Interview: July 16, 1998 in Paris, France for the "Elsewhere" Vangelis site.
Copyright (c) 1998/1999 Dennis Lodewijks
Even a multi talent like Vangelis can not work entirely by himself. Whether he's composing, performing, recording, mastering or just setting up his instruments, he is bound to need help or advise every once in a while. For this task he has always had a team of people around him to assist his work and solve or prevent technical problems. Just a quick look in some booklets can provide you with a list of names: Raphael Preston, Keith Spencer-Allen, Nico Despotidis or Philipe Colonna.
One of the most interesting names appearing however is that of French engineer and musician Frederick Rousseau. A man with an amazing trackrecord. Besides his work for Vangelis in both the eighties and the nineties he has been composing and releasing albums himself with increasing success and he has worked on countless successful French filmprojects. Also, he is the only man to have worked extensively with both Vangelis and 'the other' big European veteran in synthesizer music, Jean Michel Jarre.
His work for Vangelis takes place wherever Vangelis has set up his laboratories at that moment, but for his own and other work Rousseau has his own "Adequat" studio in the center of Paris. Thanks to the help of Antas, a friend of Rousseau who was put in charge of the official Rousseau website, I was allowed an interview with Rousseau, at the location of his studio.
From outside on the street nothing reveals the presence of the studio. Upon entering the property we walk through some small corridors, get outside again and then via a hallway we are welcomed in. His studio is relatively small, with only a few keyboards in operational position. A huge Korg T1 forms the masterkeyboard. On the side are an impressive Prophet 10 and a Roland JD800. All these types of instruments have also been used by Vangelis, which partly explains the parallels in sound that Vangelis' and Rousseau's music have. Two big racks are filled with modules and processors. All is linked to two Yamaha O2R digital mixing desks. The studio has recently been updated to work only with digital equipment.
Rousseau is controlling all from his Macintosh system, connected to two high end monitors. He is working on his next project, and is doing some sound tests with a guitarist. The music we hear is strong in rhythm and tasteful. The sound quality is impeccable. A trademark for Rousseau. The guitarist performs some licks while Rousseau twitches the sound and settings to prepare for recording.
After all is set up, it's lunching time, and we join him for some informal conversation. We chat about our upcoming interview, the music of Vangelis, Jarre and himself, but also about the football world cup which was recently won by the French. Full of conviction he explains his wild plans for the near future, and his motives to go this way. Every subject reveals his passion for the things he does. He isn't just messing about, working for a living. He is a true professional who puts his hart into things and knows what he wants.
Back in the studio the guitarist has finished recording his sessions. Rousseau plays them back and looks delighted. He should be, as the guitar sounds put a very special touch to this music. Rousseau is ready for the interview. He is, as it turns out, every interviewers dream. He has a lot to tell and knows how to bring it. After mention of just a word he tells you everything you wanted to ask about the subject.
So, how did he meet Vangelis in the first place? "It's something like 15 years ago. I was working as a demonstrator in a music store." He refers to the famous "Musicland" in Paris, a shop which can be found named in various booklets, not just from Vangelis. "Vangelis just called the store and said 'Okay, can you just provide a few synthesizers for recording Sessions in Paris?'."
Vangelis, as he explains, was working on his See You Later album which he recorded mostly in London's Nemo studio, but partly in Paris as well, doing a few overdubs. "We just went to a studio in Paris, named 'the Palais Des Congres.' He just did a few basses and a few drums. And that was the first time that I met him." An experience they repeated a few times afterwards for albums like "Friends of Mr. Cairo" and "Private Collection" with Jon Anderson.
"Each time it was occasionally. He was just calling and saying 'I have to use these instruments, could you come to "Nemo"?' It was a few times together. The Ambience was always fine. And then in 1990 he just arrived to my studio that I build in Paris,with a friend, Thierry Rogen, and he said 'I am in Paris for few weeks and I want to finish my next album "The City" come to the hotel to talk about it'. We made the full album and at the end he just asked me to join the crew and stay with him most of the time."
The credit Rousseau mostly gets is "Engineer" but he has also been labeled assistant producer. What kind of work does he do for him? "Most of the my work is concentrated on the audio and midi. Taking care of the sound library, synths and updates and see if new technology can fit with the 'Vangelis way' of composing."
So, Rousseau started to work regularly for Vangelis on which he spends 5 or 6 months per year. Vangelis passed about 3 years (1989-92) in Paris and after that he went to Greece for a show, making occasional trips to Paris. Rousseau travels between Greece and Paris to work for Vangelis on one hand and live his life and own projects on the other hand. Does he go there especially for a specific project? "Each time, yes.", he explains, "If he needs something, if he has certain things to do. If he has a project or a new mastering to do, a remastering for a special country or something like that... And of course, all the new recording projects."
Sometimes certain projects can take a long time to be completed, but others are done very quickly. "We made 1492 in two months. It was real quick. The work was done in a rush,we had a limited date linked to the Columbus event: October 4, 1992." Did they have pressure from the film company, or the director? "We had just had pressure by the project. It's not a special pressure. It was a normal pressure for these kind of movies. It's a kind of pressure that I have with Vangelis and with different French artists making movies."
The sound of Vangelis changed a lot at a certain period. When he left Nemo studio's and recorded his Direct album in 1988 he suddenly started using a lot more digital synthesizers using new systems like the custom developed Direct box. Rousseau started to appear in the credits a lot since that time, together with Philipe Collona.
When asked why they changed to more digital instruments he reacts slightly defensive. "The idea was not to be more digital, the concept was to be more live. Vangelis started to have his proper technique in term of live performance with synthesizers. Meaning not using any computers playing sequence. Then we designed a machine especially for him. He was able to play absolutely live any kind of music. It's a real pleasure to see him playing with a kind of impressive interactive Midi orchestral set up."
Vangelis is using cleverly designed midi setups combined with the DIRECT-box system, a huge set of foot pedals and a number of huge keyboards surrounding him. Using arpegiators, adding sounds by pressing the pedals and switching sustain pedals he can vary his output enough to give the illusion of a complete orchestra - or synthesizer combination - by playing directly what he wants to play. Thereby avoiding using sequencers.
Rousseau continues: "Fully live means 2 things:
1. If you are making a two minute scene, it takes just two minutes to do it.
2. You have to execute the scene absolutely perfectly , or redo it...
Vangelis is pretty unique in his technique. I think he is a rare artist. He is using synthesizers as a human and not as a robot..."
But the sound changed a lot, and although Rousseau and colleague Philipe Collona don't appear in the credits for Direct, the album first introducing this new sound to the audience, it is hard to believe they didn't have input in that. "Sounds always change with technology. That's what I think. For me it's not only Vangelis. I think that the Jarre sounds changed too. I think that the Klaus Schulze sounds changed too."
But does he think the sound would have been different if he and Collona had not been involved in the technique? "I don't really think so. My work is respecting the Vangelis work. My work is not to put my touch in his music. He is unique by himself. He doesn't need anyone. I am just there to help him to go through his project as simply as we can. Most of my job is to make him feel safe."
"It was the same with Jarre. I made an impressive work for Zoolook. I knew that the Jarre sound was changed with this album. Zoolook is different. It's the most important album that I did with him. It was very technical.
So, he worked for Vangelis and he worked for Jarre. But he has a much wider background than that. He worked for numerous French film composers and also with French pop singer Mylene Farmer, J.L. Murat, Indochine, Jean Louis Aubert. Was there a big difference in working with them? "Working with instrumental artists and singers is always different. Firstly because you don't have voices on instrumental music . It means that each instrument could be considered as a lead, as melody. It's always more complicated than making a playback for a singer."
"I stop making sessions since 1992. I now work only on my music. I try to make albums now that I have pleasure to listen to." Is there perhaps idealism behind his motives to work as well then? "I tried to make an album that you have pleasure listening to when you are back home. It's a kind of a personal pleasure." It's true, especially his own work is calm and soothing and should best be enjoyed when sitting back in a comfy chair. Eyes closed, feet on the table. Let the music begin.
Having composed a wide variety of things in the past, Rousseau has become much more serious about it in recent years. He once started his own work by creating albums like "Illustrator IV" which contains a library of music to be used in film or TV productions. Only in the nineties did he start working with Origins, a French New Age label which sadly only distributes very well in France, where it has earned itself quite a position in this specific section of the market. Since then he has released the albums "Mô", "Spirit in the Woods", "Abyss" and "Woods", as well as two albums in Origins' Oxygene series, which contains landscapes of soothing nature sounds with peaceful minimal background music. (Not to be confused with Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene works.)
His music should be of interest to most Vangelis fans. In sound it is very much comparable. Both use very crisp and clear sound combinations, existing of electronic sounds and imitations of acoustic instruments. But Rousseau often puts more weight in ethnic influences, avoiding the symphonic posture, sounding more electronic, and also more new age (relaxed, dreamy). The music itself, in tones and harmonies is much simpler: It avoids complex structures or wild chord progressions. It's just a calm, moody brew of little ideas, sounds, sequences and all sorts of musical elements that won't disrupt the flow of music. Mood and style it seems, is always the first priority.
It's hard to determine where exactly the combined appeal comes from. It's not only due to the similarities in instruments and equipment. Also is it by no means a bad thing as Rousseau's music is very unique, and it would be impossible to say he copies or imitates style or music. On the contrary.
I ask him how he proceeds in making his music. Does he start with a theme, or does it come in later? Is there any special way? "I have no law. I don't have any special attitude. I just make a choice of sounds in the huge sounds library created on CD-ROM or Synths, and I start the setting before playing any music."
"After that I start composing. I have an interactive choice in front of me. I can just go directly to a rhythms section, directly to the strings, or to a loop. It's for me more creative. I accept to be driven by the mood of synths' sounds. A method which seems reminiscent of what a painter does, making a pallet of suitable colors which he then uses for his painting." There can be no doubt that this also is part of the reason that his soundscapes sound so balanced and controlled, the sounds are matched to each other before the actual composing has started.
"When I am composing I am quick, I really like this. And in a second time I am correcting all the mistakes on the computer. After that, I create the final structure of the piece."
"In general,I like to start with the voices." With the exception of Abyss, all his main albums feature ethnic voices, half talking, half singing. As if they provide a foreground to the music, without breaking its instrumental essence. They use exotic languages, linking the music to the desired atmosphere and culture by the suggestion of their sound. "I like to have 'a capella' voices: just the voice. After that I can make five or six different playbacks of the song in different ways. One would be only with drums, one more techno, one more dance. Just the style you want."
"I love composing an album in an order that I keep until the end. That's what I did for 'Mô' and 'Woods'. The order is important for me. This approach obliges me to be concentrated on fifty minutes of music and not each differents songs."
Does he think of a certain listener when he is working? A certain person or mood? "I just want people to listen to something else. My thoughts are always to give a different approach. I try to make something more interesting than what I usually hear."
Surely someone who is so deep into the business of music has different ways to listen to music himself. I wonder what kind of music he likes to listen to himself? "I listen most of the time to ethnic, Classic and world music. I like movie soundtracks too." He prefers to listen to music from the radio: "Yes, I like original radio stations like FIP and NOVA in france. They program really original music and it's pleasant listening."
I ask him about the different influences he uses. "I try to go in one direction per album, making a different album each time. 'Mô' was based on Japanese voices, 'Woods' was based on African rhythms. The new one is based on Russian melodies." The Russian album he refers to is a finished project which is not scheduled for release yet. He has not yet found a suitable agreement with record company to get it done the right way. His way. People who have heard pieces of it are ecstatic about it. Hopefully it will be released in the future.
With so many references to and elements from exotic places, one wonders whether he did research in those countries. Did he for instance go to Africa or other places himself? "Not yet, For the moment all the voices were done in Paris or were done by crew making Animals documentaries for TV, sending me samples..."
There are parallels between his works and that of more popular bands like Deep Forest or Enigma. They do similar things but some way Rousseau comes across differently. He's smoother, less commercial and more earthly. "Yes, All the examples you talk about are based on an original idea but always treated for Dance floor . Except the last Deep Forrest albums. I think it's the first time that they make their own music. It's more personal, more creative."
Rousseau continues: "Another project now is Era." This is a project by composer Eric Levi and became a big success in certain parts of Europe including France and Holland. Notable is the participation of choir conductor Guy Protheroe, who has worked a lot with Vangelis in the past, most notably on albums like Heaven and Hell, Mask and 1492 Conquest of Paradise. "Era's music combines pop and new age with choirs and drums plus electric guitar sounds; it is a really good concept."
Another aspect of current fashion in electronic music is to go back to the old instruments, the analog synthesizers of the past. Rediscovered initially by the dance scene the concept was quickly adapted in the conventional electronic music scene, which is still trying to reprise the warmth and unpredictabilities of the early experimental releases from the seventies.
Rousseau is a bit skeptical about this. "Now everybody is vintage. Jarre is obliged to use old synthesizers to create a new marketing album. I love old machines and I love new machines too. I am using each type of instruments for its best qualities and that's it... Vintage is vintage. It's sublime for certain sounds."
Looking at Rousseau's discography you'll find two albums with a similar name and theme. "Spirit in the Woods" and "Woods". A closer examination of the albums will reveal a lot of similarities in the music as well. This deserves an explanation. He loves to talk about this. He can't hold himself while explaining.
"'Spirit in the woods' and 'Woods' are linked. I started with 'Spirit in the Woods'. The idea was to compose an electronic requiem for the oldest witness on earth: Trees... I did 'Spirit in the woods' only with electronics devices and I did 'Woods' by adding real musicians, drummers and singers on the same basic tracks. It is 2 different albums with opposite points of view......"
With the release of Woods already two years behind us, and the Russian project being stuck somewhere in the pipeline, the question is: Is he working on another new album? "Yes, I am composing a new project. Not an ethnic project this time, all the voices on the album are generated by different computers and machines. I try to transform the 'Mac' into a virtual artist."
"I still put one album per year on the market,and now I am adding an other album on my web site for the virtual library."
What Rousseau is going to set up is something that is often talked about but never really carried out. It seems he is indeed going to do it and be the first to properly run it. The idea is to allow people to go to his website and select a number of tracks they are interested in. They then pay via creditcard , and soon after receive a customized CDr with the specified tracks. Thus making it possible for people to create their own custom compilation albums. Especially the fact that people will be able to buy music that is not available on CDs in the shops is interesting and unique. There is of course a risk regarding publishing and maintaining copyrights, as those things are not adapted legally to these new media and distribution.
Rousseau's creativity is not limited to music alone. He likes to stay flexible and move into other fields. One of them is making computer animations. "Yes, I do 3D modeling. I am using Electric Image and 3D Max Studio. I started four years ago . I've discovered Electric Image software for the Macintosh. It's absolutely amazing, a perfect way to create digital pictures. I just wanted to know how it works. Is it difficult to make a forest? Is it difficult to make a lake? I started to create pictures step by step as a real beginner on my Mac."
"We are now going to A&V, the audio/video world. On the web you can load music but you can also load pictures. From the CD we are now going to the DVD which means we can have an hour of music and an hour of pictures. In five years,this interview will be full audio and video transmission through the web."
He can perfectly combine his skills in sound and creating music with his new enterprise in creating computer animations. "Sometimes I make the pictures first and I try to make the music around the edited pictures. Sometimes it's backwards and I am making music first and after that the pictures."
The main fundamental link between his music and his image creations is the fact that he makes them both without using real instruments. But, does he then regard the synthesizer as not a real instrument? "I don't respect these kind of plastic things as an instrument. It's not an instrument, just an electronic object. Not real. Normally, an instrument you can play with it. You can live with it. It's alive. it is a sound generator..."
He continues: "That's the reason why I am not a real electronic instrument fan. I love playing with it and making music with it and that's it. you can keep your violin or piano for all your life but not a synth. That's the reason I have no respect for these instruments." A surprising point of view from a man who has worked with these instruments all his working life. He sold them, engineered with them, played them and composed for them.
He is fascinated by the progress in virtual reality, and in this for him everything is linked. He tries to keep up with all of it, by staying ahead. "It's the kind of new technology that my daughter is going to use in 10 years. I just try to stay in touch. Not to be a kind of old technical 'has been'".
In his career Rousseau has been involved in a lot of soundtracks. Having worked for Vangelis, but also French composers like Alexandre Desplat or Eric Levi, he has build a lot of experience and probably the right connections as well. Does he have ambitions himself to write music for cinema? "Yes, I made one, for a girl named Arielle Dombasle and I made another one for what they call TV cinema."
"I have no limits in terms of music. You are not obliged to make rock music or techno things. You have more freedom than in the music business. That's what I like about filmmusic. You have to find a music style for the movie, not for your career. Each time you can make a different kind of music. I think it's really interesting You have the experiences of the past and you can use these experience for the movies."
Rousseau realizes very well in which particular interesting position he is when it comes to knowing the world of synthesizer and electronic music from the inside. Without even realising it he leads the subject back to his experiences with Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre. "I am quite a lucky man. I saw the beginning of the synth world. Through Jarre, through Vangelis, through different artists. Quite rare... Working with them is a very unique point of view by the different approaches of the business, shows and music. I confirm they are both unique...."
"And what's funny, I remember this kind of collection of 'Synthesizer Volume 1' and 'Synthesizer Volume 2', you know a few German and Belgian people trying to imitate the Jarre and Vangelis music." He is referring to the series of albums released by Arcade, with various popular synthesizer hits being played by Dutch synthesist Ed Starink. A series, released under different names in different countries, that sold very well and which music is in some combination or another still being sold today.
"But I discovered that each time a guy tried to imitate these artists he never could do it. He is always worse. I never find any versions of Jarre or Vangelis music made by a new player that was better than the original. The only thing I saw was one of the songs that Vangelis did with Jon Anderson and their was sung with a backing choir with Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, etc.." It's State of Independence by Donna Summer. "That was one of the best things. Produced by Quincy Jones, by the way. You heard the original and you say 'that's a good choice'."
"Chryssie Hynde took another song from Vangelis that was really interesting." Actually, it was the same song, State of Independence. "A Vangelis song in rock'n roll version was not so easy anyway. And this Chryssie Hynde version was absolutely excellent."
I wonder whether Rousseau's music will ever get covered in such a way. Or appear on the replayed synthesizer compilations that still appear on the market every now and then. They always selected the more popular hit singles and poppy tunes. Quite the opposite of Rousseau's relaxing albums. But it's undeniable that his music gets more critical recognition each year and the popular demand for his kind of music is still rising.
In the mean time he will continue his work for Vangelis, and continue to explore the world of filmmusic, computer art, etc. It's certain we will hear from him again, one way or another. Probably most ways.
More information about Frederick Rousseau and his work can be found on his official web site at
www.frederickrousseau.com or his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/people/Frederick-Rousseau/697460746.
Interview and text by Dennis Lodewijks.
Special thanks to Antas and Peter Dekker.
Additional thanks to Henk Engelen.