Music Interviews

Yann Tiersen: “I became more about seeing what’s around me, living stuff and organic stuff” – Interview

The Breton on his new album Kerber and its accompanying film, his island home of Ushant, and rekindling his love of electronic music

Yann Tiersen

Yann Tiersen (Photo: Richard Dumas)

Yann Tiersen is online, live from the Western end of the English Channel. He is talking to us from his studio on the island of Ushant, lying just off the Brittany coast. With merely a couple of hundred inhabitants, the French territory now has a substantial piece of music in its honour in the form of Tiersen’s new album Kerber, named after a chapel on the island. There is an accompanying film, too, where viewers are taken on a visual and social journey across the island. On it he brings his instrumental capabilities with keyboard, electronics and violin to the fore, with the help of director Kit Monteith.

We find him in chipper mood. “I’m really good today, very busy in the studio,” he confirms. “I’m rehearsing a bit for a gig we have coming up in Berlin in September, in the Superbooth.” Talk immediately turns to the film and the music behind it, both substantial pieces of work. There is a strong impression of Kerber having been conceived as a single, extensive whole rather than a collection of seven tracks. “Yes and no,” Tiersen answers cryptically. “I did different tracks but it seemed at the beginning I was focused on the piano. Then I was keener to focus on the electronics as I was a bit bored after a while. Then I switched to see the piano tracks as a sound bank, and something to use, to work from to explore electronics and granular synthesis, more than doing songs. All the songs were like a huge bank of sampling material and a bank of sounds, so in that way it was more a normal composition, a magma of piano stuff to use to do something else.”

Tiersen’s relationship with electronics has been rekindled after a long time apart. “I started making music in the late 1980s and early 1990s that was only using electronics, and some sampling stuff. It happened because when I was 12 or 13 I swore to God that I would never, ever play piano or violin again, because I was really fed up with those instruments. What actually happened was that I rediscovered acoustic instruments, and now it’s the other way around. I’m just going back to my first loves.”

Tiersen plays the violin in the Kerber film, in a particularly intense bout of tremolo writing. “I used to play this track all the time at my gigs, and for the film I played it in a fort.” His electronic memory is returning fast. “I’ve started looping as well, and I think I will use it a bit more, because I will explore different set-ups. The one in the movie is the big set-up, and I’m working on a smaller set-up without piano and all of that, just electronics. I’m working on that for Berlin as well as for the tour. I’m excited to do lots of different venues, small ones as well.”

The overriding sense is that Tiersen has been building up to this album for a while, as a detailed portrait of where he lives. “Yeah. I always tell this story from about five years ago, about being chased by a mountain lion on a bicycle trail in California. We were on a track, on a really long and tough ride for 12 hours. After six hours, right in the middle, we realised that a mountain lion was following us, and we were really scared. We spent six more hours thinking, ‘OK, we are going to be eaten!’ That switched my way of seeing the world, and since then I’ve been less anthropocentric. I became more about seeing what’s around me, living stuff and organic stuff. I translated this to my music and started a really simple thing. Instead of song titles I started using names of places as titles, and I did this as a piece of music and a place on Earth. I focused on the place where I live, on Ushant. The new album is no exception to this – it is a free album, more or less. It was made in lockdown as well, in a really small area. I was thinking that next, instead of places on Ushant I will choose houses and villages, the places where people live. That’s the case on this album.”

Tiersen forms a strong connection between the listener and the island – indeed, it is almost possible to feel the weather and the sea spray through the music. “Yeah, that was how it was for me, especially as I haven’t done a tour for two years now, almost. I did a gig in July, and I think I went to the mainland three or four times in a year and a half, so I guess it’s going to be present in the music for sure.”

In spite of this, lockdown was not as difficult without live music as you might expect. “No, not really – all I did was just one gig apart from the videos that we filmed. There’s an electronic music festival in France, and it actually happens to be in Brest which is really convenient, not far from here. It was really exciting – I love festivals. Everything was there – the weather was really bad, and people were dancing in the rain. It was great.”

Similar to Britain, then? “Oh yes, you know we have weather like Cornwall here in Ushant.” Will he take a piece of the island with him as he travels on tour next year? “Of course, but I’m also so excited to be playing again in different cities. I think I will focus on the present day and try to find a good place to party.”

Yann Tiersen

Yann Tiersen (Photo: Richard Dumas)

In spite of the electronics, some of the most moving parts on Kerber occur when the music is at its quietest, drawing the listener in. “I have been focusing more on the really long and ambient tracks. I always did that, starting slow – but I like the contrast of the really quiet stuff and the more beat-orientated music. It’s more present on the live version because the album is more focused on the piano.”

The video is dramatically shot, with striking footage of Tiersen in the island’s chapel. He appears completely oblivious to the close-up camera. “They were moving around, of course. At the beginning we were supposed to shoot the violin in the church, but that wasn’t a good idea so we switched. On stage we do another version and for this I was just improvising. I wasn’t aware of the camera too much as every take was different.”

Did music keep him going in lockdown? “It’s weird, because at the beginning of lockdown I wasn’t listening to any music, and I wasn’t making any music either. I was just focusing on gardening, because the news was so oppressive, and I was thinking, subconsciously, about so many people stuck in small apartments. I was keen to spend my time outdoors in the garden. I did that for one or two months, and then slowly I started to work again at home and on the album. I wasn’t listening to much music, but then I switched to the electronic part of the album, and started to go back into the studio. I was very strict at the start of lockdown, and didn’t go to the studio, until they took the restrictions away.”

Momentum grew on the new record. “I started to work more and more on the electronics, and I started to listen to a bit more music after the album was finished. Strangely I became obsessed with dance music, because I felt the need to party again. It made me focus on DJing, listening to a lot of electronic music and thinking about mixing stuff together. I’m more into that at the moment. I just discovered a woman from Holland called Upsammy, who I think is really good – she records on Dekmantel. I’m listening to that a lot, and also Laurel Halo.”

Kerber confirms once again that Tiersen has a strong grasp of bigger structures, implying his output would sit very well with people who like classical music. “That’s weird,” he says, “because I don’t see it that way at all. It’s not the path I had – I was more into German electronic music than minimalism. I was more into a down to earth approach, not too cerebral. I would listen to Low-era David Bowie, Philip Glass and Steve Reich – I really like the older works and the concept and everything. Then I was listening to stuff like the Penguin Café Orchestra, and at the same time enjoying Slint.

“I started to do more slow travel, riding on bikes and stuff like that. That changed me so I guess it changed the music as well” – Yann Tiersen

They informed his own music. “I was just trying to do stuff with chords and nice melodies, in that kind of perspective and not mocking but using a second degree or derivation of it. I think nice melodies and simple melodies can be really bitter and dark actually, and it is a way for me to get away from them and the art stuff that I had when I was younger. I was more into that, and not into classical or film music at all. I’m really uncomfortable with music with soundtracks, too – apart from those by directors such as Kubrick. Composing music for images I think is weird, because for me music is something of a trip, you know – a trance or a dance, something like that. I think if the director is working with images and music that is a good way around, but the opposite is a bit weird. I always see my music in that context, the path that I’ve been through.”

The mountain lion encounter may have had a big effect on the Kerber album, but does he think it will dictate how he writes in the future, too? “Yeah. It changed something in my music, and it changed something in me, the way I was seeing the world, and the way I was living here as well. After that I built the studio, and I settled a bit more. I started to do more slow travel, riding on bikes and stuff like that. That changed me so I guess it changed the music as well. But as I said before, I don’t want to take music too seriously. For me it’s just like having fun, and being in a trance – it’s something to do with magic in a religious or ceremonial sense.”

He is keenly anticipating heading out to give live performances. “Yeah, especially the next tour. Unfortunately we did lots of like really beautiful venues with the solo piano album like Berlin Philharmonie and the Sydney Opera House, but to be honest it’s a bit boring. I don’t like a seated audience; I think it’s a nonsense listening to music while seated. I can’t wait to play the Roundhouse in London. I feel more comfortable there and it’s totally different. I love that. Even for ambient or droney stuff it still makes sense to stand to music I think, then you can move or even leave if you want to. If you’re bored with the gig because you don’t like it, it’s easier – you just go to the bar!”

He remembers his last visit to the UK – a release party for an album he doesn’t mention in December. ”That was my last city experience, in London – a while ago. Berlin will be the next one. In the gap I’ve just been on Ushant and went to the dentist in Brest.” What a contrast, between Berlin and Ushant. “Yeah, and especially funny because when we toured a lot I was a bit violent. On Ushant we get this amazing chance that we don’t have any noise, apart from the wind, and we have no cars. There are cars but we don’t hear them. There is nothing like elsewhere in the world, where there is always the engines to hear. I go from Ushant where there is silence, then in Brest there are cars everywhere. It’s sometimes really tough to get the difference, but nice as well – because I look forward to things like the Superbooth in Berlin.”

He waxes lyrical about the German capital. “It is one of my favourite cities, but everybody loves Berlin. I guess I like the green areas in the city, and I also like that there are lots of things happening, that you can pass in front of a bar and you don’t realise that it’s crazy inside. I love that. Brest is a bit like that, it’s really small in comparison but it has that kind of vibe and I love it.”

Our time is up – and as we bid farewell, Tiersen turns back to his equipment to continue work for the live show. Soon, a little corner of the English Channel will be let loose on the rest of Europe, and this particular instrumentalist cannot wait.

Yann Tiersen’s new album Kerber is out now on Mute. Kerber: The Film is available to stream exclusively from Tiersen will perform a solo modular performance at Superbooth in Berlin.
For the latest details on forthcoming live dates, please visit

buy Yann Tiersen MP3s or CDs
Spotify Yann Tiersen on Spotify

More on Yann Tiersen
Yann Tiersen: “I became more about seeing what’s around me, living stuff and organic stuff” – Interview
Yann Tiersen – Kerber
Yann Tiersen – Portrait
Yann Tiersen – ALL
Yann Tiersen – Eusa