Sliding between scenes and genres is what Kölsch has been doing for years. In 2003, he had a massive international hit with "Calabria," yet at the same time he was releasing lauded underground techno as Ink & Needle. This is a producer courted by both Michael Mayer and Shakira, and who in the last 12 months has remixed Coldplay, Wankelmut, Andhim and Deadmau5. For most producers, reconciling that tension between mainstream success and underground credibility would be impossible, but Kölsch is not most producers. Talking over Skype from Ibiza—his summer home in between high-profile club and festival dates—it's clear that whether he's talking about his personal history, artistic honesty or creative spontaneity, Kölsch is a man who gives serious thought to who and what he is.
You grew up in Christiania, a hippy commune in Copenhagen. I visited a few years ago and it seemed, frankly, pretty grim. There were gangs of hard-looking lads hanging around the main square—drug dealers, presumably—and police cars on each entrance. The atmosphere was pretty heavy. Presumably it was very different in the 1980s?
It was. It was a hippy dream in that it was all about art and expressing yourself. It had this anarchistic vibe. People could just do what they wanted with their lives. It's changed. The feel is very different now, but as a kid it was great. Then, each summer, I'd spend the holidays with my grandparents. It was a stark contrast and that is where a lot of the inspiration for 1977 came from. In England, my Irish grandparents were very Catholic, very traditional. In Germany, granddad was a water police officer and my grandmother was a politician, and very focused on that. It was very different to what my parents symbolised.
Your German mother was an artist and your Irish-born father a musician. Was he an influence on you musically?
He was a guitarist who travelled the world playing in bands. He'd tell me fantastic stories about playing in Iran and Afghanistan back in the day. Later, in Tibet, he became a dedicated Buddhist. There was a lot of music around the house: Steely Dan, Dire Straits, George Harrison. But as a kid what I was really into was that whole 1980s electric boogie and breakdancing scene. In the late '80s, I drifted more into hip-hop, EPMD, Das EFX and East Coast stuff, and actually started—oddly—playing the drums because I wanted to be involved in hip-hop. I didn't get it until somebody said to me: "What do you mean? They don't play drums on those records, they sample them." Immediately I dropped the drums, got an Amiga 500 and started making hip-hop.
I was also listening to house and techno on the radio, and over a year or two it just totally turned me. I'd hear DJ Pierre and be like, "What is this music!?" The attitude was so positive and the energy so different. It changed me. Although, I was also crazy about drum & bass and jungle. Rather than sticking to one particular genre, it seemed normal to me that you would listen to anything interesting.
You released your first records on Multiplex in Denmark in 1995. The next decade was an insanely busy period, as you released tracks under your various aliases and also with your half-brother, Johannes Torpe, as Artificial Funk. Throughout you worked on mainstream material while also producing underground club tracks. Did you see any distinction or tension between those two?
Actually, I never thought about it until I went abroad. In Denmark, the scene was pretty small and anything went. And it's never really been something that I have worried about too much. For me, it's all about inspiration and challenges and what happens in the moment. Obviously, I'm making house and techno, but generally the sub-genres of that is not something I've thought about all that much.
I know that view exists [selling-out/credibility], but—and this is key—it's not something an artist should think about. My job is to make music I find interesting. As soon as you get involved in how people will perceive it that can affect your creativity. I'm not saying I always can, but it's super important to try and stay clear of it. As an artist, you have to focus on what you're doing, not on what people think you should be doing.
The track that launched you internationally, the saxophone-sampling "Calabria," sounds, to me, like one of those novelty Euro-dance tracks designed to be a big summer hit. What was its origin?
It's funny because that record, which became a huge hit, was inspired by Jeff Mills' "The Bells." I was excited by that repetition and I wanted to see how long I could keep a theme going without it becoming annoying—which would be a question of interpretation [laughs].
That track had a long, complicated life. It was first released in 2003 but numerous cover-versions and remixes kept it alive for years. It was also sampled on Pitbull's "The Anthem." Later, there were also several radio-friendly, dancehall versions of it that you produced as Enur, which were big in the US—one sold 800,000 copies. Dance music producers don't always get paid for these complicated hits. Did you make a stack of money out of "Calabria"?
I think, yeah… it did well and it gave me the opportunity to focus on the underground stuff I was in love with. But, at that time, everything was so weird and confusing I never really got my head around what happened. To this day, I haven't really got my head around how big that record was.
The success of the dancehall "Calabria," which spawned Raggatronic, a whole album of versions featuring Beenie Man, Nicki Minaj etc., led to you being approached by people like Shakira and Flo Rida. How far did that go?
It's an interesting challenge making radio records. The three-min-30-secs format is hard if you want to do something creative, and when you have a hit people want you involved in their music. I did some work for people but I never really followed it up. This machine is so big and it becomes such a huge thing to have to accommodate stars, what they need and 15 different songwriters. It became such a huge thing that [laughs], I decided to do Ink & Needle instead.
Ink & Needle was yourself and Johannes Torpe releasing anonymous house and techno tracks on your own Tattoo Records. Correct?
It was. I needed to do something close to my Chicago-Detroit roots. It was only 10 or 12 releases of our own productions. That freedom of making a 10-minute techno track and doing exactly what I wanted was, at the time, the perfect balance.
Even now you seem to be able to move smoothly between different scenes: remixing everyone from Deadmau5 to Andhim; having a track like "Goldfisch" played by both Seth Troxler and Axwell. Are you surprised you get away with it?
I'm not gonna say surprised, I'm just thrilled. As you said yourself, I'm pretty upfront with what I'm doing. There are no secrets; I've just got broad tastes.
When you get asked to remix a Deadmau5 track, is it a case of, "I need to pay the rent this month, that'll do"? Or is it a satisfying challenge to work on a record like that?
Did you hear the original?
No, I couldn't bring myself to… [both laughing]
You should check it out. It's pretty good, quite experimental. It's basically an ambient track with Imogen Heap reciting some spoken word over it. I thought that was interesting for a Deadmau5 track, and a great challenge. You've got to respect when popular artists try something different.
Unlike me, you try and keep an open mind about every project you're offered, then?
If I like a track, I will. I think it's important as an artist to relate to what the sound is, not what the name is.
Apparently the Kölsch project grew out of your frustration with the dominance of, as you have described it, boring 118 BPM ketamine house, circa 2010. How true is that?
The main driver was that techno music had lost its emotions and melodies. There was a lot going on that, I wouldn't say I was annoyed by, but which I wasn't feeling. Everything was slower, musicality had got lost somewhere. It was more a soundtrack to drugs than a musical thing. Coincidentally, at that time, Michael Mayer emailed asking if Ink & Needle would do something for Kompakt. Obviously, I said yes. He saw that my last name was Kölsch and the project was born right there.
Overt melody is central to your work as Kölsch, something that, in 2014, many techno producers stay away from. Are you keen to remind people that melody was central to the birth of techno?
For me, it's all about where I come from. The beautiful records that Mad Mike produced as Underground Resistance were super-musical. There is nothing but melody in there. And that's what I love. That inspired me. I totally understand that within the techno genre you need certain records that are tools, whose repetition gives you a feeling that time is standing still. But as we're already pretty limited in our means to make a point, in terms of instruments and music, I think melodies are something you shouldn't discard.
I think producers often fear that melodies can become cheesy, but you seem pretty unconcerned about making cool, subtle records. The Kölsch tracks are big, in-your-face records that do things many producers would consider too obvious. You seem more concerned with making the dance floor bounce…
That's the point, isn't it? We're all here to have a party. Not a lecture. There's nothing wrong with being obvious. A lot of being afraid of melodies is fuelled by insecurities, somehow. It's important to step beyond this. The whole point with electronic music is that we can experiment, do exactly what we want. The freedom is there. For me, melodies are essential. I try not to relate to what is cool and what is underground, necessarily. It's more important to relate to what feels right and good.
When 1977 came out the press release said it might appeal to the "mainstream EDM elite." I can understand that: these are stadium-ready tracks. Yet it struck me as a peculiar thing for Kompakt to say about one of its releases. Had you had conversations with the label about that?
I didn't know Kompakt had written that until I saw it and it seemed kind of weird to me, but it's very traditional for Kompakt to always have an open mind about stuff. I totally respect the way they do things. But I never thought this could be anything even remotely EDM-related, because that's not what I was doing at the time, nor what I am doing now. I know that a lot of EDM DJs like the Kölsch stuff, but I don't know if it's resonated that far.
They were very into the ketamine house stuff and they didn't understand what I was doing at all. They thought it was, as you said yourself, cheesy and weird. They couldn't wrap their heads around it. But it's all good. They were just trying to give me friendly advice and I've never let anyone intrude into what goes on in the studio. I've always been very set on what I need to do and what feels good. That is where Michael and I 100% understand each other. It's an immediate thing. Either you like it or you don't. There's no, "I kind of like this but can you change the hi-hat?" He understood what I wanted to do with this sound, what was interesting about it and he went with it, and allowed me to express myself absolutely freely. There's no way that Kompakt intrude on what I do creatively.
Is that very different to even how many small, independent labels try and mould their artists?
Very much so. I say this coming from the background of major labels and such, who're always trying to fuck you over, but it's the first time that I've ever been given a contract I didn't have to negotiate. Kompakt have just been so straightforward and cool about it, and that fuels in me a need to justify [their faith]. If you're having contract problems and there's 15 opinions [from the label] about what you're doing, it makes life sour for the artist, and often it ruins the music.
Describing 1977 as a concept album would be overdoing it, perhaps. But when it was made, you were thinking about your past a lot. You have described it as, essentially, "a bunch of childhood memories with a kick drum underneath." How did that reflection inspire you, and how did it work practically?
It was all about diving into what makes me what I am, growing up in a hippy community, my diverse cultural heritage. Who am I? What do I represent? It was about figuring out what, as a kid, made me get into this music. Why am I making techno records? What is it I want from this? It became a whole therapeutic thing and it was interesting thinking back and developing sounds that fit those childhood memories. For instance, on "Goldfisch," I found an old recording of my granddad on a Mini-Disc player, and the organ sound on it was the same as the one I used on my very first record. I got that organ transported from my aunt's place.
Something like "Oma" I think is interesting. It flirts with trance, but the melody is so insidious that even if you loathe that genre it transcends any objection you might offer. Did you work very hard on those top-lines and melodies?
The whole record was very intuitive and immediate, as I think music should be. The biggest force that electronic music has is that this end product of one person in a studio—unlike a band, who're discussing every element—is emotionally very pure, somehow. But this has to happen quickly, because as soon as you start diving in to change and rearrange everything, it can lose its magic. I'd make loops, test them on the live show and the arrangements sort of happened on the fly.
We've talked a lot about the more populist aspects of your music. But, equally, you are not afraid of including strange, potentially opinion-splitting elements — such as the Waa Industry vocal on a new track, "Papageno." Others would filter out those weirder elements, do those idiosyncrasies appeal to you?
I love the quirky, charismatic bits. With "Papageno" I wanted it to have this stark contrast between the madness, the techno noise, and the almost folkish break in the middle. It seemed at a certain point I was the only one who believed it could actually work, but this is exactly what we should be doing. This is what techno and production should be: challenging the norm, trying something crazy.
Kölsch plays this year's South West Four in London, which runs August 23rd to 24th.