As I suspected, Phil Aubin-Dionne has zero chill.
Aubin-Dionne, best known to electronic music fans by the pseudonym Jacques Greene, has been making propulsive, pulsating dance music for the Internet for the better part of six years. After about six seconds on the phone, it’s quite clear that his productions are a projection of his personality.
“I half feel like I’m running around like a chicken without its head, but also having that half serene and calm-before-the-storm feeling,” Aubin-Dionne shares excitedly over the phone in early March from his apartment in Toronto. His boundless energy and enthusiasm are infectious even during our brief conversation, and it’s easy to spot the threads and layers of complexity embodied in his tracks.
The Canadian producer and DJ is getting ready to spend a week in his hometown of Montreal. Aubin-Dionne is back for a final few days of rehearsals and to put finishing touches on the stage set-up for live performances of his latest record, Feel Infinite – still a few days away from release at this stage. To his credit, Aubin-Dionne steered into the situation the way we always knew he would.
“I can’t stop this record from coming out; it’s gonna come out, no matter how stressed out I am about it,” the young producer shares, with a laugh. “Here. We. Go.”
BYT: There’s a very robust music scene in Montreal. What do you think makes the city such a hotbed of culture and art?
Phil Aubin-Dionne: Cheap rent. [Laughs heartily] Honestly, that’s a huge part of it. I would not do what I do now if it wasn’t for the fact that when I was 20-years-old, I had a job but was also selling 500 12-inches and playing a few shows in Europe, and that was enough to pay your rent for like five months. It’s this absurdly cheap rent and then that creates a community where all of a sudden there’s a really cool central neighborhood where everyone can afford to not have a day job. We can all hang out, and lend each other synthesizers and guitars, and everyone’s got a big apartment with an extra room where they’ve built a home studio, or they’re able to rent a space in a shared studio built out of an industrial loft space. Don’t get me wrong – this is still very D.I.Y. Nobody actually has any money there. [Laughs] It’s the true meaning of Bohemian, I guess – a have not, want not lifestyle. We didn’t have much, but there was access to lots of time and space to do what you wanted.
I mean, even instead of going to the big clubs, there are huge neighborhoods of industrial loft spaces where someone would rent a 2,000 square foot loft space, and run illegal after parties every weekend to pay their rent. And so everyone always had a venue to play, and that was super healthy. Literally, the lax real estate environment is what has allowed culture to flourish, which is why having lived in fucking New York and Toronto has made me extremely cognizant and critical of that stifling hyper-aggressive real estate lifestyle, because it suffocates culture. I’ve seen it happen.
BYT: We’re facing similar problems in D.C. Most full-time artists can’t really afford to live in town, so many people eventually move out.
PA-D: That’s crazy, and sad.
BYT: From what I understand, you recently moved back to Toronto from New York City.
PA-D: Yeah, that’s right. I was living in New York for a while, but [faux deep sigh] I fell in love with a Canadian girl. [Laughs] I’d been doing New York for like three years, so it made sense to finally move on.
BYT: You were such a big part of the Montreal dance music community, running a few clubs and putting on events, as well as performing yourself. While you were living in New York, did you find ways to get involved locally? Or were you on the road too often to capitalize on those opportunities? And does that apply to Toronto now?
PA-D: Definitely halfway in between the two. Part of why I was OK with moving away from New York – to further the topic of very expensive rent – was because my apartment was so expensive that I had to be away on tour most of the time to even afford it. [Laughs] Once I sat down and had that thought…for other companies, or other jobs, the goal might just be like “oh shit, I have to get that promotion or more clients” or whatever. But for musicians – since nobody buys music anymore – it means I have to be on the road. If your life expenses go up, and in order to be in the city I need to be away from the city — that doesn’t really work. I was only in New York like 60% of the time.
That being said, whenever I was in town and had time or energy, I would play some awesome loft parties some friends of mine run, and they now have a space in Bushwick – they’re called Rinsed. Really, really good freaky promoters that do weird shit like leave secret messages in telephones in their club. It’s always weird and freaky and a little out there, and I was always a big, big fan of their energy. Anytime I would play in New York they’d be the promoters for the show, or I’d hop on unannounced and play with them. Nico Jaar and I did some back to backs at Cameo in Williamsburg, and things like that.
I would also attend a lot of things, but there’s definitely the side that once you start playing the room, you want to be at home when you’re home. [Laughs] Or go out and be deejayed to, rather than DJ the party again. New York still has so much local talent, as well as world-class talent coming through all the time, so going out and having open ears and listening is such an important part of staying current, you know? I don’t know if you remember that old anecdote Aziz Ansari told about going over to Kanye’s house, and he walked in on Kanye listening to his own music? [Laughs] I always found that attitude to be kind of strange. Not that you should be flooding yourself with current stuff all the time, but at a certain point you have to expose yourself to the greater context of what’s happening around you in order to be better informed about what you want to do, I guess.
BYT: What do rehearsals and preparations for this tour look like? I know you have resisted giving into going digital, fully, and that you maintain some analog aspects to your performance. What different things can we expect to see during this run of shows?
PA-D: Yeah! I mean, I’ve never really rehearsed before – I’ve never been that fucking organized in my life. [Laughs] So, this will be the first time I spend a few days running through shit. Basically, I’m bringing about half of my studio on the road with me. I’ll have a modular synthesizer; I’ve got a smaller case I can put parts of it in, so I can actually travel with it – and that’s very analog. There’s an old Roland drum machine that comes with me and a couple of pedals. But the most exciting part to me is the thing we have to rehearse: I have a couple of friends in Montreal who are very gifted in the arts of stage design and lighting and programming; we built this light rig of sorts. Instead of it being highly synced lights, like you’d see at a bigger EDM DJ, where the lights are all in time and you’re not sure if it’s a pre-recorded set, we built this Max/MSP patch where my playing of melodies or applying a filter can change the lighting in real-time.
BYT: Oh shit, that sounds really cool.
PA-D: Yeah! Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. Obviously, I’ll know a bit more next week as to how it actually fucking looks, but the idea is that it will seem like this highly pre-planned light show, but in reality I’ll be playing the lights myself. I’ve got a MIDI channel where I can punch the hi-hat, and then the light will follow the pattern of the hi-hat, or whatever, you know what I mean? I just focus on performing the music and it automatically translates that language into what’s happening behind me. And I’m taking this rig with me on the whole tour – we’ve got different sizes for it and can adjust it to the room size. It should look really cool, and I’m always very excited about the visual aspects of stuff.
Of course, in the world of house and techno it’s meant to be a stamped white label and a guy in a hoodie with no lights in the booth playing, and I love that shit, and I spent a lot of time doing that. But I also still remember being a 14-year-old and going to Marilyn Manson, and loving the costumes on stage. [Laughs] There’s a side of the theatrics and performance that is tied to the visual aspects. What is around you matters as much as the audio. Being able to think about it and make it a considered, cool thing is really exciting.
BYT: I know you’re a rap fan, and it seems that anytime a producer comes up with a hit track with a distinctive “sound,” a bunch of copycat tracks emerge. For a while everyone sounded like DJ Mustard, then after that it was the Mike Will vibes, and now it’s like every other single has the Atlanta trap 808 beat. What are your thoughts on that? What advice might you have for an up and coming producer to help him or her avoid falling into that cycle?
PA-D: That’s a really interesting question, and I think it’s a tough one. That’s been the case longer than we’d like to admit. When Studio Hollywood was in effect in the 1920s, or even earlier than that – when pulp fiction was being published a lot – you’d have Agatha Christie and then 500,000 writers doing exactly the same thing in their novels. I think the same result is still true today. You can copy Agatha Christie, or Murda Beatz or Metro Boomin, who are the guys who are dominating the sound today. If you make a “Metro Boomin type beat” and put it on YouTube you might sell a couple of beats faster, or maybe get a few placements, but you’re never going to set the tone. You can’t keep that up, either, because those guys are always going to come up with a fresher idea.
That being said, you should be informed about what’s going on around you and seek inspiration from it – it’s natural, and good, and healthy. And there will be moments of that all the time. My music is very clearly not devoid of context and of influences from straight up peers from when I started. At some point when you’re part of a scene and there’s people around you making music it’s OK to sample from a kind of pop-ier source, or feel OK about opening up the filter on some synths. And I started to develop my own sound from that and went in a different direction. But if I was a kid starting to make rap beats today and heard a triplet hi-hat pitch thing, you better believe I’d want to know how they did it. [Laughs] There are certain moments of your world that are totally OK to be aware of, or whatever.
BYT: How has your sound evolved and shifted since moving Stateside? You’ve talked about the concept of local scenes being less and less of a thing these days thanks to the Internet – at least as tied to physical geography, though one can argue that they emerge around cultural phenomena online.
PA-D: Yeah, my music definitely changed when I moved to New York. Sometimes it’s something as simple as my life being that much more chaotic when I left my house. The sound in a city and the sound you take in during a day can seep into your process. I think a lot of the time when you write music it’s a therapeutic thing, to put the world on hold and create something. Obviously your brain will react differently depending what kind of stimulus you feed into it.
Other than that, something that’s common to New York and Toronto is that when going out all that’s playing is rap and some RnB. When I was living in Montreal, a lot of the bars and loft parties were playing predominantly house and techno, or maybe a footwork party. In New York the dance stuff was hard techno at bunker parties and that’s not so much the vibe I want to go out to; it’s music I prefer to listen to at home. And that means you end up at a bar or kind of a “cool kid” party, where you’re listening to dancehall and rap all night, and next thing you know you’ve been to six parties where you didn’t hear 120 BPM a single time. [Laughs] And that’s definitely true of my life in Toronto. Just this weekend I was at this party thrown by these fashion/art kids, and in my mind these people are playing, I dunno, Giegling. But I walk in and it’s Migos and Chief Keef. Which I’m totally fine with, and listening to that in a room full of people is a lot of fucking fun. But I’d like to imagine that it ends up shaping what you end up making – I hear it in my own music after I make it, and maybe because I’m in the eye of the storm.
So many of my friends that have moved to Berlin, and you can hear the Berlin in their music – maybe not in the first record after they move there, but definitely a couple of albums down the line. And sometimes it’s for the best, like – holy shit, you learned how to produce drums. Like, oh my god. That’s insane.
BYT: Yeah, and things begin to percolate when you’re on the ground in a new environment.
PA-D: Yes, I think so. It’s like when you have friends over for dinner and they respond differently to music you’re playing, and that will shape your comfort zone. [Laughs] Like, this friend who’s opinion I really respect is not into this Actress record – oh shit. And I’m sure that ends up playing into the next time you’re in the studio, and those instincts playing differently.
BYT: Even within the world of dance music DJs and producers, you’re known for having a great sense of style and a keen eye for a look. What was the first outfit you put together for yourself that you can remember being proud of? When was the first time you felt fly as shit?
PA-D: [Laughs] That’s a good question. I mean, I dressed like a goofball my entire childhood and didn’t have that much money, so it was mainly polar fleece sweaters that my mom made back then. I guess it was high school when I began going to the thrift store with my own money and putting together some pretty wild stuff. What was the first good look, though? I think I was kind of lost in the sauce for a while. [Laughs]
BYT: Man, you can get lost in the sauce.
PA-D: You can get lost in the sauce! [Laughs] I was attending this graphic design in college, and this was on the cusp of drop-crotches becoming a thing. My shit was going to thrift stores and finding women’s high-waisted jeans or joggers – so their high waist would sit on my low waist – and then I used my sewing machine to open them up and taper them down the sides, so the fit would actually work for my legs but the crotch would end up being way lower. So I was sewing my own drop crotch denim, and shit like that. [Laughs] I felt pretty fly when I was making fits with my own sewing machine, I was like “Yo, I’m on some shit right now.” [Big, goofy laugh] I was broke, and I was in school, so I had to improvise.