Now comes a debut album, Time Zero, and the inevitable pressure to stretch the dance music form into an album format. The result is a typically Shonky-like blend of neatly-cut beats and sprightly dynamism that has an instinctive attention to patterns, so much so it’s unsurprising to learn that the hotly tipped 27-year old was something of a maths prodigy in his formative years. “Numbers were always really interesting to me,” he explains, “always exercising something different in your mind, things that you cannot see. It’s the same with electronic music – it takes you into another world.”
Like a perfectly flawed equation – or like the dude in π for those of us not blessed with such numerical dexterity – Shonky’s music is smart and sharply defined, yet strangely beguiling, and sometimes, in its own way, maddeningly intense. We caught up with him in his Berlin studio to talk about maths, memories, and music making.
Your new album Time Zero has just dropped. When did you start working on it?
In summer last year. After the EPs, I did remixes for Tiefschwarz and Sub-Static, then I decided to make the album around May.
Was it ‘painful’ to make the album in any way? Dancefloor albums can be a laborious process…
No, not painful, but maybe difficult. I didn’t think about it too much – I did not want to ask myself many questions about it. The most painful thing was working alone. I didn’t let anybody listen to the tracks the whole time so it was difficult to know if I was going in the right direction. When you make a few successful tracks, you can relax and feel more comfortable, so you don’t need to show other people your tracks. You just make your tracks like you did before. Then when I finished all of the tracks, I re-did each of them again so that when I finally finished the album, it was the way I wanted it. The sound, the way you can hear it overall, that is really important. Some tracks I prefer more than others, but the direction was always there. Overall, I really enjoyed the process.
So let’s go back in time. Have you always been into music? What music did you grow up with?
Oh yes, always. Not always electronic music of course – more like funk and soul and stuff. When it was younger, I listen to electronic stuff in a different way, with Radio Nova and compilations they did, plus some other weird stuff. They were among the first to put on electronic music events in Paris, so when I was old enough to go out, I would go, and I became more interested in electronic music. It started like this.
Your biog talks about your experiences at Dan Ghenacia’s Batofar parties. What was the music and party like?
The Batofar was crazy – so different from other places. The first time I went, Ivan Smagghe and Dan were playing and it was completely crazy. It was April or May, the sun was shining. I think that was the moment when I decided I really wanted to do this. I went to every single one. I would just wake up and go there. All kinds of people would come, but they would always be having the best time, screaming and dancing. It was the best party. I don’t want to look to the past too much, but the parties we get now are not like this. I guess that’s because for me it was the beginning. Then I became a resident, we became friends, and blah, blah, blah.
I guess this was around the time you were studying mathematics. I understand you studied that for five years…you must have been pretty smart?
I did the general degree in France, a baccalaureate. Then I started producing with some friends from the neighbourhood – we worked with analogue machines. At the end of the general degree, I wasn’t sure whether to go into electronic music or not. I really liked maths and science, so for me it was the natural way to continue my studies. When I was partying, I was also doing music, from like 17-22, and after that I just decided it was okay to do music. I just got more and more into it and my productions got better. And then I thought “Maybe I can try it for a while”, to see if I can live this way, and now I’m doing it.
For me it’s completely linked. The link between numbers and electronic music production is that everything works with logic. When I was studying mathematics it was more like logic, talking about space, metrics, stuff like that. So when I started to work with the computer, I already knew how to work with logic. When you use a delay, it’s maths. It shows you a way of understanding life, and I think it fits together with music very effectively. I think they complement each other very well.
Would you say your music is based on mathematical patterns somehow?
You can find mathematics in anything in the world, in nature. Numbers have always been interesting to me – it’s about exercising a different part of your mind, dealing with things that you cannot see. It’s the same with electronic music – it takes you into another world. For me it was an adventure to do mathematics, and the same applies to music. I always just wanted to have a job that showed me something I didn’t know about myself, and now I have it. It shows me a new way of understanding myself, and I like it.
Time Zero also has a big space theme. Are you interested in astronomy also?
No, it’s just the fact that with science and stuff like that, they link up because I was interested in this kind of atmosphere. Also, I was really into a lot of Kraftwerk and stuff, these kinds of samples. Maybe it was very natural to go in this way, because I wanted to draw people into this space world.
Techno music is often linked with sci-fi, space, the future…Do you think your music is futuristic in this way?
No, I don’t think so. Some might say my vision is a little more fresh than stuff that was done before, but I would not say that. Old stuff comes around in cycles all the time so it’s just like a fresh version, or more modern version, of what I was into before.
I think your music has a lot of pressure, and all these kind of lift-off sounds, it’s very sharp and pushing. But there’s also this distinctive ‘Shonky’ element, often using pretty crazy, even druggy FX and noises. Do you think your music is druggy? What are your thoughts on drugs and electronic music?
Yeah for sure, it’s psychedelic, and it drives you in a psychedelic way, probably in a drug way. I always want to be fresh, to do something different. When I was working in front of my computer, the best way to enjoy it was to go somewhere new. Not because I don’t like who I am, or where I am going, or anything like that, but to enjoy myself, I tried to drive it in this way…
You live in Berlin now. How long have you lived there for?
I just moved in October, fairly recently. Since I arrived I’ve had lots of bookings - in December I was in the US for example. So I haven’t spent a lot of time in Berlin yet. But now I’m more into the city, the days are longer. Although I already knew people here, they weren’t people that I used to go out with. I think when it’s summer time, I will feel much more like a real Berliner.
How do you find it there, compared to Paris? Do you miss home?
Everything was good in Paris, all my friends and stuff. When everything is okay and working well, I think it is the right moment to make a change. This is the next step, an evolution. I moved to Berlin and try some different music, to try a different way of thinking, just to risk myself in a different atmosphere. It’s way more exciting to restart everything in a new city I think.
Does the party scene ever there ever get a bit too much?
Not really, the parties are good for sure, but you come back feeling good, you have a lot of inspiration and new sounds, so you just want to start a track. It’s not a big problem at this time. For everybody in the production scene here, it’s not so easy anymore so everyone wants to work. I don’t know what happens in the summer, but now I just party at the weekend. Tonight I’m going to Guido Schneider’s birthday at Weekend, but the rest of the week I work. I have a few more years to see a lot of parties…
You’re DJing a lot as well. What sort of stuff are you playing at the moment? What’s rocking your sets?
What’s rocking my DJ set?! [laughs] I try to play the music I want to play. It’s important to play a lot of new stuff, but the problem is I get sent all the same stuff as everyone else, so I try and play old stuff and new stuff. I bring on board all tracks using Serato, and I try to get that over with house, tech-house, acid, electro. I try to play a different set every time, always different, so no particular tracks.
Your press release talks about ‘doing what you do best – making people dance.’ Do you think this will always be your style? Or do you think one day you’ll investigate other styles of music?
No, I just try not to be pretentious, and try to do the stuff step by step. To make people dance is easier than making a deep track. I really want to do it, but it takes time. But I will release that stuff when I’m ready - I don’t want to do this just to say “look, I can do a really deep track”. There is evolution in my stuff all the time – sometimes more pads, or whatever. Everything is going slowly, slowly, and soon I will be even more confident to do something different. I just want to at the moment go the way I am. I will do some thing less danceable, less about dancing…but you have to be good to do this, and I need to wait until I know I’m good enough.