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How do you characterize “personality” in a song? DJ Koze’s music is full of it — there’s an ineffable quality to his productions that goes beyond the sum of their parts. Some of it you can chalk up to a playfulness, dabbling with unconventionality in each track like the subtle wink of an eye, but there’s more going on.
“Seeing Aliens,” the first new song from Koze (aka Stefan Kozalla) in years and one that announced his fifth album, knock knock, perfectly exemplifies this style with its dancefloor-ready sensibilities while also being imbued with a warmth that elevates the track and gives it a sense of depth. Follow up single “Pick Up” further drives this point home with its minimal music video, which references how often the song repeats itself, while alluding to the fact that transcendence can be found via that very repetition. With even the most minimal of building blocks, Kozalla flirts with convention but never fully embraces it.
What’s more is Kozalla’s ability to attract other performers with the same ineffable qualities. Originally he was known as a kind of private producer and didn’t much favor collaboration, but that changed with the release of 2013’s guest-heavy Amygdala, which featured Caribou, Apparat, Matthew Dear and a host of other performers over the course of the album’s thirteen tracks.
With Kozalla’s return comes a new slew of guest musicians, albeit more than a few who regularly operate outside the dance music genre. Sure there’s Róisín Murphy, Mano le tough and Sophia Kennedy, but then there’s also José González, Speech of hip-hop outfit Arrested Development and Kurt Wagner of Lambchop. Somehow, despite their disparate genres and sounds, it all makes sense.
Speaking to Kozalla via phone from his home in Hamburg, Germany, he spoke at length about the nature of these collaborations, how traveling influences his ideas and the way his records inevitably sound, and how he subverts songwriting formulas to create something wholly new.
Your last album, Amygdala, came out in 2013. Between that record and this latest one, you released thenow highly acclaimed DJ-Kicks mix and a handful of singles (XTC, Drive). When did you start working on another album?
Maybe one year after Amygdala released. I was touring heavily and started one year later to dive back into the music. I’ve got these blocks and phases. I’m into music and I’m into traveling. It’s difficult to combine both.
Does traveling inform your writing process then?
Yes, definitely. It’s good to change focus and perspective and to listen to music in different surroundings and even more esoterically in different cultures and landscapes. You unwrap the music or absorb it differently depending on the space you’re in. When I’m in London everything is rough and hard and challenging, so the music, if I were to listen to London, would be different. Because you try to compete with the sounds around you. But if you are alone, for example, in an olive tree landscape, you don’t have to compete you don’t have to pressure, you can just let the music grow out of yourself. So it’s interesting when I travel to listen to the music and see if it still works in different places. Really often I think ‘oh it’s too long, it doesn’t have the right energy,’ but rarely does that happen in front of the laptop moving blocks around in Ableton Live, you know?
Thinking about your album title and the video for “Pick Up” got me thinking about formulas. The title is a riff on a common joke format, and “Pick Up” quickly draws attention to the repetitive aspect of the song, only to subvert it. Are formulas a trap or a tool for you?
With techno or club music you can strip them down to bare mathematics, but you also have to feel and play with this formula. There’s space for surprises and unexpected twists, and this I really love. If the music is based on a formula but then counts in a wrong or unexpected time, and still manages to connect. You get super bored the older you get from the break, white noise, kick drum comes in again formula. It’s super boring. I always try and get the same effect with a different twist or taking a different path.
On that note about getting older and more jaded with club music and its predictability, how do you keep yourself interested?
I just try to avoid hating and suffering [Laughs]. I just try to concentrate on the positive and that still fascinates and electrifies me. When I hear a mysteriously good track, it gives me this fire. You deeply have to focus on the nice stuff and search for the nice stuff and don’t focus on the other shit because it’s so much like a pollution. It’s really about digging, and this is the job of a DJ. He’s supposed to be a selector and to find all these hidden treasures and present it to the people who are not so into it and don’t have the time to do it themselves.
That’s a really good point. You can subvert the formula in a mix just as much as you can do it in a track you’ve written yourself. knock knock is also the beginning of a rhythm or drum pattern. Basic and elemental. Were you at all trying to simplify your sound with this record?
I really think I tried to condense and get deeper into what is essential for a tune. How many ingredients it really needs, how few ingredients are possible in order to lead it through a certain emotion, and all of this was really prominent in my mind and to try and work everything out in a more condensed way. Shorter, more song-oriented.
The songs definitely do seem condensed, but like the previous album, you’ve given us a record that takes up the entire allotment of time on a CD.
I still have the romantic vision of an album, of an oeuvre and body of work. To leave it to the listener and disappear for some years. I know it’s not that modern because people skip through an album and pick their favourite two songs and put those in a playlist but I’m just stubborn. I learned it when I was young, we were always looking for the perfect album. It had to be a trip from the first second to the last.
I hope that in the five years between albums people have the time to listen to all the songs in a row at least once. But it’s also not my problem. For me it’s not an evolution that we lost this album format. Why should you put everything you have into one song? Art should be many shots and some failures and all together it makes sense.
There’s definitely power in juxtaposition, taking one idea and presenting it alongside something else. You can tell there’s been a lot of thought put into how knock knock sequenced.
It really is a fragile construct. In a different order maybe all these songs wouldn’t make sense. It’s like a mixtape and how you present each vibe and which vibe can lead to something else and which moment are you open for difference, for deepness, and where your capacity for concentration be low or high. It took some time to get this riddle solved. For me, it’s always difficult. All these songs have a different approach. Totally different. Even different singers and guests. So to make it sound homogenous, it’s not so easy.
I think what helps make it all make sense on the record is that the guests you’ve chosen all have such strong definitive voices, not just in the vocals themselves but the personality they bring to each performance. Is that something you seek out in collaborators?
Definitely. I like the non-vocal aspect of all these vocalists. There’s no classical, strong, loud, self-esteem-filled vocal. Everything’s a bit weird and personal and not obviously a function of the vocal. It’s also a bit fragile and weird and interesting. I like this non-macho kind of vocal. Róisín Murphy’s vocals sound like two different artists, on one song she sounds a little bit like Grace Jones and the other is like Róisín Murphy. You recognize her voice but it’s still surprising how everything comes together there. She’s just incredibly talented.
How did these collaborations come about?
I actually wrote the songs with them in mind. Like a director has Robert DeNiro in mind for a film, if I have a person in mind I’m just so much more inspired to get something done and finished. It’s nice to have a small idea of a vision. If it’s just for yourself, it’s really hard to finish and keep on going because you’re really not that satisfied with the outcome.
How did you collaborate?
Really often I present them a demo or a rough version to outline the task. The challenge is to send them something which is somehow convincing but still empty, which is difficult. Normally the music that is convincing is full on written down and formulated. But it has to be so empty that they can imagine their voice. It needs to be so spacy and sparse that they feel like ‘ah it’s a nice blanket I can lay down here and I have space for my voice.’ But at the same time it has to be on fire. It’s super difficult.
Where does that philosophy come from?
I was a member of a band for some years, and when you’re in a hip-hop band in your twenties, it’s harder than school. It’s like hardcore with egos. It can injure you. You’ll have to be open and present your idea, and if someone says its shit and they don’t like it, without any thinking or constructive suggestion it’s just devastating. All artists are insecure.
knock knock is out today via Pampa Records. Get it here.