Q&A: Michael Upton (Jet Jaguar)
One of NZ’s most under-rated producers, Michael Upton has been around a long time, quietly dropping killer originals and remixes under the name Jet Jaguar. He’s probably best known for his rerub of The Black Seed‘s ‘Coming Back Home,’ which has likely seen a lot of dancefloor in it’s time, I know I’ve somewhat overused it! He’s a master of chopped up, melodic tunes, always with tasty basslines, his years of experience showing in the attention to detail and ability to incorporate found sounds and textures. He’s just released his first album in several years, entitled Four, including, for the first time, others remixing his music. Anyways, without further ado, take it away Mr Jaguar…
Tell us in your own words what your sound is.
Downtempo head-nodding instrumentals with a lot of detail and curious textures. I go mad over a good beat, but I also love sounds that make my brain sparkle. I’m not trying to make people dance, but I hope I move you somehow.
To be honest, my sound is also really “nice”. I’m not some gangster and although I love some moody and tough sounds it’s just not what comes out when I write! And trying to go against that feels like going against what makes my sound mine.
Who makes up your band?
Jet Jaguar is just me. I originally planned to just release stuff under my own name, but got told by the promoter at my first gig that I had to have something. So I picked “Jet Jaguar” as a joke and somehow, more than 15 years later, I’m still using it! I often think about ditching it, not just because it’s so fruity but also because quite a few other people have used the name.
I’ve collaborated a lot over the years, though. My most recent release is actually not a solo one, it’s Montano – a project I have with a friend, Shanan Holm. It’s more ambient stuff, based around field recordings we’ve made around the place. It started years back when we both lived in Melbourne.
What were your influences when you first started writing music? And what are your influences now?
When I first started doing stuff as Jet Jaguar it was mid-90s and I was crazy about laidback electronic music and trip-hop coming out at the time. Things like Mouse On Mars, Autechre, The Orb on one side; Tricky, Skylab, Major Force Orchestra on the other. Method Man’s ‘Tical’ fits in here somewhere.
Then I sort of went into the sounds behind those sounds. I got really paranoid about anything that might be considered “café music”. I got right into soul and funk, and started DJing a soul radio show. I also went beyond that 90s electronica stuff and wound up listening to heaps of beatless, noisy and weird ambient music.
So in my own music there are influences of both strands of music, which sometimes clash totally and sometimes come together well.
I still listen to heaps and heaps of new music and probably most of it rubs off at least a little on my own music. Little techniques and tricks that come up, or certain vibes or whatever it is. But I’ve also been writing for more than 15 years now, so I’d never try to jump on some cool sound wholeheartedly. It just wouldn’t make sense.
I’m lining up my fourth Jet Jaguar album, which will be out by the time you read this. It’ll be a limited edition of numbered CDs alongside the usual download option.
I call it an album, but it’s 7 old tracks and 7 remixes of them from some current New Zealand beats producers. The tracks were done in 2004 and 2005, so on one hand I’m trying to say with this release that good music doesn’t date, and on the other I’m deliberately playing some old and new sounds off against each other.
It’s the first time I’ve invited people to remix me. I haven’t met most of the remixers still, just hook ups via Soundcloud and the like. Having remixed so many acts myself – Fat Freddy’s Drop, The Black Seeds, Module, Disasteradio, Phoenix Foundation, and on and on – it’s pretty great to be on the other side of the equation.
Most Jet Jaguar releases are online here (one free EP, ‘Biddy Bids’, is missing).
Do you have a procedure for writing music?
In really loose terms, yeah, but nothing specific that I stick to. I almost never finish a track in one sitting, but I’ve found when I start a new one I like to spend several hours nailing whatever idea or mood it is I’ve got in mind. If I don’t get beyond a certain point in that first sitting, then the track is almost definitely going to suck, no matter how many times I come back to it. But once I’m beyond that point, I can shelve a track for a while and work on something else, and I might do that 4 or 5 times before I call it finished.
From time to time I sift through tracks that never went anywhere and basically make mashups of my own tunes. Just to see if some good bits pulled together could add up to a decent track. Of course that’s not really how music works. A successful track’s not usually just the sum of its parts. But it’s fun and even if it doesn’t work out it sometimes inspires a new track.
The other thing I’ve done in recent years is what I call “demixing”. If I’ve done a remix and it doesn’t get used for some reason, I claim it as my own. Strip out the elements that tie it to the original song and build it back up in a new direction.
If you could collaborate with any musician in the world, who would you collaborate with?
I promised myself I wouldn’t say “Man, that’s a tough one” to any of these questions, but… I think it’d be a player of some kind, not another producer. I don’t dream of doing tunes with Flying Lotus or something.
What do you think about Wellington’s music scene? And if you could play anywhere, where would you love to perform?
There’s a lot of great music in Wellington. I mean, lots of dreadful music too. I’m pretty out of touch with any kind of scene, but I’m impressed by some of the great music I stumble upon. Sometimes I can’t see that there will ever be enough people operating in the same vein at the same time in this city, which means there’s not that push to lift your game or any of that good stuff that a scene can involve. But I’m pretty sure someone who’s like 20-25 would have a completely different idea of it.
I’d love to play somewhere warm, frankly! Wellington weather sucks and I’m sick of playing cold basement bars and so on. I loved performing in Tokyo in summer, when it was a lovely warm night and people just seem more comfortable and up for a bit of a shuffle about.
Seen any good bands lately?
I saw Auckland band She’s So Rad recently and they were really good. Glorious swirling guitar noise, great boy/girl vox, and nice electronic beats the time I saw them (I think they usually have a drummer, live). They did a cover of a Twin Peaks related song, by Julee Cruise, and made it sound like My Bloody Valentine. I was really blown away, it was like two early 90s faves mashed together.
NAT WLKR’s a Wellington producer cranking out bass music, and his live set’s also impressive. Just great sounds, plus he looks like he’s having heaps of fun with it. Definitely doesn’t look like he’s checking his email or whatever dumb accusations people make of live electronic acts!
Where are you playing next?
I’m going to do a live-to-air session on Wellington’s RadioActive.FM, then next up will hopefully be the release party for the next album!
Here’s the album: