“‘Pantalón’ is obviously a piss take…” Kristan Caryl talks to the joker of the Studio Barnhus pack about his new album and what makes Swedish producers unique.
Kornél Kovács has been the slow-burning member of the Studio Barnhus trio. Axel Boman got instantaneous success off his ‘Purple Drank’ cut on DJ Koze’s Pampa, and Petter Nordkvist has long been a darling with the Border Community crew, but only now is Kovács himself getting wider props. His playful Radio Koko EP on Numbers last year certainly helped, as have some loveably off kilter edits and originals on his own Studio Barnhus. But his debut full length, The Bells, will surely be the work that helps him breakthough.
It features ten tracks of subversive house, pop, trancehall and bass that are, on the surface, playful and humorous, but underneath bare more real and honest emotions. Kornél, who talks in impeccable English with a really quite posh lilt, is a notorious sample lover who finds sounds in myriad sources. As such we speak to the Swede about all this as well as his studio processes, people’s preconceptions about his music and more besides.
Attack: Are you still programming clubs in Stockholm?
Kornél Kovács: No, I quit that.
Because music has taken over?
I guess so. But also I wasn’t very good at it. I quit a couple years ago because they wanted a change in direction and it wasn’t really for me so we agreed to part ways. I enjoyed doing it a lot, but there were aspects I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t very good at: If it’s not my own thing, like the label, which springs out of passion, then I cant be bothered with the every day tasks of having a job. You know, invoicing, that kind of stuff. I was just a horrible mess. It’s just music and the label for me now.
Now that music is full time, does it feel like a job?
Erm… sure. I’ve been DJing twice a week for the last ten years or so. So it’s not that much difference, but there is travel added now. It was more local before, but now it’s every weekend abroad. That’s a different lifestyle, but it hasn’t changed the way I approach DJing or making music.
But you are doing more remixes than ever.
Yeah, sometimes it’s fun and rewarding, sometimes it’s really horrible. Every one I approach differently. I wish I had a formula. It would be nice to be like Armand Van Helden in the nineties, or KINK today, and just smash them out. Their remixes are really good—Armand from that era is genre defining—but they are all the same, really. The way he would treat the original stems is the same. The big breakdown and big bassline; it’s all the same.
Do you like to retain a sense of the original music when remixing?
I do, but I have had some remixes recently that were rejected ‘cause the label didn’t think I kept enough of the original track. I always disagree with that. A remix should be… the idea shouldn’t be which stems are used, it should be about my interpretation of a track, which could be to do with a certain mood, or a referential thing, or it could be that you lift a big old synth line or vocal and put it in your own music. So I wish I had a formula. I might have to get one, but I’m not clever enough to figure it out.
Do you think people come for ‘a wacky Kornél Kovács’ take on something?
That’s happened a few times. It’s all good man. I’m super happy about that. I have no expectations when it comes to the music business. I’m just happy that if there is anyone out there with a concept of a wacky Kornél Kovács remix then I’m chuffed about that. I guess it could be a bit problematic ‘cause like I made the ‘Pantalón’ track and I don’t have any others like that, so I don’t want to force myself into the niche of wacky singalong Spanish edits.
How did you come to find and flip that sample?
I was just checking out the Ivan dude. I mean I’m not super conformable talking about that as the sample wasn’t cleared and I’m going to get sued one day. Well, Numbers will get sued and not me, I guess. Anyway, Ivan is a cheeseball with interesting tracks. He’s from Spain but you can categorise him as Italo Disco. He has one big hit, I wanted to do a more playable edit to play out, so I download a rip and skipped through it. I came across this other track, threw it into Ableton and found this loop.
Me, Axel and Peter share a studio, we sit in one room and share headphones. At the end of the day it can be really fun when you’ve been making serious stuff to just break out and make fun tracks. We have horrible joke jam sessions where we just plug in synths, and just pretend we are really nerdy. I made this one to make Axel and Petter laugh, then sat on it for ages, put it out on my label then Jackmaster started playing it in every set. He liked it then wanted more tracks, and that’s how we started working together.
And how did you come to write your debut album, The Bells?
I had a quite pretentious, specific idea for an album. It wasn’t going to be a concept album but privately, to me, it was. I thought I would decide on a limited sound pallet and only sample a certain type of record, use a certain synth and certain drum machine. I won’t say which as I might use the project still.
Anyway, I wanted to finish that and finish some half done tracks and make EPs, but I just started working on the EPs and realised I had a collection of tracks I could make into an album. Matt [Karmil, studio engineer] and I locked up for two weeks, worked day and night. It was the most intense period of my life. We took lots of tracks written over a long time span and made that into something coherent.
Why were you going to use that limited concept? Because it narrows down options and gives you some focus?
Yeah of course, that’s very true. Also, the dance music album, it’s a difficult thing to approach. Either you need really good tracks… People sometimes say you can’t put ten house tracks together and call that an album. I think you can. If they are good enough and have a similar vibe, they I think you absolutely can.
Yeah, your album is pretty direct and dancey throughout.
I mean, my music is not really about two-minute-long DJ tool intros, even on my EPs. I don’t care about them being easily mixable for DJs. I hope these tracks work as listening music. Plus I grew up listening to totally club-orientated dance music, but I wasn’t let into clubs for years after discovering the music. When I was 13 and 14 all I was listening to was drum and bass. Not even mixes, just tracks. I bought 12″s and played them from start to finish and was amazed by them.
Yeah so I think, you know, to make an album work, you either need that or you need a clear concept. Maybe I was leaning towards the concept because I wasn’t sure I had strong enough material to just put together the tracks. But then I convinced myself I could do it so we had a shot at it.
I very rarely think of dancefloors when I make music. I see images of fantasy raves, you know; imaginary things like alien desert raves and things like that, or like ancient secret orders getting together and I try to create the perfect music for that setting. So it’s quite abstract ideas. If I make an edit then obviously I try to make it playable in a DJ scenario, but when I’m making original tracks it’s more about emotions and fictional, imaginary places and things like that.
I very rarely think of dancefloors when I make music. I see images of fantasy raves, you know; imaginary things like alien desert raves and things like that
Are there hidden messages and emotions in the music that people might not necessary pick up on when they hear them in the club?
Definitely. For me to stay interested in a track it has to have that emotional connection. There are clues in the titles, maybe, about what I was thinking about. A lot of the tracks, at their core, they are old ideas of mine. Like ‘Dollar Club’ and ‘Josey’s Tune.’ Some were started almost ten years ago. A melody here, sample there, beat here. For me, these tracks feel like old friends. They have been secrets of mine that only existed in my head. So they have a very personal touch.
For me, music is all about conveying emotion; any emotion, but it needs to have a strong emotional content. That applies to what I play and listen to and make. As long as they exist, it doesn’t matter what I feel, and if people feel the same or different things, as long as they feel something. I make stuff and think people will cry their eyes out, then people are like ‘woo what a happy-go-lucky tune, wihoo!’ or the opposite. I realise that it’s random. Strong emotional content always gets transferred, but can get reinterpreted in different ways, and I think that is interesting.
I really like contrasts in music. Something super soft and warm juxtaposed with something rough and hard, for example like ‘Szikra’, which is probably still my favourite production of my own. It is soft and gentle, with almost childish melody, and it has this super gangsta rap dude and that is a contrast, right? Also on the album on ‘Szív Utca’, a track that has really rough, in your face drums and then like softest cutest melodies. Great music happens when totally different cultures collide in a particle collider and new particles appear from that. That’s how house was born.
How important was the sequencing? There are some quick flips in mood and groove throughout The Bells.
Everyone interprets differently. For me I put a lot of work into the order.
I guess sharp twists and turns can be a style in itself.
Yeah, I mean, to me, I get a clear picture when I think about it. It does make sense. And it doesn’t have to make sense to everyone else. I’m confident there is a strong idea. A big u-turn is a key part of any book or movie, so if there are twists like that on the album, it’s all good. It’s me clearing out all my ideas. After I had done it I deleted everything else that was half finished. The music I’m making now is a fresh start, a blank canvas. I’m not working on an album now but I’m finding it easier to make music.
Do you feel that now the debut album is done, you are in your second chapter? The adult you?
I don’t know if I’m more grown up. I think I should be. I feel like I did ten years ago. The music I’m making now isn’t very different: I use the same ideas and techniques but I got more confident at it. I had super low confidence about my own music up to the Numbers release. I thought everything was shit.
What is your working process like now then? What gear do you use?
Hardware and software. Can be anything. I like working with samples more than synths, but I do work with them. It’s random where I find the samples. I can’t really give any precise answers when it comes to sources. It can be daunting cause you have constant access to the total sum of recorded music throughout history. I buy records, download a lot, collect tapes and have a big archive. So I decide, this month or for the next few sessions, I will only sample tracks released in 1981, or work on tracks with the word love in the title or whatever, just to narrow the field and make me focus.
I’m not a big hardware guy, I try not to be romantic about my tools and focus on the result, but there are still some tools from history we haven't been able to recreate digitally, like spring reverb
Any bits of gear you always come back to?
My favourite machine is on almost everything I have released. I was introduce to it by Matt, my sound engineer. It’s the best. It’s a delay, the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. They call it the God delay. It’s a tape delay with tube pre-amps. Sounds glorious. I’m not a big hardware guy, I try not to be romantic about my tools and focus on the result, but there are still some tools from history we haven’t been able to recreate digitally, like spring reverb is one: even the best plugins don’t sound as good as the real thing. Same with tape delay. I guess it’s that the bare physics is too complicated. This machine takes you back to dub, original dub, 60s psychedelic stuff. This is new, built recently, so it doesn’t coast loads to repair. It’s expensive, but I just got one for my 30th.
So it’s like an authentic bit of nostalgia for you?
Sure, but why call it that? It’s like calling 1210s nostalgic. It’s still a relevant sound. I put entire parts of tracks through it, I don’t use the effects but use the signal chain. Take it through tube, then tape, and really interesting physical things happen to the sound.
Why call the album The Bells? Anything to do with the classic Jeff Mills track?
Well, there is a track on it called ‘The Bells,’ but also the Jeff Mills link I find funny. I am a huge fan of him, I really admire him. I also like saying the word ‘bell,’ it looks good in text, it is an Edgar Allan Poe reference plus it’s funny to call your album after the most famous techno track ever. I just like bell sounds, church bells, big bells, I always use them in my tracks.
I’m going to do a few EPs. I don’t want to get in the thing of having really high expectations and spending too much time on them. I want to make tracks quickly and do edits and push them out. After the album settles I’m going to bring out some quick, rough, fast stuff. I have some favourite labels that I already work with, and some that don’t know we’re going to work together yet, so I’m going to try and spread out on some labels I like and do stuff with them.
Coming from Sweden, you are already a weird and exotic beast in dance music so there are no expectations on us.
I think people have you down as wacky and crazy and expect that from your music. Are you OK being that guy?
Err [Long Pause]. Sometimes I aim to be like that. ‘Pantalón’ is obviously a piss take. But for us at Barnhus it’s not as obvious we are weird. A few times I was baffled by things I have read, like, what do you mean?! It’s about perception. For us, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum to Jeff Mills, but to an outside observer it’s just the same old noise. Me, Petter and the artists we work with, most of us are from Sweden or other outsider places, as far as club culture is concerned. We’re not, I mean, with UK producers or German producers, you can hear in the music that they grew up in nightclubs at raves and early in life they got a natural understanding of that music.
That’s amazing. I really respect that, but Stockholm is not like that. In Stockholm nightlife is marginal, it’s not part of the broader culture. At Barnhus we are interested in art, all sorts of music and emotions, and you know, that has a place in music. The greatest horror movies or serious dramas still have an aspect of humour in them. If it’s horror all the way through and no connections to emotions or other parts of life, it’s cliched and boring, but if you convey more different things it’s more close to truth. I think that’s where we come from. That attitude and sense of humour is unusual in dance music, that’s why people focus on that aspect.
Coming from Sweden, you are already a weird and exotic beast in dance music so there are no expectations on us. A UK producer might be more concerned how the bassline sounds, the German producer might be more concerned about fitting a track into a streamlined techno set. We don’t have a natural place in those environments anyway so we are free to roam and experiment and do things.
Yeah, I mean, we joke around a lot, sure. We’re three dudes having fun. But if that humour or off-kilter thing gets too much attention I will sometimes get annoyed, because it’s only part of the story.