Philip Cuenco / Leica
Mathieu Bitton. Philip Cuenco / Leica
Navigate to News section

The Chosen Ones: An Interview Mathieu Bitton

The photographer and member of the ‘Cool Jew Crew’ who serves as Lenny Kravitz’s personal creative director talks about owning Prince’s rare ‘Black Album,’ the influence of black musicians on his childhood, and why he prefers Yom Kippur

Periel Aschenbrand
September 23, 2016
Philip Cuenco / Leica
Mathieu Bitton. Philip Cuenco / Leica

The Chosen Ones is a weekly column by author and comedian Periel Aschenbrand, who interviews Jews doing fabulous things.

Mathieu Bitton is extraordinary: An art director, designer, photographer, and director who, at least according to one collaborator, can almost control time and space. “He has the ability to bend the atmosphere,” said Lenny Kravitz, for whom Bitton—the son of Egyptian Jews who fled Nasser in 1957—has served as personal creative director, art director, and photographer since 2008. His work has been exhibited around the world and currently, “Darker Than Blue,” a selection of Bitton’s photographs, is on display at The Leica Gallery in LA.

Lenny Kravitz shreds his Les Paul during a recent concert. (Image courtesy of Mathieu Bitton)

Lenny Kravitz shreds his Les Paul during a recent concert. (Image courtesy of Mathieu Bitton)

Bitton looks every bit the rock ‘n’ roller—with the requisite ponytail, tattoos, and black diamonds—but he’s the first to tell you that he’s a Jew through and through. His grandfather was a self-made millionaire who, like so many others, left everything behind in order to save his family’s life. It stands to reason that it is from him that Bitton inherited his missile-like focus and drive. When he was just 19, Bitton created a faux-artfolio and presented it to one of the top ad agencies in the world. It was filled with his dreams. Twenty years later, he has worked on the real life-version of all of them.

Bitton’s meticulous attention to detail makes him not only one of the hardest working men in rock ‘n’ roll but also one of its most sought after. During the time I spent with him, an acoustic guitar got lost, a zoom lens went missing, Jean Michel Cazabat presented him with a pair of his custom pony hair boots and (something I would not have thought possible), Kravitz himself was looking for extra, non-existent tickets for his own concert.

Mathieu, it is also worth noting, is a testament to the fact that you should never ever listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something;you should always follow your dreams. He was raised in Paris, speaks fluent French and, this may sound cheesy, but Bitton has concocted the coolest job in the world seemingly out of nothing. As such, he gets a free pass to, among other things, spell his name however the fuck he wants.

I had the opportunity to meet with him while he was on tour with Kravitz in New York.

Periel Aschenbrand: Do you ever sleep?

Mathieu Bitton: I’m a total insomniac.

PA: Do you drink and do lots of fun drugs?

MB: No, I never smoked or drank. A cigarillo here and there. A Cohiba with Melvin Van Peebles most recently—there’s a photo of him with a Cohiba in the show. When I was twenty two I had bleeding ulcers and I went to Paris to get treated and the doctor confiscated my passport and kept me under his care for five weeks.

PA: Can you tell me a little about you as Jew?

MB: I wasn’t raised religious but still did holidays like Yom Kippur and Pesach with my grandparents and family friends. I often went to Shabbat dinners. I always felt super Jewish.

PA: Why do you feel super Jewish? How so? I feel like you’re part of the cool Jew crew. I myself identify with this crowd as well.

MB: Definitely Cool Jew Crew. I think my family history, maybe watching The Sorrow and The Pity too young. And my humor. And my obsession with Woody Allen and Larry David. And also I’m the king of doing Jewish guilt, which I get from my mom.

PA: Can you tell me a little bit about what you do?

MB: Most of what I do is off the record.

PA: Well, you’ve created quite a career for yourself. Where did you learn graphic design?

MB: When I was 14, I moved to L.A. (from France). I had $700 in the bank and then I moved to New York at 19. I saw an ad from a marketing company saying they were looking for a graphic designer and that candidates should bring portfolios. But I didn’t have a portfolio.

PA: You would think that would be a non-starter.

MB: I spent about a week designing fake album covers and tee shirts and stuff I wish I had done and wanted to do: Prince, The Jackson 5, Miles Davis, James Brown…

PA: That’s insane.

MB: For the first part of my career I felt like a fraud.

PA: And now?

MB: Now, every single one of the fake projects, I’ve done. I get to create the things I’m obsessed with.

PA: Talk to me about Prince. I’ve read that you are arguably the world’s most avid Prince memorabilia collector.

MB: I started collecting records when I was 10 or 11 because I was a die-hard fan. I recently counted: I’ve seen him in concert 110 times so I’m legitimately crazy. My dad was a fashion designer and he traveled a lot and he used to bring me back Prince albums from Japan, Hong Kong, Tokyo, even cassettes from India. I have a copy of his Black Album, which is his rarest album and which he had Warner Bros. destroy, though there were a few left. I bought it for $1800 when I was 14. I recently had someone offer me over 10 grand for it, but I said no.

PA: You should sell it!

MB: I don’t want to be the guy who sells Prince stuff after Prince dies.

PA: I would sell that shit ASAP.

MB: Ha. Anyway, I had seven gold coins, which my grandfather gave me for my bar mitzvah, they were worth about two thousand dollars, back then. I was supposed to keep them forever, you know, to let them increase in value, but I went straight to this guy Serge, who owns a music store in Paris called Monster Melodies, which is still there, and bought The Black Album.

PA: That’s pretty much the coolest thing ever to do with bar mitzvah money. And, this obsession with black culture and music?

MB: From the time I was really little I was always attracted to album covers that had black people on them. And my dad had all these black statues. I started collecting records from artists like Ohio Players, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, and Graham Central Station, but really, anything that had black people on the cover regardless of the music. And then I started listening to the music. I actually discovered all these funk albums through Prince because I went to his after shows.

PA: How did you get in? You were just a kid.

MB: I would go six hours in advance to get in the front row and then hear that he was playing an after show. He would play stuff by Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker and then I would go and find them and listen to them. Bitches Brew by Miles Davis was one of the first albums I bought and the cover art was by Mati Klarwein, who did a lot of album covers—The Lost Poets, Santana, etc. He was German, I actually think he was Jewish… another white guy obsessed with black culture.

PA: There’s always been a kind of connection between Jews and blacks.

Lenny Kravitz. (Image courtesy of Mathieu Bitton)

Lenny Kravitz. (Image courtesy of Mathieu Bitton)

MB: I have a friend named David Ritz, also Jewish, obviously, who is one of the most famous biographers of black musicians.

PA: It’s funny that you work with Lenny, the quintessential black Jew.

MB: Exactly.

PA: What’s your favorite drink?

MB: Green tea.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

MB: Scrambled.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

MB: With almond milk and honey.

PA: Who the hell drinks honey in their coffee? Is that because you’re French?

MB: No, it’s because Miles Davis said it’s sweet as a woman.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

MB: Yom Kippur, because I temporarily lose weight for a day.

PA: I know you had a bar mitzvah. What did you wear?

MB: A dark grey Façonnable suit custom made for me by the owner, Albert Goldberg, who was my dad’s best friend back then.

PA: What kind of shampoo do you use?

MB: Tea Tree shampoo.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

MB: Lox.

PA: What do you think about gefilte fish? Does it make you gag?

MB: I like it. I like a lot of weird things. But I’m Egyptian (Sephardic) so we tend to enjoy meatballs and stuffed grape leaves more. But I can handle it.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

MB: Leica Monochrom camera; a 1971 original paperback of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song; invitations to my “Darker Than Blue” exhibition; Kandace Springs’s new CD Soul Eyes which I shot the photos for, for Blue Note; and my Saint Laurent wallet/card holder.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

MB: My black Jean Michel Cazabat boots.

PA: Are those the pony hair boots he gave you as a present?

MB: Yes, those are the ones! But I didn’t mention the pony so PETA doesn’t kill me.

PA: Bonus question. Not including me, how many skanky women have sent you nudes of themselves trying to get backstage with you?

MB: At least 50. I can say at least five of them I stared at for too long. But I never gave backstage access.

PA: You gave me backstage access.

MB: You’re different.

PA: True, true.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.