As a producer and songwriter, three-time Grammy winner Stuart Price has had a hand in some of pop's biggest records of the past decade — Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor, the Killers' Day & Age, Scissor Sisters' Night Work, Kylie's Aphrodite, even Take That's Progress. In his solo endeavors, however, Price sometimes seems to go out of his way to avoid the limelight. In the 1990s, he fooled listeners into thinking his Les Rythmes Digitales project was actually the work of an artist from the Parisian dance scene; on a few occasions, he went so far as to conduct interviews in French, with a translator. He stuck with the Gallic conceit for his pun-loving DJ alias, Jacques Lu Cont, and he hijacked David Bowie's Thin White Duke moniker for his remix work. Now, Price returns with a new alias, Tracques.
For listeners accustomed to his impish pop ways, Tracques' self-titled debut may come as something of a shock: It is, in a word, techno, and quite unforgiving techno at that — brutally stripped down and fraught with colliding rhythms that threaten to be the music's undoing. Forget about Confessions on a Dance Floor: This is full-scale confusion on the dance floor.
SPIN spoke to Price about how his computer's metronome inspired the crazy timekeeping of his new album; he also talked about producing the Pet Shop Boys' dance-influenced upcoming album, Electric, the impending return of Les Rythmes Digitales, and opening for Swedish House Mafia. Listen to Tracques in full below, and read on for the interview.
Hi Stuart. So you're in L.A. now?
Yeah, that's right. It's sort of been on and off for the past 10 years, but this year we thought we'd come; we have a home here. It sounds dull to say it, but when you decide that your kids are going to school in America, it then means that you're based out of it. Anyway, my wife's from California.
Plus, once you get a taste of that sunshine…
The funny thing is, it's change that's always good. It's probably the same for a lot of people, but if there was an opposite for "homeboy" and "homegirl," that would probably describe my wife and I. We like to keep moving, and it always brings something new. When you go back and forth over the pond, I find it to be really good musically. You always have a different perspective and you always end up working with different people.
What was the change in perspective that led to the Tracques record?
It actually started with the first track on the EP, "Click Track." I was in the studio looking for something new to do. You know how it goes in the studio, you sit there with a machine or a keyboard or some sort of instrument, and you come up with an idea, and at a certain point, you press "record." When you start, the first thing you hear, straightaway, is the metronome from your sequencer. I was listening to it, and the click started, and I thought, "I'm always a slave to you. You start playing, and I follow." I started looking at the settings in my sequencer, and I noticed that there are a lot of different ways you could change the settings of the metronome, different subdivisions. And I just thought, "For once, I'll play you instead of you playing me." That's what that "Click Track" is, a jam on the metronome.
How did you make it?
The software I use is Logic. Right down at the bottom of the screen, in the settings, there's different subdivisions. Normally a bar is divided into four beats, but in between every beat there's a subdivision. They range from none to four, eight, 12, 16, 24, 32, 64, etc. When you set those different ones, you get faster and faster pulses between each beat, and I just noticed that because you can change that in real time, you can effectively play it. So I hooked the audio output of Logic back into the input, hit "record" and went, "Here we go!" I just jammed for five minutes on it, and that gave me the backing track, the performance of the metronome. And then from there, there's not that much in the track. There's obviously a kick and some hats and snares and different things, but the metronome is what it's all about.
When I finished "Click Track," one of the things I really liked about it was that it was sort of anti-melodic. It lives or dies purely on dynamics alone, and that sort of head-warping effect of your ear constantly searching for melody or searching for what's going on. It just opened the floodgates, and I thought it would be really cool to make a whole record of this. And that became the parameters. For me, personally, my favorite records that I make are the ones that have a set of parameters. It defines what you do, and it gives you answers along the way. If you're working on a track and you're not sure whether to turn left or turn right, you can look at the parameters and it will give you the answer. So it can be quite a good way to give you a focused piece of work.
And the off-kilter rhythms and out-of-phase loops carry through other tracks as well, like "Train Tracks." These tracks must be hard to DJ.
While it has a dark sound, I hear that as sort of humorous. "Train Tracks" is a good example, because I remember when I started DJing, which is, I dunno, 16, 17 years ago, it used to be that if you were in a club and a DJ was mixing badly between tracks, people would say, "God, he's train-wrecking really badly." So I thought it would be cool to play with that idea, and actually make a track that deliberately sounds like the DJ is screwing it up. But then at a certain point he rescues it. To this day, actually, when I DJ, although I use USB keys when I play out, I still play on [Pioneer CDJ] 2000s and do the synching live. It's not necessarily because I think it's better, but for me, part of the charm is when the DJ nearly loses it and then rescues it at the last minute. The sharper you are and the better you are, the quicker you do that, but there's still that sense of urgency, of it being in the moment, that I like. So "Train Tracks" was just taking it to the extreme. Like Steve Reich used to do these experiments with vocals, he would have them sort of looping around, it was the same vocal loop, but the left and the right speaker were slightly out of sync, so the voice almost started rotating around your head when you listened to it. The cool thing is that a certain point it's so out of time, it becomes in time again. I liked that idea.
There's a sense of slippage in manually synched mixes that you don't get in digitally synched mixes.
That's right. It's no different to a guitarist or a drummer who might just hit a bum note or two. But it's not really about making a mistake, it's about how you recover. When the DJ recovers, all of a sudden everyone's back on his side. But while it's going wrong, everyone's going, "Is this guy really any good?" I love that relationship.
What do you tend to play when you DJ?
To be honest, I play a lot of my own stuff when I play out, because obviously I'm super familiar with it, and it's the message that you spend a lot of time trying to put out. But I'll play anywhere within house, electronic, techno — I don't play so much electro stuff, or not electro as it's defined today. But that's not for any reason other than I think when you play, you play what floats your boat. You have to play music that really does it for you; otherwise you're just guilty of playing stuff you don't believe in. It's fine to have 50 people watching you and it's fine to have 50,000 people watching you. The important thing is that, as long as everyone believes what you're doing, it will be a great show.
This is your first solo album in a while. What took you so long — were you too busy producing for other people?
Yeah, I was. If I look at my career in terms of what the output has been, there's been a lot of producing other people, and I was doing my own stuff more at the start of it. But from my point of view, I've always just been doing the same thing, day by day, in the studio making music. It's not fair to say that the albums I produced are my albums; they belong to the artists I made them for. But emotionally and in terms of the process, I always try and make everything like it's a record of my own. So from my perspective, I've been doing the same thing for 15 years. I think it's a case of having great opportunities to work with great people, and not wanting to miss them. And when this Tracques idea came about, it seemed so polar-opposite to what I'd been doing more recently, which was more like pop or rock records; it was just infectious. The Tracques album happened really quickly. I feel like it all happened within a four- or five-week period. That was a pretty cool indicator to me that it was right.
You've set up your own label, Tracques, to release it.
Tracques is an imprint I have through Atlantic. I have a pretty cool relationship with them in the U.K. It's probably part of a longer, ongoing thing there, because I'm going to make other solo records this year, and I'll probably do them through Atlantic too. Tracques is an imprint where it's a way for me to keep it small and have a sort of more independent vibe to it. The thing is, it's all about your relationship with the label. As to the argument about indie versus major, I think you've got to do the right record on the right place. It all comes down to a relationship. If you know the boss of the company really well, you can have a great relationship with the company. If you don't, and maybe the boss doesn't like what you're doing, you're going to be fucked. And Atlantic, over the years I've gravitated towards them, and I think it's been mutual. So that's a pretty cool place to call home.
What solo projects do you have coming up?
Over the last 18 months I've been working on a new Les Rythmes Digitales record. That's something I've started and stopped for about the last 10 years. Each time around, I've been working on it, and then I've used the songs with either Madonna or Kylie — they've just turned into songs for those people. Which I'm cool with! Because they kind of found their home, in a way. A Les Rythmes Digitales song was either going to come out on an indie label or something, or Madonna's going to put vocals on it and it's going to be something much bigger. It's a pretty easy choice. But now, I'm in a sort of freedom zone to do what the fuck I want.
You talked about the importance of having strictures; what's the focus of the new project? What will make it Les Rythmes Digitales, and not Tracques or Jacques Lu Cont?
I think it's technique. All the things you learn over the years about how to technically make a record, that stuff is just in your pores. It becomes part of your blood, and you sort of know how to do it. It's not like you're overthinking that part of it. So in terms of Les Rythmes Digitales, it's not so much sitting in front of a computer screen, but more sitting around like I did on the last record, with hardware and hardware sequencers, where your visual input is the inspiration that you have around you, which is often my vinyl collection or poster art from the early-mid-late '80s. The technique is very different. It's like an antidote, almost, to the way you would make a new pop record.
The other reason for doing the Tracques record — like I said, I think it's humorous. But it can be so dark and intense at points. It's almost pushing this stuff out of your system. And now I feel like I want to do a really melodic record with Les Rythmes Digitales. It's going from polar opposite to polar opposite, and it probably makes it kind of hard to follow what I do, but I don't mind that. I think it's interesting.
You've been working with the Pet Shop Boys on their new album.
I'm finishing mixing the album this week. It's been one of those collaborations where I think we both feel like we got something out of it that's greater than the sum of its parts. You know, sometimes you work with your dream collaborators — I'm not talking about myself, but I include myself as well — where you might be a little bit let down by it, or you say, "That's not quite as good as I was hoping it was going to be." But I feel like on this record we've had the opposite. Last year they were talking about doing a new album, and they said, "We've got some ideas." In quite a formal way, we listened to the demos. But then, when we got together in the studio, it just clicked. The way they regard the process of making records — they'll be present, and they want to get the best out of everyone in the room. That means sometimes letting someone do their thing, and other times discussing it and figuring out ways to make it better. They're just masters of the craft. Again, it comes down to parameters. The parameters were, we're doing a dance record. And each track is just going to be, even if not necessarily uptempo, every track is going to have that euphoric, fresh feel to it.
So for me, being able to work with them on, specifically, a dance record — I mean, the Pet Shop Boys, they're two of the reasons I started doing electronic music. To this day, I've never figured out if I want to be Neil or Chris. The key record in their catalog, for me, was always Disco. Very and Actually are huge, huge records, but the key one in their career was always Disco. That had everything that I liked about Actually, and it had everything I liked about electronic sound and dance. So we used that as a kind of starting point. But if we were making music that sounded like 1985, you'd have to say, "What's the point in making it?" So the perspective on the record was, all that matters is what we do today, and what our aspirations are for tomorrow.
You've been active in the dance/pop crossover for a long time; you helped bring Madonna back to the dance floor in 2005. What do you think of the current crossover between pop and dance?
Potentially, it's the most exciting era in music for a long time, because it's also the most controversial. There's an equal amount of haters as lovers. It feels to me like there's something sort of momentous about it. I think I agree with all the ups and all the downs about it, but the one thing I know is that the true artists shine through. You can't hide good music, no matter what the genre is. That's why I think it's so good. It has to be, it's controversial! How can it not be? I think what's different is that, musically, dance music possibly has the longest history without ever getting as huge as it is at the moment. It's not like a new genre that's exciting and surfing along because of that. It's music with a 30-year history.
When did you discover dance music?
I guess when I was about 14, 15, I was going to house parties. I was too young to go to raves, but my brother's friends would gatecrash these poor kids' parties and trash their homes, and they would always have a cassette with them. They'd just arrive and put on this music. And I'd just look at the speakers, going, "What is this?" I also had the context of watching them, probably out of their minds on drugs, so I could understand how they dance to it. Because that's the thing, the experience of dance music is nothing without context. And that's what excited me about it. I used to tune in to Capital FM in '88 or '89, when all this music was happening, and the specialist DJs would play this music and say, "We're not sure what they're calling this now, but check it out." And I'd look at the radio and listen to it going, "What does this music do?" You were just sort of baffled. But then on the weekend I'd see these older kids, 17 or 18, and they knew what to do with this music. They knew how to move their bodies to it. And that's a real visceral thing that stayed with me. I used to listen to the Colin Faver show on Kiss FM in London, and that's where you'd have like, Jeff Mills playing these sets on the radio. I used to wait with my cassette recorder paused, waiting for a track I really liked. When you listened to Top 40 radio, you always knew within the first five seconds whether it was a song that you liked or not, so you could hit "record" or hit "stop." What was really cool about techno, you had no idea whether a track was going to be any good until four minutes into it. I remember, every song used to start, and I'd hit "record," and if, three or four minutes in, it wasn't really doing it, I'd hit "stop," rewind the tape and get ready for the next one. That's quite a big shift in how I listen to music.
Going back into the Tracques record, I wanted to make something that you had to bend over and look at it and go, "What is this stuff? What's going on here?" I think that's where the idea of it being not so melodic comes from, because dance music today can be a bit rigid. It's kind of, "OK, here's the intro, it's going to consist of one chord that's going to build and build. Here's the first drop, big melody. Snare drums come in…" It can become quite formatted. And your ear, subconsciously, has learned what's going to come along next. So to make music again where you don't know what's going to happen, that's not in eight-bar loops any more — there might be a six-bar loop or there might be a 14-bar loop, or something like that. It's about that idea of wanting to peer into the speaker and wonder what's going on. That seems like a valid cause. [Laughs]
People are so used to the breakdown, the buildup, and the drop, it's actually hard to surprise people nowadays.
Dance music kind of falls down when you start having different chord structures throughout a track. If you try and do a kind of verse-chorus thing within dance music, it can just immediately sound poppy, because those things belong to pop music. But what's interesting is that dance music has kind of made songwriting about dynamics. And instead of saying, "Verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge," we're saying, "Intro, drop, snare build, breakdown." We've just got these different words instead of "Verse, chorus, bridge." And it also means that it's formatted.
You played with Swedish House Mafia in December. What was that like?
It was awesome. I met them; they liked albums that I'd done over the years, and dance tracks, and that's where we hooked up. Typically, when you like other producers' music, you end up reaching out to them, or if you're out somewhere and you see them, you don't feel going up to them and starting a conversation. And they said, "We're doing these shows, they're big shows, but you could come and do your thing." So they were awesome, for two reasons. One, because some of them were really big with great crowds, and the second thing was that musically, as a warmup DJ, I wasn't a light version of what they were doing, I was just doing something completely different. And that's cool as well. As self-flagellating as it might sound, it's quite exhilarating to play to a crowd where they might not necessarily be down with what you're doing. [Laughs] But like I said, you're doing what you believe in. So that was cool. Maybe a bit of opposites attract or something?
Were those the biggest crowds you'd played for?
No, I don't think they were the biggest. They had pretty pivotal shows at Madison Square Garden and places like that, but in terms of size, all the European festivals can have crowds that are that size. If I'm playing in a club, it's anywhere from 500 to 3000 people. But when you're doing the European festival circuit, you don't know if it's going to be 2000 people or 20,000 people. And the reality is, if it's 20,000 people, they're probably not there just to see you. They're there because they're part of the festival. Your job is to win and make them stay. And make them go, "Fuck yeah, this is good!" It's one thing to be able to make commercially successful records, but why I started DJing again, it doesn't matter how many albums you've sold; you're nothing unless you can be a good DJ. That's appealing to me.
You're sort of a self-made member of the French Touch; what do you think of the new Daft Punk?
I really want to hear the album. The single I'm confused about. I really embrace how they're trying to do something different, but stylistically, their version of different is not so different. Just based on the first single, it's disco. But their obsessive approach in the way they've recorded it is cool. So we'll see what the album is like. I don't know, it's funny. I think my response is probably quite a common response.
Thomas and Guy-Manuel, they have a way with music. They don't need to explain it or justify it. They have a way with it. I think that's why they're probably the most significant dance act from the mid '90s onwards. And they always will be. Daft Punk will be referenced as long as Kraftwerk were. And occasionally in Kraftwerk's catalog, you went, "I'm not really sure what they were doing there!" But then they did something else. So yeah, we'll see.
A lot of Daft Punk's success has been based on their pyramid show at Coachella in 2006. Have you ever wanted to do a full-on audio-visual spectacle?
In my wildest dreams, I've got the second coming of Jean-Michel Jarre tucked up my sleeve. The reality is, to make a show like that, you have to follow your heart and approach it with a sense of there being no limits. Although these shows cost a lot to put together, I don't believe cost is the main reason for success or failure. I think ideas are the main reason for success or failure. And that's the thing I've always liked about music. The best idea will win, whether it was made on a $500 laptop or a million dollar studio. It's always inspired excitement and hope in me. And now, I love that anyone can do this music. Occasionally I hear people complaining, "Well, anyone can do it now, and there's no craft, there's no perfection in what they're doing." I completely disagree. I think kids that are doing this music, they will forge a new way. It's not actually kids, you say kids but it's anyone. You can forge a new way because you have the tools to do it. I choose to believe that will make new music and new genres, rather than choosing to believe it's destroying something that's bigger than that.
Maybe instead of a pyramid, you could perform inside a giant metronome.
Unfortunately, also pyramid in shape! It's a good idea, as long as I don't have to be on top of the metronome, sort of swinging left to right. That might get a bit seasick.