Kölsch is a man of taste. Well over six foot tall and wearing his signature black Panama hat, he exudes warmth and charisma when we meet on a sunny afternoon in central London. Coiffed, superstar DJ Kölsch is not. There’s no airs and graces about Rune Reilly Kölsch, despite his meteoric rise to global fame over the last three years.
It’s thanks to his two mega hits ‘Der Alte’ and, more recently, ‘Cassiopeia’ that Kölsch has really skyrocketed, plus remixes of overground hits from Coldplay (‘Sky Full of Stars’) and once-prog-now-EDM favourite, Eric Prydz (‘Generate’).
His long-standing relationship with German imprint Kompakt has pushed him forward, though the Dane — who grew up in Copenhagen’s separatist hippy community of Christiania in the ‘70s — has been kicking about far longer than his recent work might suggest.
Operating as a producer, label boss and DJ under several different aliases, it was a deep dissatisfaction with house music in the noughties (a genre Kölsch has coined simply as “Ketamine House”) that helped him find his marketable niche.
He’s been championing his brand of “romantic techno” ever since, first on his globally successful debut LP ‘1977’ and now on his latest long-play record,‘1983’.When we meet he’s just got back from stints on the road in South America and Australia, whilst honing a brand-new live show to accompany his ‘1983’ LP.
He’ll be back in the UK for mega festival SW4 in August, as well as playing boutique events like Lost Village, and multiple dates on the White Isle.
On the brink of what’s set to be Kölsch’s most frenetic year yet, DJ Mag gets up close and personal with the Dane to talk EDM woes, big nights/days at Berghain and “techno with feelings”.
You’re back on Kompakt for your new album ‘1983’, a label you have a really loyal and superb relationship with. Why do you stick around?
“Kompakt is perfect for me. It’s a really stylish and cool label and it’s been around for 20 years, and what I really love is that they give me the ultimate freedom to do what I really want.
A cool example of this: I sent Michael Mayer one of the first demos of the new album and after awhile he came back and said, after listening for a long time, 'I think it’s really great… but there are a few too many hits on it'.”
Do you ever feel pressured to make hits? Are Kompakt pushing you to make another ‘Der Alte’?
“No, they actually asked me to experiment even more. In their view, I’ve had enough hits for a lifetime already. There’s been so many on the first album that have been big records and for them, I guess, they were hoping I would go and do a folk album or something [laughs]!
“As an artist, what more could you ask for? A label that tells you to make less hits, wow! And I think that’s beautiful, the freedom they give me too. It’s the first label I’ve not had to negotiate a contract with, from day one it was perfect with no hidden agendas. A super deal and the way it should be. I feel a really strong connection with them and have no reason to be going elsewhere, at all.”
What do you think is Kompakt’s rationale behind that?
“They are always searching for the new. They understand the essence of what electronic music should be and is, in my opinion. You know, that constant development of searching for something new which is only limited by your own imagination.”
Speaking on the new album, the title is ‘1983’, talk us through what’s behind it?
“Well, my first album ‘1977’ was all about my childhood and this new one is a travel album. Basically, in 1983 my parents were given a car and travelled to the south of France.
And whilst on those travels we used to listen to loads of records and it would take a couple of days to go from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Nice or wherever we were going. Those moments for me were extremely inspirational, game-changing for my musical development.
And later on, when I got my own Walkman, it helped shape my own soundtrack… there’s that whole metaphorical way of looking at it too. We were coming from the cold north and going to the warm south, traveling through your childhood, going from being a kid to a teenager, growing up!”
What were you listening to with your parents? Were your parents musicians?
“My dad was a musician and my mum is an artist. My dad passed away 10 years ago but he was a guitarist and he had a band. He’d listen to Dire Straits, Steely Dan, The Eurythmics, George Harrison, Steve Miller Band.”
It’s funny how there are these universal bands, artists and influences for so many producers, like the Eurythmics…
“Isn’t it crazy how much the combination of travelling with music is important? I think it’s maybe because you can’t do anything else, you’re forced to listen to that music. We’d listen to whole albums on cassette. That really shaped the way I listen to music.
And also, funnily enough, The Eurythmics really spawned my interest for electronic music, because that was all electronically produced back then. I started listening to these electro records, these early electro boogie things — C.O.D, Shannon and Street Machine.
I had the white gloves, the funny glasses — I was totally into that [laughs]. I needed to find my own identity, and started to go to a youth club where I got into DJing and, although way later, started listen to SNAP!, Technotronic — it’s all development.”
Okay, so when did you get into Detroit and Chicago?
“1992/'93. I got introduced to early Underground Resistance and I remember one record that completely changed the way I thought! At the time, Europe was mostly dominated by trance.
Obviously that whole Eye Q, Frankfurt, Sven Väth techno stuff was really big at the time but I couldn’t ever really identify with it as it just wasn’t funky enough. I came from hip-hop and it didn’t really connect with me.
So I started listening to a lot of Chicago house, a lot of New York records and in turn I eventually heard ‘What Is House Music’ by DJ Pierre, which is one of my biggest influences and then I found Robert Hood and the ‘Minimal Nation’ record — that changed my life!”
You said as well that you were really influenced by Jeff Mills, ‘The Bells’?
“Yes, on ‘Calabria’.”
You mentioned you were influenced by DJ Pierre, but I can’t really see anything acidic about the music that you’re making now?
“No no, it was more the repetition. He did the whole Wild Pitch thing where you have a loop running, he’d sit and mix it and it would go for nine minutes. I love how it was kind of trance without it being trance.
It had that funk, that groove and that grit to it, but it wasn’t high-pitched arpeggios and all this sort of stuff which I found really annoying — it was that repetition, that groove… it had similarities to hip-hop music, that dirt.”
Underground Resistance were so pioneering and — at times — melodic. When outsiders think techno, they often think it’s repetitive and soulless…
“Yes, I think people tend to forget that techno is actually music, and that’s a big issue; why don’t people make more melody? I mean, come on, that’s like the only tool we have, really.
We’re not singing on the track, we’re not playing guitar, we’re not doing any solos, or doing anything really musically interesting, so why discard the melody and only make loops!”
That’s something that you do really well, isn’t it? Bringing the melody in without necessarily having a vocal — is that why you describe your music as “romantic techno”?
“I think we have a weird thing in Scandinavia — we’re all a bit melancholic. I think that translates through our food, Nordic cooking. It translates through our TV shows, through our music. Trentemøller, for example.
I think it’s the isolation, that whole six-eight months of winter where you can’t really do much. And I think that’s probably why I felt that connection with Detroit back in the day, you can resonate with that feeling of being alone and doing something that is purely emotional!”
You produced a lot of tracks for this record, how do you decide what goes in or out?
Really, just a feeling?
And you’re doing a live show?
“I'm working with Ableton on this visual programme, which is super interesting. Basically, it's a way to launch video and graphic files, like audio files in Ableton, and we've been working on it for about a year.
Well, I say working on it [laughs]. Basically I'm just testing it for them. I have no clue about the programming stuff, but it’s great because it allows me to be flexible. If I want it to change something live I can, and usually when you have visuals you can't change anything because it's so complicated.
Everything has to be synchronized. You can change the whole vibe and atmosphere in the festival or the club, on pretty much a whim.”
That’s part of being a great DJ, reading the room, playing tracks on-the-fly…
“Yes but you could never do that with a live show before, whereas you could potentially do that now — it’s great!”
You have done some remixes lately. Eric Prydz, Coldplay… how do you decide what you remix?
“I normally get approached about what I want to do. If it resonates with me then yes, that's it.”
And Prydz resonated?
“Yes, I really liked the vocal, I liked the vibe and liked the fact he is trying to do something different in the EDM world. I feel he deserves respect and he's a really good producer. That's my personally feeling about him, but also I just liked the track.
I liked that it had this weird euphoric vibe to it and also that it had these weird Depeche Mode references, so I just felt that I could do something with it. That's basically it. If I hear a song and think 'I could do something with this' — then I’ll do it.”
Prydz is playing in Ibiza this year, and so are you, how have you seen the island change over almost 20 years?
“Yeah, I’ve been going since '99, every year really. You know what? People say it’s become mutated into some kind of new animal, that it’s too VIP orientated or whatever.
But I don’t necessarily agree, things are changing, the world is changing. The countryside is still amazing, the clubs that were good then are still good now. Amnesia, the terrace is still wonderful. Space, the terrace is still wonderful. It’s not the same place and it never will be, but it’s still wonderful.”
Does it feel like a homecoming, going back each year?
“I mean, it’s probably one of the only places in the world where you have this true magic happening. It sounds weird, but it's a place where you can have those goose-bump moments from a track, from the sunset, in the moment, and I don’t get that other places like, say, Vegas.”
What’s dance music like in Vegas?
“Well, the thing is, if everything gets planned and programmed and pre-recorded, and it’s just part of the show, than there is no room left for the magic. It’s all about that space, giving you that space to enjoy something and experience something for yourself, to think and feel.
As soon as dance music becomes this wide array of stimulus, like LEDs pounding in your face, or dancers everywhere, or someone shouting in a microphone, then the space for you to actually experience something is gone.
And that’s what I think is the biggest problem we have in dance music these days — that room to fantasize or be romantic or just be in the moment. Those moments have become scarcer, because everybody is so over-stimulated all the time…”
So how do you think we should combat that?
“The way Berghain does it. It’s amazing. We should have places where we don’t have watches!”
Now THAT would be dangerous, stumble out four days later…
“Yes, but isn’t that what it’s all about, and always has been? That’s why I love places like Berghain because you can really lose yourself in that moment, you can get lost for days.
You can experience that feeling of absolute freedom that you have to be yourself, utterly, completely. Having a spot where you can do or not do anything you want. The fact that the freedom is there, that’s important. And let’s face it, no one ever really does anything that bad when they can do what they like. It’s like having a fast car, but you might never actually drive fast.”
It’s the ideology behind it, right? In the last few years, Berghain has got a lot of mainstream media attention. Do you think it’s losing its magic thanks to that?
“No! I don’t think Berghain has been a secret for 10 years. Maybe when it first opened, but even when I started playing there in 2005, the line was already around the corner! The media has spotted it now, but they are completely genius at letting the right people in..”
Some guys going downstairs, and some guys going upstairs!
“[Laughs] Yes, exactly! I think that’s cool, it’s their club, let them decide. If you’re cool and relaxed, you’ll be fine. Just don’t look too posh! I always give the guys on the door a bit of bullshit when I play there, they’re lovely guys really, I like to joke around!”
Last time we met was at our DJ Mag party at WMC in Miami in March! Do you think this whole rise of EDM has had a knock on effect for you? Even though you're not making EDM specifically...
“I think when I was doing those more overground records (like ‘Calabria’) it was in the early years — 2007 and 2008 — and it was the baby steps of EDM. You know, at that time, I think I probably ended up contributing to this particular sound that we're seeing in the States now.
'Calabria' was one of the early dance tracks that came out fully on radio in the States at the time. Financially, it’s had a big impact on my life, of course. But I don’t think that EDM and the underground are really able to co-exist yet, especially in America.
In Europe, everyone is stepping away from the whole EDM thing because it’s something that everybody loves to hate, somehow, right? It’s unfashionable, a bit douchey, which to a certain extent is sad because I am sure there have been some good intentions behind a lot of the music.
I don’t believe EDM artists are terrible musicians, or terrible DJs for that matter. I think they have the exact same interests as I do, they just have a different way of expressing themselves.”
That’s very magnanimous of you, not sure if everyone is as open-minded…
“Well, I do think it’s been taken a bit overboard. It’s become such a big business, money-wise, that people feel obligated to play it safe and that is against my mentality. One of the reasons I stepped away from that more commercial attitude (after ‘Calabria’) is that I felt the art was kind of gone from it.
There are no EDM tracks that are fresh. I mean, everything sounds really similar and even the good songs are becoming more and more sparse. It becomes more of a stadium thing, and more, somehow, unchallenging — to my ears at least.”
Perhaps it’s a gateway for the younger generation to access the more authentic or intelligent areas of underground house and techno?
“I really hope so, but we have to remember that music is not an identity thing as it used to be. When I grew up, music was my identity.
Whereas now you just do it because your mates do it, and I think 80-90% of people that go to an EDM venue have no idea what’s going on, they’re just going there because their mates are going there and they’re having a great time, enjoying it and it’s a show for them.”
Though EDM has pushed a lot of money into the industry…
“Oh exactly, generally EDM is a very good thing! Commercial dance music is a good thing for everybody either way you look at it.
I had a good discussion with Seth Troxler about this and he was saying over in America you’ve got the cool kids who are listening to the underground music, deep house… maybe even Seth’s music, whilst the jocks and the cheerleaders are still going to the EDM parties. It’s become a society thing and an identity thing but not enough to dominate their lives.”
Do you think because of the rise of EDM, this shift toward 'spectacle', that DJs need to have more of a persona than before? Seth certainly has a bankable stage persona…
“I used to have thoughts about the persona thing, but I’m not very good at that so I think it’s obvious in my case that I do the exact opposite and let the music speak for itself.
I do love the artistic branding, and finding something that I identify with and that goes with the music, and I love concepts, but I don’t feel I need to create sensations to sell my records. I think it’s important for me to let my music do what it does.”