Originally from Annecy in the French Alps, Zimmer has come a long way since moving to Paris 10 years ago. One of the best ambassadors for a new wave of French electronic music, Baptiste – better known as Zimmer – has been busy for the last few years pouring his heart and soul into his debut album and live show.
This record, the self-titled Zimmer, was released in September 2019 on one of Paris’ coolest independent labels – Roche Musique – and was shared with the world through a meticulously planned immersive live show (that is, until touring came to an untimely pause). With a background in design and a do-it-himself attitude, Zimmer has created the ultimate sonic and visceral experience by pairing his songs with carefully thought out light sequences powered by panels he built and programmed in his Parisian living room.
Having lived in Berlin at the beginning of his musical career, the city played an important role in shaping Zimmer’s musical style, paving the way for his later musical adventures. With his debut album – arguably his most sophisticated work yet – Zimmer takes listeners on a journey through time and space by skilfully mixing house, disco and techno, bringing his main musical inspirations over the years full circle. Often returning to Berlin throughout his career, the producer affirms that each trip feeds his appetite for new ideas and sounds, renewing his love for electronic music each time. It’s no wonder that Berlin was the last place Zimmer visited before the lockdown and is the first place he wishes to return to and play again.
Before the days of face-masks and social distancing, we had the privilege of seeing Zimmer in action both in New York City and Paris, and couldn’t miss the opportunity to catch up with him about his debut album, his lighting inspiration and what over a decade of DJ-ing and producing has taught him.
Steph Rushton: Baptiste, how did your adventures in music begin?
Zimmer: I love DJ-ing. It’s my first love. I actually only started making music because having some of my own material helped me get DJ gigs; I didn’t initially become a producer because I loved making music. But in time, I ended up falling in love with producing and now it’s been 10 years. I feel like I’ve come full circle, and that’s what the album and live show represent to me – that I can be a real musician – because I never ever thought that I could actually do this in my life.
“Last year I worked the most in my entire life to get the album released… Maybe I’m not lazy anymore, maybe music has changed that for me.”
SR: You’ve been making music for a decade now and DJ-ing for 15 years, how has this defined your life?
Z: I think it just becomes part of you at some point. It influences what I do every day, what I think about, the people I meet. Probably half of the people I know are people I met through music and it’s opened up my horizons in ways I never could have expected. Last year I worked the most in my entire life in order to get the album released and prep the live show, so I had to somewhat cut my social life for a while. So, maybe I’m not lazy anymore, maybe music has changed that for me. I’ve also tried to stay positive, that’s something my parents would always tell me. I’m really good at rebounding from bad situations, moving on, and not overthinking things. This has helped me a lot, because a career in music can also be very disappointing.
SR: In what way?
Z: Like you spend a bunch of time and resources making and releasing an album, thinking it’s going to blow up and it turns out to be a complete bust. Music is also tough because everything is relative. One person could think your music is amazing and another could think it’s horrible. But I don’t want to complain because I feel like the luckiest person on earth because I do what I love and make a decent living out of it. I see so many people that love music but are not able to do it, or people that make a lot of money but they’re not happy with their jobs. I’ve kind of reached a nice middle ground and I feel extremely lucky for that.
“What matters most to me is that I made something with passion, to the best of my ability, that touches me and that makes me happy.”
SR: When your album came out, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you care what other people thought?
Z: Erm, six? I’ve taught myself to never expect anything from anyone regarding my work. When you release your music, you’re releasing a part of yourself and you have to be prepared for it to get critiqued and have people judge you. If you feel entitled or have big expectations, chances are you’re going to be disappointed. I mean of course I would love for my album to get good reviews, or be listened to by artists I admire, but I’ve really tried not to care too much about what other people think. What matters most to me is that I made something with passion, to the best of my ability, that touches me and that makes me happy. I’m really pleased with the album, so if some people like it, great, but if some people don’t, it doesn’t matter.
SR: I agree, what matters most is that you can listen to your album and be like, “yes, that was a piece of my heart.”
Z: That’s why I delayed the album release for a year, because I wanted to be completely happy with it first. It’s so important as an artist to take your time and be happy with what you do. Don’t rush things for bad reasons. And I also think it’s important because music is such a difficult industry. I read something that like 65% of musicians have mental health issues, which I can understand because it’s an insane thing to do and there’s so many things that can fuck your brain up.
SR: Like what?
Z: Like travelling all the time, going from one city to the next every night when you’re on tour. Going from being onstage and feeling super loved – which is honestly the best feeling in the world – to what happens when you’re back in your hotel room, or a show and no one shows up. That happens all the time. You play a show and it will be like 15 people. Last year we had this show in Michigan, and we had all the lights and everything. We arrived and there were about 10 people and we thought, “are we going to spend two hours setting all this up to play music for 10 people?” Or if you put a record out and no one cares. No one emails you; no one plays any of your songs. Or you do a €20,000 music video and no one really gives a crap. So, you have moments like that where it’s discouraging and that can really take a toll on you if you’re not mentally strong. Some things are going to work out, and some things won’t, and you have to accept that. I think another huge mental stressor for musicians is finding inspiration. Staying creative and making new music, especially right now. There are ways to get creative and you need to find these within yourself.
SR: What do you do to take care of your mental health?
Z: I have no expectations, I try to keep the right people around me, I try to keep a balanced social life, be kind to people, collaborate sometimes… Even though I’m still pretty bad at it because I like to do things on my own terms [laughs]. Even though I can’t control everything, I control what I can and try to stay positive.
“When I hear something I love is I try to understand why I love it. Is it the chord progression? Is it the sounds that they use? Is it how the song is mixed?”
SR: What do you do to turn on the tap and get the creative juices flowing when you’re not feeling inspired?
Z: Not doing music [laughs]. The beauty of music is that it’s so quick to write a track that you don’t need to try writing all the time. The main ideas—the melodies, the main chords, the drums, the arrangement—can be done in under two hours. And that’s an incredible feeling because after those two hours you’ve created this thing out of thin air, and now it’s yours. It’s such a powerful feeling. So, when I try to make music, I’ll do it for like 10 minutes. And if I have a good idea within that time, I keep pushing it. You can feel when you’ve entered into this magical zone and everything is just flowing and two hours later you end up with a great song. I never force myself to try and write music and some of the best moments for me to make music are when I’m not thinking about it too much.
The other thing I do is when I hear something I love is I try to understand why I love it. Is it the chord progression? Is it the sounds that they use? Is it how the song is mixed? Understanding music is actually how I learned to make music. I’ve never taken any class on music production, I’ve only watched tutorials on YouTube, so no one showed me how to do these things and I had to teach myself how to do everything and how to be creative. I will read artist interviews and see what equipment they’re using and then I’ll try that drum machine or whatever and discover new cool sounds. And then of course, I meet people along the way who help me and show me tricks. And by doing this, along the way you learn things, because you’re never going to be able to recreate exactly what they did. Then the next time you make music, you can tap into these discoveries and create new musical ideas.
SR: There are a few songs on your album that prove you are now officially making techno, which is a very different sound from what you’d released up to this point.
Z: Yeah, I mean, techno is such a vast word. There are so many different sub genres of techno. What I call techno is a cute version of techno, but techno has always been something I’ve liked, including the harder stuff. Laurent Garnier is one of my first influences or even Vitalic; his music is much harder than what I made. So, it’s not really new and it’s always something that I’ve played in my DJ sets, so it was a natural transition. But the big question is how you balance genres as a musician. The album goes from really soft to much harder and to me that’s what makes it exciting. I wanted the album to take people on a journey where it’s up and down like a hilly road in Corsica with different views at every turn, rather than going straight on a German autobahn. I wanted to express different things and not repeat myself. I wanted the calm stuff and I wanted the club stuff and I wanted to find a way to bridge them. That was the hardest thing to do because it’s difficult to go from really intense to slow without losing people. And it also makes it more difficult for journalists to put my music in a box, but for me, this is more interesting, and I would rather make songs that range in genre because they’re a very different energy. Plus, there’s this thing about firsts because even though I have been making music for years, this was my first album and it’s always going to be my first album, so I really wanted it to be special.
SR: One of your collaborations on the album was with Panama, who sang on ‘Wildflowers’ and ‘Make it Happen’. Is it true you and Panama have never met?
Z: He lives in Australia and stays there most of the time, so we’ve skyped but that’s the closest we’ve come to meeting. You know what, I’ve seen him in real life once when he played in Paris at La Maroquinerie.
SR: Why didn’t you meet him at the time?
Z: I was too shy.
SR: What was it like collaborating with Panama when he wasn’t physically with you?
Z: It was actually super easy, because one thing I don’t know how to do is vocals, so I was able to step back and be like “okay, this is all you”. Both songs I did with Panama went super smoothly. I would send him an instrumental and he would send me back a vocal and then I would play around with it and make a full track. But hopefully we’ll meet someday. We’ve been talking about maybe doing some Asian shows together, but that will have to wait for the moment.
SR: In addition to Panama, you had another guest vocalist on the album – Laumé – and all the vocals are in English… yet you are French. Would you ever consider releasing a song with French vocals?
Z: I really wanted to have a French song on my album. I reeeally wanted to. I tried a bunch of collaborations, but they just didn’t work out. There’s a beauty in singing in French that I really like and it’s also becoming more popular. There’s a big French pop scene right now and there are a lot of good things going on musically in France. So, I think it’s just a matter of finding the right connection, but it’s definitely something I want to do in the future.
SR: One song on the album, ‘Landing’, was a really cool tribute to your dad for his work with gravitational waves. Did you have any other inspiration?
Z: I mean, each song is related to what was going on in the moment when I made it. Last year I spent a lot of time in New York City, so that was definitely an influence. But there is nothing as strong as the connection to my dad.
“When I saw my mom before my live show debut in Paris earlier this year, I had to go backstage to avoid crying because my mom kept telling me how proud of me she was… that was really touching and special.”
SR: Whenever you mention your parents, your whole face lights up a little. Are they a big source of inspiration and encouragement?
Z: Oh yeah. I don’t think I’d be doing this without them. At first, they were a little skeptical as every parent would be when their kid tells them they are considering a career in music [laughs]. But I finished my university studies and I had a real job for a while. So, they’ve been very, very supportive, even though they’re not at all from creative fields. My dad is a scientist and my mom’s a teacher, so it was always kind of weird for them, but at the same time they embraced it and they saw that I was happy and that I was making enough money to support myself. Actually, when I saw my mom before my live show debut in Paris earlier this year, I had to go backstage to avoid crying because my mom kept telling me how proud of me she was [laughs], so that was really touching and special. And Just in general, seeing all these people I care about show up, I mean that’s incredible. So many emotions.
SR: It must feel incredible to be received like that in the city you now call home.
Z: Yeah absolutely. I moved to Paris exactly 10 years ago. I mean there was a bit of New York, a bit of Berlin, a bit of Mexico, but I’ve mostly been in Paris for the past 10 years. But honestly, I think my live show debut here in Paris might have been the best night of my life. A sold-out concert at one of Paris’ most iconic music venues playing my first album, with most of my really important people there. I’ve never seen so many people smiling at me. Everyone was so happy. It was such positive energy.
SR: It was, which is rare. It’s not every day you get that with a French crowd. And people were there for the music. This wasn’t one of those parties where half the people are there for the music and the other half just want to get drunk and hit on chicks. So, I was very impressed with the vibe of the party; it was a beautiful moment.
“Performing is still so weird… when people clap, I never know what to do. Like do I just stand here? do I wave?”
Z: I’m glad you felt that from the crowd. Because when you’re on stage. It’s so frustrating because it goes so fast. At one point I wanted to pause time and look at every single person in the crowd and see who they were, what they looked like, who they were with, just get to know these people. I feel like I never have enough time to actually look at people. Performing is still so weird. Or when people clap, I never know what to do. Like do I just stand here? Do I wave [laughs]? And then for this Paris show my manager was like “Baptiste, at one point you need to come around and say hi to people.” So, I did at the end, but I felt very shy about it. I’m still getting used to all this. Being showered in love is a crazy feeling.
SR: How do you feel DJ-ing a party vs playing a live show?
Z: Two radically different things because, for me DJ-ing is about improvisation because I never prepare for my sets. I like to get a feel for the crowd before I decide what I’m going to play. Because of this, there is this risk element to DJ-ing; I never know what exactly is going to happen. Whereas with my live shows, I know exactly what’s going to happen because it’s all planned out. DJ shows are also more of a primal experience because the focus is on making people dance, whereas at my live shows the focus is on making people feel something special and be immersed in the music. So those are the big differences, but I enjoy both a lot. I also want to keep doing some DJ shows because there’s a beauty in just playing music and having a simple set up. Sometimes the best parties are just like one red light that’s not moving, a lot of smoke and a good sound system.
SR: Totally, lights used right can really set the mood.
Z: I know! Lighting is all I’ve been doing these past eight months [laughs]. I had all the lights for my show set up in my living room because I built them there. Solar panels were this whole thing in my music videos – there were some in the ‘Mayans’ music video, all set up in the desert.
“I’m trying to let go and stop doing everything by myself, which is still challenging for me…”
SR: I was going to ask if the lights you use at your live shows were inspired by solar panels?
Z: We had this idea of crowds and accumulation and started to think about the artistic direction for the album. I wanted to collaborate with someone because I’m trying to let go and stop doing everything by myself, which is still challenging for me. I ended up collaborating with this legendary French graphic designer, Ludovic Houplain from H5. As we discussed my music, the concept of crowds came up and he had this idea to play with a crowd of people or a crowd of things—and there was this image of solar panels—and I have always been super inspired by desert, sky and space because of my dad’s work. So, the idea was to have these solar panels in the middle connecting the desert to the sun and the sky, which was quite powerful. For my live shows, I wanted the lights to be a continuation of this idea. My background is in design, so I was actually able to do the 3D renderings and build most of the components myself, with the help of Orson, my light engineer and designer. The goal was to have four ‘solar panel’ lights that fit into one suitcase without being too heavy so I could fly with them. There were lots of math equations involved [laughs] and what I thought would take me five days, ended up taking three months.
SR: Wow that’s incredible that you made your lights yourself!
Z: It was kind of intense, but I like the challenge and that’s the beauty of what I do: one day I’m making music and another day I’m building some weird things and trying to make them fit in a suitcase [laughs]. But I love doing DIY stuff, it’s one of those things where my brain finally disconnects. It’s crazy to think how everything at the live shows came from my living room: the music, the lights. At one point I had to move all the furniture around so I could have all the light panels set up to program everything.
SR: What goes into the programming? From the audience’s perspective, it looks great. How do you make it all work together when you’re on stage?
Z: The goal is to get people immersed in the music and I do think lights help people connect more to it, because it’s a way to illustrate music visually and creates an additional sensation. The scenography of the live show is an integral part of my art, it’s this total atmosphere that allows me to put the listener in the state that I am looking for. There have been a number of instances when I’ve played DJ gigs and the lighting wasn’t right and because of that I feel a bit of the connection was lost, so that was a really important consideration for my live shows. I have a connection with music and light meaning that when I make music, I can visualise different lights. Orson helped me with this aspect a lot. We would sit, listen to each track of the album together and brainstorm the lighting for each song, and then we would experiment with different combinations until we found the right fit. I’m really enjoying the process of coming up with new visual ideas. And the beauty of it is that we used Ableton to program the lights… that’s why I have two computers on stage with me, because one is just to control the lights. It can definitely be a bit tricky because there are so many moving parts, plus, I also need to keep an eye on the music [laughs]. It’s probably about 30 electronic devices connected and all talking to each other to make things happen. Technology these days is so crazy, it’s insane that we‘re able to do this.
SR: Could you share one of your new visual ideas?
Z: I want to create an experience in places that are not specifically designed for music, because I think those types of venues make for the best parties. I was supposed to do a show in March at the Paris Museum of Modern Art which would have been really cool because the layout is different than at a conventional music venue and would have given us new lighting options to play with.
SR: Have you heard of Mutek? I feel like that’s right up your alley.
Z: Yeah, that’s next level. I’d love to play there, and I’d love to be able to collaborate with people on bigger scale projects.
SR: If the opportunity ever came, would you score a film?
Z: Yeah at some point. I’ve had some music placed in commercials and had a track in a movie once, so it would be pretty interesting to do it the other way – writing the music for the visual. I’m not sure if I would be able to do it though, honestly.
SR: Why not?
“It’s funny: in French, we have this word, le réalisateur, which is like a film director, but if you were to direct an album you would be called that title too. So I think [scoring a film] one day would be really cool.”
Z: It’s hard; you need to be good [laughs] and be able to do a lot of things. Maybe I’m just being shy, because I do think it would be fun. But I can’t imagine working with the pressure of delivering something like that. I’m so used to having my own freedom to create whatever I want, so if I was to score a film, at the end of the day I would be working for someone else on their vision. But that’s actually something I eventually want to do more of – making music for other people – because there is stuff I know how to do really well, but I don’t do it because it’s not my taste, but maybe it can serve other people. Like the pop-ier music I was making four or five years ago. So, I would be like a producer on artists’ albums. It’s funny: in French, we have this word called le réalisateur which is like a film director, but if you were to direct an album you would be called that title too. So, I think doing that one day would be really cool.
SR: As a music supervisor, I’m very curious to know if you have a favourite movie soundtrack where you thought the music was incredibly well done?
Z: There’s this film by Romain Gavras called Le Monde est à Toi and the soundtrack was made by Jamie XX and Sebastian and it’s just beautiful. You should watch it. It’s one of the best French movies I’ve seen in the past few years. It’s a French comedy that actually works. It’s funny and touching and has beautiful imagery at the same time.
SR: Do you have a favourite film director or TV show that you would love to have your music placed in?
Z: From an artistic perspective, movies are the most glamorous thing for me, because people really pay attention to the music in movies. So, to have my music in a really cool movie by someone I like would be nice. I’ve actually had my music placed once in French film – L’amant Double by François Ozon. But to have my music placed in any project would be really cool. I mean, I love artists who are like, “Oh no, I’m not going to do this show,” but at one point you have to survive. It’s a luxury to be able to say ‘no’ to projects. And usually the people who are able to say ‘no’ to a corporate commercial or whatever, are very, very good and they’ve got their situation all figured out. But for most artists, things are not secured for the foreseeable future. I’ll say no to stuff once I have my apartment paid for in Paris [laughs]. If there is an opportunity, I will take it, as long as it doesn’t compromise my artistic integrity.
“Back in 2015 I got a big offer from a major label in the UK for an album… I could have gone way more pop and made more money. But that wouldn’t have been fun.”
SR: Have you ever had to choose between money and your artistic integrity?
Z: Yes definitely. Back in 2015 I got a big offer from a major label in the UK for an album. It was right after I did the remix for MØ and had this track called ‘Saturday Love’ and then an EP on Roche. So, after that I could have gone way more pop and made more money. But that wouldn’t have been fun, and I would’ve lost creative control of my music. So, I’m really glad I didn’t take that route.
SR: Yeah and then they would have controlled the rights to your music, which is where all the money’s at.
Z: Yeah [laughs]. I’ve definitely made an effort to understand as much of this stuff as possible and understand what I am getting myself into legally. Whenever an agreement is presented to me, I always look it over with my manager and lawyer. I’ve never signed something without having them check it first. Once you start producing your own music, it’s very important to try and understand this stuff.
SR: Absolutely, it’s very important to understand the rights to your music. Another reason why producing is more complex than DJ-ing alone.
Z: Definitely. I’ve been really lucky to be a part of Roche because they’ve helped me navigate all of this stuff for my releases. And that’s something else that’s really nice about DJ-ing; you can play whatever you want and don’t need to worry about who owns the rights to the music. You’re not limited and have the freedom to play whatever cool songs you discover.
“I dig a lot on YouTube because it has everything. It’s like the Wild West.”
SR: Where do you go to discover new music?
Z: I dig a lot on YouTube because it has everything. It’s like the Wild West. It usually starts when I Shazam a song. I will check out more of the artist’s music and end up going down this path of discovery. Anytime I hear a DJ or song I like, I will Shazam it. There’s this German DJ who I love named Gerd Janson, and I will listen to his sets and Shazam the tracks. Or if I go out to a bar in Paris, I Shazam the music. Friends will send me music they really like too. There’s a ton of ways to find music and that’s the beauty of it.
SR: Where’s the weirdest place you’ve Shazamed something? I’ve found the grocery stores here in Paris play some pretty good music.
Z: In Roche’s studio where I mixed the album, there’s a Carrefour City across the street. One day I was mixing ‘Make it Happen‘, which features Panama, and I went to grab lunch there and a Panama song was playing. I thought it was really cool that they were playing his music. In some other grocery stores I’ve heard them play Paradis and some really cool older disco. But the most random place I’ve ever Shazamed a song must have been at a restaurant I was at with my parents, a really classic French restaurant. I went to the bathroom and turned on the light – which was red – and there was a disco ball and a ghetto blaster which started playing a really nice house track. I Shazamed it and have been playing it in my DJ sets ever since.
SR: Who would you say is the new kid on the block in Paris that you’re really hyped on?
Z: I really like this guy called Saint DX. He sings mostly in English, but has a few songs in French, but all his stuff is really good. It’s like funky pop. I’m sure you will like it.
SR: We’ve covered a lot of ground, but one final thing I want to ask you is given the current situation and the significant impact it has on the music industry, what are your thoughts and what’s getting you through these difficult times?
Z: Things are definitely strange. In the scope of music, I’m worried for the future of our industry, for concert venues, clubs, festivals, labels, artists, managers, bookers, sound engineers – everyone really. I’m also worried for myself and wonder if it will still be possible to make a living out of music over the next years. I hope world leaders are smart enough to use this crisis to quickly shift to a more respectful system, towards the planet and people. But to preserve my sanity, I try not to think about it and I’m currently just trying to make as much music as I can. I have this mantra of only worrying about things I can control, which I’m putting to the test right now!
Although you’re going to have to wait to catch his next live show, you can listen to Zimmer’s self-titled debut album right now, here.