We met up with Swedish DJ & Studio Barnhus co-founder Kornél Kovács during the 2017 edition of by:Larm festival. A runner-up to the Phonophile Nordic Music Prize celebrating Scandinavian talent, Kovács also joined Oslo to play a set at Blå. A perfect occasion to discuss how he built his career and how he sees the future of the European music scene.
Looking into your early years, you had a rather cosmopolitan background, being born to Hungarian parents and then moving to Stockholm as a kid. Do you think this influenced your work?
Moving around a lot - and not necessarily feeling Swedish but definitely not feeling that Hungarian - shaped me. My parents kickstarted my interest. We don’t have the same taste but they are very opinionated about music - music was always around when i was a kid. I try to make music that is not categorized. Of course, you can range it as house music or dance music but within those frameworks, I try to deliberately make things that are not easy to pin down. And that’s also how I identify myself: in between things.
You also created Studio Barnhus with Axel Boman and Petter Nordkvist, a label that has pushed the Sweden's underground house music scene forward in a short time. Do you think Stockholm could become a hub for the electronic underground scene?
There’s a great party scene in Stockholm and I always refer to the great open air parties that happen in the forest area outside of the city in the summer- they’re like nothing else I’ve been to in the world. But it’s not really a club nightlife hub of the word. In general, there’s always been good music from Scandinavia, and maybe I am biased, but from Sweden especially I think. And dance music has always been a part of that. You can go back to the 90s when there was a big boom of Swedish techno music, with artists like Jesper Dahlbäck, Adam Beyer or Cari Lekebusch.... They pushed a big wave then, and as they disappeared into their international career, there’s been a few years when there was a bit of a vacuum at least in Stockholm’s electronic music scene for sure.
‘Culture and art are really important simply because they do bring people together over national borders. It makes people realize that it is a global world, that borders are neither effective nor interesting.’
About eight years ago we founded Studio Barnhus, and around the same time labels like Skudge, Geography Records and a couple more emerged. We all started at around the same time. That happened a few years after the initial Swedish techno wave settled and young kids started getting bored again because there was not a lot of things happening. But I don’t think it’s Stockholm or any Scandinavian city’s responsibility to be the new London or Berlin. I don’t think we could. We’re much smaller cities and we don’t have a capacity for that sort of nightlife. I do hope that Barnhus can grow and become some sort of hub for Scandinavian pop music – for us the clubs were never an end in itself.
Over the years, you have taken quite a good interest in the music scenes of Paris, London or Berlin and have travelled there quite often. Do you think live music, club culture could recreate a sense of unity among the young Europeans that seem to struggle to identify with the European project?
The freaks of any place in the world will always be able to connect with each other. If you take an average family in Albania and an average family in Norway, I think you’ll find quite large differences. In turn, if you look at the freaks, the people that are outside the norm, they are sort of the same everywhere. In a way that becomes the norm. Culture and art – stuff outside of the mainstream- are really important in this age simply because they do bring people together over national borders. It makes people realize that it is a global world, that borders are neither effective nor interesting. If you look at the top 10 in the different regions of Europe, they’ll probably be different. But if you look at what DJs play in clubs, you’ll see they’ll be probably playing the same records.
A lot of people saw in your latest record – i.e. the Bells –a reference to Jeff Mills, one of the pioneers of techno music along other artists from Detroit. A heritage that some think is not recognized enough, as illustrated by Juan Atkins comments on the top 100 “DJ’s List” who criticized it for its lack of representativeness. What’s your opinion about this?
The electronic music scene is very varied and the big bang of it happened in Chicago of course, in predominantly black and also in many ways, gay music scenes. They in turn were very influenced by things that came before them as well which were black or white. It’s important not to forget and disrespect the roots of anything
. I get annoyed when people don’t realize that this music wasn’t made for rich kids to pump their fist. There’s another side to that when European producers really fetishize the concept of blackness, ghettos, even concepts of deviant sexuality – there’s a big discussion about cultural appropriation as well and it’s not a discussion which is unique to dance music or music itself. There’s no excuse today if you’re interested in something to be ignorant about its roots anymore, because information is available.
‘I think that the clash is the interesting thing- I’m more interested into the contrast of things rather than the purity of things, What happens when you mix some stuff. That’s what matters in an age where people start to isolate more and more.’
But as an artist I think it’s also important to focus not too much on the roots. Like jazz happened when slave songs and march music collided and then turned into jazz in New Orleans. Techno is a mix of industrial sounds like Kraftwerk’s and soul, funk or disco music. I think that the clash is the interesting thing- I’m more interested into the contrast of things rather than the purity of things, What happens when you mix some stuff. That’s what matters in an age where people start to isolate more and more.
Tonight you’re playing for the first time at Blå with the support of Liveurope. Do you think there needs to be more initiatives like these to help emerging artists play abroad?
Absolutely. When I started out DJ-ing, I made a point of trying to get myself out to different countries as soon as possible. Of course, I didn’t have any reputation or name going for me but I managed to organize nights at clubs in Stockholm. And I did that only because I realized then I could invite DJs who were organizing their own nights in other cities in Europe and even in places like Mexico or Tokyo. So I set up this system: ‘so I book you in my club - no one knows you but we’ll hype it somehow. And you do the same for me.’ And that’s something that I did really early on. Especially because of Stockholm’s lack of a proper club scene, that was inspiring as a DJ and I learned a lot about the trade. And I thought maybe someone from Mexico city, Tokyo will also learn a lot from playing in Stockholm in that sort of scene, with that sort of crowd. If there’s initiatives that can amplify and push this process, I’m up for it!
Photo credits: Hjalmar Rechlin