New York-based Nicolas Jaar is a shape-shifting electronic music-maker who moves through sounds like an urbane artist should. His 2011 full-length debut Space Is Only Noise defined a new kind of slow, sumptuous dance music that flitted between ambient beatlessness and tracks that would be banging before you even noticed the change. After that came aggressively eclectic DJ mixes, the Darkside duo with guitarist Dave Harrington, and a decidedly experimental re-soundtracking to 1969 avant-garde film The Colour of Pomegranates and a series of dance tracks called Nymphs. But nothing quite counted as a proper follow-up to the formidable debut until Sirens, a new album out Friday via Jaar's own label Other People.
Sirens mixes styles and moods with a mind for political engagement that becomes clear, if mostly obliquely. The cover art draws on an image from a work by the musician's father, the world-renowned and politically pointed conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar (who once lit up a sign in Times Square with the words "This is not America"), and the lyrics make glancing reference to timely concerns familiar to anyone up on the news.
In Brooklyn, where he lives and has been rehearsing for an upcoming world tour at the underground DIY club Market Hotel, Rolling Stone talked to Jaar about electronic-music resistance, Nina Simone and making peace with the ways his father disrupted the peace.
This record comes across as very personal but in abstract ways. How did you conceive of it as a project different than others when you started work on it?
I like that it feels like a personal record. I ended up with one but did not set out to make one at all. I set out to not talk about myself for the first time. It usually comes from a very personal place and ends up further removed. Here I tried to go further out and at some point just ended up deeper in, talking about things that are more ingrained in me than anything I've done in the past.
What happened to make it transform?
The Nymphs series was going to be the follow-up to Space Is Only Noise, but there was something missing. Pomegranates – it was too experimental, no vocals, something was missing again. There's an experimental side to what I do and then there are club tracks. It's cool as two sides of a coin, but I was missing the actual coin that makes those two things oppose each other. I needed context, and I see Sirens as a context record, for context around me and outside of me.
What kind of context do you mean?
The context we've been living in and of me being Chilean-American-French-Palestinian in the social context of what has been happening. Hopefully you can hear it. The first sound on the record is a flag waving in the wind. But it also could be a boat approaching somewhere. It sounds like both, and that is a big part of the duality I was going for – it could be sirens, like the mythological creatures that lure sailors and make ships wreck, or sirens like police sirens. The sound of glass breaking at the beginning could be a mirror or a window. Duality was important.
What kind of duality exactly?
The duality between fiction and politics. What do they have to do with each other? That led me to how people tell narratives and how people explain what happens in history. How do things actually happen and how much is fiction? How much, even if it's true fact, becomes fiction in the re-telling? The idea of narrative as a form of dominance became a central part of this as I started seeing it around us everywhere.
The way a narrative is told is going to have a grain of fiction in it, and that's maybe where power lies. … Seeing the world around us and feeling like who gets to tell the story is more important than I thought. I didn't want to tell the story just myself, so that's why there's all these differing things going on: speaking in Spanish in one track, playing ambient in another, a punk song in another…
So the songs are coming from different vantage points?
All my music has some of that, but I realized I could fully embody it. The thing that has the most to do with that is "Four Women" by Nina Simone, when she embodies four women. I think it's one of the most incredible songs ever made. She's a huge influence and inspiration, listening to her and seeing that documentary that came out [What Happened, Miss Simone?, from 2015]. She had the power of multiple voices speaking through a kind of egoless vessel.
What was appealing about being an egoless vessel?
I set out really not wanting to talk about myself. I was looking at Pomegranates and Nymphs and I could see two breakups and all this shit, and there was no need for it. That's part of the breaking of the mirror at the beginning. I wanted to look out. But most importantly I wanted to look out because of what I felt while living here [in the United States]. When I was DJing, I was having a really hard time maintaining a happy face. A lot of people, when they come see me, think I'm a deep-house DJ who plays Beatport tracks. But I was playing noise and Linton Kwesi Johnson acapellas and freaking out. I started feeling disillusioned with what music can do. Personally, I felt like I wasn't doing enough. I was just making these dance tracks and I wanted to see if there was more.
What led to the change of mind?
Maybe this started when I was teaching a "class" – please, put that in quote marks, I don't want to "teach" anybody anything – at Berklee College of Music in Boston. For the first assignment, I asked them to bring in a three-minute piece that was ambient and in A minor or C major, with three distinct movements that change at three different points. In class I played them all at the same time, all ambient pieces in the same key. My first question, after they played, was can electronic music talk about the world around us? Can we get out of this abstract bubble? How can we resist? What does electronic-music resistance look like today? Can we do that? Does anyone even want that? Does anyone even care?
How would you characterize the answer?
I don't fucking know. I made this record and still don't know. I don't think I'll ever know.
"The Governor" has elements of drum'n'bass, which always had a sense of purpose or polemic to it, certainly more than most dance music. Were you mining that at all?
It was an 80 BPM song until I wondered what it would sound like at 160. It wasn't even going to have drums. I had it down with piano and it wasn't going to go anywhere, but the song turned into this monster. I thought people might be confused that it was coming from me. I never thought of it as drum'n'bass until people have mentioned it. I was thinking of it in regard to heavy metal and punk. I go to [Queens D.I.Y. venue] Trans-Pecos a lot. I saw [hardcore band] Show Me the Body twice and I was like, "Whenever you're playing again, I would love to DJ after you." So I DJed one night for kids who go to punk shows. It has informed me, going to see live music on that level for the past couple years. I wasn't really doing that before.
There's a wider stylistic berth with you than most electronic artists. How conscious of that are you?
It would be great to be able to do one thing. People have said that's one of my defining characteristics, but I'm really trying to do something coherent, I swear. It's not something I'm trying to do. But, like, I just wanted to make a reggaeton song. That got me up in the morning. I was like, "Today I'm going to make a crazy reggaeton song about Chile," and it ends up sounding like [Sirens song] "No." It ends up sounding like whatever that sounds like. I literally was buying a banana in my deli and they were playing reggaeton, and it was fucking amazing. Then I went and made that – three hours later it was done.
"Leaves" has a recording of you as a child speaking in Spanish to your father.
When I was working on the record, my parents were moving out of the apartment where I grew up. That's where my parents divorced, and after I spent six years in Chile with my mother, I came back to New York, to Lafayette Street in Manhattan. It was one of those Soho lofts from back in the Eighties. My mom was cleaning out a closet and found these family videos. It was pretty heavy for me because it was like two weeks before they divorced and before I lost a father for six years. For me that was a kind of a moment, and it became a personal record when I realized all this played a part: asking who am I here and who am I there?
What are the words you're speaking in the video?
The reason I put it in there is my dad literally is saying, "Go to the wall, go to the wall." Trump is like "the wall, the wall," and here's my dad saying, "Go to the wall." I was dancing to "Guateque Campesino" by [Cuban singer ]Guillermo Portabales. I grew up listening to this stuff. Of course my dad was treating it like an art project, like a super-serious thing even though it's not – it's a home video.
Incorporating your father is a significant move. What about his radical, politically charged work seems most useful for music?
I started making music because it didn't need context. I had those conversations with my dad when I way young and was like, "Your shit, no one gets it until they read something about it and that's not cool." This is 13-year-old me. Subconsciously, I thought everyone gets music so I'm going to make music because everyone gets it. His shows? No one gets them. But it's not actually true. … I like context and think it's important. It was something I was rebelling against, and now I find myself back at the beginning. I didn't want to make something that could be played in a hotel lobby.