When speaking of legendary DJs, you need look no further than François Kevorkian. The man's resume reads like the history of popular dance music itself. He cut his teeth at NYC's seminal Studio 54 and The Loft during disco's heyday, and at the Paradise Garage during the birth of house music.
What makes François K such a major role model among DJs, however, is his relentless commitment to sonic innovation. He may be old enough to be the grandfather of a lot of the kids at his shows, but François K is permanently at the cutting edge of electronic dance music, championing the latest sounds, from techno to dubstep, and putting many DJs half his age to shame.
Crossfade caught up with the man, the myth and the legend ahead of his headlining gig at the Electric Pickle this Friday to talk about the old days of clubbing, why he is still relevant after four decades in the game, and the future of EDM.
Crossfade: What were the strongest impressions you got from the NYC dance music scene when you were first working there in the late '70s? What would you say are the main differences between dance music culture then and now?
François K: Freedom and privacy. The great thing about the '70s is that it was an age of innocence, and people didn't have many of the same things to worry about, like mandatory photo ID checks, security cameras at the door connected to the police precinct, catching a life-threatening disease from having casual sex with someone they just met, or being forbidden from doing many things by overly restrictive local licensing laws, as well as the ominous feeling of constantly being watched in the club by hawkish security staff. Clubbing has become much more of a streamlined business now, very utilitarian and quite low on the scale of fantasy. Bottle service is fine for people who thrive on that, it's just not been very easy to find people willing to invest into venues that don't build their business model on revenue from alcohol sales.
As the decades go by people seem to romanticize the seminal dance clubs like The Loft, Studio 54 and Paradise Garage more and more. What do you think made them so special? Is club culture today lacking something that those establishments and their crowds had?
Those were different times. Two of the names you mention were totally private, as in no amount of money will get you in if you didn't know someone who was a member. That's a different scene altogether. With regards to The Loft, it was just a party, definitely not a club. Someone deciding to invite people to his house to have a party. Nothing more than that. But because of that, it made it very different. As far as Studio 54, the amount of ink that has been poured on America's fixation with celebrity, trash gossip and drugs should show that not very much has changed over the years in that particular department. But I would argue that bundling such a name with those of Paradise Garage and The Loft may not be very fair, as they did not have anything whatsoever in common, besides having a sound system playing music over speakers. As far as how it compares to today, there are certain venues like Berghain in Berlin who try to emulate a bit of the early ethos of private parties, but it is a very difficult thing to do because so much has changed in the way we perceive and consume music, as well as the way it is used for social interactions. And those dreaded cell phones -- yes, them. Arguably, with less distractions, the experience may have been far more intense and focused.
You're one of only a handful of DJs from your generation who is still going strong after four decades. To what do you attribute your longevity? Is there a secret to staying fresh and relevant in a scene were young new artists are emerging all the time?
With regards to longevity, not dying is always a great way to stay in the game. You may think I am joking, but the list of my contemporaries who have sadly left us all too soon in the prime of their careers is quite a long and sobering one. Which is to say that I feel there were far many more DJs who were arguably a lot better at it than me, and I just happened to be one of those who still happens to be around today. As far as the music, I have always been attracted to things with an edge, the new and fresh, so that may have helped in keeping me current. But to be honest there is no real plan behind this, it's just how things have worked out -- there's never been anything deliberate about it. I have been getting a lot of flack from people about it at times -- for example, starting to get into techno somewhere around 2000, and the same way I got more of this from people who saw my early support for dubstep around 2007 as anathema. Age-old dilemma, isn't it?
So in a sense, if you keep changing and re-inventing yourself a bit, it is guaranteed that some of the people who have been supporting a particular phase of what you do are not going to follow whatever your next move is going to be. Because they are not interested in changing. As long as this is something you're comfortable with, there's no problem in following that instinct, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to do this so far -- hopefully even managed to connect with some new and younger music lovers along the way.
How did your collaboration with Cosmic Twins partner Derrick May first come about and what was the concept behind the project originally? What has he imparted to you as a techno producer?
We started doing this together in 2003 for a tour of Japan, and the name stuck. We recorded a couple of tracks and have played some more gigs together all over the world. Still looking to do more when our schedules permit. Derrick is one of the true originals, and has an uncompromising attitude towards music that is always a great deal of inspiration to be around. Such a beautiful soul!
Why have you continued to make the US your home all these years, considering how much smaller the electronic dance music scene is here compared to Europe?
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I love New York for its people, its unique diversity and high-octane environment full of driven and very creative characters. Always have and cannot think of another place I'd rather be. A city where I can walk to most any place I need to go to, and that feels like a little village with lots of skyscrapers. I find this human dimension very much missing from most other car-centric cities in the US. And as far as Europe, the diversity just isn't there for me in the same way. Props to Amsterdam, Berlin, Tokyo, Paris and London for sure. But not the same thing for me. This may well change in the future, but I would be the first to be truly surprised if it happened.
You've always been praised for your forward-thinking approach to EDM. Lately there seems to be a lot of nostalgia and the recycling of classic house and techno sounds. Why do you think producers are looking to the past for inspiration instead of the future, and what do you think the future of EDM is?
Miles Davis said decades ago that "every chord has already been played." As with fashion and many other aspects of the creative arts, there have been many such cycles of rehashing something that became old and giving it new life. So I find nothing surprising that suddenly the '90s would be trendy again. As far as what I think the future of EDM is, your guess is as good as mine. In recent times, artists like Skrillex have amply proven the point that audiences are ravenously looking for something shocking and that completely makes them go ballistic with sounds. I'd expect more of the same for the near future. Music with a shock value?
The focus (or obsession, one could say) of your long-standing Deep Space NYC party is dub in all its permutations. What was your first exposure to dub and what draws you to this sound so much?
In a sense, dub is what I do. It's perhaps a bit ironic that it took me so long to figure out that this was where my affinity took me, but better late than never. I became exposed to dub in the late '70s, and it immediately and profoundly changed my approach to mixing in the studio, as well as the choice of material I would play as a DJ -- but in general, the way I would deal with sound. It's an aesthetic that I feel can be applied to any music, rather than being a specific genre. There can be a dub mix of a pop song just as much as one of a vintage reggae record. With Deep Space (now nine years running) I am trying to showcase those links and apply this sort of treatment to whatever music I choose to play there, by doing this live while I play.
What do you have going on in the studio these days? Any forthcoming projects or releases?
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Been recording a whole album with Detroit legend Juan Atkins, as well as a bunch of material with various other collaborators, and will hopefully make some of this available over time. To be honest, the main focus of my time has been on live gigs and the demanding travel schedule this entails. Last year saw the premiere of a surround-sound project I put together for Burning Man 2011. This doesn't have much to do with dance music at all, but a lot more of it is related to a very atmospheric and three-dimensional approach to sound, this is taking quite a bit of my time and I will be looking for other select opportunities to make this happen where it makes sense to present it. Think Pink Floyd, Tomita, Porcupine Tree, Herbie Hancock, and Steely Dan and you'll have a better idea of where this may be going. All material played on a surround system needs to be mixed in that format, so I will be incorporating more of that as I can create special mixes for it.
What does the future have in store for François Kevorkian? Do you see yourself staying in the DJ game much longer?
There doesn't seem to be a shortage of places to go and play at, many of them being repeats of gigs that I have been playing for a number of years, but lots of new ones just as well. As long as the demand is there, I don't see a reason to stop. There are some other projects I am also involved in, but they are still in the music space, and would not prevent me from continuing to play gigs.