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By Glenn BurnSilver
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Madonna has called him "a genius" and "the future of sound." So how does Mirwais Ahmadzai, who produced much of the Material Mom's latest effort, Music, and now has released his own album, Production, deal with such superlatives, especially coming from such a high-profile source?
"I don't want to deal with that," says Mirwais, who goes by just his first name, pronounced "MEER-weis." "I'm proud of what she said, but I don't really want to use it. Maybe I can use it for promotional things, because I want to sell my record. If my music were more mainstream, I would never use this kind of quote. But my album is not really easy, you know? I try to use the best weapon I have. But I'm not obligated to accept it, because if I do, it means that I won't be creative in the future. It's impossible to accept that kind of mention."
Recently, Mirwais was involved in his highest-profile gig ever, sitting in with Madonna as she opened the telecast of this year's Grammy Awards (that was him, shown ever so briefly, playing keyboards). Madonna was nominated in three categories but lost all three, including Album of the Year, which would have won a trophy for Mirwais as well.
"I'm a little bit disappointed," he admits, "especially for Madonna. I think she deserved Record of the Year. But, you know, music is not a war. It would have been nice to win, but it's all right. Maybe next time."
Mirwais can afford to be philosophical, because his rise to current prominence was relatively unintentional. Before working on Music, he was an underground figure on the French house scene whose track "Disco Science" caught Madonna's attention. But he is no mere newcomer. The Swiss native, born of an Italian mother and Afghan father and raised in Paris, has been recording and performing for more than 20 years, albeit with two bands of a more conventional nature: Taxi Girl, which lasted through most of the '80s and has been cited as an influence on current French outfits such as Air and Daft Punk, and the shorter-lived Juliette et les Independants.
"I started to do music in the late '70s," Mirwais says of his first band, Taxi Girl. "Our songs were sung with punk attitude. Honestly, it was a really difficult band, because we believed, you know, in this kind of romantic attitude of rock 'n' roll, this suicide attitude." Indeed, one of the band members took the rock 'n' roll fantasy a bit too far, dying of a drug overdose.
"It was a good band, but it was difficult to end," Mirwais continues. "The music was a mix of Kraftwerk, of electronic music of the time, and punk music. Not punk, exactly, but some kind of techno-pop. It was curious, because our music was light -- we didn't use heavy guitar, you know. But our life was so violent and so destructive that people didn't understand us. They think we were a normal techno-pop band, but we were so wild. It was impossible."
After that, Mirwais switched gears and formed Juliette, a mostly acoustic outfit, with his girlfriend. "After Taxi Girl, I wanted to spend more time to learn the process of writing songs," he says. "That band was more traditional in terms of production. We still used synthesizer, but it was not as modern as Taxi Girl. But it was okay, too."
Mirwais' move into full-on house and electronica came about in the mid-'90s, but he emphasizes that it wasn't as radical a shift for him as it might seem. "I have always been attracted by technology and, especially, by synthesizers," he says, "not because I am a science fiction fan but because I think technology gives you the tools for freedom. In 1994, the musical context, the house music, all the electronic music was such that I was attracted to do this kind of music.
"Also, you should know that I started to do programming in 1980, with the first sequencer and the first technology. With Taxi Girl, we were the first in France, or maybe the first in Europe, to use sampling, with the Fairlight and with all these tools. In 1994, all this music and the electronic context became current, and I wanted to be a part of it. That's why I came back to electronic music at this time."
Technology may represent freedom for Mirwais, but actually employing that technology to build tracks, he says, "is a torture. It's pain, honestly. With computers you have so much possibility."
"Disco Science," released in April 1999 on the independent French label Naïve, became his breakout track. The idea for the song, he says, started with its pumping bass line, but as the track came together, he began to think of it more as a statement of purpose, mostly because of its throbbing but surprisingly slow rhythm.
"The idea was to do something in reaction against the dictates of the bpm," he says. "In the past, especially in the '70s or the beginning of the '80s, people danced to a lot of different tempos -- slower tempo, like the Bee Gees, or more up-tempo. Today, if you don't use at least 120 bpm, you can't make people dance. With 'Disco Science,' I try to explain to the people, 'You can dance with slower tempo.'"
Beyond the dance scene's slavish devotion to fast rhythms, Mirwais is also critical of how quickly it has disposed of some of its seminal artists. In their place, he says, has come a wave of acts he dismisses as "marketing people."
"I'm not against profit," he says. "You do a good track, you can have a lot of profit that you deserve. But there are a lot of followers that are just in this for profit. In dance music, all the good people that did house and disco, people from Detroit and from Chicago, they are not anymore involved in this music. They are trying to do something creative somewhere else."
As forward-looking as Mirwais might be, you can't help but think he's looking back just a bit on Production. "Disco Science," for example, relies heavily on nifty Devoesque whip cracks. The funereally paced "V.I. (The Very Last Words She Said Before Leaving)" is a reconstruction of an old Serge Gainsbourg track, "Cargo Culte." "Junkie's Prayer," meanwhile, seems like an elegy for "Taxi Girl," with creepy mechanized vocals declaring, "We want drugs/We want to die." And many of the tracks, particularly "Naïve Song" and "I Can't Wait," feature synth sounds and vocorder-treated vocals that seem straight out of the '70s and '80s.
"Oh, you know, the problem with the synthesizer, it is the one you use," he says. "The synthesizer sounds -- they didn't evolve, really, from the '70s. A lot of people from the electronic scene use old vintage synths. Understand, I don't use vintage -- I use modern synths with a lot more control on it. I think it doesn't matter if you use an old sound or a new sound. What is important is the construction -- what you are trying to say, to communicate. I am interested by the language of music, and not by the song. Music is not just to put a song together. It's too obvious if you think that. You have to think about what is beyond music, and beyond music there is a language, something you try to communicate. Me, I am interested by that. Tomorrow, if I have to use a guitar or organ, I will use it with no problems. I think the synthesizer and modern instruments are really cool, because you could add a new word to the language. It's very interesting. In the future, maybe there will be new instruments. And I will use them."
One thing puzzling Mirwais, though, is the notion that electronic music is currently seen as a product for, by and of youth culture exclusively. He's 40 years old and still in the thick of it, he notes, as is his benefactor Madonna, who is slightly older.
"I think this music is not just for teenagers," he says. "You know, when you talk about electronic music, it's not new. Everybody says it's new -- it's not new. What we did with Music, it was a combination of an American singer and electronic musician, and there is a collision. More people are interested in this and want to use this sound, especially guys on the West Coast -- guys like Dr. Dre. In the future, there will be a big explosion of this music. Madonna, she may be the first big star to do it. But in the future there will be more. I am pretty sure of that."