Cover Story: DJ Koze and the Quest for “Invisible, Unexplainable Magic”
Cover Story: DJ Koze and the Quest for “Invisible, Unexplainable Magic”August 15, 2023
“This is the magic: music that doesn’t use formulas to get to the goal of moving people – and in the end, isn’t this the music that is really important?” Enigmatic producer/DJ Stefan Kozalla, AKA DJ Koze has been talking to Beatport about music making for forty minutes, and his enthusiasm for his chosen subject shows no sign of wavering, casually dropping ready-made-album-titles like the goosebump palette, the matrix of deepness and the spectrum of the melancholy as he conveys exactly how and why his music sounds like it does. “I try to make music which emotionally gets me,” he continues, “but it’s difficult because it’s the unknown that gets me – if I can’t comprehend it, if it’s a puzzle I can’t solve, that’s when music is interesting to me… If music is done properly, in a good way, I might like it or love it maybe; but it’s not magic – it’s only magical if I don’t know how it’s done.”
Speaking to us from his Hamburg base via Zoom, Kozalla’s conversation is every bit as amiable, interesting, detailed and multilayered as the DJ Koze sound he’s become famous for. But while his many productions in various genres are usually identifiable as DJ Koze, it’s a difficult sound to define. He definitely has an aesthetic – deep, genre-hopping, sample-stitched, hazy, psychedelic, outré, emotive – but his extensive back catalogue defies overall categorisation. He’s produced plenty of potent, smokey, emotive deep house tracks like this year’s “Blissda”, or 2013’s “Let’s Love” but he isn’t a deep house producer. He’s made classic, relentless, rolling disco cut-ups like “Pick Up” or his killer remix of Gerry Read’s “It’ll All Be Over” but he’s not a filter house producer.
Equally, he’s made hazy, sample-heavy electro-soul like 2013’s “Das Wort” with Dirk Von Lowtzow, itchy, angular, minimal techno like his classic “Brutalga Square”, squelching synth-funk growlers as part of three-piece band International Pony or edgy futurist-pop with Roisin Murphy; clearly, Kozalla’s music isn’t defined by narrow genre definitions. Instead, he’s engaged in an ongoing quest to find the new and the unexpected; as he says: “I always like the ups and downs, like in a horror movie. If somebody scares the shit out of you non-stop then you don’t get scared anymore. You need to be comfortable and then it surprises you again. This is what I’m always searching for in music: some kind of surprise.”
Kozalla’s been searching for musical surprises since the early ’90s. His first dance music success was as a member of German hip hop outfit Fischmob, whose debut album dropped in 1995, their commercial chart success eventually leading to Koze moving on in ’98. As part of International Pony with Cosmic DJ and Erobique, he made three albums between 2002 and 2006. The band released eleven singles, with several on Skint, specialising in squelchy electro-pop and slinky tech funk including the gorgeous “Leaving Home.” DJ Koze began working with Kompakt in the early 2000s, producing superbly constructed classic minimal techno like “Brutalga Square,” and “The Getlöppel Continues”. In 2009, together with a business partner, he launched the label Pampa Records, which releases music by artists such as Axel Boman, Isolee, Robag Wruhme and Impérieux. Then in 2013, Pampa released Amygdala, Koze’s first album as DJ Koze, and his follow-up album Knock Knock in 2018. DJ Koze has recorded five artist albums in total, remixed artists including Gorillaz, Solomun, Caribou, Matthew Dear, and Peggy Gou, and throughout has also maintained a discerning DJ schedule.
Across a wide range of styles, DJ Koze’s output has been defined by experimentation, by his mixing of cutting-edge club sounds with a dreamy, almost-lullaby-like sensibility, and by his fondness for the inclusion of musical and production ‘mistakes’ in his music. So where did this idiosyncratic approach come from? The answer begins with the music Kozalla first fell in love with as a teenager, which was exactly the type of music that teenagers often fall in love with: intense, extreme, full-on and without compromise. “When I was 14/15,” Kozalla tells us, “half of our gang were into AC/DC, half were Mods, and everybody was taking drugs, drinking and making shit. We were the small clique, listening to acid house and Public Enemy. And that music is compromise-less, hardcore, and somehow it’s my mother-music of everything. And I think everybody has this and for the whole rest of your life, you want to retouch these emotions again.” Seminal reggae and dub label Studio One was also a big influence on the teenage Kozalla, who along with Basic Channel “…were the blueprint from where I really understood so much stuff,” he recalls, “ …maybe they were the biggest blueprints for me to understand the matrix of deepness.”
Once Kozalla had discovered the power and impact of electronic music, the next step was uncovering its potential for emotion and the immersive possibilities it could also offer. “When I first heard acid house it was banging, in your face like a hip hop tune, kicking the shit out of you because of the frequencies which were without compromises and full in your face – like a rock… but when I first heard Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works it really moved me, and I would play it again and again – because I didn’t understand it. And like Basic Channel, the first time I listened, it was like going through a forest but you can’t see the single trees anymore, somehow you get lost in the whole thing, in the depth, the detail… So then I realised that electronic music can go much, much, much deeper than just FX blowing you away.”
Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works “really imprinted on my whole goosebump palette…”, Kozalla says, “and I think everybody experiences this: you are socialised with and imprinted with music and feelings in your childhood and youth, when you were in your discovery mode, where everything was exciting. You’re only a virgin for a few years.” He mentions reconnecting with the past a couple of times in the course of our interview and ironically for such a progressive producer, and in contrast to the huge riffs and end-of-days production of much club music, Kozalla often employs a kind of soothing sonic nostalgia in many of his tracks, a wistful, almost naive tenderness in the production. You can hear it in the gentle electronic swell of “Kuschelrock” from 2005’s Kosi Comes Around album, in the clunky electronic burbles and twitches of “Steffex Twin” from his Wo Die Rammelwolle Fliegt as DJ Koze AKA Adolf Noise album from the same year, or in starry-eyed lullaby “Music On My Teeth” from 2018s Knock Knock. These snug and comforting tracks, with their twinkling keys, pretty melodies, bedtime-story reverb and soothing production have a slight otherworldliness to them; they’re like the audio equivalent of the transition between waking and sleeping.
There’s a German word Geborgenheit that translates into English as security, but with a sense of warmth, familiarity and contentment, and for Kozalla, this is definitely part of his music. “Of course,” he tells us, “some part of me always wants to have this feeling.” But the softness in his music also comes from the knowledge that the post-club soundtrack doesn’t always need pounding beats, out-there FX and in-your-face production, that colour, texture, melody and mood can be equally powerful. “A full song without beats with sparse instrumentation,” says Kozalla, “and without the obvious weapons like a fat 808 beat can be a force in itself.” His mission is to create music that kicks hard emotionally but without resorting to reliable ‘classic’ sounds, and without attempting to repeat past successes. “I really believe you always have to make a contribution but not in quantity,” Kozalla continues, “… everything’s over polluted and why should you be the thousandth person to do the same track again? So it’s difficult to find a space for something which has not been done yet.”
Another method to help facilitate “something which has not been done yet” is DJ Koze’s disregard for the orthodox approach to production. Traditionally, an electronic music mixdown is supposed to get all the separate musical parts to comfortably gel together in a smooth, neat mix. Kozalla, however, often uses ‘mistakes’ in his music to reach a point where he’s doing something new, deliberately subverting the listener’s expectations. His productions are full of unexpected production touches: the tempo slow-down at the end of “CooCool,” the extreme low-frequency oscillation filtering in “Baby (How Much I LFO You)” or the ever-so-slightly-off-kilter percussion in “The Geklöppel Continues.” There’s the queasy pitch wavering in “Rue Burnout”, and the sheer volume and indeed relentlessness of the lone, off-key bleep in his 2010 “Blume der Nacht,” not to mention the shock-and-awe impact of whatever that noise is that comes in at six minutes.
Koze’s music almost seems to possess a thin layer of dirt, a haze made up of vinyl dust, sampler vapour and the grime from between his MPC pads. He’s often content to leave in the rough edges, the frayed joins and stitches that result from his sampling, fetishising the awkward gait of an imperfectly chopped drum loop, relishing the pops and crackles of sampled vinyl, making ‘errors’ and ‘mistakes’ a part of the work. It’s music informed by raw hip hop sampology and purist minimal techno – both genres he’s excelled in during his career – but that pushes past what we might think either of those genres ‘should’ sound like. “I try to make music then come to a point where I let the randomness or the fuck-ups destroy it,” Kozalla tells us. “It’s like painting a nice cat: it’s boring, it’s just a cat, but if you put the colours on again and you destroy it somehow, then it becomes magic for me. Because I want to make something which I normally couldn’t do – then it’s interesting for me, then I’m getting out of myself. Somehow you have to trickster yourself.”
DJ Koze’s tunes are full of unexpected and jarring sound juxtapositions, parts start and drop out abruptly, some of the percussion might sound just slightly out of time, or he might overemphasise a particular element, leaving it uncomfortably sticking out of the mix. “If you’re just repeating yourself and doing stuff like that for effect then it’s boring, so things like this have to be in proportion,” says Kozalla, “but especially with percussion, I really like it if it’s a little bit too loud. It has to be like coming from another room, waking people up, ‘not done properly’… I never would say ‘Wow, this is done perfectly right, this percussion is just beautifully in the mix’; it’s the opposite. If something is too loud, then I think, ‘what, why, how is this wrong,’ and then I start to be interested. I like that. It’s the opposite of what we learn.”
Kozalla’s career has involved many collaborations; aside from membership of groups Fischmob and International Pony, he also enlisted artists including Kurt Wagner, Eddie Fummler, and Mano Le Tough for his 2018 album Knock Knock, and just this year Pampa released two DJ Koze collaborations, “Candidasa“ and “Wespennest,” with musician Sophia Kennedy. He also worked with Róisín Murphy on a pair of tracks on Knock Knock – sparse, skeletal goth-hop “Scratch That” and the high drama future-electro-pop of “Illumination” – and has just completed production duties on her forthcoming Ninja Tune album Hit Parade. The singles released from the project so far – hearth-step soul-sample confections “CooCool” and “The Universe,” the hazy patchwork sonics of “Fader” and the clattering deep house-via-Detroit of “You Knew” – suggest that the full Murphy-Kozalla album is going to be every bit as wonderful as we hoped. “I’m happy with how it turned out, now that it’s done, it’s beautiful,” Kozalla tells us. “I’m really picky with vocals because sometimes for me they can be cheesy or just a function but I don’t feel that with Róisín. With her you have a 100% guarantee that it’s not cheesy or predictable, and it always contains an urge or tension; her songs are just really, really special. And yeah; she’s a crazy Irish super-talent.”
Hit Parade was recorded remotely with the pair swapping ideas digitally, and despite a career rich with collaborations, Kozalla’s continual drive to make “something which has not been done yet” has led him to generally work by himself. “I take inspiration from all the artists I admire, but more or less the journey now is alone,” he says. “When you’re alone, your brain can ride away with ideas, which might be wrong, or out of place, but if you are alone, you can do this. If you are in a band, they’ll say ‘Ahh the people won’t get it’. I think the idea of a musician working alone offers the possibility that you can go to places without compromises which are sometimes really good places. Sometimes you are really wrong too… ” – at which point he briefly descends into the knowing laughter of a producer who has clearly been to some very wrong places – “…but you would never go there with a band… Sometimes I’m suffering, I’m alone, and I’m jealous of musicians I see working together so nicely. But sometimes I think also it has a quality. If you’re alone, you somehow lose yourself in nonsense for hours, then you come to places maybe you only can reach on your own.”
Kozalla is currently working on his own album, which he hopes will be released early in 2024. “It’s not done yet. This is my problem”, he deadpans when we ask him how it’s going. “I’m trying to do what we talked about before, to include a big mix of what I like, what is in my cloud, while staying true to my sound somehow. Which is over-challenging me already because the older you get, the harder it is to fulfill your own expectations and standards and be happy sound-wise.”
The next DJ Koze album, like the rest of his work, will be another product of a career-long, self-set challenge to create new, beautiful music that adheres only to his internal standards and desires, rather than the demands of the market or the expectations of his audience. It’s a musical mission born from the belief that electronic music has far greater potential beyond the latest highly-processed, over-stimulated, ultra-massive ‘big’ tune, that somewhere in the world of clubs, raves, festivals, DJs, promos, release schedules and bangerz, there is magic to be found. “To be honest, this is an energetic field I’m still struggling with today,” he tells us as we near the end of our talk. “When I go to raves, I hear music which is trying to rock the crowd – but I’m always aiming for the invisible, unexplainable magic, that impact that only deep music can have on me.” He pauses. “Yeah. That is more or less everything to me.”
Harold Heath is an author/freelance journalist and DJ living in Brighton. Follow him on X.