Yann Tiersen is a man of many guises. On the one hand he is an acclaimed composer and multi-instrumentalist, on the other he is a rock star most comfortable wielding a violin against a backdrop of mood lighting and rich, atmospheric experimental pop. The soundtrack work with which he is best known is a double-edged sword that may not have wounded Yann, but certainly shaped his career. After all, his soundtracks for Amelie and Goodbye Lenin exposed Yann to a huge new audience and fanbase, yet as he explains there is always the risk of typecasting. This wouldn't have been such a shame had his 6 studio albums not been such masterpieces in themselves.
I caught up with him before his standout set at Latitude Festival. Yann was much as I had imagined, exuding effortless, French cool whilst being refreshingly modest about himself and his music.
I’d like to start by talking about your background, how do you think your French upbringing affected your music?
Well I grew up in Brittany and that is my country and it’s really different [to France]. It’s got a strong counterculture and it’s close to Britain. I was lucky because I grew up in Lorient and there is the huge festival ‘Transmusicales’ nearby, it’s always really good and it was great to experience 4 or 5 great bands a night.
Did this early experience of Transmusicales inspire you to play music?
I enjoyed the festival and it was my cultural background. I got the chance to see great bands like Nirvana and Nick Cave, it was really exciting.
So clearly you list watching American and English bands, did you listen to much French music?
No, I don’t know a lot about French music, other than (Serge) Gainsbourg like everyone. I tried writing songs in French but it’s a strange language. It can be complicated sometimes; for example we were in Sofia, Bulgaria and there was an Aristotle quote in a hotel, it was 2 lines in English and German and 6 lines in French, so it’s not really easy to write songs in French, it looses focus and it’s not for me.
I’ve noticed in recent albums a shift away from a more typical classical influence especially in terms of instrumentation and structure, has this been a conscious shift away from a classical background?
I don’t really have a classical background; I played Violin from the ages of 6 – 12 but it’s not that long and like lots of kids do. It was the 80s and we were basically making a lot of noise. Following the splitting up of my band I began doing music on my own using samplers and orchestral sounds like strings.
So maybe there is a slight classical influence there?
No no, it was really new to me. Of course I like some classical music, especially contemporary composers of the 20th century, but after the 80s and the dominance of synths (which I love now) I began to sample acoustic and orchestral sounds which was really exciting and new to me. After a while, I would spend hours in front of my keyboard listening to lots of vinyl trying to sample sounds. It was then that I decided to sample acoustic instruments, it was exotic to me and I realised I had the chance to play violin.
You’re well known for being a multi-instrumentalist as well as performing under your own name, how does your songwriting reflect this, and to what extent do you work with other musicians?
In the studio I work mostly on my own, other than collaborating with vocalists. I am not a composer and it’s not the way I work. I try to find ideas, record them and play around with them; I have lots of fun like that especially more than sitting in front of a piece of paper. Of course I can do that afterwards with strings (and I love strings) but it’s more of a question of playing with sounds, experimenting and having fun.
What instrument do you typically write on then?
Guitar. I used to write on piano but I think it is too complex. It’s not really easy for me to try and find ideas on the piano because there are so many possibilities. I prefer playing guitar and synth.
How has doing the soundtrack to Amelie shaped your career, and has it been a positive one?
Most of the time it is a misunderstanding, I did not make the music for the soundtrack, well except for two songs, the director chose my music. I did nothing actually, it was just that the director loved the songs which is good. Lots of bands do more soundtracks than I did, so it feels strange to be seen as a soundtrack composer. It’s an exercise that I don’t really like, I like to be free and having fun. For me it’s almost impossible to make music watching images, well other than being stoned or completely drunk.
So no plans for more soundtracks then?
Well I do actually! It’s for a Mexican movie, but it will be mainly just playing synth. I did Goodbye Lenin and a French documentary and that was it. It’s really good that someone wants me to be involved in a movie, so why say no? For me I always have to find a challenge and it’s always more of an occasion to make an album.
Speaking of which your new album Skyline does seem to have a shift to a more ambient, reverberant sound, was this an intentional decision?
I really like to use sound fx as an instrument; I used it in the studio when recording vocals in particular. I was definitely excited about it at the time and I enjoyed to focus on the sounds themselves. The album was mixed by Ken Thomas who had a big influence on the sound, he really understood my music which was great.
So you’ve been invited to play at the Jeff Mangum ATP festival, how did this come about?
I don’t know! We’ve played two ATP festivals before one curated by Dirty Three and another curated by The Breeders, but I’m really happy because I love Neutral Milk Hotel.
If you were asked to curate an ATP festival whom would you choose to play – and the answer can be past or present?
(After some thought) Neu, Can, Silver Apples, Tune-yards, My Bloody Valentine, well they already did one but nevermind.