Hearing Breakbot refer to his recent listening as “research” or to his aspirations in the same “field” as The Beach Boys and Prince, it’s tough not to think of his heritage. And least of all for his smooth accent: Thibaut Berland (“like the T-bone steak,” he offers) is quintessentially French, like pop philosophers Phoenix, analog fetishists Air, and 21st-century pop architects Daft Punk. There’s a thoughtfulness, methodology, and deference to the past informing his every move, and even at its catchiest, Berland’s music nuances its pop instincts with enough thoughtfulness for a piece of process art.
Of course, per the points of comparison above, it should be no surprise that Breakbot’s main purpose is to get people dancing. But of all the “French touch” wunderkinds who got their jumpstart in the mid-aughts, Berland has perhaps aged the best. The young French studio whiz first made a name for himself with the lost classic Happy Rabbit EP and a tireless string of remix gold (e.g., Pnau’s “Baby,” Pacific!’s “Runaway to Elsewhere”), earned a deal with Ed Banger Records at the peak of their king-making powers, then went on to beat France’s iconic dance droids to the humanizing punch with last year’s cozy By Your Side LP. It’s just now seeing a North American release replete with requisite bonus tune, and Berland took the opportunity to share a word with us (with transcription help from Adrien Colle) on his open-secret love affair with D minor, where he sees his music going (most immediately on May’s Ed Rec Vol. X comp), and his friendly beef with one of mainstream pop’s biggest names.
So your debut album, By Your Side, came out in Europe last fall. Why did you wait until now to release it in America?
You’d have to ask my label about that. We were gonna make it a worldwide release, but we had some partner in the U.S. that refused to work with us at the very last moment. We had to find a new team and it took a while to do that. It’s been a mess. I wish it would’ve been out in September, like in France and the rest of Europe, but it did not work this way.
After the release of your Happy Rabbit EP, which came out in 2007, you kept busy with remixes for other people…
Yeah, I did many remixes since 2007, I think almost 40 on the whole. I got a few that never came out, actually.
Aside from those, what were you up to between then and your album?
Well, you know, I still had a daytime job around 2007, 2008. I stopped working in animation around 2008, so yeah, I still had this other job. I was busy making commercials, graphics and stuff. Then I stopped to concentrate on music. And that was around late 2008.
I still had my job and stuff, and I thought maybe I should try to make music as a hobby and then started to make a remix for them. They did not ask me for it, I just did it by myself. I gave it to them and they thought, “Whoa, this is pretty cool — we could maybe release it.”
Did you try out and discard different sounds along the way, or did you have this whole disco-purist vision for your album the whole time?
I think I kind of had a vision of the whole idea. The releases I had done really helped me to define the style and the pattern I wanted to use. Making these remixes had been like going to school for me. I did not know how to make electronic music before. It was a good way to learn the software, to define the world I was making.
The first thing you released was the Justice “Let There Be Light” remix, a fully formed production right off the bat. What were you doing prior to that?
Well, I had already been making beats on my computer for a while — it didn’t come out of nowhere. When I was a graphic designer I had a computer at home, and when I was kid there was a small piano in my parents’ living room. And when I moved away from home I didn’t have this piano anymore, so I bought a MIDI keyboard and some software to make music, and at night, when I finished my homework, I would just make songs. That was around 2000.
How did the Justice remix come about, since that’s what launched your career?
I was friends with Xavier for a while, we were in the same graphic school when I was like 18, just after high school, and we were making music together at the time. We had a few tracks that we made together. Then I went away in France for my studies, and when I returned to Paris, he was starting his band Justice. I was really excited by the music they made, I thought it really sounded new and refreshing. I still had my job and stuff, and I thought maybe I should try to make music as a hobby and then started to make a remix for them. They did not ask me for it, I just did it by myself. I gave it to them and they thought, “Whoa, this is pretty cool — we could maybe release it.” And they gave it to Pedro and released it on the Japanese version of the EP, Waters of Nazareth. That was it, my first record on Ed Banger Records, which makes a lot of sense now.
And which brings us back to By Your Side. I feel like following the release of SebastiAn’s Total album, the artists on Ed Banger started moving away from what’s known as “French touch,” that harder-hitting electro sound. Which I heard much more of in your earlier work, like on the Happy Rabbit EP.
Yeah, for sure.
So Justice is doing their 1970s purist hard rock kind of thing right now, and you’re doing your 1970s purist disco thing. So I’m curious for you, personally, why you moved in that direction — what happened to all the hard cuts and compression?
I tend to think that when you’re making music, you’re always some kind of product of your influences and what you listen to. You’re making the music that you’ve listened to in your life, and you love. And for me, you know, it has always been Hall & Oates, Prince, The Beach Boys, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder. This is the music I love and have always been listening to. I guess, for me, it was natural to try something like that. I know I will never be as good as Prince or Stevie Wonder — obviously I’m not as good as them, and I’m not even a singer. But yeah, it’s about making the music you love and I’m trying to be as good as possible in that field.
Do you think you’ll ever revisit that kind of “French electro” approach? What kind of things are you getting into now that you’re done touring this album?
I don’t know, I don’t think I’m gonna change. It’s still gonna be this kind of music, I guess — I’m just gonna try to make it more complex. The harmonies on By Your Side are really simple and really easy to understand, something that’s really easy to listen to. I’m just gonna try to make it more complex next time, because… some Beach Boys songs, like on Pet Sounds for example, are very easy to listen to, but when you look at the structure, the way it’s done, the harmonies, they’re pretty complex. So I’m gonna challenge myself to make something with more research and more work [behind it]. I’m pretty happy about the first album, but I think it’s really simple: it’s always in the same key, the songs look like one another in a sense. I don’t know, I think I’m gonna try to do more research and maybe do something… not futuristic, but more modern. Because this one is really tied to the 1970s/80s, and I want to make something that sounds a little bit more like today or tomorrow.
Speaking of keys, could you tell me a little about your love affair with D minor?
[laughs] Yeah, of course. When I came up with things on the piano as a kid, it always turned out to be in this key. But the basic idea for having everything in the same key on this album was, you know, when I was listening to Daft Punk’s live show — they have all these songs that are mixed together, taking a vocal from one song and putting it on the instrumental from another. I thought it was pretty fun, and I thought to myself, making an album where all the songs are in the same key would be an easy way to achieve that. And it’s worked out nicely that way, so I’m pretty happy I did.
Is “Peanuts,” the new track on the American release of the album, an outtake from the album sessions? Or is that something you’ve made more recently?
Yes, it’s definitely an outtake. It was almost on the record but in the end I decided not to, because it sounded too different, a little bit more electronic, maybe too 2010-2011. I wanted the record to be without any song from a specific era and thought this track sounded too specific to the year it was made.
Will there be any more EPs to come from the album?
Yeah, we have one more before the summer, for the track “You Should Know.” We have very cool remixes for the track by Pedro — Busy P, the head of Ed Banger — along with the new signing Boston Bun. I’m pretty happy about it! As well as my little brother, who recently started making music and made something very cool out of my track.
I’m pretty happy about the first album, but I think it’s really simple: it’s always in the same key, the songs look like one another in a sense.
The two title tracks for By Your Side are probably my favorites from the album, so I’m excited to see your contribution to the upcoming Ed Banger compilation also features Pacific.
It’s for the beach.
A good beach song?
Yeah, it’s definitely for the beach. [laughs]
Is that also from the album sessions, or something more recent?
This is something that I made specially for the compilation. I had that demo on hand for a while, but decided to finish it when Ed Banger X came up.
I heard something about Bruno Mars wanting to cover “Baby I’m Yours” — then taking some liberties when you said no.
Yeah, the boss of Because Music mentioned this to me at Coachella, a year ago. “This guy Bruno Mars wants to cover ‘Baby I’m Yours,’” and all that. At the time, I was really busy finishing my album, so it did not happen. And he made this song called “Treasure,” which is actually kind of a rip-off of “Baby I’m Yours.” But I’m cool with it — I have many influences myself, with lots of bits taken from here and there. You know, it’s alright.
Would you ever collaborate with a big name artist like that, very very poppy?
Yeah, I would love to try, you know. Like if Rihanna or Beyonce asked me to get together, I’d be like, “Yeah, sure, why not?” I actually had lunch with Bruno the other day — he came to Paris.
You and Bruno Mars recently had lunch?
Was that… awkward?
No, no, it was fun. He’s a sweet guy.
I was reading some old interviews of yours, and I got the sense that your countrymen Mr. Oizo and Daft Punk are inspirations to you in that they’ve combined their music-making with filmmaking. You used to be a videographer yourself — do you think you might ever make your debut as a director?
Yes, I would love to make movies, for sure. If I ever direct a movie, it will most definitely be a musical. I’ve always been a big fan of Disney films; they’re basically animated musicals, with songs every five minutes, 10 minutes. I also love Phantom of the Paradise, West Side Story, Singing in the Rain — these are also some of my favorite movies. If I could do a movie and do the score at the same time, that would be a real achievement… But that would take so much time, and would have to be in at least five or six years. But yeah, I’m already thinking about the plot. It would probably be animated as well, you know. When I was 10 years old, I wanted to work at Disney. I still go to Disneyland every chance I get.
[Photo: Pedro Winter]