Introducing: Kevin De Vries, Afterlife’s Unstoppable New Talent
Kevin De Vries has, quite frankly, got it going on. As his biography acknowledges, in just a few short years, he has earned a perfect score sheet of fans among the real big league of the real big rooms — Adam Beyer, Sven Väth and Richie Hawtin have all played his records to death, and Tale Of Us love Vries’ music so much that they have practically made him family, inviting him on to their Afterlife Records imprint and on to showcase stages at Tomorrowland, Awakenings, and ADE. His hits — “Arakat,” “Meraki” and especially the undeniably emotional remix of Chicane’s “Saltwater,” released on Armada — bridge the gap between the emotive techno that drives Ibiza and the emerging trance revival. As you might imagine, 2020 was set to be a breakthrough year of touring for Kevin De Vries.
Calling from quarantine in his Berlin apartment, De Vries is in strong spirits and good humour despite the unfolding, unexpected situation. As the COVID-19 virus continues to threaten the international population, hands-in-the-air opportunities seem barely relevant or perceptible on the horizon. Like most of his peers, De Vries explains he is using the time to make more music and better his sound design in his beloved Fruity Loops, as well as to take a well-earned rest. Unlike most of his peers, De Vries only left his job managing a supermarket in November.
“I could have stopped after one year of touring, but my boss let me have the weekends off,” he recalls. “I’d sometimes be in there till Friday evening then go straight to the airport. Then I might have been in three countries in three days, but it was Monday, 6AM and I had to go in to cover someone who was sick. It was really hard, physically. Building a studio, touring, working at the supermarket and studying… But I never had to think about whether I had enough shows. I had a ‘Plan B’ for security, just like my father told me.”
De Vries moved to Berlin from a rural area outside of Cologne in Western Germany just a few years ago, following years of weekend trips to immerse himself in the city’s world-beating techno culture. Upon arrival, De Vries — equally level headed and laser-focused — avoided the typical pitfalls of maximal hedonism when stocking shelves and arranging shifts.
“I did not have that much time to experience the Berlin nightlife when I moved,” he explains. “But I always knew where I came from, appreciated what I was doing and realised I was super privileged. People were working four times more than me and getting a lot less money. Playing some records is not comparable to working forty hours a week, and earning ten percent of a DJ’s fee, which are like small houses now. But maybe things are about to change.”
De Vries’ initial interest in electronic music stemmed from the country’s bubbling commercial hip-hop scene, notoriously emotional gangster-rap with gritty loops that De Vries would memorise, unwittingly placing them in a part of his brain now firing on all cylinders. But his taste for electronic club culture stemmed from a more cinematic rite-of-passage in the form of the 2008 comedy-drama Berlin Calling, the film in which German DJ icon Paul Kalkbrenner plays, well, an iconic German DJ. The film birthed Kalkbrenner’s once inescapable anthem “Sky and Sand,” and provided a template for the dreams of wide-eyed young DJs for years to come.
“I watched it when I was maybe sixteen and seventeen,” recalls De Vries, who is now twenty-six. “The music in that film went straight into my body, like goosebumps. Dance music with so much emotion was super interesting to me. If he was able to do that, I wanted to do that as well. The day I watched that movie, I knew I wanted to be that. I wanted to give someone those shivers.”
Certainly De Vries has made good on the ambitions of his younger self. After all, those shivers are a significant part of the appeal of Afterlife, a crew that don’t let simply any young artist into their mythical and ambitious inner circle. Nonetheless, De Vries is equally keen to stress a refreshing commitment to smaller clubs. He maintains a residency at Tama club in Poznan, Poland, inviting like-minded friends like Denis Horvat and Konstantin Sibold. Thanks to the Polish language skills he inherited from his mother, he quickly befriended the club’s promoters.
“As long as it has a good soundsystem, I’ll play there,” De Vries adds, reflecting on a triumphant few years. “Of course, playing Tomorrowland for the first time, it was wicked, it was crazy. The standard is so high, and you get a taste for it. How it’s super easy, no stress, but then when you come back and do a small club show, you suddenly know who you are. And I think it’s important to have a mix and a connection to both. A lot of artists don’t even play club shows now. We should remember where our culture is coming from.”
Whereas the widescreen ambition of many artists is viewed with suspicion by the underground, it is interesting to note that even in the upper-echelons of techno euphoria, young artists like De Vries are concerned about the huge DJ fees and ruthless competition that have come to define the scene’s politics.
“In the end, we’re all in it together,” De Vries states firmly. “Big artists are just normal people, and I like that it feels familial. I see it so often that people have this competitive mindset in the music industry and it drives me crazy, especially when it’s within the same genre. For me, it’s ridiculous. There are so many clubs and shows, I still think that if we tried, we could even get all of us on the same lineup. In the end we do this for unity and to share moments together. Of course, it’s normal for people to go into competitive sports mode, but to me, it’s old fashioned.”
Nonetheless, De Vries is well aware that he has worked himself into a privileged position, and while he certainly doesn’t look bad behind a CO2 cannon, he is keen to utilise it for creativity as much as the Instagram friendly DJ high life.
“I’ve met some amazing artists who are like idols to me, like Kölsch,” De Vries says “He was a hero! And you exchange music and then you exchange opinions and that’s one of the best things that ever happened for me. To get that feedback first hand, not some A&R or somebody downloading for someone.”
De Vries may be confident enough to tempt Dubfire out for breakfast on a recent American tour, but he has conciously avoided the pushy, pressure-valve structure of management. And while the machinations of the industry are more than interesting to him, he is keen to return the discussion to music itself. He has just released a much-anticipated new cut titled “Omertá” on Afterlife’s new compilation Unity, all profits from which will raise money for COVID fundraising in the hard-hit Italian region of Lombardy.
“I have a lot coming that’s been recorded in the last year,” De Vries teases. “I’m learning everyday, working with Fruity Loops. It’s been five, six or seven years and it’s still not done with it. At the end, it’s just a DAW. But if you know your tools well, you can get very good at it. I work with VSTs and plugins, but usually, everything I do is ‘in the box.’ I am trying to reconstruct and redesign the sound we have right now. In music, we don’t have that many boundaries.”
“There are so many brands right now, so much money invested in PR,” he continues. “But I’m happy with where I am right now. There’s the Afterlife crew, with whom I can play and put music out. I’m working on a cool concept out in Poland, but that’s more creativity than business. I really just want to do cool parties, release amazing music and work with amazing people. For me, the focus is just on music.”
“Well,” he adds with a laugh, the reality of lockdown suddenly catching up with him. “I was focusing on touring, but now I’m definitely focused on music!”
John Thorp is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. You can find more of his work here.