Laurent Garnier

The Great Crusader: How Laurent Garnier Helped Bring House Music to France

"Why did I involve myself so much in house and techno? I was a big music lover, I loved new wave, rock, reggae, punk, The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Clash," explains dance legend Laurent Grenier. "House music took the essence of all of this and put it all together,” 

If The Hacienda, immortalized as the birthplace of acid house, remains one of the world’s most fabled nightclubs long after its demise, its modern-day counterpart The Warehouse Project is ensuring that Manchester’s nightlife is still talked about in hallowed terms.

On the night of Billboard Dances visit, Love International, the team behind the Croatian summer festival of the same name, is hosting a party at WHP, and the lineup is an embarrassment of riches, a superb blend of talent old and new, including Larry Heard playing a live set as Mr. Fingers, Crazy P live and Midland. Closing the party and invigorating the wilting crowd with an unpredictable blend of house and techno classics and tough new cuts is Laurent Garnier, the French DJ and producer celebrating 30 years of spinning records in 2017. Though some younger members of the crowd might not have known it, his career started right here in Manchester, DJing at The Hacienda in 1987.

“The Hacienda was golden and glowing and I saw the explosion of it, and I came before that,” says Garnier, who had moved to the city from London at 19. “London had everything to offer, when I came here I thought, if there’s no nightlife I can relate to a little bit, I’m going to die. And then the story happened, house music arrived and pffft, it was a punch in my face!” 

Garnier is an exuberant character who speaks English almost like a native, colloquially and with a British accent. When he recalls moments like these, there’s a twinkle in his eye; a twinkle that started when he was a youth back in the suburbs of Paris, hosting pirate radio stations from his bedroom and going to gay clubs at 13 with his older brother, who’d take Garnier out in exchange for him working shifts in his restaurant.

Getting in was never a struggle. “My brother knew quite a lot of people,” Garnier says with a grin. “He had a full-on gay life. He was going to the back rooms and having sex and I was just standing next to the DJ hoping nobody would jump on me!” He laughs. “But the music was everything I wanted.”

High-energy disco was popular in Paris at the time, especially in the gay scene. This was the late ‘70s to early ‘80s, when disco clubs such as Le Palace and Les Bains Douche were the height of glamour, and were often featured on the news (in an aspirational, non-scandalous way). The scene was rocking, and young Laurent was hooked. His parents weren't so enamored with his preoccupations -- he wanted to go to a nearby DJ school; they made him go to catering school instead. To avoid military conscription, which only formally ended in France in 2001, he headed to London for a catering job at the French embassy.

Of course, he went clubbing the first night he arrived, first hitting “shit” French clubs, then going to his first proper club, Heaven, the legendary gay nightclub still running today. “I saw the light,” says Garnier. “I recognized it from the Bauhaus scene [in the 1983 David Bowie movie The Hunger], and I thought, this is my place.” He partied every night in London for the next 18 months. The Mud Club, where Mark Moore of S’Express and Jay Strongman were residents, became his favorite place. “I was completely in my world: soul, funk, disco, rockabilly, all sorts of black music, I was super happy.”

At the embassy, though, he felt stifled, with little opportunity for career progression -- and so, with his then-girlfriend, he took off to Manchester, where her brother was running a bunch of restaurants, and headed straight to The Hacienda. It was 1987, and the club hadn’t yet reached mythical status.

Garnier recalls the first time he DJ'd there, after perfecting a sample mixtape to send to the booker, Mike Pickering, who gave him a slot at a party called Zumbar on Wednesday night. “My first set at The Hacienda I had never seen a pair of 1200s in my life,” he says. “I had really old-school turntables. The way I was doing my mixes was going from the slowest tempo to the fastest, I learned to slow down by touching the records. I couldn’t mix to save my life!”

He learned fast, though, playing a mix of house records -- which had arrived just six months earlier -- and “black music." Then, in mid-1988, football provided the unlikely inspiration for The Hacienda’s infamous "Hot" nights, which would change the course of clubbing for years to come.

There stood a longtime rivalry between the Manchester United and Manchester City football teams, often resulting in “super heavy” fights, he recalls. So the police were puzzled one game day to find the players and fans kissing, hugging and throwing inflatable bananas at each other. “They were doing tons of drugs, they were off their heads on Es,” says Garnier. “And this is where it all started. And The Hacienda said, ‘Let’s take this to the club.'”

For the first Hot party, the club was filled with inflatable toys and pools filled with water. "The dance floor was a mess,” recalls Garnier. “And people went fucking nuts!”

The next day, Garnier went back to France - he could no longer avoid his year of military service. He managed to wriggle out of the worst of it, though, as his mother knew someone who helped him “serve” as a waiter in Versailles. He’d start the day with a salute, work, then head to Paris at 11 p.m. to DJ for London promoters who were trying to spread the scene across the English Channel. Get home in the early hours of the morning, rinse, repeat.

But he knew it was nothing like what was unfolding in the U.K. Acid house had exploded, along with MDMA, and England was in the throes of the Second Summer of Love. “I read The Face, I read I.D, I had my friends on the phone who were like, ‘Here, it’s mad!” he explains. “I was saying, ‘Here, in France, it’s not mad!’ It was horrible!” 

The very same day his military service ended, he was back on the plane to Manchester, but a lot had happened in a year. The scene was flooded with “Scallies” -- rascally dudes with long hair and baggy clothes -- and Garnier felt excluded. “You had to be a Scally to be part of the house scene,” he says. “I started DJ'ing straight away but I felt like I’d missed the train.” He decided to head back to France, where house music was yet to make a splash, and start his own movement.

Getting the public onside was a much harder slog than it had been in the U.K., however. Garnier started playing in small gay clubs, then the only place you could play house music. He then befriended Christian Paulet, manager of Rex Club, in those days a rock venue. He convinced Paulet, who became and is still his manager to this day, to let him start a club night there -- and at Rex, the gospel of house started to spread through Paris, in spite of significant resistance from the authorities and other sections of the music community.

The drug and drink culture so ingrained in British youth has never been a part of French culture in the same way, but fear-mongering from the British press led the police to think otherwise, and house music was largely held responsible. Then there was antagonism from rock musicians and their fans, who weren't as bothered by other genres such as hip-hop. “Hip-hop was a political statement -- house music was about hedonism, and it’s not a very rock and roll thing, and they saw that as very scary in France,” says Garnier.

It took around 14 years for house music to finally be accepted in Paris, due in no small part to the persistence of Garnier and a few like-minded peers. The city hosted the first Techno Parade, their answer to Berlin’s Love Parade, in 1998; the movement began attracting supporting from politicians and influential people; and the likes of Garnier were able to start playing in more esteemed venues, like concert hall L’Olympia. That their battles were so hard-won helped keep the dream alive, he says. “I believed in it, it was growing, it was exciting, it was exciting to go against the wave for sure,” he says. “I think the fight kept the strongest characters together and kind of excited us to move forward.”

Meanwhile, Garnier was beginning to score gigs in far-flung places such as New York, a “shining star” destination for a Garnier entranced by tales of Studio 54 and Larry Levan. “I come to Manchester, it’s cool, but I want to go to New York!’ he says. “So the first asshole that says, ‘I’ve got a gig for you in New York’, I say, ‘Great! Let’s go tomorrow!’” Garnier had just met the Frenchman who booked his gig, Maurice, but he bought his plane ticket in good faith. “I get to New York and Maurice lives in a fucking dump!” he spits. “Cockroaches from top to bottom. And first thing he says to me is, ‘Can I borrow money for the posters?’”

That night, they went out and were rejected from any venue worth visiting in the city. The following night Garnier played to a crowd of two in a dingy club, one of whom was Moby. “I was a big fan of his, he’d just released [iconic 1990 techno single] 'Go,'” says Garnier. “He says, 'What the fuck are you doing here with nobody?’ He says, ‘I think this Maurice guy is a bit dodgy.’” Garnier had cut ties with Maurice earlier that day, after he found him rifling through his wallet. After his set, he was penniless, without a place to stay. “I’m sitting on my record box on the streets of New York, I’m thinking, ‘This was my dream, I’m going to be attacked by wolves, this is the end of my life,’” he says.

It wasn't -- the other guy who watched his set ended up taking him in, and lending him the money to fly back to France -- but New York remained a tough nut to crack. Garnier had founded a label, F Communications, with Eric Morand, and they returned to New York for a music conference in 1992. “We went to meet the boss from Nervous Records. The guy said, 'You French, you know how to make good perfume and good cheese, but music -- you should stop!’”

Garnier wasn’t perturbed. He has always been a DJ first and foremost, but when his peers started producing his own records, he figured he should probably have a go, too. He asked his friends, members of the Underground Resistance crew and Detroit pioneers such as Jeff Mills and Derrick May, whom he’d booked to play at Rex Club, what equipment they used to make their tracks, then went out and bought it.

But producing has always been more hobby than passion for Garnier. “A lot of musicians are working from pain, frustration, anger, they have something to say,” he says. “I don’t have anything to say. I don’t drive myself from frustration. The only thing that drives me is my love for music.”

Those who’ve toiled for years in the studio might then envy Garnier his seemingly effortless success. Much of his output - ten albums and over 40 EPs and singles -  has been too experimental to connect in huge numbers; Garnier’s dabbled in everything from jazz to dubstep over the years. But when it’s worked, it’s really, really worked, resulting in some of the most iconic dance tracks ever made, from the techno classic “Crispy Bacon” to the undeniable horn-led house of “The Man With The Red Face”.

“‘Crispy Bacon’, I knew I had something,” he says. “I played it to Jeff Mills, he’s like, ‘Oh, I like that, but you should change the name, it’s a stupid name.’ I said, ‘Great, I love that reaction, I’m going to keep the name.'”

“The Man With The Red Face” came about when Garnier was asked to perform a set at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. “I thought, if they’re going to be generous enough to invite a techno artist, I have to do something influenced by jazz, my vision of jazz,” says Garnier. An early version of the song was performed at Montreux, then Garnier got sax player Philippe Nadaud into the studio to record it. “I could talk to him via mic, and I was talking to him, saying, ‘This is shit,’ we were just mocking him for about 15 minutes.” Through exertion, rage, or a combination of the two, Nadaud ended up with the titular red face. The track was finished and named in one take.

As well as switching genres and styles, Garnier’s restless spirit has seen him take on hugely diverse projects over the years, from scoring for ballet to his still-running “It Is What It Is” radio show, which he records in both French and English. He published a memoir, Electrochoc, in 2003 and in 2013 co-founded Festival Yeah!, a family-friendly rock and pop event in Lourmarin in southern France, where he lives.

“I hate repeating myself,’ he says. “This is why ‘Crispy Bacon’ has nothing to do with ‘Man With A Red Face’ or ‘Acid Eiffel’ or ‘Revenge of the Lol Cat’.” “And if you come and see me play tonight and tomorrow, my set will be completely different.” What you won’t often hear in his sets are his own tunes. Sure, “Man With A Red Face” usually gets a run, but other than that, he says he struggles, unsure of where to put his tracks.

Last year, a then-unreleased track called “1-4 Doctor C’est Chouette” (roughly translated as “One for the Doctor, it’s cool”) was an exception. “The first night I played it was at Amsterdam Dance Event at a DGTL party,” he says, “and it was not even mixed. I don’t know what happened in the room, everyone was super-electrified -- I must have played it at the right time, and Michael Mayer came up to me and said, ‘What is this track?’” It went on to become Garnier’s first release on Mayer’s Kompakt label.

As for the name, it was tribute to a friend of Garnier’s who had passed away shortly beforehand -- a doctor, a sensible person, and not at all a technohead. “But he said, ‘I love listening to music now because I’m so off my head with all the stuff I’m taking’, so I gave him an MP3 player with like 150 tracks he could play when he was off his head,” says Garnier. He laughs, then recalls more quietly. “He had a lovely face, he would always listen and say, 'Ooh, c’est chouette.’”

In January this year, Garnier received a Legion of Honor, France’s highest award. “It’s a big honor to have this and I’m very touched,” he says. “The same people who used to fight against us are giving you a medal to say you’re representing France in a nice way, we understand your work, we respect it! It means I didn't fight for nothing.”

Next year, he will be making two special appearances at the 25th anniversary for Barcelona’s Sonar, including a live set equating to what sounds like his worst nightmare -- nothing but his own tracks for two hours. “I’ve done it once before, it was very difficult,” he says, smiling. “I think it’s quite nice to be forced to do it again.” He’ll appear at all the Sonars happening worldwide in 2018, including Istanbul and Reykjavik, but says he won’t play more frequently than once a fortnight these days. “I don’t want to do too much, I want to stay excited, I want to stay happy.”

Truth be told, after thirty years at the helm of house and techno, there’s not much blowing his mind at the moment. “The super-trendy techno [artists] now... they’re all Jeff Mills’ sons. It’s cool, I love it, I love his music -- sometimes Jeff does it better -- but there are 600 of them,” he says. “I think our task is to surprise people, make them go crazy, but once they’re there, take them somewhere else.”

What does excite him is the Parisian clubbing scene of today. “Paris has never been as healthy as it is now, for the last five or six years,” he says. “There’s lots of new clubs and super underground, really really cool stuff. I think it’s more interesting than Berlin at the moment.” Does it feel good to know that he’s at least partly responsible for that: “It’s very nice, I can retire safely,” he says, smiling.

One day, yes. But tonight, watching the Manchester crowd lap up his masterful, energetic closing set in his old stomping ground, Garnier’s retirement still seems a reassuringly distant prospect. Long may he reign.