I’m waiting on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art a little before noon on the sort of chilly, misty day that gives question to spring’s purpose when Nicolas Jaar materializes from a cloud of schoolchildren teasing pigeons, downtown black-on-black jeans and leather jacket. He’s taken a taxi from his home in Tribeca, and our plan for the afternoon is simple: stroll through the Met and have lunch. But along the way I want to make sense of something: How, upon rising to a position opposite popular EDM superstars with a thoughtful, rebellious series of releases, the 23-year-old Jaar will refine his future.
Jaar is fit and slender, with a handsome, angular face and heavy dark curls that press his expressions toward neutrality. He hasn’t been to the Met since high school, and he laments the plight of New Yorkers missing cultural gems in the pursuit of their personal program. “[New York is] a great, amazing place, everything is here, yet everything is so driven by what you’re doing and planning that it’s hard to be utopic here,” he says as we wander inside. “There’s too much reality.” Reality has changed significantly for Jaar in the last few years; it’s arrived with touring, laurels from critics, and a measure of fame.
It’s appropriate here to step back to February 2011. After several small releases on Brooklyn label Wolf + Lamb, Jaar put out Space is Only Noise on Paris-based Circus Company. Deep house, dub, film score, downtempo, electronica, trip-hop—the album drew on myriad elements of familiar genres and chased away convention with its hypnotic pacing and solidity of form. Before the year was up, Jaar also released a three track EP called DARKSIDE, written with guitarist Dave Harrington. DARKSIDE stripped the vibe back even further, with a trio of vamping, crescendo-less, Balearic-touched omens in blue. It was music to give people mean looks to, from a young, talented innovator raised between Chile and New York City by artist parents—a perfect specimen for the scrutiny you’d likely find in these sorts of pages. But unlike many electronic musicians, Jaar didn’t hide his personality behind a shadowy persona or mushy press quotes—he challenged industry conventions and spoke his mind about major labels, the inherent loneliness of clubs, and being booed for playing his music the way he wants to play it.
As we move inside the Met, Jaar and I head upstairs to see a special exhibition: Street, by British artist James Nares, is a video piece featuring Manhattan captured in super-slow motion from the back of an SUV. Its 150 real-time seconds play for more than an hour in the gallery, with subjects floating in and out of focus, and the city’s bizarre, complex life attenuated to its finest detail. The film is cut from the same cloth as some of Jaar’s work: familiar elements presented with different contexts to evoke an uncommon reaction. Jaar wears a kind of doleful intensity and smells of cigarette smoke while we watch it. Later, he tells me he had pulled an all-nighter in his studio two nights before. “If you’re making music for eight hours in a row, by the ninth hour, you’re not trying anything, you’re just doing, you’re just right there,” he tells me. “It’s in the pocket.”
Jaar studied comparative literature at Brown University, and as his career took off, he stuck with his degree. His recent graduation was a turning point, a moment to finally accept the world’s harshness as material for his music. “It’s hard to think about noise when you’re in a cradle,” he tells me. “You’re making your own stupid noise, you’re in the cradle. You’re not listening to the noise around you—you’re the one making the noise. You step into real life, which is a different thing.” The cradle’s beaming ivory towers offered refuge, but they also cast a shadow. “I guess I’m interested in the things that are harder to talk about. Manipulation. Power. Noise. Unfounded or founded desire.”
Jaar’s directional update includes a gentle repudiation of what has come before; that’s when you begin to notice “I don’t care” is a power phrase for him. He seems to care a lot, or at least have thought a lot, about the stuff he says he doesn’t care about. Especially when it comes to his musical output. Despite being pleasant and cheerful, he’s quick to display a refreshing bit of forthright aggression when he touches on self-criticism. “I don’t care if something sounds super electric or super organic. I just don’t. The idea of making a song with like a ridiculous piano solo is disgusting. I can’t believe I did that.” He’s referring to “Encore,” which features an up-tempo Satie-esque piano line with a sample from Marcel Duchamp’s The Creative Act that’s all too self-aware. “I believed in it at some point, but I feel like I’ve grown up,” he confesses. “So the very simple gestures I used to make don’t seem to explain the reality I want to explain anymore.” The few critics who have taken oblique shots at Jaar have hinted at the barely perceptible edge of pretense, where something becomes artistic without substance or meaning, and colloquially, climbs a little too far up its own ass.
We head toward the back of the museum for lunch at The Petrie Court Café, overlooking its sculpture court with tables full of ladies who lunch. Jaar stands out, the leather coat at the country club. As I put my tape recorder on the table I can sense a dozen ‘Who is he?’ notes ripple through nearby diners.
For Jaar, the idea of constantly reinventing an evolving artistic practice is, in part, how he received culture as he grew up. His father, Alfredo Jaar, is an artist himself, working in architecture, film, and meta-media criticism. He’s known for work including The Rwandan Project, a long-standing indictment juxtaposing representation of the country’s genocide with Western responses, like Untitled (Newsweek) from 1994, which places sequential covers of Newsweek against captions describing the genocidal activities in Rwanda happening concurrently. His best-known piece, A Logo for America, took over Times Square’s Spectracolor light board and displayed the outline of the United States with “THIS IS NOT AMERICA” overlaid, and “THIS IS NOT AMERICA’S FLAG” over the stars and stripes, before showing a pinwheeling North, South and Central America with “AMERICA” overlaid. Onlookers were unsurprisingly provoked.
The apple of discord hasn’t fallen far from the tree. “It had to come from somewhere,” Jaar says plainly, then expands on his shift in direction. “I’m obsessed with the idea of disruption, with something changing all of our ways of thinking,” he says. “I was obsessed with this idea of being able to make house music that was 103 BPM, and was disruptive. You see how that has a shelf life of six months—who cares after that?” Disruption can be big or small, but Jaar yearns for the broad to disrupt our broader reality. “I want something to happen that’s impossible to ignore. That the media cannot just ignore. I don’t mean this as tragedy. But something to shake up the power structure.” The discovery of aliens, for example, would be something that changes everything.
Our lunch arrives: salmon with quinoa for Jaar and egg farfalle with three types of peas for me. The conversation shifts to marketing, and how to present a darker, “noisier” direction—the new disruption—to fans. This is especially pressing as there’s 50 minutes of new DARKSIDE music mastered and ready to move. Jaar wasn’t happy with how a pair of tracks he considered some of his best work (“Don’t Break My Love” and “Why Don’t You Save Me”) were received, and he reckons it’s because he posted them to SoundCloud rather than making a big deal of an official drop. “I put out something that I considered a new phase, for free, and I think it might have been taken as a free little thing that doesn’t really matter.” What does this mean for the new DARKSIDE? Certainly not debuting the record at a rural agricultural confab in the Australian outback, as Daft Punk had recently announced. “Let’s not do anything gimmicky, or anything like that,” Jaar says. “Let’s just make it easy for people to hear the record. And how are we going to do that in the best way possible? That’s the question.”
Electronic artists adopt new personas frequently (which Jaar has done in a sense with DARKSIDE). When they step into different terrain, they wear new masks. But that doesn’t seem to interest Jaar in his own releases. It does raise complications with challenging material that embraces the complexities and darkness of reality. For example, he had written an eight-minute, dark opera track that he had wanted to call “False Flag,” after the concept of paramilitary deception to spark conflicts. But the Boston bombing, which conspiracy theorists have called a false flag operation by the United States government, gave him pause. “I thought, why would I alienate all these people, and have them say, ‘Oh, does he think Boston was a false flag?’ Do I want to have a say? I couldn’t care less if you know what I think about politics and what I don’t. I don’t care. I want you to like the music. Sometimes I feel like there needs to be a song out there called ‘False Flag’ and it needs to be a very dark electronic song.”
Jaar’s self-awareness won’t be an impediment to connection with fans, and projects like False Flag will have a safe space to live, he hopes. In the coming months he’s dissolving Clown & Sunset, the label/art house he’s been working through since 2009. The new item of focus is Other People: a tiered community with layers of monthly subscription, from the voyeur to utterly involved, featuring weekly music releases and perks for being in the club. Jaar hints at a backlog of music that couldn’t see the light of day on Clown & Sunset based on a business partnership gone awry, which he says he can’t go into for legal reasons. Presumably he’s split with Noah Kraft, his partner on the label, who ran Clown & Sunset Aesthetics, the production arm. CSA’s first project was the February 2012 performance of “From Scratch,” a five-hour improvised set from Jaar and friends (including Harrington, musician Will Epstein and Steven Spielberg’s daughter, Sasha, who sang) presented with MoMA and Pitchfork at MoMA’s PS1. CSA was also responsible for The Prism: a $40 aluminum cube with minimal controls that housed 12 tracks of music from the label’s artists. Given these previous projects, clearly the artistic sense of a covey of true believers is appealing to Jaar. It would allow him to explore the darker aspects of reality and disruption in a safer, more supportive space than the web writ large. He’s eschewing the festival tromp, too, focusing on “special” gigs, like a seated performance at the Cologne Philharmonic, or a set at the Barbican in London, exclusivity which should make being part of the club more appealing.
Will his moves, toward disruption chiefly, succeed? “He’s already gifted, he knows the reference points, he knows how to dial it together, and that’s emblematic of his generation,” says Sam Valenti IV, head of Ghostly International, one of the world’s more influential electronic labels. “It’s not about mastery, it’s about being an artist who can put together a hybrid thing.” Valenti and his cohort have hybridized the music and the delivery mechanism with Drip.fm, a service that 20-something independent labels use as a subscription platform—similar to what Jaar seems to be aiming for with Other People.
For now, Jaar must go. We’ve had our coffee, and his assistant arrives back with news of a conference call in London about butterflies. He spots his high school philosophy teacher across the cafe. For the first time, he offers a tentative smile. “I was so non-open-minded. I thought clubs were stupid. I thought fast electronic music was boring and cheesy. I thought a 4/4 kick was lame. There’s something for everyone, and that’s kind of the place where I’m at now. I just want to talk to the people that want to hear, that are there to listen. I used to be more elitist, and I’ve been humbled—hopefully.”
Photographer: Tetsuharu Kubota for BridgeArtists.com.
Stylist: Maher Jridi at Maherjridi.com.
Hair: Charlie Taylor for CharlieTaylorPortfolio.com.
Makeup: Aya Komatsu for DeFactoinc.com using Clinique.
Photography Assistant: Yoshiyuki Matusmura.
Location: Acme Studios at acmebrooklyn.com.
Jacket by Alexander McQueen, Biker Jeans by Balmain, and sandals by Prada.
Ink tango jersey striped double-breasted suit by Gucci and Shirt by Tom Ford.
Suit and shirt by Prada.
Oversized silk jacket and pants by Etro.