Joakim: My Pet Monsters

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The last time I spoke to Joakim Bouaziz he was laughing, albeit a bit nervously. On the phone from the Parisian office of Tigersushi, the website and label he helped found, the lanky French producer/DJ/sometime-guitar player wondered aloud how his next gig would be received. "I played already a couple times [at Fabric], but as a DJ... and on New Year's Eve, live''m really wondering," he said with a chuckle. "And between Erol Alkan and Justice? Phhhhh." Letting out a particularly Gallic exhalation, he marveled at the situation he found himself in: playing one of his first gigs with his live band at London's finest super-club on the biggest night of the year.

By all accounts, The Ectoplasmic Band acquitted itself admirably, not all that surprising considering the varied successes that have characterized it frontman's career so far. Joakim unleashed his musical endowment as a classical pianist, studying under Paris' Abdel Rahmen El Bach. Circa 1994, he got sidetracked by labels like Mo'Wax and Warp, which led to a foray into DJing. Not satisfied with playing others' music, he whipped up some demos for Gilb'r, the A&R man for French house-and-beyond label Versatile, et voila! The Joakim Lone Octet was born. He released Tigersushi in 1999 on the sub-label Future Talk, then adopted the name Tigersushi for a ground-breaking web portal and correspondingly adventurous record label that has released such titles as Mu's Afro Finger and Gel and the How to Kill the DJ series.

Despite his first album's solid reception by the likes of 4Hero, Joakim is quick to distinguish his current music from those early recordings, a merger of modal jazz and electronic sounds that he describes as "almost an exercise." With 2003's Fantomes (which spawned two hits by the unlikely names of "Are You Vegetarian?" and "Come Into My Kitchen"), Joakim began to explore a sound where angular guitars and twinkling synths fell under the sway of pop hooks and shifting towers of noise, with all elements sharing a sly grin.

Joakim's sense of playfulness continues on his latest, Monsters & Silly Songs. It boasts a cover of cartoon monsters drawn by the artist himself and an air that is both intense and swaggering. "Fun is not something I'm looking for–it's just that I'm like a child in the studio," explains the composer. "I feel lucky and I like using new stuff and playing guitar that I don't know how to play. On the other hand' don't like 'funny' music. I'm very doubtful that 'funny' music can be good music. But there is something playful in the way that I do it and also, maybe I don't want to take myself too seriously, because that is a way to hide myself."

Monsters & Silly Songs was born partly of a desire to go where there is no place to hide: on stage. "I started to work on the album, really, on my own [but] I had decided that I wanted to be able to play live, which is an [important] parameter in doing music and composing. I didn't want to just stand behind a laptop, so I had to be able to adapt the songs to instruments that I could bring on stage."

To realize the songs, Joakim enlisted friends he met through his work with Tigersushi, and together they made good use of his newly built studio. "Before I had a 10-meter-square bedroom studio [but] I really learned a lot working with [Tigersushi bands] Poni Hoax and Panico. Before' was really a child of the sampler and the computer."

The result is an expressive album that sways from the haunted, horror-movie strings and bass-drum plod of "Sleep in a Hollow Tree" to the glittering loops and ranting guitars of "Wish You Were Gone" (which opens Cut Copy's FabricLive 29 mix to devastating effect) to the contemplative, haunting, almost Harold Budd-esque piano of "Peter Pan Over the Bronx." While some tracks reveal a raw, rock sound–obviously written to be banged out live–others explore dense textures and shifting arrangements that reach back to Joakim's roots in classical music. "What remains of [that] period is a sense of possibilities and complexity that goes much further than what you think," he explains, while saying that he never misses the "unbearable" stress of performing solo.

It seems Joakim has found his place in music–or, more accurately, carved one out for himself. (It certainly is hard to imagine an album of classical piano with a cover like Monsters & Silly Songs.) But it's clear that this new place is no less full of possibilities.

"I've always been fascinated by monsters and the dark side. I've drawn monsters since I was young," muses Joakim about his choice of cover art. "The songs and the monsters, they are the two opposite sides of what influenced me for this record: On one side you have the pop songs [and] songwriting, and on the other side you have noise music. On one hand you have Scott Walker and' don't know, The Beatles, and on the other one you have Sunn O))) and Sonic Youth. Also, the monsters are interesting because they are exorcising unconscious collective fears. I think songs, in a way, have the same function in the collective unconscious–you can express things in songs that you couldn't express normally."

Stage Fright
Each evolution of Joakim's career entails new forms of performance anxiety.

Joakim has spent more than his fair share of time on stage, and some moments in the spotlight have been more enjoyable than others. "It was always solo and it was really a nightmare," he says of his days as a classical pianist. "The amount of stress for me was unbearable–it's just a cup of tea DJing compared to that."

Still, selecting records to rock a party is not without its perils and pratfalls. "I [began] just playing rare tracks that I like and now I understand that it's not enough," he says. "Now I try to be in between–giving the people maybe not what they want, but what they need, and then bringing them to what I want. Once you get the connection, you can really play what you feel."

Though he still DJs, Joakim's current love is playing with his band, an evolution of early laptop and synth sets he performed, such as one in which he scored a 1928 French version of The Fall of the House of Usher. "DJing and playing live with a band is very different. It's much more physical when I play with a band, and it hurts the ears more also," he chuckles.

Joakim and The Ectoplasmic Band often get booked at clubs where the crowd only expects DJs. "We played at Panoramabar in Berlin at four in the morning and it was really freaky," Joakim. "But it was cool. It can be hard–sometimes people just want the beat. It depends on what drugs they took, how drunk they are..."