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Matt Karmil – Tessellation and Repetition

With two distinct albums out already this year, a prolific and very content Matt Karmil has plenty to discuss.

Matt Karmil is sat in what appears to be a cupboard, grinning from ear to ear. There’s little in the way of natural light, and he’s surrounded by the kind of pipe work you’d expect to find in a boiler room. For the next few weeks, this tiny space – a small studio inside a larger complex in Gothenburg – will be his home.

“I sleep here when I’m working here,” Karmil tells me. “It’s nice enough, but I know a lot of friends my age are surprised that I can sleep on a mattress, in a cupboard. But I want to do music, that’s it.”

To say that Karmil has “suffered for his art” would be a bit over-dramatic, but it’s certainly true that his story is unusual by the standards of underground electronic music. He taught himself to play classical guitar as a teenager while off school suffering from post-viral fatigue syndrome and Epstein-Barr virus, conditions that resulted in intense, flu-like symptoms for six or seven months a year. He then moved to Scandinavia to “live in a forest”, before heading back to London and getting work as a session player and jobbing studio engineer. This resulted in credits on all manner of rock and pop records.

“It was an amazing education to work with the people I did, and learn studios and techniques,” he says. “Being a bit of a nerd, I used to stay behind at night at everyone had gone home, trying out different hardware and combinations of equipment.” Karmil admits he wasn’t that interested in pop music, but stuck with it because of these benefits, adding, “I didn’t have the confidence to push myself forward as an artist, or tell people about the music I really wanted to make.”

Karmil had always produced his own music, and spent much of his twenties as a jobbing DJ around London. After turning 30, he decided the time was right to follow his dream of becoming a solo artist.

“I realised I’d been making tons of music,” he says. “But I didn’t have any context or confidence to develop, or approach labels. I’d always thought ‘that’s not for me, I just do it for fun’. After turning 30 I began to think that maybe I could do it if I focused a bit, and really changed things.”

So he did just that, moving to “quite an alternative place” in Cologne. While there, Karmil committed to living “super cheap”, and began to make connections with some of the other musically-minded residents and their extended circle of friends. This in turn led to friendships with Barnt, Popnoname’s Jens Uwe Beyer, and “some of the guys who run Kompakt”. It was through Beyer and his partner Gesine that he was introduced to Areal and International Records Records (IRR) boss Ada, a meeting that changed his life.

“Jens told me to play Ada some of my music, so I did,” he says. “She heard a couple of tunes, asked me what label they were on. I replied: ‘none’. She asked what labels I normally release on, and I told her that I’d never had any of my music out. So, she asked if I had any more tracks, and I told her I’d got ‘about four or five hundred’.” Her request to release some of Karmil’s music was met with an instant and enthusiastic handshake.

Ada was as good as her word, and in the autumn of 2013 Karmil’s solo debut, Reverse Peephole, hit record stores. In hindsight, it was a remarkable debut. The title track, in particular – a dusty deep house groove that morphs into a throbbing, bass-heavy anthem midway through – caught the imagination of DJs, dancers and label owners around the globe. Suddenly, the producer who had “no confidence” became one of house and techno’s most in-demand men.

“I assumed, incorrectly, that people like Tim Sweeney and (Idle Hands boss) Chris Farrell would just think I was some pop-producing know-nothing, and be dismissive,” he says. “I felt like I had to hide what I’d done previously. I was amazed that people whose radio shows and labels I liked were so positive and supportive.”

Over the last two years, Karmil has released a string of fine EPs, each markedly different to its predecessor. Contrast, for example, the loved-up disco-acid bliss of “So You Say (Dirty Tapeheads Mix)” on Beats In Space, with the ultra-deep, leftfield house shuffle of “I Freeze” on Yume, and the woozy pulse of “Kiss & Make Up” on Endless Flight with the hissing, off-kilter analogue funk of his Play It/Do It/Say It EP on Idle Hands. While there are constants throughout his work – dusty textures, extensive use of loops, and clever sample manipulation – Karmil’s calling card thus far has been his subtle eclecticism.

“I’ve struggled with eclecticism quite a bit,” he ponders. “If you’re a producer who makes records that are compatible with each other, it’s easier to fit into particular clubs or situations. In a way, I’d love to be able to make records that are homogenous in that way, and have a very pure aesthetic focused on one thing.”

When prompted as to the root of his dancefloor eclecticism, he offers a couple of different explanations. “I do move around a lot, and travel a fair bit,” he says thoughtfully. “My interests are also quite varied – not just musically, but also in terms of books and visual art.” Karmil tries to channel these influences into music production, stating his interest in “reflecting ideas from other forms of culture, turning visual or literary inspirations into sound effectively.”

Karmil also believes his working methods play a role in the wide-ranging nature of his house and techno productions. “I do flow myself into periods where I make the same kind of track for three or four weeks,” he admits, adding some musical ideas have been on the boil for many years.

“Some of those I’ve taken into different contexts, sped them up or slowed them down, and tried different versions. There are harmonic movements and vibes from older tracks that I’ve tried in different ways,” Karmil tells me, comparing his methods to a flow chart. “That’s how I do it, taking something and developing it, using themes and variations. When I hit on something and I think it’s good to go, it’s finished.” This, he amusingly states, “can take 20 minutes, or 20 years.”

Nowhere is this approach more obvious than on his full-length excursions, the third of which, ++++, recently dropped on PNN. In some ways, Karmil’s albums are his most impressive works. Freed of the pressure to serve up two or three tried-and-tested dancefloor numbers, he can work to a loose concept, explore one idea more deeply, or play around with subtle variations on a theme.

“I make these big board charts,” he says, flashing a large piece of cardboard covered in scrawled handwriting, Post-It notes and potential track titles in front of his webcam. “I use them to write down what I’m thinking, potential sequences of tracks, whether I’m being too repetitious, the project is following the shape I’m looking for, and so on.”

He points to the charts which reveal there were six or seven tracks he ended up not using on ++++, because they didn’t fit the narrative. “I’m still not sure whether they’ll form the basis of another album or not,” he admits. A faintly ridiculous statement for a man that has two albums to his name four months into 2016.

The approach he discusses can be seen in the dusty, deep, sample-based excursions that made up his quietly melodious 2014 debut album on PNN, —-, and the playful beat-scapes and sun-ripe electronics of his recent IDLE033 on Idle Hands. It is, though, most obvious on ++++, an album of hypnotic, almost minimalist experimental workouts created with a specific theme in mind.

“While making it, I got really into Escher, and started to think deeply about tessellation and repetition,” he says. “When you look at an Escher piece, you can’t hold both images in your head at the same time. They’re both there, but you can’t interpret both simultaneously.” This led to Karmil pondering the expectancy of where beats should be in a house or techno track, and the “subtle shifts that change your interpretation.”

Warming to his theme, Karmil gives a clear example. “Look at the opening track from the album, “Perfect World”,” he enthuses. “How you hear the vocal subtly changes, from ‘it’s a perfect world’, to ‘it’s an imperfect world’, via the ambiguous “world” in the middle.” He reveals he made three different versions of the track, with the kick in three different places, experimenting with different ideas. “That’s a simple example – there are more subtle variations of the same idea across the album.”

Certainly, there’s something a little unsettling and occasionally disarming about much of ++++. Over the course of nine mesmerizing tracks, Karmil variously touches on African-influenced percussion workouts (“AF”), sparse, Reichian synthesizer compositions (“Carry Her/Wave”), sludgy loop-ambience (“Crystals”, “Pulse”), and fuzzy, super-deep electronica (“If I’m Honest I Miss You A Little Bit”). As a riff on a theme goes, it’s mightily impressive, and does a great job in showcasing Karmil’s ability to wrestle the maximum amount of late night atmosphere from his vast – and still expanding – archive of samples.

“I have tons of samples that I’ve been floating around since I was 16,” he tells me, adding he’s memorized all the different needle drops, crackles and ambient textures in his head. “I listen to them occasionally, but when I think I finally have the right track to use one on, I then have to work out which MPC, sampler or .zip disk it’s on.” Then Karmil gets to work, “I’ll push the sample until it’s not interesting, then pull it back a bit. It’s all about taking things out of context.”

Karmil’s music-making process is complicated by his passion for living and working in different places. His vast collection of samplers and groove boxes is split between Germany, Sweden and the UK, and he now does much of his work with a stripped-back set-up that includes a laptop and a Teenage Engineering OP-1 keyboard. “It’s really small and you can do so much with it,” he enthuses. “It really does remind me of being 16 and having all of the limitations that go with having a four-track cassette recorder.”

Karmil’s passion for studio equipment is infectious. He’s able to talk at length, and in great detail, about a variety of obscure samplers and effects units, as well as the “amazing acoustics” of the studio he’s currently sat in. He’s particularly enthusiastic about reel-to-reel tape machines.

“You can really feel the vari-speed on these machines,” he says gleefully. “Every time you press stop, the tape player makes this great noise. It’s somehow a bit like vinyl – it has that thing of being a subtly different experience each time.” He compares them to a great human performer, “they will make errors, but they will be so subtle, and different every time.”

He’s clearly a firm advocate of the acceptable form of randomness that comes with using tape machines. He pauses for a moment, a broad smile lighting up his face. “You can probably see how happy I am thinking about it,” he says. “It really makes me very happy”.

Karmil certainly appears to love life right now, with the giddy enthusiasm of a teenager. It’s almost as if he’s a little punch-drunk as a result of the whirlwind nature of his recent solo success. “I feel like I’m only just starting,” he says cheerfully. “I’m excited about where I am, I want to visit more places, and I absolutely love DJing. I’m far from rich, but I’m one of the luckiest people in the World.”

Interview by Matt Anniss

Blurred Karmil portrait courtesy of Jack Day 

Black & White Karmil portrait courtesy of Manuel Schlindwein

Header image by Ilaria Pace based on artwork by Chris Yeates

Matt Karmil on Juno