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Interview: Levon Vincent

Cutting his teeth as a DJ in New York the 90s, Levon Vincent witnessed first hand the impact of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy on New York’s nightlife, and saw his gigs and hence his livelihood dry up overnight. So Vincent went back to school, in his words, to “take a negative and turn it into a positive”, and devote himself to learning the many complexities and nuances of music theory and production. In 2008 his star began to rise, with the first signs coming not from NYC but London, where his tracks drew raucous receptions from the Fabric crowd when dropped by close friend Jus Ed. Affable, humble down to the ground; Vincent’s rise to prominence is a remarkable and heart warming tale. Aaron Coultate met up with the man himself during his recent stay in London to find out more.

You’ve been based in London for a month or so – how did that come about?

I was actually left stranded in London by the volcano ash cloud. I was due back three weeks later to play at Fabric for their “on and on” blowout, and I knew I couldn’t miss that. So I was thinking: do I stay or do I risk leaving and not being able to return? Because at this stage I had no idea if the volcano was going to keep erupting or not… So we decided I would stay. I missed a couple of gigs elsewhere that weekend when the ash first appeared, which is a shame. From that time on, I’ve really grown to like London. I returned home to America for the DEMF, and then headed back to London, and since then I have basically made it my European home base, it’s been a bit of a spring time holiday.

What have you gotten up to during your time here? Have you had a chance to work on some production?

I’ve got my laptop and headphones and a few pieces of kit, and I have working like a madman- staying up late until my ears bleed! I guess I’m a bit of an addict when it comes to working on tracks, it’s a bit obsessive really. I am very focused on new jams right now. 2011 will be the next time I take a run at the business.

How have you found London an inspiring place to be, even for a relatively short period of time? Has any of that seeped into your productions?

A person’s environment certainly affects what they are doing- and that’s the beauty of excursions like these- just staying for a short while, seizing a localised “burst” of inspired thoughts- and then onto the next locale! It’s great. I also do love the city of London – it reminds me of New York- you have lot of different nationalities living and working together fairly harmoniously. On my block where I grew up were Hasidic Jews, Puerto Ricans and Chinese. Going to the grocery store was a wild experience! London has that same vibe – where I’m staying there are Brits, Jamaicans, Africans, Pakistani- loads of nationalities living together. The beauty of UK for an American, is that London is not totally overwhelming- for one thing, there is no language barrier to overcome, which makes the UK immediately accessible. But, it is different enough to have unique daily experiences, and these experiences make me step out into the world each day with a smile on my face. Each day is a new adventure and I put that into the tunes I am writing.

Are you planning to stay in London for longer?

No, I’m back on the road next. Then it’s back to my home in New York. I’ll always keep a flat in Europe too though, in order to simplify my travels a little bit. Gigging so much is incredibly inspiring, but the offset of that is that I don’t have the time to get into the studio and convert that inspiration into music. Often when I work on music, well, my studio time is not too organized- I don’t eat, sleep,or shower when I’m producing – I’ll wake up with my head on the keyboard after a few hours of rest, then… you know (laughs…) repeat the process. But that’s not a stable way of working; happy as it makes me, but now I’ve now got people depending on me… As a musician I think it means that I’m growing. Nowadays, sessions are more intervallic – I’ll write an idea, maybe a melody or some changes on a piece of paper while I’m on the plane so I don’t forget. In that respect I’m becoming more responsible. I want to have a career, not just be a passing flavor of the month. Longevity and relevance are things I consider when adapting to each new road.

You’ve got a gig at the Rex Club in Paris coming up, then it’s off to Berlin for a set at Berghain. How big a show is that for you?

The last time I played at Berghain I was so nervous, it was the first time I had played there. My hands were shaking! Some girl who I think was friends with Marcel and his wife kissed me right before I got on the decks. It was surreal. I don’t know who the hell that was, but it made my hands stop shaking a little bit, thanks! Anyway, I started playing and playing, doing my thing, then I realised I had been playing for an hour and hadn’t looked up once- I knew the crowd was feelin’ it because I could hear them, but I said to myself “Don’t miss this!” “Look up!” So I looked up and there was just this sea of people and they were going mad – that was the money-moment- I knew I had them. From then on it was pure bliss and nothing else. I am hoping for a repeat, and I have my fingers crossed!

The YouTube clip to your track “Late Night Jam” has a picture of Berghain on it, and it does seem to embody the sound of the club as well as any other track – do you know the clip I’m talking about?

Yeah, I know the one. 20,000 hits! That’s pure insanity. I don’t know who posted that, someone involved with Ostgut-Ton promotion I think. I am really happy they did, as it actually really promoted that track. God, If I could sell half that many records (laughs) I’d buy my Mom a car, for my father and step-mother an island holiday, and I’d get my sister a trip to Europe to hang out with me and go to one of my gigs too!

Do you ever make tracks with certain clubs in mind? What are the things that inspire you to make music?

No, just doing what comes to mind each time. I have no club residency so I don’t have stylistic obligations per se… I don’t think anyone really does though, but I am unable to speak from specific experience because that route has not become me yet. There are many different ways to make music, and I find that approaching it with an open mind and no specific intention helps… Experimenting as you go along, just dicking around, that is the spiritually rewarding aspect of music making and my favorite part. It’s good for the soul. If I could live in a remote region on this planet I absolutely would, and I’d be a world class recluse- a mad scientist.… But as far as music, regarding the approach- If you write a melody first with a piano line or something, you are likely to yield a B-Side cut. If you start out with some drums first, then you will probably end up with an A-Side. Do it all. Believe in yourself and your vision and never give up.

And who are you feeling at the moment, in terms of other artists?

UQ. I hate to call my own first, but, we have so much fun going back and forth and I find it very inspiring to share these dialogues with each other. They are just the best colleagues and friends a guy could want. Qu, Ed, Fred and Anthony, you know….I’m just very fortunate. And the Ostgut Crew too – they have a nice little dialogue going with our Underground Quality family. We have different styles, the NY and Berlin peeps have different ideas I think but there is something there that binds us: dance music. Sweaty, sensual dance music. And basslines. Do you know how important a bassline is? And yet there are so many records without actual note-based basslines- I hear entire sets like this. It’s crazy. I can’t really say there’s a thriving house scene to speak of in New York, there are pockets of passionate new kids and the old school heads still all know each other… As far as those Ostgut guys, Ben and everyone-well, when guys like Prosumer or when Tama Sumo includes us in their lists of people they are feeling, it gives us attention from other European cities. People in Europe trust that Berlin crew and look to them for influence. Shed and Marcel Dettmann charted my first Novel Sound record, and actually I think that was the spark that ignited interest very early on, and it allowed me to gain the success I have now. I do wish our word carried as much weight, in order to return the admiration with the same results- But, I believe in due time it will. We are a strong group of colleagues with minds and spirit and we are unstoppable. We are infiltrating global consciousness with calculated precision and also with emotion and warmth. My favorite specific DJ at the moment is London-based Lakuti. She scours the web and she’s always on Discogs buying up the rare classics and more than half her sets are classic house records you might remember from your youth, but probably never knew the titles or artist names. Or even if you never heard the records specifically, it reminds you of those times and that sound. I love her DJ style, she is a true spirit and she shines bright on the decks.

“We are a strong group of colleagues with minds and spirit and we are unstoppable. We are infiltrating global consciousness with calculated precision and also with emotion and warmth”

What’s coming out next?

I’ve got the Novel Sound releases for 2011 pretty much locked in my head, ready to be made. I’ve got some new sounds worked out, I’ve found my way to musical progression in that the sounds are a little more evolved. It’s likely to be perceived as subtle growth for the listener but huge for me. I have these sounds I developed over 20 years and I just keep polishing them, chipping away at my personal library. I’m sitting on about an hour and a half of new material, but I will probably not have it ready to put down on wax for at least six months. I think I’ve got four or five strong tracks, and I’ll try them out at Berghain, there’s one in particular that I’ve got a good feeling about – I think the dance floor will shit themselves! I hope. (laughs). There won’t be any personal releases this year though. Actually- that’s not true: I’m doing one on my other label, Deconstruct. Deconstruct #4 will be the next thing, it has featured on Ben Klock’s new Berghain mix, but I still have to mix it down to be cut to vinyl, hmmm and I need to come up with a nice B-Side. I’d say it will be out after summer. I’ve also got a Jus Ed remix coming out in September, and I contributed a track to Fred P’s next Earthtones EP. But Novel Sound is on hiatus.

You’ve spoken about releasing your music digitally eventually, is that still the case?

I’m going to do it, but it’s at the bottom of my pile at the moment. I mean, it’s at the bottom of the list. But- I’m not a businessman! And there are only so many hours in a day for administrative work. I would prefer to spend my time making music. It just seems like a better life than going into business with more and more companies and people I don’t know. I am almost never happy when I work with people. It saddens me at times, that I am not able to personally work with too many others. I have to have known them for years first.  We all have things we are working on personally, one of my issues is that I don’t work so well with others. I am nice enough to people and I genuinely like them, but I spend a lot of time in daily life feeling like an alien creature, second-guessing every social interaction in real-time. I don’t even like to do interviews or podcasts, so you can imagine I am not looking to jump into bed with some gigantic digital store or distro. But it will come one day. I think I’ll have it up and running within five years.

Let’s move back for a minute, to find out how you got to where you are today. What was your first experience that informed you that music was your passion?

I’ll tell you a story, when I was growing up I had a piano in the house, and one of my earliest memories is sitting down and playing this piano with my fists. I’d just bang away and I loved it, it was all rhythms more or less, just hitting the piano keys. My uncle was a pianist, and I remember when he took my hands in his, and he spread my fingers and pressed my hands down and I struck my first chord. C Major. It felt like I had kicked a hole right in the sky! That was my first introduction to the power of a triad.

And how did you get into electronic music?

I had a Casio SK1 – I remember there was a TV advert for them that hooked me. There was this little mini keyboard, there was this guy with the Casio on his leg and this dog comes up to him and starts barking. He samples the bark and starts playing a melody from the sound the dog made. Well my mother didn’t get any peace until I had one of those (laughs). When I was 13, I decided I wanted a sampler. We went to Sam Ash in Times Square. The cheapest one was like $11,000!!! I started begging the shop for private instruction, you know- if you can get it for a piano, why can’t you get it for a sampler!? No dice. A few years later I got my first pro gear, the Ensoniq EPS16 . The Ensoniq was amazing when it worked, but that model was notorious for breaking down. It had modulation capabilities that were very advanced and in some ways it could rival most samplers available today.

Tell us about how growing up in New York affected your musical path…

Well I liked the radio… I was 12 when “French Kiss” blew up, it only took me a few years more and I was going to the clubs. Limelight was a big one for me. By 15 I was in that club every Friday and Wednesday. I had heard about The World and the Red Zone, but I was too young to get in to them. But I had mixtapes. Back then, you were to be able to get DJ cassettes on the street. Kind of like how podcasts are everywhere now. I also went rollerskating too, that was big, these all-teen skating nights at the roller rink, a lot of proto-freestyle on proper soundsystems… Arthur Baker productions, John Robie etc… and “running”, “silent morning” and “pop density” too. Some corny stuff, but even the corny stuff had amazing beats! I’d be up there harassing the DJ, requesting tracks left right and centre. I had no idea how to respect a DJ back then, I didn’t know how annoying requesting records could be until 20 years later… but he was a patient and cool guy, and a good DJ too. Actually there is a record that was a “hit” back then by an English synth band called Secession, and I have been trying to cover it ever since. I have tried five vocalists so far, but I always hit a brick wall trying to get this project together. I have some like that, “Late Night Jam” took about three or four years to make. I hope one day to get this pop song produced though, it’s completely brilliant songwriting, on the level of Phil Spector or Velvet Underground.

“I wanted to understand what was happening to me, why I was deeply affected by certain pieces of music, and why music gave me such exquisite experiences”

And when did you get your first DJing experience?

When I was a teenager I worked at a restaurant as a dishwasher, it was my first proper job actually. I worked at Tower Records on Broadway downtown then during the daytime too. The restaurant was around the corner from CBGBs, on 2nd Ave and 5th St. On Mondays I’d go over there and they throw a house party at CBGB. I’d clean up everything afterwards too. I was about 16 when I had my first experience on a dance floor and I was hooked. A few years later I was playing at Limelight. Everyone in the business seemed to know me, I was young enough for people to be patient and tolerate my constant questions and over-eagerness – usually. I definitely asked a lot of questions, and I wasn’t afraid to annoy people if they had some type of knowledge I wanted (laughs) So I got practice from an early age, and I knew who to talk to and all that. I was having minor successes here and there until I was 21 or 22, and then (Rudy) Giuliani became Mayor. The first thing his administration managed to accomplish was to shut down the city’s nightlife. It happened pretty much overnight. Suddenly I had no more gigs.

So what happened from there?

Well I took a negative and tried to turn it into a positive. It’s funny how life works out, but after messing around for a year without much success, just, existing aimlessly… I was 21, and the music thing was not quite happening for me. I was still young enough not to feel committed to any one path in life. New York was dead overnight, I couldn’t get a gig anywhere, so I made a very good decision and went to university to study. It was a big move for me as both a human and a musician. Back at school, my saving grace was the theory side of things. I was one of the worst performance-wise but I was one of the most passionate when it came to music theory, and writing with software, and the teachers loved that. I wanted to understand what was happening to me, why I was deeply affected by certain pieces of music, and why music gave me such exquisite experiences. And now I know this, and I try to pass it on to the listener.

What kind of things did you learn during your study?

I learned classical theory applied to production – like what guys who do film scores study. Music is a dialogue, a language, and now I can speak that language, and I have some idea as to how to share these experiences with people through the music I make. But don’t get me wrong- I’m always learning – I don’t even know 5% of what’s possible to know about music.

It’s interesting you say that, because I noticed that one of your releases, the “Medium is the Message”, seems to be named after a famous quote from media theorist Marshall McLuhan…

Ah yes. It’s funny, I was talking to someone recently about digital versus vinyl, and they said that because digital music eliminated the whole presentation and physical element, it made the music more pure. But that side of things, the artwork, the concept and the presentation of visual- it never was just music to me. So my response was, the medium is the message. So the name of that track is my two cents on the vinyl format- my personal favorite. For what we are doing, the medium and image does in fact rival the music in importance. Hmm… or it’s a close second anyway…

You had a few aborted attempts at releasing music through your own labels, can you tell us about that? How did you react to the initial failures?

Well, I ran a label called More Music, but I destroyed most of those releases at the pressing plant a long time ago. If the music was actually good the remaining records would be worth something… they are very rare- but that doesn’t make them necessarily valuable (laughs). I pressed up 500 each time and there are probably only 50 of each left. At that time, I had served my apprenticeship as a DJ, but I had no training in running a record label. So I just made it up as I went. I would press them up and send them out, and hope for distribution or licensing. I remember one distributor saying, “This sounds like old house music, what do you expect me to do with this?” I’ll never forget that.

How did things turn around for you then?

I was giving Ed tracks every now and then, and he’d take them over and spin them at Fabric. I had given up on the label thing, but Ed said, it’s all coming back, this kind of sound. So he’d come back from Fabric and other gigs and he was saying, ‘you’ve gotta give this one more try’. Thank God for DJ Jus-Ed. He said he’d put in a word with his distributors. It was in September 2008 when the first Novel Sound release came out. I broke even for the first time too! I didn’t lose money this time. I was like, ‘I can actually do this’. I wasn’t even thinking about getting international gigs at that point. But it was amazing, I put out a record and made enough money to put out another record. Before that I had five vinyl releases and lost money on all of them. And now, on this day, life is a peach! Life is going well and I hope I can continue. I feel very lucky and very blessed. Now I will just stay focused and give every little thing I have to my craft, and if I’m fortunate enough, people will also like it. That would really be great.

Picture credits: Jordan Poling

Interview: Aaron Coultate