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St Germain: “You Can Travel Everywhere” With ‘Tourist’ Travel Versions
Interviews

St Germain: “You Can Travel Everywhere” With ‘Tourist’ Travel Versions

St Germain, aka Ludovic Navarre, talks to Dig! about fashioning the remix album ‘Tourist: 20th Anniversary Travel Versions’.

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St Germain’s award-winning 2000 album, Tourist, was an intercontinental smash, with a tour to match. The fact that it was originally released by legendary jazz label Blue Note is a testament to its forward-thinking, free-flowing amalgam of ideas, from deep house to jazz, Latin and dub reggae – a mix just as likely to attract fans of acid jazz as it is fans of the French touch scene from which the man born Ludovic Navarre and contemporaries such as Daft Punk and Cassius emerged. Released on 29 January 2021, two decades after the original album, the Tourist: 20th Anniversary Travel Versions remix project proved there’s still mileage in this St Germain classic.

Listen to Tourist: 20th Anniversary Travel Versions here

“You can travel anytime, everywhere, with music”

“Blue Note was perfect for me,” Navarre tells Dig! “It’s the one and only – so elegant – jazz record label, gathering artists that made jazz history. And Blue Note goes on signing artists like Norah Jones and new talents like Jorja Smith.” Noting that the label’s support of Tourist got his music to wider audience, Navarre admits, “I got there on my tiptoes. I was intimidated!… Sales and Grammys have rewarded my work. I wasn’t expecting that much. Then my agent was able to book me on festivals like the North Sea and Montreux [jazz festivals], which enabled me to discover a jazz audience and draw their attention to electronic music with live musicians.” Life without jazz, Navarre says, “would look like a world that is missing freedom”.

The Travel Versions edition of Tourist lets Navarre’s international collaborators loose on key pieces from the evergreen album, focusing on engaging remakes of singles such as Rose Rouge, Sure Thing and So Flute. Navarre says “the artists were given completely free rein for selecting the song, and for the musical production”. But how did revisiting such a successful album, with its themes of travel, feel during a year in which COVID-19 restrictions forced the majority of the world to stay at home?

“I started to think about the project in November 2019,” Navarre says. “Then when the pandemic was announced, everything and everybody was shut down. We came back to it in June 2020… but even if you’re stuck at home, you can still travel anytime, everywhere, with music.” Had the pandemic affected how he went about the project? “Not at all. Warner Music France were very enthusiastic and very involved. It was without restrictions. They were determined to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Tourist. The producers from abroad are all very easy to work with, even in the context of distance work.” For Navarre, the Travel Versions project “made me feel like coming back to my musical roots: blues, Latin, jazz”.

“I miss the concerts and the audiences”

Navarre admits, however, that not being able to play all those countries which made Tourist a success has been frustrating: “I toured around the world between 2000 and 2002. And when my self-titled African album was released in 2015, and until 2018, we’ve gone back on tour with a team of very motivated musicians and a bunch of excellent technicians. We went to Coachella and Sydney, and I discovered the Eastern countries and festivals like WOMAD in the UK. I miss the concerts and the audiences. ‘French touch’ or ‘nu jazz’ are generally used as labels for my music,” Navarre continues. “Fortunately, I have been able to share my work with a varied and unlimited audience, oriented towards jazz, world and Latino music, thanks to the many concerts I have performed.”

Has it been important to keep in touch with his musicians throughout the pandemic? “It is important to maintain the right atmosphere, Navarre says. “Some of them have been working with me since 1995, as with the saxophonist, and others since 2000, such as the pianist and the percussionist. The newcomer is the guitarist from Mali. We have a real bond. Some have become friends.”

“An album is a whole concept; it tells a story”

Format-wise, Tourist hasn’t been neglected for vinyl reissues, and Navarre feels it is essential that the album remains physically available. “I like the shape of vinyl, and I belong to the generation that had to have 12” singles to play in clubs,” he says. “The quality of the sound is different from the internet.”

Navarre’s music has, however, retained its popularity in the streaming era, and he engages with that world with mixes and playlists, even though they could be seen as being at odds with the album format which his material often suits. “I do admit that when streaming appeared, I did not jump into it. I never liked the idea of breaking up an album title by title, to be able to buy it slice by slice. An album is a whole concept; it tells a story. I went with the flow in 2012. Tourist was gonna be reissued, and then the record company could work on it on a new basis. For the 20th anniversary, I made a few hour-long mixes for the public who are confined and can’t go to a live show. It’s a sort of a musical trip, with titles I have selected from around the world. It was a way to stay in touch with music lovers.”

Tourist’s lead cut, Rose Rouge, features an inspirational sample of soul singer Marlena Shaw’s Woman Of The Ghetto over a simmering percussive track. It remains influential enough that it was, as Navarre proudly points out, used as walk-on music by The Rolling Stones on tour, as well as being covered by Pete Tong’s Heritage Orchestra, with classic Chicago house singer Robert Owens. Most recently, it was remade for a single by one of the most popular singers of recent times, Jorja Smith. “I am proud and honoured that she made such a personal cover version, as well as for Blue Note, 20 years after Tourist,” says Navarre. “Her re-recorded version is a rare pearl: her interpretation, her voice and the talent of her excellent musicians!”

“I had a blast”

For Travel Versions, masterful English producer Atjazz opens the new collection by cooling Rose Rouge down blissfully. The elusive Terry Laird also turns in a rework, in a Réunion maloya fusion style, whose almost imperceptible acidic tweaks feed into the percussive, saxophone-laden mix. Chicago house mainstay Ron Trent (who Navarre describes as having “a real and authentic artistic approach”) brings it back to the source, swooshing rushes underpinning the vigorous drums, piano and sax on his lush, positive, constantly building epic. Elsewhere, New York’s Jovonn takes the track back to a 90s swing, and the chameleon Nightmares On Wax go uptempo and refreshingly light.

Navarre picked So Flute for himself to rework. The original album’s longest cut, its flute, jazz chords and blazing Latin piano lead interact seductively to power a landmark Latin house number, whereas Navarre’s Travel Versions remake is relatively brief. Made in a South African amapiano style, it links to Navarre’s ongoing love of lounge music. “I had a blast introducing a different version of So Flute,” he says. “I’ve been listening to South African productions for a long time, inspired by their deep house style… I discovered amapiano, and I had the feeling that I could adapt that pace to the rhythm of So Flute. Then I invited Dramené Dembele, a Peul flautist, to come to the recording studio, and with his talent he has given the piece a different colour, a different style.”

The original Sure Thing sampled Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker; Navarre has been invoking the spirit of the blues since 1993’s Alabama Blues, which likewise sampled Lightnin’ Hopkins. The DJ says he “truly regrets” that F Communications decided not to reissue the cut – “the title that opened for me the doors of the UK in 1993” – as part of their recent 25th-anniversary campaign. US producer Osunlade has now taken a spiritual approach with Sure Thing on Travel Versions; the track is also tackled by South African phenomena Black Motion, while another South African connection, Jullian Gomes, delivers a chugging, spacious version, as does DJ Deep, who closes out Travel Versions with his breaksy take.

“There is no language barrier with electronic music”

The gently jazz-tinged Pont Des Arts is followed on the original Tourist by La Goutte D’Or, which is based on the dancehall reggae riddim Stalag. The riddim is almost universally familiar, from records such as Sister Nancy’s Bam Bam, but here takes on quite a different effect, backing chilled flute and Senegalese percussion. Elsewhere, the low-slung original album closer What You Think About… is addressed with a gritty funk touch by France’s Traumer for Travel Versions.

Despite such an illustrious roll-call of remixers, there were some names Navarro couldn’t capture for the project. “The idea was to approach the artists I listened to a lot in the 90s,” he says. “Like Jovonn, Ron Trent, Nightmares On Wax. Due to a short planning period and their own commitments, Louie Vega, Moodymann, Kerri Chandler, Carl Craig and Kenny Dope could not participate. Maybe next time!” Tantalisingly, he also says, “I assume that people are expecting a brand new album. I am working on it!”

Does Navarre think French electronica gets enough recognition? “I am not very into the new productions,” he reveals. “In the 90s, in France, there was a strong and very creative production influx, with Daft Punk, Air, Cassius, etc. Each one of them had a personal touch. For myself, it was more about testing different kinds of musical styles, like the ones I have made under the names Deepside, Modus Vivendi and St Germain. For a French artist, there is no language barrier with electronic music.”

Whether on the traditional black wax, or via your favourite streaming service, Tourist: 20th Century Travel Versions is a must-hear. Meanwhile, the original album has held up amazingly well in a sea of dated electronica, and will doubtless remain a talked-about work for decades to come. But is there anything Navarre would change about it?

“I listened to it again recently and I was happy and proud of the production!” he says. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Tourist: 20th Anniversary Travel Versions is out now and can be bought here.

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