Name: François Xavier-Zoumenou / François X
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Current Release: Irregular Passion Reshaped on DEMENT3D XXX
Recommendations: Black Sabbath Planet Caravan
1947 Chaise Lounge Rocking Joaquin Tenreiro
When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started at the end of the 90’s when I was cutting my teeth on every party happening in Paris. Fashion, music, I was what they considered a cool kid.
For me the aesthetics pulled me towards clubbing culture and fashion. It was a magical combo between the minimalism of Helmut Lang and the ecstatic vibes of Me fingers. The loudness of the club drew me into this love for the club scene. I think it was the first time I had a bodily feeling with music, the people, the community.
I was a part of something vaster than me.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Learning and imitating are part of the development process, you are constantly looking to your idols and try to mimic their music, their style. For me it was all about Detroit and Chicago haunted strings. I was so hooked by that style, I was literally listening again and again to the segment of the track with those strings in it. It drove me crazy.
Slowly but surely my skills became better.
What were some of the main challenges and goals when starting out as a DJ and how have they changed over time? What is it about DJing, compared to, say, producing your own music, that makes it interesting for you?
My key challenges, when I started, were to be able to compete with the top DJs in terms of charisma and culture. Because I knew it would take some time to craft my art and my musical education.
I started to produce much later than DJing and I was so frustrated because I could not enjoy it as much as I wanted to due to my beginner's level. Now it’s remarkably opposed, I can enjoy producing and I’m indeed capable to translate my emotions into music. This has been an essential step for me!
How would you define the job and describe the influence of the DJ? How are the experience and the music transformed through your work?
The DJ is the medium of the night; (s)he encourages people to attain a certain mental state. The music remains key.
What was your first set-up as DJ like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I started with 2 Gemini pt 1000 turntables and a Gemini mixer, but quickly had the chance to get my hands on Technics (which I’m still using). The mk2 has always been the go to for DJ’s, they are reliable and sturdy.
In Paris we always enjoyed a deep connection with the black American dance culture community, so naturally I became fascinated by the DJ legacy/history. People like Ron Hardy, Larry Levan, Tee Scott were my references and what was the common link between them: The Rotary Mixer.
We used to lurk on the original Urei 1620 rotary mixer for so long and suddenly DJ Deep started to produce his now legendary DJR mixer which was at that time a very confidential product. I bought the DJR 100 which is the big model and my main mixer today. The sound is warm and rich … Like everybody else I started to use CDJs more and more and at one point I became a full digital DJ, with my precious USB sticks who are presently my most valuable piece of gear when it comes playing.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I think technology represents a tremendous piece of work, for me it's extremely helpful in terms of work flow and creativity. Every so often when you are struggling with chord progressions, a machine like Ableton Push 2 is really handy to make things happen. As one would expect, the natural human feeling will never be replaceable but it's the combination of both which produces interesting things.
Machines represent the tools that help the human brain to fulfil its full potential.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do life and creativity feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I usually wake up fresh and ready without any breakfast, most of the times I go through my admin stuff and get prepared for the day. At that point I rush to the metro to go to my tennis club, where I typically play for 1-2 hours. After that my body is fresh to initiate my musical journey!
It absolutely depends on which mood I'm in, but usually my days are focused on digging and shaping my DJ sets or producing new gems. I undoubtedly cannot do both and simultaneously; it’s typically working phases.
My days in the studio can last very long, as I can lose track of time. I go back home roughly at 9 pm. Exhausted, drained but excited to come back the next day to complete the ongoing project. I think as an artist what I'm seeking to, is to translate my moods, my feelings in a way that's like writing the diary of my life. So for me life and creativity feedback in each other constantly, one supporting the other
Let's say you have a gig coming up tonight. What does your approach look like – from selecting the material and preparing for, opening and then building a set?
My approach is extremely classic and methodical, I go through new records on Wednesday. You can divide this process in two. The one part is about listening to the tons of promos you receive every day and the other one is to check the online records shops to pick the weekly selection of fresh releases. The day of the gig I review my collection and depending on the mood I'm in, there is always a particular vibe taking shape, which will set the tone of the night.
From that point on I can heretofore know in which direction I'm gonna go. Consequently, when it comes to opening my DJ set, I'm in this kind of mental state, where I'm ready to narrate my story.
Over the years, I've become more and more confident to retain the pressure a little bit for the first 20 minutes. It helps to build my set more confidently and place the crowd into new state of mind. After that the spaceship is able to travel where I want. And when it’s time to conclude, I always lower my way of mixing to make people feel comfy and happy. I call it the soft landing.
Can you describe your state of mind during a DJ set? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter this state more easily?
Deep, hard, ecstatic, moody, dreamy … I go all over the place. I have to get those feelings alive to make a good DJ set. Otherwise, it tends to become super flat. To achieve that I need to have a perfect sound system in the DJ booth, something that is going to wrap me up. It is crucially significant for me, to have this feeling.
But sometimes, the booth is imperfect. My trick to make it happen, is to put my headphones (both ears) on and play like I'm in a sound bubble.
What are some of the considerations that go into deciding which track to play next? What makes two tracks a good fit? How far do you tend to plan ahead during a set?
It’s all about the feeling, you can never tell which track is going to be the next one. Of course off and on I express the need to perform a specific track, but I have to find a way to get to it. What path will lead me to that piece of music is constantly changing. A good match can be pure magic, and for me as I said there is not a magic formula to get there. Naturally you can remember some matches that worked in the past but again no magic formula. So on a personal level, being a DJ is to be able to listen to the feelings growing inside you.
Would you say you see DJing as improvisation? As composition in the moment? Or as something entirely different from these terms?
I see DJing for the most part as improvisation, because you can never predict what will be your mood of the night, the energy of the crowd, the light guy, etc. It's inevitably an untold story. That's why I rely on my emotions, it aids me to shape something unique each time I set my foot in a club.
How do playing music at home and presenting it in the club compare and relate? What can be achieved through them, respectively, and what do you personally draw from both?
Performing music is at home is sometimes not that opposed to presenting it in the club because again it's gonna be all about the feeling you are gonna get from the music. For example, when you are playing at home, you constantly try picturing a club and it's crowd in you head. And minutes after starting, the dream is taking place in your imagination, you start to have goosebumps in your body, the rush of adrenaline is kicking in. You can have the same in a club. It’s pure utopia I guess, but even though it’s not the reality, I always have the impression that being in a club or at home is the same for me. It’s all about the instinctual feeling that music is gonna deliver you.
How would you describe the relationship between your choices and goals as a DJ and the expectations, desires and feedback of the audience? How does this relationship manifest itself during a performance and how do you concretely tap into it?
The relationship between my choices and goals as a DJ and the expectations, desires and feedback of the audience remain repeatedly a struggle. How can we all be on the same mindset at the beginning of the night? The day that has passed has not been the same for everyone, so my job is to embark people on a common and mutual astral trip.
Periodically people require you to play hard or dark, sometimes it's the opposite; the usual mistake is to get too much influenced by it and lose the vibe. Therefore never try to please people or make them easily happy by getting what they want, but surprise them, tap into their inner core emotions, their souls. It’s like making love. We have to know each other, understand each other to compose something unique, memorable.
Especially thanks to the storage facilities of digital media, DJ sets could potentially go on forever. Other than closing time, what marks the end of a DJ performance for you? What are the most satisfying conclusions to a set?
The end of a DJ performance is when you rise to a certain point where everything that needed to be said has been said. Like in a movie you have the intro, the development, the drama, everything in between and finally the conclusion. You can feel it every time, when the energy has reached its peak and people are getting high. Those deep moments are sometimes the best because you're holding the crowd in your hand and decide with which track you gonna make them dream about that night for the next hours. I cherish these moments and place them above the crowd cheering you and these traditional closing applauses.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
As an artist, my goal is to provide emotions to people, to make them think, cry, laugh, to communicate to them a message through my music. But it has to be through that medium primarily, not through my speech or my image. My music is fused with my rage, my questions, my ethnicity problem, so it has to be the most trustworthy possible to undoubtedly deliver my message to the audience. I cannot betray myself if I want to be understood.