Wax Tailor is the long-running hip-hop/downtempo project of Jean-Christophe Le Saoût. In the '90s, Le Saoût was involved with the rap band La Formule, and in the latter part of that decade, frustrated with the creative restrictions of a major label, he established the Lab'Oratoire imprint. In 2001, Le Saoût decided to go in a different direction with his music, and he ended up releasing the first Wax Tailor EP, Lost the Way, in 2004. With music that sets such a smooth yet vibrant mood with inventive textural elements, Wax Tailor proved popular with audiences well outside of his home country.
Over the years, Le Saoût has collaborated with numerous other artists, both musical and visual, and in 2012, he released the concept album Dusty Rainbow From the Dark with a set of videos for each track for the live performance. We recently spoke with Le Saoût about the concept behind his latest album, why he prefers working with female vocalists and the challenge of working with twenty different directors.
Westword: What was your introduction to hip-hop?
Wax Tailor: Oh, it was a long time ago. I think it was around '86. The first things I heard from that period were Run DMC, UTFO and L.L. Cool J and stuff like that. I went really into it in '88 with Public Enemy and the first EPMD album. We always talk about the golden years of remixing, so to me that period from '88 to '93 -- that was the most powerful period of hip-hop culture, and that's really when I went into it.
What attracted you to it?
It's hard to answer that. I remember when I was a young teenager, and there were things I didn't understand. I really loved the sound, and I was wondering how it was possible, and I had no intellectual vision about what it looked like or whatever. That was a period with no Internet, so I had to dig and search about how to do that. The two things I learned about that period was that they had a mixing table, and that's maybe how they made the music, and in '90 I decided to buy a mixing table.
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I think that culture is a lot about instinct, too, because I remember my first experience about making music was using a double cassette deck and recording and pausing and recording and pausing. After that, I became a radio host at a small station, and I had a big tape to record off the show, and I used it also to make some instrumentals, and I really thought that I was the first one to think of all of that, and I was absolutely not. I think it's really because of that culture of people loving music and having an instinct and maybe no specific academic background and education and thinking there is something for me inside of that.
You had a band called La Formule. What were the inspirations for that project?
I think it's hard to think about that period [because it's been so long]. I just think it was a learning process. You do learn a lot, and when you look back, you think of things you would do differently. But it was also a period of learning about indie culture. Not just the music but that you're not working with a major label, and you have to learn to do things. At the beginning, it's not a choice because you have to do things that way. It really becomes a strong choice because now, on the last album I put out, I had offers from major labels, but I always refused because I feel like that's not my way now, so [I learned a lot of important things about how the music world works in that period].
How did you get into the production side of making music?
Again, I think just by instinct. It depends on if you're talking about production from the point of view of making music. If it's about the release, I remember in '96 or '97 I was in discussion with some companies, and all the time, I had to deal with discussions [where] A&R said maybe you should do this or that and I was thinking, "I don't want to talk to you about what I want to do." In the end, I realized that the only solution for me was to do it on my own. So that's how things happened -- I need to do it on my side, build my own label and learn.
On your recordings, one can hear a turntable sound. Do you still use a turntable and a record to make those sounds live?
Yeah. I think it's about a feeling about the turntable and vinyl thing that's hard to explain, but it is the exact feeling that goes with the kind of music you're doing. I've tried several different set-ups. For example, I play the keys or focus on other things, but I think it doesn't bring anything personal because I'm not a great key player or whatever. I feel like okay I'm doing it to reproduce the music but it's not just about that, it's about giving the vibe of it and the definition of who you are. The turntable is interesting for that because there's a different vibe to it.
You mostly use female vocalists in your music. Why is that?
I realized again that with time we've all got a lot of different influences and things. I grew up with a lot of pop from the '60s, and I realized that when I went into hip-hop it has a strongly masculine culture that has a beat and energy, but at the same time, I grew up with both of those influences, and when you get older, I think you become more comfortable with feminine power or whatever. It's a strong mixture of who I am of the thing that is more masculine and the other side. I think using the female vocalist is just because it's a strong answer to the masculine power and energy of the beats. I think it's the same thing as using cello, flutes and things like that because for me it makes for a strong mixture [in creating] a mood.
For sampling do you use records or do you do that more digitally or a bit of both?
I still use a very analog method. Especially for the last album, it was funny because I went for a long tour in 2010 and went back to production in 2011. Then I looked into the new stuff, the new gear and so forth, and after a few weeks, I was very informed about everything but still wondering what I was supposed to do.
Then I realized why should I be in competition with some twenty-year-old kid arising. For them, it's natural because that's what they use. And I'll never be strong enough to compete with that, not because I'm old so much, but that the main difference between them and I is that I'm older and learned other things.
So I went down a different path and just went back to doing the album with nothing but my old sampler that I got twenty years ago. I wanted my vinyl, a turntable and nothing else. And I used nothing else for that album. At the same time, what was very exciting was thinking I didn't want to do the album like I did fifteen years but I wanted to do it with the same tools and think what I could bring new and fresh on this considering I just grew up and have much more experience.
On Tales of the Forgotten Melodies you use movie samples. What movies did you draw from and what guided that choice of movies?
Most of the movies I used were from the late '40s and mostly from the '50s. It's a very interesting period for me because of Otto Preminger, Vincente Minnelli and Alfred Hitchcock. All those directors were, of course, brilliant but what was interesting about the '50s to me is that you had a strong mixture of movies that could be blockbusters that were at the same time very quality.
Nowadays I think it's very different. You've got two kinds of movies: You have movies for cinephiles, and you've got the blockbusters that are mostly empty of plot and dialogue. At that period, it was possible to have that mixture. But the biggest interest to me is the use of voice and sound itself like it's coming from far away. I really love that.
How did you meet Charlotte Savary and what is it about her voice do you feel suits your music especially well?
I met her ten years ago. She was just recording an album with a friend of mine. It was kind of an electro-pop project she had at that period. I had a good feeling about her, and we had several talks, and I was beginning to work on my first EP for the album. I really wanted to introduce a female vocalist on it.
Listening to the tracks, I really felt like it could really work. I think it's a mixture of the voice she has and the vibe because I always think that you could have the best vocalist, but if you have no connection between the individuals, nothing will happen. Of course you can have a great voice and explain what you expect. Charlotte is a friend of mine, but she is very open to listen to what you expect.
Dusty Rainbow From The Dark came out in 2012, and it was kind of a concept album. What was the inspiration behind it?
Well, the first thing, before any other point, was that I had the idea of doing an album with a storyteller before thinking about any kind of story. I went back to it, because I had been thinking about it for the second album, but realized it wasn't too clear in my mind, and decided I need to find a general topic just to help me.
I thought about the evocation of the music itself and how music is a companion to everyday life. I thought that if I wanted to demonstrate that the music had power, maybe it makes sense not to write the story but to create the music and see if I can find a story around the music because if it had that power, I can find the story.
I began to work on the music, and I had a lot of notes from the images coming to mind because of the music. After a while I realized that the common link to everything and everyone, and you ask what their first memory of music might be, they always go back to childhood. So I thought maybe it makes sense to make a story from a child's point of view.
At the end, it's funny because I really thought I would make the music and create a story after that, but when I finished the music, the story was already there. I love the idea of the story of the mother telling the child to find out what the music represents to him. That's why she's telling him the story -- to help him think about the music. I loved the idea that that child would someday become an adult and would leave with that memory of childhood of his mother telling the story. The voice you get on the album was the old man remembering and relating that story from childhood.
The cover art was done by Rebecca Dautremer. Why did you want her to do that art?
That's always very complex for me. I think it's the first contact sometimes with the mood or atmosphere of the album. I had discussions with several artists about that, and I was explaining what I was expecting, and it was not clear. Maybe because I was too direct about what I was expecting. Rebecca is quite known in that kind of thing. I met her in Paris, and she said something that isn't easy for me to translate; as I was explaining the room and the mood of the room, she said, "That's stupid." I love the woman for that because she is very straight forward and honest.
"It's not clever. Because it's all about imagination and you want to show something that's smaller than the imagination, so maybe you should show the door with a little bit of light, and let people imagine what's behind the light." She was right, and the album isn't about the character itself.
She said, "It's not about the child itself, but it's more about the elements and the mood." So okay it has very big and a pilot hat and everything that's not supposed to be. We drank a lot of coffee and talked about how he's in his grandparents' house and a lot of details like that. But that was the first link with that atmosphere.
That's commendable that you were open to her challenging the idea you had from the beginning.
You need to be sometimes because when people tell you that, you've got to question yourself about what you're doing. You can't be right about everything, so it's always good to have some feedback.
For each song for your last album, you worked with some directors for the videos for each song. How many directors did you work with in making those videos?
I worked with twenty. In 2011, I was already thinking about the live show, and I thought it would be a big job. The previous tour I worked with one director, and I realized it was too hard because it's too much for one person to realize so many different ideas. I thought maybe four or five or whatever.
I put a message online, and I received seven hundred replies. It took a month to read everything and checked the links and the work they were doing. I also had in mind a [handful of other directors as well]. I wanted to use some animation and stop motion and I was thinking it was too hard to choose five, and why with so many options narrowing it down to that, so I decided to use a different director for each track.
To be honest, I don't think I'll do it again that way. I'm proud of the results and all that, but it was very hard because I was not the director but the supervisor, and being the supervisor of twenty people like that, talking every day with so many people, is absolutely exhausting. The risk you get is that you have no link between the people talking to each other beyond me. And I had to suggest imagery to establish a link between each video. It was a very challenging project.
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