Interview: Dimitri From Paris talks production
2nd Mar 2012 | 15:31
The legendary DJ and producer tells us his feelings about new music tech and the early days of the French house scene
As both an embracer and resister of new music tech, this French house activist is something of an enigma. We decode Dimitri's production secrets…
"These days, France has an incredible electronic music scene, but back when I first started DJing in the early 80s, there was nothing!" says Dimitri Yerasimos, known otherwise as Dimitri From Paris. "Jean Michel Jarre was more of a New Age thing, disco was dead… there was no club culture. The first time we heard house music was around 1986 or '87 – the early American stuff, or Bomb The Bass and S'Express from the UK. That was what influenced Daft Punk and the early French scene." The man spearheading France's house revolution was the young Dimitri.
Credited as the first DJ to play house music on French radio, he soon established a reputation as a talented producer and remixer before finally releasing his own debut album – the silky smooth, retro jazz flavoured Sacrebleu – in 1996. "Releasing my own stuff has always been a big thrill for me," says Dimitri, "but I get just as excited about remixing a 40-year-old disco classic. With the latest single, Erodiscotique [a co-production with DJ Rocca on Germany's Gomma label], I tried to combine the two. I wanted it to sound fresh, but I still kept some of that great 70s disco feel." Alongside the new single there is a seemingly endless string of DJ dates. We managed to grab the man with the coolest moustache in clubland somewhere between shows in the US, Europe and his second home, Tokyo.
"I had this huge collection of records, and I thought, 'Maybe my records can start paying me back.'"
When did you first start DJing?
"I don't really know because right at the beginning, I never considered myself a DJ. I used to call myself a remixer. I was just a kid… I had never actually done a remix and didn't have the first idea of how you would remix a record, but that was my dream. "From the late 70s, I was obsessed with vinyl, and I was really attracted to the new 12-inch mixes that were being released. I was intrigued by the idea of having this one song, but then making something new with that same piece of music – the different arrangements, the different beats, the different sounds.
"The only reason I started DJing was because I needed to make some money. I had this huge collection of records, and I thought, 'Maybe my records can start paying me back.' It was only after I got into the DJ world that I realised most of the people that remixed records were actually DJs themselves! People like François Kevorkian – he was my first big inspiration."
"Recently, I've started using Traktor, too. It's a different style of mixing – you can be far more experimental with tempo and effects."
Did you have any studio equipment?
"Are you kidding?! I had a cassette machine! I did my earliest remixes by recording a bit of the record on to cassette, stopping the cassette, recording the next bit, stop, record, stop, record, stop and so on until I had my new song. As you can imagine, some of the edits were… a bit shit!
"The next step for me was when one of the other DJs invited me to a real studio. I asked him how to do a remix and he showed me his 24-track, reel-to-reel tape machine and a big mixing desk. He showed me how you could separate the drums and the bass, and how you could edit different sections together. No computers! It was all done by hand. Literally editing separate bits of music together to make a finished record.
"I was so excited! I invested in a little reel-to-reel machine and started making hundreds of my own remixes. I even sent some out to a few radio stations. Eventually, people started to recognise my name and I was invited to do a professional remix – a single by Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, who was huge in France in the mid 80s."
How did you get from royal European pop to your first album, Sacrebleu?
"After the Princess Stéphanie single, my remix career took off and I bought my first pieces of equipment: a Roland TR-505 and a Roland S-50 keyboard sampler with a very simple sequencer. By this time, I also had a radio show, and I was making jingles. The station had money, so they allowed me to buy a few other pieces, like an Akai S3200 sampler, MPC1000 and ASQ-10 sequencer.
"The Sacrebleu album was all done on the ASQ, with most of the sounds coming from the S3200, a Yamaha TX81Z synth and an E-MU Proteus."
"That was the strange thing: In the early days, I was completely allergic to computers. People were using the Atari, but I found it really clumsy compared to using a dedicated sequencer. The ASQ was my workhorse. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable with a computer.
"After I'd finished Sacrebleu, the radio station moved to a new studio and they asked me to get some new gear, but I still didn't get a computer. I was far more interested in a Studer 24-track tape machine and an SSL mixing desk. I knew about Pro Tools, but I couldn't see the need for a computer-based, multitrack editing system. I preferred the idea of a desk and tape machine, like they had in the old studios.
"It was only after I got fired from the radio station – I was doing too much moonlighting – that I finally got myself a cheap computer and the Digidesign Digi 001, which came with Pro Tools LE. But don't get too excited… I still didn't use it! I could work better with the sequencer – the timing seemed better, and it seemed more stable. Why should I change?
"Then, finally, about 2000, I was working with an engineer on my second album, Cruising Attitude, and he brought in a Pro Tools|HD setup with Beat Detective. That was the day my life changed! The next morning, I went out and got an HD setup with Beat Detective and never looked back. Finally, I could see why people made all that fuss about computers. The timing had always been a problem for me, but now I could get it to do the things I needed it do to."
Is that still your setup today?
"Pro Tools is still the main mixing platform – with Beat Detective – but a couple of years ago, I added Ableton Live. I love Pro Tools, but when you're working on a remix of an old disco song, you often have 24 tracks of floating music. You need to be able to get that as tight as possible, and nothing is tighter than Ableton.
"Once all the audio is tightened up, I import it into Pro Tools for mixing. As a mixing platform, I trust Pro Tools. Whether you're working on your own stuff or someone else's song, you want a platform that isn't going to imprint its own sound onto the music. Pro Tools is see-through; it doesn't colour the music. If you're working on a bassline from some 1950s jazz tune, you don't want colour; you just want a platform that'll do what you tell it.
"Remixing is often a very subtle art. You're adding little touches here and there… tightening the groove, adding a bit of extra swing. If your software is stamping all over the music, you lose that subtlety. Pro Tools always takes a back seat; it lets you do the driving.
"I've investigated a few other platforms, but Pro Tools is just such an excellent mixing tool."
"Oh, there is one other thing I should mention: the MPC1000! I never found it to be the best sequencer – there was always a lag when you switched between patterns – but the swing function is incredible: so fluid and funky. The beauty of Beat Detective, of course, is that you can control it from another source, like the MPC. Together, those two are unbeatable. We rely on technology so much these days, so it's nice to be
able to get a bit of that human feel. The MPC is a machine that acts like a human!"
You've mentioned Logic in past interviews. Do you use it at all now?
"I've investigated a few other platforms, but Pro Tools is just such an excellent mixing tool. As I said before, the only real complaint I have is that big chunks of audio can get a bit vague. I started to notice the timing would shift a bit and you'd have to spend hours getting the feel back. That's why I ended up getting Ableton.
"I thought Elastic Audio would cure it, and yes, Elastic Audio is fine with a few bars of music, but it still seems to struggle with, say, ten minutes of 24-track audio. Maybe I've not persevered enough, but it just doesn't work for me. With Ableton, you can just get straight to work. It never complains about the amount of audio."
Perhaps it's time to move up to Pro Tools 10?
I'm on 7.41, I think. I did move up to 8, but I didn't like it, so I went back. Yeah, I really should go for 10, but it's always such a hassle when you do that big switchover.
"Actually, I think I've just talked myself into it! I could upgrade my computers at the same time and do everything together. The main studio computer is a Mac Pro, one of the early Intel models. Not the Quad Core; just the Dual Core. It's doing the job I need, but it wouldn't hurt to get something a bit faster."
Do you travel with a computer?
"Always. I have a 15-inch MacBook Pro – the 2008 model. Again, you might say to me, 'Dimitri, it's time to upgrade,' but the main problem is that you can't replace the hard drive on the newer models. I replace mine every six months! I've had a few ugly drive crashes, so I like to keep it fresh."
We've not really talked about your mix albums yet. Presumably they were all done in the box?
"These days, yes, but some of the early albums were mixed live. De-Luxe House Of Funk was live. Playboy Mansion had a few computer edits, but it was basically a live mix."
So does that mean that you tried to stay live for as long as possible?
"Not really. Mixing an album 'live' wasn't a big thing for me – I wasn't making a political statement. On a mix album, you're not showing off your skills – it's all about the record selection.
The problem in the early days was that the technology wasn't up to the job. I did try mixing a few compilation albums with Pro Tools, but it took forever! These days, with Ableton… Well, it's really changed the whole game for me.
"Recently, I've started using Traktor, too. It's a different style of mixing – you can be far more experimental with tempo and effects. I think it will take me a while to get the best out of the software, but it will be worth it. I guess there's a steeper learning curve with Traktor because it offers so much more than just mixing between one song and the next.
"When I started DJing 30 years ago, the world saw a big distinction between being a DJ and being a musical artist. Technology has changed all that – it's brought all parts of the musical process closer together. But technology is now such a big part of music that it's easy to make your song sound like a giant plug-in, where you press one finger on the keyboard and let the software make all the decisions.
"For me, the real mark of great music is when you take the technology and make it work for you. The humans stay in control!"
What's on your turntable at home?
"Believe it or not, I don't listen to much music when I'm at home. I find listening to music such an intense experience that I can't do anything else at the same time. It's silly, I know, but I can't even walk down the street and listen to music. My mind focuses on the music and I stop walking!
"Two or three artists really grab my attention every year – the last one was probably Amy Winehouse. I loved her sound because the music felt timeless. Obviously, I'm a big fan of Mark Ronson, too – he's a genius at making something that has real soul but is still made in a modern way.
"I'm always interested to hear new sounds and styles, but I also think it's important not to get caught up in trends. Doing what I do, I get access to a huge amount of music. I hear dubstep and electro and… Well, if I suddenly became a dubstep DJ, people would say I was jumping on the bandwagon. And they'd be right! In music – and in life – it's important to follow what's in your heart. If you're honest and genuine, people will see that. If you're just making music because it's trendy, people will see through you straight away."