While many of his globetrotting producer peers snap selfies at massive outdoor festivals and encourage throngs of sloshed revelers to fist-pump the night away, 24-year-old Montreal native Jacques Greene rises above club-world clichés. Excluding his accidental cameo as “bespectacled dude with a smirk” in Azealia Banks’ breakthrough video, “212”, this in-demand beatmaker has gone the extra mile to maintain a low profile – Greene being a pseudonym, after all – and supply the press with shadowy, partly obscured face shots. His rhythm-laden ascent has been clinched by collaborations with ethereal R&B architect How to Dress Well, production work for UK pop star Katy B, a commission at London’s revered Tate Modern, releases on envelope-pushing labels like Glasgow’s LuckyMe, and the launch of his own multidisciplinary label, Vase.
Given that he recently relocated to New York, it’s only fitting that we met this trailblazer of wonderfully warped house/R&B hybrids on home turf last November at Phi Centre, the city’s new, state-of-the-art shrine to multidisciplinary creativity. Greene’s Montreal sojourn saw him perform at an exhibition celebrating the work of his haute couture friend and fellow multidisciplinary maven, Rad Hourani. A true fashion aficionado, Jacques also sported Hourani’s famed, camera-bejeweled interactive jacket during his performance, turning the attention away from the DJ booth to direct it at the patrons who’d come for musical merrymaking.
We met with Jacques and explored the Phi Centre’s vast, four-story expanse, nestled in a nook of the city’s Old Port area. As we marveled at Hourani’s bold contributions to fashion, the invariably black-clad, rather press-averse mystery man gave us more than a few clues to help unravel the Jacques Greene enigma. In a nutshell: he’s a forthright, anti-gimmick, East Coast boy at heart.
Hey Jacques! Thanks for agreeing to meet us in your former hometown. How about we start with the obvious: what prompted the recent move from Montreal to New York?
I was born and raised here, and I just turned 24. You could say I got cabin fever. I love so many things about this city, but I think it was time to miss it. I’ve been in New York four months now and I love it to death. It’s so big, confusing, disorienting and it’s fun to throw myself into that. I got too comfortable in Montreal. I don’t know how long I’ll be in New York for; I know I’m not going to raise a family there, but it’s a fun place to spend some time.
So many electronic music producers choose Berlin or London when they move for work. Was New York an obvious choice for you?
Yes. What’s great is that I’m only an hour flight away, so I’ve been back here every month to see my mom, my dad and visit friends. It’s just far enough that I feel like I’m out in the wild but I’m still so close to home. I guess it would have made more sense for a guy like me to go to London, considering the music I make, but I’m really an East Coast North American at heart. It’s already weird being out of Montreal culture, but at least it feels similar. LA, San Francisco or Europe, they are not me. I kind of need that anxious, borderline neurotic East Coast stress. I’m quite that kind of person. I was just in L.A. recently and I love some people out there, but I ended up so stressed out by how laid back people were!
What’s your living situation like? So many artists who move there find Manhattan to be prohibitively expensive and end up choosing Brooklyn.
Actually, I ended up falling into a really easy and affordable roommate situation in the Lower East Side, so I’m really in the cut. I don’t know how long I’m going to last on the island, because I walk out of the house, straight into the madness, but right now, that’s exactly what I need. I love the chaos of my neighborhood and the city. It’s great to be in such a crazy productive environment. Every time you meet someone, you think to yourself, “oh wow, they’re doing a lot of stuff, I should probably do a lot of stuff too!”
From what I’ve read, you wouldn’t be pursuing any of this so-called ‘beat making stuff’ had it not been for your high school history teacher?
Totally. It was straight up like that scene in School of Rock where he hands the CDs over. It was a Friday, he had noticed that I was maybe more responsive to certain things, musically, and he just handed me these five CDs. It was all Warp and Ninja Tune stuff: Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada. He said: “why don’t you take these home for the weekend?” When you’re thirteen, and the closest you’ve ever heard to electronic music is Beck and Moby… It was mind-blowing, realizing there’s this whole world out there! I sort of never looked back after that. It really was the kind of moment where you could feel the ground shake beneath your feet.
Since moving to New York, have you developed a daily routine to get yourself into the production groove? Do you work from home or a studio?
Lately, my roommate’s been away, so like a mad scientist, I’ve taken over the entire living room – a Breaking Bad meth lab of synthesizers. Otherwise, my good friend Nick Hook runs an incredible studio in Brooklyn. He’s in and out so he lets me use it; all my synthesizers were there for quite some time. It’s a beautiful place with a crazy window overlooking all of Greenpoint.
But I try to wake up at a reasonable hour, like 10 or something (laughs). I wish I was more of an early riser, but I go to bed really late, which is a side effect of changing time zones all the time! So I’ll wake up, and because my manager is in Europe and so much of my stuff happens there, I’ll already have so many e-mails to get to. Once that’s done, I’ll be out of the apartment by 11 or 11:30, grab a coffee and take the subway two lines up to Greenpoint. When my girl’s in town, I’ll try to finish when she’s off work, around 6pm, but otherwise I work really well at night.
What’s your process like in the studio? How long do you work on something before you know if it’s worth pursuing?
I know pretty fast, almost immediately and have no patience for trying. The reason why I like working with real machines as opposed to a laptop is that it forces you to stand up. With that kind of physicality, especially club music, you end up getting into the flow of things and knowing automatically if it’s making you move, if you’re feeling a visceral response to what you’re working on. If what you’re doing is wack, spending four hours trying to change the sound is not going to make it good. So I’ll start four different things in the studio, and maybe the fourth one will be good! Then three hours later, the track will be half done. The second half will take me three weeks. With arrangements and little sound design tweaks, I’ll take so much time.
You’re a self-diagnosed perfectionist – you take a “less is more” approach to releasing music and have so far remained vague about the likelihood of a Jacques Greene LP seeing the light of day anytime soon. Do you regard LPs and EPs as entirely different beasts?
I do. To me, it’s comparable to going from writing short stories to a novel. You can’t just sit down and write ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ in an afternoon. Not that my album would be as good as that, but I’d like for it to be! It’s a daunting idea to me and I know it’s more daunting in my head than it actually is in reality. But I’ve had so many moments. A year ago, I had twelve tracks ready to go, but then decided it wasn’t good enough and just wiped it all away and started over. I’m happy I didn’t put it out though, because then I did the record with How to Dress Well and two other tracks, and it worked as a three-track thing, whereas the other stuff wasn’t as good. Quality control in the Internet age isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you know?
In that respect, do you see eye to eye with the ever-meticulous Peter O’Grady, better known as elusive British beatsmith Joy Orbison?
Yeah, he’s amazing at that, actually. He puts out one record a year! But it’s always good enough that you look forward to the next. As much as our music is quite different, our approach might be similar in that neither of us repeat ourselves. Even though every time I put out a record, obviously I have a certain way of writing music, and I incorporate my own sensibilities and my own palate. I want to maintain that stamp with everything I do, but still have it feel fresh. There’s nothing I hate more than dudes who make the perfect record for the current trend and just keep changing. They do dubstep, then funky house, techno, a jungle record, and each one is completely different, except for the fact that it was the hot sound for that six-month period. There’s something so disappointing about that.
And dishonest, to a certain extent?
It’s just a little opportunistic; it feels cheap to me. It’s like the difference between a Michael Bay and a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Michael Bay is great at selling tickets and putting big explosions on screen, but there’s not much to it. He just throws money and resources into things, whereas PTA will go for projects that mean something to him. He evolves; you watch his movies and recognize his stamp.
You’re actually a big film buff, and you seem to be drawn to filmmakers who explore grey areas of humankind, like Steve McQueen and Lars von Trier.
Shame is one of the best things I’ve ever seen; it’s fucking insane. Another of my favorites is Michael Haneke. He takes it to the extreme in that there’s even shadows in the morality of his movies. You don’t even know what he’s trying to say sometimes, like with Funny Games, Amour or even The Seventh Continent. There’s a non-showiness to all of his films. From a storytelling perspective, he’s not beating you over the head with things.
Just like Haneke is incredible at cultivating mystery, so are you when it comes to your public persona. Your press shots are all shadows and silhouettes and your moniker doesn’t call attention to itself. I imagine that’s all very deliberate?
The whole thing I wanted to go for was anti-gimmick. That’s why my performer name is a first name/last name, as opposed to all those made-up names. Jacques Greene is sort of mundane and shitty. The idea was: how can I rely as little as possible on images? Not like a crazy name with a crazy logo, splashy pictures and big sunglasses. I was inspired a lot by Amon Tobin of Ninja Tune, because his whole thing was being annoyed that DJs and producers would put their faces on everything. The truth is that shadows and silhouettes just make for more interesting photos, in my opinion. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable with a frontal attitude shot in an alleyway and a cool name like “The Vibesayer.” Who knows, maybe with time, I’ll just become a huge asshole, or start taking cool photos, have all kinds of attitude and wear a funky mask. But that’s not really my thing.
Notwithstanding your aversion to sunglasses and masks, you seem to be quite fond of fashion – and I’m not even referring to your collaborations with Hourani or Melissa Matos and Andrew Ly of Trusst. Would it be fair to say you’re a fashion enthusiast?
Definitely. I worked in graphic design and advertising before I started doing music full-time, and I kind of had dreams of studying fashion design. As for my style, yeah, it’s a problem (laughs). I wish I didn’t care. Why would you spend that much on a pair of pants when $20 pants are fine? What drew me into actually saving up and budgeting for nicer clothes was learning about the conditions in which they’re made. Rad’s stuff is incredible and definitely up there – you know, made in Montreal and everything. H&M and Zara are great, they have a bunch of great styles, but do you really want to support that? There’s a reason why the T-shirt costs only $12 and that’s not right. I’m not a huge political activist, but in a capitalistic society, buying is voting. That’s the biggest power you have.
You’ve talked of wanting to produce a stand-alone fashion collection through your label, Vase, as well as photo books and a number of other creative undertakings. Would it be fair to say you want to transcend music and create a multidisciplinary playground for you and your growing artist stable?
Yeah! It’s funny, I’m relating it back to fashion again, but do you know the German magazine 032C? It’s one of my favorites; I’ve been buying it for years. A while back, they did this great interview with Rick Owens, where they briefly talked about furniture, because he’s designed a bit of furniture. It’s awesome and weird – you wouldn’t really want it in your house, but it’s good. They asked him why he does furniture and his answer was that any true creative designer secretly wants to design everything in life. I kind of feel that way.
My ambition is not to be a guy who performs ostentatiously in front of 15,000 people. It’s more to be involved in cool, stimulating projects. That’s why I’m doing this show tonight; it’s not a huge money gig but I’m doing it because, look at this [points to the surrounding walls plastered with black-and-white Rad Hourani photo montages, it’s awesome! I even get to wear one of the jackets with cameras and be involved in a creative conversation with him at this kind of event. That’s way more interesting to me.
Jacques, it’s been a pleasure finding out about your approach to art and exploring the massive Phi Centre with you. Stay up to speed on all Jacques Greene-related developments by visiting his Facebook page here.
Photography: Marine Anaïs Haddadi
Interview & Text: Michael-Oliver Harding and Irene Discós