|Levon Vincent: The golden ratio
Ahead of his appearance at this year's Bloc festival, RA catches up with one of the most distinctive DJ and producers in house and techno.
"How can I make money in my lifetime without screwing people over?" This is the central question on Levon Vincent's mind. He has vast ambitions for the possibilities of his music—and he's worked hard enough to realize many of them already. But he has to do so on his own terms: Vincent is among the most fiercely independent techno producers to come along in some time. Yet that independence is as much due to politeness as anything else. Through his time at music school in New York, he's seen how the business can operate, and he doesn't like it all that much.
Go back a few years, and the aforementioned central question was moot. Vincent was living in the Midwest with family, recovering from an injury to his back that left him with mobility problems. Coming off the back of a lengthy stint in New York, it felt a bit like hell, but it was an important time for his music career. Left to focus solely on his tracks, he built up an arsenal that became the basis for an incredible run of singles on his own Novel Sound and Deconstruct Music labels. This led to an increased international touring schedule—and a low-profile move to Berlin where he now makes his temporary home. (He would like to get back to New York eventually.)
Fabric is Vincent's London clubbing homebase, and the club recently asked him to make a mix for their vaunted compilation series. He responded by gathering up exclusive tunes from friends based in and around New York, and joined the dots with a clutch of his own unreleased material. It's a mix you'd never mistake for anyone else, much like the man himself.
Tell me about the way your fabric mix starts. The Joey Anderson track that begins things simply seems to be the whole track.
I love a lot of music, but I don't often get excited like I did about Aphex Twin or somebody like that so much any more. But one guy, Joey Anderson, every time he puts a record out I personally am excited, you know what I mean? I really believe in him, so I [feel like] there's no better intro. I put like seven minutes of the first track on there. You cannot miss this guy. Now it comes down to if you like him or don't like him, but it's no longer that he's been overlooked, because at the least I have done my job as a DJ.
It's a fascinating thing to me, this mix CD. Often you seem to just a play a track, and you don't even really do much mixing... Or at least it sounds that way. And then you have your track that goes for seven minutes or so...
Yeah, it's an "audiophile" approach, for sure. "Fear" is the tune you mean. Nine minutes, right in the center of the CD. That's intentional. I mean, that's the only place you can put it, that's exactly right.
Were you just trying to reset things?
No, it's just there's all these ideas... see, in visual art if you ever see the body studies that Da Vinci did, it comes down to one ruling proportion in your body, and later they found out it's right down to cell structure, this governing proportion. It's basically 1 x 1.6. It's called the golden mean. It's used to determine everything from note durations to song durations and harmonies in a lot of music.
Sometimes I forget about all of your music training.
I have a big picture… I mean I do, but I don't dwell on that picture. And I was certainly low on the pole while in school, and I am an awful keyboard player.
How did you turn it off?
I don't. I absolutely don't. Why would I? I mean, I'm a worker. You know, so you learn everything you can about it starting from as early as you can. But what I do now is mostly internalized through many years of repetition. [That's] only from years of fucking with it. To the point of, that ratio... if you let it, it will haunt you. I mean there was like four or five years there, when I was studying music, where I was looking at everything and...
Just seeing it.
You'd see it in the sidewalks. That proportion is so magical because it not only affected music and visual art but it affected everything. Everyone has looked to Ancient Greek civilization for these proportions; for form. Even the White House in America is... Thomas Jefferson and all these guys, all these Founding Fathers were all about classical knowledge. It's on the money. Everyone in the arts goes to antiquity to learn, you know?
When you think of Beethoven or [Richard] Wagner, it's like they first learned this proportion, but then they went about innovating, given what they had. So they said, "Well, instead of having the climax at roughly 60% the duration of a song, what if we delay something climatic to 70%?" When you hear "The Flight of the Valkyries" and think about all of those five hour operas, what Wagner was doing was pushing those proportions out. I suppose that's how you classify "Romanticism." That's what comes later: but first you learn the rules, then you find your own way.
You mentioned in another interview that we were wrong in our news item about the mix to say that you were effectively repping your crew with the tracklist on the mix. Why do you think that?
I think that got quoted too loosely, it's not as though I was defending a charge that RA made. Well, I guess it was just less what you said and more where else am I going to get that music? Where else is that coming from? I can't quite think of another city in the world with that exact flavor. There's a level of mysticism in New York. There's a spiritual base there.
Is that something that you hear through the years, or is it something recent?
It comes from guys in New York favoring Ron Trent records and Joe Claussell records and stuff like that so much, so over the years that's a culture and personality of its own. It's a long-standing New York tradition. I don't even live there any more, so I don't know how much I can really say now. But I go home to see my parents and I feel it immediately, and I'll return back to New York in a few years. But, for me, Ron Trent on Giant Step had a really big impact, too. It's not only Prescription with Ron. There's this emphasis on intellectualism in the tradition of jazz that I think artists like that carry through. That's because it's African-American music in America, know what I mean?
Not exactly. Can you explain?
Like... it's African-American musical heritage that I'm portraying as I have experienced it in my life, as part of a generation that has had the closest thing to harmonious American living yet. But in that analogy, I'm hoping for Bill Evans. I could never be John Coltrane.
I'm surprised to see you do a fabric mix, to be honest, in this particular style where you're putting a lot of your material out there. It seems as though, throughout your career, you've been extraordinarily tight with your stuff. You don't do remixes anymore at all.
Oh God, I hate remixes. And I've even tried for a couple of years there, but...
Why do you hate remixes so much?
It just seems incestuous. I mean, if you want to talk on the business side, there is no bigger screw than remixes.
I feel like there's also this aspect of aligning yourself...
It's trading and selling an image, you mean, right?
Well I'm not into that either: image as commodity. I mean, that's bullshit. And many of the people that do approach you for a remix are into that idea, of buying and selling image. You break off a piece of your dignity for cash—unless it's between friends. But when it's business... when money is changing hands and you're doing contracts and stuff, when somebody's buying a piece of your image to boost their thing... That's usually people that can't stand on the merit of their own label or vision.
When I stopped doing remixes, I tried to say to people, "Don't take this personally, you won't see anything by me anywhere else." And out of the 600 requests I got since 2009, I have been called a straight up "asshole" at least four or five times. I don't know. Especially when I started touring internationally, the calibre of people lowered in some ways. It went from heads to businessmen, you know? And those people are a lot more crass about their response if you can't meet their needs, especially if they had not heard of you before that week, when whichever press feature pointed them to you. But, to this day, I continue to answer every single email that I receive, and I listen to every demo people get into my hands. I don't mind these experiences, I find them to be fascinating—and not half as scary as I always imagined "adulthood" to be like.
"It's supposed to be fun and musically
educating, it's not supposed to be
exclusively one or the other."
Some people may try to wear you down. Every three to six months you'll hear from them, and you say, "Thank you so much, I'm sorry I just don't do remixes." And then they will say, "Oh no, we understand you don't do remixes. How about an original song by you?" And you say, "Oh no, I don't do that either, I mean I'm really, at this point in my life, I can barely keep releasing music on my own label, I'm really busy, I'm so sorry." And then you get back, "Well, you know, we need a podcast then for the site. We need something from you to give us some flair," or whatever it is they say. But what they're really saying with all this is, "We need you to break off a piece of your individualism and give it to us, to give us dignity." They are the same people that made fun of me in school when I was a kid.
It's not unethical, and it's definitely not criminal. It's just people trying to be in the business. Some of them want to party and get chicks or make a lot of money or make their mark, but maybe they're not necessarily "musical" per say, but they do have a really strong vision for the label. Almost everyone has good intentions actually. There's almost nobody in the business that has bad intentions. Even the guys that do get ripped off, it's usually by people that don't know how to be responsible about paying their bills. You know, when you hear about guys like, "Oh, I gave such and such a remix or whatever and then they never paid me!" OK, let's look at the source: It's probably someone blowing lines every weekend in a club and talking on and on for hours that doesn't have their shit together. But you didn't know that, because it was just some stranger with a brand name that contacted you via email. They probably don't pay their phone bill on time either, you know what I mean?
It's not personally malicious.
This isn't the hip-hop industry. There aren't millions of dollars on the table. So mostly the people love either the lifestyle or the music. Some people emphasize one or the other too much, but it should be even. You're supposed to party and educate. It's supposed to be half and half. It's supposed to be fun and musically educating, it's not supposed to be exclusively one or the other.
My thing is "can I make my money in this lifetime without screwing people?" That's what the independent record label/DJ means to me. Because I could make music at home. Without all of this. That's actually "underground." But I want to be a success in my life. What I want is...
Where does that come from? Because there is... I mean, you don't hear many artists saying it that boldly: "I want to be a success." There's a little bit of ego there.
Maybe. But I want recognition. I work so hard. And I put in the time and the learning and the practice. What I want is to play Trentemoller-sized stadium gigs, doing what I do. I want to go as big as I can with it—not over the top like Jean Michel Jarre using entire cities as backdrops or anything, but I want to continue to do what I'm doing with as much success as it permits—within the boundaries of my personal style. And so hopefully, there is a live show in me as an artist. Maybe in five years. I just hope that people will put stock into it to see.
Going back to that same thing about releasing a limited amount, though. What I want is longevity. I want to do it for 30 years, and I want to do something that does not screw people over as my life's work, you know? That's just not too much to ask. So it's all tied in...that you need to take care with every decision.
When did you come to this though?
I was born that way, I guess. My mother was beyond strict at times about lying and things like that.
I'm not sure I believe that you were born with that long view career-centric philosophy fully-formed in your mind.
Yeah, I mean, I guess I do prioritize having foresight more than a lot of guys, at least the ones who are more focused on the partying half than the music half. That's true. But actually, I've only realised this... OK, I'll tell you this, my life story... I have got a lot of stories, and I'm going to write a book one day. Some of the things are so specific that no one even could think of them unless they had happened to them. I have stories like that. But I have no regrets, and I am happy and balanced. The only thing that I have anger about, the thing that I can't let go of is that I have some relatives that are born-again Christian, and they're evangelical, and they've done some dirty tricks to me in my lifetime, to try to persuade me to become a Christian.
What's interesting is that it ties in with all this integrity and this longevity and all these principles that I aim for. Some of those family members have been very manipulative about pushing their beliefs on us, but they felt justified because it's for the better purpose of serving some Christian nation and this Christian principle of evangelicalism, right? It drives everyone in my family that isn't into that into some bad places—depression or addiction. Or to science and inherently atheistic practices.
There are two things that I learned from those family experiences, I think. For the first eight years of my life we lived in Houston, Texas and I was going to church, and you would learn that human nature is flawed. That you're supposed to spend your life striving to exceed human nature, right? I mean, that's essentially what the Bible says: We are all sinners and you have to ask for forgiveness and from then on you have to strive to do better than what your first natural instinct might be. I am not a fan of organized religion. Let me be clear about that. But I love the idea that the way that humans should progress is to strive for something better in your lifetime. And then if you do that generation after generation after generation, the world moves toward peace.
"Nothing I say is fixed, because
it changes as I grow and learn."
What's the second thing?
The other thing is relative to quality control—not releasing so much, really aiming for longevity and this idea of integrity that probably only exists in my head. I have turned some of those religious ideas around: I am evangelical with music instead. It's very important to me. Now, nothing I say is fixed, because it changes as I grow and learn, but this is what I've been thinking about lately. Having some appreciation for my family, because what I have learned in my youth actually did find its way into my career. I am trying to help people. That's what attracts me to music and DJing. And the theories we observe in music too.
The idea that music is therapeutic, right?
For three hours a week rich people, poor people, black people, white people, gay people and everything else get together in the same room—and are equal—and that's always been what I love about dance music. I mean, that's why I love to do it. I discovered that way as a teenager.
Tell me about the first time you played fabric.
What was so funny with the first time I played fabric in the big room is that Judy [Griffith, fabric's head of promotions] walked in the booth mid-set, and I said, "Oh hey, what's up?" And then I walked over, and took the needle right off the record. And it was just, silence, pure silence.
My intention was to remove the record that had just finished and instead... I didn't know what to do and I looked at Judy in panic, and I put the needle back down, and everyone was like "Waheey!" and the house came down, like it was a trick. It came right on the beat, so it sounded like it was on purpose. I was like, "I cannot believe I just pulled that off." I got so lucky with so many variables at once. [laughs] I will never forget the state of panic that happened right when I did that. That's what I really love, the longer I DJ—the accidents and the things you can never account for that get handled gracefully without your intention.
We've talked before about some of your secret weapons as a DJ. One of them is Razormaid. What is that?
Yeah, I found them when I was teenager. There used to be these services, remix services. But back then only a DJ could get them, you had to be in their little record pool. But you could occasionally find them. People would also trade them for top dollar. Even as a teenager I remember paying 50 bucks to get a copy of a Razormaid record.
What was amazing about Razormaid was that he had a deal with Sire and all the major record companies it seemed like. So the Razormaid mix of every song was almost always better. For any of those bands that were electronic-based like Depeche Mode, it was really cool. He did Nina Hagen, Bigod 20. A lot of things. They're what people call "edits" now. But I have no idea why Razormaid has not been talked about at least once today… I really don't. They were some of the biggest overall influence on my whole career.
You play them quite a bit now.
Now? Yeah, I do. I mean, it's not house music, it's for the "non" house music parts that make up more than half of a "house" set, if that makes sense. Most of them now have to be cut up because they would do some wack vocal thing or... A lot of them don't necessarily stand the test of time within today's context, but it's a huge link in the chain that's been completely overlooked, and I have no idea why. You would have thought during that whole Fischerspooner era maybe…
What did you do as a job while you were based in New York before you did music full-time?
Well, I was a bartender or restaurant worker for twelve years, basically from the age of 18 until 30. And always a second job—record stores, comic books, stuff like that.
What was that like?
You know how it is in New York. You drink on the job as a bartender or waiter, and you make a lot of money considering the job, you know? It's a great way to live if you have to work in the service business. And you are always surrounded by really smart people when you work in restaurants. Lots of aspiring artists and fashion people. A lot of this job—DJing—has helped me grow up in a lot of ways, though, and I am a lot more reserved now I think.
You know, you would not hear a lot of DJs say that.
Probably not. The younger guys would definitely not say that. The guys that have success in their 30s, though, it's too important to them. Everything I do is really important. This isn't considered temporary, or "Oh, maybe I'll do something else and have a family and a 9-5 one day, I'm just having fun now." This is it. This is my one shot.
Published / Friday, 27 April 2012
Photo credits / Header, Street shots - Sophia Spring
Joey Anderson - Keep it deep