IN CONVERSATION WITH KÖLSCH
interview by LINDA SCHREITER & MAREK BARTEK
Known for integrating melodic elements into techno, Kölsch gained popularity after releasing his song “Grey.” This year, he returns with a new album “I Talk To Water,” in which he explores music of his passed father and mixes their distinct approaches into one coherent story.
First of all, congratulations on your upcoming album “I Talk To Water”. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this album and how it differs from your previous works?
The album is about my father, who passed away 20 years ago this year. I’ve been wanting to somehow approach the loss of someone in your life, and use it as a creative outlet but it’s been a real tough process. My dad was a guitarist and a singer, and I have not been able to listen to his songs for the last 20 years, because it was just too emotional. During COVID, I finally mustered up the courage to listen to the demos. He never released any music, but he recorded it. There was so much good music, I realized I should honor his life and finally release some of his music 20 years later. I decided to try and incorporate some of his vocals and guitar playing into the tracks of the album.
That being said, it’s not a mourning album. It’s not about sorrow or about diving into the loss and being depressed about it. It’s about using a tragic incident in your life as a driving force, something that can propel you forward as a human being, and that will change into something good. The experience doesn’t have to be only negative. I’m 100% convinced that if he hadn’t passed away 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t be able to make all this music that I do. The title actually refers to the fact that he was cremated. His ashes were spread into the ocean in Denmark and every time I have a conversation with him, I go and speak to the ocean or the water.
The already released single “An Amazing” is charged with the feelings of power, strength and emotions. What was the creative process like when producing this track, and what message do you hope listeners take away from it?
“An Amazing” is actually about a specific moment in my life. My father was a devoted Buddhist. When I was ten or eleven, he took me to see his teacher, who was a Tibetan monk. He would ask what I wanted to do with my life, and I said I really wanted to make music. My dad didn’t like the idea of me becoming a musician. As parents usually do, he wanted me to do something a little more corporate.
But the Buddhist teacher said it was the best thing I could ever do, because I would make a lot of people happy. He didn’t speak English very well. He used to say these things in such a beautiful, grammatically wrong, but kind of perfect way. He would say: “You were an amazing.” I love that sentence. It just stuck with me, and I decided that this record should be an omen to that whole situation.
There’s something very special about people who create stuff for others to enjoy. I thought about it a lot and I came to the conclusion that music and arts are really the only things where there is no cost to anybody involved. If you go to a football game, somebody always has to lose. There’s always this competition element to it. But with music, everybody just enjoys it — the performers, and the audience. Even the people working there, unless it’s the fifth day of a festival.
So, as you already mentioned, multiple tracks on the album include recordings of your father, who was a touring musician. How did integrating his recordings influence the overall narrative and atmosphere of the album?
My dad played classical guitar, and he did some singing, so it has quite some guitar feel to it. I’m hoping that it integrated well into the album but in the end, it all depends on how people will perceive it.
I found one of his songs he wrote and decided to reproduce everything around it. The song is called “Tell Me” and the crazy thing is that he recorded it a year before he passed away. He suffered from a brain tumor, and because of it, he couldn’t really sing in tune anymore, which was devastating for him as a musician. I spent a lot of time correcting his vocals in this particular song. It was quite fascinating to go back in time and relate to that moment.
It was so long ago, but suddenly I had this tangible proof that he was ill, and that there was something going on. That was quite a hefty moment, but I just hope that it can either help the listener move on if they’re dealing with loss or inspire something else in someone.
He was clearly an important figure in your life. Was he also your inspiration to pursue a career in music?
It’s funny, because at the time, he wasn’t. He was a guitarist in the band, and in the early days of techno music, we were all trying to rebel against what would be considered as traditional music. The weird thing is that over the years, I’ve really felt inspired by the same music that he was into. I got into East Coast rock and all kinds of stuff that he would listen to religiously. It’s such a source of inspiration for me now.
But at the time, it was his sense of freedom within making music that inspired me a lot. The whole element of performing and being in the moment and creating something that is is free of prejudice and free of political messages was somehow very enlightening. I think it goes for everybody, right? We all always remember that particular dish our mothers made or something that someone once said. It has a way bigger impact on our lives than we would admit at the time being.
You’ve mentioned that “I Talk To Water” explores themes of family, history, and grief turned into comfort. Why did you decide it was important to highlight these emotions, and how did they shape the direction of the album?It was something that I wanted to do for a long, long time. Since he passed away, for the last 20 years I’ve been dreaming about being able to do this. But I wasn’t really ready or good enough yet, also technically, as a producer and a musician. It was a long process and I changed my way of working, as well. I’d go to the studio and then work on something but it was very sort of random. With the years, it’s become much more conceptual. Nowadays, I spend a lot of time working on the idea and concept before I actually even go to the studio. I think it’s very normal for an artist to change the process of how they create, but in my case, this became very apparent.
When I first started working on this album, it became super depressing. I was really diving into sorrow and loss. I didn’t want to release a depressing album because I don’t think that’s very productive. So I decided to approach this differently, in a way that can be progressive and lead into a positive experience. There’s a lot of controlling how emotions are expressed, but also how I hope they are perceived. You never know how people are going to experience it.
Would you say that the process of producing this album has changed your relationship to grief? Did the process shape you in any way?
I think this experience was very interesting and it also has a lot to do with how the brain works. It has a tendency to forget a lot of bad things that happened, in the sense that it changes memories and perception of what life was at the time. For me, it was incredible to be able to let myself dive back into the experience, with some subjective distance and a healthy sense of criticism because I wasn’t feeling the same way anymore. That being said, when we lose someone important in our lives, I don’t think it ever goes away. I just think we learn how to live with it better day by day. And since it’s been so long, it was really beautiful to go back and remember these moments we had together, especially the last six months of his life. We exchanged knowledge, we spoke about philosophy and religion and all these things that I needed to ask him. I was incredibly fortunate. Not many people are able to do this with their fathers. It wasn’t about escaping all of the sadness, but about becoming a good experience.
Your album is very personal, to say the least. I think that it’s full of memories and all these emotions. Do you have a song on the album that you’d say is your favorite? And on the other hand, which song presented the biggest challenge when making it?
I’d say my favorite one would definitely be “Tell Me.” Not only because my father wrote but also because it’s an amazing song. If I’m being completely honest, I was surprised that he actually wrote something that good. I’m a big fan of people like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Iver and all these people who have that ability to write something extremely beautiful. And to know that my father did that 20 years ago is quite fantastic, it makes me really proud of him. And as I mentioned before, it was a huge challenge to produce that record because the singing was off key.
But if I had to pick one more that makes me proud, I’d say “I Talked To Water,” which features Perry Farrell. Just the fact that he wanted to get on the record made me so happy because the song is inherently about loss and how you find a way to process that — in this case, talking to water, which seems like a bizarre concept, but he understood it immediately. He’d recently lost a friend who was also cremated and buried in the sea, so he would do the same thing. He’d go to the beach in LA, Santa Monica and talk to the water once in a while just to have a little chat with his friend. I love the fact that it’s a thing people who have had that same situation do, which I didn’t know. I thought it was just me being nuts.
Your music often combines melodic elements with techno beats that has undoubtedly brought you a successful career with millions of records sold worldwide. How do you think your style and approach to music production have evolved over the years, especially with the changing landscape of electronic music?
Well, everybody evolves. I’ve always perceived electronic music and techno in general as the music of the future. It’s never ending possibilities, and it’s important that it keeps evolving. As soon as we get too retrospective and start talking about how everything was better in the 90s or the 2000s, we’re nearing the end of something. And I don’t want to accept that.
I try to bring to a narrative with everything I make. A lot of times, techno music or electronic music becomes very anonymous and cold, because it’s obviously made by machines to a certain extent. I think my production techniques have changed a lot, too. Progressively, all the time, I always try to explore new possibilities and try to create something that’s more relevant at the time being. It’s just important to keep hold of that idea that you can express something. It is actually inspired by Robert Hood and his label called “Implant.” His idea was that with creating techno music, you could electronically implant a feeling into somebody else, hence the name Implant. I’m holding onto that as an idea and a principle of my life. I really want that to be part of my DNA as a human being. That being said, everything changes all the time. But also, that’s half the fun, it keeps you on your toes.
Talking about how you want to make people feel, you have started your global tour that goes throughout Europe, North and Latin America. With your global tour and festival appearances, how do you prepare for live performances, and what do you enjoy most about performing your music in front of a live audience?
I love that spiritual connection between people. It’s incredible to go out and perform music and enjoy the moment together. Half the fun for me is also surprising myself and taking records out that I haven’t played in a while. At times it’s a big risk because there’s a whole new generation, and what I consider a classic isn’t necessarily classic for anybody else. It is quite funny and it surprises me. But I always prepare in different ways.
There’s a couple of situations that I always think of. For instance, if I play in South America, a lot of times I will refrain from playing too many big vocal records and rather focus more on something that has very big melodics that is a little more dramatic. As compared to say, for instance, right now in Europe, it seems there’s a big hard techno wave flushing through all the clubs.
You also came for ADE for Strafwerk and Awakenings, can you tell us a bit about these sets and how you prepared for them?
I was actually working on it till the last moment. I had been working on a lot of edits, the things I wanted to do in the studio but had no time. But primarily, I was playing a lot of stuff from the new album. There was a lot of stuff I hadn’t really played yet, because I wanted to save it for when the music was actually out.
I also did a lot of talks. I participated at a Demolition XXVI on Saturday, which was quite fun. With Dave Clark we listened to demos and gave feedback, positive feedback, of course. It’s always fun to be around. I love Amsterdam. I love Holland in general, but Amsterdam, especially around this time of year, it’s amazing.
You already said you’re going to play a lot of your new music. But I wanted to quickly go back to one of your older tracks. “Grey” from the album “1989” has brought you the biggest recognition and amassed millions, with over 49 million streams. Did you expect such a massive response, and how does it feel to have your music resonate with audiences on such a large scale?
I didn’t expect it at all. And also, it was never the plan. It’s crazy how that track just really took on a life of its own. The way I always saw it is when you release music, it’s no longer yours. As soon as I put the music out, it kind of has its life and there’s really nothing I can do to influence that. But in this case, it’s crazy how that record has just exploded. It’s mind blowing and I can’t believe it has nearly 50 million plays. It’s beyond what I thought I would achieve.
Lastly, besides the upcoming album. Is there anything you can share with us that your fans can look forward to in the future?
Well, I’m working on a lot of new collaborations with artists for my label for next year. I’m working on a collab with Anna and another one with Kevin Rees and a lot of people that I really admire and look up to. So there’s a lot of new stuff coming after the album, but let’s focus on the album first.