Hugo Pierre Leclerq, better known as Madeon, sits outside a café near Radio One, discussing his grand theory of pop music. It involves, among other things, the sublimation of the ego, the denial of self-expression, and the existence of “an ultimate chord, an ultimate melody” that, if you locate them, will enable everyone in the world to relate to your music. He used to be a pop snob, he says, only interested in house music. “You know when you’re a teenager and you’re like ‘yeah, commercial music sucks’?” he asks. “Well, I went through that at age 11 and then I got over it. I found out about pop music as a format and a feeling. That’s the point where I fell in love with pop music.” He sighs happily. “There’s all sorts of beauty to pop music,” he says. “It needs to connect with everyone. A loose definition would be that you don’t make it to express yourself, you make it to express everyone else. It’s both the ultimate music and the least arty.”
As will become apparent over the course of the next hour, Madeon has a theory about everything. As he discusses a career that appears to be progressing at warp speed, that’s catapulted him from entering online remix competitions to performing in front of 65,000 people at the Milton Keynes Bowl in under 18 months, he will variously expound his hypotheses on everything from playing live to the question of why remixing other artists plunges him into “deep depression”: the latter involves existentialism.
Indeed, his whole career began with a bout of theorizing. Born in Nantes 18 years ago, he was introduced to electronic music aged ten, when he saw a documentary about Daft Punk. A year later, he began learning how to make music. “I was going through middle school and high school. I was a terrible, terrible student. I was awful. The worst. I was kicked out of multiple high schools. They just kept kicking me out of one school and sending me to another. As I was learning music, I was failing at school, so I was pretty quickly getting into the idea of OK, this is going to be my job. I don’t have many other options, so I’d better become good. It was a very… committing decision.”
He posted some of his tracks online, but weirdly declined label requests to release them and other artists’ offers of remix work. “I never wanted to settle for average. If it wasn’t huge, major or massive, I’m not doing it. Which was,” he laughs, “very pretentious, but that’s how it was.”
Instead, he entered an online remix competition for drum’n’bass band Pendulum. His repositioning of their The Island as tough, sparkling house won, and an early burst of the aforementioned remix-related depression set in. “It’s crazy. I go through over-excitement when it starts to sound good, then I have to deliver it and I’m dissatisfied and I go through a really dark time. I’ve never felt worse than when I was remixing Deadmau5’s Raise Your Weapon. I was deeply depressed throughout. I think it’s because, well, it’s a bit existential, but basically, if I’m failing at music, I’m failing at my life, because I have no other options. My inability to perform to my standards means I made the wrong decision when I left school and it’s emotionally stressful. I tend to go near cancelling every remix I do: I’m cancelling it! It’s not good enough! I can’t deliver in a week, I need to go through this process.” It is, he says, a state of affairs that’s improving. “I’m more relaxed with music production. I feel safer. I have options. I’m not going to be in the streets if I failed now.”
That’s partly because of the excitement caused by Pop Culture, a video he uploaded to YouTube in July 2011, which featured his fingers flying over his Novation Launchpad controller, as he live mixed 39 samples pop tracks – from ELO’s Mr Blue Sky to Britney Spears …Baby One More Time – into three and half minutes of music: it’s currently had over 12m viewings. The idea was to demonstrate his live performance technique, about which – with a certain inevitability – he had a theory.
“Basically, there’s a very common situation right now, where as a producer you get asked to perform. They put you on festival stages even if you’re a beginner DJ. But I wanted to take advantage of my music production knowledge and do a show that was logically consistent with that. So I asked myself this question: “what should an electronic live performance be?” It’s really not obvious. Electronic music is studio music. Taking it to the stage is counter-intuitive. My take is that I love big shows, I love Daft Punk’s show, but there was a sense of obscurity, mystery as to what was going on inside that big staging. You see the show and you don’t know what’s going on. When you see a rock band, you see a guitar and you get an organic connection. I just thought how can I adapt that to electronic music. The four-four 128 bpm music that I do has to be quantized, it has to be perfect. Just having some guy playing it live, that just makes it slightly worse than the studio recording. So what’s the point? So my take was: improvisation. Connection with the audience. Seeing what’s going on. React to that. Have that level of control while still keeping something quantized and perfect. That’s where Pop Culture came from. I set out to try and do a performance that people could relate to on an organic level. I can play it differently every time, have new ideas and express them, change them, depending on the audience. I decided to use samples of famous songs, because I don’t really use samples in my own music. It’s fun to do the exact opposite and only use samples. I’ve been doing shows with it for close on to a year.”
In addition, there’s his recording career, which is, he admits, progressing at his own rate but that is nevertheless proving suitably eclectic. His first single released on his own label, Icarus, was taut electro-house, but its follow-up, Finale – released on popcultur and distributed by Sony Music’s Columbia label – is “a 92 bpm anthem rock track”. “Very important for me,” he notes, “because I wanted to test the water of people’s open mindedness.” Next up is The City, “a conclusion of a type of style I’ve been exploring. I open all my shows with it, it’s really happy, a great pop song. It’s the only track,” he adds, “that I’ve made that I don’t hate.”
“Well, you play a track live and you can’t stand it anymore because you’ve heard it a thousand times, but there are still a couple of songs that I’m happy to hear and that’s one of them.”
There is an album due at some point in the future, which he claims will be equally eclectic. “I don’t want to do a 12 track club album. I want it to be worthy of the album format. I used to be really production driven and have a concept and an idea, but now I feel I’m transitioning to focus more on the song.” He has, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, a theory about the balance between songwriting and production. “Composition is a well-understood art. The same chord progressions have been working forever and they’re amazing. It’s very arithmetical. You can convey emotions nearly automatically by using certain patterns. This is really well understood. What makes music worthy of existing is the evolution of technology and production.” He smiles. “I want to be a production scientist. I want to be able to do everything. Orchestral pieces. Proper rock music. I’m not there yet. I never will be. But it’s a goal.”