Raw, groovy, emotive and truly authentic are just a few adjectives that come to mind when I think of house and techno producer KiNK. Legally known as Strahil Velchev, the Bulgarian producer has a characteristically unique sound, much in part due to his mastery of production and deep affinity for hardware. Velchev is widely known for his exciting live sets and was rated third on Resident Advisor’s list of top 20 live acts in 2013. Tonight, the District is in for a treat as KiNK takes the stage at U Street Music Hall.
Last year, Resident Advisor named you as number three on their list of best live acts. Can you describe the evolution of your live set to what it is today and talk about some of your most valuable learnings in that process?
I started to perform my own music more frequently in 2009. My live set evolved a lot during the last 5 years, simply because I started from a very low point. First of all, now I love to do it, but in the beginning I was not so convinced about it. I have a longer experience as a more traditional DJ. My former agent and a good friend, Kai Fischer, suggested I work on a live show in 2009, because he saw a niche in the scene and a good potential in me. My live set is based on the Ableton Live . I used the platform in a different way from the beginning. Instead of having different channels of midi and audio per track and a solid arrangement, which I believe is the standard, I started to DJ with short loops from my tracks on Ableton. My goal was to turn Live into a big loop pedal, and that’s what I achieved with time.
I started to add more options to play, record, loop and play back instruments in real time, like a keyboard and drum pads, virtual step sequencers–some of them I made or modified on my own. All that made it possible to create music on the fly, improvise and most of all – to have fun on stage. At some point I added a turntable to the setup, because what I do is completely inspired by the DJ culture and not so much by the bands. I miss the DJing sometimes and there is no more authentic form of DJing than using Vinyl. I developed a few routines through the years, like inviting random people from the crowd to write down a bassline or to trigger sounds on my devices. I found it`s quite important for me to be able to show the crowd what I`m actually doing there and to have their attention. My music can be odd sometimes, especially for unprepared listeners, so I believe if the crowd understands a little bit of the process of making the sounds, they can be more open to the music too. This is something valuable I`ve learnt in the last 5 years that I guess is valid for any kind of music performance. You need to know your instrument to perfection, you need to keep it simple, and you need to be very confident. Those three things depend on each other. Its still hard for me to follow the first two rules, but then, being able to go out of your comfort zone is quite important too.
I get the impression that you are an extremely resourceful person in regard to using a limited amount of tools to create music that is dynamic and special. Can you talk about a specific instrument or tool you have used outside of its standard purpose and what kind of sound were you able to create with it?
As a kid I was curious about sound, but I had extremely limited resources. All I could play around with since the late 80s till the late 90s was a cassette recorder, a radio receiver and a cheap turntable. I look at those devices as tools to create sounds. I was doing edits on the cassette recorder, I was listening to the shortwave radio transmissions, searching for the weird noises in between the radio stations. I modified my turntable, so I can cut the sound without a mixer. Later on, when I started to produce, I had an extremely limited and unusual setup as well. Now I`m lucky to own some exciting musical instruments, but my experience in the past often inspires me to use basic and widely popular tools outside of their standard purpose. The most recent experiment was to play the new Roland TR8 drum machine like a keyboard. I tried to make a polyphonic melody with it and to build some sort of a chord progression. The result was different than what I intended to do, but I’m happy with it. You can judge by yourself, I recorded the session and you can find it on Youtube.
With production technology developing so rapidly in electronic music, do you feel that spirit of resourcefulness is being lost? Or, do you think it just resurfaces in new ways?
Well, there are always two sides of a coin. If you want to be resourceful, now you can be, more than ever. Every month, there are new, interesting and more affordable music tools on the market. There are a lot of software platforms, which allow you to modify your virtual instruments and create new ones without the need to have a degree in computer science. You don`t need to spend thousands of dollars for a basic studio setup. Music making was never as democratic as now, and those who want to be creative can do it. Of course, the limitations make you resourceful. I can tell that from my personal experience. Sometimes I also feel lost in the unlimited amount of choices we have now. I`m very inspired by the past. Sometimes I feel nostalgic about the electronic music from back in the day, the way it has been made, and even the cultural aspects of it, but I`m more excited about today and tomorrow. As you suggest, the resourcefulness resurfaces in new ways. For example a lot of producers from the old generation used to sound great just because the instruments they used sounded very musical. It was kind of easy to get a specific sound. When some of those people converted to computer based workstations, they lost their signature sound. The new technology gave us new tools, but also new challenges, so although I don`t like all the new styles of performance and production, I feel very positive about the new technology and I don`t want to go back.
Your recently released album, Under Destruction, started as hours of live recording before becoming a final product of 12 songs. How did you go about deciding what to keep, what to shelve and what to scrap?
That’s a good question, sometimes its hard to have a sharp opinion and to make the right decisions about your own music. You need someone to look at it from a different angle. When I finished with the recording sessions, I chose over 30 rough themes, I made a mix out of those recordings, and I sent it to few close friends. I asked them to send me back a text file with notes about the music. After receiving the feedback, I was happy to see that my friends opinions were similar to mine, so it was easy for me to make a decision. I chose and finished about 16 tracks out of the pile. I had to pick 12 for the record because of the time limitation of the vinyl format. My friend and the owner of Macro records, Stefan Goldmann, helped me out with the final choice. We decided to remove a few dance floor oriented tracks from the selection and to stick to the more abstract compositions. The good tracks that didn`t made it to the album are signed on Systematic and Pets records. The Pets vinyl will also have a lot of samples from the raw album material under the form of locked grooves, for the more adventurous DJs. The record is supposed to come out at the end of the year. The material for Systematic is very powerful. It has being destroying floors in both mine and label owner, Marc Romboy’s, sets. I`m very late to send him the pre-master. I hope he will be patient enough, but I will take care of that as soon as I come back from the States!
I read you once had a hand in producing pop songs and commercial jingles in Bulgaria. What did you take away from those experiences and how did they inform your current production style?
I`ve learnt a bit more about composition and sound design, but most important – how to work with vocalists. I found some good production techniques, but also I started to avoid some traditional ways of composing and producing after dealing with the more conventional music, which was also another way to enrich my music. Overall it was a quite interesting, pleasant and valuable experience, and I`m happy I did it. It definitely improved me as a solo recording artist, and I became more open for collaborations as well.
If any, what artist outside of the house and techno realm would you like to produce for?
I think I’m able to create any kind of instrumental sounds that I like or I can imagine, but I can`t sing, and I like good and special vocalists. I like artists with vision too and the first name that comes in my mind, having those abilities, is Bjork. Although she doesn’t really fit your criteria, because she can be more techno than some of us.
What is one of the best pieces of advice you have received from either one of your mentors or collaborators in the music industry?
Be yourself. It`s a cliche, but it`s a cliche because it`s the truth. Of course, you have to be open minded and flexible. Once in a while you might have to compromise to a certain extent, as long as you find yourself in the new situation. Probably the biggest compromise I made with my music so far was to switch from being a traditional DJ to an live electronic music act. Although I still like to play records, I truly found myself in that form of expression after a while. The public can sense your energy and if you are honest with yourself and your fans, you have a better chance for success, at least that’s my experience so far.