Mike Kivits has never been too worried about fitting into any box.
His new album Co In Ci, released under the Aardvarck moniker he’s best known for, is an incursion into tightly wound techno steered by the unfussy methodology that’s been consistent through his 20-year production career. One of the early DJs at Amsterdam’s now-defunct RoXY club (credited with introducing house music to the city in 1988), he soon moved away from its increasingly rigid music policy and from the steady pacing of four-to-the-floor altogether.
His releases in the 90s and early 00s were more indebted to breaks-based excursions imported from London or Bristol, while as a DJ his record box was, and still is, simply about playing anything that makes people dance. It wasn’t until 2005’s ode to Carl Craig, Cult Copy, that he put his name to a record likely to find its way onto the dancefloors he tired of almost 20 years earlier.
Having spent the past four years living in Bali, Kivits is now at his mum’s place in the Netherlands, where he’s stopping briefly before relocating to the Portuguese countryside for the foreseeable future. Our chat revealed him to be lacking in ego and completely unbothered about what anyone thinks of him. It’s for those very same reasons that he’s remained such a well respected figure in the Netherlands’ close-knit dance music community.
“I make house music as if it was hip-hop.”
So you began DJing in your hometown of Den Bosch, is that right?
Yeah, in the south of Holland. Below the rivers, we call it. It’s funny, I think of it as being [similar to] what the Bristol thing is for England. I look to people who make music from there who are isolated and who then become creative with their friends who are just near their home. There’s a lot of people who I’ve realised are from Bristol afterwards, and I thought that it was really funny as [the music] has its own depth. It has its own vibe and feels disconnected from the big cities.
I played in Amsterdam from the late 80s onwards, but Holland is small so I could travel there in about an hour. I travelled there for about 15 years and only moved to Amsterdam in 2002. I was always just crashing on sofas until then.
How would you describe the club scene in the Netherlands when you started out in at that time?
I saw an interview a few weeks ago with Steve Spacek where he responded to a similar question to the one you’ve asked. His response was the same as mine: he described bars, cafés, a lot of pop music, hip-hop starting out, new wave. And also what he said, about people drinking beer, smoking joints, it being a very social, laid back kind of vibe. The music was new: imagine 1982, you know, Prince, new wave, Kraftwerk. For me, it was a big wave of new stuff, all of it different. 82 was a magical year for me.
And then ska and reggae too, you know, The Specials. And in the early 80s there were the first examples of mainstream music with drum machines being made by people like Prince. So after the guitar, punk and rock, people started [making music] with new machines. And with Kraftwerk, before the machines had even gone mainstream, they were already the sound of electronic music.
Thinking back to your comparison with Bristol, was the rise of jungle and breakbeat music as visible in the Netherlands as it was in the UK?
Well, in the mid to late 80s there was house music and that all moved very fast. In 88 I bought Underground magazine from the UK, and iD magazine also had playlists, so that was where I got some of my information. That was where I read about Ibiza playing this new music, and it was that year when house was booming, in the city, on the radio – and it was the same in the UK I’m pretty sure. We had one club and 1988 was the start of the mainstream with the move to radio.
Back then, coming from where I did, I was used to playing everything so I started to step out of the booming house culture. By then there was Portishead, rave and jungle, so I left the house building and moved elsewhere.
So that presumably meant you had to find places where you could play those different styles of music too?
Starting in the 80s, my way of playing music was always just playing everything. And then house came along and I had to play a set of house music, and then in jungle too. But I love to play everything, so over time I’ve always just kept doing that. If you end up in a house culture, you have to play only that. It’s nice but I want more, you know? I want more dynamic styles and flavours. People know me as the guy who plays everything. I’ve got a booking agency in Holland, so the marketing recently has been that I play old school house sets under Aardvarck and have other egos to do my own thing.
“Starting in the 80s, my way of playing music was always just playing everything.”
How do you approach mixing in sets where you move between styles?
Well, it’s funny you should ask me as it’s not something that’s come up in interviews before. Ten years ago, I was at a big party watching all the loops and hyping the DJ was doing and I felt like I missed the actual music. Nobody actually just played a track. I just thought, “I don’t like this hyped up shit,” you know? That same evening I went to see King Shiloh Soundsystem and they just played one track, one turntable, old school. They just play tracks but the period between the tracks is a bit long so I thought, for me, I’m gonna have a different system.
Since then, I play only tracks. I never mix but I have to make it so that it makes sense. Imagine if you listen to a late 70s, early 80s hip-hop DJ – they’re not actually mixing, they drop tunes in the break. So that’s how I decided to play, not mixing the tunes or pitching the tempo. I leave it original and drop the tune in. It was a big change in style for me and I started to edit everything. I wanted a way to play digital tracks without a pause, so it was simple: use a simple player. I edit all my tracks to start on the one and end on the break and I play the music through Winamp.
So I started to play my first gigs with my laptop. Imagine it 10 years ago: I play with Winamp and all the DJs in Amsterdam who saw it were shocked, like, “You’re a DJ, you play vinyl.” And it’s just like, stay on the dancefloor and you don’t know. I mean, it looks fucking stupid with Winamp and it is stupid. But don’t look, just listen. In Japan I had to play in a big club and they’d never seen a DJ play with Winamp. I had no Serato gear, nothing. I just click my fucking edits, I still do, and still people don’t take me seriously. But just listen, don’t look!
Is it strange comparing now to the mid 80s to early 90s period you described, where there were arguably much more dramatic changes in music than there are now? Like your recent 12” on Voyage Direct, for example, which harks back to certain elements of 90s techno.
I think the equipment was simple in the early 90s. The sampler, you know, with a short sample time. You had to be creative. Now everything is possible, but the creativity is still in the human. The stuff just helps you to make it. There’s too much technique [these days] – the production, the sound is unbelievable, but the spirit in the music is too controlled. And the funny thing is that everyone says, “Oh, African music is so pure, they just take an empty cardboard box and they drum like…” It’s instinct, you know. I miss the bridge between equipment, the high-tech and instinct.
Could you describe how you approached producing the material on the new album?
I work in the same old fashioned loop mode. You make a loop, a groove, one bar and you make a track. But I don’t know much about technique, so I do the same as I did 20 years ago. I make a loop, I just play like a monkey and after a few hours I get a few tracks. I like to work very fast, not thinking about what I’m doing. I make a lot, listen back a week later, throw 90% of it away and then I’ve got a nice set of tracks. I’m not tuning the snare for a week, you know.
I use anything I can get my hands on. I have hundreds of loops and mixtapes from people, I don’t know who from, and I sample a lot from different people. I recycle like a monkey. And recently for the first time, I used a sample and the guy came to me like, “Hey, you took my one-second loop,” and it was a guy I know, Martyn. I said, “What? That’s funny,” but he didn’t think it was so funny. I said to him, “I’ve known you for 20 years, you know, we sample all the time. Jungle, hip-hop, it’s all samples. I liked your groove, I’m a fan of your music – I steal it, I use it.” But there was a whole official dealing with that, with the label and him.
That was the first time in my life that’s happened, and I thought, “Fuck, I’ve got more loops on this new album.” There’s one track, where if the guy comes back… the thought is haunting me every day.
I can see how, in mainly working with samples and loops, how you would have moved into breakbeat-led music like you did in the 90s.
The Black Dog was one big inspiration for me in those days. And even Carl Craig used breakbeats in the early 90s. I just see it as hip-hop, you know? I make house music as if it was hip-hop. J Dilla has hundreds of thousands of tracks but a few of them are my blueprints as to what a track can be, in the simple essence of a loop. He’s my blueprint. I wanna make music like him: more uptempo, but simple. Childish, simple, minimal. Kick, snare, bass. Some people complain about me using breaks, and on the Skudge album they didn’t like the strings and the melodies, so I cut back on my normal way of making music.
“I have a hundred ambient tracks so I thought I’d better do something with them.”
So you changed things for the new record to fit with what the label wanted?
I didn’t really know the label. I’m not big on the internet, so I didn’t know what they do. So one day I had a look at what its output is like and found, yeah, it’s pretty raw techno. So I did something a bit different, where some tracks are different for me, soundwise, to fit with them. But I’m happy with how it sounds.
We’ve actually been working on it for nearly four years. They asked me to do it when I first moved to Bali, but they’ve had personal things happening between the two guys and the communication has been fucked up. And in the same period I made the Indonesian album with the Indonesian names, so all the music I made for [Skudge] has been while I was in Indonesia, actually.
And what’s behind the title for the new album?
With it taking four years to release it, and then with there being issues with too many samples, the fact it actually even happened seemed like a coincidence. So I put “Co – in – ci” and I left the “dence” [laughs]. The rest of the tracks, they told me I needed track names so I just made the titles up in a few seconds.
There’s a couple of ambient pieces on the album and I wondered if there was a reason you’d kept them so short.
I’ve been working on a major project. For 25, 30 years I was listening to classical and ambient music. I had a long break and then I heard Stars of the Lid, and I just thought that those guys sounded amazing. Between the 70s and now, there’s been a big gap in that kind of music. I found a few guys like them and it prompted me to think about doing my version of that vibe.
So I took all my classical and ambient heroes and I started to dig for loops. I spent a few months working on it and ended up with a hundred tracks of this stolen, loop-digger, ambient-classical music, so I thought I’d put some on the album. I have a hundred tracks of it so I thought I’d better do something with them.
It’s all stolen but we’ll work it out if people like it. I could make a series of 10 albums through free downloads or something like that. The idea was to present the short examples so that people like you ask me and I can tell people, “Hey, I actually have a hundred of these.”