- Words Mike Vinti
His new album Knock Knock is one of the best of the year. We meet DJ Koze to find out how he chooses his collaborators, why he wants to make a hip hop album and why techno is boring.
DJ Koze laughs more than any other person I’ve interviewed. No, that’s not quite right, he doesn’t laugh, he giggles. He giggles when I ask him about working Jose Gonzalez, he giggles when talking about how boring techno can be and he giggles when I take a sip of water the wrong way and spend thirty seconds choking down the phone.
All this giggling is generally keeping in keeping with most people’s perception of DJ Koze, aka Stefan Kozalla. Known as much for his penchant for odd headwear as he is for his off-the-wall remixes and imaginative takes on house and techno, he stands out in a dance music world full of stern-looking men in black T-shirts. In his time behind the decks, he’s been called everything from the weirdest man in house to the ‘clown prince’ of dance music. From Berlin to Detroit, Hamburg to Chicago, the consensus seems to be that Kozalla is an eccentric, a jester in dance music’s court. It’s a reputation that’s beginning to get on his nerves.
“I hate this thing where people, if there’s something that’s not serious they say it’s a funny idea” he huffs, his Hamburg accent softening slightly with disappointment. “If I make a press photo where I don’t sit there with a serious face, wearing only black, if I don’t do that but I have a nice hat and a flower in the picture then people say it’s funny. I don’t understand it.” Throughout his career, Kozalla has had to convince people that just because he doesn’t take himself all that seriously, it doesn’t mean his music is a joke.
One listen to his new album Knock Knock should that make abundantly clear. A triumphant record, it sees Kozalla create a musical universe that spans the history of dance music while bringing in elements of hip hop, psychedelia and even Bon Iver. It’s as considered and as technically impressive as any record by your favourite Berghain-headliner. Crafted between Hamburg and a small village in northern Spain and packed with features the record took Kozalla about four years to put together, working with a group of live musicians whom he samples throughout. This mix of live instrumentation and traditional dance music production leads to some stunning moments on the album, most notably ‘Club de Ewigkeiten’ which opens the album with rumbling bass and ominous strings only to give way to gorgeous ‘Moon River’-esque flute and the occasional barrage of concertinaed synths.
“I worked with some musicians who played some jams for me and I tried to include some extracts from that to get a little orchestral live feeling” Kozalla explains. “It’s nice to open yourself a little bit, [but I still] I have all the power, I like it” – there’s that giggle again – “but I also open myself to different headspace. Maybe other people hear the song in a different way and I think this is super inspiring and then I can play around with these elements as well.” His search for these new headspaces led to over half the tracks on Knock Knock featuring guest singers, including but not limited to Roisin Murphy, Speech from 90s hip hop icons Arrested Development and Irish producer Mano Le Tough. It’s a diverse list, to say the least, and many of the appearances come out of left field.
“For me, it’s totally organic, it’s like a mixtape. A friend of mine made me a mixtape and there was Dinosaur Jr and Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest and Monster Magnet and Frank Zappa and a Beatles song and a Beach Boys song and maybe an EMF song, it was not one genre or one direction or one flavour” Kozalla explains. “Every song itself is special itself, it has a heart and a soul and is somehow its own world and this is how I grew up with music. Jose Gonzales, Animal Collective, all these people fit together next to Kerri Chandler or Tribe Called Quest. It’s [about] what is lovely music and not [about] ‘does it fit together?’” he affirms. “I think my challenge was to make it fit together and make it seem normal.” While he certainly makes it all fit together, Kozalla’s definition of ‘normal’ is still pretty far out compared to most dance music producers. It’s hard to think of anyone else for example that would call the closing track of their album ‘Drone Me Up, Flashy’.
However, comparing DJ Koze to most dance music producers is a pretty redundant thing to do. Where many of today’s DJs grew up in the club, Kozalla was raised on hip hop, citing Public Enemy as his first musical obsession. “I’m [always] digging and searching and my hip hop playlist is the biggest one,” he says. “I really need this music. I still love hip hop, I think it’s beautiful music but I think I’m always searching for a special kind of music inside this genre which has to be warm, organic and mysterious. I like Madlib, J Dilla, 9thWonder, Apollo Brown and all these, I’m always interested in the instrumentals.” His love of hip hop comes through on multiple occasions on Knock Knock, most notably on ‘Scratch That’ and on the Speech featuring ‘Colors of Autumn’. “We wanted to make a trap record but we screwed it up big time. I couldn’t even figure out how to autotune him so we decided to make it sound like Arrested Development” Kozalla jokes about the track.
We start to talk about trap music more generally and the possibility of him turning his hand to hip hop down the line “I could really imagine doing a hip hop album” he admits. “I’m not that into rap anymore though, I like these in between artists that are more than rap. Like Andre 3000, he was rap but he was more. Pharcyde was the blueprint of it, they were rap but they were in between. This is what I really like when it leaves the formula and comes together in a loose way. Speech is one of those guys, his singing is what touches my heart most. Anderson .Paak for example, I asked him but he was busy or maybe he didn’t like the music. He is a beautiful example of how you can be rooted in the hip hop scene but do something different, he has such a remarkable voice and it spreads more than the rest, it’s just bigger for me and I like it.”
It’s an attitude that echoes Kozalla’s own approach to music; rooted in house but separate from it, using it as a means to explain his view of the world. By uniting with artists from across the musical spectrum he’s joining the dots between musicians that don’t quite fit into the genres they’re most associated with, creating his own club, borrowing new perspectives to broaden his. His sense of humour, his love of hip hop and his obvious affection for dance music are all parts of the conversation that Kozalla is trying to advance on Knock Knock and it’s one we should take seriously.