|Outside the box: DJ Koze
Is Stefan Kozalla the weirdest man in dance music? Nah. As RA's Eike Kühl finds out in the staff bathroom at Offenbach's Robert-Johnson club, he's just thinking outside the box.
If you listen to enough house music, when you encounter Stefan Kozalla's productions and remixes, you'll most likely find them eccentric, odd and even a bit challenging. Fortunately, the Hamburg producer is far from these things in person, making our staff bathroom interview at Offenbach's Robert-Johnson club a pleasure—despite the comical surroundings. While the crowd on the dance floor was getting ready for Koze to take over the decks later that night, we sat down on two empty crates of beer and started to talk about how Koze began to produce electronic music after his involvement in the German hip-hop scene during the mid-90s.
"During Fischmob, I already started to produce electronic music under the name of Adolf Noise. The music I was spinning around that time was a strange mix of all kinds of danceable tunes, whatever I could find really. Techno came later. Don't get me wrong, I still think of hip-hop as a fantastic type of music, but it is stagnating. I still like the soul of it, and its rawness, the power of voice. But nowadays, I can't really identify with the hip-hop culture, everything is about making money, nobody is trying to think out of the box anymore, so I moved on."
"Thinking out of the box" is an expression Koze uses on more than one occasion during the course of our chat, and it seems to be the key to understanding his work. Whether it's as part of the pop-inspired International Pony trio, his danceable Koze alias or his experimental and ambient moniker Adolf Noise, Kosi—as his friends call him—has done his fair share of boundary pushing during his career. But just because he's doing it, doesn't mean that the whole of electronic music is following. As with hip-hop, the fear of stagnation looms large.
Pay no attention to that man behind those lips
"What I don't like is how people try to put everything in drawers, how everybody seems to be using the same formula. Take the revival of deep house for example. There is a pattern, you take a certain set of chords, a vocal sample and decrease the tempo, and there you have a deep house track. Everything is formatted. Where are the breakouts, the shocks? Sure, there are some producers out there who retain their unique style, but after all, the scene is very conservative. That's why I admire every DJ who uses his or her standing as a conveyor of music to bring something new to the people."
Koze chuckles as I ask him if we have indeed reached a point where we've had "basta ya de minimal," a hint to Matias Aguayo's tongue-in-cheek "Minimal," which Koze remixed earlier this year. "Many people still think it is all about the bass drum. Techno is all about bass. Sure, I love a nice, bouncing bass drum as much as the next guy, but it is not the exciting part of the music. Everything around it is what I am fascinated with. Every time I land on one of those MySpace profiles which immediately start with a bass drum blaring at you, I close the browser. I get tons of promos each month, and I only play about a handful of them. There are so many tracks that sound alike, it drives me mad..."
Of course the reception of music is subjective, and every crowd and listener reacts in a different way. As our interview progresses, and the club outside approaches its first peak around 3 AM, Koze contemplates how the bass drum impacts his work as a DJ and as—in his own words—a conveyor of music.
"Many people like a harder tone. That's OK, but it's extremely disrespectful for a DJ when people come to you and scream 'Play faster!', while you are trying to pour your heart out on the dance floor and try to establish a coherent flow. One of the worst things I ever witnessed was at a gig in Hamburg with Tobias Thomas. Tobi was playing the Pet Shop Boys, and suddenly a bloke from the crowd took off the needle and said 'Dude, I wanna hear techno!' That's insane! I prefer it when the music becomes slower and sexier the longer the night gets."
Despite the growing difference in age between him and the crowd, a fact Koze acknowledges but doesn't condemn, the connection usually works. After all, Koze has been voted "Best DJ" several years in a row by the readers of Spex. Nonetheless, as he admits, there are nights when "in a manic fashion," he completely misses the crowd's vibe. It's a necessary job hazard when you attempt to blend techno, electronic, and house white labels, classics and odd samples into an eclectic mix. Koze's sets may not always sound perfectly seamless, but they offer something far more important: personality and style.
"I'm quite a serious person
when it comes to music."
More so than his DJing, though, Koze is perhaps most beloved for his remixing skill. His dedication to weirdness, to never simply rearranging the given patterns, has come at a price however: "Apparently some of my remixes are so crude that nobody wants to play them anymore, because the bass drum only kicks in after four minutes. I don't know, maybe I'm lacking the skills to produce a track which bangs right from the start. I am currently compiling a disc of remixes, and I realized that I always seem to produce the first track of a mix," he says with a laugh.
Koze may find it humorous, but I also sense some disappointment in his voice as well—as if the constant battle against mediocrity has become a Sisyphean challenge. Continuing to please himself, though, is just as difficult: "If you have a lot of experience in making music, you will get to the point when it is incredibly hard to surprise yourself. For me, the interesting things only occur when I twist and turn them, shift them around and put them back together in a weird way, when I play with the volume and odd breaks. That's when the unexpected happens. The trick is not to make it too obvious—otherwise it will sound as if you're trying too hard."
This effortlessness is—paradoxically—not easily attained. And neither is the seemingly humorous element in his music. Listen to a couple of Koze's records or remixes, and you often get the impression of an underlying tongue-in-cheek humor, a taunting meta-level, a healthy dose of madness, whether it be in the track titles, the cover art or the use of vocals. (International Pony's "Solid Gold" for example, fittingly starts off with the words "Sweet madness, here we go again.") Surprisingly, that's not Koze's intention. While he acknowledges the fun in his work, he has come a long way from appearing in colorful videos and dressing up in wacky costumes.
"I'm quite a serious person when it comes to music. No really, I am. I can't take any of that half-hearted humour, and even less when people like it. There is a thin line between humour and seriousness, which is not always easy to spot. Some hear a pitched voice and think of Mickey Mouse, while it took me hours to figure out how to get it right....I think it is fairly easy to rock the house, but so hard to look out of the window. Maybe some people think my music is funny because I'm often standing outside that house, but all in all, wackiness and flashy things are not my cup of tea. I mean, being plain stupid is fairly easy after all..."