It is Wednesday, December 21, 2005. Down in Ghetto–a grimy, scarlet-walled sweatbox tucked along a narrow, piss-stained alley in London's Soho–Christmas has come early for the 300 or so revellers squeezed inside for Nag Nag Nag. This is the capital's notorious weekly polysexual electro-disco shindig, a hard 'n' fast subterranean haven for gays, goths, ravers, and freaks. Tonight the star attraction is a special live performance by French techno deity Vitalic.
Champagne Techno, Caviar Dreams
The occasion is notable for a number of reasons. First, this that this is easily the most intimate gig Vitalic's Pascal Arbez has played in what has been an outrageously successful year for the 29-year-old producer. The demand for his searing live sets (he doesn't DJ) means he's now accustomed to playing to thousands at outdoor summer festivals and mega-raves in Europe and Japan. At some events, Vitalic is often the only electronic act on a rock-heavy bill, his metallic blizzard of jagged New Beat, champagne techno, and soaring melody sandwiched between, say, LCD Soundsystem and Soulwax. "I like to stand alone, by myself, on these huge stages," he says.
Secondly, Vitalic's heroic metal-disco anthems–"La Rock 01," "Poney Part 1," "You Prefer Cocaine," "My Friend Dario"–have helped to define Nag Nag Nag's full-throttle, hedonistic agenda, and that of many clubs like it across the world. Vitalic's debut, 2001's brilliant four-song Poney EP (International Deejay Gigolos), fast became an electroclash touchstone, then swiftly a universal floor-filler. Today "La Rock 01," raw and euphoric, is practically a clubland cliché. Like many of the musicians scooped up in that tidal wave of hype (Fischerspooner being the exception), Arbez coolly distanced himself from the hoopla, and let his music do the talking.
And finally, exactly 12 months ago to the day, this correspondent brought Arbez and his manager down to Nag after Vitalic had recorded what was the last ever John Peel session for BBC Radio One, an hour-long set broadcast live from the BBC's famous Maida Vale studios. By coincidence, the DJ played Vitalic's glistening "Fanfares" as we entered and Arbez, tall and lean, weaved across the floor towards the booth and shook the DJ's hand. The DJ later gushed that he'd been "touched by the hand of God."
Six weeks into 2006 and Arbez is back at his home in the French countryside, just outside Dijon, having returned from his first tour of Australia as part of the roving Big Day Out package. "The parties were great," he says in a tone that suggests otherwise. His manner can be blunt, and he doesn't suffer fools. Self-promotion has never been his strong suit. His highlight of the festival was Iggy Pop. "I got to see [him] play five times in a row," he says. "I didn't want to miss him each time. He's really rock & roll; so powerful, he's not faking."
Like Daft Punk before him, much of Vitalic's appeal lies in the way he fuses rock's raw energy with an original and enlightened approach to techno. "Guitars" are all over his deliriously acclaimed debut, OK Cowboy, which took four years to complete. Gnarly riffs power "My Friend Dario," his Iggy-referencing "No Fun," and his Daft Punk/Green Velvet homage "New Man." Except Arbez doesn't own a guitar.
Rather, he meticulously generates these sounds on his synthesizer, sometimes spending days perfecting a single sound in his home studio. The queasy organ on "Polkamatic" and "Wooo," like the military tattoo of "Valletta Fanfares," is an artificial emulation, too. He cites Wendy Carlos' blurring of the artificial and the authentic with her classical Moog score for A Clockwork Orange as an inspiration, alongside more traditional teenage influences: Laurent Garnier, Thomas Bangalter, Sparks, Giorgio Moroder, Aphex Twin, Fad Gadget, the Flemish composer Wim Mertens, Belgian New Beat. "When I do a track–not always, but often–I decide to invite people into the same room," Arbez says. "Of course I am alone but, for example, I invite Giorgio Moroder and Daniel Miller and Daft Punk and Green Velvet [over], you see what I mean? And I think, 'What would they do with my music? What would they do if Vitalic was producing a track with all these guys in the back?'"
Though it would be more practical for travelling purposes for Arbez to be in Paris, or nearby Lyon where he studied business at university, he has lived around Dijon for most of his life. He likes feeling removed, geographically and mentally, from the French capital with all its petty distractions. Here he oversees his record label, Citizen, which releases fizzing techno by Gallic producers John Lord Fonda, Holeg Spies, and Arbez's other, rockier project, The Silures (with Linda Lamb and Mount Sims). He also takes flying lessons. He has the first part of his small aircraft pilot's licence but he's been so busy, touring constantly like a rock act, that he hasn't had time to complete the 10 hours of flying necessary to earn the second half.
It was in Dijon, too, that Arbez first began making conventional techno as Dima and got involved in the local rave scene. He soon befriended The Hacker and his Goodlife crew from Grenoble, who released Dima's finest moment, a wonderfully romantic remix of The Hacker's "Fadin' Away," in 2000. The Hacker in turn introduced Arbez's music to Gigolo boss DJ Hell who, instantly besotted, quickly unleashed the Poney EP.
Since then, Vitalic, though cautious, has not put a foot wrong. His remixes of Slam, Bjork, Basement Jaxx, and Royksopp add a marvellous new dimension to the originals, while, tellingly, no one has yet had the guts to remix Vitalic. Save for a joint remix with The Hacker of A Number Of Names' landmark "Shari Vari," the Poney EP is his sole Gigolo release. That record's exposure, coupled with his devastating live show, precipitated a deluge of label interest; Arbez eventually signed with big indie PIAS in Europe, a French-speaking company.
Right now, Vitalic is conceivably the ultimate crossover act, a techno visionary who rocks harder than his guitar-wielding peers. The more people he plays to, the more he enchants, and his star is rapidly ascending. Why? Let Arbez have the final say. "My music [makes you] really want to kiss someone," he says, laughing. "A French journalist once wrote about one of my live shows: 'You don't know why but at some moments you want to kiss someone, whoever it is.' I think it's a good thing. I didn't know it myself but I want to provoke something."
Drone on the Range: Some Highlights From Vitalic's OK Cowboy
Wearing the influence of Belgian New Beat on its sleeve, "Newman" is what new-school industrial should sound like: a blistering powerhouse consisting of a whip-sharp kicks and simulated hard-rock guitars that repeatedly thrust their hips in the air. A rollercoaster ride of epic proportions.
"No guitars, no strobes, no leather, no fun" intones the sample that starts this ironically titled slab of synth mastery. The keyboard sounds here have intense personalities: wide-mouthed drones in conversation with chattering robotic hyenas and the screeching powerdrills that eventually drive this relentless number home.
"U And I"
The softer (though no less club-worthy) side of Mr. Arbez, "U And I" is loop after textured loop of an aural Ecstasy trip. Distorted, unidentifiable vocals, hazy sirens, and dramatic stops and starts get buoyed with heart-rending, minor-key melodies–a recipe for hardcore dancefloor PDAs.
"La Rock 01"
Focused on a kick that sounds like a skinhead's boot kicking down a door, the track really begins to escalate after minute one, when its signature motorcycle-revving synths lock into place. A marching, metronomic electroclash anthem that still holds up.