“It was underwater. Totally underwater.”
When Rodriguez Jr, real name Olivier Mateu, relocated with his family from Paris to Miami in 2021, he packed his entire studio into a shipping container. As an artist renowned for his use of technology (he almost always tours with a live setup instead of DJing), his studio consists of dozens of prized hardware synths including the Elka Synthex, the Roland SH-101, and the Moog Voyager, to name a few.
Then, in transit across the Atlantic Ocean, the container holding Mateu’s numerous machines was flooded. The Jupiter-6, which is among his favourite instruments and one he’s used consistently throughout his quarter-century production career, was entirely submerged.
This story has a happy ending, at least. Mateu was able to repair the synth (he actually only got it back shortly before this interview), but its almost-a-year absence from his arsenal meant he didn’t use it at all on his fifth full-length studio album, Feather & Bones.
“I missed it a lot,” Mateu says of the Jupiter-6 with a smile that would surely not be there had the machine been irrevocable. “When I opened the container, everything went directly to maintenance, and the only things I had left were the Yamaha DX7, the Moog 37, and an ARP 2600. [This] actually defined a very interesting pallet. I could do a lot with these three machines. That’s something I realised. I tried to do something with these three machines because life sent me a signal. So maybe I should explore it.”
Over the past couple of years, many signals to explore have come into Mateu’s life; perhaps imposed by the universe in the form of flooded gear or contrived by his own efforts, like his decision to move with his family. These signals all contribute to the theme of his new album, which defines this new chapter of his life. Mateu describes this with one word: freedom.
“I lost all my fucks over the years,” Mateu laughs. “At 45 years old, and after 25 years in the music scene, I really realise the most important thing in [your] career is doing what you really like inside yourself.”
The concept may sound simple enough, but given the oftentimes bureaucracy of the music industry, the idea of doing what feels right on the inside can be a murky path.
“It takes time to accept it and to be brave enough to do it,” Mateu says.
On Feather & Bones, Mateu had to be courageous in producing a record with an unfamiliar palette of gear. But he still found freedom in the process through the hardware.
Mateu, like one of his earliest inspirations, the legendary Jean-Michel Jarre, rejects the term “electronic music” despite his affinity for hardware. From his perspective, in 2023, all music is inherently electronic.
When music is recorded into a DAW and when it’s streamed from the internet it becomes electronic. The musical ideas that exist in his mind are organic however, and Mateu’s synthesizers are the thread between his mind and what you’ll hear on dancefloor. And, after 25 years of working with technology, he is also active in learning more about his machines to expand his ability to share the ideas in his mind. Sometimes he’ll find old manuals for his synths from earlier periods like the 1990s to dig up functions he may have missed.
Still, his overall relationship with his gear has barely changed since he started making music.
“I have this same feeling deep inside myself as the one I had when I was listening to the radio when I was six years old, listening to Jean-Michel Jarre and Depeche Mode,” Mateu says. “Technology has evolved a lot – synthesis, granular synthesis, and all that stuff – but there is a common link between all these technologies and all the revolutions. These songs are coming from inside. They don’t have any acoustic reality. They have this connection with your inner creativity, and it’s still the same. You’re creating sounds coming from your imagination.”
This connection between his imagination and his synthesizers isn’t limited to sounds, either. In the same way he can hear a sound in his head and create it through hardware, Mateu is able to pair his music with very strong thematic imagery, see a picture in his mind and use that as a foundation for sonics.
For example, the title of his 2017 LP, Baobab, shares its name with the succulent tree, and the theme of that album was a revisiting of his roots as a musician. Feather & Bones has an equally powerful visual element to it, too.
“Feather & Bones describes my music in a very interesting way. Feathers represent the dreamy aspect of my music. I like very dreamy melodies. The bones are grounded and connected to the roots – to Chicago and Detroit – and also the rhythmic element in my music; the solid structure,” Mateu says. “It was like two different poles I would be gravitating between.”
Tracks such as Lithium demonstrate this balance in a very prominent manner. Beginning with a driving techno foundation, glimmering arpeggios slowly reveal themselves, coasting on an undercurrent of ghostly, pulsating synth pads.
Mateu brought in several other producers to engage in this balance on the album including fellow avid music technologist, Giorgia Angiuli, who co-produced and sang on Tuning The Moon.
“This particular collaboration worked very well because we have very different approaches and we managed to combine them in an interesting way,” Mateu says of working with Angiuli.
Mateu goes on to note that, in essence, he produced the bones of the track while Angiuli produced the feathers, describing her process as “innocent, but in a beautiful way.”
Tuning The Moon runs at a slightly slower tempo than the rest of the album. This complements Angiuli’s vocals, allowing her to draw out the lyrics as other high-frequency parts layer across other – before the kick drum and gruelling bassline fade in.
Another aspect of freedom engrained into Feather & Bones is that it is also the first release on Mateu’s brand new record label that shares the same name as the album.
Mateu has released music on numerous well-known labels such as Dirtybird, Armada, Anjunadeep, and Mobilee. With Mobilee, he’s had a longstanding relationship, sharing all of his albums through them going back to his debut, Bittersweet, in 2011.
But even after working with a respected label like Mobilee for many years, he found himself at the mercy of various limitations. Not those set by the label, but by their audience.
“The limitation is not from the label because I’m pretty much doing what I want with Mobilee. It’s more in people’s minds. Sometimes I have people sending me messages saying my sound is not related to Mobilee anymore. It’s important for people to connect certain artists to a label, which is irrelevant in my opinion,” Mateu says. By running his own label, he eradicates this problem.
Besides, even after working with a label for a decade or more, Mateu still faces the common dilemma of having demos rejected. That’s another problem running his own label eradicates.
“Those are always the most successful tracks I release,” Mateu says of the rejected demos. “I just enjoy doing what I like and the more I do what I like the more people seem to like it.”
With an understanding of his own preferences as a guiding light, Mateu has explored the far reaches of music technology. For example, after testing the limits of Dolby Atmos with his previous album, Bliss, alongside Eric Horstmann from Immersive Lab in Berlin, he learned that in an immersive environment, the kick drum of a house track resonates best when part of the mix is in the very back of the room. Every new advancement like this presents a new opportunity to express himself.
In truth, his connection with music goes deeper than self-expression for Mateu. He sees music as a way to approach god.
“Music is an expression of this perfection you can feel and that defines things, but you cannot touch. For instance, there is no perfect sine wave in nature. Even if it’s electronically generated it’s never going to be perfect. But the concept of the sine wave exists,” Mateu says. “That’s what we’re doing with music. We reflect this perfection that we can feel inside ourselves because of our connection with god and our ability to conceptualize those things, and we try to approach it as much as we can.”
In this new chapter of his life, Mateu is approaching music with a greater sense of freedom than ever before. With his new label, he can produce and release music as he sees fit, and now that his synthesizers are all back from maintenance after their brief underwater excursion, there’s no telling what he’ll create.
Feathers & Bones is out now. Learn more at rodriguezjr.net