Over 15 years after his debut release, Stefan Kozalla is finally having his stint in the sun.
Coming up with German hip-hop click Fischmob, Kozalla – alias DJ Koze – has spent the last decade-odd establishing himself as one of microhouse’s canniest, classiest operators. A productive period with Kompakt, a genre touchstone (2005’s Kosi Comes Around) and a rewarding remix collection (2009’s Reincarnations) have incrementally built his reputation. Recent years, meanwhile, have seen him turn his focus towards his excellent Pampa imprint, responsible for releases from Isolée, Lawrence, Die Vögel and Dntel.
New LP Amygdala – a kaleidoscopic collection of soft-focus dance and machine-tooled psychedelia – is his richest full-length offering to date; boasting guest spots from Caribou, Apparat and Matthew Dear, it feels like the breakthrough record Kozalla has long deserved. With Amygdala on the near horizon, Bjørn Schaeffner caught up with the German producer (and seriously entertaining interview subject) to chat Ricardo Villalobos, the tourist trail and, of course, clubland’s restrictive “no cows no goats” policy.
Stefan, you spent a month in India. How was it?
“Really interesting. I went inside myself.”
That sounds fitting, since we also know you as the mock-guru Swahimi The Unenlightened. Still – were you looking for a bit of meaning in India?
(Laughs) “Yes, I found some meaning. But I’m a long way from illumination.”
And what meaning did you find?
“Oh, now this conversation is kicking off properly here! What kind of meaning I found? Hmm. I can’t wrap it in a simple formula. In any case it was an excellent experience. A welcome break.”
For the westerner, India is a bit like heaven and hell.
“That’s right. When you’re not feeling well, you can’t bear it one second; when you’re fine, you just embrace it and get this feeling of awe, that India is the cradle of humankind. Nowhere have I seen so many laughing people – people who are so incredibly poor, but they laugh at you without any hint of scepticism. What an overwhelming stream of impressions! This infinitely complex causal chain running through everything. It’s difficult to assess it. India just goes on and on and doesn’t care about you. You can just step into this stream and try to register the abundance of impressions.”
“Absolutely not. Zero. For the first time in years. I listened to so much music before, I wanted to clean out my ears. Which doesn’t come easy in India with all the honking going on.”
India is filled with sounds.
“The country clearly has its own sound. When you visit temples in Kerala in the south west, you hear these muezzin-like preacher sounds echoing over the rice fields, but you can’t place where they are coming from. There are these diffuse oriental mantra sounds which are constantly in your ears. And it’s got something meditative and contemplative. The whole chaos makes more sense. Also, the fact that cows and chickens run on the streets makes a lot of sense to me. It’s strange to think that our society went so far to call this an absurdity. We must be doing something wrong then. Goats and cows should be roaming freely about. That would be much preferable. It feels cozy.”
Animals are frequent guests in the Koze cosmos. You’re a nature boy by heart?
“I get the feeling that urban spaces don’t make me happy. Though I’m not sure if I could live permanently in a village. But nature, anything that is rural, a life far off from any hipster streams makes me much happier. Actually, the very reasons why I moved to the city, the cultural offerings, the shops, the record shops and clubs, I don’t really partake in that. As soon as I’m in the countryside, happiness starts flowing. It took me a while to realize that. It wasn’t always like that. When I was 30 years old I couldn’t picture myself in the countryside.”
The visuals accompanying your album portray in you in various rustic disguises. Which is your favourite role? The elk rider, the goat shepherd, the oriental farmer or the painter?
“Well, this represents just a day in the life of DJ Koze. I stand on a meadow, ride with the elk to my studio, later slaughter a goats and then I’m bloated with food later.” (laughs)
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Your stable Pampa is a home for like-minded eccentrical animals…
“We’re all kind of outsiders, yes. It’s great to have this small family. This gang which makes you feel that you’re not alone. Even though we’re way too old and too experienced to indulge in a posse thing. It’s just great to see that everyone motivates and inspires you, that you help each other out. Like providing stuff for Die Vögel or Ada. And then someone likes Isolée brings in a track like ‘Allowance’, which is a total hit for me.”
It’s a superb record.
“Yes, it’s incredible. That’s when everyone from the family gets up and cheers “Wow, what is this?” and they all sit down again [laughs]. That’s a great motivation. And it makes a lot of fun. You just observe how it all unfolds. After the first three records we didn’t know what Pampa would be like. Well, we don’t know now what Pampa stands for, we only know what it doesn’t stand for. It’s a label open to many directions. But you won’t hear tool techno on Pampa, anything functional and cold. Above all we don’t try to follow certain trends. And we’re all quite demanding and have been a long time in the game. My artists wouldn’t give me tracks they can’t stand behind. There’s a kind of advance ISO standard of quality at play here.”
What’s in the making at Pampa?
“We will release an EP for my album. Then an EP with Ada with unreleased tracks by myself is up. There’s another EP coming from the Dürerstuben in Berlin, two talented musicians that sent us some very fascinating tracks. Then there will be a Die Vögel EP, and, if all goes well, a new Die Vögel album. Many great artists are still in debt. Matthew Herbert wants do do a remix, as do Wolfgang Voigt and Efdemin. This year a lot will be released, as opposed to last year, when many artists were just moping and crawling in their hole. This year we’ll bring a lot of food to the table. Next year probably less.”
Your album is called Amygdala, named after the part in the brain that deals with our fears. So the album is about fear?
“Fear has always a very prominent theme in my thoughts. Which is good and sometimes also bad and it shouldn’t lead too far, but fear is always an impulse for me.”
And how do you overcome fears when you deejay?
“By drinking alcohol. But I’m clearly not the first one to do this.” (laughs)
It’s a universal measure…
“Yes, it got accepted. Over thousands of years. All artists that perform have fears to cope with, and in the thrall of fear you can picture strange things happening. It was funny to watch the Academy Awards when this woman [Jennifer Lawrence] was walking up to the stage to get her Oscar and then she stumbled. Which is really the one moment where you shouldn’t stumble at all! Yet, a mishap like this still occurs. Maybe it happened because she was thinking all the time about not stumbling. Or you picture yourself getting shortness of breath when you perform. Or that you can’t swing the mood in the right direction.”
Tell us about the collaboration process with the various guest singers on Amygdala.
“A big part of the album was recorded in Spain, where Matthew Dear also came to visit. I have a small studio there. I visited Milosh in L.A. But actually I’m not a big fan of direct collaboration. So this process entails a rather contemporary way of sending files back and forth. I’m glad to note that all the artists I worked with are all so pleasantly unvain. They’re almost unsure. They might write to you saying it sounds all crappy and that they’re not getting into gear. And they’ll send me the first draft with which they are happy and then I will listen to it and now I think my music feels crappy! That it no longer measures up. So the tracks slowly morphed into being. Some tracks took over a year to finish, slowly and easy. But there’s a lot of work involved. And a lot of doubt and dismissal.”
What came easiest to you while doing this album?
“I really like shaping the music around vocal parts. That way ideas always start flowing. People send me acapellas, and then I try to fabricate a track around it, bascially from nothing. You have a model to which you then tailor a nice dress. It’s a classical producer thing: guy sits in the studio, singer comes by. Or you meet Thomas Anders [singer of German europop outfit Modern Talking] at the airport and you record his voice. Later you scan for what might be worth something. I really like the arrangement process. To mix, to administer this whole tracky madness, that’s good.”
The tracks from Amygdala came together over a period of eight years. Which is a long time. How did you compress it into the entity of the album?
“It sounds longer than it is. I’ve been doing a lot during this time: I released two International Pony albums, my remix compilation…I just didn’t release an album under my name. I almost forgot about it. because somehow I didn’t see the niche for it. Until two years ago. But I didn’t have a clear vision when doing this album. I only came to understand the vision in retrospect.”
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And what kind of vision is this?
“When I listen to it now, the music represents my little utopia of electronic music kept within certain bounds, though I would say it’s pretty limitless. It crosses various genres and tempi. On the other hand, everything I don’t do defines my sound much better. I do digest a lot of Zeitgeist sounds, but the final product emerges differently out of my meat grinder. I try to attain some sort of timelessness. I’m interested in colour, in warmth, oranic sounds and always a good measure of soul. That’s what I’m hearing right now. It feels stringent in its multifacetedness.”
I find the album hippie-esque.
“I think this is a fantastic connotation. I dig everything that’s hippie-like in electronic dance music. And all the possible influences that don’t reflect the puristical idea of Detroit techno or Chicago house, even though that’s where my heart lies. But at a certain point you can no longer hear these always-same-sounding deep house chords. They no longer trigger any feeling with me. They’re abgefrühstückt, fobbed-off really. That’s why I’m always looking for new sounds, new worlds of emotions you can discover. Which is also tricky, because you can get off on the wrong foot because some tracks extinguish the flow of the night. I try to bring melanchola into it, a bit of sadness. That’s what I find worth striving for. A mixture between euphoria and sadness (laughs).
I have to confess that you’re actually the only DJ who has ever moved me to tears…
“I think it’s great when you can create sadness on the dancefloor. Especially towards the end of the night where you play more emotional stuff. Everything thrown into the mix constiutes a fine fabric of elements, everything is so closely intertwined during a club night. Excess. Happiness. Unity. Loneliness. Or sadness. Those are the impulses. But it’s different for everyone. Probably the guy standing next to you was holding up his mobile phone to take a picture and was thinking faster, faster, faster. You know?”
Your DJ sets really have gotten more melancholic and calm in recent years.
“I think club music is about more than just playing effect-driven stuff. It doesn’t have to rock, it doesn’t have to promote macho decibel loudness. I don’t take pleasure in the rocking idea of techno. I’m turned on by melancholy. When people get together, and you develop a deep, hypnotic vibe, and no one can exactly say why that is so, because it’s not as obvious as playing a functional drum roll or a rave signal. That way it’s much more magical and lasting. Ricardo [Villalobos] once remarked that he loves melancholic music, because this really makes him feel happiness. And he’s right. I don’t need happiness all night long while playing, it gets too flat. And it’s not that I play solemnly all the time. There’s the energy combined from a lot of people, there’s excess in the room. This is something this music can achieve. Rock can’t do that – it’s effect. Or hip-hop which is body and groove but often lacks depth. And why don’t you bring out the most in music that you can? Yeah, I used to play differently. All the hands had to go up in the air. Nowadays I find this rather dull. I’m working at a different building site.”
You’ve been fulminating against this notion of functionally banging techhouse for some time now. Has it gotten easier now to play the way you do it, more experimentally?
“Yes, I think so. But if you wobble around the whole time, then the idea of free music no longer makes sense. If you have a vision, and deliver it in a convincing and conclusive way, then the club will open up to you. The punters will probably know a song, maybe three hits, but it’s not the individual tracks that are the star, it’s the long groove, the fabric weaved together over hours. The vibe, the vibe. Yes, I think the appreciation for experiments has grown. You don’t have to operate with a rave hammer on the dancefloor. It can be smooth, soft, slow, and people have come to accept it. It doesn’t work in the big room yet. The bigger the room, the simpler the language. But in small clubs it’s going fairly well.”
It can be intimate in small clubs, but doesn’t it get too much for you sometimes, with your tendency towards anxiety? Last time I saw Ricardo Villalobos play he was properly smothered by well-wishers.
“I believe it’s a different thing with Ricardo. I admire the sleekness with which he slides through this whole mass hysteria, how cool he stays. I think he’s actually the nicest guy wearing sunglasses in closed rooms. Usually I don’t sympathize at all with those guys. But it totally makes sense with him. Wearing sunglasses like a shield. I mean people walk all around his dj booth and stumble over his crate, but he’s always so gentle. I’m completely different (laughs). I radiate something much less peaceful when I step into the booth with a sour look on my face.”
But you will then gladly try to achieve unity on the dancefloor…
“I’m always happy when this situation of melting, of amalgamation happens with the audience. Really, a state of emergency is the best for me. The moment when the guests can bring their cows and goats onto the dancefloor. That would be the most beautiful thing.” (laughs)
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