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N'To, Techno’s Song of the South

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Arwen Dewey

Marseilles has found its electronic ambassador. For over 12 years now, N'to's dreamlike techno music has been rocking crowds on an interplanetary scale. On Sunday, August 30 he had the weighty responsibility of closing Paris' 2015 Rock en Seine festival. This is the pre-electroshock interview.

Tonight at Parc de Saint-Cloud, the heat is on and the competition will be fierce for this producer from Marseilles. In front of him, on the festival's main stage, the amazing Chemical Brothers are preparing their return performance. But "Antho" brought reinforcements: a few members of his label, Hungry Music, and most importantly his drummer Loris. Stressed but smiling, the two colleagues talk to us about their inspiration and aspirations. 

cafébabel: It’s two hours from show time. How are you feeling?

Loris: They call this “The Pressure Stage,” that pretty much sums it up!

N’To: Yeah, we always feel the pressure when we're about to go on. Even after all these years! But that's what happens when you really want to do something well. Besides, you can’t fool yourself; you're going to be playing in front of a lot of people. And here at Rock en Seine there's a little added pressure... The two of us are going to play our new project, and we don't do that very often.

cafébabel : Can you tell me a little more about the new concept?

N’To: It's Live Perc. It's my usual live work, but reworked and re-conceptualized, with Loris on percussion.

Loris:  I play drums, marimba and vibraphone. This is the third time we're doing it, and the first two times went really well. Or at least, I had a really good time!

cafébabel: So no room for improvisation in this set?

N’To: Since there are two of us the structure has to be a little more defined, but that's also cool. Usually I've got all my tracks ready and I can choose which ones to play and in what order based on the place and time I’m playing. I adapt.

cafébabel: Speaking of the different places you've played and the atmosphere, is there one that particularly stands out?

N'to: It's hard to choose one over the others. Holland has fucking incredible concerts, and every time I've played there it's been huge.  Audiences are really different there. In France, it's great because the crowds are so enthusiastic. They’re really open, they party, they smile, they share a ton and it's marvellous. And in Marseilles, my hometown, I have a really active fan base. It's incredibly cool every single time.

cafébabel: So not too many bad experiences…

N’To: It never really goes badly. There are little mistakes sometimes, but that's part of the job. We've never had any real screw-ups. Nobody's thrown tomatoes or rotten eggs at me onstage yet, so it's all cool.

cafébabel: Let's go back to your career path. You started out in music pretty early, playing guitar.  How did you get into electro?

N’To: It happened naturally. It's a stupid thing to say, but if you're passionate, and you're playing guitar and you're listening to rock, reggae, hip-hop, going out to concerts... Of course you end up hearing a little electro. And I fell in love with that style of music.

cafébabel: Are there artists that have particularly influenced you?

N’To: Yes, of course! When I started going out in Montpellier I was 18 or 19. Off the cuff, I'd say Stephan Bodzin, James Holden… Really all the Germans in that period that were doing simple, melodic stuff really threw me. I discovered that electro can be very sensitive, polished, profound... not at all cold, not at all inhuman. That's what I liked.

cafébabel: Melody is pretty important in your work. You also include acoustic sound in your tracks sometimes, and onstage with Loris too. Is that something you want to work with more?

N’To: Yes, in fact that's something I've wanted to do for a long time: bring a group of musicians onstage. And with Loris it's even better because we really understand each other.

cafébabel: When you write tracks, what inspires you?

N’To: Lots of stuff! Sometimes you don’t really have a main idea, but you start mixing sounds and the idea comes to you that way. Sometimes you want to do something because a track, a film, a trip, an afternoon with your mates or your girlfriend inspires you. All of a sudden, a melody comes into your head, or a feeling, a mood... It can be anything, really. Then you give it shape.

cafébabel: For example, your song "Ayahuasca." Is that based on a real experience?

N’To: No, it's not something I've done, although I've been tempted! But I don't know if I could really deal with it. You have to be prepared to take ayahuasca. I think I'm a little too borderline to do it. It's a good example, though. I saw Jan Kounen's documentary on ayahuasca (D’autres mondes) and I loved it. That shaman-like voice (included in the N’To track below) really affected me. So, for that track, a documentary and its philosophy inspired me.

cafébabel: Do you work differently when you're remixing from when you're composing?

N’To: It's easier for me to make a remix than an original, because it's less intimate and personal. You have base material that isn't yours that you're going to rework, a little like modelling clay. You're going to take someone else's thing apart and redo it your way. It’s a simpler approach. A blank page is a real headache. But it's an exercise that I enjoy. Both processes are interesting, I don't really have a preference.

cafébabel: You've also put out two trip-hop style tracks under the name "Ento." Is that an old project?

N’To: Yeah, at that time I had two Soundcloud accounts. But as part of that trip-hop project there was a track called "The Bosnian " that later came out under the name N'To. Actually, I've figured out that the more I move forward, the more it all mixes together, just like what I'm doing with Loris.

cafébabel: You've also started a label, Hungry Music…

N’To: Yeah, that's part of what happened when I met Worackls and Joachim Pastor. On a human level we really got each other, we became really good friends. And then we got together over the idea of freeing ourselves from mainstream labels and their rules. We wanted to put out tracks without having to follow codes, to give ourselves the right to be experimental and combine lots of things. So a year and a half ago we decided that we needed to work together, and the label was a natural result. Since then, we've had a dozen releases, lots of little videos, a first tour... and everything's gone really well. We're taking a break now, but we start up again this fall with a WeArt concert in Marseilles, and then at the Olympia in January.

cafébabel: As a producer, and after 10 years in the music business, what are your thoughts about the French electronic music scene?

N’To: Good thoughts! We follow lots of artists, like the group EFIX that opens all our tours. We have a lot of confidence in them. I think that in the last few years it's evolved in a great direction. It's opened up to a lot of different styles: electro, rock, jazz... and it's become more popular. More festivals, more shows, more people, more possibilities for sharing and collaborating. It's marvellous, the electro scene is thriving and it's not about to stop.

Translated from N'To : La mélodie du Sud version techno