François Kevorkian may have been born in France, but he’s inextricably linked with the sounds of New York disco and house. Coming up with the likes of Larry Levan and David Mancuso at such dance music institutions as the Paradise Garage and Studio 54, his nearly forty years in the city that never sleeps saw his star rise quickly as a producer and remixer, working with artists as diverse as Loleatta Holloway, Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, while also becoming a revered DJ at his Body & Soul party, held together with veteran selectors Joaquin “Joe” Claussell and Danny Krivit. Having celebrated his sixtieth birthday this year, Kevorkian could easily rest on his laurels. Instead he has taken his now eleven-year-old dub-inflected clubnight Deep Space at Cielo in Manhattan to new heights. Here, for the uninitiated, François K takes you to Deep Space in his own words.
This is the extended version of the text that appeared in the Summer issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. To read a Covering Tracks: Deep Space Special, go here.
Throughout my career, especially when I started going in the studio somewhere around 1978, I found myself very attracted to a lot of production techniques that clearly came from people using a lot of effects processing and delays and things. Whether it was more like traditional dub records from Jamaica or experimental records that came from krautrock in Germany, or whether it was some of the avant-garde free jazz that incorporated elements of tape music, like the Teo Macero productions of Miles Davis. All of these things, they had a confluence: astute producers were making heavy use of electronic music production techniques to enhance the live playing, whether it would be jazz, reggae, rock or whatever else. It was immediately clear in my work in the studio, and I became quickly known for being one of the people within the “dance music’”or “disco” world who could deliver the trippy elements and exaggerated processing.
Others were great at extended versions of songs or transforming them into something that had more muscle for the dancefloor. For me, it was that dub element—be it more electronic, like my work with Yazoo, Kraftwerk or Jean-Michel Jarre, or on a more traditional reggae tip, like with Black Uhuru, Jimmy Cliff, or Bunny Wailer. I could work within a pop context, too, like when I did dub versions for Mick Jagger, Diana Ross and Foreigner. But for the people who were hiring me to do these remixes, this idea of the dub was always the thing on the side, rather than the main A-side version they were normally after. Obviously I was getting hired to do a specific thing for people, even though in some instances I just turned out a dub version and said, “There’s no vocal, that’s my mix.” I did that for several big acts who accepted it and put it out, like The Fatback Band and Midnight Oil—I ended up producing them after that.
Then, in the early 2000s, I was approached by the owner of Cielo, Nicolas Matar, and he offered me a night. We were close friends, and being a DJ himself, he dug what I was doing. It was pretty much with the understanding that it was going to be something related to house music. I think they were really surprised when I came back and said, “First of all, I don’t want to do a big night, like the weekends. I want to do something as obscure and out of the way as possible. Monday sounds great.” Because when you do that, you’re guaranteed that the big weekend crowd and fist-pumping advocates are going to be at home getting ready for their job the next day during the week.
In the context of what the club looks like and how incredible everything is there—the soundsystem, the intimate setting that allows for a lot of seating around the dancefloor area for people not to feel awkward if they don’t dance—I figured I wanted to focus on trying to do something that was going to be totally unique and in some respect related to dub. Even though dub had been a very integral part of my career and what I was doing since the beginning, it was never an acknowledged thing. It was just like a bonus. But I felt it was the time for things to change. Instead of just starting another night where I would just be playing authentic Jamaican reggae from 1975 by Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, and Niney the Observer, it was more going to be about trying to showcase and connect the dots for people to incorporate that dub aesthetic into all sorts of different backgrounds. Or in conjunction with that, to take songs that would otherwise be very ordinary and to actually do whatever processing and treatment to them, sort of an abbreviated version of what I’m doing in the studio, but live and in front of people. Which is why it says, “François K live on the mixing board.” It’s not that I’m playing multi-tracks and doing remixes, but with technology today there are a great deal of things that are available in order to do things that are pretty close to that. And after having done a few thousand remixes and spent a few decades of my life in the studio, I have a basic understanding of what it takes to do it. There’s a real separation between the idea of DJing—i.e. playing records—and being in the studio where you’re fully making sounds from scratch. What I’m striving to do is show that those boundaries don’t exist; that you really should be able to do a little bit of all that while you’re in front of people.
Deep Space represented an opportunity to bring this to the forefront. We courted dub poets, DJs, or other artists who we felt were compatible with that aesthetic and somehow they’d accept and do, say, “special” sets around this point of view. In that sense, another turning point, even though we were already established, was somewhere around 2006 when we started hearing all of these rumblings from London and all these strange new types of music that no one had ever heard before, like Digital Mystikz and dubstep. It made sense to me right away, but the crowd took a little time to catch on. When I started championing that music it sent a lot of people into a tailspin—they thought that Deep Space had sold out because now we were playing this so-called crap dubstep. They weren’t used to it, they just wanted the smoothness of what they already knew. Until we actually proved that there were a great deal of people who wanted to hear this music I needed to get people’s ears used to that new sound. We became, in New York, a very significant supporter of many artists visiting from the UK or other parts that were very much into that dubstep sound. Because no one else wanted to book them, it was pretty easy for us to get almost anyone we wanted. People were just delighted that there was anyone in New York interested in giving them a chance to play. Most clubs just want to have house and techno. Ultimately, I’m trying to approach sets at Deep Space with a totally open mind. It’s really a matter of consciously aiming to create a certain amount of contrast because I think it’s really necessary in music, especially as everyone else is striving for uniformity and sameness. I think that my mission, my role, is exposing that, even if it means taking risks.
The evolution of what’s been happening at Deep Space has actually caused me to reconsider a lot of what I was doing previously as a DJ, music creator, and generally. It has made me realize how much I value improvisation, the instant of creation, that moment where you’re standing in front of a crowd and there’s thirty seconds left to play on the record. You haven’t yet decided what you’re going to play next, and you have to look through all of your records and find something and put it on, mix it in, and make it all sound effortless and entertaining. It’s an unbelievable amount of pressure. When that happens somehow you shed all the unnecessary baggage and what comes out is the one thing that you know you should be playing because, really, if you’re a DJ, you know what that is. Sometimes things that came from that voice were very crazy, completely strange, and totally odd. But if somehow I was going to be truthful about trying to be an artist, I needed to defer to that voice and not stay focused on logic. Showing that inner part of the creative process is what it is to be a DJ, for me. It’s still a work in progress. When you do stuff like this, you go in front of an audience and you don’t know what you’re going to do but that’s what’s honest about it. When I step in front of the crowd there, I am actually striving to give them my soul—not some pre-programmed, pre-packaged, pre-digested slice of predictable fodder that might make them feel good at that very moment, but they’ll have forgetten about ten minutes later. I’m going to give them something that might shock them, that might profoundly offend them, or make them feel uncomfortable, or totally thrilled, blissful, and in heaven. Deep Space definitely has been the vehicle that has allowed me to do this. ~
Published July 31, 2014. Words by Lisa Blanning.