dOP: Live Music is Irreplaceable 

When you think of French electronic music, you immediately think of Jean Michel Jarre, Air, Laurent Garnier, Daft Punk, Cassius, Stardust, St.Germain, Justice, and yes, David Guetta. For the past 15 years, outside of the commercial mainstream, dOP has earned their place as one of electronic music’s most exciting live acts. What once started as a trio of childhood friends turned musicians by choice and by chance, now a duo, dOP has been turning out dance floors and festivals worldwide with their live sets. Their sound is a crossroads between jazz, hip-hop, techno, house, and disco. With a non-stop work ethic, they have been releasing a steady work of dancefloor-ready hits and remixes rich in smooth percussion, sexy synths, and soulful, introspective lyrics. 

Based between Barcelona and Moscow, dOP started 2020 with a tour of India, new releases on their dOP Only label, their Carousel EP and Heart Signs (Remixes) on Eleatics Records, in addition to their collaboration with Greg Paulus on Yotam Avni’s long awaited LP debut Was Here on Kompakt Records, and then the world came to a full stop. Damien Vandesande and Jonathan Illel graced the DJ Cookbook with their charm and wit before and after COVID-19. dOP spoke of the flavors from their childhood, musical influences, life on the road, the importance of couscous, a traditional Tunisian Jewish recipe and the joys of Slavic gastronomy, all while reflecting on how the current events have impacted the world. 

Q. Where were you when the quarantine began and how has it affected you?

A. Damien Vandesande: The virus changed everything in my life. I was stranded for 2 months in Senegal when the travel ban began. I finally arrived in Paris in early May. I was separated from my daughter who lives in Moscow for the last 4 months. I’ve been busy with music, doing sports, and cooking. To be honest, I like to live like a monk, but yes, I’m missing playing live.

A. Jonathan Illel: I was in the south of Morocco taking surfing lessons for my 40th birthday when the quarantine began. I always wanted to learn how to surf. I panicked and under everyone’s advice, I flew back to France. Once I got back to France, I bought a train ticket to go to my mother in the south of France. Once I boarded the train, we were informed that we were delayed because we were connecting with a train going to Barcelona. It was my destiny that I go back to Barcelona. Had I gone to my mother’s I would have not been able to work on music or anything else. I would have probably fallen in a big depression because I was also going through a relationship break up. I rode on an empty train and once I arrived at the train station in Barcelona, it felt very unreal, it was empty. We’ve recorded about 14 tracks since I got back. The process has been different because Damien was in Senegal and I was here in Barcelona. I’ve been working out, I’m on a diet, I’ve lost 10 kg, I’m trying not to drink alcohol. 15 years on tour does take a toll on your body so I want to be healthy for the new decade.

Q. What have you been eating  lately?

A. Damien Vandesande:  While I was in Senegal, I ate a lot of Thiebou Djenne, it became my favorite dish. It is rice with fish and vegetables simmered in a tomato sauce. It is known as the traditional dish from Senegal.

A. Jonathan Illel: I’ve been going through food phases.  I was eating a lot of Mexican food, especially quesadillas. I might have a steak with beautifully roasted potatoes with parsley, a lot of ratatouille with rice. I love to cook ceviche so I’ve been eating that too. I like to make a lot of Shakshuka, sometimes with vegetables or with sausages, and I’ll eat that for 2 days straight. My big joy lately is that I make my own tahini. A great discovery has been Patak’s chutneys and pickles, the chili pickles, garlic pickles, and hot mango pickles are delicious, I can eat it with everything. It’s like a dream come true.

Q. The pandemic has affected every aspect of life, especially live music. What are your thoughts regarding nightlife and the music industry at the moment?

A. Damien Vandesande:  I know this time has been very prosperous for all creators. Artists, now more than ever, have had the time to create something different, richer, and deeper. We need to nourish ourselves with what the world is telling us these days. Asides from the economic impact facing the most fragile, this unexpected break, even with its inconveniences, has been a good thing.

About the industry, I don’t know,  there’s a lot of support from listeners but still no vaccine. Parties will return very slowly, I guess. I don’t want to replace real contact with anything, to be honest. Live music is everything, you share and enjoy it together. That is irreplaceable.

A. Jonathan Illel: I don’t miss being on tour because I know it will come back and it will be back at the right moment. Like everybody I’ve had moments of loneliness and going through a break up makes it harder. We’ve been touring clubs for the past 15 years and I can tell you it was starting to feel like a loop. Everything is becoming so commercial, even underground music is commercial now. Then you have the drugs, it builds and destroys everything, only the music remains. We need to rethink the old ways and start fresh.

Q. What is the most important meal of the day for you?

A. Damien Vandesande: The most important meal for me is the one you eat with your friends but now that I am a parent and as I get older it has to be breakfast.

A. Jonathan Illel: Lunch because it is my only meal, I eat at 2 pm. I’ve been fasting.

Q. Damien, now that you are a parent has your relationship to food changed?

A. Damien Vandesande: When you become a parent, you check and read everything that you buy and cook! Our daughter was born in Berlin, we are based in Moscow  so we try to provide a lot of diversity in her meals. Although, right now, she is not into vegetables!

Q. You’re not a true Parisian if you don’t eat…?

A. Damien Vandesande: You have to eat at a Brasserie.  Now there are High Brassieres, they are not high-end restaurants per se but they focus on modern brasserie cooking.

A. Jonathan Illel: In Paris, you have to eat at La Cave de L’Insolite.

Q. What are your family roots, are you 100% French? Is there a special family dish that you remember from your childhood?

A. Damien Vandesande: I am French but completely mixed. My grandfather is from Poland, my grandmother is from Italy and my mother is French Algerian. My family cooks a lot. I love to eat couscous Algerian style, my grandmother is Italian but from the southwest of France and she was always cooking foie gras and all types of Boudin sausages.

A. Jonathan Illel: I am a mix between, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Tunisia. The Tunisian side of the family originally came from Italy. My grandfather on my father’s side came from Spain. I have 2 favorite meals that I remember from my childhood that I loved. My mom’s arrabbiata sauce with grated comté cheese and a coca-cola, that made me the happiest boy ever. The second meal is T’fina Pkaila with couscous, which is a traditional Tunisian Jewish dish. It is a meat stew made with spinach, white beans, mint, cilantro, onions, garlic, and harissa paste. The spinach is cooked until it is black, once it loses all its water you begin to fry it in oil until you get a paste. This is the base for the sauce. You can use merguez, oxtail, lamb, and if you add lamb feet (remove them before serving) while cooking, it gives it thickness and a rich delicious flavor, it’s the fat that makes it so delicious. When you serve it over couscous you see that it is dark green and you have to eat it with bread so you can dip it in the sauce. I think this is one of the heaviest and fattest meals in the world. Once you eat it you can’t do anything for 8 hours!

Q. Before dOP was born you all worked in a restaurant. What kind of food did the restaurant serve?

A. Damien Vandesande: We all love to cook, Jo’s also a great cook. It is part of our culture and family tradition. Yeah, they (Clément Aichelbaum, ex member and Jo) worked as waiters and I was the cook. It was simple food. It was only food from the southwest of France. A lot of duck dishes; Magret, Confit, Cockerel, Fougasse, and all types of charcuterie. They were not technical dishes, very simple, it was more about the final product. It was a lot of fun.

A. Jonathan Illel: Yeah, it was mostly ducks, (laughs). I remember just wanting to get my money so I could go! I think I was the best waiter ever, I can’t be humble about this! I was very cool with all our guests, I was a very seductive waiter, they enjoyed my act! I was making a lot of tips. 

Q. When are you at your most productive, on an empty stomach, on a full stomach or after having smoked a joint and drank some alcohol?

A. Damien Vandesande: (Laughs) a full stomach plus the third one!

A. Jonathan Illel: (Laughs) When I don’t eat I am way more efficient. On stage, alcohol always helps. Sometimes we play at 2:30 am and the crowd is drunk so I need to be a little tipsy too. I’ve played sober and it felt very boring, the set felt longer. Now I am looking for a happy medium for our next tour. I dream that we do 4 gigs a month, where we get to pick the clubs and that will be the time I get to drink a little.

Q. What is your connection to Mali? You spent time in Mali recording and playing with African musicians, how was the Malian food experience?

A. Damien Vandesande: We come from a neighborhood in Paris that has the second-highest population of Malians outside of Mali. We have a strong connection with Mali, a lot of our childhood friends are from Mali and once everyone started turning 18, 19, 20 years old a lot of them went back and started businesses there and other activities so we joined them. The gastronomy in Mali is very simple, it is a poor country, it is not near the sea, it’s very dry which makes it hard to grow food. They are satisfied with simplicity and quantity. They have great meat there but you can’t eat meat every day.

A. Jonathan Illel: The food experience in Mali was missing the wow factor. It was just rice, salad and a bit of meat. 

Q. What is your relationship to eastern Europe? What did you discover about the gastronomy in Slavic culture?

A. Damien Vandesande: Jo and I have traveled throughout Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan and we discovered that they have great gastronomy. It was in the ’90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we started going there and loved it.  Before the 2000s no one spoke of how great the Slavic gastronomy is. We also discovered that not only the vodka is great but they have amazing distilled spirits. A lot of people still make Samogon, a type of Russian moonshine, it translates to self-distilled. The most common ingredients are corn, grains, beets, sugar, potato, bread, or fruits. In Georgia, we discovered that they not only have incredible gastronomy but also a thriving wine and cognac culture. The dining experience is a very warm atmosphere. For example, in France, you don’t drink spirits when you’re having a meal and in Slavic countries they do, this is what makes the atmosphere so warm and welcoming.

A. Jonathan Illel: I fell in love with it a long time ago and once I met Alina (Alina Pash, Ukrainian singer, rapper) I loved it even more. Being between Barcelona and Ukraine the past 3 years has been fantastic. Food-wise, I love eating Pelmeni (Russian dumplings). The Georgian gastronomy is great, Khachapuri (Georgian cheese-filled bread). Salo (salted or brine fermented pork slabs) is delicious, you eat it with pickles and wash it down with vodka.

Q. Jonathan, how was cooking for 50 people in Marseille’s La Fabulerie? What was on the menu?

A. Jonathan Illel: That was done for a charity, I love to cook for people and I cooked together with my friend Mohamed Ali Ghouayel who’s a chef from Marseille. We did a classic kefta and merguez with couscous and vegetables.  When I am home I like to cook couscous and sometimes I’ll make it with meatballs, merguez or fish balls, I’ll add some ginger, spices. I also make my harissa paste. Couscous is very important in my life. I am so passionate about food! My dream is to have a small restaurant on a beach somewhere with 5 or 6 tables where I cook for people.

Q. What kind of music did you listen to as a teenager?

A. Damien Vandesande: As a teenager, I listened to a lot of jazz. It was also the 90’s and it was the birth of the French hip-hop movement. 

A. Jonathan Illel: I listened to a lot of Michael Jackson, The Doors, and a lot of Hip-Hop. Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, PMD, Funkdoobiest, and I haven’t stopped listening to them. Right now I am addicted to Lost, an album by Rami Khalifé a French-Lebanese composer and pianist. 

Q. Are you a trained musician? If so what instruments do you play?

A. Damien Vandesande: Yes, I studied the saxophone.

A. Jonathan Illel: No, every time I started it was a big fail. I started piano, saxophone, trumpet but I was just too lazy to continue with it. This is the worst feeling ever and I am working on changing it. I am looking to start my trumpet lessons again because I love this instrument so much.

Q. Do you remember the first album you bought?

A. Damien Vandesande: I went with my mother to buy a Charlie Parker record and that’s when I realized I wanted to be a musician.

A. Jonathan Illel: I can’t remember which one I bought first, I bought a dance music compilation that had Technotronic’s Pump Up the Jam and 2 Unlimited’s No Limit (sings: “No, no, no, no, no there’s no limit!”) and Cypress Hill’s debut album.

Q. Who was your first concert?

A. Damien Vandesande: To be honest, I played concerts before I went to a concert. I went to a music conservatory and we had to perform constantly. 

A. Jonathan Illel: I remember going with my mother to go see French singer Véronique Sanson, my mom is a big fan of her. As a teenager I remember seeing Michael Jackson, it was the Dangerous Tour.

Q. When did you know music was going to be your life’s work?

A. Damien Vandesande: I realized from a very young age, maybe 6 or 7 years old that I wanted to be a musician.

A. Jonathan Illel: I had no clue! I wanted to be a private detective. When we were 14-16 years old all of our friends had bands, one friend asked me to sing just for fun. I always loved to imitate singers, so I would pretend to rap. I would just make sounds in English. It was not my life’s passion to become a singer, it came to me. It was around  2002, I was at the beach in Corsica with an ex-girlfriend, she was playing the guitar and I just started singing and she said to me that my singing voice was really good and that I should develop this talent. Once I started making music with Damien, he was telling our friends that the singer was a guy from Alaska! Until we finally told our friends that it was me.

Q. How did you get into dance music?

A. Damien Vandesande: It was Nicolas Sfintescu from Nôze who introduced me to this type of music. Nicolas is also a chef and owns a restaurant. He invited me to play the saxophone on his tracks. After playing and producing with him I realized that I could do everything with dance music. I told Jo that this was the direction in which we should be going with our music.

Q. You had your music studio in Berlin but you decided to close it. Where is the music being produced now? 

A. Damien Vandesande: I am in Moscow and Jo is in Barcelona. The music is being produced everywhere, on the road. I have my gear at home and it’s in my daughter’s room. She lends me her space!

A. Jonathan Illel: I lived in Berlin for 2 years, we had the studio there but I wanted to leave Berlin. I liked working from Paris so I moved back to Paris and they (Clément & Damien) kept working on music in Berlin. They would send me the track and I would record the vocals and send them back to them. Over time we got so used to it that it has gotten so easy to work like this, we can finish a song and we discuss it. It has become a very healthy way of working, we have good feedback between each other and we keep the energy until the song is finished. 

Q. When do you rehearse?

A. Jonathan Illel: We don’t! Our rehearsal is done during soundcheck. Once we start playing I do my best and usually, the song takes off on its own. I like this natural process, I am a lazy fucker and I should work more! I’ve never been that type of singer, I wish I could be. I am working on a new project with a lot of different producers where I showcase my vocal range. I sing differently in every song.

Q. How did the idea of the before (empty) and after (full) club mic picture begin?

A. Damien Vandesande: It’s all Jo!

A. Jonathan Illel: I am so sad that I didn’t think of this from the very beginning. We had been touring for about 4 years and we needed to post something so I just took a picture of the mic on the floor of an empty club and then I took the picture of the microphone with a full audience. After that, I started to hold the microphone in my hand and it’s been more than 500 shows since. I think I am going to use Apple Books to publish the shots from all the concerts.

Q. There’s an element of surprise to your live shows, in that there’s always a live instrument which gives the performance an organic sound and allows room for improvisation. Then you’ll do an edit of a known pop song that usually takes the energy level even higher.  How do you go about that playfulness that is totally unexpected yet so well received on the dance floor?

A. Damien Vandesande: We like pop music too! For us, the nightlife is about having fun and we want to deliver something that brings people together. We take a popular song and we do it our own way and we just have fun and run with it.

A. Jonathan Illel: I’d say it’s 90% Damien’s idea and 10% me. Sometimes I’ll be really into a song and I’ll ask Damien if he can make a bootleg of the song and then we perform it live, I love doing that.

Q. You get to travel the world and provide a good time to your audience for a couple of hours but this can also lead to a life of excess that shelters you from what is going on in the world around you, do you take a step back and ask yourself how can I make the world a better place? Do you feel your music has matured from all these experiences?

A. Damien Vandesande: For sure, we have matured over the years. We have toured for 15 years and we have done and accomplished a lot of things together. We get paid to make people happy so we are very grateful for that and we know that we have to give back. We bring our energy, our happiness to the audience, we love to make people dance. Even though we’re a dance band, Jo’s lyrics have gotten wiser, he’s put a lot of content to this work.  I think that’s how we make the world a better place by being musicians.

A. Jonathan Illel: I’ve done a lot of growing up, especially in the last 3 years. I’ve been living between Barcelona and Kyiv, developing my career as a photographer, filmmaker, and art director. This whole process has influenced my songwriting. The greatest gift is being proud of the work we’ve been releasing. I am aware of the world around me. I got rid of my scooter, I got an electric bicycle, I don’t drop my cigarette butt on the floor, if I see a plastic bottle on the beach I grab it and throw it in the garbage.

Q. What’s the idea behind your new record label Tzar Music?

A. Damien Vandesande: Tzar Music, is a place to do what we want. We want to widen the spectrum, eclecticism, and love in electronic music. 

Q. Does dOP have a recipe as to how we as human beings can enjoy this carousel ride known as life?

A. Damien Vandesande: I think being passionate about music and watching my daughter grow has become pure enjoyment. Music and family are my joy rides. We’ve done a lot the past 15 years, having turned 40, and becoming a parent has allowed me to grow as well.

A. Jonathan Illel: Jump in your seat every morning and your life will be different. Let’s imagine a world without ego, without fear. If you let go of your ego you will be free. The ego is a prison. We need to get rid of the drama, we need to have peace and beauty in our lives.

Check out their Carousel video which features both remixes from Bedouin and Jennifer Cardini

dOP – Live @ Paris x Berlin (Full Set HiRes) – 10 Jahre ARTE Concert

dOP’s  Elektronikistan podcast is available on Rinse France (www.rinse.fr)