Teije van Vliet’s alter ago, Lenzman, is having a hard time getting to the United States. The 36-year-old Dutch DJ/producer, who is releasing his debut album, Looking At The Stars, on Goldie’s pioneering 20-years-strong drum and bass label, Metalheadz, has yet to appear stateside in a professional capacity. His melodic and soulful version of d&b, however, has made an impact ahead of his appearance. Although he’s not sure how what he does is going to fit with the high-octane impression the American dance music scene is leaving on the world.
“EDM seems like the action film of the music industry, like Michael Bay doing music,” Lenzman observes astutely, speaking from his home in The Hague, Netherlands—although his pronounced accent hints more at Essex, UK. “The stage show seems spectacular, which I am not confronted with very often.”
Lenzman’s productions are of the lady-friendly, intimate variety, but his DJ sets reach further along the drum and bass spectrum, depending on the inclination of the audience. Starting his drum and bass education in 1996 at Metalheadz at the Blue Note, Lenzman’s DJing sensibility comes from a time when DJs played across the board.
“If I really like a tune, I try and fit it in, it’s just difficult to switch from something melodic to a tear-out track, but I try and find a balance,” he says. As an enhancement to his DJ sets, Lenzman is tapping into the calligraffiti artists at the Amsterdam-based Blazin’ Digital Design. The team designed the cover for his 2013 single “Empty Promise”—a remix version of which appears on Looking At The Stars. The idea is to project them doing their art as part of the visuals. “It would be an exclusive thing, not all the time,” Lenzman explains. “There are a lot of visuals and VJs at parties. This is less technical and more traditional in the sense that it is just getting fat markers and a piece of paper and drawing live, each piece in 30 seconds.”
This type of basic approach is a prescription of sorts for Lenzman, in all aspects of his creativity. His first forays into music were in hip-hop where he even had a run as an MC. Spending his holidays in the UK where his mother moved after his parents split up (hence his pronounced accent), he made a number of friends, with whom he is still tight. They started going to illegal parties in 1992 but as his friends were getting into house and techno, Lenzman wasn’t feeling the draw—that is, until he heard an LTJ Bukem tape in 1995. The broken beats of drum and bass aligned with those of hip-hop, as did the raw attitude in the music and the culture surrounding it. Hearing the music on a big system that fateful night at Metalheadz was the turning point.
“I got into the music during Metalheadz’ years of legend,” says Lenzman. “Everybody still talks about those times. In the ‘90s when drum and bass didn’t have a formula and it was being shaped, Metalheadz was arguably the most important label to shape the sound as we know it today. It’s an important label in my personal development as a drum and bass lover and producer. Other labels that were important in the forming of drum and bass either don’t exist anymore or they’re not that relevant. Metalheadz has managed to stay relevant all this time. Instrumental to that is Goldie’s passion. He’s got so many things going on in his head. He’s always looking for new challenges. He’s very excitable. Metalheadz is a family thing for him and he tries to make the artists feel that as well. He’s like a father figure. We go around his house for Christmas dinner.”
Lenzman worked his way up to Metalheadz. He started producing music in 2002 and didn’t make it a full profession until 2008, distracted by slogging his way in the advertising world. Making tracks as a hobby in his free time when he could muster up the energy, it took the breaking up of a long-term relationship in 2006 for Lenzman to turn a corner and break up his relationship with advertising in order to focus on music.
“You’ve got to be quite brave, but I’ve come to believe if you want something bad enough, you’ve got to risk and sacrifice for it,” he says. “I came to the realization that what I was doing wasn’t making me happy. Sometimes you’ve got to take risks in order to become a happier human being. For me, that freedom, being able to do what I want, being more productive made me more prolific. I’m so happy I took that risk.”
LOOKING AT THE STARS
Since then Lenzman has had singles released on C.I.A., Spearhead and Soul:r to mention a few, and collaborated with Total Science, A Sides, Switch, Riya and Jo-S, among others. His first single on Metalheadz, “Open Page” featuring Riya, with “Coincidence” featuring Jo-S on the flip, wasn’t until 2010. Proving himself over the next couple of years, in 2012 an album contract was offered and Looking At The Stars was two years in the making.
“I was a drum and bass fanboy,” says Lenzman. “When I first started making music and signing things, I had a vision of the level of labels I wanted to be at. I don’t know that I even had the ambition to release an album. It was like climbing a ladder to prove to myself that I can get to a certain plateau. Metalheadz was the only label I wanted to release an album on, but I didn’t feel I was ready to write an album in 2010. I wanted to become a better producer.”
Looking At The Stars is a nostalgic album informed by Lenzman’s formative years in the ‘90s. It has the hip-hop elements he was weaned on, the ‘70s jazz and soul elements he was exposed to through hip-hop, and the cross-section of drum and bass that shaped the producer he became. Produced wholly by himself, the album is packed with vocals, both soulful and rhyming. Lenzman purposely stayed away from people he has worked with in the past as, “Once you do a few tunes together, people start comparing your new tunes with the old ones they like,” he says. “I wanted to not get too comfortable, choose new people, and keep challenging myself. You’re walking a thin line if you’re working with the same people a lot.”
The vocalists on Looking At The Stars are chosen because they evoke feelings from Lenzman’s past. Martyna Baker’s honeyed tones drip on the caressing rhythms of “Paper Faces” and the classic R&B ballad, “Anticipate (Final Stop),” Steo’s teasing falsetto softens the tough but smooth “My Tearz” and the fresh Jubei remix of the previously released “Empty Promise,” and Kevin King’s voice flutters over the extended mix of the expansive “Starz.” In contrast, DRS flows in his signature singing/rhyming fashion over the tuneful “Just Can’t Take” and Dan Stezo rumbles over the spooky basslines of “Move & Focus.” There is even an interlude, “1978,” which takes a sample from a film speaking about the impact music has on memory recall.
“My teenage influences are what I’m drawing upon,” says Lenzman.”When you didn’t have internet and people actually bought music, it wasn’t that cheap so you cherished any album you bought. You listened to it a lot, from start to finish. If I take it back to ’95, I was listening to Raekwon Only Built 4 Cuban Linx all the time. Now when I hear any track from that album, it reminds me of myself from back then. That era is important to me because it’s strongly linked to a time where life was more carefree. I don’t think that happens as much these days.”
To capture this feeling, Lenzman approaches the vocalists he envisions working with, and if they’re up for it, puts together a rough sketch of something suited to them. If they like what they hear, they’ll do a vocal sketch. Since he tends to use English language vocals and he lives in Holland, there’s more back and forth than having the vocalists in the studio with him, but this lends itself to Lenzman’s creative process. Giving the vocalists direction and then getting inspiration from their vocal input or their suggestions could change the way the music is forming.
Samples also impact the way Lenzman’s music is formed, as is to be expected from his hip-hop beginnings. For Looking At The Stars, however, he tried to avoid that particular could-be pitfall. The album features live instruments that replaced samples for legal reasons and also to give a different flavor on the drum ‘n’ bass production, which, at this point, is what Lenzman is seeking. While he lists Bukem, Fabio, Goldie, Die, Krust, Dillinja, Ed Rush and Optical as influential in getting him into the scene and Marcus Intalex, Calibre, Ill Logic and Raf, Carlito and Addition, and Influx Datum as influential in the start of his production, these days his influences are drawn from outside drum and bass.
“I don’t feel like I should be doing what other drum and bass producers are doing, you’re not really moving forward if you’re doing that,” says Lenzman. “Metalheadz gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted as a producer. There are not many labels that are comfortable and confident to put out melodic, soulful drum and bass. It’s worked to my advantage because there aren’t many producers making it. A lot of labels have a certain sound and they try and encourage the artists they’ve signed to go in that direction. Metalheadz has got a broad spectrum of sound, very unrestrictive, and I was able to dictate what went on the album.”
Not living in the UK where most of his contemporaries reside has helped in keeping Lenzman free of influences, as well as making his appearances note-worthy occurrences. Plus, it’s far more affordable to live in the Netherlands and commute than it would be to be in the drum and bass hub of London. By now, Lenzman has reached a point in his career where the proximity to that nucleus is no longer necessary.
“I’ve achieved all my drum and bass dreams,” he says with marked gratitude. “All my heroes have played my music. I’ve released music on most of my heroes’ labels. I’ve released music on Metalheadz, an album no less. I’ve played primetime slots at Metalheadz parties. Most of all, I am making a living off music. That’s the biggest dream, the biggest thing I could have hoped for. From the day I got into hip-hop, that’s what I wanted. Getting to be creative to make my money, there’s nothing better.”
WORDS: Lily Moayeri