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Nicolas Jaar: Bleary, Spectral, Alien

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]

Trying to describe Nicolas Jaar's music yields only doughnuts, a string of zeroes, an increasingly round-a-bout dance of adjectives and antecedents. It is dance music inflected with Ethiopian jazz, Chilean techno, '90s trip-hop, and American experimental minimalism. It's full of samples that you can't quite put your finger on.

A few years ago, Jaar began making music that mastered the use of negative space. In a culture increasingly prone to pornographic detonations in electronic music, Jaar seems more alien than anachronism. Before he was old enough to legally sip Rioja, his style emerged fully formed: immensely patient, subtly psychedelic, bleary and spectral.

The 23 year-old briefly amused himself by telling journalists that he made "blue wave," until they started to run with it. "Now, I just tell everyone I make nut-house," Jaar jokes by phone from a crowded restaurant in New York City. "I'm so tired of talking about it. Before everyone focused on how I made slower music, but now I'm interested in the craziest and weirdest music possible."

New York has always been home, save for six years in Chile (birthplace of his father, artist Alfredo Jaar), and four studying comparative literature at Brown. The former lent him a slight Latin accent. The latter offered an intellectual center to offset the rising international acclaim. By the time he graduated last May, he'd already made the 2011 album of the year (as decreed by dance music bible, Resident Advisor) and played festivals across the globe.

This Saturday, Jaar co-headlines the three-day Lightning in the Bottle Festival in Temecula. "I'm really interested in origins -- how when you sample or quote something the meaning changes," Jaar says.

At Brown, his thesis focused on a comparison of William Faulkner's tale of Southern decay, Absalom Absalom and French deconstructionist godfather Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx. If there's a way to capture the ghostliness of his music, it might be from Faulkner's invocation of a voice "not ceasing but vanishing...out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand...a voice haunted where a more fortunate one would have a house."

Jaar maintains that none of these bigger ideas consciously factor into the songwriting. "Making music is more about improvisation for me," Jaar says. "The inspirations usually come from different aspects of life that are bigger than music. It could be about how good of a day I had with someone."

His latest muse came accidentally. He and his frequent musical collaborator Dave Harrington opted to remix the new Daft Punk record after an initial disagreement over the merits of single, "Get Lucky."

"When I don't love things that other people do, I want to understand why they like them," Jaar says. "[Harrington] said his favorite part was Nile Rodger's guitar riff, so we looped it in Ableton and starting playing around with the chords."

Two weeks later, they had re-arranged the entire album -- siphoning it of its cheesier moments and turning its high points into funky ectoplasmic disco. For someone whose sound exists entirely outside of popular caprice, it was a surprising move. But if there's a pattern running through Jaar's already estimable body of work, it's a willingness to sample anything and always subvert expectations.

"I want people to see things that aren't there and to have a psychedelic experience with the music...to trust it and take the time to listen to the whole thing," Jaar says. "It should pierce through your head at a weird diagonal. I want to create a sense of surprise, trust, and magic -- as though you weren't expecting any of this at all."

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