Swedish producer, DJ and label boss Kornél Kovács has been offering up his unique house variations since 2011, minting his legacy with last year’s excellent full-length The Bells. Chal Ravens talks to the in-demand selector about his transition from drum and bass to house and how raves shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“I’ve been wanting to do this all my life, DJing all around the world and releasing records – but now I’m stressed that I’m short of time.” Stockholm’s Kornél Kovács is rising through the international DJ ranks at just the wrong moment, or at least that’s how he sees it. “When times get tough, culture such as nightlife is usually what disappears first,” he warns. “I’m getting the sense that I’m a DJ who broke through in 1938 in Europe, or something like that.”
The outlook might not be quite so bleak. In the seven years since Kovács and his friends Petter Nordkvist and Axel Boman founded Studio Barnhus, the Swedish-Hungarian DJ and producer has been forging a reputation as one of the label’s most idiosyncratic talents. After marking himself out with a string of EPs on Barnhus and one particular gem on Scottish label Numbers, last year Kovács released his debut album The Bells, an irresistibly diverse dance record that delighted fans and critics. Venturing beyond Stockholm’s strict curfews and “underwhelming” club scene, Kovács has taken his record bag around the world to play to crowds in Mexico, Brazil, Shanghai and Turkey. “There will be cultural and social differences, but if you go to a rave in Iran or a rave in Sweden, you’re probably going to meet some of the same people,” he says, “and that’s beautiful.”
“People say Trump is going to be a great time for art. I don’t think that’s true”
This summer he’s on the road again, playing at festivals and parties across Europe. But it’s a precarious occupation at the best of times – and these are not the best of times. “I think about what a luxury my job is and what a luxury this international culture is,” he says. “From the political and environmental [perspective], air travel isn’t going to be such an everyday, accessible thing in the next few years. We’re facing environmental difficulties, we’re facing more heavily enforced borders, and that’s not going to be good for this thing [international DJ culture]. People say Trump is going to be a great time for art. I don’t think that’s true.”
Kovács was obsessed with music from a young age, usually to be found at his local library where he’d borrow CDs and leaf through British music magazines, nurturing a love of drum and bass and jungle. “When I really didn’t have a lot of friends, music became my refuge. I wasn’t a particularly unhappy child, I was just a loner,” he remembers. “I realized what a DJ was and I realized what DJs did – not so much what they did in clubs, because I had no experience of being in clubs. But DJs were really important for drum and bass in the sense of pushing the music forward.”
At that age he couldn’t imagine producing music himself, “even though I played the piano and was singing in choirs at the time. The sounds on those drum and bass records were completely alien – I just imagined people sitting with these enormous NASA computers. It was all very mysterious to me. But I could understand what a DJ did, and I started buying 12”s.” At age 11, he purchased his first 12” – Origin Unknown’s ‘Valley of the Shadows’ (“the ‘96 remix,” he points out) from Mega Records in Stockholm, “where I used to shoplift a lot. I was an avid shoplifter. I still am.”
Summers were spent visiting family in Hungary, where his father, a journalist, was involved in running in a pirate radio station. “It was anti-establishment, really political and funny,” says Kovács. “They had two turntables and a mixer, and one of the radio station DJs showed me the basics of it.” Back in Stockholm he built up his record collection and ending up getting booked for his first DJ gigs while still barely a teenager. “I was the chubby little mascot of the drum and bass scene,” he laughs.
By 14 his interest in drum and bass had faded, but he continued to build his record collection – switching to MP3 rather than vinyl – and once he was old enough to start going to clubs, he decided to get back into DJing. “By that time, Stockholm was really eclectic – I guess it was sort of the same thing in the UK, it was the era of Erol Alkan, early Kompakt, pop and techno and house and disco and the end of electroclash. All of those things seemed to blend together and you could do anything.”
“Dance music is my language”
That boundless attitude to genre shines through in Kovács’ productions, from the sultry R&B vocal chops of his 2011 debut ‘Down Since ‘92’ to the legwarmers-and-leotards silliness of bonafide banger ‘Pantalon’, released on Numbers in 2015. On The Bells he refines his broad tastes into a genre-hopping journey that’s refreshingly light on its feet. “I do complicate my rhythms a little bit,” he says of his aversion to stodgy 4/4 beats. “One thing I loved in drum and bass is how the drums would create the melody. When I make music all these weird little breakbeats and rhythmic twists and turns happen.”
The album was recorded in Gothenburg with assistance from Matt Karmil, the British-born producer and engineer who’s released on Idle Hands, PNN and Studio Barnhus. “He’s obviously a brilliant producer in his own right but he’s also very good at working on other people’s music,” says Kovács. “He has a background in pop music, he’s been working on everything from Sugababes to Cee Lo Green and Neneh Cherry, so he knows how the studio works and can get the most out of it – which is something I’m not good at at all.”
The Bells ends up being one of those rare dance albums that hangs together from start to finish, even while taking diversions through candy-coated pop, loose-limbed boogie, Bangalter-esque filter house and lush ambient drifts. “When I made the album I wasn’t really thinking about dance music or clubs or dancing at all,” he suggests. “It was more a personal statement. Dance music is my language; any genre of music can be a language as much as a function.” The vision for Studio Barnhus is similarly open-minded, with the three co-owners sharing a clear preference for cheeky samples and blissful exuberance, both in their own material and the label’s signings. “What we try to do with the label is to do music that’s direct and open to the world – accessible without being untrue, without doing the lowest common denominator, without being cheap,” he says.
“The culture of getting together and dancing is not something to take for granted”
Studio Barnhus has become one of Stockholm’s most valuable players in recent years, with Kovács, Nordkvist and Boman always in demand as DJs. Strict curfews and a lack of independent operators means the legal club scene in Stockholm is “disappointing,” notes Kovács, though there are warehouse parties and open-air summer raves to be found, as well. “Swedish culture is quite timid and quite scared,” he suggests, “but it’s beautiful and tolerant and quite well off – it’s a rich country. That gets rid of a lot of problems. Today we have the same problems as the rest of Europe – rising fascism is a really scary political situation right now. A party that was started by the neo-Nazi movement in Sweden is now the third largest party.”
Dancing could seem like an unnecessary frivolity in an increasingly polarized political climate, but Kovács is adamant that getting together in the rave is more than mere escapism. “I think dancing and raving is an inherently anti-fascist device, or movement. I really don’t think that the fascists want people from all parts of society to get together and get fucked up and dance and hug it out. What we can focus on in hard times is that [rave] tradition,” he argues. “That doesn’t mean playing the same old ‘hands in the air’, ‘love is the message’ house tunes, or going back to hardcore breakbeat rave tropes in music, though that retro fetishism is fun sometimes – it should be new music, it should be new sounds. But the culture of getting together and dancing is not something to take for granted. You shouldn’t downplay its cultural impact.”
Kornél Kovács plays Farr Festival in Hertfordshire, UK, on July 13-15.
Chal Ravens is on Twitter