Photo: Christian Dammann
Jan Blomqvist Talks Playing Coachella, Berlin Techno & Covering The Rolling Stones
German singer/producer Jan Blomqvist makes ethereal house music with the intention not only to get people dancing, but also feeling and perhaps thinking. His latest album, 2018's Disconnected, which is inspired by his time spent at Burning Man, is based around the idea that in order to stay focused and healthy sometimes we need to remove all distractions.
Since November, he has been touring across Europe and the U.S. in support of the album, along with his live band on most dates. After he wraps up his second weekend playing Coachella, the band will join him for three dates in Mexico, after which they'll offer support to RÜFÜS DU SOL on several of their U.S. tour dates.
We caught up with Blomqvist from on the ground at Coachella 2019, not long after he played his one-man-show Sunday afternoon in the Yuma tent, the fest's well-loved house and techno stage.
You performed here at Coachella in the Yuma earlier today. How was it? How are you feeling?
Honestly, it was pretty difficult today because my moog was totally out of tune. If you know what a moog does, that's what they do. They just get out of tune and f*** you at the worst moment, and I tried to figure out and then I was so focused on retuning the synthesizer that I made so many mistakes on the right hand with the other instrument. It was really exhausting for me, but I think my friends here liked it, and the people in the audience which came later, were happy, so I'm happy as well, but a bit disappointed because I could have played better.
Did you realize it was out of tune when you started playing?
It was not out of tune in the beginning. This is the mystery about the moog. Nobody knows why they do it. You can use all other synthesizers, doesn't have this feature. I think they make it to sound more vintage, like in the '70s. And so that was my problem today, and I think I made it okay, but I'm looking very forward to next Sunday, to make it a 100% performance.
That's true, you have round two. Was it your first time performing at Coachella?
I've played at Do LaB before, but some people told me it doesn't count.
It definitely counts. When did you play at Do LaB?
I think so too. At night, two years ago. It was packed, like 600 people or something. It was cool.
So this was your first year on the main Coachella lineup. Well you have next weekend too, and at least no one knew that it was out of tune.
I hope so. I heard it immediately, and so, yeah, that's what I got stressed, and it's never good to be stressed on stage. That was my disappointing point of the day, but in the end it was still a good show, though, and it was a good energy. And as long as it's not totally failing, it always brings you further.
Have you been able to check out any other music at the fest? Is there anyone you're looking forward to seeing tonight?
You get smarter when you getting older, so next time I have one week free before Coachella, also before Burning Man and then I'll have time to check out stuff. This time I played three shows and was in four cities. Yeah, it was stupid. I was traveling five days a row. It doesn't make sense. If you do Coachella or any big festival then you should focus on that and the other gigs can wait, honestly.
And DJs are humans, too. They need to have fun, right?
Yeah, but officially not.
Who are your biggest musical influences? What kind of music did you grow up listening to and what are you listening to these days?
I grew up with vinyls, with Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger. I think that's normal in our generation. Our parents had vinyls and we just played them. I'm still a huge Bob Dylan fan. I don't like Rolling Stones as much anymore, but I like Mick Jagger's solo project. It's still pretty amazing. He's old and has so much energy. He's kind of an idol. If I'm 75, I want be like this. And later on, of course, I got into normal things like Blur, Radiohead, Nirvana, Björk. I went through all this rock, hip-hop things, and then I moved to Berlin, and suddenly I was totally a techno addict.
What year did you move to Berlin? Was it at the beginning of the techno scene there?
In 2002. Everything was there. It was just a bit more underground than now. All the clubs are really set up in Berlin right now are exactly the same age, 17 years.
Which club is your favorite? I know, it's a hotly debated topic.
It depends on the day, really. On Sundays in Berlin it's the best; Sunday evening in Berghain is amazing. Monday in Sisyphos, Sunday at Kater Blau, Wednesday at Watergate, and it also depends on who's playing.
Berghain can be really amazing but can also be a sh*t show, and I don't want to talk bad about any DJs, but sometimes, in my opinion, it's really good and sometimes it's really bad, but the club's unbelievable. I have never seen any comparable club in the world. It's like made of a Tarantino movie. You come there and you feel like you'll get bitten by a vampire. I've been there, I don't know, 100 times, and still when I'm coming there I'm still like, "What the f*** did you build here?"
Do you feel like it's the same as when you first moved there? What about the techno and house scene has shifted in Berlin as it's become more of a destination?
It's definitely shifted. In the beginning, it was minimal only. It was super hard for me to get gigs, and the clubs even told me like, "Yeah, your music is nice, but nobody wants to hear this piano sh*t."
It was more like trance kind of minimal?
No, it's just minimal. I mean, Richie Hawtin did it in a really good way, and there were many people that tried to copy him and failed totally, that makes it really boring.
Berlin is changing all the time. That's what I love in that city. Since 2010 the music is super open and you can play everything, and I like that. It was really hard for me, the years between 2002 and 2006 or 2007. It was like every club played exactly the same music for like five years, and I was like, "What the f*** did you do to your DJs?" DJs should be free, right?
Why do you think it was kind of like restricted like that, and what do you think made it change to more open again?
I have no idea. I ask myself this question still.
So were you just trying to do your own thing? Did it make you want make even more different music?
I tried to break this because I think musicians should be free and you should give them a chance and a stage and just to make them play and I try to convince other musicians to not do just only one kind of music. I mean, the city is big. I cannot imagine that for four million people, everybody wants to listen to the same music. It's bullsh*t.
So, I tried to work harder and to get the gigs, and then finally it worked. Nicolas Jaar came and he was, I think, 17, and then everybody was like, "Whoa, he's 17 and he plays such good music." And then suddenly everybody was like, "Oh, we want piano in the club. Oh, what about vocals?" And then suddenly everything worked, and now Berlin is pretty open-minded when it comes to music, it's generally an open-minded city, I think.
That is interesting how sometimes it's one group or one artist that does something kinda new, that other people have also been doing, but for whatever reason, they catch on.
I mean, [that] was the same with Kurt Cobain, right? Suddenly, he came and then it was suddenly called grunge and there was a completely new genre. It's always like this. Somebody has to open the door and then it works, but the music is there before, of course, it just needs some one character who opens it.
What is the message or vibe you generally try to share when you play your music live, in both your tapered down club setup or in the band-backed live setting?
I mean, in the end it's just all my tracks and the band's just performing my tracks, so it's kind of the same music. But with a band, we play with breaks in between and not so much focused on the transitions and playing slower tracks, like 100 BPM sometimes 110, way more vocals. When you have a real drum set on stage, with real cymbals, it creates a completely different vibe. And with the band we have six synthesizers on stage, I think, and when I play solo I just have one.
So if the one gets out of tune…
Yeah. [Laughs.] Actually, it never got out of tune doing the whole recent tour with the band. Maybe that's why my tuner wasn't working.
"Every human has the same desire of just dancing, laughing and having good music, and that's the point, you have to make them happy. That's your mission as a musician. It's a responsibility."
What's your main purpose when you perform?
I want to make people cry but then laugh at the same time, to give them an edgy feeling that makes them really melancholic but then give them a super positive bass and kick drum. Like a good movie with a happy ending.
And, of course, dancing is important and just being happy. I mean, that's what you need all over the world, doesn't matter where you are. Why are clubs existing? Why is electronic music so big? It's because every human has the same desire of just dancing, laughing and having good music, and that's the point, you have to make them happy. That's your mission as a musician. It's a responsibility. You cannot go onstage and tell them, "F*** you. I don't care." You really have the mission to make them happy, and that's the job.
Can you talk about the inspiration behind your last album, Disconnected? It feels like the songs all have a story behind those ethereal beats, and I'm especially curious about "Synth For The Devil," which takes from the Rolling Stones song.
I mean, this song just came to me. I was here, actually, around the corner, like 50 kilometers from here in the [RANCHO V in Pioneertown, Calif.] studio, recording two tracks for our Disconnected album. Then suddenly J [Bowman] was there and Felix [Lehmann, co-producer] and I and my studio company, all just working just for fun on the Rolling Stones thing, just as a break, to have some fun. And then Jay came in like, "Wow, this is the track. I'm the best solo player for this track in the world." I was like, "Okay. Can you play it?" And he played really the best [guitar] solo ever, not totally tight, but nice. And yeah ... And then the idea come up and, "Okay, let's record it." And then we send it to the label for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and they said "Yes."
Did they say they liked it?
Yeah, they liked it. And they answered in one day. We were like, "Okay. What the f***." Okay, then we do it. It's tough. I'm still not 100% convinced if this was a good idea or not because to cover tracks from these big characters is sometimes not a good idea, but when I play it live, it's fun. I think that's the most important thing.
And the Disconnected album. For me, it's important to have a concept album because then you have things you can talk about and that whole thing is more focused, and it's like you have a red line to follow. It's even easier to write lyrics, to write the music.
I was at Burning Man and asked myself, like, "Why are the people coming to this desert to make this huge festival just in an environment which is not easy. There's no water, no electricity, there's nothing. It's gets super hot in the day, super cold in the night. Why there?" And the only answer must be that people need to disconnect from their real life somehow, and the question is "Why is it so important to flee from your life?"
This whole album is about "why do we need to disconnect so much?" I think our generation suffers a lot from this virtual life that we're living in 50% already, and many people cannot even distinguish which is real, which is not, especially in Coachella. You can see so many people who think Instagram is more important than your real friends, and we have to question what our generation has to ask themselves like, "Where do we want to live in the next years and can we make it? How can we make it," and reflect yourself, "What can I do? Am I still real? Am I fake?"
And I don't want to give answers, I just want to give questions or lyrics to make people think, to reflect themselves. The album should be a mirror for the audience.