Philippe Zdar’s fingerprints can be found all over acclaimed music releases from the last 25 years. His credits extend from French acts like MC Solaar to Grammy winners like Phoenix, and even to his own projects like Cassius, La Funk Mob and Motorbass. As such, I was excited to finally do an interview after being put in touch with him by his friend, Philippe Weiss.
– Hi Philippe. My understanding is that your first music job was as a tea-boy for Dominique Blanc-Francard. Is that right?
Yes, although more so for the studio he worked at, Studio Marcadet. I met Dominique after two days on the job, which had been given to me by one of his colleagues, Georges Blumenfeld. It was a great first job for me because a lot of American and English artists were coming to Marcadet at the time; Bryan Ferry, Sade and Prince are some examples, and many French Top 50 hits were recorded there. Working with that caliber of artist was great for demystifying the process of making big records, which was a big help for me because I wanted to see how things were actually done in the studio, rather than romanticize it.
– But you were working as a tea-boy in the beginning, so I’m guessing they didn’t give you many technical assignments until you later became an engineer.
I never got any technical assignments. Even now, I like gear that helps me achieve the results I want, but I’m not really a technician. At Marcadet, they probably hired me because I told jokes and rolled good joints (laughs). Those kinds of things helped endear me to the staff, and I thank Dominique for not letting me go near the patch-bay for a year because I wouldn’t have understood it. But I eventually learned how things worked by watching other people work, which is very different from being taught step by step at engineering school. I didn’t really have a choice because I was thrown into the engineer’s seat when someone said to me, “The sound engineer isn’t coming today so you have to help with the session “, and I was like “But I don’t know anything! ” and he said, “Shhh! Don’t say that out loud! Just get on with it “. So I did, and it worked.
When I left Marcadet, I continued working as an assistant for a year at Studio Plus XXX until a well-known French singer asked me to record him at another studio as a one-time gig. When we were done, I got paid a month’s salary in one day, which made me go back to Plus XXX and ask if they could match that salary, but they couldn’t. So I left and became a freelance engineer, although I still did freelance work at Plus XXX.
– And how did you start working with MC Solaar?
I started with MC Solaar as an engineer and mixer. One of my friends, Hubert Blanc-Francard, was working at Solaar’s record label and he recommended me when a staff member said they needed an engineer to work on the first single. So to thank him, I invited him to the recording sessions and when he played one of his beats, everyone loved it. That’s how we started working on Solaar’s first album together. But at that time, I wasn’t interested in beat-making; I was a record producer, and it wasn’t until I discovered techno and formed Motorbass with Étienne de Crécy that my beat-making really got started. Until then, I was mainly the producer and engineer for MC Solaar.
– So when La Funk Mob released the instrumentals of MC Solaar’s tracks, those were mainly Hubert’s beats?
Yes, that’s right. But Hubert later sent his music to Mo’ Wax founder, James Lavelle, who liked it and wanted more, although he felt the beats were too short. James wanted them as seven-minute club tracks, rather than three-minute radio versions, so Hubert approached me since I was making beats with Motorbass, and we decided to form La Funk Mob. Hubert would ask me to do beats inspired by what I was already making with Motorbass, but without the four-on-the-floor kick pattern, and that’s what led to tracks like “Motor Bass Get Phunked Up“.
– When La Funk Mob got released on Mo’ Wax, did that raise your profile in the industry?
Since Mo’ Wax was the label on everyone’s lips, a lot of people got to know about us. But it didn’t really change my career though, although it did open doors for me to work with my favorite artists. I remember joking with James that having Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig remix our music would have been great, and he was able to make it happen because he had direct access to them. So being on Mo’ Wax mainly gave us confidence due to connections like that.
– But how did you meet James Lavelle in the first place?
I’d gone to London once to buy vinyl, and Hubert gave me James’ number to call him once I got there. So I did, and he said “Thanks for calling! I just received “Motor Bass Get Phunked Up” in the mail and it sounds great! “, and I was like, “Oh thanks. I just finished it the other day and mailed it over “. He invited me to the label offices to meet him and that was the start of our relationship. That was at a time when French electronic music was blowing up thanks to the hype from countries like England. Nowadays, everyone is used to seeing electronic musicians from France being successful, but back then we didn’t really have a global presence. So it was exciting for me and Hubert to be a part of an internationally-known label like Mo’ Wax.
– Can you take me through the process of being signed to a label in the 90s? How did it work for you guys?
Etienne and I wanted to be DJs, and we noticed on the event flyers that the promoters would mostly book DJs that had released their own albums or were signed to a label. So I suggested that we make our own music and put it out, which led to the creation of Motorbass. We never sent our records to labels because we felt that we had to do things ourselves, which was normal at the time for underground music. When we finished an EP, we’d jump in my car, drive to Amsterdam with the vinyl and sell them to a record shop. We did the same in Belgium, and even took 40 records on a plane to London to sell. Record stores back then were used to people walking in unannounced with their new releases, and the store owner would be like, “Alright, play me what you have “. If he liked it, he’d say, “Sounds nice. Give me twenty of those “. I’d go to places like Fat Cat in London and the guy behind the counter would play my record in front of everyone at the store, which could be a little stressful because they weren’t casual customers – they were actually there to buy music. But if you got a positive reaction from the crowd, the guy would buy 20-25 of your records and take your phone number. One month later he’d call you and say, “Man, we sold out. Can you bring back 100 of those records you had? “. That’s what I did for years with Motorbass and we sold 25,000 records that way, prior to releasing “Pansoul“.
– What was considered good sales for an electronic music group in the mid-90s?
10,000 vinyl copies was an enormous amount of sales for a house or techno label. I remember when a record shop in Paris ordered 3000 copies of our records, and that was a big deal for us.
– Did you sell CDs as well, or only vinyl?
We didn’t sell CDs until “Pansoul” came out. We’d been so obsessed with Chicago house, Detroit techno and the vinyl that goes with those genres, so we stayed away from CDs. It wasn’t very “underground” to sell those, and we even turned down offers from Virgin Records because we didn’t want to seem mainstream.
– Do you remember what DJs were getting paid for their shows back then?
I don’t really remember, but we were lucky to have a good agent who made sure we got paid well. Because Motorbass had some early success, we were probably getting paid €3000 in today’s money. It’s not a lot in the current DJ scene, but back then it was.
– Moving on from Motorbass, you and Hubert formed Cassius and were signed to EMI. But you said in past interviews that the label wasn’t interested in underground music and want hit singles from you. Do you regret signing with them?
No I don’t, because it was both lucky and unlucky for us to sign with EMI. To be honest, they never asked us for a certain type of record. They just said, “Give us whatever you have and we’ll put it out “. So we were never challenged to do anything, which had upsides and downsides. Much of the 20th century’s greatest music was made when artists were challenged by their producer, label or management. But Cassius had no manager, we were our own producers and the label didn’t care about motivating us, so things played out without us understanding how the releases would affect our careers.
– Following the success of “1999“, Cassius put out “Au Rêve” and “15 Again“, but the general consensus is that “1999” was a commercial and critical success, whilst the other two were not. Would you agree?
Yes, I agree with that; some people even call the follow-up albums failures. They say we waited too long and switched up our style too much by putting vocals on the songs. I understand how someone from the outside would say that we messed up, but from our side, the experience of making those albums is a part of our lives, and we love them. But yeah, the pubic reaction was mixed. When we did the press run for our last album, “Ibifornia“, people were asking us things like, “Why have you waited so long since the first album to release a new one? “. They didn’t even know that “Au Rêve” and “15 Again” and come out (laughs). But ultimately, Cassius is secondary to my real life. Rather than have commercial success, I’d rather be able to go and do where I want and do what I want. I live by the saying, “I use my talent for my writing and my genius for my living “, so I have no problem with my career being less successful than my real life. Some people say I missed out on producing big bands, but I don’t mind. Some of my American producer friends only take six days off in a year from their work, and if they’re happy doing that, then it’s fine. Dominique Blanc-Francard is still in the studio 350 days a year because that’s where he wants to be. But I’d rather be in the sun on holiday, do a quick DJ gig, and then go back to having fun and being with my family.
– Do you hear the difference between “1999” and the later two albums? Do you know why people liked the first one so much, but not the later two?
Yes, I do hear the differences. Whereas “1999” was an electronic album done in three weeks at our homes with one sampler and two keyboards, the other albums were done in bigger studios with singers and rappers like Jocelyn Brown and Ghostface Killah. We lost track of the fact that people wanted more of the same, and I still have people come up to me saying that they love “1999” more than anything else. Like I said, we had too much freedom and weren’t challenged by the record company. If they really wanted us to replicate the success of “1999”, they could have told us, “Look, don’t over-complicate things with too many singers. Stick to your formula and just make another electronic album “. But no-one told us that, and it’s only now that I’m saying to Hubert, “Let’s just make a string of three albums that are dance music-oriented and sonically similar“.
When I was younger, I loved bands like AC/DC and The Police, and they’d put out albums that sounded like they’d been recorded the same week of the release. The technology back then didn’t progress so quickly that a band could change their sound overnight, but the digital revolution came along in the early 2000s and gave us too many options for change, and Cassius got carried away. Back in the mid-90s, we were using an Atari S1000 and not much else, but on the second album the label gave us access to a big studio with a 24-track tape machine. So whilst the technology was great, it’s the reason why people might feel like Cassius fell off. I wouldn’t be surprised if some guy from Billboard one day writes, “Those Cassius guys made one great album and then messed the rest up “. It is what it is.
– I’ve heard that you still have all the classic 90s gear at Motorbass Studios, so why didn’t we see a return to your old sound with “Ibifornia”? Even Daft Punk probably have access to their old gear, yet they don’t seem interested in doing what they once did.
It’s very hard to do the same thing over and over. I really don’t want to do “1999” again, and I’m sure Daft Punk feel the same way. You can’t imagine the response they got from the techno crowd when they released “Discovery“. They would come up to us in the parking lot at raves to chew out Thomas and Guy-
For me, “Discovery” was a great continuation of “Homework”. It’s like when Bob Dylan came out with an electric guitar and people were mad because they wanted to see him with an acoustic. So you have to distinguish between those who are in this industry to make art and those who are just here to be famous. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of fame-seeking people in the music industry and today’s culture rewards them for being that way. When Aretha Franklin passed away, Questlove posted on Twitter that if she had been twenty years old today, she would never have been discovered because of our culture’s preference for entertainment over talent, and he’s right.
– But one of the biggest club singles of the summer is DJ Koze’s “Pick Up”, which sounds like a tribute to Stardust. So even throwback talent has a shot of being occasionally recognized.
Yes it does, but it was time for that sort of well-produced 90s-inspired track, and the vocals play a big part of its success, just like with “Music Sounds Better With You“. People forget the importance of lyrics; it’s one of the reasons hip-hop dominates the radio, because rappers give more attention to their lyrics than other genres. Even in today’s world of mumble rap, rappers are more concerned about their words than the pop guys. Pop writers are still throwing around the same 25 words that have been used for decades in pop music, like “sun”, “love”, “friend” and “freedom”. Meanwhile in hip-hop, you have acts like Chance The Rapper who still want to compete with Eminem, Rakim or Snoop Dogg. That kind of focus on lyrics has been missing from dance music, which is why a track like “Pick Up” is making such a splash.
– Why do you think the older music acts like Daft Punk don’t have the impact they once did? Their last album didn’t do much, and even though Ed Banger is still around, they haven’t given us any groundbreaking artists since Justice.
You’re right in saying that “Random Access Memories” didn’t change the music scene, but that’s mainly because Daft Punk didn’t care about the electronic music scene anymore. I say that with all due respect to them. When you’re a part of a scene, you want to be active in it and contribute to it. But when you leave, it’s just not that important to you anymore.
Not everyone on Ed Banger can be expected to have the impact Justice did. All the other guys on that roster are still good artists, even if they aren’t as commercially successful.
– Let’s talk about your work with Phoenix. When you were brought in to mix the “United” album, Laurent Brancowitz said in that you saved the album. What did he mean by that?
People sometimes understate the importance of a mix. I’m mixing an album right now, and the label recently came to listen and were impressed by how different the mix sounded from what it was before; so the mix can change everything. But now that mixing has become accessible to everyone, I think it’s lost some of its magic in people’s eyes. For “United”, I don’t remember what I did, but you can definitely save an album by mixing it right. I guess the guys were a bit lost and I helped out by first mixing “If I Ever Feel Better“. I always start with the big single and try to make it sound as good as possible.
– Do you know of any other projects where the mix saved the music?
One of my favorites mixes is the one I did for Sebastien Tellier’s “La Ritournelle”. But I remember that the music had been poorly recorded, and I had to battle uphill to overcome that. Even though they had Tony Allen on drums, it was a long journey to make it sound good. Stuff like that can be technically challenging to mix, but you might find a vocal effect that changes everything. Everyone in the studio was a bit stressed until we found the key to making the mix work. But you also have to know if you’re not the right person to mix a track, which is something I feel pretty quickly. That’s why I don’t do too many commercial mixes for big labels. Even when you do a decent mix for them, they still find a way to say things like, “Okay we like the blue version, but let’s try the red version “. That kind of indecisiveness doesn’t work well with me.
– Let’s end by talking about Motorbass Studios. Is it really one of the only studios left in the inner city because most of the others are on the outskirts of Paris?
Yes, that’s true, but it’s even worse than that because many of the inner city ones are closing down. The latest one to go was Studio Grand Armée, which had to close because of their rent prices.
– Does the closure of other studios mean more business for you, or is it just bad for everybody?
It’s bad for everybody. I’m not running a studio for the money. In fact, I only recently started renting out Motorbass because I want to continue paying my assistant. But studio closures are happening all over the world, and I get it. If you can make a record that sells millions from your hotel room, why spend thousands of Euros a day in a big studio?
– Is it true that Tom Hidley, who created the Eastlake Audio, shipped over wood from England and stone from America to construct the studio?
Yes that’s true. Apparently he thought French building materials weren’t worth using (laughs).
– How did those materials affect the sound of the rooms? Do the materials matter?
They do, especially with wood. The wood used to build Motorbass Studios could have been used to make Gibson guitars, and the wood makes all the difference between one Gibson and the other, even if they were carved from the same tree species.
– When you bought Motorbass in 2000, was it expensive?
No, it was a bargain. Even with the recent changes in the value of the Euro, it’s still been one of my best purchases. I was never someone who bought too much stuff, but the studio was financially worth it.
– What kind of changes did you have to make to it after buying it?
It was crumbling down, so I had to change everything. I tore a lot of it down and rebuilt things, all of which took me seven years. I had to replace the ventilation, redo the electrical wiring, etc. It took a long time because I’m hardly rich. It was my DJ gigs over the years that paid for it.
– Are there any artists who you feel are making interesting music right now?
There’s a lot of people doing interesting stuff even if they don’t get much mainstream attention. We’re in a culturally weak moment right now where Instagram promotion is more important than talent, but the upside is that it creates push-back from the youth. Look at the 60s: we often say it was an amazing time for music and that bands like Yes and Led Zeppelin were super talented. But after all that skill came punk music. The youth basically said, “I don’t want to spend hours listening to complex guitar solos and synth riffs. I’d rather play aggressive, energetic music even if it sounds sloppy! “. So I think today’s youth will eventually push back against the homogeneous music that’s played on radio. Just look at someone like MonoNeon – he’s a comedic bass player that makes popular Youtube and Instagram videos. Ten years ago, no-one would’ve cared about him, but now he’s having a lot of success because he’s both funny and skilled. Prince even wanted to work with him before he died. So I think more proficient musicians like him will resurface.
– Thanks for talking to me Philippe. It’s been great. Can I end by asking what projects you have in the works?
I’m working with Adam Kindness and Hot Chip right now, who are bands that I really like. I don’t mind working with pop artists too, but I don’t expect many of them to call me because they tend to live in their own world and can only work with producers who respect that bubble. I’d rather work with mavericks that want to make great music, and I’d also hope they were good people. To me, character is more important than talent. If someone is an asshole, I’m not interested in being in the studio with them even if their music is incredible. The way I spend my time nowadays is what matters the most to me.