Philippe Zdar, king of the studio
Speed metal to electro pop
He may have pioneered the French Touch for the bands Funk Mob, Motorbass and Cassius, but Philippe Zdar’s first love is the studio. His own, located on the fringes of Montmartre in Paris, has welcomed the likes of Phoenix, The Rapture and Cat Power. We met up with him in his den.
His thoughts on music? "For a long time, I was against it. My big sister used to buy masses of records and I thought she was ridiculous. I told her I’d never buy a record in my life. Now I never stop," explains the producer and musician. The overflowing shelves in his Parisian recording studio bear witness.
Philippe Zdar’s passion for studios predates his music, which sprung up as if by magic. The son of hotel owners in Aix-les-Bains in the Savoie region, Philippe Cerboneschi’s childhood had some promising musical ingredients, like an older sister mad about Neil Young, Traffic, Pink Floyd and Genesis, and a musician father who built his own hi-fi systems. When he was about fourteen, he tried out drums then singing with a group of schoolmates. That was in the early eighties. Their love of AC/DC and Metallica encouraged the group to move into speed metal.
On a visit to Aix-les-Bains, Michael Jones, guitarist for Jean-Jacques Goldman, invited Philippe to come and see his recording studio in Toulouse. It was love at first sight. "Ever since I’d seen a photo of the Eurythmics in the Studios de la Grande Armée, my dream had been to get into a Parisian recording studio. When I visited Toulouse, I didn’t get it: I’d expected old men in white coats, but they were all young with long hair, smoking joints."
Michael Jones then invited him to come and see the famous Marcadet studio in Paris. Philippe Zdar never left. The following day he met Dominique Blanc-Francard, who hired him as an assistant. His job was to empty ashtrays and serve tea and coffee to Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, Étienne Daho, Sade and Prince. Most of the hits of the time were recorded in the studio located in northern Paris.
After working as an intern for almost a year, Philippe was taken on at Studio Plus Trente as a sound engineer. Dominique Blanc-Francard introduced him to his son, Hubert, alias Boombass. "We became brothers in a few seconds, we laughed at all the same jokes. It felt like we’d lived the same life. One day, I was mixing the track Bouge de là with MC Solaar and I called Hubert, who brought along a few sounds and we made a kind of team. But I wasn’t making any music back then."
The pair created a few instrumentals under the name of Funk Mob for MC Solaar, and got noticed by the UK label, Mo’Wax for which they composed a few maxis. But it was under the name of Motorbass, with Étienne de Crécy, who was working as an assistant at Plus Trente, that Philippe finally started to make music. The two friends came back high from a rave party in December 1991 and got down to composing some techno.
"It was one of the biggest shocks of my life. The next morning, all we could talk about was techno, then we asked Hubert to explain to us how a sampler worked, and in a couple of days I was composing my first track. We were living together near Montmartre and composing tracks on the same computer, with me working at night and him during the day. It was Étienne who hit on the name Motorbass – a reference to our passion for Detroit and bass. We published two maxis that I went to London to tout to the record shops. Étienne then fell in love with the woman of his life, Marie, and Motorbass took a bit of a dive. Our only album, Pansoul, which was ready in 1994, wasn’t released until a year later." Recognition was slow too: the album format was a fairly new thing in electronic music (after The Orb and LFO), and their brand of celestial, dark house music was hard to classify and often excluded from the dance floor. Pansoul nevertheless made it to become a classic.
Boombass and Zdar started out calling themselves L’Homme qui valait trois milliards (the three billion dollar man) and released Foxy Lady, then renamed themselves Cassius (a tribute to the boxer Cassius Clay). In 1998, just as the French Touch was hitting the scene with Daft Punk and Air, the twosome signed a contract with the multinational Virgin label and the following year released their first album, 1999. Moving from filtered electro to pop then rock, Cassius changed style with each new production.
At the same time, Philippe Zdar was still working as a sound engineer. He mixed albums for Phoenix, Sébastien Tellier, Chromeo and Tiga. After working on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Philippe opened up the studio of his dreams in the Rue des Martyrs in Paris, after nine years of building work. "It’s a really beautiful, very linear studio built with a lot of attention to detail, but it’s also a bit uncomfortable so that people feel ready to get down to work. Artists come to me for my analogue side, the big kicks and strong bass." Following Housse de Racket and The Rapture, Cat Power are currently recording in Philippe Zdar’s den. He then plans to shut himself up inside with Boombass and get down to the next Cassius album.
Translation: Anne-Marie Harper