It’s late on a Saturday night, and I can’t help but notice that everyone around me is dancing with abandon. There’s just enough room to move without fear of bumping into a neighbor, and men and women at the latest event in the Blisspop Disco Fest are making the most of it – quick footwork parlays into vogueing, vamping, and twirling (but not twerking). It’s a happy sight just a few hours after yet another infuriating one – Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court – and seeing people dance shit out serves as a silver lining to a traumatic week. Thibaut Berland welcomes us into the green room, and like that, we’re pulled through another portal – into the quiet, spartan trappings of U Street Music Hall’s artist chambers.
Berland stands up to greet us, about as tall and gangly as the cartoon version of himself familiar to us from his music videos as Breakbot. It’s also clear that he’s somewhat subdued – a side effect of lots of cold medicine, he says apologetically – but despite the limited time and hectic tour schedule, Berland is attentive, welcoming, and excited to talk about his craft. The French producer, DJ, and visual artist takes a seat on the leather couch and we get underway with the interview, as the rhythmic drumming of disco music persists in the background.
Breakbot’s latest EP, Another You, is available now on Ed Banger Records.
Brightest Young Things: Your origins are as a filmmaker and visual artist – and you went to school for graphic design before moving into music. It seems that you retain a deep interest in the visual, and are greatly involved in the art direction of your records and live performances. What comes first for you at this point? The visual idea, or the musical one?
Thibaut Berland: I’d say the music still comes first. I try to think about the best way to make a visual, but yeah, for this project the music always comes first. It’s the sounds first and then I think about the visuals. You’re right, (visuals) are quite important for me – I used to work in the animation industry, and the first video I ever did was animation, and my most recent one is animation as well. I think I want to focus more on graphics and animation in the future.
BYT: Who are your references or inspiration as a visual artist?
Berland: Well, they’re quite multiple – there are many of them – but in terms of animation I’m very much influenced by Japanese animation. There’s lots of great stuff. When I was a kid there was lots of Japanese animation on TV, and I grew up watching mangas and anime instead of American TV shows. I guess that’s a huge influence. But I’ve also been a fan of Disney since I was a young kid – the quality of their animation always impressed me. I love arts in general: illustration, painting, cinema – it’s hard to choose one influence. I watch a lot of movies and series as well.
BYT: I’ve recently rediscovered my love for manga and anime – Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira; old episodes of Ranma ½ and Saint Seiya. Super Champions – that soccer one [note: it was known as Captain Tsubasa in Japan]. Did you watch all of those?
Berland: Me too! When I was growing up in Paris. And Super Champions was called Olivier Atom in France. It was really cool. Have you heard of Satoshi Non? A Japanese director who made a movie called Perfect Blue. I would highly recommend to watch – it’s a really good movie from 2003 or 2004. It’s very weird and quite special – it’s about a Tokyo singing idol who is slowly losing her mind and she becomes really crazy. Then she becomes an actress and she doesn’t know if what she’s living is real life or a movie set. It’s really, really, really cool.
BYT: You manufactured a vinyl record out of chocolate a few years ago. It was only good for three plays before it was totally warped and fucked. Was that at all inspired by Edward Ruscha’s Chocolate Room at the 1970 Venice Biennale? Are you familiar with that?
Berland: No, I’m not familiar with that.
BYT: Ok, so Ruscha basically made paintings using Nestlé chocolate and hung them all up in this outdoor room during the Biennale. And he left them there for two weeks, during the summer. As time passed the chocolate melted, insects came, and it all got pretty fucked up. But he made this art ephemeral on purpose – you enjoy it and then it’s done.
Berland: That definitely sounds interesting, I will check it out. But no – actually the idea came from my label (Ed Banger). The record sleeve was originally made out of chocolate, and the idea was to push the concept to the logical edge. There was a chocolate factory willing to make a vinyl out of it, and they were doing this for a while, so we figured we’d go for it. I still have a copy of the LP at home but it’s all melted and not playable anymore. [Laughs] We only ever made 100 of them in the first place.
BYT: The music you make is clearly rooted in funk, disco, and classic pop. You’ve retained a distinct style, despite the many changes in mainstream electronic music over the past decade: to heavy dubstep and back, through the aggressive, thrash dance vibe of acts like the Bloody Beetroots.
Do you ever worry that your genre – or French House more broadly – would be left behind by audiences?
Berland: Well, to be honest, when I first started doing this music in 2008 – mixing electro, funk, and disco – I didn’t feel like it was that popular at the time. It was the peak of the violent electronic music wave. So, I just guessed there was always room for different kinds of music. I don’t know; I don’t feel like I’ve ever been mega popular, but there’s always a niche for people who love melodies and harmony and grooves.
BYT: To that point, I was listening to some of your music earlier tonight. The song “One Out of Two” sounds so much like a Hall and Oates song. I know you’re a fan, but the gated drums, the prevalent melody, the vocal harmony – it was incredible.
Berland: I love cheesy 80s jingles, and music for the opening credits of TV shows. It sounds like the music for that show Silver Spoons. I loved that show when I was a kid.
BYT: Your music is generally very upbeat and positive. Do you ever feel a desire to write something darker, or more melancholy? Do you write that kind of music presently?
Berland: Actually, yeah! I do. I feel like as time passes my music is sadder and sadder. [Laughs] Sometimes I do remixes that are a little more depressed or melancholy. Yeah; you know – I try to balance between both moods. [Pauses] But you’re right, I make a lot of happy music, even if my life is sad. [Laughs]
BYT: I know you love classical pop music – in particular the Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Hall & Oates. Is there anyone currently making popular music you enjoy? Is anyone taking enough risks and intriguing you with their work?
Berland: Well, there’s many people I would love to work with. But I had a chance to work with Bruno Mars in the past – he asked us to write songs for his record, and he also wanted to make a cover of “Baby I’m Yours”. But by the time I was working on my first record – when I was finishing it – I had too much work to put some energy elsewhere. I deeply regret that, because I think it would have been quite much fun and it maybe would have opened some doors for me in the future. I said “no” because I thought I didn’t have the time, but there’s always time for making music. I would love to work with him if it’s possible some day.
There’s also this little band I discovered and really like called Young Gun Silver Fox. And I love the guys from Vulfpeck – there’s lots of cool bands I’d love to work with. And of course, I have lots of friends I’ve made while touring, like this guy Donnie Sloan, who produced Empire of the Sun. I would love to work with him – we’ve met a few times.
BYT: Let’s talk some more about “Baby I’m Yours”. It’s your biggest hit, and you yourself have called it your most artistically complete song. How did you know that song was “ready” or nearing perfection? Can you know that when writing or producing a song?
Berland: I didn’t know. I think I worked until the very end – I had a deadline, and by the time I did the song I had no real reference point. It was all new to me. If I remember correctly, I had like 70 different versions of the track when I was looking at the archive files. [Laughs] 60 or 70 increments or slight variations and edits. It’s fun to see the evolution of the work. But even in the end I didn’t think it sounded good enough and I kept making changes, although at some point you’ve just got to hand in what you have. I don’t think it sounds as good as it should.
Berland: Yeah! To me it sounds like a bit of computer…whatever. [Laughs] But yeah, I used to work a lot more on the tracks, and I would spend hours and hours switching and tweaking and changing.
BYT: Is that still your approach? Or have things settled down now that you’re more established.
Berland: Well, I’ve been doing this for ten years now, so I’ve got a few more tricks to help me. I tend to rely on them and it’s not a good thing. [Grins] I think it’s more fun when you discover everything, and maybe that’s why it’s one of the best tracks I ever wrote – because it was all fresh and new to me, you know?
BYT: You mentioned being a big fan of Disney. How did it feel to have your track “Star Tripper” featured on that Disney Star Wars Album.
What do you think is the main difference between French and American dance music audiences? How do you account for these differing sensibilities in your set?
Berland: It was a childhood dream come true! Collaborating with Star Wars – we all grew up with that shit! And as a matter of fact, Rick Rubin was curating it, and the fact that he thought that my work was interesting… that was a big honor, you know? I was really humbled to be part of that project. I mean, I don’t think it was a big success – if at all – but I was very happy. It was my intro for the live shows for the last few years.
Photos by Mahmoud Lababidi