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Jarreau Vandal Is More Than a Pop Star Remix Mastermind

We chatted genre, "Soundcloud DJ" stigma and club culture on a day out graffiti tagging with the Dutch producer.

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Jul 13 2018, 10:00am

All photos by the author

It's a Saturday afternoon and producer and DJ Jarreau Vandal is scoping out the deteriorating exterior of a soon-to-be-demolished car garage. “Have you ever jumped over a fence?” he asks, driving up. He's driven me all the way to Bijlmer, the Amsterdam neighbourhood he grew up in, so we can paint graffiti together. He gravitated towards spray-painting his city's walls as a teen because it felt like a vessel for public creativity. And in a sense, that's what his music has become ever since.

Born and raised in The Netherlands, 26-year-old Jarreau has been producing since he was a teenager, after his grandfather – still to this day a Dutch folk music producer – taught him the basics of audio production software Logic. Throughout high school in Amsterdam, his father’s jazz record collection made more of an impact than artists getting mainstream radio play. At the same time, Jarreau came of age in clubs that championed equality, freedom and nonconformity, which gives him a rare perspective on the inclusive potential of club music, worldwide. And so he encapsulates those ideas, as well as the idiosyncrasies of his hometown’s music scene with his upcoming mixtape, Anthology.

Up to this point, fans have known Jarreau as an eclectic producer and exceptional DJ. More casual listeners would probably have heard some of his many remixes: of Dua Lipa, G-EAZY, Diplo and Trippie Redd, MNEK, Rihanna and more. But with one foot in the club, creating high energy, beats-led music, he’s stepping out of his comfort zone for a more eclectic selection of songs on Anthology (due out in September). It’s is a highly personal project that leans into Jarreau’s ability to blend together various sounds, incorporating elements of soul, hip-hop and funk. As we speak, he expresses a sentiment of moving past genres. And as a day-one music obsessive, he knows exactly how to tread the line between amplifying culture and protecting what’s so special about it. He spoke while multitasking, sipping from a can of beer with one hand while spray-painting with the other.

Noisey: I’m assuming you were a naughty kid growing up?
Jarreau Vandal: I haven’t done anything too bad; it’s just that if I like something and it’s not allowed, I’m going to do it anyway. It’s not that I do it just because it’s illegal… although that does give a rush too.

And graffiti fell into that category… what about it appeals to you?
I’ve been doing it since I was about 12. I’m not great at it, but it just calms me down a lot. I get to be creative without having to be seated at a chair. It’s so satisfying to fill in outlines of letters, there’s something about it that allows me to block out all the other thoughts rushing through my head. I don’t have to think about shit when I’m painting, so I just feel really present in the moment. I love the idea of how something anonymous can be so disruptive and political.

Producing doesn’t make you feel that way?
To an extent, but there’s also more pressure to be good at it, because it’s what I do for a living. When I first started producing it was very freeing, I just messed around and experimented with a bunch of things on Logic. Then I learned how to DJ and put a lot of effort into it because the level of skill in Amsterdam is so high. I genuinely enjoy it, but it requires a lot more focus and intention than spray-painting.

Do you have a preference between producing and DJing?
Nah, they go hand in hand, although they’re definitely not the same. Last month I had a gig at Open Air, it was the first big festival that I was performing at again after a long time of producing and finishing this project. Tell me why I had a fucking panic attack. That had never happened to me before in my life, ever. It was just because I was home for such a long time and in this mindset of creating, and then all of a sudden I had to perform in front of this huge crowd of people, I was playing after this big artist and people were just asking me all these questions… it was a lot. I did the show and everything was fine but that transition was crazy. I still do love DJing for sure; they’re just very distinctive crafts and require very different parts of you as an artist.

You’ve also produced for other artists before. How does that compare to producing for your own projects, having to create a certain sound that they’re looking for instead of what you feel like making?
I prefer that actually, because I can still relate to it, you know? And you can learn a lot from it. I think that also what a certain level of professionalism requires. Sometimes you gotta do some shit you don’t like because it’ll make you appreciate it more when you do shit that you do like.

Your upcoming mixtape is dropping soon. Are you apprehensive at all about it’ll be received by the public?
Not at all. The people who like it, like it. If they don’t, they don’t. I just stay true to what I like, you know? It’s very versatile and on some songs I went a bit out of my comfort zone, I made tracks that are more in the pop realm. Unfortunately there’s still a bit of that “Soundcloud producer” stigma that I want to get rid of. I hate it, the whole “I’m a beatmaker” label that people attach to you just because that’s the platform that you started putting music out on originally. I want to make timeless music.

You incorporate a lot of live instruments on this project. What was the philosophy behind that choice?
I think my music tends to be quite electronic and that’s what people know me for, but it also comes from a very real place so I wanted to make sure this project reflected that and sounded organic. I also have a lot of respect for the origins of the different genres I draw inspiration from, so I felt like including live elements like real brass, piano, bass and guitar adds more authenticity to the tape.

Your single “Break My Back” (above), debuts on Soundcloud today and might come as a sort of surprise to people familiar with your catalogue. How did this track come together?
I was about to spend 24 hours straight making music with different artists. The first session of the day hadn’t worked out too well, so I was feeling discouraged and almost wanted to cancel the next one I had with Ashnikko. I told her how I felt and we went for a walk to get some air. Then once we got back to the studio I just started messing around and she let me do my thing while she came up with some lines. And it worked out, it’s a crazy tune! It’s like a combination of dancehall with grime, hip-hop, R&B, emo… It was kind of weird to me because I’ve never made anything like that before.

Why did you call this project “Anthology”?
That’s what this mixtape is to me: a collection of stories. There are different sounds on there, different artists, different overall vibes, but each one tells a story.

Your DJ sets have a tendency to do the same – you take the audience on a journey through a variety of sounds, genres and stories.
I could stick one genre, but I get bored quickly and I can relate to so many different experiences and people that I want everyone to feel like a part of their story is being told through my sets. My voice is my life experience of being in different environments from the small, multicultural underground clubs, to the big London clubs, from Berlin to Seoul. I’ve experienced music presented in many different environments and that experience presents itself in how I perform music to people.

How did you develop that ability to be able to relate to so many people? Or have you always been that way?
I was born in the south of The Netherlands and raised by an Indonesian father and part-Surinamese mother. Then when I turned two, we moved to Amsterdam, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world. So I got to immerse myself in a lot of different settings, from chilling in the countryside, to living in Bijlmer, from playing the drums at church, to doing graffiti on abandoned buildings. All these different experienced influenced me; they made me who I am.

In electronic music’s early days, the DJ was not necessarily the focal point of the party, and at some point that changed. Is that something that you consider when you’re playing? Are you thinking about how you look while you’re performing?
Absolutely, I see lots of DJs looking down at their screens throughout their entire set and I look at mine too, but I also think it’s important to turn up with the crowd, to show them the kind of energy that you want them to be feeling. I always try to jump around and have fun with it.

Given that you’re playing constantly, how do you challenge yourself and keep it fresh?
I’m just always digging. I remember when YouTube first came out, I would just spend hours surfing it and discover the craziest shit. I just make sure I continue to do that. You have to, you have to come correct and keep it fresh. Though it’s kind of stressful sometimes. I have to admit I don’t always enjoy preparing for sets because there’s just such a sheer amount of music out there, it can get a bit overwhelming. There’s tons of amazing music spread throughout internet, but the part I don’t like is the scrolling through all that bullshit and stressing that you won’t be able to find the gems in there.

Do you adapt your sets to the context of the different cities you’re performing in?
Yeah, I make a conscious effort to incorporate local music in my sets. It’s crucial for me to be able to show a crowd that I appreciate their music and respect their culture; that I took time to recognise some of their local talent.

Can you tell me a record that works on any dance floor in the world?
“Africa” by Toto, but that’s cheating... Surprisingly, my own edit of Travis Scott’s “Goosebumps” works every time.

A record that always brings you joy?
“Just Chillin Out” by Bernard Wright.

A record you want played at your funeral?
“Tell Me a Bedtime Story” by Herbie Hancock.

You can find Mariana on Twitter.