"The ability to sculpt the sound using both hands makes the Minimonsta a real musical instrument, rather than just a programming tool."
Will Gregory (Goldfrapp)
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Chris Joss came to our attention via his fantastically funky 2004 album You've Been Spiked. Released on the uber-hip Eighteenth Street Lounge Music (ESL) label housing artists including the Thievery Corporation, Joe Bataan (for whom Chris remixed the track Chick A Boom) and Ursula 1000.
This album infected us with such a killer groovy and retro vibe it was on heavy rotation at GForce HQ during the VSM development. In fact, so much so, that we decided to contact Chris and ask if he was interested in helping us out? If the truth be told though we also used that as a way of finding out just what kind of person is behind such seriously awesome records and how he goes about creating some of his masterworks.
Q. So how are things working out on the ESL label?
"Good, I met them for the first time last month in DC and NY, they're great guys. I feel very lucky to be part of their team, they're doing a fantastic job on my tracks. After some difficult experiences with other labels, I'm able to fully appreciate their work."
Q. Give us a little background info on yourself. We understand you worked in Paris, then lived in the UK before returning to France, La Rochelle to be precise. Those moves must have been interesting culturaly.
"Certainly the most interesting was living in London most of the 90's, the explosion of electronic music in so many different genres, be it synthetic music or the use of samples, and a huge culture shock although England and France are so close geographically and historically.
Music is in the British culture as much as food is in the French. That's why I left France in the first place. I was in a band then, signed to a major, having a hard time with the mentality and the approach to music in France. It's even worse now.
I came back to living in France 9 years ago, as life was too expensive in London for an unsuccessful musician, but I wish I could go living somewhere where I can hear music I like on TV, radio or in shops. Here people are stuck in French 80's music. It's not like it's back in fashion, it just never went out! Drives me nuts sometimes.
I think musically France is so self-centered and closed that it's not very different from URSS or RDA during the cold war, when the government had a tight control on music production. Here you can't sing in another language than French, you won't get signed singing in English, you have more chances if you sing in Breton or Basque or some other old regional language though :) There are quotas on TV and radio, not to play French artists but to play music sung in French. There are people in the government largely paid to transform international names like "email" "web" into french names, and the media have to use them. The band Air has played live on national TV only twice during their 10 year career I think, and one was 2 years ago for receiving the "legion d'honneur", a military medal for services rendered to the country or something like that. I don't know why they accepted it, I mean no one wanted them here until they'd sold millions of records worldwide..."
Q. There's a lot of talk amongst musicians and DJs about your first CD, Man With A Suitcase, exchanging hands for serious money on eBay. We looked and saw that Amazon had one for sale at $80. How come that's not been reissued?
"It's just I make more money by selling my own record collection 80$ a piece on ebay rather than getting 1 euro minus taxes per sold copy through a label :).
No, 80$ must be the vinyl no? Some people are addicted to vinyl and original pressings, the CD must go cheaper! ESL are not interested in re-releasing my 2 first LPs and no one else has asked me. Some samples on some tracks have to make it a confidential affair."
Q. And this was music written to an imaginary film?
"I did the track "The Man With A Suitcase" in 1995, inspired by the themes of The Avengers and Mission:Impossible which I've always loved and logically heard more times than any movie soundtrack. I was going through some multisamples I'd just got and one was a Suitcase Rhodes on which I wrote the track, I used "The Man With A Suitcase" as a working title, as it had an obvious spy theme feel, knowing that the concept of "the man who, with, from" was typically linked to spy/action stories. No internet for me at the time so I didn't check if that title was used, which I always do now, and I was totally unaware of the existing series from the 60's "Man in a Suitcase" although I was occasionally watching TFI Friday at the time on Channel 4, and its theme was the theme track of that series!
When my album came out in 1999 I started getting confused reviews saying I had remixed the original music series! When I put the album together I decided to go for a series rather than a movie as I thought it had been overused already, you know believing what I read in the press :), it turns out artists succesfully still make some 10 years later. But only the 2 first tracks were made with a series in mind, the first just came while playing the keyboard, but the 2nd track "The Wait" has its intro directly and obviously inspired from a Lalo Schifrin track from Mission:Impossible, I like to work other people's tracks as a personal quest :), I then put 5 other tracks that had some cinematic feel to them - meaning using movie samples :) - and the last track "The Suitcase" which I made a few years later to close the album, reusing the theme from "The Man..."
Q. There is something incredibly groovy about your tracks that immediately conjure up images of London's Swinging 60s scene and TV shows like Mission Impossible, The Avengers, The Man From Uncle or 60s & 70s Blaxploitation movies. Can we take it as read that you're inspired just as much by images as you are by sound?
"I grew up with these series and as much as I liked and bought "pop music" I didn't listen to the incidental music or theme music like I would listen to the Beatles for example. But after years of ingurgitating these musics with so much pleasure it had to come out in some way. So I'd say I'm more inspired by music than images, I'm still a "virgin" movie watcher, you know when you don't know anything about music or recording, when you're a kid, you hear music differently, I wish I could still hear music like that, I still have that naive way of looking at movies, being absorbed by the whole thing, images and music, ignoring technique and I like it like that."
Q. And everything is played by yourself?
"Apart from occasional samples obviously, but I play all instruments that are played, some are played with multi samples on a keyboard, like horns or strings if it doesn't sound like it's been lifted from somewhere else."
Q. We notice the EP, Bombay By Bus was reissued in 2006. We assume that was possible because there was nothing to clear in terms of samples?
"Indeed, but only the track Bombay by bus was re-released, 2 other tracks are still unavailable."
Q. What does your computer set-up consist of?
"A ST audio 8in 8 out soundcard, a 3GHz PC although Spiked was made on a 1Ghz PC. A cheap control keyboard I have to change. I used to monitor on NS10s for 15 years, now I have Adams A7. I go through my soundcraft desk to plug the mics in. Nothing fancy."
Q. The second album, the brilliantly titled Dr Rhythm, reinforces your retro-cinematic style and the convergence of real and virtual instruments seem to blend perfectly, which is quite a production feat. Do you have a formal technical background or have your skills been learned on-the-job?
"Learned through the years, going from 2 tracks reel to reel in my teens, to 4TK cassette and computer in sync, loading songs with digital infos on cassettes, -remember that ?-, then 8 tracks and 16. I was still using an Atari 1040 and a sampler synced through midi clock to a worn out Fostex 16 track tape machine for Dr Rhythm. When I moved back in France from London, I lived in a small flat, I couldn't record drums anymore, so there's more programming than on my more recent releases. I've also worked in studios as a programmer and sound designer and picked up some tips there, but mostly I learnt techniques by reading the "Sound On Sound" magazine.
Q. What's the synth used for that riff on the track The Gnomes?
"My old (in the computer world) trusted VAZ plugin"
Q. So, as a general rule, what's real and what's in-the-box when it comes to instruments?
"Real bass, guitars, drums on some tracks of the 2 first LPs and on all tracks since, percussions -tambourines, shakers, guiros - and on the forthcoming album congas and bongos, sitar and flute. All the electric pianos are plugins or multisamples and so are the hapsichords, clavinets, strings horns etc... It's funny because on MySpace I have an image of some guy playing a real Rhodes, and some people write to me saying they love my Rhodes playing, I tell them I use plugins and they never write back !" :)
Q. What are your top three instruments of all time?
Can I have 4 ? Drums, bass, guitar and keys
Q. On You've Been Spiked, talk us through some of the instrumentation of say, Waves Of Love, which sounds to us like it contains film loops but surely can't do because of the lessons learned with Man With A Suitcase.
"And yet ... Let's just say that I've used an extremely obscure source which is not from a movie, but only on the intro."
Q. What GForce instruments are you using?
"The Minimonsta has been used on the forthcoming LP, notably in "Get with it"
Q. What's cool about something like the Minimonsta for you?
"It's fat, and I love it."
Q. Do you use the patch morphing?
"No I don't, I use synths in a very basic way, I assign cutoff and resonance to controlers, and play with that and the pitch and mod wheels."
Q. How does the M-Tron fit into your retro vibe?
"Some patches like the vibraphone are very strong emotionally. If I sample some movie music snippet it's because it carries an emotion and when you play these vibes it gives an impression of an old movie soundtrack being sampled, it's quite weird actually!"
Q. What' plug-in provides the Rhodes & Wurly sounds?
"It depends. Often multisamples from my old sample collection or the Lounge Lizard"
Q. Do you think the VSM is a good fit alongside the M-Tron and other GForce instruments?
"The VSM has every vintage string machines you can imagine packed in with all the presets you'll ever need to recreate the moods of some 70's library music or retro futuristic electronic music. But when you start mixing 2 different machines together in the A & B slots you enter a world of wonderfully rich pads, easy to program according to your needs.
An easy access to vintage sounds with the ease of use of a plugin, the saving of space and time, what's more to ask ?"
Q. When starting a track, do you generally start with a particular instrument or does it vary from track to track? It strikes us that your bass parts are particularly dominant on tracks like Discotheque Dancing, You've been Spiked & Fricky Frisco and we wondered if that was the instrument where you started each track?
"For Discotheque and Spiked, indeed I started with bass. Frisky Frisco is the opposite I came with it last, and felt it wasn't a very inspired bass line at the time, sort of forced. On some tracks these days I play drums and come up with a bass line that I'm humming while playing, I sing it to a drum mic to remember it, and record it afterwards. On Spiked most tracks were ideas I get when switching my gear off, I record them on a cassette, you know humming and beat boxing, and I try to reproduce these with instruments later on."
Q. Congratulations on your tracks being used on the Inside Deep Throat movie - to us it seems a perfect match. It must have been quite a buzz despite the fact that we understand only two out of the six remixes you did made it to the soundtrack CD.
"It was a buzz when I received a request to remix or rework a track from the 1972 movie Deep Throat for the closing credits of the documentary about that movie, at the very last minute when they were finishing editing. No masters or multitrack tapes were available, so the work had to be done from the CDs that came out a few years back that used the optical track of the movie, you know with dialogues and ambiance noises.
I re-recorded "Love is strange", a classic track covered many times, but kept the vibe and riffs from this particular version, re-made the intro track, "driving with Linda", and created a downtempo track called "more tingles" by taking a small sample of an in-between-dialogue section that has music and sea sounds, and used some dialogues on top. I also re worked "Bubbles" by playing drums, guitars, bass and keys on top of the original track, putting the original voices in the mix by EQing.
I did all this in a couple of days - as it was urgent- which is unusual for me as I take ages to finish a track, but here I knew where I was going, reworking is easier than creating from scratch. I knew they needed only one song but didn't know exactly what they wanted, emailed them the 4 tracks so that they could pick up whatever they liked. They chose "more tingles" and that's the very last track in the movie. But at this point and for a year and a half things really got complicated and it wasn't much of a buzz anymore.
I was asked to remix a track written by the score composer which is also in the movie, that was cool, but also to remake the downtempo track without the sample taken from the movie, keeping the dialogues whose rights could be cleared. So recreating these very lo-fi ambiances took time, when I finished a week later I was told it was OK to use the sample after all, but not the dialogues, so I re-made a version recording bits of dialogues with Cosmika (my vocalist). Then it was OK again to use all the samples so they used the first version after all. But eventually when I saw the movie, I was credited as the performer, the writers were 3 guys, I don't know who they are.
For the DVD version of the movie, I was told they couldn't use it because the laws are different for theatre releases and DVDs, which is weird as the writing credit for my track are probably the guys who wrote the dialogues and the incidental music and not me anyway. So I took one of my unreleased tracks from Spiked, shortened it and put the dialogues from "More Tingles" on top, but when when I watched the DVD it was still "More tingles" and not the new track.
They'd also asked to rework a 6th track "house calls" but didn't use it after all. Then the music superviser, Bill Coleman who liked my work, did all he could to get a soundtrack CD of the movie to include all the unused tracks, and he got a deal with Koch and managed to include 4 of the tracks I'd done, including the one that should have been on the DVD but not "more tingles" which is in the movie! Ain't that a weird soundtrack CD ?
I got 1500$ for all these tracks, movie DVD and CDs and lost the publishing on the outtake from Spiked."
Q. We also saw a trailer for Oceans Thirteen on You Tube which used what sounded like music from Man With A Suitcase. Hopefully that was a better deal?
"Yes, that's a better story, this is through ESL, Warner licensed that track for one of the trailers."
Q. We loved the Joe Bataan Chick A Boom remix as well as the Tito Puente & Woody Herman Mambo Herd track remixed for the Ratatouille trailer. What's more enjoyable, remixing other people's work or writing your own? What other remixes should we look out for?
"I'm not too comfortable remixing, I spend almost as much time as on my own tracks. I spent one month on the last one I made of Bebo Valdez, and in the end the track isn't mine so I prefer composing, the result belongs to me. Some people manage to remix in a couple of days, not me unfortunately.
Regarding Mambo Herd, this was for a compilation "Big Bands reworked and remixed", the label manager told me a few months back that he licensed this track for a "Ratatouille" trailer but the weird thing is that neither he nor I have found a trailer using that track!
One of my recent remixes is a Thunderball track featuring Afrika Bambaataa, you can hear them all on the 2nd player on myspace/chrisjoss"
Q. What was the deal with the Frank Sinatra remix recently?
"What they call "on Spec": you remix, if they like they pay, if they don't you work for nothing. This was for the soundtrack CD of Ocean's 13. They liked my mix but the Sinatra's estate had to decide, they hesitated for a month and a half and refused it."
Q. When's the new album out?
"In February 08, a year after its completion, but some parallel complications delayed the release. Maybe this way I'll be able to release a 5th album without such a gap in between releases."
Q. I understand you suffer from tinnitus. Does that means we'll never see you perform any of the tracks live?
"Well yes. I have custom made earplugs but that's very uncomfortable, I feel totally remote from the action. I'm more than ever into production, which I compare to painting, you know you paint, wait until it dries, add another layer etc, and no-one asks you to paint your paintings live, although some do paint live."
Q. If you ruled the world for one day what would you change?
"Give a sense of humour to everyone (after redistributing wealth or rather just before.)"
Chris Joss Discography:
1999: Bombay By Bus EP - Pulp Flavor
1999: The Man With A Suitcase LP- Pulp Flavor
2002: Dr Rhythm LP- Irma La Douce
2003: The Gnomes EP - Irma La Douce
2004: You've Been Spiked LP - ESL Music
2005: Discotheque Dancing EP (Ursula1000 and Fort Knox Five remixes) - ESL Music
2005: A Part In That Show EP (Kraak & Smaak remix) - ESL Music
2005: Inside Deep Throat Soundtrack LP - Koch
2006: Brilliantine a gogo - Boutique Chic EP - Stereo Fiction
2007: Superman EP (Basement Freaks & Plastilina Mosh remixes) - ESL Music
2008: Teraphonic Overdubs LP - ESL Music
Chris Joss Remixes:
Bebo Valdez - (Sunswept 2008)
Thunderball - Thunder In The Jungle feat. Afrika Bambaataa (ESL music 2007)
Frank Sinatra - This Town (2007)
Praful -Sigh (Therapy records 2006)
Jody Watley - Borderline (Curvve 2006)
Pirates of the Carribean - He's A Pirate (Walt Disney 2006)
Woody Herman Tito Puente - Mambo Herd (Sunswept 2006 )
Joe Bataan - Chick A Boom (ESL music 2006)
Fisherspooner - A Kick In The Teeth (2005)
Yerba Buena - Sugar Daddy (Razor & Tie 2005)
Jody Watley - New Love (2 remixes) (Curvve 2005)
Concorde Music Club - From Outer Space (13bis 2004)
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