Faced with the opportunity to become a producer for Billboard-ready pop acts, Rune Reilly Kölsch chose to break from the constraints of radio-friendly hooks.
Long ago, his house track "Calabria," which was released under the name Rune RK, became a pop crossover hit. Released in 2003, it reached its peak four years later when Kölsch rereleased it with vocals by his fellow Dane Natasja Saad. In 2008, it peaked at number 46 on the Billboard Hot 100, two years before the EDM explosion in the United States — a rare feat for a dance music act.
"Back in the day, what I was trying to mimic with 'Calabria' was what a Detroit techno track would be if it was a Balearic version," Kölsch says. "It was inspired by Jeff Mills' 'The Bells,' in the sense that I was trying to see how many times you can repeat the same thing without becoming boring."
"Calabria" came about from his trips to Ibiza and features a signature horn-laden hook that calls for listeners to hit the dance floor. The 2007 version has singer Natasja adding a "Whoop, whoop!" call that adds to its infectiousness.
So because of the record's success, why didn't Kölsch follow other producers such as David Guetta, Diplo, and Afrojack in becoming a beatmaker for hire?
"Since 'Calabria' became so popular, especially in America, everyone wanted that sound," Kölsch says."There were a lot of really big pop artists that wanted me to produce records for them, and I'll admit I dabbled in it for a while. I like the challenge of making that perfect radio record — I think it's interesting."
Kölsch says he learned a lot from that time, mainly that producing radio-friendly songs is harder than it looks. The time constraint alone — pop songs rarely play for more than three or four minutes — makes it a challenge to avoid formulaic patterns. He describes it as a "taking a beautiful painting and cutting half of it off to fit it in a corner somewhere." In the end, Kölsch says, it just wasn't for him.
But pop's loss is techno's gain because, since 2013, Kölsch has embarked on an album trilogy — aptly named 1977, 1983, and 1989 — that explores his youth, the time of his life before he began dabbling in music.
"It wasn't really meant as a trilogy," Kölsch says. "But since the first album, , came out, I just got completely engulfed in this whole idea of exploring my younger years that I ended up with so many ideas and so much material that I thought it would be interesting to explore the time before I got into producing electronic music."
This year, he capped the opus with 1989, which marks the year his parents separated, and he began getting into skateboard culture. Though the first album gleams with disco influences and 1983 drips with synth bass lines, 1989 is much darker, almost as if it's mimicking the rise of Detroit techno of the late '80s, something Kölsch says is unintentional and a reflection of Detroit's similarities to the area of Denmark where he grew up.
"[Denmark] has that isolated living that Detroit really also has. We are known for melancholic music and general melancholy because we have eight months of the year where it's absolute shit weather. We can't go anywhere or do anything except think about things."
But just because Kölsch has eschewed pop productions doesn't mean he hasn't brought any of those influences to his own music. The 1989 track "In Bottles" does something few techno tracks dare to do — use vocals. And though sparser and longer than most made-for-radio music, it definitely follows a more standard song structure often lacking in techno. However, Kölsch insists anyone who has been following his career won't be surprised by his use of vocals.
"I've always like doing vocal tracks," he says. "The voice is an instrument like everything else. The difference between an instrumental track and a song with a vocalist is that you have an opportunity to tell an even bigger story."
Though he's closing the book on this album trilogy, Kölsch isn't done with the format. He sees the album as a way to experiment and flesh out ideas, something that one-off releases don't necessarily afford. He's also not ready to give up on the idea of the "concept album," seeing it as a useful way to give himself boundaries for the story he's trying to tell.
However, before he can move on to the next project, Kölsch is embarking on a world tour that kicks off Friday, October 27, at Heart. He originally hoped to do a live show; however, he admits logistics have prevented it. Instead, only London; Melbourne, Australia; and Sydney shows will see the full live production.
"It became an ordeal to bring it everywhere because it travels with a lot of people."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Instead, his show at Heart will be a DJ set, but he insists that thanks to the longer times afforded at the 11th Street nightclub — four or five hours of music is to be expected — he's looking forward to showing what he can really do when given room to breathe.
And if you're thinking of skipping Kölsch's appearance Friday, don't. He says that after the tour, he'll take some time off at the beginning of next year to digest everything.
"It's a weird life as a touring DJ because I have a lot of amazing experiences," Kölsch says. "But because it's five days a week of touring and DJ'ing, it seems like I don't really have time to realize what it is I'm doing. I need a little time to sit back and enjoy that I'm doing what I always wanted to do."