Beatport HYPE: Kuukou Records
Beatport HYPE: Kuukou RecordsMarch 16, 2021
DJ, producer, label owner, and mother of two Simina Grigoriu has spent the last decade solidifying her reputation as a force of nature in Berlin’s breakneck and competitive techno scene. Originally hailing from Romania, Grigoriu and her family immigrated to Toronto when she was just a child to flee Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutal communist regime. Starting her new life in Canada, Grigoriu’s intense interest in music touched on classical scores, classic rock, grunge, jazz, hardcore, hip hop, and beyond.
Building up her DJ skills by the time she got to college, Grigoriu’s musical taste eventually found a home in the headlong and savage sounds of techno. In a sudden twist of fate, she met and fell madly in love with renowned German techno artist Paul Kalkbrenner in 2008, prompting her to pack up her life in Canada and move to Berlin.
Since her move to Europe’s clubbing capital, Grigoriu began DJing around the city, and releasing on labels like Sonat Records, Frequenza, and Susumu Records. In 2016, she launched her Kuukou Records imprint and got to work building the label’s sound with signees like Torsten Kanzler, Dusty Kid, DESNA, Alfred Heinrichs, BB Deng, and more. At its five-year mark, Kuukou Records has grown into a hotly sought-after home base and springboard for some of the scene’s most promising techno producers.
Recently having given birth to her second child, we caught up with Simina Grigoriu to learn more about her background, the inspiration behind Kuukou Records, and what the future has in store for her label and personal life. Despite the stresses and time-consuming nature of being a mom with a newborn, Grigoriu was kind enough to put together an exclusive mix that beautifully showcases the sound and vibe of Kuukou Records.
Tell us about your musical journey growing up in Toronto. How did your love of hip hop transition into a love of electronic music? Were there any early shows/artists that had a significant impact on you before diving into this world?
I’ve always been into music. As a child, I played piano and violin, and I was in a choir. As a teen, I started rapping and writing rhymes. There was never a day when I didn’t have music blaring in my Panasonic Shockwave headphones or blasting from the subwoofer of my little black Jetta.
As for my musical education, I never officially studied music production. In my 20s, I started learning Ableton during my free time (outside of my 55-hour workweek in marketing and print production), and I did so from tutorials and with mentors, who were and still are my good friends. I’ve had great luck turning my hobby into my job, but I still consider myself a student! It took a long time to learn the basics of music production, and I’m still learning new skills every time I go into the studio.
I was working at a bar in university, and I remember I kept looking at the DJ. I was not only interested in learning the skills, but I was also interested in changing the music! So I got myself some decks and a XONE:92 and started to learn to mix. A buddy of mine told me that the most challenging style to mix is jazz and classical (no real beats), so I started with that. I was also blessed with fantastic friends who gave me tips and showed me the ropes.
After university, I worked a full-time corporate job while still raving about and mixing on weekends, but it wasn’t until I moved to Berlin that I decided to focus on music full-time. I love what I do and encourage others to follow their passion. One of my goals with my label, Kuukou, is to provide a space for artists to experiment and showcase their music, the way so many label bosses have done for me, too.
As far as early influencers, I would say Jeff Mills and Robert Hood had a big influence in my early interest in techno, and I’ve always admired what Richie Hawtin was doing in the ’90s. I was also into alternative punk and grunge and loved (and still do) ’90s hardcore rap. I grew up with Eric Clapton, The Doors, and Roxy Music. I am a musical anomaly and what we hear at home reflects that. I think the music I make also reflects this, and I’ve sampled a ton of stuff from the tracks I love and listened to over and over as a kid.
What prompted you to move to Berlin? What year did you make the jump? How has the city inspired your production and informed your dance floor awareness?
I moved to Berlin in 2008, and I moved for love. I had been playing some shows in Toronto but nothing that I would consider professional — it was mostly after-hours, and my days were spent at my corporate job in advertising. I met Paul Kalkbrenner in September just before Berlin Calling came out. In fact, he was there to promote the movie, and it was our mutual friend and promoter who introduced us. I was adamant about NOT dating a DJ/producer as I was just getting started and wanted to be taken seriously. Still, we fell in love instantly, and less than a month later, I had sold my car, rented out my apartment, and moved to Berlin to be with him. It was quick, and we were crazy, but here we are, almost 13 years later, with two babies and still in love.
I love Berlin and everything it stands for: music, art, freedom, history, and change! It’s a city like no other and incredibly inspiring for young artists. It’s also a difficult market to break, considering that everyone and their grandma is a DJ here. In Toronto, I am a star among my friends (or so they think) because I somehow made it in Berlin. In Berlin, I’m just another DJ. This is called perspective and makes me work harder here than anywhere else. This is Techno Town, and to stay relevant, we always have to reinvent ourselves.
How did your love of flight and aviation inspire the name behind your record label?
Ohh, I love this question because flight and aviation are part of every DJ’s life if you really want to do it professionally. I founded Kuukou Records in 2016 after taking a yearlong break to have a baby. My pregnancy was so rough that I had to cancel many gigs and stop touring earlier than expected. I had nothing else to do with my time other than making music (and eat. A lot). I produced an album, which I later decided to split into EPs and start my little techno label. I started with “Techno Monkey,” a track dedicated to my dear husband Paul, and “Ninja Princess,” a track dedicated to our daughter Isabella Amelie.
At the recommendation of my manager, my booking agent, my husband, and pretty much everyone I spoke to, I decided to split my album into EPs because for today’s generation of music enthusiasts, the concept of the album is beginning to become obsolete. It just made more sense this way. We now have 46 excellent releases, including top remixers, and I am very excited about my now 6-year-old label.
Kuukou means “airport” in Japanese. When I traveled to Japan for the first time, I felt like I could live there my entire life. I kept hearing the word “Kuukou” (pronounced Kuu-kwo in Japanese) over the airport’s intercom, and it sounded cute and funny. I kept it in mind. It was not until four years later that I decided to found my label, and then this word popped up in my mind.
As a self-proclaimed aviation junkie, I love to fly. I love planes and machines and airports and am obsessed with the hustle and bustle of what it means to run an airport — especially a hub. I’ve been traveling my entire life — back and forth from Toronto to Bucharest for the summer as a kid — and it shaped me. I became independent at a young age, and I realize that this was in no small part due to my extensive traveling as a child and young adult.
It only seemed fitting to intertwine my love of aviation and music. It seems to have become somewhat of a theme for us because, as DJs, we are always traveling. An airport can make or break your trip, especially if you get stuck in one for a long time. So yeah, Kuukou!
Who are some of the artists/collaborators that have been instrumental in supporting the record label and helping you get it up and running? What would you say are some of the label’s most successful tracks to date?
My biggest supporters are the people with whom we work as well as all our artists. I am thankful for our designer, our engineers, and my two right-hand men at Grise Agency for helping me run the label (thanks, Jens and Marcel!) — I could not do this without their decades-long expertise.
I’m thankful to Paradise Distribution for doing a great job by pushing each release, and I’m grateful to Beatport for all the features and for believing in us! Spotify has been a massive support with the playlist features and has even included me in covering the latest Electronic Rising playlist.
My family has been a great support as well! Paul and Isabella know how important music is, to all of us collectively, and that this is my passion. Without their support, I would not have had the heart to start the label, and I’m fortunate that they like the music and understand what I’m trying to do with Kuukou. So far, I would have to say that the tracks with the most traction and best sales are:
How do you decide what fits the label and what doesn’t? What are some words you would use to describe Kuukou Records’ sound, ethos, vibe, etc.? We would also love to know more about the album/EP art aesthetic. Who creates it, and what can you tell us about it?
I am solely responsible for Kuukou’s A&R. Each demo makes it to my ears, and if I like it, it goes to the label managers for a few spins and an open conversation.
There are many factors involved, and since this is a business, we have to consider everything, even beyond the music. We have to look at an artist’s stats and previous releases before making any decisions. That means that even if I like a track and would release it in an instant, I have to consider how it will perform, how the artist will promote it on his/her end, and how that will translate into sales and streams. This is the part I don’t like because I want to give every unique track the opportunity to shine, but we invest so much into our artists and each consequent release that sometimes this is not feasible to say yes to every cool project. Some labels release digitally every week, but we invest so much in promo/design and PR that it’s just not always possible. I am trying to change that as we go along actively.
I created the artwork concept with a designer’s help, and we change it for every release. I know a lot of labels try to keep costs low with basic changes from release to release. Still, I feel that, since every artist has put their heart and soul into the music, the least we can do is visually match that effort by keeping the artwork fresh and new and providing several formats for use across all platforms. I am a big fan of dynamic animations for social media and videos for YouTube. I am trying to create exciting visuals to increase engagement across all platforms and give each release a chance to shine individually.
Congrats on the second baby! What’s it like being a techno mom? What’s the key to maintaining a healthy work/life balance?
Thank you! Victoria Rosalie was born on February 10th here in Berlin. Her big sister, Isabella Amelie, is so happy, and Paul is thrilled to be as daddy to these amazing little souls. As for being a techno mom, I’m not really sure what that is. I am a mom and a mom first. I love being here and being present, but I also love my job, and my passion for travel is never-ending. Having said that, my heart breaks when I have to leave for a weekend because as Isabella gets older, she needs me around more and more — setting examples and being here for her sometimes very big feelings. Other parents go to work during the week, and we do it on weekends. It’s hard for kids to understand this. It’s also essential for me to set an example for my girls and show them that following your dreams is important and that whatever path you choose means hard work and sometimes sacrifice. I never go away for too long, and with the exception of my Asia tours, I’m gone for a maximum of a day or two. Even for intercontinental tours, I never stay extra days the way I used to before we had children. I want to come home and be here for them. There is also a lot of “mommy guilt.”
We have no nanny but rely on Paul’s mum’s good help, and now that we have two kids, we might consider getting a bit of help. But I love it! I love the loudness and messiness of children, and I love being the one they run to when there is a problem to be solved. It’s a delicate balance, but over the last year, knowing that I will be home has brought me a sense of calm — knowing that I’ll be here no matter what. I still miss the shows. I miss them so much, and I NEED to play like my arms depend on it, but I’ve also enjoyed being here and being present.
What does Kuukou Records have in store for 2021?
Oooh! Lots! I am so proud of my little baby techno label. We’ve come such a long way since 2016, and I have so many ideas for the future. As always, we are focusing on releasing only quality, memorable music. As my friend Marc Houle once said: “You can’t sing a track; you can only sing a song.” So we try to showcase melodic but floor thrashing techno. It’s a delicate balance.
We are releasing every six weeks, so we have to be picky with projects but are open to hearing everything. It’s inspiring for me to receive demos and find little nuggets of techno gold to release on Kuukou.
For 2021, we have some new additions to our label as well as releases from our core artists. There’s lots coming down the pipeline, but I suppose what I’m most excited about are the “Techno Monkey” Remixes. It’s a very special project we’re putting out all year long in the form of Spotify singles and four EPs, including a dozen remixes of my first track on Kuukou, “Techno Monkey” — a track I made for Paul with the B-side for Isabella called “Ninja Princess.” I am super excited about this project and curious to hear everyone’s take on the remixes. Some names include Lilly Palmer, Stefano Noferini, Paul Kalkbrenner, Wex 10, Hito, Desna, and many more! We’re starting to release the first ones in May.
Can you tell us a bit about the mix you put together for us?
I just chose a bunch of my favourite tracks from Kuukou, which was NOT easy, but the mix asked for one hour, not a full day or tunes, so I had to make some decisions. I hope you like it!
Thank you SO much, Beatport!