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Martin Solveig on Madonna, ‘Hello,’ and Hijacking the French Open

EDM's answer to Woody Allen really wants to direct

The French producer Martin Solveig has been making music — house, downtempo, pop, R&B — since the late 1990s, but most Americans didn’t discover him until hearing 2010’s appropriately gregarious single, “Hello,” featuring Dragonette. The song was slow to take off, but by last summer, when it was certified gold by the RIAA, it had become the very definition of a crossover hit: It was ubiquitous across radio and television, and a diverse slate of remixes cemented its place in the EDM landcape; at least year’s Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, its chipper, sing-song refrain could be heard chiming like a perky cuckoo clock in set after set, hour after hour. Solveig’s album Smash finally came out in the U.S. late last month, over a year after its European release. During that time, American fans have become better acquainted with the droll, low-key hitmaker through a 42-minute, four-part series of video shorts (also titled Smash) starring Solveig as a hapless DJ, unrequited lover, and would-be tennis pro — part Woody Allen, part Richie Tenenbaum. Solveig’s profile enjoyed an even more significant boost when Madonna drafted him to co-write and produce six songs for her 2012 album MDNA. He spent the summer juggling solo club and festival appearances with the opening slot on Madonna’s European tour; he rejoins its American leg later this month. I phoned up Solveig in Paris to talk about touring with Madonna, hijacking the French Open, and why the sometime actor really wants to direct. (Don’t they all?) I wanted to ask if any interviewers had ever greeted you by singing the hook from “Hello” — I was tempted to do it, but I was afraid you might hang up on me.
Laughing No, no. You want to try? Were you surprised at how the song took off?
Of course I was. Especially in the first month, when I was playing it in the clubs, nothing happened. It was very flat. I loved the song, but I started to be unsure it was as good as I thought it was. And then it started to be picked up by radio and TV and stuff like this. I think maybe it was a bit more of a pop song than a regular club track, and so when people started to be aware of the song, then it became very, very strong. Even in clubs. Your album has been out overseas for over a year now, but it only just came out in the U.S. What took so long?
That’s a good question. I think that to set up things for the U.S. market takes a lot of time. Especially for a new artist like myself, who didn’t have a contract at first. Now, it’s absolutely useless to throw an album out of the blue, so I toured, I did a lot of press. I did a lot of different things in the U.S. in order to have a little bit more of a following here before I released the album. Did you find it difficult to connect with fans in the States when the record wasn’t available here, or was that less of an issue, since you had such a strong video campaign?
It’s absolutely not an issue, because people had access to the music anyway. The focus, anyway, was on the singles, which were out, like “Hello,” “Ready to Go,” and “The Night Out.” I’d say that in the end the album is either a way to get some exclusives from me — there are a lot of people that already had the singles, and now they’re just buying the other songs that they didn’t have — or for the people who just discovered me now. I know some people are discovering me every day. But that’s true for every artist. It’s true that with the digital era, the whole timing issue is very, very complicated and sometimes very difficult to match with all the issues — the legal ones, the technological ones. I’m not stressed at all about all this. People who want the music will get it, one way or another, and that’s fine. And people who are more patient get it in a different way. I’m happy with every scenario. You straddle two worlds, in a way — there are your singles, which are more pop, and then you’re also a part of the dance-music world, as a DJ. How do you balance those two things?
That’s a very, very good question, and this goes right to the heart of the definition of Martin Solveig. I’m definitely half pop and half a DJ. When I’m on top of my game is when I manage to balance the two in a way that it’s 100-percent club-friendly, or festival-friendly, and 100-percent pop-friendly at the same time. That’s “Hello” or, maybe at a smaller level, “The Night Out.” This is exactly what I’m doing. Back in the early 2000s, with your own productions and also the Africanism project, you were better known for relatively traditional deep house. How did you make the transition from house producer to pop musician, and how much of a plan did you have?
Let me answer very precisely. My great passion goes to music in general. And yeah, I’ve always wanted to make… It’s not… [Pause] I’d like to be precise. Of course. I’m not trying to put you in a box here.
I’ve just always wanted to make the music I love, and to me it doesn’t matter if people see it as pop or electronic or house or whatever. That’s exactly my answer. Then, I’d say it’s just a natural evolution of 12 years of making music, without a real plan. Because who has a plan for 10 or 12 years? No one. I just kept on following my tastes, the kind of things I wanted to do in music and videos, and that’s where I am now. There’s a very particular sound to Smash: Those bright, crisp drums and guitars and keyboards. I hear of echoes of 1980s bands like Bow Wow Wow and the B-52s. Did you have a clear idea of the sound you wanted, going into it?
There is a lot of rock influence in the whole Smash record. I’ve been listening to a lot of rock in the last five, six years — it’s the music I’ve been listening to the most. So the influence is there, of course. Again, there was no master plan. It’s the music I wanted to do at the time. Is that you singing on “The Night Out”?
Yes, it is. That’s my favorite vocal on the album.
Well, thanks. It’s the proof that it’s not about being a good singer, it’s more about the kind of energy that you have going in a vocal, and that’s what I’m interested in. Because I’m absolutely not a good singer, I can say it with a very relaxed feeling. Actually, there are very good singers on the album, but they also have what interests me the most, which is this attitude or this certain emotion, whether it’s cheerful or a bit darker, that they have in their voice, and that’s beautiful. I thought it was interesting you went with Kele from Bloc Party, because he brings a much darker energy than Dragonette.
It’s true. He’s definitely one of my favorite singers, so to be able to have him on the record was really a blessing. It came very naturally for the two of us, and we sort of cut the song in two sessions. I wanted to ask about your film projects — those are either some of the most expensive videos ever made, or you have friends in high places. How did you get to film at the State de Roland Garros during the French open, with a stadium full of people, and even get cameos from Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils?
You got it perfectly right: I’ve got friends, and if not friends, I’m never ashamed to ask weird things. That’s why I went to the tennis federation, the agents of Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the French football stadium — I just go for it, you know? A phone call doesn’t cost anything. I present my project, and I try to show that I’m trying to do something creative. Also, there is something that is interesting in Smash that I’ve done, and it’s recycling. My first approach was, for example, if I want to do a video in Roland Garros, the whole setup is there. The crowd is there, the cameras are there, the directors — it’s all set up, because it’s going to be broadcast. So there will be some times off, where the whole setup is there but it’s not used. That’s where I recycle it. That’s how I approach those projects. I came to the guys and said, “You don’t use your cameras at this time. Let me use it, and let me use it for a low price, but it will still be a bit more than nothing.” So you sort of sneak in between matches.
Exactly. And then I jumped in the court. I have the chance to have a public profile which is a bit bigger in France than anywhere else. Actually, most people know me, from past albums or whatever, so I explained that we could shoot a music video if they’re OK with it, and they would be a part of it — they would be the crowd, and we could play some music and have a little fun during this change between two games, instead of doing nothing. And they embraced the idea. We were also very, very lucky, because it was a beautiful, sunny day and it was packed. It was great. Did you feel like you needed a strong video campaign in order to help create an image for you outside of France?
That’s again too much of a plan. When I worked on this, I was supposed to present it as a short movie in a short-movie festival, so I had this concept of mixing reality and fiction, reversing roles, having DJs playing tennis-pro parts and tennis pros playing some other parts — that was my project. In the first place, it was not supposed to be a music video. Then I made the music as a soundtrack, and the track actually became popular, so we sort of overhauled the whole project, and it became what it became. But in the first place, I was in between musical projects, and I had no plan at all. In part four, there’s a joke where the ticket taker thinks that you’re David Guetta, which felt like a joke at your own expense about not being recognized. Do you get recognized more now?
In France, yes, a little bit. In the rest of the world, except maybe for Italy, it’s fairly rare. So it’s ok. Sometimes people in airports think I’m Guetta — everyone knows that DJs travel a lot, and, I don’t know, we have the same kind of haircut and probably something a bit French, I don’t know. Would you like to do more acting? Like, in a “real” film? You seem quite natural on camera.
I’d say yes, totally, yes, but even more than this, I’d like to do directing. That’s more my thing. Did you direct the Smash films?
I direct the short films and the videos with a co-director, Tristan Seguela, but the concept and the writing and even the dialogue are mine, so it’s definitely something I like to do very much. You’re touring with Madonna now. Are you playing different sorts of sets than you would typically play in your own headlining set?
I took it completely different. I had the privilege to work on the album, MDNA, to make one-third of this album, so it was very natural for me to offer something to Madonna’s fans that is not just Martin Solveig. It’s more like an extension of our work on MDNA, more something like Martin Solveig for Madonna. So I made some exclusive remixes of some of her songs and prepared some exclusive mashups — just, you know, to have fun with her crowd. Because that’s her crowd, they come for her. They know a couple of my songs, the fans know that we’ve been close and we’ve been working together and everything, but I’m really there to start a party. I really want it to be like a warm-up to the show, and nothing else. Not like, I’m going to take this spot and it will be all for me, and then you can have the proper concert. I think it doesn’t work that way. You were a club DJ for many years — did you play a lot of opening sets?
Of course. I played a lot of opening sets back in the ’90s for guys like Roger Sanchez and Erick Morillo and Mousse T and all the guys, you know, Masters at Work — I’m still in touch with most of those guys, actually, and we’re still friends. But yes, I had this experience of learning how to build a party, I think. Recording and touring with Madonna must give you a different perspective on the pop-music industry. Has it changed what you want to do next with your own career? Or what you don’t want to do?
Of course, it’s a big thing, it’s a big experience. It’s something that made me learn a lot, and for the moment I don’t really have the answer. I don’t know how much it will influence my next move. I know it will change, but you know, everything you do in life changes what comes next. So of course, this is a big achievement, and it’s going to affect the rest of my life. But how, I don’t know yet. You have said that when you got the call from Madonna, you basically dropped what you were doing and jumped on the next plane. Are you now able to return to the projects that you left on hold?
The one big thing that I dropped at the time was “The Night Out.” That was supposed to be the next single, the next video and everything, and I just couldn’t do everything at once, so I put it on hold and managed to bring it back to life almost a year after. Which was great, and showed, once again, that when a song is good, it’s good, and it’s not only good for six months and then it’s gonna be bad. So that was fine. Some of the choices you make in life are complicated, but this was a very easy choice to make. Are you getting a lot of offers from singers wanting to work with you now?
Yes, but I can’t mention them. Some are big, some are not big. Some things are probably going to happen, some probably not. But I also understand that the way Madonna works is completely unique. No one in the industry works like this. She does what she wants, 100 percent. So if, at some point, she decides that she wants to work with me, she’s going to work with me, and that’s it. We could spend some time, make some music from scratch, go in the direction that she wanted, have fun, etc., etc., whereas now I’m more contacted by industry people. And industry people are more about efficiency. I’m definitely going to be drafted for a lot of different projects, because they want to hear what I have to suggest musically, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to take the tracks. But they’re interested, and it probably wouldn’t have happened if I had not worked with Madonna, so I have to thank her for that. Will you be doing more of your own productions soon?
I need to make some new music now. I’ve been touring — I was going to say a little bit too much, but you know, when you tour, you can’t choose. You tour or you don’t tour, especially for me. So I’ve done like 70 or 80 shows in the last three or four months. It’s been really, really hectic. So, yeah, I’m going to stop touring soon, and then I’ll be back in the studio and I’ll make a lot of new music. Actually, my plan, if I can stick to it, and I’m going to try to, is when I’m done with touring, I’m going to go back to my studio, do new music, and restart touring when I’m happy enough with the music I’ve made. If it takes me a year in the studio, I will take a year in the studio. I need to make music, you know. That’s the baseline of everything I do. If I don’t make new music at some point, people in the clubs or at the festivals will start to be bored. Are you getting tired of playing “Hello”?
Oh no! No, I’m not! I’ve played it probably 300 or 400 times. I know I will play it my whole life, as long as I’m a performing artist. It may very well be my biggest track, and I wouldn’t be ashamed of this. Some people have their biggest track, and they don’t like it. You know? And I’m lucky enough that my biggest track, I actually kind of like it. It brings a smile to people, you know. And for me, performing is only about that. I don’t really care about anything else. I assume that people, if they come to a party or a concert, they just want to have a good time. So I’m always going to work on that ideal.