It's sometime after dinner on a sweaty Wednesday in Utrecht, and Mathew Jonson is working the mixing board at the front of a makeshift recording studio, assembled in what was once the stage of a shoebox-shaped ballroom. A black curtain separates the space from the rest of the room, and a couple of mismatched lamps lend it a warm glow. There's gear everywhere—drum machines, a mattress-sized modular system, three or four MacBooks—enough that it's hard to tell what's doing what in the thick mix pumping from the oversized Adam Audio monitors behind the mixing desk.
From my perch on an old leather couch at the back of the room, I've barely seen Jonson's front side for the entirety of the session—with a wide stance, he's got most of the front of the studio within reach, tweaking the knobs and improvising basslines while feeling the groove through every inch of his body. He turns around to make sure he's on the same page as the rest of a motley crew: Sebastian Mullaert, formerly of Minilogue, on an intricate MIDI system to Jonson's right; Colin Benders, AKA Kyteman, the renowned Dutch trumpeter and hip-hop artist, patching the modular; Nathan Jonson, Mathew's brother who produces as Hrdvsion, manipulating an Ableton Push controller opposite Benders; and Colin de la Plante, AKA The Mole, who's set up his MPC and effects on a table at the back of the room facing away from the monitors. Everyone's nods of approval quickly transition into head-bobs in time with the elastic techno they're brewing, an expanse of breaky drums, overdriven synths, sensitive keyboard melodies and trippy sample ephemera. (I can see that most of the latter is coming from de la Plante, the session's de facto details guy.) Aside from the occasional smoke break or stopping the DAW to re-clock everyone's gear, this jam went on, in one form or another, until midmorning the next day.
It was one of many sessions I got stuck in at this year's Studio Stekker, a relatively new offshoot of a daylong electronic open-air on the outskirts of Utrecht called Stekker In Het Park. Starting last year, the festival asked a number of the acts they'd booked if they wanted to come to town a week early, set up in a studio complex and work on whatever, with whomever. The week was such a success, both for the quality of the output and the unusually strong camaraderie it fostered among the participants, that they organized a second go-round and planned to make it a yearly part of their programming.
It's an event with a premise so simple, it's hard to believe there aren't more like it. In looking for a comparison, I'm reminded less of Red Bull Music Academy than the Levon Vincent Apprenticeship—that rare moment when one artist is in the position to foster the creativity of another. A gloss of the details, though, reveals some very legitimate challenges. While a week among peers in the studio is an easy sell to artists, it's not especially appealing to their agents, whose signees would be off the grid for a week at the height of festival season. There are issues of who brings what, who owns what from the sessions, how to avoid collective exhaustion and how to keep the vibe rolling for an entire week with a group of veritable strangers. And what does it mean for a project like this to grow, when making it larger and more prestigious might be antithetical to its very aims? Keeping the lights on at creative events like this typically requires an enormous amount of sponsorship, whether that's corporate branding or state largess, so it's hard not to think cynically about Studio Stekker's aims and what might really be behind it all.
Studio Stekker is the work of organizers Geurt Kersjes (known to all as Pitto) and Thijs de Boer; their tireless right-hand man Wanne van den Bos; Benders, who along with his father spearheads Kytopia, the studio space; Allert Aalders and Ben Spaander, who are responsible for Studio Stekker's peerless synthesizer list; and countless other volunteers and support staff. At no point during my week in Utrecht did any of them seem interested in anything anything aside from making space for free-flowing activity. There isn't just the veneer of no rules and no expectations—there actually aren't any. When Pitto, the week's lanky, shaggy ringleader, addressed the participants at the end of dinner on the opening night, he said a number of times that there were would be a few ground rules but never got around to mentioning them. Eventually, he settled on banning smoking inside the building, and asked that everyone make sure the front door closed and locked behind them. The neighborhood weirdos, he explained, had a habit of wandering in, often in varying states of undress.
Three festivals ago, Pitto showed off his studio at Kytopia to Matt Didemus of Junior Boys, who'd been booked to play Stekker In Het Park. "He was like, 'What if next year we do a couple of days of fun with friends and artists?'" Pitto recalled. "This was the moment that the idea was born." Benders thought it had legs, and in advance of the 2013 edition, they made the pitch to some of the artists they were looking into for Stekker In Het Park. If you can find an ulterior motive for Studio Stekker, it's this not-especially-sinister one: given the hundreds of other festivals on Europe's saturated summer calendar, the organizers hoped the event might set them apart.
"It's like a stop in the summer where you have your summer camp—bad word, maybe, but you can have some relaxed time, and make music and meet other people," de Boer told me over beers one night. Outside of Stekker, he promotes parties in Amsterdam and around Holland, and has made a career providing infrastructure and logistics to festivals. "I think people come out of it quite relaxed, although they do quite a lot of work in there—surprisingly, because we don't say you have to. We give everyone a bike. You can get out of town, get stoned, I don't know. It's okay with me. But luckily 99% stays in, makes music, joins each other. So do we have to set rules? We've said, 'Let's do no rules and see what happens.'"
The setting this year gave Studio Stekker an especially freewheeling vibe. Three months before the event, Kytopia got word that their building was being redeveloped, and they'd have to find a new location more or less immediately. Benders had gotten offers to take the studio somewhere else in the Netherlands, which would have been a major blow to Utrecht's cultural fabric. Kytopia's plight, though, coincided with another major change in the city's musical landscape: Tivoli, Utrecht's most famous concert venue by a mile, was about to make a long-in-the-works move from an ancient building on the Oudegracht ("old canal") in the old city center to a contemporary construction near the train station, where it would be combined with Vredenburg, a hall known for its classical and jazz programming. Benders' Kyteman Orchestra played Tivoli's final seven nights, all of which sold out. During the run, officials from the venue started showing him around the old hall's nooks and crannies, gauging his interest in transforming Tivoli into the new Kytopia.
"I practically grew up here," Benders said—a sentiment echoed by every Dutch person I spoke to during Studio Stekker, whether from Utrecht or otherwise. If you grew up in Holland and had even a passing interest in music, you probably have a collection of beer-tinged Tivoli memories. And it seemed like an oddly perfect fit for Benders' studio concept. "The more I saw of the whole building, the more I felt like, yeah, this would be a major fuck-up if we would end up saying no to a place like this." Two weeks before this year's Studio Stekker participants arrived, Kytopia got the keys to the old Tivoli. For the studio week, the space was still very much a work in progress—busted pianos and organs seemed to line every hall in the mazelike building, and makeshift studios were crammed in every bend in the walls large enough to accommodate studio monitors and a laptop.
The artists, for the most part, split up into studio teams and spent the week working in those clusters. There were a few notable exceptions. Alphonse Lanza, AKA former Azari & III member Alixander III, started out with Hodgins and Didemus (whom he's known since the '90s) but spent much of the week lending a manic jolt to whatever session he'd wander into. On one afternoon, I saw him sneak up on Franziska Grohmann—the Freund Am Tanzen-affiliated vocalist who goes by Delhia de France—as she recorded on the grand piano in the main hall, grab a megaphone and begin humming a countermelody at shrieking volume. (Lanza's father, the elder Alphonse, had traveled with him from Toronto and spent the week drifting between studios. He became the beloved mascot for Studio Stekker 2014 as a whole, a folksy antidote for any conversation that drifted too far into control voltage.)
Grohmann became a kind of lone wolf, dropping in on sessions with her laptop and microphone and lending ethereal, improvised vocals to techno instrumentals. Her stint in the Jonson/Mullaert/de la Plante studio produced one of the week's most sublime moments: the skeleton of a Mathew Jonson anthem with a sultry vocal twist. As the jam died down, Jonson admitted he'd been searching for ages for a vocalist in Berlin, where he lives. He and Grohmann, who lives more or less down the road from his studio, agreed to meet up and re-record the track, and she joined him, Nathan and de la Plante onstage for their live set at the festival.
Though producers spent much of the week squirreled away in their studios, there were some places you'd find everyone: a landing with an open window at the very top of the building, for a quick cigarette or fresh air on humid 30-degree afternoons; at the refrigerator by the kitchen, which seemed to contain a self-replenishing supply of Grolsch Kornuit cans; at the Albert Heijn down the Oudegracht, where everyone would stock up on trail mix, berries and gouda; and in the garden, where each night at 7 PM volunteers served leisurely dinners, and where I'd hear the organizers and participants ruminate on their studio week or life in general.
The critical communal space, though, was Sonar Traffic, Aalders and Spaander's synth studio and the week's real trump card. Aalders and Spaander had worked together as sound guys at the old Tivoli, and decided a few years ago to merge their epic collections in one location—a place where artists could flesh out bedroom productions with gear they'd salivated over for years. By now Sonar Traffic has so many synths that their owners said they suffer from a kind of "company blindness," where some synths don't get played because they've become desensitized to their presence. Though affiliated with Studio Stekker last year, they hadn't shared a space, and producers had to get a lift by van to their old studio. At the new Kyteman, Sonar Traffic had been given the attic, and it brought practically every synthesizer worth mentioning under their roof. Participants could take more or less anything to their studio space (or at least record samples up in the attic), and within reason, they'd let you take them to the festival on Saturday for live sets. You could find Aalders and Spaander upstairs every day until impossibly late, offering advice on which Juno or Jupiter would best suit a track, cooking up bespoke FM patches on their Eurorack system or waxing philosophical over a beer or four.
"A rollercoaster ride of awesomeness" was how Aalders described his Studio Stekker late on Thursday night when I dropped by. He has the unmistakable look of a lifelong roadie, dressed in functional black pants, utility boots and t-shirts emblazoned with the logos of famous synth manufacturers. "You're with a group of people who are kind of like-minded. How do you say in English? 'Gezelligheid'—this is an untranslatable Dutch word, 'good times between each other.' You see people go off into their separate little corners, and I'll drop by and see what they're doing, help them out here and there. I just love doing that. Sometimes it's a bit hectic—five people at the same time asking you stuff. But I still think that's fun, because I also hear what's coming out of it."
Every studio, then, had some bit of gear they couldn't get at home. Rossander and Arenholt Bindslev got their hands on a Roland Jupiter-4, from which they wrought gorgeous, sweeping pads. Tristano and Medway-Smith borrowed a Korg PolySix for growling basslines, and, without enough Yamaha DX7s to go around, wound up with the less famous DX11; an inside joke quickly developed between them where they'd say "DX11" as quickly and as slurred as possible so that unassuming ears might hear DX7, as a sleazy salesman might. Didemus and Hodgins ended up with perhaps the week's rarest instrument, procured through a connection at an instrument shop down the road: a Synton Fenix, a modular synth dating to the late '90s, of which only 75 were made. It looked like a bitch to program, and patches were difficult to replicate, but its crystalline, three-dimensional sound had a level of detail that made it as real as anything acoustic. At one point while Didemus, Hodgins and Lanza were repatching on their first day with the synth, I heard it emitting some nearly pure tones—just an oscillator or two hitting the output—that sounded calm and warm, like deep-hued brushstrokes. As patch cables tangled and knobs twisted, I heard those clean lines get mangled, sliced open and scrubbed with steel wool, and in a magical moment, we had a raging synth lead we'd likely never hear again.
As I wandered around Kytopia that week, I encountered countless moments like these—unpolished and provisional, maybe, but energetic and utterly inspiring. At least once a day, I'd be sitting in the back of a studio and catch the exact instant when things would really start cooking, when all the heads in the room would start bobbing at the same rate. I'd guess this level of ease, from one artist to another, is tremendously rare in a scene where everyone's got a flight to catch. "After a little while, this collective consciousness starts to develop," Rossander mused one night in the courtyard after dinner. "We're all getting to know each other, getting into each other's stuff, and then suddenly it's this thing. It becomes something."