Interviews

Who is John Talabot?



Words: William Ralston

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In dance music circles, this is a question that has been posed many times before, but still without any conclusive answer. He is perhaps most widely acclaimed for his production work; a reputation that stems from his beautiful debut LP [ƒIN, 2012], an instinctively blissful piece of contemporary electronica which ranked comfortably within the best albums of 2012 according to the likes of Pitchfork and Resident Advisor. His high-energy, textured DJ sets have also seen him become an established presence on the world festival circuit, extolled for building and releasing the tension better than almost any of his modern day contemporaries. And away from this, he has also built up his own label [Hivern Discs], been enlisted by Glasser and The XX for remixes, and curated the 46th instalment of the DJ Kicks series; a compilation that is widely considered to be one of the most enchanting of the entire K7 catalogue.

But despite these successes, almost nothing is known about the man behind it all. He originates from and lives in Barcelona, and his real name is Oriol Riverola; his alias the name of the school he attended until the age of 16. He does not do photo shoots and rarely indulges in press interviews at all, preferring instead to be represented by his music alone. So when Bonafide was granted an exclusive interview with the man himself, I took the opportunity to investigate the artist behind the artist.

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Oriol meets me in the lobby of the Manchester Malmaison Hotel the afternoon following his sell-out show at the Warehouse Project. So mysterious and understated that he is, I question whether I would have recognised him had I not seen him perform the night before. Pictures of his face are uncommon at best, and he is dressed down in a simple blue jumper and jeans with a navy scarf. He travels alone and is seemingly a little nervous. We shake hands before he joins the queue to settle the bill for his stay. “I am sorry for keeping you waiting – I fell asleep” he says. “Call me Orry,” he adds. “It’s short for Oriol.”

As reputation would dictate, I was expecting a closed, reserved individual, and the conversation begins with a question about this air of mystery that has surrounded him ever since he broke onto the scene in 2009. “If you are The XX maybe you need to be outgoing, but in my case I just wanted to DJ in some clubs and do some live shows,” he says, grinning as he fidgets with the handle on his suitcase. “I am not going to be a star and I think I don’t want to be,” he adds.

I pause, waiting for him to tell me more, but he looks away, subtly indicating that there is little more to say and that I should ask another question. I hold the silence, encouraging him to elaborate, knowing there is more to come. And then he continues.

“I am not really a talkative person and I don’t really do statements. I don’t like that kind of exposure because I am not meant to change the world and I do not have that kind of power. And sometimes I think music artists feel more powerful than what they are doing. I am just making music so why should I think I should win the next Nobel Prize?”

“Sometimes I think music artists feel more powerful than what they are doing. I am just making music so why should I think I should win the next Nobel Prize?”

It quickly becomes apparent that music, for Riverola, is as much a personal venture as a professional one. He makes music for himself and it just so happens that the world likes it too.

“I never had the idea of becoming a producer. [When I first started] I wasn’t feeling too close to the music that was out there so I started doing music that I wanted to hear” he says. “I didn’t even send it to anyone; I just left it there – apart from showing it to a few friends. It was a joke at my school but nothing more.”

Rivorla’s music began to surface in 2008 when he uploaded several tracks onto his MySpace page before his first release via his own Hivern Discs. “I decided to start it [Hivern Discs] to release just music of friends but there was no future to it,” he says. “I was running a production house, arranging scripts for TV shows, and I thought my future was there.” He then released his debut EP [My Old School, 2008] via Permanent Vacation, soon followed by breakthrough single Sunshine [Hivern Discs, 2009]. “There was no plan. It all happened very naturally.”

But his music today is far more than just trivial. Riverola, as becomes clear, is a natural creative; a highly-intelligent deep-thinker who uses his beloved art as an important vehicle for self-expression and tool for clarifying his thoughts. “As a musician, that is the best definition you can have,” he responds when asked whether music is his voice.

Defining the genre of his music is almost as challenging as defining the man himself. Although it has often been referred to as ‘happy’ or ‘house,’ it does not fit comfortably into either of these categories.

“I would never describe my music as happy; I think there is always some sort of dramatic feel to it,” says Riverola. “Even on the happier tracks, it feels like there is something going wrong, so I have never seen my music as fitting in with this Mediterranean sunshine house idea that many people have about me.”
But that is not to say this lack of clarity in the categorisation of his music bothers Riverola: “I don’t think that I belong to any sort of sound, and I think it bothers other people more than it bothers me,” he says, beginning to open up and, much to my surprise, seemingly starting to enjoy the discussion. “In the end, my music is just a part of me and some people just cannot relate to that.”

But if this is so – if his music is nothing more than a natural reflection of its creator, then why is this dramatic tone laced throughout his entire musical catalogue? From where, I ask, does this intense darkness originate?

“I wouldn’t say I have sadness, but I do like to approach my music through melancholy – through memories,” he says, pausing for thought. “My music reminds me of certain moments; it’s like some weird form of nostalgia. For me, my music is my therapy.”

“My music reminds me of certain moments; it’s like some weird form of nostalgia. For me, my music is my therapy.”

Asked to elaborate further, Riverola refers to ƒIN. “It is a collection of memories, and a collection too of my musical tastes. For example, there was this moment when I was a bit isolated and some tracks are made from these memories. When you get to around 30 then all your friends have girlfriends and everything turns more difficult and there are no longer moments when you can go out Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. So some of the tracks were trying to get that kind of mood of going out with a friend and getting back really late.”

Continuing on the subject of his first LP, the Spaniard’s artistic pedigree shines through as he begins to describe his creative vision and the process behind its production. “I am obsessive,” he says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about it. What did I want to do? What did I not want to do? How did I want it to be presented? I thought about the track list a lot. I didn’t want to make just a collection of tracks – it was more than that. I wanted to write an album that you want to listen to from the beginning until the end. It’s not often that you find that.”

“I had this idea of clear short songs that people can get into with just a simple idea, without too many vocals or thumping. Sometimes I feel music today has too much going on so you cannot focus on anything. You want this melody to come back but it doesn’t because it has been replaced by another one. I wanted to stick to one element and just let it grow.”

Tracks are kept intentionally short to leave listeners wanting more. “The journey is not in the length of the tracks; it is going through the different stages. The best thing when you are listening to something is when you really like something and it finishes. It gives you this unsatisfied feeling but at the same time it is pretty rewarding.”

“Making music is like doing a puzzle. I normally start projects and start recording stuff and then maybe use them two years later. I will be on a plane and I will make a small drum loop that I really like then I bring it home. It is there for a year then I will match it with a melody that I did for another project and they will assemble well together. For me, it is not about putting keys together; it is about putting sounds together when they work. I like to work with feelings. If it has a good feeling, even if the keys aren’t right or if it is not the correct melodic progression, I don’t really care!”

Asked to provide an example of this rather unconventional technique, Riverola points to the blood-curdling scream in Oro y Sangre. “I decided to put it in later after the track was already completed because I wanted to add some ‘creepiness.’ I wanted something recognisable to add to the song and I thought a scream was perfect. Maybe I was drunk or something? But I think it was a good decision!”
An experimental slow-burner, ƒIN has been firmly stamped with the trademark Talabot sound. As Riverola explains, some tracks actually became overly developed so ‘I went back to one of the first versions where the sound was really bad.’ As a result, the music is textured yet slightly distorted; intentionally blurred yet beautifully raw. It is a warm sound, and one that can be traced back to Riverola’s teenage days.

“I used to go to a record store near my home and one time I was listening to some records and really enjoyed the sound. The melodies were so distorted but in a really nice way, so I bought them. But at home the records sounded completely different and I couldn’t believe they were the same records that I had listened to in the shop. I thought I had been confused or something. In the shop, the owner told me that I had bought the right records but that their amplifier was completely fucked. I really liked it. I really appreciated how it sounded. It sounded like some kind of 60’s techno with a soulful sound, but really distorted. That was the moment that I had the ‘click’ of the sound that I wanted. That was the time I found that sound I wanted to achieve.”

Trying to learn more about Riverola’s human side, I move the conversation onto his life outside of music. “I am normal – I enjoy watching movies and going out with friends,” he says. “I have a girlfriend and they need time too,” he jokes. “But it is difficult because I am still not sure if it is a job or not. I sometimes see my Dad going to work and when he finishes he is super happy because he can do things that aren’t his job. But for me it is hard to separate my music from my life. The way I live is the way I work and it is hard to find that divide.”

Questioned on whether we can expect another album soon, Riverola points out that he may now look to develop a different side of his catalogue. “ƒIN, for me, was a separate project, and I would never play it in one of my DJ sets. But now maybe I am going to release a 12 inch in club music” he states. “I really separate albums, club music and EP’s. I don’t want to be releasing all the same sounds after one another because I am interested in many things and I like to experiment.”

The interview ends when his taxi arrives for the airport. Next stop: Rotterdam. Off the record, he laughs about the Manchester weather and shares his favourite places to visit in Barcelona. As we shake hands and share a joke together, it strikes me that this intensely private, mysterious John Talabot is as much a creation as the person himself; a non-entity manufactured by the world’s music media that masks the true Oriol Riverola: a wildly obsessive but charismatic artist who simply defies the norm by choosing to be defined by what comes out of his speakers instead of his mouth.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

More on issue 11 here.
Read previous cover stories with Madlib, Danny Brown, Flying Lotus and more here.

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