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Yann Tiersen: A Trip Down Dust Lane

Yann Tiersen is not the most French name in the world, but since the release of Amélie in 2001 it has been a household name across the Channel. Because lurking behind Jean-Pierre Jeunet's international cinematic success was an exemplary soundtrack penned by M. Tiersen, a notably French score that belies the writer's Belgian and Norwegian family background. His newer creations have made space for electric guitar and synths (previously overshadowed by piano, violin and accordion), giving him a wider palette to draw from. Dust Lane hit shelves in October following Tiersen's signing with Mute, and the man has been over here touring the new material. I spoke to him about his new direction (sorry, "evolution"), writing for film and life on an independent label.

What were the inspirations and themes for the new record?

There were no particular inspirations, but it was a long process. My previous tour ended up lasting ages and I got the idea to record a non-instrumental album with vocals on every track. While working on it, I was mostly focusing on choirs, backing vocals and harmony, instead of lead vocals. It was more like instrumental tracks with vocals added.

What brought you to the more vintage sound of the album?

I've always been a huge fan of vintage synths. I don't know why I'd never used one on record, but after a day in the studio recording Dust Lane I was playing around with them, trying to find new sounds. Naturally, those sounds crept into the final product and instruments like the mellotron are quite important to the overall sound of the album.

What prompted your move to more electronic sounds?

There were some electronic elements on the previous album, but more old-fashioned, like the ondes Martenot. For me, it's not really a new direction but more of an evolution. I like the idea of slowly exploring new sounds and integrating them.

Have you felt limited by electronic instruments at all?

No, because I think each synth should be treated like a traditional instrument with its own personality and character.

You've been adapting older tracks for the new tour as well, haven't you?

I've always done that, because I hate when musicians play songs exactly as they are on the album. I think if you do that there isn't much point in doing gigs. The songs are finished when a record is done, so the stage is an opportunity to bring them alive again with new ideas and alternate arrangements.

Do you do that even on tracks from the new album?

Not every gig, of course, but yeah. Particularly if we have a break during a tour, we always add new bits and create different versions.

What is your earliest musical memory?

I think my first memory of music was a performance in Brittany. I don't know what, but some time in the 70s. I just remember bright lights and being really impressed. It was a bit strange.

You have quite a classical music background...

No, that's not true. It's true in a way, but I only went to music school from the age of six to 12. I quit after that. So I have been playing since I was young...

So you see it more as having taught yourself?

Yeah, I think so. The idea I have a classical background is completely wrong. A lot of people in France go to music school when they are young. What had more of an effect was growing up in Rennes in Brittany and going to the annual Trans Musicales festival, because I had the opportunity to see a lot of bands. That was always much more important for me than studying music.

You are probably best known in the UK for writing the Amelie soundtrack. Did you keep the narrative of the film in mind when scoring the music?

No, because most of it is excerpts from my first albums. I'm really bad at writing pieces specifically for soundtracks. I don't think my style of making music fits with film.

How does it differ from making a normal album?

The only real limitation is the length of a track, but I don't work any differently. It's very abstract. It's just sounds, and sounds mean nothing. You can't express something that you interpret from a screen. It's pointless because it's not a language, so you can't articulate something specific. That mystery is what is beautiful about music.

Do you have any plans to do more soundtracks in the future?

Maybe or maybe not. I don't know...[laughs]

How do you approach composition? Is it different every time or do you have a method?

It's very simple and instinctive. I find ideas on the guitar and press record. Then I create overdubs and see what happens. I never compose on the violin. Once in 15 years, I think. Piano is so complex that I sometimes don't feel free playing it, so I never really compose on the piano either.

Which contemporary musicians do you draw most inspiration from?

I really like Animal Collective, Battles, These New Puritans, Low.

Would you like to work with any of those artists?

I believe in human relationships, and I don't think you can have a plan to work with someone if you don't know him or her personally. Sometimes you recognise something personal in someone's music and you think that maybe you have something to share, but that is really an illusion.

Does working with a band change the way you perform live?

Working alone and working with other people are two completely different things. I like to be in the studio alone and discover new ideas, but working with a band is the opposite of that, really.

Did you write the whole album? Or did you adapt your original pieces with contributions from the band?

No, I did everything by myself, apart from the choirs (obviously) and drums. This is your first album on Mute. How did you end up signed with them? I finished Dust Lane over a year ago now - not last summer but the summer before - and I was searching for a new label with people I could trust and talk to about music. I spent quite a lot of time looking, and Mute was the first and last I came to. I'm really a big fan of the label, so it's great to be signed with them.

Is it important for you to be working with smaller, independently-minded people like that?

Of course. Most of the time, working with major companies is a waste of time and money. I started with a small label before I signed with the Labels imprint, who were part of Virgin but had quite an indie approach, like Mute at the time. After a while they became more and more a part of EMI, so I ended up with EMI France and it was really bad. Not because of the people, but because they had too much work to do, which for me is the problem with major labels; too much of a business.

What importance do you place on touring?

I've always toured a lot and I really enjoy it. Recording an album is exciting but it is a lot of work. I quite like the rhythm of staying at home for two years to write an album, then taking it on tour to bring it to life. For me it's a bit like a holiday.

So you don't feel a pressure to tour in order to put food on the table?

Not at all. Last year I did almost 100 gigs. I love it. )

Next article in issue 33

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