Rodriguez Jr. Interview: Connections and communications

Mark Dale caught up with Olivier Mateu aka Rodriguez Jr. to talk working solo, his position at Mobilee and longevity in music ahead of We Are WHSE.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 4th Nov 2015

Image: Rodriguez Jr

Olivier Mateu has been a producer and performer in dance music for over 25 years. Having learned to play piano when he was young while living in the rural south of France, he then moved to Montpellier to study mathematics at university.

While there he met the older Gilles Escoffier in a record store that he was running and a friendship bonded by music became the starting point for a joint musical adventure. The pair formed the production unit The Youngsters in 1999.

For the best part of a decade their techno and deep house productions, released mostly on Laurent Garnier's F Communications label, would win them several awards and see them invited to play festivals the world over with their highly rated live show.

When F Communications ceased activities The Youngsters were left without a home. This coincided with Mateu's move to Brussels, where his wife works and soon thereafter he began working solo.

Mateu now operates under the highly respected Rodriguez Jr. alias, still thrilling club and festival audiences the world over with live performances that are now the result of his individual studio work.

After a few releases under his new performing name, Rodriguez Jr. was picked up by Anja Schneider and Ralf Kollmann's Mobilee Records in 2010 and debuted with 'Princess Guacamole', solidifying and refining his new, more house-orientated sound on the label and issuing debut solo album Bittersweet (listen to the title track below) on Mobilee in 2011.

Hey there! How are you doing and where are you?

I'm doing very well thanks. I'm in my studio, at home. I live in Brussels. I originally come from the south of France, but my wife is Belgian so we had to find a way to make it happen and so I moved. 

How different is Brussels as a city compared with Montpellier, which was the nearest city to you when you were growing up and where you went to study?

That's a good question, I miss Montpellier a lot actually. I miss the sun and this lifestyle you have in places by the sea, it's totally different. But Brussels is quite cool. It's easy to travel around from here, it's very central in Europe. You can go to Paris or London by train, it's not far from Berlin too, so it's convenient.

But to be honest, I really don't know too much about the city. I've been here for ten years now but I never go out. When I have the chance to be at home I just stay here, with my family, my wife and my daughter. So, I don't really know this city.

Living in Brussels can you get away with speaking just French and English?

Yes. Dutch is too difficult for my brain. My wife is French-speaking anyway, so it doesn't make any sense for me to learn Dutch. I'm not very good when it comes to speaking foreign languages.

For instance, I have so many friends who are German, my partners, the label, everything and after 12 years of going there regularly I still can't manage to speak a word. That's crazy.

Have you or your wife ever experienced any prejudice, living in Brussels and being French-speaking?

No, that's ok. I have the excuse to be French, so if I ever encounter a situation where someone confronts me because I don't speak Dutch, I have this excuse.

For my wife it's a little bit more complicated. They have quite a lot of political problems in this small country. It's kind of crazy to see people keep fighting, for nothing, really. I don't get it.

So you excuse yourself for being French! Your first act The Youngsters had an English name and now you go under a Hispanic name, Rodriguez. Are you embarassed to be French?

Ha! Not at all. I'm proud to be French. That's a bit more difficult these days, but yeah, I'm proud to be French, I'm proud of my country and of our culture. The name The Youngsters was not my idea, to be honest, but I liked it. And my father is Spanish, so I feel like I'm connected with that culture too.

I am proud to be French, but perhaps I'm more proud to be European. I don't know how you perceive this kind of thing in the UK, but I really like this idea of being European. I travel quite a lot and everywhere I go in Europe I feel like I'm at home. There is a connection between all these countries.

I don't know if it's just because we are all traditionally Christian countries or because of some kind of historical background. I don't know, it's just something I feel. My legacy is also very European. My father, as I told you, was Spanish. His parents, my grandparents, escaped Spain during the civil war and came to France.

My grandmother on the other side was Polish and she met my grandfather, who was the only French in the family, in a camp in Germany during the Second World War, so somehow I feel I am a product of Europe.

You say your father is Spanish, but your Christian name Mateu is Catalonian. Is that your heritage and if so, what are your thoughts about the recent elections they've just had in that region that indicates they would like to be independent?

My grandfather was from Valencia and my grandmother was from Galicia, so not really, they're from different parts of Spain. To be really honest I don't know what to think about that. It's like in Belgium, you know, people tend to speak of splitting instead of staying together and I don't know about that.

It's kind of strange to me. But at the same time I know that this Spanish confederation is something that they built up from scratch during the war, so I kinda understand that they don't really feel Spanish. 

You learned piano when you were younger. You're a musician now. So, obviously the artistic side of your brain has been in development for many years. Why then did you go to university to study maths? That's completely the opposite side of the brain!

[Laughs] They were my two passions when I was a kid. Science and music. At some point the music became a bigger interest, but in a way music is a good way to combine the two things together.

When you look at all this (points to a rack of sythesizers behind him), that's science, in a way. I liked mathematics. I liked this kind of brain mechanics, I found it very interesting. But I'm happy that I stopped, to be honest.

Your productions as Rodriguez Jr. seem a little more stretched out, a little more relaxed in comparison to the music you were making in The Youngsters. Sometimes I can hear an influence of Carl Craig in there. Would you agree with either of those observations?

Yes, yes. I'm very happy that you mentioned Carl Craig because he's one of my biggest influences ever. I loved the Detroit sound since the beginning of my career.

He really brings it to the next level, he's so forward thinking. That's something I really appreciate and that's also something I try to do, at my level. I love melody, I think it's in my blood, but sometimes I just try and suggest them, rather than being too evident with them.

Your Rodriguez Jr. music is really popular with some different styles of DJ compared to those who played your material as The Youngsters. DJs like Lee Burridge and Hernan Cattaneo have been playing your stuff at really big gigs like Burning Man festival. Do you think that the more stripped down the music has become, the bigger the stage it's able to be played on?

I don't know if it makes it more suitable for a bigger stage, but for me it does make it more efficient. The core emotion is more upfront, so that's maybe why it's reaching those audiences. Burning Man is supposed to be about this emotional, spiritual thing, right? I really like that. I've never been, but that kind of lifestyle and that way of looking at things, that's also a big influence on me. 

When I was listening to some of the tracks from your debut album Bittersweet and one of your more recent tracks, 'Persitence Of Vision' (above), it seemed to me that some of your stuff has an element of pop music to it. Is pop music something you're willing to embrace and explore within underground music?

In my opinion there's not so much of a gap between pop and underground music, at least there shouldn't be. They can be connected. If you listen to artists such as David Bowie or Bjork they manage to build a link between the underground and pop culture.

There are many more examples. Pop culture sometimes sucks, but sometimes it can be very interesting. So, for me, there is no shame in doing something poppy, from time to time. It's an interesting exercise.

There are some quite quirky elements in some of your records, unexpected sounds. I think I was listening to one track and it had what sounded like bird sounds in the background. Can you explain those unusual sounds, why you use them?

I've been into this music for a long time now, so when I'm in the studio I just try to excite myself first. It's not conscious, that I'm trying to be unusual, but I look for these kinds of details and elements because I try to go against things I've already heard.

How different is it working for Mobilee records compared to working with F Communications?

That's an interesting question because actually it's very similar. It's the same kind of process, the same kind of workflow. It's really like family. They have the same kind of approach, a crew, working for a bunch of artists. And it's not just about releasing music.

They help develop your profile, help you develop as an artist and to experiment, and to develop it as a career. So that's the same kind of logic with both. At Mobilee we have the DJ agency and they take care of everything, the bookings, the PR. It makes things a lot easier.

You didn't have that at F Communications though. Mobilee is a label and your agency, when you were at F Comm your agent was seperate. Plus Laurent Garnier was one of the biggest DJs around at that time, I don't think he would have had time to have been as hands on, in a mentoring sense, to how Anja appears to be for her artists.

Well, Laurent taught me a lot of things, he's been a big influence. I was so proud when I signed for F Communications. It was a great opportunity, to travel with him and to learn watching him. I remember some really crazy parties. I would often be with him in the DJ booth and I was fascinated by his ability to connect with the crowds, to control them and to tell a story with so many different kinds of music. 

That's kind of the same with Anja because she has such a strong vision of music, it's incredible. I remember when I started to work on this project of Rodriguez Jr, I'd been struggling, because I was still looking for my sound. I was kind of lost in possibilities and she helped me to focus on the right thing. I owe her a lot for sure.

Both Anja and Ralf at Mobilee, because he also has a very clever opinion of music. They still help me now if I get blocked, although I'm a lot more free these days because now I know it works.

Why did you decide to go and do a solo project instead of continuing with The Youngsters?

There were a lot of different reasons. It was getting complicated with my partner, Gilles Escoffier. I moved to Belgium, so it was quite difficult to be able to work together as we had done.

It was also because F Communications stopped. We were so much related to that label that it was impossible to bounce. We tried a couple more releases, on Ovum and 20:20 Vision, but basically when F Communications stopped, we stopped too. 

Is there any part of it that you miss, such as the live show you used to do together?

Yes, because it's fun to travel with somebody and to share this life. It's also interesting to have someone else on stage with you, who can connect with the crowd in a different way. But I also appreciate being able to travel and to perform by myself. That's also great for avoiding compromises, you just do what you want to do.

Of course, for me, that's also a negative aspect, just being able to do what I want. Sometimes it brings a lot of doubts. I'm not very confident in myself. I tend to stress at times in the studio because I'm not sure of myself. It can bring some struggles, not having someone next to you who can push you forward. It's very easy to get blocked. 

Has Gilles Escoffier continued to make music?

I don't think so. He's still doing parties in the south of France from time to time. But he just opened a restaurant now, so that's what he's up to. 

How do you feel about F Communications having stopped? Would you have preferred to have left the label and it still be going, with a bunch of new artists on there?

I would have loved that. To be honest I still hope that they will launch the label again someday. I think that maybe they have this idea in mind, because that's the feeling I get sometimes when I talk with Laurent.

He released an EP on F Communications, 6 months ago, something like that. He relaunched the label just for this one. But I still hope that they will do it again someday because it was such a great label, so many different kinds of music, genres. It was very forward thinking.

Do your wife and your daughter like your music?

Oh! My wife is not really into this kind of music. So it can be a bit embarassing sometimes, when I'm excited about a new track and I'll be going, 'eyyy, listen to that!' and she's like, 'yeah, yeah, ok.' She doesn't help at all.

My daughter helps a lot because actually her bedroom is just next door and she loves to hang out in the studio and listen to what I'm doing. She also likes to experiment with the Modular and the machines. She brings a lot of fresh energy into my working process. It's a very positive energy, for sure.

What's the key to longevity in dance music?

Pffft! I wish I knew! I don't know. I just try to do what I love. I try to avoid being trendy. I know some people just want to be big, so they produce music that they think people want to hear right now.

That can be dangerous because as fast as you go up, you can go down again even faster. I try to build something strong, I try and build a reconnection with my followers. Playing live helps me do that a lot, because there is a real connection, you cannot fool it.

Why play live so much (above)? Why don't you DJ?

Because this is how I began. It's a very natural process for me, it's easier for me to connect with the crowd. And after 15 years of doing it, people expect me to play live. So, if I come to a club with just a bag of records, the people who like me would be disappointed. 

If you're DJing and the crowd is not with you it's easy to change the style of music immediately in order to win them over. You can't really do that when you're playing live.

That's more complicated, for sure. When the people don't like your music, you're really fucked. But that's a good challenge because you really have to convince the crowds. Sometimes it can be a bit of a fight. Sometimes it doesn't work, let's be honest. That's the wrong venue, the wrong location, the wrong people.

It can happen sometimes. I couldn't tell you the names of the clubs where it has happened, you know, but sometimes you have these very posh clubs, that have all these tables and stuff, the people, they do not give a shit and I cannot play disco music! But as a challenge I can win, I kinda like it.

I still buy a lot of vinyls and I do DJ at home, I love it, but I don't do it publicly any more because I want to focus on the live stuff.

What's next for Rodriguez Jr.?

Right now I'm working on my next album. I don't know when it's going to be ready because I really appreciate this moment, facing this blank canvas, just experimenting and you don't know where it's going to go.

We are also working on a new live configuration for festivals and stuff, something not necessarily bigger, but something with visuals and possibly some other musicians. Something that's hopefully more fun. I'm really excited by the idea.

I was a big fan of Jean Michel Jarre when I was young, so for me everything is connected, the lights, the visuals, the music. I don't want to do what he did, but I think it's great to connect those things together. 

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