Q&A: DJ Koze On Amygdala, Rhye, And The Strangeness Of American EDM
DJ Koze is part techno shaman, part dancefloor therapist. In his earlier years the Germany-based musician was a hip-hop DJ (more recently, a DMC competition title-holder) and uses his technical skills behind the turntable to turn his brand of fantastical, dreamy techno into subtle, nuanced emotional storylines. “I prefer it when music becomes slower and sexier the longer it goes,” he once explained. Sometimes sadder, too. With the recent release of his LP Amygdala — named after the part of your brain that controls fear, anxiety, and depression — Koze has reached beyond his bag of tricks for one of his most accessible albums to date. The dexterity of his self-described “freaked-out” composition holds on to the simpler, clean, unaffected instrumentation that he’s so adept to. And while he’s not big on collaborations, the album appearances from Caribou’s Dan Snaith, Matthew Dear, and Rhye unfold with gorgeous results. We talked to the DJ soon after the release of Amygdala about breaking out of comfort zones, making music with conflicting emotions, working with Milosh from Rhye, and the strangeness of American EDM.
STEREOGUM: The tracks on the album have been compiled over the last eight years. Did you know that this album was in the works or did you go back through your archives and pick tracks that worked with the newer music you were working on?
KOZE: I always had it in mind. I had been working and working and had archived music but I didn’t see how to make it into a whole picture until last year. It’s not only about the amount of music you have to put together an album. It’s also what belongs together. It just didn’t fit until last year and until then I didn’t see it.
STEREOGUM: What was the turning point? What made you realize that this album was ready to come together?
KOZE:I was doing it for me and when it just felt right. Artists always say that but really I have to be convinced, satisfied, and entertained by my music for myself before I can release anything. Everything I do, it’s always comprehensible to me because I’m the one who made it. It might not be comprehensible to someone else. So I needed to make some tracks and surprise myself on my own. I had jam sessions where I worked to make music different than I would normally aim to.
STEREOGUM: What were you doing to push yourself outside of your comfort zone?
KOZE: I think I do this all the time, even if I don’t want to. (Laughs) I like to use randomness and put myself into a set of circumstances that’s different than something I’m comfortable working in. Using programs I don’t know very well instead of ones I know very well just to see what kind of sounds I don’t do all the time.
STEREOGUM: Besides the vocalists, this album has psychedelic elements that I think made it even more accessible to audiences that don’t know your work very well.
KOZE: Do you think that it’s disturbing to people or inviting to people?
STEREOGUM: I found it to be inviting.
KOZE: I think it’s both to be honest. One part of the album is too freaked out and they don’t like it. It’s not straight enough for some people. I always liked this kind of psychedelic music. It was a big influence for me when I was younger. Druggy music, I was always influenced by it. Music from the ’70s, space rock or disco had a modernity of beats that you couldn’t find elsewhere. It has a power. It’s very modernist, you don’t have to care about structure or traditional songwriting that you find in rock music. You don’t need singers. I was a big fan of people who combined these energies for club music. James Holden for example. Bringing psychedelic ideas to the dance floor. Sometimes dance music it’s not just to dance to in the club, it’s to dance to in your room. I think that’s wonderful.
STEREOGUM: What is the perfect setting for listening to your album for the first time?
KOZE: With a newborn child on the breast. Or after two glasses of red wine and on your headphones. For my friends, I recommended that they please take 78 minutes and listen to it alone on their headphones. Then the next time they could pick whatever songs they liked and listen to them in the kitchen while cooking.
STEREOGUM: Tell us about the album art. It has this fantastical setting that is very fitting of the songs on the album. Did you actually ride an elk for that cover shot?
KOZE: I say now that it’s actually me riding an elk because it’s so much more interesting than the magic computer vocabulary word “Photoshop.” So we had this big photo shoot and we had to prepare the setting. We used pink powder — biologically safe so as not to harm any of the nature — to make the skies that color. Then we had to soothe a caribou until it was at peace and allowed me to ride it. Then we had to dye my clothing that peculiar color. It was much more work than the album itself.
STEREOGUM: It was surprising to see so many vocalists on the album — Caribou, Matthew Dear, Milosh from Rhye. You’ve said in the past that you don’t like to work directly with collaborators. How was this experience?
KOZE: I didn’t intend to come out with an album with so many guest appearances. I really focused on each song instead of the bigger picture. So I kept collecting and collecting music and then undoing and undoing. It wasn’t until the last week where I pulled everything together to master it and put the tracks together in a sensible way. Then I realized how many guest appearances there actually are on the album. I didn’t plan it like that. It was easy to work with all of them because they’re all friends and colleagues that I’ve made remixes for.
STEREOGUM: Were you listening to any music together while working?
KOZE: Yes, a little bit but not so much to be honest. Of course I get inspired all the time. But I am not interested in new hypes or trends in music. I listen to an old hip-hop track and might find something inspiring for that. I always am interested in the idea of timelessness. I am not interested in being anything hip or new, like I don’t want to be the newest post-dubstep act. I’m only interested in oldness and trying to think about that in a modern way. The sounds itself are important. A nice snare drum or a nice bass drum that doesn’t force you too much, it is always a good element and will be in ten years from now. If you blow it up too much and try to fill the holes with effects. The effects are not timeless, they’re only effects. A good sound however — a good violin, bass line, a good groove — they will always be good. That’s where I concentrate.
STEREOGUM: I was excited to see the collaboration with Milosh from Rhye especially. You both make introspective music that can be both dramatic and subtle at the same time. The album did seem very emotional in that aspect. Was that something you were conscious of or did it just kind of come out that way?
KOZE: Ah, Milosh. Yes, he was beautiful and very easy to work with. I think we understood each other. In the beginning when I was DJing house music and playing clubs, I really was fan of the rocking idea of dance music. I was young and it was the continuation from rock for me, punchy ass-kicking music with different electronic tools. The more I got into the music I realized there was a spiritual deepness. There was a melancholy side that was really powerful that other genres don’t have so much. The abstractness; there are contrary feelings that you can experience together that are made out of abstract ideas.
Last year I was more and more focusing on that kind of energy; music that was very emotional. Many people don’t understand it and don’t like it. It’s too lofty or personal. You lose a lot of people this way but if you’re lucky you also meet people. That’s why I said earlier that at first music must resonate with me first. I hope that if I get touched that it will move some other people to do the same. It’s much easier to make groovy tracks that is ass-kicking. I like this music too of course, but you can only take so much drama. It becomes transient that way with music that can only have big feelings.
STEREOGUM: I think that what you said about experiencing conflicting feelings is spot on. That you can be happy and within that happiness feel some sadness.
KOZE: It’s wonderful. Of course it is a little bit of a cliche, but if you think about seeing the sun at the end of the tunnel, it’s like that. I think about that sun being covered by moving clouds. You know the sun is there and will be again once they pass, but there’s an anticipation of opposite feelings as you’re approaching. Otherwise things can get a little bit boring. I’m not afraid to be vulnerable. I’m not afraid to get lost.
STEREOGUM: Amygdala is a reference to the part of your brain that controls anxiety, depression, and fear. When you mention being vulnerable, is there any part of you that is still nervous about the reception of your music?
KOZE: Any artist has to be very, very, very experienced to say that he doesn’t care. If you make music that you release you want to be loved on some level. You want to be accepted and loved. I make music in the way that I love but of course I hope that people feel it and understand it. Of course it hurts if someone were to call my music shit.
STEREOGUM: Do you run the ideas you’re working on by your labelmates at Pampa?
KOZE: Marcos, my partner, is the first person I send everything to. He has had the same taste as me since childhood. I give him the first listen but also have to know that if he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad music. He might just not understand. Also Ada, a wonderful woman whose music we release. If nobody feels it then I know that maybe I have to let go a little bit.
STEREOGUM: I know you spent some time traveling through Spain and India while recording. Did those travels effect your music on a sonic or spiritual level?
KOZE: Yes, for sure. I think I learn the most in my life from traveling. Not anymore from books or from friends. Especially when you come from Germany because Germany can be stiff. We have a good economy, a good, stable political system, and we cannot complain like many other countries. But somehow it sets you free when you go to a place like India and feel the love between the people who live there. It’s very overwhelming in both directions. You can cry because you see so many incomprehensible things. At the same time I’ve never seen such lucky, loving children’s eyes before. While I was traveling I saw people with no fear and no shoes living with happiness and joy. Where [an outsider] would feel dirty with no shoes, you realize that we are stuffed-up, business-like, and just very European.
The minute I came back to Germany — this clean country where everyone is working in an office and everything is always working — it seems like a jail. It seems like everything is fully wrong. Maybe it looks like we have a better flow of life but it really doesn’t, we are isolating each other. We move in jails on wheels through the city. We are not alive. But after two weeks after coming home, I forgot the Indian lifestyle and became happy again to be here. It is good to change your position all the time to become flexible in the mind.
STEREOGUM: Did you pick up any music during your travels? Or buy any records?
KOZE: Not so much. To be honest I never go to record stores anymore. I don’t enjoy it. Record shops all look the same, like they’re a chain store. I’m always interested in getting new music while I travel. If the promoters of my show are nice I ask them if they can give me some traditional music from wherever I’m playing. I’m always interested in the older stuff though, nothing contemporary.
STEREOGUM: Are you aware of the EDM boom in the U.S.?
KOZE: Not really. We in the old Europe realize that America is going through a big movement. But I can’t understand the music. It’s a continuation of rock music with different tools like we talked about earlier, which is something I can understand being interested in. Myself I was interested in Fatboy Slim and Prodigy and that sort of in your face music. But you get bored of this big music and you dig for deeper sounds. In America this kind of computerized rock music that they love is totally uninteresting to me. It has no magic and is made for people that are not into this kind of music.
STEREOGUM: Most of the DJs that are big here are European DJs, you know.
KOZE: (Laughs) Oh no!
STEREOGUM: I remember that you played at Electric Zoo (an EDM festival in NYC) last summer and started at something like 3pm on one of the side stages. Tiesto, Skrillex, Afrojack, and the like headlined the main stage. What was that experience like?
KOZE: I was wondering why I wasn’t headlining! (Laughs) I asked the promoters but they told me it was too late for them to change it. They told me I had to go the smallest stage that was really, really far from the main stage and I had to go on early in the afternoon! I thought to myself, “Something has gone really wrong here!” (Laughs) Then I thought that maybe in ten or so years things will change and David Guetta will be on the small stage and I will be on the big stage.
STEREOGUM: Was it weird for you?
KOZE: It was totally weird! It was a third-world idea of dance music! (Laughs) Of course everyone was nice that works with the festival and I had a nice time playing. But it’s a bit grotesque. Maybe I have to be patient? These are commercial festivals with big stages. I’m interested in seeing what will change in the states. I’m not sure but maybe better times are coming.