The term ‘turning over a new leaf’ is thrown around these days, but this is no dead metaphor where Rodriguez Jr. is concerned.
The French producer and DJ, real name Olivier Mateu, first climbed the ranks with Gilles Escoffier, who together formed electronic duo The Youngsters in 1999. Soon after, the pair were picked up by F-communications – the label run by the father of French techno, Laurent Garnier – releasing several successful albums around the early 2000s. Yet moving towards the latter half of the decade, Mateu began to work on his solo music under the name Rodriguez Jr. and hadn’t looked back – until now.
His new studio album Baobab came out in June on Berlin-based mobilee records, a label where Rodriguez Jr. is clearly comfortable judging by the familial dynamic among the team. The album title was inspired by the African tree of the same name (discovered by a Frenchman, no less), otherwise known as the “tree of life”. Fitting, as working on Baobab has indubitably gifted him a new breath of vitality.
Brussels has been Rodriguez Jr.’s base for over ten years, but from what it seems, it hasn’t really been his home. With a move back to his native France on the horizon, there is a definite sense of relief in his voice as we discuss his relocation over dinner. As he talks about his new abode, which comes complete with its own studio space, it becomes clear that this will mark a new chapter in Rodriguez Jr’s. book: one that coincides with rediscovering those all-important roots.
What do those roots consist of, exactly? Originally from the south of France, he is incredibly well-versed in English, though his accent still has a lilt. However, I’m interested to know how he came to adopt his current alias (he jibes a little when I make a remark about “becoming” Rodriguez Jr). It transpires that his father is Spanish, and that he wanted to pay tribute to this side of his heritage. The name Rodriguez, however, was a simple process of elimination – Martinez, Gonzales, and Ramirez were apparently already taken. “These Spanish roots are a very important ingredient in my music. My music has always been related to the sun, to the sea, to this Mediterranean lifestyle,” he explains. “I’m very proud of these roots, my family over there, all this history.” What about the French side? The notorious French Touch movement that all French electronic music surely derives from? “I’m not French touch at all,” he quickly points out. “I mean, it’s part of my influence a bit because I grew up music-wise in the 90s: Daft Punk, Laurent Garnier of course, so yeah, it’s part of my influences of course but it’s not the main one. But yeah, of course the Spanish culture is very important. It’s not the Spanish music but the lifestyle. It’s about life.”
“I have developed my own vocabulary trying to represent sounds with colours and shapes.” – Rodriguez Jr.
History is something Rodriguez Jr. evidently likes to delve into, drawing upon the likes of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry for inspiration. Schaeffer and Henry effectively pioneered the technique of sampling, a method named musique concrète around the time of its inception in the 40s. “I’ve been inspired a lot by them. When I was ten years old, twelve years old, I studied classic piano,” he begins, which incidentally explains his natural aptitude for balancing the keys with mixing during his live sets. “I loved it, but at some point I got into this music movement, musique concrète, and I realised music could be made of sounds and not only notes.” He pauses: “It was like a revolution for me.” The fact that these composers managed to create such techniques all the way back in the 40s and 50s is not lost on Rodriguez Jr. “Sampling with tapes… It’s crazy, the legacy they have left us. They have invented everything. Everything like techno music, hip-hop… They invented all of the technology we still use nowadays.”
The way Rodriguez Jr. speaks about music is very poetic, very visceral, which really comes to the forefront as he discusses musique concrète. “It’s easy to write notes, pitch, length, stuff like that… But you need to develop a new vocabulary to be able to write textures and sounds. I write my ideas; I have developed my own vocabulary trying to represent sounds with colours and shapes. It’s very interesting, it generates a lot of ideas. It’s a different perspective.”
Yet this approach to writing music extends beyond a new ‘vocabulary’ into a visual exploration of the themes and emotions in his work. Whilst working on Baobab, he mapped his ideas in a sketchbook, charting the progression of the album through colours and lines. I ask how the process worked, whether the drawings guided the album or were done alongside it. “Basically it’s a mess,” he clarifies, not professing to have produced any awe-inspiring, polished work of art. “I’m travelling quite a lot, so most of the time this is the only way to remember what I have in mind. It’s an interpretation, it’s kind of abstract you know, but still it’s generating a lot of ideas. It’s really interesting.”
Rodriguez Jr. is clearly influenced by his physical presence, even in the way he uses his hands to emphasise his words. After living in Brussels for so long, I wonder if his move to Paris will influence his sound. “Yeah probably. Once again, it’s not even about the people, it’s more about the vibe in the city. There is a great light in Paris, and all this history; there is a vibration. I’m very sensitive to this kind of thing. When I go to New York or to London, it’s kind of mystical. I feel the vibrations and stuff like that. And I love Paris because you have like 2000 years of history, maybe more, under your feet, and that’s completely amazing.”
Is his move back to his native country linked to Baobab, the album revolved around roots? He doesn’t seem to think so, rather that travelling so much left him exhausted and out of touch with himself: “At some point you forget about yourself. You’re just in this crazy flow. It was a state of emergency. You must find yourself [again].” He explains how he told himself he had to rediscover the core energy he had when he started, and began listening to music from his childhood: “Jean-Michel Jarre, all that stuff. And at some point I felt this same energy, like” – he bursts out with a fist pump – “‘Yeah! You’re going do this and that and fuse these things together.’ It was great.”
Yet, as much as he might insist that his homecoming and the inspiration behind his album aren’t connected, I’m still not convinced that the two are so far apart when he begins to speak about his future. Is he going to take a break and relax a bit after all those years of work? “No I’m going to keep producing a lot, because actually this album Baobab…It’s something I didn’t expect, but it’s been a landmark in my life. Even regarding my private life, a lot of things have changed,” he tells me. “It’s like a sign, you know? There are a lot of things happening and I want to develop and to enjoy this moment. I want to create. I want to share this moment with my girlfriend and write music. There is a momentum. I feel like there is momentum and it’s the like the right time for me to develop new things and to create. So I’m going to definitely keep on touring of course, but also experimenting in the studio.”
Whether it’s down to returning to his roots in the making of Baobab or his physical return to the homeland, the future is looking as bright for Rodriguez Jr. as it is for Olivier Mateu.
Buy Baobab here, out now on mobilee records. Feature image by Paul Normann.