Having a key role within the Romanian distribution company, agency and community, Our Own, Cezar also runs the Understand label with Prâslea and Kozo (aka Kozonak), on which he has also released his own productions. In our discussion we touch on his beginnings and the future, but we also take an in depth look at what has made the Romanian underground scene stand out and how incidents that have happened recently have really changed things in Bucharest, and the country as a whole.
So, what’s it like in Bucharest at the moment?
Cezar: To be honest, terrible! There’s this sort of snow with rain coming down. I don’t really want to leave the house. I had a plan to go to the studio today but when I looked outside, I thought, ‘better not’.
So to begin, can you describe a little about where you grew up?
Bucharest in the early 90’s… just after the communist regime was turned over in favour of western capitalism Bucharest was a city preparing itself for the needs of a big metropolis. Almost every neighbourhood was a building site for supporting the influx of people, moving in from smaller cities in the search for a better life. Unfinished construction sites were our playgrounds and gang neighbourhoods were to be taken seriously as control of authorities was something that was needed after 50 years of limitations and this lead to chaos at times but it also provided freedom on all levels.
What is the feeling in Bucharest after the incident at Colectiv (where more than 64 people lost their lives following a fire in the club)?
It was a tragedy. What happened ruined the positive aspects that have been achieved in the last few years in the clubbing scene. To make it work now you have to spend a lot of money. Places that weren’t ready for that have closed down completely. No event that I’ve been to since has been quite the same.
Basically what happened is very bad for the scene, it’s just meant that there are more underground parties and people aren’t actually safer, as many of these parties are illegal. I have the view that things like this will not happen again and the decisions made will be right from this point on.
“It was rare to find Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees, Jimmy Hendrix and NWA to listen to in the late ‘80s in Romania.”
What inspired you towards music when you were younger?
It came naturally from the need of being free with my decisions and inner self-development. Collecting and trading cassettes as a youngster was something that exposed me to different genres. It was rare to find Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees, Jimmy Hendrix and NWA to listen to in the late ‘80s in Romania.
When did you start to become aware of the scene in Bucharest?
As far as I can remember, the first parties focused on DJs and electronic music were happening around the year 2000, or maybe a little bit before. When I started attending these kinds of parties the movement was just building up slowly. DJs were coming in every weekend and showcasing various genres of electronic music and there was more or less a concert atmosphere around the events. The crowd was very mixed; people were attending the events out of pure curiosity or for a night out with friends, which created amazing memories almost every weekend, no matter what was coming out of the speakers. Long term relationships were started right there on the dancefloor, promoters and club owners sharing ideas, DJs and music lovers sharing the vibes, critics and magazines were following and monthly radio shows were hosting live set recordings.
At that time nobody knew much about the DJs playing. Every guest or local DJ was treated in the same manner by the crowd. We were going out and enjoying everything that was out there. After three intense seasons of some DJs coming back time and time again, the big events moved to dedicated clubs and for smaller parties focused on electronic music, the concept of after-hours started to happen more and more and the crowd became educated in their taste and ways of having a good time.
For you, who were the biggest names back then?
When I started going out, the people we saw weren’t really considered big artists. There were very few apart from people like Sasha, John Digweed or Krafty Kuts…
From about 2001, when I started going out, the first parties in Bucharest were put on by The Mission at the World Trade Plaza and had lineups with people like Corvin Dalek, James Zabiela, Steve Lawler and many others that I don’t even remember. They had lots of random lineups put together because people were experimenting and they didn’t understand the idea of the music as itself.
So what were your first experiences of clubbing like back then?
There were only a few parties back then. I remember stumbling across one at Zerillo’s and entering illegally, I was 16 (in 1998 or so) and I remember that maybe Raoul and Rhadoo were playing.
2002 was the year larger parties started and my musical taste seemed to shift towards the electronic sound. Most of my friends went out to the same events and sometimes we wouldn’t like the music that much and we’d stand around and discuss how we enjoyed the music more the night before, despite the fact that we didn’t have a general image of electronic music. The internet had only just reached us in Romania and we were starting to dig for it.
We started to discover artists and we’d talk to the promoters and sometimes they would bring the artists we had suggested. Pretty much every event was a success because there weren’t many alternatives for youngsters to be in that setting - with over 1000 people around the same age, listening to non-commercial music they had never heard before.
“ For local DJs it was hard to find records and of course you couldn’t buy them on the internet as online payments were forbidden...”
And what was the music like at those events?
The music was kinda progressive/tech house or electro mainly. It was very rare to hear a techno set. For local DJs it was hard to find records and of course you couldn’t buy them on the internet as online payments were forbidden, and there weren’t any physical stores. The artists had to travel a lot to collect music.
Around that time the concept of ‘after hours’ really began - they closed the doors and whoever was still inside was allowed to stay. Some of the places were really obscure, even though we didn’t like it, we had to go if we wanted to listen to a particular artist. So there were the artists we loved a lot back then like Danny Howells, James Lavelle and Lee Burridge, who may not have been even that big outside Romania, but when they came here the clubs would be completely full. Slowly our taste moved from more commercial styles as we started exchanging tracks and going to more events. At that time, Rhadoo was doing his weekly radio show called BPM on ProFM, which would be usually an hour of him live mixing in the studio and then another hour promoting new talents or accomplished DJs alike. I think that show is still the best radio show we’ve ever had because those were the only two hours on the radio when we could listen to electronic music in the form of a DJ set.
This is up to about 2004/2005, after which things had changed a bit. I think the promoters overused certain artists and people really wanted something different. At that point, Rhadoo and Petre Inspirescu went off to Ibiza and after two seasons or so, they had a residency at DC10. They would leave in about May and come back in October with slightly different music, proposing a minimal sounding dub techno, flavours of Chicago deep house and other personal productions. Those were five amazing years!
So how did you really form your own music education?
It was late in 2011 when I decided to enrol for a one year course in sound engineering at SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). After graduating I took almost two years of piano and harmony lessons just to accommodate myself with a different environment than what I was doing during the long weekends. But going backwards, the trigger for my own music education was once I had started following the electronic movement.
We had this online forum that we called Understand.ro back in 2004. It was for music sharing and eventually had about 300 people. Everyone from the electronic music industry was on the forum; promoters, critics, artists. We’d discuss nights that we had experienced and we’d try to make track listings of sets - which was next to impossible in those days as you really had no way of knowing where the music came from and different sub-genres of electronic music were being invented almost every month.
And was it around this time that you started to DJ?
I started trying in about 2003, after exchanging music with people on the forum. There were a couple of users who were not in Romania, who were always uploading recordings from all over the world and I found out that my musical selection wasn’t that far off [what they were uploading]. One guy from the forum helped me with getting CDJs as there was no real way to buy things from outside the country back then. In Romania you couldn’t find them, and, without travelling quite far, it was impossible. I couldn’t physically go, so I had to save up big money and find someone to go abroad and come to the country with these CD players. When I got that first pair, I really forgot about university for a couple of months. I forgot to do many things. By that point I had quite a collection of various electronic music from different labels and artists.
Sometime around 2004 we started to go to this small place called Propaganda and put on parties just for us and about 20 friends, until one day, on about the 4th or 5th edition, the party was more than we could hope for at that time. People really enjoyed it and kept asking us to do it again.
What was going on in your career then?
Well around 2005 I got an offer from the people from Studio Martin to be a resident there - the usual residents were travelling more and more at that time, so they needed a host DJ for their nights. I was in the 4th year of university and I wasn’t really sure it was the best idea, but I couldn’t really pass up that opportunity. Towards the end of my residency I started to have more freedom to play at other parties and played at a couple of Sunrise parties. As a student with a residency I was paid pretty much nothing, so as soon as I finished university, I had to get myself a job, to be able to afford vinyl.
I worked in TV for a few years, while also DJing on the side. Most of the time I would be working night-shifts during the week and on the weekends pretty much at night too, so after some time, I realised that I wasn’t really seeing the sunlight at all. I was by that point a TV producer, but I also had a little bit of recognition as someone doing something slightly different with his music. I quit the day job and for a short while I had a rest, and slowly after using production software I then decided to get a Electribe drum machine. Very soon after, one of my first productions featured on Ten Years of Circoloco @ DC-10 mixed by RPR.
How did you meet Kozo and Prâslea?
Well you see Kozo and I actually shared a desk all the way through high school. We’ve been teammates for around 20 years now. At one time we were considered yin and yang: I’m more pragmatic and traditional, that’s just naturally how I am, and he a little bit more of a dreamer and more relaxed, so we make a great team. Prâslea came to Bucharest from Sibiu in around 2005 for an event that we both played along with Kozo. It was a prom for the architecture students and we met behind the decks pretty much.
So when did your combined venture, the Understand label come about?
When the Understand.ro forum closed, we attempted to restart it, but it didn’t really work - it was just full of people arguing publicly and that wasn’t what it was all about in the first place. We did however love the idea of the sort of open-source nature of the forum and after a few years of DJing and testing different ways of making music, we decided to start a label, but I don’t remember who’s suggestion it was to take the same name, Understand.
It took us two long years to being able to get the pressing and mastering sorted and distribute the first release. At that point in 2011 the OurOwn distribution was already building up slowly with the help of artists around our growing scene. After the first two releases of Understand and [a:rpia:r] 09 more artists came around with different ideas and the result is clear: more than ten labels and a well-balanced DJ roster.
How are the releases decided?
Usually the tracks are played out a lot before the release is decided, but still some of them are decided almost on first listen. My first and fourth releases for Understand weren’t chosen by me. Rhadoo’s was chosen by us, not him and the same for Prâslesh or Dubtil – they made some music and we formed the release.
What’s it like to hear your own music?
They are products of what I could manage at that particular time. I’ve got hundreds of unfinished projects that I hear sometimes being played by some of my colleagues, that I really feel I should finish, but I never actually sit down to do it. I don’t feel it’s necessarily all about just releasing stuff all the time. It’s more about gaining experience and confidence in what you’re doing.
If I’m absolutely honest I didn’t want to bring out that first release of mine, Din Gând În Când EP, as I didn’t think it was good enough. It was made on a nightmare setup of two computers, two drum machines, a synthesizer, an old mixer and some hardware effects – it was a complete mess. If I were to work on this setup again now I would lose my mind the very same day. Somehow though, something came out and once I saw the feedback from friends who were playing it and I started to hear it out more and more, I was glad it had been released.
“We feel no pressure to bring anything out. We try to keep a certain level of quality control in our selections, something that is usually lost when you try to follow the hype.”
And what else are you working on now?
I’m preparing myself as a recording and mixing engineer. It’s something that I’ve tried to do and have succeeded with common sense knowledge a few times now. I’ve discovered on the way that I have so much to learn about acoustic instruments, microphones, different recording environments and that I cannot set the urge aside. Plus there are a few projects that I’m working on in the background: acoustic music, chamber music and I’m collaborating a lot. I’ve done a few live projects that people don’t really know about, the idea was to bring some new people in, with a different perspective and share musical ideas, create something new without the restrains of the 4/4 measure. Of course you have to get past the differences, but the sum is greater than the parts.
What are you doing with Understand in the coming year?
We feel no pressure to bring anything out. We try to keep a certain level of quality control in our selections, something that is usually lost when you try to follow the hype. This usually gives us only one or two releases per year. We keep an open ear to every artist that plays and produces our sound but I would prefer not to give any names.
What do you make of this term, the ‘Romanian Sound’?
In the last few years, more artists have followed what was already seen as the next big thing, shifting their style to what is now called the ‘Romanian sound’ but to talk about this in the right way you have to consider all that happened in the last 15 years or so… but I think the ‘Romanian sound’ was coming in as soon as local DJs were starting to produce and play more and more. We were lucky enough not to know too much about other things happening in electronic music around that time, so every artist grew up on his own personal approach in producing and playing. Other artists have been making similar stuff for a long time. The ‘Romanian sound’ is just part of the big picture. I don’t think it really evolved on its own.