Andy Webb hears how two youngsters from the Melbourne suburbs developed one of Australia's essential dance music labels.
But despite the unlikely circumstances, in a few short years they have established themselves as one of the most important pillars in Melbourne's house and techno scene, thanks in large part to their Butter Sessions label and its close-knit family of artists.
Well before the label began, school mates Kikos and Syawish were getting their electronic music education through under-18s club nights in Frankston (which they attended religiously from the age of 15), online forums and big Melbourne radio stations that pumped out commercial dance tunes. "It was definitely a scene," said Kikos in the duo's hardware-stacked studio in the suburb of Carlton. "It was like everyone was pretending to be clubbers, I guess. That's how we started getting into that culture."
This led to an interest in production and performance. The pair began to make edits using a computer and a MIDI keyboard, as well as DJing at friends' houses. "That's how we started DJing, we would DJ at house parties a lot, and I guess that gave us a good taste of playing to people."
By the time they were 17, they had picked up their first synth and were starting to make original tracks. Up north in Melbourne's CBD, artists like Tornado Wallace, Francis Inferno Orchestra, Fantastic Man and Andy Hart were forging a distinctive sound that revolved around deeper shades of house and disco. Kikos and Syawish absorbed this flavour into their music, as they made connections through Butter Sessions, their freshly launched blog. The site, which later became a lively Facebook group, hosted tunes from a range of inspiring local acts. They also started the Butter Mix series, which now runs some 60 volumes deep and features mixes from dozens of Australia's top DJs, as well as international friends like Kenji Takimi, Brian Not Brian and FIT Siegel.
"Once we were old enough to go out," Kikos explained, "we needed something to communicate to other people in the scene because we didn't know anyone since we were too young, and I guess that's how the blog started. It was basically a way to interact with people up in the city because we were still living in Frankston. We'd put mixes up from people we would meet. I think with our second mix we did an interview with Louis McCoy [of Inner Varnika] and we learned a lot from what he was talking about."
Kikos and Syawish finished high school and began studying sound engineering. They hosted their first Butter Sessions party at the now-closed Mercat Basement, one of Melbourne's best-loved clubs and the original home of crews like Animals Dancing. They spent more time in the city, forging strong relationships with like-minded artists, and got heavily stuck into production, releasing their first two 12-inches in 2012, which fit snugly into the deep sound of Melbourne. But they had an appetite for more. "That was something we started so we could get our own gigs in the city," Syawish told me about starting their party. "We were noticing that you really have to do something yourself to get in. Especially being kids who are out in the suburbs and haven't known many people for a long time."
Syawish and Kikos launched the label in a similar spirit. "We threw the first party at the Mercat, and we had been going to the Mercat, so we started writing music that was for a place like that," Kikos said. "We had written this music, and no one was really interested in putting it out. We didn't know who to send it to."
Without any kind of plan, they gathered three Sleep D tracks and pressed their first record, The Jackal, in the second half of 2013. The EP marked a big leap from the warm deep house they'd been releasing to something tougher and rawer. "Frankston Jackal" slams and screeches with thumping kicks and synths reminiscent of Daft Punk's "Rollin' & Scratchin'." Kikos said the French classic was "definitely a big inspiration," adding that "at that point we'd started hearing music in clubs, so I guess we understood the influence of a kick drum."
The label only put out one EP in 2014, but it was a significant year in shaping the Butter Sessions identity. The release featured music from Melbourne artists Booshank and Dan White (real name Rory McPike, who also produces under the alias Rings Around Saturn) as well as Tuff Sherm, the house-angled project of Sydney experimentalist Dro Carey. Sleep D's track on the record, "The Magic Arpet Ride," saw the duo settling into a more live, hardware-based approach, something that would become a hallmark of the project. They played their first major live sets at Animals Dancing's annual NYD bash and a Boiler Room party in March of 2014, and went on to give standout performances for some of Australia's best-loved festivals, including Inner Varnika, Golden Plains and Strawberry Fields.
In the same year they also moved from Frankston to Melbourne to be closer to the action. They launched Mania, a weekly Saturday night party at Lounge, which served as an incubator for the extended Butter Sessions family of DJs and live acts. "It was probably the first time we met people who were actually our age and had a similar trajectory," said Kikos. "At the end of the day we just wanted to be able to play music often, in a place that we knew we could play whatever."
Inner Varnika, the Easter weekend campout that began as a 500-ticket event in 2013, has also been critical to the story. It's an exceptional single-stage event you might liken to Labyrinth but with a vastly broader music policy. The festival has developed its own traditions, including an annual Sleep D set and a marathon closing session from Sex Tags brothers DJ Sotofett and DJ Fett Burger. They met Fett Burger on a previous Australian visit ("we got in contact with him 'cause he wanted to go and do some graffiti. I took him out and we just started hanging out from there," said Syawish), but a solid relationship was forged between the two acts at the 2015 edition of Inner Varnika.
After three all-Australian releases, the fourth record on Butter Sessions was a long distance collaboration between Fett Burger, Sleep D and Sex Tags affiliate Jayda G (her first release), resulting in a predictably out-there record ranging from blissful dub to bouncy, percussive house. Fett Burger would later return for Butter Sessions' ninth release, collaborating under his DJ Dogg alias with the low-key Adelaide artist Furious Frank.
On Sounds Of The Suburbs, a compilation EP, all of the label's central players were united in one place. "We were trying to lock in that core group of people to be the main heads on the label," Syawish said. "It was a bit of a teaser of what was to come." Local live talent Cale Sexton, who joined the crew through playing Mania and Butter Sessions shows ("we went to check him out and thought, this is what a fucking live set should be," said Syawish) joined Sleep D and Dan White for a set of out-there club jams that also featured a cameo by Tornado Wallace under the alias Tina Wantirna. "It was at that point we started doing showcases with people from the crew playing live, almost band-but-club vibes," Kikos said. As Mania continued, standalone Butter Sessions parties developed a clearer identity, attracting more live music fans as the lineups tended to be heavily performance-based.
Two more standout records followed: Dan White's Off Bluff and Cale Sexton's East Link. Off Bluff further broadened the collective's musical horizons, hopping between "lush jungle soundscapes, gnarled drum machine workouts and cosmic house," while East Link, a series of charming analogue excursions, cemented Sexton's place as an essential member of the BS crew. Both releases came with very different yet equally striking cover art, both strong examples of the label's diverse visual identity. The eye-catching Off Bluff throws gleeful splashes of colour around a mess of abstract, cartoonish shapes, while East Link takes a crude '90s house approach that has an endearing innocence to it. Syawish, who has a background in graffiti, is at the centre of the imprint's DIY look. "We've always just been trying to make the artwork look like the music sounds," he said.
As their more established peers like Tornado Wallace and Francis Inferno Orchestra migrated to Europe to develop their careers in the Northern Hemisphere, Sleep D dug themselves deeper into the Melbourne scene and continued to fine-tune the label. "Rory [Dan White] had been refining his sound as we were refining the label," said Syawish. "It kinda worked in parallel. We were trying not to have too much of a 'sound' of the label, like 'you have to make this,' we never wanted it to be one thing. It was never meant to be only Australian guys, that was just how it happened. We like doing stuff with people we know, or have some sort of a relationship with." Kikos adds: "You can make better decisions when you know someone and what they're about."
"I think that was the mould we were trying to break," Syawish said when I asked about the classic Melbourne-to-Europe move. "We were trying to become that label that could break some of these artists instead of them trying to look elsewhere. Instead of using it as a stepping stone to Europe, why not make Melbourne or Australia something that people really like looking at and being a part of? We've always discussed how we like living here. It's great going to Europe for a bit, but then we miss Melbourne and everything about it. I don't think it's really 'us' being there."
Butter Sessions further enhanced their reputation as a champion of young Australian talent with the Domestic Documents compilation, done in collaboration with fellow Melbourne label Noise In My Head. The release showcased 11 underground talents from around the country. For some, like Chiara Kickdrum and Ben Keynes, it was their first time having music pressed to wax. "At the time we had Mania, we were doing a lot of things in the scene, and there were a lot of artists we were really into, just maybe too different to the label to put out," Kikos said. "We hit up [Michael Kucyk of NIMH] to see if he'd be keen to work on a VA with us, and that was it." A second Domestic Documents volume is due early this November, again breaking a handful of new artists as well as nodding to Perth's burgeoning scene.
2017 has been the biggest year so far for Butter Sessions. It began with a collaboration between Sleep D and Albrecht La'Brooy, another Melbourne duo whose ambient-leaning deep house style nicely blended with Kikos and Syawish's clubbier fare. There's also been releases from Perth's Ewan Jansen (of Red Ember Records) and Sweden's Villa Åbo (of Börft Records), two '90s veterans who have both returned in recent years to begin a second phase in their production careers. Sleep D also made their Berghain debut, playing in the club's garden this past summer ("It was sick," Kikos said).
But perhaps the biggest achievement this year was Sleep D's second seven-inch. More than the music itself, the release was symbolic of Kikos and Syawish's locally-focussed, DIY approach. "It was produced and mastered here in the studio, then pressed three kilometres up the road," Kikos said. The cosmic sleeve artwork was made by hand in the studio's garage, and copies were personally dropped into record stores around Melbourne. It's the epitome of a locally made product, exemplifying the strong connection the label has with its home city.
In about five years, Sleep D and their label have had a major impact on Australia's scene. They're staples at a range of festivals and events year-round, hosting Butter Sessions showcases that connect fans of live acts and DJs, establishing a dedicated community via the sounds of a talented family of artists. And despite the success, the desire to move to European is still far from their minds. In fact, Kikos plans to return to Frankston to live and work in the studio. "You can get more in touch with your ideas somewhere like that than if you're bombarded with people and being in the big smoke all the time," he said. "I guess that's our backgrounds. We grew up that way, so for me it's natural to go back to somewhere like that."
Sleep D encapsulate the sound of Butter Sessions.
Ewan Jansen - Motif Of A Fish - Domestic Documents Vol.2
Ben Keynes - Flug - Butter Sessions 2018
Low Flung - Quietreakin Outly - Domestic Documents Vol.1
Fia Fiell - Cemalim - Domestic Documents Vol.2
Cale Sexton & Sleep D - SD & CS - Domestic Documents Vol.2
Simon B - Bare With Me - Butter Sessions 2018
Booshank - Bully (Deep Mix) - Domestic Documents Vol.2
Furious Frank - Flaming Galah - BSR009
Dunes - Turner Street Sound (Oceanic Mix) - BSR015
Ewan Jansen - On The Beach - BSR013
Sleep D - Streetcleaner - BSR001
Simon B - Sex And Acid - Butter Sessions 2018
Villa Abo - Mission Just Pam Pom - BSR012
Sleep D - Confusion - BSR10.5
Furious Frank & DJ Dogg - Space Call - BSR009
Tina Wantirna - Untitled - BSR005
Sleep D - Sandman - BSR014
Consumer Watchdawgz - Track 1 - BSR010
Mosam Howieson - Untitled - BSR016
Sleep D - Bush Snake - BSR007
Norachi - C376 - Domestic Documents Vol.2
Albrecht La'Brooy & Sleep D - Banksia - BSR011