“Serious artists in general are assholes,” spits Quentin Dupieux. “DJs who don’t smile are boring. Musicians who think they have something important to say are dumb.” That sounds like fighting talk, but the French electronic music producer better known as Mr. Oizo is just being matter-of-fact.
His attitude is divergent with a lot of folks, who treat techno as some sacrosanct temple never to be demeaned, and house as holier than holy. Yet it also makes a lot of sense when you consider his musical output. Reigning over all is his breakthrough cut ‘Flat Beat’, a gloriously stoopid celebration of beats and bass for their own sake.
One of the weirdest hits ever, ‘Flat Beat’ consists of little more than a wiggly, swung-out breakbeat — from The Fatback Band’s ‘Put Your Love (In My Tender Care)’ — and a warping, parping, bassline squelch. But released as a single, it reached Number One in the UK, Germany, Austria, Italy and Finland: an affirmation of the fact that sometimes, dance music is best when it’s simple and silly. But did it really only take him two hours to make?
“It took two hours to make the original loop (bass and beats), yes,” Dupieux remarks. “I spent maybe a day to finish the tune. It’s a pretty simple tune, you know!”
Of course it is, but it’s executed with such madcap style as to be irresistible — a style honed ever since his first release through Laurent Garnier’s label F Comms in 1997, ‘#1’. Though his earlier work isn’t quite as unhinged as ‘Flat Beat’ — ‘Kirk’, for instance, is straight up house — it crackles with the same sample-laden cut-and- paste energy. ‘Flat Beat’ was the perfection of a style Oizo hinted at on the 1998 cut ‘M-Seq’, injected with a nervy, loose-limbed, oddball jiggle that has since become a trademark.
‘Flat Beat’ is a stone-cold classic naturally, but the reason it became so big is its video — or rather, the Levi’s advert that gave birth to the later video. A film-maker before he was a dance producer, Mr. Oizo had directed some videos, and created a puppet character called Stephane, who appeared in the clip for his tune ‘M-Seq’. After noting the popularity of this puppet prototype, Levi’s came calling and tasked Oizo with directing an advert for its revived Sta-Prest denim range, including a brand-new puppet, based on Stephane. Oizo agreed and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (who made The Muppets and characters from Sesame Street) helped design the new character: Flat Eric.
When these Levi’s ads were shown, with a loop from what became ‘Flat Beat’ playing in the background, no one could have predicted they would become quite so popular. The public adored the ad, ‘Flat Beat’ was born, and Oizo directed the video for the tune, giving Eric alot more screen-time. A star was born. Surely Dupieux, with his awareness of the power of film, had some inkling that it would prove such a success?
“At first it was just a stupid loop I did for the Levi’s commercials, but then some DJs sampled the loop from their TV and released like 10 bootlegs of it! So we decided to quickly release my tune,” Quentin remembers. “I knew the commercials were going to be successful because they were really special and fresh, but I had no idea this little piece of music was going to be Number One!”
Flat Eric took on a life of his own. You could buy your own Flat Eric puppet toy, he appeared in an expensive ad for Auto Trader Magazine with Starsky & Hutch’s David Soul, and was held aloft in The Office as proof that David Brent was a “chilled out entertainer”. Part of his appeal perhaps is that he’s a weird, comical but also indefinable character.
“He’s inspired by dogs probably — I’m a dog lover — and The Muppet Show, of course,” Quentin says.
Since the remarkable success of ‘Flat Beat’, Mr. Oizo has continued to release music with a prolific regularity, though nothing since has matched its chart-topping heights. Mr. Oizo remains very popular, but occupies a position of underground credibility honed through his increasingly strange and highly original material for Ed Banger and Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. He’s also continued to make films, including the extremely bizarre feature-length caper, Rubber, the tale of an errant tyre on a rampage of destruction. But Flat Eric has been mostly absent from the art of Mr. Oizo releases until recently, appearing again as a Oizo mascot, a kind of Minecraft rendering of his unforgettable visage providing the cover for his new album, ‘All Wet’. DJ Mag wonders whether there was ever a time when Mr. Oizo felt resentful towards the puppet that has snaffled all the plaudits.
“For a moment I thought it was lame to be associated with a yellow puppet. But then I realised I was absolutely wrong. It is fantastic to be connected to childhood through this character, and I deeply love him! He’s a great translation of my music,” Oizo confesses.
Flat Eric really is a wonderful representation: anarchic, loveable, just plain odd. And very cool. But the mix of musical influences that comprises ‘Flat Beat’ is almost as unique. At the time, Dupieux says, he was listening to “Dopplereffekt, Daft Punk and the Beastie Boys”, and that combination is a fairly neat summation of where the track is at. Such a disparate combination meant it proved popular with all kinds of DJs. Not just a chart hit, it was a proper dancefloor belter as well, played by UK garage DJs, burgeoning breakbeat heads, house and techno chin-strokers — the lot. One of those rare, universal ones.
“I was just trying to make some dance music with style, that’s it,” he claims. “At this time, I didn’t know about all these genres and sub-genres. I was just trying to sound ‘club’.”
Ever since, Mr. Oizo has ploughed his own furrow, proving hugely influential in his own way. ‘Flat Beat’ is arguably one of the first iterations of electro-house, and his later work has become steadily glitchier, more scrambled, a discombobulated jumble of disco, slow, dark electro and sample sprinkles. It’s no wonder he’s been a big inspiration for the Ed Banger crew from Busy P to Justice, and over the pond, to Skrillex, who he’s made a track with for the new album, entitled ‘The End Of The World’. That Oizo selected Skrillex, ever a lightning rod for love and hate, to appear, is just another confirmation that Dupieux doesn’t give a fuck what people think, and is happy to agitate and upset the rhythm however he deems fit.
That the collaboration has drawn the keyboard warriors out of their little hidey-holes to slate the pair is only a source of bemusement to Oizo. “I used to be excited and fascinated by the instant feedback of the web, but now I don’t care because it’s always the same thing; one person loves it, another person hates it, then another person was expecting something else, and another one says ‘Give me these three minutes of my life back’. Whatever the music, you always get the same kind of feedback. But I’m still happy to shock those people who think a guy like me shouldn’t make a tune with a guy like Skrillex.” It’s candid responses like this, and deliriously fun, dumb tunes like ‘Flat Beat’, that make the often serious world of dance music a more enjoyable place to be.