Daniel Koehler is one of the most exciting talents to hail from Bristol in recent years and although he is now based in Berlin we are still fortunate enough to be working on his dubs here at DubStudio. Since his debut on the stellar Skudge label, he has gone from strength to strength, with follow up releases on exciting labels like Berceuse Heroique and R-Zone. We spoke to him to find out how he has created his own brand of unclassifiable electronic music.
Your music seems to defy any particular genre. Is that a conscious process, perhaps drawing from a wide range of influences instead, or do you set out to make something totally unique, regardless of genre?
I must say I bloody hate the idea of genre! For me there is almost nothing worse than the idea of a "purist" form of house, techno, drum'n'bass, jazz or rock or whatever. What I truly love is when you hear a track come on, in a club or a shop or wherever, and it just absolutely rips your damn head off because you have never heard anything like it. And so that's what I aim for when I'm creating music. And I think it's very difficult to create a track that can have that effect on you if you are worried about whether certain sounds are "allowed" or "acceptable" as per whatever supposed genre you are working around. You just need to trust your instincts and "follow the sound" ! So for example if I lay some drums down and they are already producing a certain atmosphere or vibe, then the next sound I add, whether it's a melody or bassline or whatever will have to fit with that atmosphere and so on and so on.
But I only concentrate on the atmosphere that the track is creating, and make sure all the sounds fit into that sound world. If that means a track starts to stray from a presupposed idea of fitting into a genre........GREAT!
How important is genre? Do you think it has the same importance in 2014 as it did ten years ago? Do you deliberately set out to challenge the idea of genres?
So like I said in the last question I aim to 'follow the sound' and create a unique sound world for each track that I make. And by doing that, the result should be that the music doesn't follow the rules of any genre. But I don't consciously try to defy the genre, I am literally not even thinking about it. I want my music to tear up a dancefloor but do so in a way that hasn't been done before. So only in that sense is my music experimental.
Tell us about the band you were in before launching your DJ/producer career as Koehler. What aspects and influences do you transpose from that experience to your creative process as a producer, like the aesthetics, attitude, mindset…
The band I have been in for some time has been more of a private musical project, in the sense that we haven't recorded any of our material properly yet and most likely never will, although we have played many gigs in the past. It is more an opportunity to get together and fucking jam for sometimes 8 hours or more. We just get into a room and let loose! I get on the guitar and pretend it's 1968 and we're at an acid test in San Francisco hahaha. I think the most important lesson that I learnt about music from playing with those guys in that way is about the concept of 'flow'. The concept of when it's really happening, it's HAPPENING! It's like the music is coming through you and you aren't consciously making those musical choices in the moment, it's like you've tapped into some musical source other than yourself and the sounds just begin to flow through you. So I try to extend this concept into my electronic music. When working on a track becomes a real struggle I know not to continue with it. All the tracks that I finish and are happy with usually come about fairly quickly and smoothly, it's almost as if the tracks write themselves sometimes. And then you know it must be pretty good because you didn't actually write it, it just seemed to appear while you were in the studio! Hahaha
Tell us about the way you work, do you use hardware or software? How does your production workflow differ now from working with a band? Do you have a philosophy for your working process, and the creative process in general?
I have a whole bunch of hardware and synths such as the Roland SH-101, JD-800, D-50, Alpha Juno 2, JV-2080, Oberheim Matrix 1000, SEM, EMU Sampler, 16-Channel Mackie desk, a few drum machines and plenty of vinyl for sampling. But the most important element in my setup are all my guitar stomp boxes (another unexpected affect of playing guitar in a band on my electronic music!). Especially the old Electro-Harmonix ones! They kick some serious ass! Ram any sound through them and you can get some wild results. All the audio from the synths or drum machines or sampler gets recorded into Logic and then arranged in there. Often it's a case of creating a sound with a certain synth or sample going through the desk and the stopmboxes. Then once its recorded, I might chop it up and put it back through the stomp boxes and so on and so on. Cliff Lothar keeps telling me to get an old Korg Electribe, he is a proper Electribe evangelist and his stuff sounds fucking dope so that is definitely next on my gear list!
Do you have a philosophy for your working process, and the creative process in general?
Yes definitely. Before I begin a track I always have to have some kind of visual image in my head, or some kind of a scene or scenario that I essentially want to soundtrack. Once I have decided on the details of this image then I start to think about the kind of sounds I might use. Then I will seek out a drum break from my collection of '90's drum n bass records that somehow I think will fit with the sound of the image. I will pitch the record right down on the turntable and record it into Logic. I will then slow it down a bit further in Logic to around the 130BPM mark. Then I will chop it up and start putting it through the desk and stomp boxes and add some drum hits from drum machines or sample packs and start trying to create a drum pattern that has some real atmosphere and texture that already begins to bring the image to life. Then it's a question of starting to experiment with sounds or melodies and adding them to the drums. Anytime I hit on a sound or a melody that makes the image clearer then I know i'm heading in the right direction. Until finally every detail in the track, all the sounds and the arrangement are like a soundtrack to the image or scenario I started off with. (In case you were wondering why I turn to '90's drum and bass records for the drums, it's because to my ears, they were, and still are in many many cases so unique. There are so many tracks where I have absolutely no idea how they made these sounds. Just check the Shadow Boxing remix for a snare sound like no other! That certainly doesn't sound like any drum machine I've ever heard ! So yeah I like to sample drum hits and breaks from these records and twist them up in the stomp boxes and hey! I can start getting some fresh drum sounds ! This is what I find lacking in so much house and techno these days . It seems like some producers have forgotten the power of drums! They are just happy to use a pure unaffected 909 or 808. And that can of course be cool, but most of the time my reaction is just yeah.......I've fucking heard it! I heard it 20 years ago ! I want to have my ears ripped off with sounds I haven't heard before! RANT OVER!)
Do you follow strict rules and guidelines when making music or do you find this approach stifling?
So my approach to making a track, essentially making a soundtrack to an image or scene in my imagination, has been the same with everyone of my tracks so far but in each case the image or scene has been completely different. I actually don't think I could make music without this approach. The tracks would almost be meaningless sound without this approach and I wouldn't know how to build a track with multiple layers or why or how to arrange a track. This philosophy literally takes care of almost every aspect of the music I am working on. So even though this philosophy is very strict, I have no musical rules, any sound is allowed, as long as it adds to the vividness of the image.
When you work on a piece of music, do you ever see it as finished, or is it always a work in progress?
So ideally a track will be finished when I can sit back and listen to it and the image in my head is almost made real. There is also sometimes the situation when after a point, everything you add to a track starts to make it sound worse. So in that case FUCKING STOP RIGHT THERE!
Can you learn things about the creative process from cutting dub plates? Does it give a sense of completion to a piece of music once it’s laid down in the grooves?
Absolutely! The act of committing a track to dub plate really gives you a sense of the music on its own terms as you are no longer staring at a wave form. You really get an idea also of the architecture of the music when it is transferred into grooves. Also it puts it on an equal footing with the other records in your bag. Once it's committed to dub plate then there can be no more excuses! If it rips a club up alongside your other vinyl then you know the track works, if it falls flat then you can't say 'Ohhh well its because it was quieter or hasn't been mastered' or whatever.
Making the transition from live instrumental performance to DJing, what made you choose vinyl and dub plates as a medium? Can you draw any parallels between the two styles of performance in terms of sound, or technique?
Well before I even started to learn how to play the guitar I had been spending all my lunch money on records when I was in school, so buying vinyl has been something i've been doing since i was 12! But yeah there is definitely a parallel I feel between playing an instrument and djing with vinyl because it does involve a certain level of physical technique. Plus there are no cue points on a record so it forces you to really get to know the records in your bag and internalise the music as much as possible, which is exactly what you have to do when you are playing in a band.
What releases do you have in the pipeline? What is the hottest dub in your box right now?
My next EP for R-Zone has just been mastered and should be landing very shortly, and my next ep for the Skudge boys is also ready to drop very soon. Currently I am working on my follow up EP for Berceuse Heroique and after that I have a special project lined up for an absolute daddy of a label. The hottest dub in my box has to be the Breaker 1 2 remix of a track by Ekman called Gizmo Made Me Do It which will be coming out on Berceuse Heroique at some point. It is an absolute monster of a track! TOTAL EVIL!
If you could tell your younger self one thing about pursuing a career in music, what would it be?
I remember seeing Josh T Pearson (the frontman of the mythical texan band Lift To Experience) after a gig of his and I told him that his music was one of the biggest influences on me deciding to get into music and give it a go. And his response was "Tell your mother I'm sorry!". Hahaha yeah so I would tell my younger self that he really had a fucking point! Hahahahaha
Interview by Lurka