DJ Koze: "I'd rather do one record in five years which is on-point than five records a year and they're just mediocre."
This Friday sees the release of Knock Knock, the new album from German techno wizard DJ Koze - and his first in five years. It’s a colourful and collaborative album, featuring guest spots from Róisín Murphy, Speech from Arrested Development, Sophia Kennedy and more, dabbling in styles as diverse as hip-hop, glitch-pop, house and of course Koze’s signature interstellar techno – all stitched together through the German’s inimitable personality.
We called up Koze, or Stefan as he’s known to his friends, to chat about self-aggrandising, visits from the muse, his collaborators on the album and the importance of the album as a statement.
How are you doing today?
Bad! Thank you.
Oh no, what's going on?
I just can't... I'm full of myself and I just can't hear my voice and my talking anymore. [Laughs]
We might as well just get on with it then!
Yeah, no, it's all good, but somehow it is interesting to analyse... all the time you're waiting for some feedback, and you're excited, then as it's coming you are really… first you are full of yourself and then you just can't listen to your own voice anymore. I'm so happy I'm not an actor or television star!
And not a singer.
Or not a singer, yeah, permanently having to talk and sing.
I'm sure what you'll say is enjoyable to others, even if you don't think so.
Yeah it's always enjoyable if you witness some people who are in a worse mood than yourself, then you really can feel better. [Laughs] This is my job today, maybe.
Let's see how it goes. Let's start with a broad question: how long have you been working on this album, Knock Knock?
Erm, maybe 4 years or something. I maybe started one year after Amygdala, but not permanently. But I'm more or less trying to use every slot of time I have to make some music, but I'm a slow worker, and then I let go and I use this wine cellar principle: put it away and listen to it some months later. And then from there on I restart again or I continue with some elements. It's like a growing plant, taking care of all the leaves. I can't say permanently 4 years every day, but over the period of 4 years I was working on all this music.
Why is it important to you to make albums rather than just release singles?
I have a nostalgic and romantic reasons. I think this is a masterpiece for every artist: to make like a sense-making, nice album, which is like a proper body of work and like a story and a trip of its own. I will never lose this, I think. In my youth it was the biggest experience to me to listen to these albums, and since I've been making music I’ve been trying to make my best album. I don't know, I just like it, and I hope that some of the people find the time to listen to it in a row - if not, it's not a problem - I just do it for me and I'm happy. And also I don't have children, so it's like a little baby I can leave behind on the planet.
And it's a child that everyone can play with!
[Laughs] Yeah, yes, it's a child everybody can play with, yes.
And why did you decide to call it Knock Knock?
I thought I'd knock on the door and see who would open it.
I see. And was that at the beginning or the end of the process that you decided it was the name?
The first knock was in the beginning, and then the last knock was in the last week; I thought "make it two knocks." [Laughs]
It starts with 'Club der Ewigkeiten', which translates to 'Club Of Eternities', did you name it that as a welcome to the world of this album?
Yeah, it's like opening your brain, because you can think of this club - it's a journey in your fantasy what this club could look like and what they're doing there, and I liked it - for me it was like this.
On 'Bonfire' you have a sample of Bon Iver's 'Calgary': "I was only for the father’s crib/ Ahhhh – face *way from the sun" - what was it about that line that made you pick it out?
To be honest it came out in one of these strange nights where I was under the headphones with some wine and my cat in Spain, and - it sounds a little bit kitsch, but it was like this - in the morning the song was more or less like it is now, finished, without too much proper thinking up front.
Does that happen often?
Yes, 'Pick Up' was the same. It was in one night. If I have some good moments, it's working like this. I really try to force situations to be like this, but I don't have so much influence when it's happening. So really often this is not happening and I'm sat working stupidly on a beat, without any good results, to the morning. This is the majority of days and nights. But sometimes within these routines, this stuff also happens - actually I'm just waiting for these nights, but they only come if you don't expect and you just keep on working. “The muse never visits an empty studio,” is the saying, and I really believe it.
How does that feel when you wake up and the muse has been?
It feels good, but you're not so sure yet if you are right, and you need distance from everything. Look in two weeks and see if you still feel the first rush. When the first rush is gone then you don't believe sometimes anymore. It's not easy to be sure, when you're a musician, if what you've done is good or not. The possibility of judging or seeing things clearly is really often not existent for me. You always have a rush if you create something out of zero, but then maybe one day later you think it's just a normal feat, it's just nothing, and if you play it to some friends they’ll just say "it's OK, it's nice." After some days you really realise if something is deeper, and what it's missing, or what could be a direction. I can't see it - in the first process of building and generating, I am a little bit blind.
Does that feel scary?
No, I'm used to it now. But it may be interesting for people who are starting to make music, of course I was the same, I couldn't be sure about anything that I did, and it comes with experience that you are relaxed and that you just keep on going and taking your time to judge the output. I really think it is more important that you are really proud of what you did than that you just release something because you need a release this year, you need a booking or stuff - this is shit. I'd rather do one record in 5 years, which is on point, than 5 records a year and they're just mediocre and everybody says "yeah it's OK, it's not bad not good." The world doesn't need this, we already have too much content.
The first feature that's on the track list is Eddie Fummler, but looking at the credits it seems like that's an alias for your usual musical collaborator Arne Diedrichson, who plays a lot of guitar and other instruments on the album, is that right?
[Laughs] I promised Eddie Fummler not to spoil who he is.
OK then, well he'll stay a mystery. Let's go on to 'Colors of Autumn'; Speech from Arrested Development's performance on this is so perfect, it goes so well with your track; at what point do you show him the track? Is it already completed before you present it to him?
Yes, I think this track was nearly already done like you hear it now, fully produced, because the task to win somebody like Speech, or some of these super nice talented artists I really admire, you have to send them an instrumental which is convincing, but at the same time still empty, so he could imagine himself on it. It's super normal that if you listen to something and you don't feel like you have your place in it, you won't do it. But it's difficult to generate instrumentals which are convincing and empty. I thought when I sent it to him that maybe he'd feel the Arrested Development vibes, late 90s hip-hop vibe which I loved so much, this country hippie vibe in it, and I gave it an African vibe, and, yeah, I was glad that he heard the beat. We met in Hamburg, he had a concert 2 weeks after I wrote him initially, and it was even his birthday, and it was somehow a magic coincidence that this somehow came to life, this song.
Wow, very cool. So how do you go about deciding who you want to feature? Is it just a dream list?
Of course, people who inspire me. Every song is also an homage to the oeuvre these artists brought to the world, which inspired me in my music history, and which I admire. I think these people, in their minds, they are very open and broad, and you can try to experiment and do stuff. Róisín [Murphy], for example, is one of these people; you could come at her with a dubstep beat, or if I said tomorrow "let's make a Studio 1 record that combines ambient" she would say "yes! let's do it!" She has no borders or frontiers in her mind, as long as it comes to good music everything is possible and imaginable for her, and this is super nice. These people are super rare and nice to work with, and for me it was an honour; to work with like a free mind. Kurt Wagner is also such a guy. The autotune he uses he brought in, it was his idea, he's like 60 - I don't know - and he's just experimenting with his voice and I think it's beautiful.
Let's talk about Róisín a little bit, because her two features are so amazing and so different, I didn't realise she had such diversity. Have you been a fan of hers for a long time?
Not a long, long time, but quite a long time now, recently [laughs]. We have a heavy exchange of music ideas and cultural things which we share with each other. I think it's like a super nice match made in Heaven, working with her is somehow really good and inspiring and cool.
Did you know you were going to do two tracks together with her? Did they happen at the same time?
More or less, yes, over a period of some months. We even made some more tracks already. These on the album are really shit compared to the other songs.
When can we expect to hear the rest?
[Laughs] I don't know!
Do you give her any kind of brief about what the lyrics should be, or is it completely up to her?
No, I didn't. She decided and wrote what she had in mind, but somehow I think if you are on the same frequency, and if you feel the instrumental and the music then it effects the topics that people choose. Also sometimes I have some ideas or inspiration, and I send them also, but I say "if you want to combine it it's your choice, if not, it's also good."
You mentioned Kurt Wagner, let's talk about him for a moment. I think his feature is maybe my favourite on the album because it's so different. And I'm a big Lambchop fan, are you? Do you have a particular favourite song or album?
Yes, I am a big fan. Actually, the last album FLOTUS, I loved, when he started started using the autoharmoniser. 'The Daily Growl' is a song I like, and the albums Aw Cmon and No You Cmon I really liked.
Was it a surprise when he suggested using the autotune?
No, I loved it. And it didn't surprise me, because on the FLOTUS album he already did it, and somehow I hoped he would, but I didn't say anything to him before. And it was wonderful.
What was he like in the studio?
He did this in Nashville, I think, where he lives. And he sent me the recording, and he said to me he even had no headphones on, he was playing with this harmoniser instrument and just recording. And more or less we had to take this recording, we didn't have the option to manipulate it. I liked it, if some of this stuff is irreversible and you just have to work with what is there. It's nice to cut the options you have. In electronic music making all the stuff is only about the decisions you make. Decisions about which options I take and which I don't - this is all. This can drive you insane, because you could do anything in any direction every minute, because you are alone in front of all these options, and which one do you choose? So I'm really happy to limit my options and stick to only some ingredients. It's like a blessing, this modern possibility of making music for everybody, but it's also a curse, because you never finish sometimes - because you have too many options.
Sophia Kennedy you must have known for a while through the Pampa Records connection; did you know for a while you wanted her on the album?
No, it was like an organic flow. I thought maybe it would be nice, and while producing the beats I just wrote her and asked if she would be up for it and it just fitted in her timetable and we worked it out together. I didn't think too much about everything.
Did she choose to sing in German on the final track, ‘Drone Me Up, Flashy’? Can you tell us what she's singing about?
Yes, she chose to. It is more or less about the idea that a man is sitting on the stairs and doing nothing. The best songs come from boredom. I think it was her first try, and then we both thought in the first moment maybe we'd do something more sophisticated later, and then I thought no let's stick to the topic in your song, which says we just do nothing. It has to be like this now: first thought, best thought. And we left it like this, and I really love it now.
Another feature we haven't mentioned is Mano Le Tough, singing, which isn't something he's necessarily known for.
Recently he's been singing a lot in his music; the last album and the last 12" we released on Pampa, which beautifully he also sings on two songs. I really like his voice because it has the virgin, not-too-professional – but I feel him, and I feel his Irish sorrow, and I just like that he decided to include his voice and his singing in his music. I don't know, maybe I sent this song to him because I saw the possibility that his voice could fit nicely. I think I sent him more songs and this was the phrase I liked. I really like him and he's a super talented musician for me.
There's no way of collaborating on the actual music part, just the singing?
When it comes to the music I don't trust anybody. They're all shit, you know?
You've never done it?
I really like to be the nerd sitting alone and making all the decisions all alone. I also have a history in bands, and this is of course another quality of brainstorming and working together and it can be really super. But also I know so many nights we sat together, three drunken heads in front of the computer, and in the end we did just one snare sound we didn't even like the next day. So it's nice if you don't have to do so much compromising and can be radical and non-democratic, and you can decide it is strong writing, then.
Speaking of Mano Le Tough, when I saw him DJ a few weeks ago in Amsterdam he finished his set with 'Pick Up' from this album, which has already been played by loads of people - why do you think people love it so much?
I don't know! For me, if I play it, it is like the roof is on fire. I think it has a simplicity and the ingredients are just somehow so well balanced; the pain, the melancholic, the sadness, the euphoria and the simplicity - mainly the simplicity, that it has so many fewer ingredients. And the energy is old, it doesn't want to be a new club stomper with a modern sound, it's as simple and few elements as possible, and focuses on when is the loop getting hypnotic, and what effect can you generate with this bass drum in and bass drum out in the right moments. This is the formula of course from Thomas Bangalter and Daft Punk in the early 2000s, the French house idea that was the blueprint for that, to make 12-minute tracks and they have only one magic loop and you only arrange them with tiny changes. Still I like this idea, I really like the simplicity in that blueprint and time, and I think 'Pick Up' transports a little bit of this energy. It is 18 years now since the big French house wave came, and many of the young people they are not so aware of this time and period, but they feel it now originally for the first time, and still feel it, you know? It has a soul energy, somehow, like an old energy.
As you move through Knock Knock, the final third of the album is quite different as there are much fewer features, just tracks you've produced by yourself, was that on purpose?
I don't know. I thought I had the right balance of guests and features and instrumental music. I like the idea that not every song has a feature, and that you have a feeling of a personal album, but with many voices, so it's not an instrumental abstract album, it is somehow pop and soul and personal, with many humans - but not all the way. I like this in-between feeling. I'm a fan of instrumental music also, I like the feeling of there being humans, but it's not too much. For me it was the right dosage.
Why did you decide to put 'Seeing Aliens' out first from this album?
I don't know, I like the idea that it's misleading somehow. Because in the end you can't choose one song that's representing the album really well, because it's maybe too broad and too much variety. It's different from others; if you put out a Kamasi Washington song you know it's going to be a jazz record. But here every song can't stand on its own to represent the album, but it can stand on its own as a song; this was my idea.
Are there are any plans for remixes for tracks on this album?
At the moment I'm not sure. I'm not a fan of remixes - except I do them quite often. I think if the artists deliver a sense-making planet, why should there be different versions that we can dance to also? I don't see it. For me it's an old fashioned idea from major companies to generate some extra buzz for the record or the release, but I don't feel it so much.
If an artist you admired came to you and asked you specifically to remix one of your songs, do you think you'd be open to it?
Yeah, maybe. Of course if I see a way where they could touch this in a way with respect and make something different, not just a clubby version of the same idea which I already decided not to be clubby (I could do 20 club songs, but why should I?) then I could imagine it. But normally the good people are so busy they won't ask me.
The day after the album comes out you're doing the album launch party at Printworks here in London, did you choose that for any particular reason?
It came together all in a nice way, and last time it was a blast and it was beautiful! Mano Le Tough is there and Dolan [Bergin] and MCDE [Motor City Drum Ensemble] are there, and it came together in a nice way, and it's just a nice way to celebrate. It was really nice last time, and I think it's really good for London people that the party is a daytime party. You have a different level of energy because the energy in the night is different in London. [Laughs] You know what I mean. They are more happy and more energetic in the day. Sometimes I like the idea that it is not normal to celebrate during the day, and so you have an extra kick, because you think "wow it's daytime and I'm already in this good mood!" It's fantastic, it's like a child's birthday.
But when you're inside Printworks there it doesn't feel like daytime, there's no light!
[Laughs] Yes, you're right. But somehow it is affecting the energy. The same party at night, at 4am, it would be not so colourful and not so wild I guess, because people are too wasted - people have more energy on these day parties.
Can we expect you to play many songs from the album at the party?
I don't know yet, but not too many are peak time compatible, I think. I fucked it up – shit
[Laughs] I don't think so, I think you did great. Last question: what do you hope people feel when they finish listening to Knock Knock?
Knock Knock is released this Friday through Pampa.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 2nd May 2018.