Check out the video above to see Sébastien Léger In The studio with Future Music. Featuring over 40-minutes of studio fun.
Interview with Sébastien Léger - Future Music 236, February 2011.
He's been releasing records internationally for over a decade but in the last three years, Léger has become a globally recognised force in Dance music production. His huge solo club hits like Hit Girl, collaboration with Chris
Lake on their Mistakes EP and vast amount of remix work has marked him as one of the club's leading producers, with a golden touch when it came to big, spacious and melodic productions. Léger's parents were both musicians and he himself was classically trained on piano and percussion. For the listener, this nod towards formal musical training might be something that's very obvious considering the melodic nature and evolving arrangements, but his ultra casual personality means it isn't something that Léger thinks important.
His studio is similar to others we've seen in the tall and thin townhouses of Amsterdam – located in the roof space it's a small but packed affair, with plenty of hardware and personality. The first thing that strikes us production nerds are two giant Lego Daft Punk robots where studio monitors would usually rest. After a glance around, we spot two cheap white plastic PC speakers that Léger tells us are his main and only monitoring solution. Sure, there's a white plastic subwoofer on the floor, but it's basically a £20 2.1 system and we can't believe this is what Léger creates his music on. Moving back downstairs to the living room to crack open a beer and begin the interview, we spot the three cushions – each sewn to resemble a piece of classic Roland hardware. On a desk there are a spare set of the 2.1 speakers Léger uses in the studio, which incredibly he tells us he found in a skip with great excitement, as he has no idea where he would buy a replacement set. We settle down in Léger's living room and start the interview...
You're a DJ who became a producer. What were your early influences?
"I first started in the '90s DJing in my bedroom with both vinyl and CDs, but I was playing more of the New York vocal House stuff – Frankie Knuckles, Masters At Work. I liked anything with a big diva vocal really, it was super gay but I loved it, y'know, the piano and the singing. But that scene was not moving so I started playing a bit of the Chicago House sound with a bit of Techno and the French Touch music thrown in."
This is while you were still in France?
"Yes, I was playing at clubs and I had a few residencies, mainly at gay clubs, because I was playing gay music [laughs]. It was funny because I think I was fifteen at the time and resident in a gay club, but anyway... I started making tracks in 1997, using the Pioneer CDJ-500s and looping up a track and then looping a Disco track up beside it and I thought 'woah, I'm making my own music'. Obviously, these tracks were never released.
"Later I decided to buy an MPC2000 and I can't even remember why, I don't think I really even knew what it was but I knew I could make music with it. A week later I had made my first track and it was horrible, but then slowly I made some tracks that became my first releases."
When did you know that you had made a track that was good enough for release?
"Well I remember I thought it was OK so I bought a blank CD which were super expensive then and burnt it to disc and when I played it out I thought it was working well. So I took it to a producer and got it released on his label as Deaf 'n'Dumb Crew."
Deaf'n'Dumb was your early alias?
"Well me and a friend, but I was doing all the work. Anyway I had this white label and a plan to go to this club in Paris where Paul Johnson was meant to play so I could give it to him. Well, Paul Johnson didn't show up but I ended up giving it to Play Paul who is the brother of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo from Daft Punk. The next day [Play] Paul called me and said he had a friend who owns the labels Black Jack and Rivera and they wanted to release the tracks properly. This is when it really changed for me."
So this was when it became a job?
"I quit school at 15 because I didn't like it. I was DJing every weekend as a resident and I just thought 'OK, that's it for me this is what I want to do' way before then."
"I think Ableton Live is the best thing that ever happened in my life."
It must have been amazing to get that first record out because it was everything you wanted to do.
"Yes but it's been a long time, I've been doing this for 17 years and only now in the last three or so years have things really been getting to where I wanted them to be."
What have been the big moments?
"[Laughs] When Paul Johnson didn't show up! It's been slow, there's not been one moment. Even with DJing it's always been up and down. Sometimes I'm headlining the main room and other times I'm just a part of the line-up."
When did you tire of the MPC?
"Well, I'd been working on the MPC for around ten years but adding other stuff along the way. I had all this equipment and I just had to pray that it was all synchronised. I used to make all my tracks live by muting and jamming the patterns as they played, doing the filters and effects live and so on. I used to sometimes have to go back and do it ten times before it was right."
Do you think it gave you an edge?
"Well it probably made my tracks slightly less predicable, because at this point most people were using computers and sequencing that way. I think it's maybe a French Touch thing though, because a lot of people like Daft Punk and Alan Braxe used to I started making tracks in 1997 by using theuse a more hands-on approach. Homework was a massive influence on me – the compression, the modulations and phasing made it sound like it was always moving."
Are you musically trained?
"Yes, my parents are both musicians but I don't use it really, just my ears."
But you could hear that musicality in some of your tracks that ran parallel what Eric Prydz was doing.
"Yeah, that was a period when I wasn't inspired at all and I was really impressed by what Eric was doing and thought 'well, this is the sound I could make'. I wasn't copying him, but I was heavily influenced even though it wasn't a sound I played in my DJ set and wasn't me at all."
Now you seem to have merged the melodic with the tougher and groovier sound.
"Yeah it's definitely back to where I started and I'm making much more use of all the experience I've had. The new album is actually called Origins because it feels like I've gone back to my roots."
Will there be vocals then?
"No [laughs], I didn't say I was going back that far. I gave up with vocals ten years ago. My old records have the screaming diva vocal but never again. It's Chicago House influenced, not New York House."
Was the switch from the MPC to using the computer a difficult move?
"It was so easy, even though I had never ever used a computer for music before. My friend Chris Lake came to my house when we made a track together – a track that I now hate, but anyway. He told me totry Ableton, so I got the demo and found it pretty easy to use really. Then fifteen days later I did my first remix with Ableton, a track by Ida Engberg called Disco Volante. She had a fucking massive hit with this remix with one and a half million YouTube plays with my version of the song under her name. But anyway, making music was so quick and I was really surprised how easy the transition was. I think Ableton Live is the best thing that ever happened in my life." [Léger glances at his girlfriend and laughs.]
Will you be remixing less?
"I did say that I would stop remixing completely for a while but I actually did five at the end of last year because they were artists that I really wanted to remix or it was for my label which I'm really trying expand. In the past I used to do remixes for the sake of doing remixes and paying the bills I guess, but I never actually played them in my DJ sets, so I said I was going to stop doing that because it wasn't me. As I get more and more well known I definitely think it has given me the freedom to be able to turn things down and do more of what I want.
"There's a big difference now to what things were like three years ago. There was probably two years when I was a bit lost and the tracks I made weren't really for me but because of the internet you can't erase them. It's bad because some people know me for these tracks and are saying to me 'why did you change your style?' but there are always I was really surprised how easy the transition was. I think Ableton Live is the best thing that ever happened in my life people who discover me for the new material too."
Does this confusion affect you for DJ bookings?
"Yeah, I sometimes get asked to play on line-ups with artists I don't want to play with, because it's not my style. It does mean less gigs but the gigs I do play now are much more the style that I want to do."
Which producers are you into at the moment?
"Well most of the tracks that I play are actually from underground artists that aren't big at all. Just because I think that the new guys are making fresher sounding tracks than the big names."
So where does that leave you?
"[Laughs] um, good question. I think if I was me I would play some of my tracks out. It's a difficult question though, but I used to make music that I wouldn't play in my set at all, so now it's better."
Any new purchases for your studio
"I want to buy an 808 again because I had the 808, 606,707–all of them–butIhadtosellthemwhen I needed the money. Now I will probably buy them back at twice the price. I'm never looking for the next plug-in or anything, just hardware machines."
Your studio monitors are just old 2.1 multimedia speakers, what are your tips to getting your sound? Do you just have golden ears?
"[Laughs] my tour manager often says my ears have been touched by God. But I don't know what it is. I just start from scratch every time in Ableton, I never have a template of a preload. Because I come from a hardware background, you always had to finish a track and there was no way to save sounds or settings, so I work like that. I try to finish a track in around two days."
"There's no point in starting your own label if you've only been making music for two years."
Do you mainly put your new records out on your own label?
"Yeah, pretty much, but an old French label keeps releasing my old tracks and it's really messing up what I've been trying to do. They bought an old catalogue of my music from 1999 and released 72 of my tracks on Beatport. 72! So when people are going on to Beatport and searching for me, they find tracks that are ten years old and it looks like they are brand new on Beatport. It's really driving me crazy."
Is it time for a new alias?
"Well I thought about it a few times but it so hard to build a career already without confusing people."
Would you advise people to start their own label?
"No, don't bother, just produce solid tracks and get them released on big labels to build up your name. Try and get at least 10 EPs released on these labels before even thinking about starting your own. Even then I'm not sure it's a good idea."
Has it been a big challenge to start your label?
"Not so much because I didn't start my label until about three years ago and I was pretty well known already so it worked. There's no point doing it if you've only been making music for two years."
Do you get frustrated about earning mainly from DJing and not the music you make?
"I'm not one of these producers that become a DJ because they can press sync. I'm a DJ first and it doesn't bother me that most of my income is made from that because I was a DJ before I was a producer. What's frustrating is when I'm DJing, people ask me for a track I made three years ago. I like to play the latest tracks, not just my own songs. The live set will be where I play my own music. I think I'll always be DJing on hardware rather than laptops. I don't like looking at the screen."