DJ Mag Podcast 90: Matt Karmil
To mark the release of his new LP 'Will' on Smalltown Supersound, DJ Mag catches up with UK producer Matt Karmil to talk ambience, influence and process – He also steps up to deliver an all-vinyl mix of deep, mesmerising house and atmospheric rhythm...
Music has been saving Matt Karmil’s life since he was a child. Spending much of his early adolescence debilitated by illness – which would later be diagnosed as Epstein-Barr virus – many of his formative years were spent in near isolation. Distanced from peers, from school and from most of the things that make a childhood “normal”, the Wiltshire-born kid turned to music and learning guitar for companionship in the face of physical and mental unwellness. He hasn’t looked back since.
Fast forward three decades and Karmil has released three LPs and many more singles and EPs besides on revered labels like Wolfgang Voigt’s inimitable Kompakt, Beats in Space, Idle Hands and Axel Boman’s Studio Barnhus. Now, the artist is set to drop his fourth LP, once again via excellent Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound. Having released three albums already in the past four years, as well as working as a mixing and mastering engineer for other artists like Matias Aguayo and Kornél Kovács, it’s safe to assume that Karmil has a busy schedule, but to mark the release of the beautifully textured, half-ambient, half-house ‘Will’ today (27th April), we wanted to catch up with the now Berlin-based producer to learn about his longstanding inspirations, processes and plans.
“I got ill when I was nine,” he tells DJ Mag. “As well as physical problems, I was suffering from severe mental health issues by the time I was 11 - When I discovered the guitar a couple of years later it literally saved my life. Guitar playing and music became my total focus, playing all day every day for several years. This was basically instead of going to school. I started private music lessons around 15, 16 years old - It was quite obvious that music was going to be my life.”
“It was an antidote to the isolation, boredom and pain of the illness,” he adds. “Music unlocked the world for me - I absolutely carry that feeling with me and, because of that initial experience, music will always be core to my happiness and wellbeing.”
Developing an expansive taste from an early age, Karmil fell in love with everything form Nirvana and blues to classic rave tapes and Musique Concrète. His longstanding love of ambient music in particular can be found everywhere in his granular, dusty, atmospheric back catalog, and even more so now on ‘Will’. ‘Sharehold’ hovers on a dense, smoky cloud of enveloping sound, its melody breaking through like sunbeams through smog at distanced interludes. ‘Sloshy’ meanwhile lurches slowly forward from a cavernous depth in a similar vein to that of Floating Points or DJ Koze’s more reserved moments. ‘Maffé’, the albums 17-minute closer is a quietly cinematic, deeply hypnotic trip characterized by its distorted hum and cityscape field recordings.
“I guess the first real ambient artist I started paying attention to was Phillip Jeck,” he remembers. “The vinyl, the crackle, the sadness…Amazing vibes. I think with Phillip Jeck you really get this unique feeling of it being ambient and very experimental, but also familiar… I think it has retained some more aspects of personal expression than some pure drone or ambient music.”
It’s that familiarity and comfort that has been so vital to Karmil’s relationship with ambient music, both as a listener and a producer. Even in his more energized, club-ready house cuts and DJ sets, one finds that sense of warmth and raw emotion that one so often can only find in well executed ambient, experimental music.
“I love ambient for the freedom of mind it gives me,” he explains. “Walking in a city or sitting on a plane – it compliments the experience rather than dominates. As you move through texture or chord changes you get to gradually feel what each change in tone does to your mood and thoughts. I much prefer this than the obviousness, sentimentality and explicit nature of some music.”
It speaks to the modest narrative and theme that courses through ‘Will’, an album that rewards those who just sit back with it, allowing the whole thing to play through in its entirety; ideally on headphones. Simply, Karmil says, he wants the album to serve as “something to soothe in someway - I wanted to make something gentle but not monotonous.”
With such a quick turnaround of material, it’s amazing to think that each release Karmil puts out has the sense of continuity and flow that one normally expects of an album that took months, even years, to craft. The process, Karmil says, is a mixture of long-term planning coupled with sudden bursts of inspiration.
“I have quite a large unreleased back catalog still, so releases often come together for me when I make a new track and it makes me think of something old to pair it with,” he explains. “’Will’ and the ‘Tell Me Why’ EP both have one old track on – the rest of the tracks were made in the last year or so. I generally make something every day… There’s a lot to write about!”
"I think you can learn equally from experienced and inexperienced musicians, and the charm of a piece made by a person just starting can be amazing - innocence is a beautiful thing in music”
It all points to a very dedicated work ethic… So how does Karmil’s process take shape? With that distinct grainy texture defining so much of his production – hear classics like ‘Moment’ and ‘Ripp(ed)’ – it must be quite the system he has in place…
“I tend to make a lot of music and once, and then ignore it for a couple of weeks at least,” he explains, “I write a lot of notes about things I’m thinking about and make mind maps.”
“The grain you talk of is tape and sampling at a low level to force low bit depth in recordings,” he adds. “I pretty much always use tape machines in one way or another - I’ve been working in music my whole life, so I have amassed quite a collection of instruments. The Elektron Octatrack is one that really changed a lot for me a few years ago. I was a very early adopter, and after about two or three weeks of frustration it clicked and now I literally use it on everything – as a mixer, for effects and sometimes for looping in DJ sets, production. The sequencer is fantastic. I also have a collection of vintage samplers. Nothing fancy, but I love the different tones and features [on them]. I bought them on eBay when they were super cheap over the last few years.”
In a live setting, Karmil has been steadily building sets using the aforementioned Octatrack, which he says subsequently inspired his releases on Beats in Space, Idle Hands and Irr. Having also recently worked with the Cologne Tape collective and a lot of mastering and mixing on his plate, it is the studio is where Karmil thrives and finds his relationship with music nourished most.
“[You have to be] gentle and respectful of what an artist wants,” he says of his work with others. “In the mixing and mastering context you really are working for someone - and although there is a level of your personal touch you have to give, it’s really important to see their vision, and work out what is deliberate and what could use some improvement.”
“Everyone has a different perception of music,” he adds. “99% of the problem is working out what they want and how to have a common language. I think you can learn equally from experienced and inexperienced musicians, and the charm of a piece made by a person just starting can be amazing - innocence is a beautiful thing in music.”
Despite such a studio-oriented schedule, Karmil has long been on the move, having spent prolonged periods of time in Cologne and Stockholm before recently settling (for now) in Berlin. In that time he has developed a reliable network of friends and contemporaries throughout Europe and Scandinavia with the likes of the aformentioned Boman and Kovács as well as Baba Stiltz, Samo DJ, Barnt, Pedrodollar, Jens-Uwe and Gesine. However, there is the constant worry that as a British citizen, that capacity for mobility and connectivity may soon be at risk.
“No one seems to know where I am!” he jokes. “But I’m actually spending most of my time in Germany right now - Although I did spend many years in Sweden. I’m actually terrified of the impact of Brexit on my work - so lets hope in a years time I’m still free to wonder around Europe!”
Nonetheless, it’s an exciting, dynamic time for the artist whose journey has always been characterised by sonic honesty and freedom – Through isolation and togetherness. With ‘Will’ serving as Karmil’s most determined work to date, and with no sign of his course slowing any time soon, it has never been a more valuable time to cast your ears to the artist for whom music has always been the tonic.
For his all-vinyl DJ Mag Podcast mix, Karmil used two 1210’s, a borrowed Ecler mixer and his trust Octatrack to craft an hour of deeply absorbing, at times driven, at times transfixing sounds. Do yourself an enormous favour and give it a spin.
“I thought I’d do a vinyl / live mix to try and add a sense of urgency to it,” he says. “Inaccuracies and all. I hope it should be able to accompany one on a journey, provide a background to a working day if you’re lucky enough to be able to listen to music while working… Or perhaps even give you the inspiration to come and see me play!”
Consider us inspired.
Buy 'Will' here
Lead image credit: Fredrik Skogvist