For non-breakcore aficionados, Bong-Ra is widely regarded as one of the genre's pioneers. His harder, metal-derived approach to jungle first aired on Djax towards the end of the '90s, though it would be several years before the term "breakcore" would be used to describe it. As for Köhnen, he has always considered himself as making "just heavy, hard electronic music." Leading up to the scene's peak around 2004-5, his Breakcore a Go-Go! parties, Clash Records label and slew of records—notably his 2003 LP Bikini Bandits, Kill! Kill! Kill!—did much to propagate its spread throughout Europe. At the same time, his clear use of reggae and metal references appealed to a wider audience, beyond the remit of jungle and drum & bass' dance floor-orientations.
The brutality of Bong-Ra's sound is often counteracted by gentle mockery, be it in absurd track titles—"Killa Gorilla," "Miss Strap-On USA," "Hello, My Cock Is An Aardvark"—or choice of samples. Yet there is another deeper, more lyrical side to Köhnen. The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble project—conceived with Gideon Kiers the same year that Bong-Ra's debut album, New Millennium Dreadz, was released—is its antithesis in every way. Along with improv sibling, The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation, TKDE has served as Köhnen's primary outlet for his traditional musicianship over the last decade, and melodic balancing-weight to his anarchic dance floor work.
Number of the Beast
Metal is an obvious passion of yours and crops up a lot throughout your Bong-Ra discography. Why have you chosen Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast in particular?
This album compiles all my metal history. "Run to the Hills" was the first heavy metal track I heard. I must have been seven years old, living in Spain at the time, and I remember it so clearly. We were in the car with my parents, going on holiday somewhere to the south of Spain. This song had just come out. My dad was going to get some petrol for the car and they played this song on the radio—or he tuned into another station and this came on. Normally he would have switched the channel straight away, but he had just stepped out the car so the song was on for a couple of minutes, and I was absolutely mesmerised by it. I don't think I have ever had this kind of experience with music since.
He came in the car, heard the track and switched the radio over. I jumped into the front seat and put the channel back on. I just had to see what this was. My mum used to go back on holiday to Holland every year just to see the rest of the family, so I used to ask her to bring back everything she could find of Iron Maiden or heavy metal.
How did you get interested in electronic music from metal?
When I was really into metal, electronics were just a no-go. You couldn't listen to techno or electronic music because that was like blasphemy. Streetcleaner was released in 1989 and, in the beginning, I thought it was just a drummer—the LP cover said drum machine, so I thought maybe that was just a nickname. Of course we didn't have internet then and one day I think I had Metal Hammer and I saw a small interview with Godflesh saying they were working with a drum machine, and I was kind of embarrassed because I was liking electronic music. Then bit-by-bit I got more into looking at industrial stuff, which was a bit more electronic-sounding. And then in 1991 and 1992 the jump was quickly made to gabba and jungle music. So Godflesh, without realising, was my first crossover between metal and electronics, and changed my way of thinking.
I am quite surprised that Amon Tobin is the only "electronic" artist you have chosen. Are you still reserved about listening to electronic music?
I never really used to listen to electronic music. I had my period when I was listening to a lot of jungle when I just started DJing. Then I was listening to jungle and drum & bass non-stop. But when I wasn't listening to electronic music to learn how to DJ—or buying new vinyl—I still bought organic or non-electronic music more often.
I chose to make electronic music because I couldn't find musicians who had the same interests as me. I was fed up with playing in bands and having to compromise, so you are basically left to make electronic music if you want to carry on composing by yourself. Especially when I began, and electronic music was becoming more popular. I decided to go into the heavy jungle, which later became called breakcore, because it was my way of making a one man rock & roll band with the heaviness which I like in metal.
What is it in particular about Bricolage that stands out for you?
I was listening to jazz quite a lot before Amon Tobin, and I think Bricolage was a real mind-blower when it came to combining electronics and jazz. Also Amon Tobin has been a bit of an influence for the way we finally approached The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, before we started composing. I recognised a lot of samples he used on the album but it was quite amazing the way he managed to mix them—especially sampling with melodies, because most often you're sampling with beats, bits of hip-hop songs. I found it quite breathtaking how he managed to mix melodies from so many different sources.
Where do you like to get your samples from?
When I started with Bong-Ra I used to sample a lot from reggae albums, just for the vocals. Then once in a while I used to sample guitars from metal albums, especially when I was doing concept breakcore metal EPs. I would also go for the famous stuff—bits and pieces of Slayer, so people would recognise it. But the last couple of years I don't sample so much any more. It was interesting and a good way of learning, just to chop up bits and see how you incorporate that in your music, and learn how people went about composing electronic music. But now I find it more interesting to develop my own sound by using synths, so when people hear my track they can recognise the difference between my style and anyone else.
In using these recognisable samples, were you just trying to make "hits", or were these from music you love and were listening to anyway?
Both really. When I did the "Slaytronic" track—where I used three or four Slayer songs and chopped up the guitars to make one track—that was obviously to be recognised and to be a bit of a hit on the dance floor. People know the riffs and it gets them moving. But sometimes I used to really dig deep to find samples which were a bit of a challenge, to see if people would recognise the samples in there. If they could, it would be great to discuss with people because it meant they would know this really obscure group, and there'd be something to talk about.
I really like the concept of an album where it is kind of a pilgrimage. Jerusalem is really intense, just one long track, with an intro riff of 10-15 minutes, which pounds on and has this monolithic sound to it. I just like how they manage to have a track that doesn't get boring for the whole 52 minutes. You get lost and really disappear into their world and wake up once the album is finished.
Is that something you try to create yourself with your own music?
That's always been my goal when I am writing music, be it with Bong-Ra or the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble. I always kind of disappear into what I call my fantasy world, and whichever track I am working on there is always a visual or story element to it. Just for me to get inspiration, but also for people who are listening to my music. I want there to be something that sucks you in.
Are all of your albums conceptual on some level then?
Some are and some aren't, but there is always—for myself—some concept for each track I work on. I always have some kind of idea where I want to go beforehand, be it inspiration from a book or a film or an image, and work from there. Once I get started it becomes alive and I kind of disappear into this world or this scenery. I really lose myself each time I make a track. It makes it interesting as well for yourself, to lose yourself for part of the day.
The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble seems grounded in cinematic narrative—composing to films was in fact the original inspiration for the project.
We had a job to re-edit Night of the Living Dead for this horror film channel in America. They had made a slightly different soundtrack to it, so we had to edit the film and add some effects. We really liked doing this work so we decided to work on the old Nosferatu, to basically make a new soundtrack. At that moment there were existing songs so we made a mix and re-edited the film faster, added some glitches to it and different video effects. We thought that worked really well because most of the old silent films have organ or classical music, so we thought it would be good to make this a project—edit these films and add a different soundtrack.
Because we were both making music we thought it would probably be more logical if we composed our own music, and have the visuals be an influence for the music. Mostly people are influenced by other music to make their own music, so we thought to look at the film without sound and have the atmosphere and climax of the film decide how we compose the music. Eventually we found musicians who were interested in joining the group.
Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud
That explains this choice of Miles Davis.
Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud was a French film noir, and they asked Miles Davis to make the music. They projected the film in the studio and recorded the music while the film was playing—pretty intense thing to do. It has been a big inspiration for TKDE, and especially for the Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation, because the album was made purely through improvisation while watching a film. It is really the blueprint for the Mount Fuji project.
Bong-Ra and TKDE are clearly very separate and oppositional projects, but are there any overlaps between the two?
There used to be in the beginning. We would combine performances because TKDE wasn't too well known, so in order to enable the TKDE show we always used to add the Bong-Ra show afterward. Pretty quickly we realised that it was pointless, though. Nearly everyone who came to see Kilimanjaro didn't like Bong-Ra, and everyone who came to watch Bong-Ra didn't want to see Kilimanjaro. So there is absolutely no overlapping whatsoever.
They seem to be real yin and yang outfits in every way.
That's really what it is. I need Bong-Ra to get rid of my aggression in a completely electronic way of working. And then Kilimanjaro is the romantic, melancholic, organic outlet where we are using mostly instruments.
The Syliphone Years
They're an Afro-Cuban jazz band and what I like about this album—and "Ballake" in particular—is the production. Most people may think it's really thinly produced, but what I really love about African music is that it is really pure. And with the technical facilities they had in those days, it is so much purer and more intense than any electronic or even organic music nowadays. The more production techniques you add, the more they take away the dynamics and the heart of certain music. So I really like listening to old jazz and African music where you can really hear the music breathe.
I try to adapt this to my music also, to not over-produce too much. I prefer to leave small human errors in there, like when the trombone is playing and you can really hear the trombonist breathing in. Usually people fade that out, or chop it off, but I like to leave in all the little human mistakes or elements to make the music more organic.
Do you also do this with your Bong-Ra productions?
I do actually. Well, the beats are a different story because they are kind of straightforward but when I have melody layers and I mess around with them and record on the fly, I usually do leave parts that may not really be in sync. Sometimes when I've chopped up melodies or chopped up parts to make them fit really tight into the music it kind of loses something, so I've decided to—if it works well when the whole track is playing—just leave it like that because it adds a bit of roughness.
This is a youth sentiment. I discovered hip-hop for the first time in the early 90s—NWA, ONYX. The lyrics on this album are just so ridiculously stupid, they're funny—well, I hope for the band they didn't take themselves seriously. It is just great fun. I like the gangster rap image a bit. I can see the comical side to it. Nonetheless the album is pretty good. Even now if I play it once in a while, the tracks still hold up.
As Bong-Ra do you use "lyrics"—or vocal samples rather—in a similar context of ridicule?
Maybe a few tracks had some lyrics in, but usually when I have song titles or samples, either I use a lot of sarcasm or some humour, to joke around a bit with the vibe of the track—but not too often. I prefer to use sarcasm as humour in my music rather than just plain stupidity.
Didn't you first start out with an MC?
Mike Redman. We had a click about the stuff we listened to, and the hip-hop we really liked. I like to add tracks that are hip-hop related because I think it works well and adds a lot of energy to the music, and his lyrics are quite neutral but abstract, without going to an exact story or focus. But for my new Bong-Ra album I am working with Sole of Anticon. His lyrics are really political, apocalyptic and emphasising the stuff that's going on now in the world—be it the financial crisis, or the wars. I find that interesting, either you are really serious and apocalyptic, or keep it abstract.
You've mentioned the word "apocalyptic" a number of times now.
It is the key inspiration for most of my music. I tend to be happier when I am listening to darker music, or apocalyptic music. Happy music really makes me depressive. It's part of my worldview—apocalyptic or nihilistic—where I don't think humanity has much going for itself and the world we are living in is kind of overrated with the way we have approached stuff. It is a part of my character, which obviously goes into the music every time.
Please explain this then.
"If You Leave Me Now" is really sad. The song for me is quite tragic, and kitschy in the way that everyone knows the song from the commercial. I think it is really quite intense if you get into the track, especially if you are sad yourself. I still have a soft spot for kitschy tragedy.