In Depth
Kölsch unlocks the creative process behind his fabric presents album

Kölsch is a master of melody. The Kompakt artist might be one of electronic music’s most distinctive producers, spearheading a harmonic style of techno that’s rich in both big-room drama and intimate self-reflection. Over the years he’s made “personal” the main weapon in his sonic palette, something manifested clearest in his Kompakt-backed trilogy of albums recalling his early childhood.

For his latest move, Kölsch has delved deeper into his own psyche. This week he releases his instalment in our fabric presents series, a ten-track compilation of new material inspired by his early memories of our club space. As he told us over the phone this week, the ambitious 18-month project saw him enveloping himself in sound mid-air on flights between gigs, an experience he compared to standing in the middle of our Room One dancefloor. Speaking on the phone ahead of the album’s release, he explained how travelling helped unlock his creativity, why his music is so tied to the self, and how creating memorable moments has shaped his DJing.

I noticed on the notes for the new compilation you mentioned coming to fabric for the first time in 2002. Do you remember who was playing that night?

I’m pretty sure it was a City Rockers night. I went with Darren Emerson. I was signed to his label Underwater, he had the night off and I was in London. We spent some time on the mezzanine, I was just completely infatuated by the place. The first time I came back to play after many years, my feeling was that it was such a maze. There were so many rooms and stairs everywhere I couldn’t work out what was what. I’ve since discovered that we were sat upstairs, and then went down to Room One and experienced that incredible sound system for the first time. It was monumental for me, as we didn’t have any of that in Denmark. That all-engulfing sound was a mind-blowing experience.

But you were already pretty involved in electronic music.

I’d had my first release as Artificial Funk on Multiplex in the mid-90s, but it was really a different era. Passing off demos, investing in getting cassettes made – it was a time-consuming process to get music signed. My first "hit" was People Don’t Know, which John Digweed had played.

Was there a specific moment where it felt like things were turning into a serious career?

It was when I came back from my first visit to Ibiza in 1999. I was offered a residency at a small club in Copenhagen. It was still tough – an all night long residency twice a week, and low pay, but that’s how it is. You scrap everything together and get going, and I’ve not looked back since.

What was your exposure to music growing up in a commune?

I was exposed to a lot of different stuff. I used to go to Germany when I was a kid in the summer and my mum used to listen to a lot of experimental krautrock, or people from the 60s and 70s era. She definitely has some weird records that I still dig out and ask ‘where on earth did you get this?’ But one of her best friends was a guy called Zig, who let me play around in his studio when I was maybe 9 or 10. He’d acquired all kind of electronic equipment from working in German National Television. He was probably one of my first inspirations, I thought it was mind-blowing and incredible.

Were you experimenting more in the studio before playing records?

This was a full recording studio. Back then, anything related to recording music was so outlandishly expensive you’d never get near to doing it. He let me play with some drum machines, and I’d come back during the 80s. Just before he passed away I showed him some music I’d been working on, in around 1993. He helped me mix it; it was incredible that he gave me the freedom to do all that.

When did you first take an interest in DJing?

I used to go to a youth club through the 80s, where they had decks in the basement. Nobody really played, so I would just go and put them on. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I would play whatever they had. I saw how you could sonically manipulate what people were doing. I was also in a band before producing anything. I realised that all the records I liked was basically sampled, with breakbeats and loops and such. I wondered why the drum kit couldn’t sound like that and what was happening that made it sound so good. They were sampling. Then I got an Amiga 500 from my mum. That was when I first started making music.
“It’s a question of a feeling of safety.”
Let’s talk about the album. You mentioned that it’s a personal ode to Room One. How did your nights playing at the club link with travelling between gigs?

It’s a question of a feeling of safety. Room One is one of the only places where you have the freedom to play anything you want, but also as a listener, the focus is primarily on the sound. The sound is so amazing, there’s no glorifying the DJ. I love that people don’t face one direction, they just do their thing. It has the same embracing feeling of being in a womb. I always think that’s comparable to the feeling I’m looking for when I’m sat on a flight completely surrounded by people. It’s inherently pretty uncomfortable to be sat on a flight for many hours. I’m always trying to create that space for myself with headphones, covering myself in a hoodie, or whatever, to step away from that stress. I always think back to the feeling I get when I’m standing in Room One. It’s like an out-of-body experience.

A lot of DJs would say that travelling between gigs is their least favourite part of the job. So for many it could be difficult to stay inspired in that environment.

I think that’s one of the benefits of having had so little to work with early on. For example with the Amiga 500, I was forced to work with what I had. That kept me wanting to explore the availabilities of a laptop. I’ve always been an in-the-box producer, except for outboard gear and samples and so forth. I know what you mean with the inspiration, but I’ve never had that problem. I experiment until I reach somewhere.

When you describe this out-of-body experience, was it easier to reach that state on a longer flight?

Definitely. The more hours I had, the more time I could go off myself. But on the other hand, the challenge of having a short time to create something can be really interesting. Both were quite viable for this project, it was super interesting to see what I could get out of one or two hours just as much as five hours.

Did you set yourself deadlines according to flights, or were there a few flights where you disbanded the stems you had?

There are another 25-30 demos that didn’t make it onto the album. I think one of the greatest disciplines as an artist is choosing what not to release. It isn’t always good. Over the course of the 18 months I was working on this, 10 tracks have come out.

How much of the process was done in-flight?

I made all the demos in-flight. They were 5-minute versions, and the fixing process of putting it all together came afterwards. But it’s also been a big challenge for me. Recently I’ve been expanding my library by working with strings and composers to create something bigger, but here I was limiting myself and only using what’s there. So it’s become more intimate.

When I listen to your records I always get a feeling of these big, emotional moments. Where do you feel that sound has developed from?

I’m not quite sure. I think it stems from early childhood memories. That’s the same thing I was working through with 1977, 1983 and 1989, but I’ve not really come any closer to the answer.
“All music should have a personal element.”
Your whole back catalogue seems to be angled on the exploration of personal ideas. Do you see that as the easiest way of unlocking your artistic creativity?

Music has to be personal, but that’s one of the problems we’ve always had with electronic music. It was always hidden behind concepts, which has its beauty, but I believe all music should have a personal element. Otherwise, it doesn’t need to exist.

You once described 1983 as a “travel album” inspired by your childhood. Do you see a close relationship between music and travel?

I think music is always tied with travel. We’ve all had those experiences where we’ve gone somewhere with a bunch of mates and extensively listened to one record, because that’s what we were into. And for some weird reason that record becomes tied to that moment. I’ve had it many times driving round Ibiza, and whenever I put it on something comes out. That’s the beauty of it.

Or on the morning commute, you can hear one track that suddenly makes sense if the sun is rising in the right place.

Exactly. When I had a regular job, I was cleaning in university when I was around 17. I’d always be listening to music at 5am, stuff like Massive Attack, and I remember seeing the sun set in one particular moment every day. I’d always put on the same track to go with that. Small moments like this are so important in life.

Do you still find it easy to reach those transcendental moments in a club after all these years?

I’ve had those moments in clubs all over the world, which is what made me want to be part of this music culture. As a DJ, I try to convey those moments by playing a classic track, or something that’s off-kilter. Something that changes the mood even for a brief second – I find that important. That is why DJing is magical. You can manipulate something so emotional, sometimes without them knowing what it is.
“People are only making electronic music to fit into DJ sets.”
I remember you played Videotape by Radiohead on one of your all night long sets with us.

That’s exactly what I mean. I’ve also been playing a lot of Jóhann Jóhannsson strings over beats and breaks – there are so many neo-classical composers making a lot of beautiful music. I was first inspired to do this by Derrick May. He would play an ambient record in the middle of his set, and then go back into techno. I used to think ‘WOW! Mind blown. How and why does he do that?’ It’s an interesting way to introduce good music in a different context. It’s like a never-ending journey of crossing genres.

Do you spend a lot of time searching for non-electronic sources to complement your sound?

Yes. I think we’re reaching a problem now where people are only making electronic music to fit into DJ sets, so it becomes more of a tool than art. So, as we were saying, it’s no longer personal, and it becomes uninteresting. It loses that edge. That’s why I’m trying to dig into my catalogue – I’m having a hard time finding those monumental records right now.

I guess when you think of someone hearing electronic music in a club for the first time, for most people the moments they cherish most can happen early on.

People love to talk about how everything used to be better. How the early 90s was the best for techno, and the 80s was best for another thing, and the 70s for another… everything was better back in the day. But the important thing we have to remember is that kids are having these moments right now. I have to respect and facilitate that. That’s my most important job in this world.

Wednesday 30th November

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