Kavinsky is a stylishly haggard-looking Frenchman who makes electronic music that sounds ages, even eons, old. Or maybe just decades — three to be precise, with a booming, melancholy style that glows with the neon tint of the half-remembered 1980s, an era recalled for its gauche delusions of glamour and its emerging relationships with technology. Sipping on a noontime beer at New York’s Soho Grand, his logo-soaked denim vest boasts logos from The Goonies and Metallica. He also likes Ferraris and searing guitar solos of a kind that only made sense back then. If they ever did at all.
A denizen of Paris, Kavinsky, 37, is part of the general electro scene that came up in the wake of Daft Punk, for whose triumphant last world tour he performed as an opening act. Otherwise his rise was aided more recently by his inclusion in the soundtrack to the 2011 movie Drive, the drum-tight minimalist masterpiece that stars Ryan Gosling as a stoic moral stickler who digs quiet communion with cars and finds himself embroiled in some complicated situations. The Kavinsky song “Nightcall,” produced with Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo, rolls over the movie’s opening credits, and its patient sense of portent goes miles and miles toward establishing the atmosphere of seedy Los Angeles night-cruises.
His long-awaited debut album Outrun (due February 25), extrapolates on “Nightcall”‘s unshakable mood, with menacing, robotically slurred dance tracks and mellower mood pieces that evoke an imaginary soundtrack to something quite skeevy. In anticipation of its release, the elusive Kavinsky spoke to SPIN about his Survivor tattoo, joy-riding in Ferraris, and going on movie dates with Skrillex.
How did you get into electronic music?
I was listening to rap and funk mostly, nothing electronic. One day my friend Mr. Oizo came to my home to try to get me to listen to electronic stuff from Arpanet, an American [from Detroit] living in Germany. Arpanet was the first time I could hear electro music as not too techno — it was almost like rap, but very cold. I liked it.
What did you do before you started making music?
Shitty work. Breaking walls, painting, [motions] “not like this, but like this,” preparing orders for Amazon, that kind of shit.
Wait, wow, is that a Survivor tattoo on your arm?
Yes. It’s the logo from the record with “Eye of the Tiger.” It’s about four years old.
What was the first piece of electronic musical gear you got your hands on?
It was a Macintosh computer in 2003, my first computer. I always had platforms for games, but I never found the time to have a computer actually. Mr. Oizo gave me a computer that was on its way to the trash. I said, “Okay, give it to me, maybe I can do something with it.” Inside was the software Logic, and I just tried to make music with it.
Your sound is to some degree nostalgic for a pre-computer electronic era. Have you come to collect vintage gear since?
No, I just have a computer and a lot of things inside. I don’t have analog keyboards. Plug-stuff I hate.
How did it happen that your music found its way into the soundtrack for Drive?
They just contacted us and asked. At the time I didn’t know where it would be placed, but I was like, “Yes!” I am big fan of the Pusher Trilogy that [director Nicolas Winding Refn] did. So I was jizzing in my pants. I was wondering why he chose me, but my producer, who is a little bit friends with the guy, told me he was listening to my music to go and come back from the film set in his car. It was always in the car, so he decided to put it in the movie. When I heard my song in the movie, I screamed in the cinema. I was like, “Whoah, yes!” A guy grabbed me and was like “SHHHHHHHH.”
“Kavinsky” is a character with a backstory involving zombiehood and cars, among other things. What gave you the idea?
My idea was to create an excuse for a story to make music for. I can’t imagine creating music for nothing, just like that. I can’t play piano or read music, but I used to love soundtracks to movies, so I decided to create a guy in a car who is dead, so he can die again, and then just have him drive around. It was very helpful for me to create music with something to start with, a story. Without it, I can’t.
Was your inspiration for the musical character from movies?
A lot. I’m like a sponge. When I put my ass on a sofa and watch a movie, it gets into me, in my fiber and in my head. Then I kind of vomit it back out. As you can see [points at his many vest patches], I’m a big fan of a lot of things: movies, music, cartoons, video games.
What is your favorite soundtrack music?
The Terminator theme — it’s very simple but does a lot to you. All the music for John Carpenter and Dario Argento. A lot of Italian movies and American movies, not so much French movies.
Do you think of your new album as a sort of soundtrack?
Oh yeah. That’s why I packaged the album with so many images. We didn’t do a movie, of course, but it’s presented like a soundtrack from a movie.
You seem to have real thing for the Ferrari Testarossa. Have you ever been in one?
Yeah. It’s a nightmare to drive. You know how in a car you can steer using just your finger? A Ferrari is more like a truck. You are also very low and very laidback. It’s not the best car to drive actually.
How did you find yourself in one?
For a video clip, and some people share them with me when I go on tour. Promoters sometimes want me to get to the club in a Ferrari, like RAH-RAH.
Is the title for Outrun a reference to the racecar video game?
Yes! It’s a game I used to play a lot. It’s from a very talented game creator, Yu Suzuki, who is the guy who also did Hang-On, Shenmue, so many. Each time he had a new concept or a new way to play — it was always a revolution for each game he did.
Are you really into video games?
Not so much now, but I used to be a lot, a lot, a lot. Sometimes I used to play a game and close my curtains, and could stay like that in the dark for seven days. Like GTA, Rock Star Games, all that stuff. Now I’m getting old, and when you can do so many things in a game, it’s boring to me. I feel bad when I’m just on my TV like that at almost 40 years old. I feel guilty now, more than before. That’s why I stopped. But I still play PS Soccer with friends. I just don’t play so much alone.
Does gaming put you in mind of making electronic music?
It’s all logical. For me playing video games and making music is the same stuff.
What do you think of the big rise of “EDM” in America?
We are lucky because there is a lot of good music in France, and big stuff in Europe in general. All of my friends, almost, are French. Maybe Skrillex is the only guy I know who isn’t French and is making electronic music. He’s an amazing guy. Really hated by some people, which I can’t understand, because the human, the guy, is incredible. His soul is very nice. It’s a big quality for him.
How did you two meet?
Actually I took him to the cinema when I watched Drive for the first time. In Paris there was a screening for the press, and he was in Paris for a show. He wrote on Twitter saying, “I’m in Paris and am a big fan. I want to meet you.” I was like, “Okay, why not?” I went to his hotel and we had a whiskey, then I had to go to the movie so I said, “Do you want to see it with me?” He was like, “Oh yeah, great!” So we went to the cinema the first time we met. We passed the whole night. He’s very talented. I’m not so much into dubstep, but I think one day he’s going to make very different music, and it’s going to be big.
Who’s that tattoo portrait on your arm?
It’s DJ Mehdi, a DJ from France who died in 2011. I can’t stop thinking about him. For each shower now [looks at bare arm], I think of him. It was a big disturbance for me. It helps me a lot to have his face here. I’m proud of it.
He shares an arm with Survivor — not bad.