International Artists Seek Out Real Sound in Paris

Article publié dans l’International New York Times.

PARIS — Behind a dark red door in Montmartre, a long driveway leads to an unlikely hidden space: a full-fledged recording studio so sought after that it is attracting a growing list of big names in the music industry, including Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Phoenix and Cat Power.

Called Motorbass, the 2,200-square-foot space, built in 1979, is one of only a few recording studios in Paris. Most studios are on the periphery of the city because of high rents.

The space’s main attraction is its owner, the producer Philippe Zdar, a D.J. and half of the electro band Cassius with Hubert Blanc-Francard.

Mr. Zdar, 47, whose real name is Philippe Cerboneschi, does not rent out his studio and works only with the artists he chooses. “I don’t want to have bad music here,” he said. “I have the feeling that it might enter the walls. I believe in vibes.”

One of the things that makes the studio special is Mr. Zdar’s commitment to authentic analog sound, using real instruments, instead of computers. “It changes everything,” he said. “I can hear the difference. We are not using sounds from computers that everybody is using.” He said he chose his instruments “with love” — including a piano, seven guitars and two drum sets, along with seven amplifiers and 18 synthesizers. “I know I can do everything with them,” he said.

Mr. Zdar’s guiding hand has won over performers. “The thing is mostly Philippe,” Laurent Brancowitz, a guitarist in the French band Phoenix (which recorded two albums at Motorbass), said in a telephone interview. “If he wasn’t there, it would lose its charm.”

Ryan Tedder, the lead singer of the American rock band OneRepublic, as well as a producer and songwriter who has worked on hits for Beyoncé and Adele, went to Motorbass for the production of two songs on the OneRepublic album “Native,” released in 2013. (The studio is named after Mr. Zdar’s 1990’s house band with Étienne de Crécy.)

“There is a French sound that no one in America knows how to do,” Mr. Tedder said in a video interview with the French website off.tv. “I don’t know if it is in the water or the croissants, but you can’t get it in Los Angeles or New York. So we come here.”

Luke Jenner, the lead singer of the Rapture, who did work at the studio in 2009 for his band’s album “In the Grace of Your Love,” said of Mr. Zdar, “All he cares about is the vibes. He knows how to make things technically sound good.” He continued, “At the end of the day, he is a D.J. and the work of a D.J. is to create vibes and energy.”

The studio has benefited from a renewed interest in “French Touch,” the French electronic music movement that found global success in the 1990s and 2000s and that has resurged recently as American artists like Mr. West and Mr. Williams have collaborated with bands that were leaders of the movement, like Daft Punk and Cassius.

Mr. Zdar rose to wider prominence in 2010, when the album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” which Phoenix recorded at Motorbass in 2008, won the Grammy award for best alternative music album. (The trophy is displayed at the studio.) Soon Mr. Zdar found himself working with major U.S. acts like the Beastie Boys, the Rapture and Cat Power. Mr. West visited Motorbass in 2011 when he worked on the song “Why I Love You,” inspired by the Cassius song “I Love You So,” for his album with Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne.”

Lately, Mr. Zdar has been working at Motorbass on his latest album as half of Cassius. The band has brought in previous collaborators, among them Mr. Tedder and Mr. Williams, who sang on two of the new tracks. In November, he took a break from recording to produce a track for the first album of Flo Morrissey, a young British singer who has been compared to Lana Del Rey.

Mr. Zdar bought the studio, on the Rue des Martyrs in the 18th Arrondissement, in 2001, drawn by its location and history. Dominique Blanc-Francard, a sound engineer and producer — and the father of Hubert Blanc-Francard of Cassius — had rented the space in the early 1980s and worked with some legendary French musicians there, including Serge Gainsbourg, who produced albums for his former companion Jane Birkin and for the actress Isabelle Adjani. In an interview, Mr. Blanc-Francard, 70, said Tom Hidley, a well-known music studio designer, worked on the studio using materials that included rocks from the island of Java to enhance acoustics.

Mr. Zdar first came to the studio in 1998 to record Cassius’s first album, “1999.” (By then it had been taken over by another manager, Christian Gulluni.) He thought it was “magical,” he said. “When the owner told me he wanted to sell it a few years later, I thought that I had to buy it.”

Hubert Blanc-Francard of Cassius, who often visited the studio in his youth, had the same reaction. “Something musically happened,” he said. “I don’t know what was here 1,000 years ago, but there is something in this place.”

After he purchased the space, Mr. Zdar hired the designer Gérard Pibiri to rebuild the studio, which had fallen into ruin. “It took me seven years to renovate it because I didn’t have enough money,” he said.

It was worth the wait. Its first project? In 2008, the studio was used to record Phoenix’s award-winning album.

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