanted to take this more personal thing and bring it into the context of this more context-specific political thing. The kind of sanctions that we need to put on certain things so that the world doesn’t combust is a matter of saying no: to profit, to a lot of these comforts, and we need to say no to killing innocent people. I know it’s very simple, but sometimes in the end you can see it on a very simple level. We know these things are bad and yet they keep on happening.

We keep being complicit in these things by distancing ourselves just enough.

Right, our comfort level is complicit in this. But I feel very fortunate to be living at the same time as Kendrick [Lamar], who makes us believe that culture can create change and awareness.

I was teaching these six amazing guys and girls at the Berklee College of Music in Boston right before I started Sirens. After we all got to know each other, the first questions that I asked were, “Can instrumental electronic music be political? Can it be protest music?” They are questions that I’m still asking myself and maybe in this record I’m asking them outright. The first assignment that I gave the class was to make a song that was a certain length and in a certain key and with no grid, no beats. I didn’t tell them what we would do with it. Then we took all six of their songs and put them in Logic on top of each other to hear what it sounded like and what their impulse was. To me, there was something political in that.

In what sort of way?

Six people from very different places and heritages around the world coming together and creating a cacophony of harmony, or a harmony of cacophony, where—depending on which way you listen to it—either works or doesn’t. It either feels like the work of one or the work of many. Is it political work? Is it a utopian work? I have no idea. But that’s very much what I was thinking about at that time, which was around the same time that To Pimp a Butterfly came out.

I feel an affinity with the political aspect of dance music—maybe it can increasingly become a place of protest. I have no control over how this album will be heard. It’s scary to me, and that’s a good thing. That’s what drives me.

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