Interview: Yann Tiersen

Eva Mackevic

The French musician on living on a small island, 1970s German music and recording his latest album, ALL

RD: What’s your new album, ALL, about?

The title “All” has a double meaning because in Breton it means “others.”  It is about the forces of nature.

RD: What was the recording process like?

Five years ago we were crossing California on bicycles and during this trip, we had this really long ride in the middle of nowhere. And after six hours of cycling, we realised that we were being chased by a mountain lion. Only one car passed us that day but they refused to take us on board because they were having issues with the vehicle. So we carried on pedalling for another six hours. Mountain lions are quite dangerous, I think there was a cyclist who was killed by one in Washington state last May.  

After that incident, everything changed because I realised that not knowing the ecosystem that you’re in can lead to death. And it’s true everywhere, not just California. Nature’s been more and more present in my work because I try to focus on knowing where I am and what’s around me. 

RD: Do you have a close connection to nature?

I live on an eight-by-four kilometre island in the middle of the sea and it’s really windy and dangerous sometimes, so yes, I face the elements every day. Nature is part of my everyday life. Nature is something really powerful in both a good way and a bad way. We all live in nature—even in big cities.

RD: What’s your creative process like in general? 

It's really basic, really. I don’t do demos. I just play, record and then the track just builds itself. I try to let things go and express themselves, I don’t want to be in charge. I like the energy to pass through me, I like it to be instinctive and natural.

RD: Do you consider yourself a composer?

I’m a musician. My journey with music started with playing in bands and doing electronic music and stuff with noisy guitars. I started using acoustic instruments at the beginning of 1990s—it was the beginning of sampling machines. So I was sampling a lot, and I thought, Instead of sampling stuff and being stuck on the machine for a day, why don’t I just play the violin or the guitar and just amplify it with a mic—it will be easier. So I went back to acoustic through electronic music.

RD: What’s your favourite instrument to play?

The synths. One of the live acts I’ve seen that got me really into music was Einstürzende Neubauten. I saw them in the late Eighties. It was industrial, electronic music. I guess I’m made of all this music that I used to listen to in a way.

RD: Tell us a bit more about your studio—it sounds bizarre!

The studio actually used to be an old discotheque, I rebuilt it from scratch. It was a ruin. It’d been abandoned for 15 years. It’s a really important place for the island. Lots of people meet there and it’s just a little centre of social activity here. And party life (Laughs). I always wanted to build a studio here on this island and it was a great opportunity to buy this discotheque.

"There’s too much chaos emerging from the social media world. Here on the island, we have this luxury of actually being connected to the community, to each other, to nature—everything is simple"

RD: What's everyday life on the island like? 

I live here full time, except for when I’m touring. I love living here and I’m always a bit sad when I have to go.

On a day to day basis, I take care of my chickens. I work here. There’s always lots of stuff to do. I’ve always said that here, we’re all connected. I think sometimes we can be disconnected. There’s too much chaos emerging from the social media world. Here on the island, we have this luxury of actually being connected to the community, to each other, to nature—everything is simple. You know, the girl who works at the post office, if she receives something in the mail for me, she just gives me a call because she knows where I am on the island (Laughs). It’s a big luxury.

RD: What are you currently listening to?

I love DJ-ing. I had a gig yesterday and a day before and after the gig I did a DJ set. I love German music from the 1970s. I think what happened in Germany around that time was completely crazy. Neu! is one of my favourite bands. I listen to a lot of different stuff. Last year, I don’t why, but I had a long black metal stage. I’m quite open to different genres. 

RD: Are there any countries or cities that you particularly look forward to gigging in?

Every country is special in its own way, but I’m always happy to go back to Scandinavia, like Norway and Sweden. Berlin too. We will also play in a Greek theatre in LA which I’m a bit anxious about (laughs). It will be special.

"Sometimes you cannot feel how people are listening to the music"

RD: Do you find that the audiences in different countries are very different?

It depends on the venues. I used to play in clubs most of the time. During my last tour, we played more prestigious venues such as theatres, like the Royal Albert Hall and it’s funny because the audiences are quite young and a bit more indie there. Before that, I used to think that these bigger venues, they were great but they were also a bit boring.

But during this tour, I was quite surprised and completely changed my mind. So on this tour, we’re doing this kind of venues again and I think it will be great because there’s a whole other quality of listening to music there which makes it very special. Now I enjoy it much more. But I do miss the smell of the beer (Laughs).

Connection is really important to me. Sometimes you cannot feel how people are listening to the music and sometimes there’s a proper connection with the audience and it’s great. That’s what makes these gigs special.

RD: How have you evolved as a musician over the years?

I think I enjoy the gigs more now. In a musical way, I’m focused more now on performing and enjoying playing music. It’s really stupid (laughs) but it’s true. Perhaps it’s because before it was the other aspects of the tour that mattered to me more, like being with friends, partying. I still enjoy those but I’m more focused, and every gig is very special. I feel lucky.

RD: You've done some incredible collaborations in the past. What was it like working with Jane Birkin?

She was great! She is a very nice person. We worked together on Les Retrouvailles but I think it’s my least favourite album. Not the track that I did with her specifically, but I’m just not a huge fan of this album. Maybe it’s because it involved lots of French lyrics and I don’t really...it’s not my language. I don’t really like what I did in French.

RD: Who would you still like to collaborate with in the future?

I’d like to do something with Boards of Canada, I’m a massive fan of their music.

 

Yann Tiersen's ALL is out now on Mute Records 

For more information and concert tickets, visit southbankcentre.co.uk