Vogue – 04 mars 2017
Meet Prada’s Music Man—And Hear His Fantastical Playlist for Vogue
by FERNANDO DIAS DE SOUZA
When I saw Frédéric Sanchez’s working files for the music for a Prada show, I understood the beauty and complexity of his craft: endless sound pieces, masterfully layered, finding harmony in chaos.
You might be familiar with his work. In addition to sound installations, music production, and artistic collaborations, Sanchez has been the sonic illustrator behind the sound of Prada, Christian Dior, Miu Miu, Comme des Garçons, and many other great brands. His approach to work is completely artistic: composing sound sequences from scratch.
We spoke to the French artist about his approach to work, his relationship with sound, and his exclusively curated Vogue playlist, which he titled “Musée Imaginaire.”
Hello Frédéric, can you talk a little bit about the “Musée Imaginaire” playlist you made for us?
Hello! This playlist is almost autobiographical; in a way, all these pieces of music really represent my taste. There are some artists who are very important to me, like the first track with Robert Wyatt, the drummer of Soft Machine, he did a few records that are so interesting and collaborations with a few musicians from jazz, rock, to experimental and other things. And it’s true that from these people, I learned very young, I learned a lot about music, but it’s where all my culture comes from. Also books, theater, opera, you know what I mean? I’ve been myself through these artists. Sound is very important for me because I express myself through sound.
The first track comes from Brian Eno’s record label in the ’70s called Obscure Records. All the Obscure Records covers are black, very beautiful, like video stills of buildings. They did a few very interesting records. There’s about 15 of them, including one with a John Cage piece of Robert Wyatt singing a cappella and another with an English composer called Gavin Bryars who worked on a piece called “The Sinking of the Titanic.” It’s a 27-minute piece that is very, very beautiful. I really like the John Cale piece, the speaking part where a woman talks about what you hear on the radio, at the beginning. The radio was very important to me when I was younger.
I also put this piece in my playlist called “Memories” with Whitney Houston, by a band called Material. They were incredible musicians. That was really the beginning of hip-hop, in the early ’80s with people like Grandmaster Flash. It was very related to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. There’s this incredible jazz musician called Archie Shepp in the track, and what is interesting is that I think it’s one of the first recordings of Whitney Houston—and this song was written by Robert Wyatt. It’s all kind of connected. The song after, “Torture” by Kris Jensen, was in Scorpio Rising, a movie by Kenneth Anger. It’s an incredible film, almost like video art, using all this music from the ’50s and ’60s.
Listen to a preview of Sanchez’s playlist here.
How does something like books or even opera come into play in your work?
Opera has been very important to me since I was young. I had an aesthetic shock that was very important, that comes from theater. For example, at the end of the ’70s, there’s a German tango piece in the playlist from Juan Llossas. This piece, for example, comes from a Pina Bausch ballet. This is very important. At the end of the ’70s, I saw a Kurt Weill opera and I remember I saw this piece near my studio. The set there was neon lights, and the musicians came from the Krautrock universe. I think they were musicians from a German band called Ash Ra Tempel. It was synthesizer. That made me interested in, of course, German music, but also in old German music like Kurt Weill or Richard Wagner, and also in Bertolt Brecht plays. So from one thing . . . it’s what you call in French arborescence, suddenly it becomes sort of like a spider and your mind is going to different worlds. This is how I base my work, and this was very important for the work I started after. You know, in fashion a lot of people work with mood boards, images they put on a wall. And so the first time that I started working with a fashion designer, I already knew this language. I had no idea about fashion when I started working with fashion; I was more into music. When I was 14, 15, I was very influenced by the avant-garde, Pina Bausch, like I said. I think that when I started working with Martin Margiela at the end of the ’80s, his language and his way of working, I knew it instinctively, so suddenly I wanted to push further in that direction. His way of manipulating images was my work; I was manipulating sound images. That’s why I’m telling you that all these pieces I chose represent my work; they are a little bit like my mood board.
Talking about mood boards, when I saw the software you use to compose the tracks, and there was a working file on-screen, it was amazing to see the number of sound layers you use.
Yes, that’s the way I work. Usually when I start a project, it comes from images, it can be film, it can be from theater or opera, it can be photos, or even images I take myself. When I compose my own music, it always comes from images that I create. If you go to my website, all images on the homepage are mine. I call this composition “Film Sonore.” There’s a very fine line between sound and images for me; for me it’s exactly the same.
Since the beginning of my interest in music, album covers were very important. There are lots of artists that I discovered through the covers alone. Sometimes I was so fascinated by the artwork. I remember a band called Japan, there was an album called Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and the other one was Tin Drum, that was very influenced by Japanese aesthetic—I love those covers. It’s also how I discovered fashion because when I saw, for example, someone like Peter Saville was doing the covers for the Factory records like Joy Division and all that, and also in the ’80s doing Yohji Yamamoto catalogues. I was very interested in fashion because of this. So my interest in all of this comes from image.
When did you start your work with fashion?
I started when I stopped school; I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I had the opportunity to meet two designers who were very important to me, Martine Sitbon and Martin Margiela. During their first shows, it was sort of a collaborative work, and there was a big research process. For example, for Margiela’s first show, I really did what best represents my work. In a way, I was not mixing the music because at the time I didn’t consider my work the one of a musician or a producer; the approach was almost of editing cinema. So many of my first soundtracks were made with cuts, taking track one after the other. There were maybe 20 different pieces of music that were taped in a very raw way, in a way not very well done. I like the fact that if a record was scratching, I would leave the scratch sound; if it was not loud enough, I would put everything to the maximum volume. With Martin, the format of fashion shows changed; shows suddenly became more like performances, so I created soundtracks that went with this idea, continuous soundtracks that told a story from beginning to end. Later, I pushed this idea further with Marc Jacobs. We were using just one piece of music per show, which was very much “What you show is one idea,” very precise. I remember for his third show, we did the entire show with a record from Elastica when it came out, and then later we started to work with one piece of music. When we found the right piece, Marc was playing it over and over in the studio, like an obsession.
This repetition, the droning sound, is very much the Krautrock you mentioned before.
Yes, and all that I’m telling you at the moment, I did it naturally and then after, I discovered that people actually worked that way. For example, someone like Terry Riley, who’s so important, he was doing this thing with two tape recorders, which is called “Time Lag Accumulator.” He recorded a delay and the delay never stopped. This type of process of making music also influenced artists like Brian Eno, Robert Fripp; they used this idea of how to work with the delay. Now you can buy this little device, the Buddha Machine, which are loops. It plays loops. They just did one with Philip Glass. I’ve also been very influenced by American minimalist artists like Charles Ives, for example. There’s this piece called “The Unanswered Question,” it’s used in a Scorsese movie, I think Shutter Island. This piece for me is one of the basis of minimalist music. Then there’s another composer called Morton Feldman. In France, we have Erik Satie, he is very important to what I call “furniture music,” music that creates an environment, like how sound creates architecture in the architecture.
During Fashion Week, you must normally have a lot of work. When does it normally start for you?
When I started, it was kind of long, the process, and now it has become very last minute. At the moment, it’s all changing. I try to work with more time in advance, because I really want to feel this sort of creative process again. If you work too much last minute, it’s not relevant enough. There are also many things that have changed, for example, for a brand like Prada, I do the music for the show, but I also compose for the Internet, so it’s like I’m doing both things at the same time, and it takes me longer to compose the music for the website than to do the soundtrack of the show. I prefer to do many things for one designer and to do research all the time. There are so many things online that to create something new, it’s much trickier. There’s too much of everything and you can feel a little lost. So I think, in a way, starting earlier, talking a lot, it’s very important for me to communicate in order to create things.
In the most recent Dior Homme show, the music sounds like hard techno, but I don’t know if you would label it like that . . .
There were many elements. There was a sort of New Wave element. Kris Van Assche showed me this artist called Dan Witz, who made very beautiful photographs of people like they are in a rave; they are almost like 19th-century paintings. So there were these two elements, something quite classic and something quite punk, rave, that kind of thing. You feel that again in these photographs. The music was inspired by a rave, very electronic, with sounds of New Wave, but there was also a ceremonial feeling, so I picked this piece, from Depeche Mode, “Black Celebration.” We decided that if you go to a rave, it’s like going to a celebration of something, the same sort of feeling. There’s something religious about it. It’s the second time I worked with Kris Van Assche and I have developed the idea with him that the music could travel in the space where the show happens, meaning it plays in different speakers. The final result was very much like a sound installation, like a sort of kaleidoscope of sound. This one, for example, I worked on very far in advance. We started talking about it in November because after working in the music, there was the work of the sound in the space. It comes from my personal work; I do a lot of sound installations, sometimes with 50 speakers in a space.
When you are in the process of developing a soundtrack, do you listen to a lot of music or is it all in your head and you work from there?
I listen to a lot of music, of course. I also listen to everything new that comes out, but also, I go through things that I have in my head. What is important is that I compose music, too, so the moment that I start researching for my personal work, new ideas come in my mind. That’s why I don’t have one genre of music I draw from; I look into everything. It can come from jazz, punk, super-avant-garde things. I love strange, old folk music . . . it can be anything.
Is there anything particularly interesting to you happening in music in France?
The most interesting thing to me are people who mix influences, you know? I see that with a lot of young people. It’s interesting also the way people mix the digital processes of making music with analog, synthesizers and computers, but also old instruments. In my music sometimes I use old instruments, old synthesizers, but also music plug-ins.
What are you working on currently?
At the moment I’m working on the shows, and I have a few projects for after. But I can’t really talk about them; they are very much music-oriented. My head right now is very much into fashion.
Was going toward fashion a conscious decision?
It really happened by coincidence, but also, as I was saying before, when I was younger, I became interested in fashion because of music and the graphics of an artist like Saville. I remember in the mid-’80s there were dance companies, for example, in England there was Michael Clark who was working with a group of fashion designers called BodyMap. There are a few interesting videos on the Internet, where they were using a punk band called The Fall; I put them in my playlist. Then I used this piece in a Marc Jacobs show, maybe three or four years ago, because of this influence by Michael Clark. That’s what I was saying, in every track on this playlist I created, there’s a story. There’s a beautiful piece in there by Chet Baker that I really like; we used it in a Miu Miu show about a year ago.
You spoke earlier about the radio being important; is that how you normally listen to music?
No, it’s just that my grandfather couldn’t go back to Spain, so he would listen to Spanish radio in Paris. It was this ability that with sounds you can be in two places at the same time.
What is your main source of music now? Do you own a lot of records or use digital streaming services?
I have and use everything, not only music, but film, sounds, voices. I do recordings, I look on YouTube—anything that is sound, I’m open to it.
Do you compose more music than you mix?
My work has this evolution through the years: First cutting music very roughly, then composing it, then working with real instruments. I don’t see a border between the composing and mixing. One fits the other and it’s very important. For example, for Miu Miu, I did one soundtrack with people talking in films, with almost no music. There was another one for Margiela that had a piece from Sonic Youth’s “Providence,” which I was obsessed with at the time because it had the sounds of people screaming at concerts, so I did a collage of moments in which you hear the public screaming and clapping. The Margiela soundtrack was just this, with almost no music.
Do you have clients you always work with, or does it change every season?
They are the same: I’ve been working with Prada for years, Dior, Marni, Lanvin with Bouchra [Jarrar], because I have a long relationship with her. I just did Craig Green, in London, and I’m going to work with Erdem. So there are new designers, older houses, all different. Self-Portrait, Narciso Rodriguez, I think it’s very important to build a story with someone. I’m very happy because it’s what I’ve achieved these years. I have a long history with people and I like the idea of when you go to a show and people say it sounds like something. It’s like creating a perfume and the memories that it brings. I want the work to be timeless. It’s very important for me not to be considered a DJ, but more like a creator of stories where the narrative is very important. If you look at the video of a show from 10 years ago, it’s still very relevant. I’ve been thinking recently of how important the work of Margiela and Jil Sander is. The few shows I’ve done with Helmut Lang were interesting, too. It’s interesting when it’s super creative, like what I do with Comme des Garçons. It’s fashion but there might be an anti-fashion sort of element. Incredible people, they last a long time, like the work of John Galliano or McQueen or Miuccia Prada. I love the work of Anna Sui, how she manipulates images, and how she creates her own world. You should see her studio.
Today, I can consider myself a musician, but in the beginning, I didn’t. That’s why I adopted this label “sound illustrator.” For me, it was very poetic. It reminds me of the ’50s when Orson Welles did this radio program, La Guerre des Mondes—I don’t remember in English—and he was telling this story over sounds on the radio. There was still this idea of narrative. My work has evolved over the years, and I started doing more musical compositions, but still . . . maybe we have to create a new term. Because I don’t see a difference between sound and images.