At the time we met, he'd released two EPs through Maslo, a label he started because no one was interested in signing his music. The Vester Koza and Out Of The Blue EPs were both exceptional records that pivoted on deep house but covered lots of ground stylistically. "Mosquito," which could now be considered his most popular track (the EP it's on has been repressed four times), led his self-titled first release. It wasn't a hit in the traditional sense, but its simple combination of warming chords and late-night atmospherics was dynamite. Elsewhere on the EPs—from the delicate skip of "The Pagan Groove Of San Francisco" to the circular synths on "Beauty"—there was plenty to suggest that an exciting new talent had emerged.
To take a broad view of it, these EPs were over a decade in the making. Vester Koza (which isn't his real name) has been working towards releasing music since he started fiddling with belt-driven turntables as a teenager. He was born and grew up in Cheshire, in northern England. Hardcore, drum & bass and gabber, which, he says, he would fall asleep to every night, were his favourite genres. After high school, he drifted for a few years, hanging out, DJing at house parties, and hitting clubs like Cream in Liverpool and Golden in Stoke.
Koza and his friend group's frequent drug use made this time period "quite hectic." He decided to draw back, focusing instead on making music. Koza spent several years in education, learning the ropes in music production. Making music was "all I wanted to do; it was all I did," he says. He wound up at the University Of Westminster in London on a commercial music course, and was dabbling in guitar and keyboard. Between classes and a 30-hour-per-week job, there was little time for him to make music. Once he finished the course, he tried to improve the situation by gaining a teaching qualification in Manchester (he figured he'd produce between classes), but ended up being even more snowed under.
"And then, when I moved back to London, it was almost like starting again, again," he says. "I just had my head down and was really like, '30 is approaching, I'm gonna do this now.'"
At times, Koza has a truncated way of speaking. He cuts himself off mid-sentence, appearing to reconsider the direction of his point. A similar tussle seems to arise when he's making music. He talks about reprimanding himself for sounding "too like Levon Vincent" or "too like Actress," artists he cites as influences. "I'd really beat myself up," he says. "I've got tracks that I look back on that I wrote in Manchester, or at uni, and they're all releasable. They are. I know now they could have been releasable. But for whatever reason I never thought they were, or I know they never had any personality—well, they always had some sort of personality, but to me they never had any strong personality that I felt proud of."
Koza sent his music to labels but "no one wanted to sign it. So that was not good for the confidence. I already had issues with confidence and then everyone's telling you it's crap, so I kind of went into a bit of a hole after that. But at the same time, a little part of me started to say, 'I know these are good enough. I know this is good now.'"
Koza converted the rejection into a catalyst. He decided to start a label, and he called it Maslo. He acquired a loan from the Prince's Trust, a UK charity that helps young people in business with financial support, and he planned his first release. He says he felt inspired by guys like Omar-S, who take a DIY approach to releasing music. A chunk of his budget was spent using Dubplates & Mastering, the industry-leading Berlin mastering house. "So many records that I like have been done there," Koza says. "I felt bad in a way because I'm in Hackney and there's places in Hackney. I could have had it done just over from my house, and I could sit in, and I don't have to fly to Berlin. But my whole ethos with it is I've gone so far with this thing, there's no point doing it to save money."
"Its quite rare that I hear something by someone completely brand new that takes me by surprise like this 12-inch does," said Ben UFO on Rinse FM at the time Vester Koza was released. "Four amazing tracks on there." Lowtec, XDB, Madteo and Even Tuell were also early supporters. In his RA review of the record, Steve Kerr described Koza as a "confident artist," while Oli Warwick, writing for Juno Plus, said he "had an air of establishment about him." Warwick compared Koza's music to DJ Qu and Joey Anderson, which echoed a wider feeling that his murky yet powerful tracks worked well alongside the sound of that crew.
"It's funny because the A1 track on the first record, 'Mosquito,' I hated it to an extent," Koza says. "Well, I wouldn't say I hated it, that's a bit harsh. But that EP—there were four tracks and I played the other three, but now I only play that one. Now I understand it more."
Artists often find it hard to discuss their music, but when Koza says he wants to produce stuff that's "interesting, but simple enough to work in a club" he nails it. In his review of Out Of The Blue, Rory Gibb said, "This is music that doesn't simply reward but demands close and concentrated listening," highlighting the attention Koza pays to satiating home listeners.
On Maslo 03, his most recent release, Koza showed his sound could be easily transposed to techno. The untitled A-side, which is my favourite thing Koza's produced, blended ethereality and brute force. The B-side, meanwhile, was a striking drone-techno excursion.
"I look for individuality," Koza told me—and the broad range of textures and tones across the tracks he's released backs up his claim.
Koza has now, ironically, received offers from labels he describes as "really big." He recognises that their infrastructure—press, promotions, distribution etc—could be beneficial to him, but he's developed a stubborn, individualist streak when it comes to managing his identity. He says that an artist will inevitably be absorbed into, and compared to, the label they work with. "It's become a challenge," he says. "If I go and sign with a label now, and that happens, it's like I've given up. I feel like if I sign with a label and it ends up in the Wire and Pitchfork and stuff like that, I feel like I'm very much part of a machine. And also, all of a sudden, if you go with this label it's like, 'Oh, he's that.'"
For now, he's enjoying the freedom of operating on his own terms. At the time we talked, he was working through writer's block, but hoped to have new music to share soon. "I'm just ticking away quite slowly," he says, "and it's building quite slowly and quite nicely, on a manageable level. It's taken me so long to get here—why rush it?"