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In 1983, French composer Yann Tiersen was a newborn post-punk convert on the cusp of adolescence. He had studied classical violin for six years and was finally fed up. So he destroyed his instrument, smashing it to bits.
"It was really personal. I never wanted to be an instrumentalist and focus on technical skill," Tiersen explains. "It was part of my teenage crisis. But I was also hearing all these post-punk bands and I was thinking, That is what I want to do, not play stupid tunes on my violin. "
But finely crafted string instruments aren't cheap. So young Yann's parents must have been pretty pissed, right? "My father was dead when I was 7. But my mother was quite cool with it. And she really had no choice," he says with a snicker.
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For the next ten years, Tiersen didn't touch much besides his guitar and some sample-based synthesizers. As a teen, he played in a noisy rock band with a bunch of other young musicians. But then it was time for college. "All the members started to study something else, and I was the only one really focused on music," he recalls. "So I started to make music on my own. I spent a lot of time with my samplers."
It didn't take long, though, for him to tire of sifting through stacks of vinyl, looking for the right sounds. "After a while, I was fed up with spending my days in front of a machine and I said, 'It's stupid. Instead of sampling violins, I can maybe play it myself.' And so I fixed mine."
Immediately, Tiersen began to experiment with that resurrected violin as well as an accordion, piano, banjo, and guitar. "I was quite young, so I was really influenced by all these bands, like Velvet Underground, Joy Division, and New Order," he admits. "And acoustic instruments were so fresh for me at that time. It was a liberation. Instead of making a copy of what I was listening to, I found a way to express myself."
So, locked away in his apartment, Tiersen began developing his signature style, an idiosyncratic yet minimalist mix of classical music, folk, and even some of that old post-punk stuff. And within a few years, he wrote, recorded, and released three sets of songs: 1995's La Valse Des Monstres (The Monster's Waltz), 1996's Rue des Cascades (Road of Waterfalls), and 1998's Le Phare (The Skyscraper). The first two were underground secrets. And the last one made him a success in France. But it wasn't until bits and pieces from all three records reemerged on the soundtrack for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie that Tiersen finally became famous in America, at least among fans of foreign films.
It's now been a full decade since Jeunet's movie, and Tiersen has just recently released his sixth studio disc, 2010's Dust Lane. Overseen by Sigur Rós and M83 super-producer Ken Thomas, the album is hung on an acoustic skeleton of accordion, piano, violin, banjo, and other noisemakers. But there is an unlikely instrument in the mix — one that, like the violin, Tiersen once disowned. It's the synthesizer.
"The late '80s and the early '90s were the beginning of the digital era, which was a bit cheap, I think. So I just forgot about synths because I heard so many bad songs," he says, laughing. "Now I have some distance and I can hear it again as an instrument with a lot of character."
The result of Tiersen's synth-y experiments: Another complex reinvention, marked by flourishes of '80s New Wave, indie-pop, and experimental noise. It's a complex evolution of his sound. But for Yann Tiersen, it's really very simple: "I like to start with new ideas instead of working on old things."