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Interview: Philippe Zdar (Cassius)

Right now, Philippe Zdar is a happy man – even a hefty bout of bronchitis can’t disguise that. Zdar (real name Philippe Cerboneschi) says the seven year wait to finish his studio, situated in the elegant Parisian district of Montmartre, has been worth every minute. Already the likes of The Rapture, Chromeo and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke are taking advantage of the Frenchman’s production and mixing nous. Having made his name as one half of Cassius, Zdar made a stunning return to form last year with his production work on Phoenix’s Grammy winning Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, as well as his own double-sided EP as Cassius (with Hubert “Boom Bass” Blanc-Francard), which was fronted by “Youth, Speed Trouble Cigarettes,” a guitar-driven, fist-pumping electronica anthem. In a revealing interview, Philippe tells Juno Plus about his current slew of production work and admits his frustration at Cassius’ small back catalogue. Oh, and there’s even a baby Zdar on the way…

So what are you up to at the moment Philippe?

I’ve been in the studio, working on lots of different stuff. At the moment I’m mixing down some tracks for Chromeo, and Kele from Bloc Party, who’s doing some solo stuff.

How did that come about?

Kele is a friend, I think he likes the way I mix. I’m not producing it, XXXchange (aka Spank Rock producer Alex Epton) is doing that. It’s the same with Chromeo, I’m just mixing, not producing. In February I’ve got The Rapture coming to my studio, as I’m producing their next album.

So how is the production going with The Rapture going?

They approached me last year – I think they liked the work I did with Phoenix. I went to New York last year and recorded a few songs with them. It went really well – I’m very happy to put everyone in the same room and record the music so it has a real flow, like a jazz album. I think that is missing from a lot of music these days. They will be here in Paris this week or next. I try to keep a fast pace when recording an album – I like how guys like John Coltrane would get in there and record it fast. I like to put myself in a problematic situation, so I am fighting against the clock. In New York, we did everything in a week, 15 tracks, with four takes on each. I’d like to continue at that pace. And I just have to say, The Rapture are a great band and the new songs are dope!

What kind of stamp are you putting on the album?

With the exception of a few songs, it is a very live album – only about four of the songs sound electronic.

And are you working on any new Cassius material?

We are working on a single to come out in summer, and there are lots of other songs on the way too. We’d like to have an album ready for this year, but we’ll see. It might be at the end of 2010 or early 2011. The new stuff we’ve done is very electronic and less rocky than our previous work. There are less guitars and more synths, basically. We want to make music that is playable for DJs – you know, more club and electronic based.

“I think our fans can look forward to a lot more Cassius material over the next few years. We have been very frustrated I can assure you”

How did you guys come to start Cassius Records?

It was all very simple, we just want to be able to put music out when we want to. Cassius Records is for us and also music that we fall in love with from others. That is a relief because we have not always been free to release what we want to release. When we finished our deal with EMI, that allowed us to start re-releasing some old Cassius stuff, as well as new tunes. “Youth Speed Trouble Cigarettes” was a return to the more underground Cassius sound – EMI wanted big singles. Some of the stuff we are working again will be more overground.  We are also launching a Gold series in which we’ll get good new producers to remix our old songs.

You have started a little DJing conglomerate with Mehdi, Justice and Busy P – how are you enjoying that?

It is a pleasure to play with those guys. Last year we played in Ibiza, and two months ago we played in Paris, which was incredible. We want to play at smaller clubs, with good sound systems. It’s all about having fun, there are no rules, no order. We don’t want to say too much or have too much attention on the DJ – yes, Justice are a big name, but it’s not about big names for us.

We play 2-3 tracks each, so it’s a mess, but a fun mess. We focus on a direct sound, from normal house to hip-hop , techno, minimal, maximal – just as long as it’s good music. It reminds me of what being a DJ is all about – we don’t think the DJ should be a big star, like a guitar hero or something. I feel cool about this project.

Your production work on the Phoenix album last year was widely praised – how have you gauged the response?

That is one of the best things I’ve ever worked on. It’s really taking off in America, selling more records and was nominated for a Grammy (note: it took out the award for Best Alternative Album at the awards on January 31). It’s been less so in England, I don’t think people are feeling it as much there, but overall we’ve been getting lots of love. It took a lot of time and energy, so we are delighted that so many people are happy with it.

The one criticism that has been leveled at you from fans is that Cassius material has been pretty scarce over the past decade or so – why is that?

I’m not happy with it, and it’s going to change, I assure you. Now my studio is finished, you will see a lot more material from Cassius. We’ve been frustrated for a long time. There are like 300 VATs with songs and parts of songs on them, which we’ve never had the time to finish. Now we are able to mix in good conditions, because we have our own space now. At the moment I am finishing off a lot of things I said yes to a while ago – Kele, Chromeo and the Rapture – but as soon as I finish all that, Cassius is back. We’ll have something out this year, even if it’s just a single, and an album won’t be far behind. I think our fans can look forward to a lot more Cassius material over the next few years. We have been very frustrated I can assure you.

“I try to keep a fast pace when recording an album – I like how guys like John Coltrane would get in there and record it fast. I want to be fighting against the clock”

Tell me a bit about your new studio…it sounds like it’s going to be a great advantage for you in terms of production.

Well it’s been seven years in the making, and it’s been up and running since I finished the Phoenix album last year. It’s still not completely done – I need to finish of the toilets and the room for people to hang out – but the music side of things is fine. It’s incredible actually, I think I have the best of the old and the new in terms of equipment, which is exactly how I want it. There’s a great little team working here, and I’m teaching them the art of recording and mixing, which I think an art that is slowly being lost. I know people are mixing with Pro Tools, but for me you simply can’t get the same reverb, the largeness, the deepness, the crunchiness, that you get with proper studio equipment. Also the studio is in Montmartre in Paris, so it’s a vibrant, young and inspiring spot to work. One day I want to open it up to other artists, not just ones that I work with. Last year was quite tough, I was DJing a lot to raise the money for the studio, but it’s all paying off now. And I have a kid on the way in two weeks, so I’m a very happy man!

Interview: Aaron Coultate