Dorian Concept— “I realized that the biggest challenge for me would be to do something simple.”

Words by laurenmartin

If you were involved in the late 2000s ecosystem of auteuristic European hip-hop labels like Kindred Spirits, Nod Navigators, LuckyMe, and Arkestra Discos, there’s a fair chance you came across Dorian Concept’s YouTube videos. The Austrian producer’s single-shot uploads focused squarely on his fingers, which flickered back and forth across the keyboards of his microKORG and Casio SA-21 synthesizers. The clips are still absorbing displays of memory, improvisation, and trickery that enthrall keyboard nerds—and they’re also a cool-as-hell way to see hip-hop played live.

Today, Ninja Tune released his second LP, Joined Ends, but it’s not a throwback to those one-man keyboard days, which we documented in a past SLICES feature. Instead, it’s a pleasingly cohesive journey through downbeat hip-hop, jazz, and lopsided pop that simmers with life. We caught up with Dorian Concept to talk about playing live, his self-taught skills, and how being from Austria taught him how to think about hip-hop.

What have you been doing in the years between When Planets Explode and Joined Ends?

DC: I still had my solo live show; built around me improvising on the microKORG, mostly over backing tracks through my laptop. By 2011, though, I’d saved enough from all the shows to step up my set-up, as it were. I invested in some new gear.

What did you buy?

This whole journey started with the Moog Prodigy. For a long time, the microKORG has been the budget, universal synthesizer—indie bands use it, but so does Pharrell Williams. I’ve got a great history with it, but the Prodigy is different. It’s an older synth, one that I associate with older jazz and funk artists like Herbie Hancock, and electronic music production from the 80s. Having a vintage instrument has really helped me to rearrange my head musically.

What is it about the Prodigy that helped with writing Joined Ends?

On the one hand, there’s this charm to the limitations of older gear. The modern way of working with soft synths on your computer has become so simple: switch through presets, scroll through the history of synths with a few clicks. With my history as a keyboardist, it’s very important for me to actually own the instrument rather than replicate it. I’m intrigued by what gets lost in the process. The things that become a bit more complicated with the analog approach, and the culture attached to it.

I find Joined Ends to be a much less frantic and club-orientated listen than When Planets Explode

Looking back at my earlier material, I realized that the biggest challenge for me would be to do something simple. Once I had the arrangements going, I managed to hide the franticness in the tracks. The complexity and layering has to do with a kind of density, or loudness. It feels weird because, while the tracks may feel mellow, there are these layers tucked into it all. I still have that energy in me, but it’s now about my weird way of controlling it.

But surely that energy is already “contained” in a way, if it’s all just you?

I’m definitely aware of and have accepted the fact that the whole keyboardist thing is a real hook for me. I’m definitely not shy about my skills. It’s something I have fun with doing, but it’s also used to separate me as a performer and me as a producer. I’ve been trying to reconnect the two with how I was self-taught through my love of jazz. To be honest, I think it’s that I’m now old enough to be sentimental for the first time in my life.

What were you sentimental for?

I realized that I grew up with downbeat music in Austria—people recording a Rhodes loop, and having a hip-hop instrumental with it, was my first exposure to hip hop—even though it was basically Austrian lounge music.

What’s particularly Austrian about that style?

The Viennese… when you look at the city and its creatives, there’s this introverted energy. We have Christian Fennesz, who’s this very unique character in ambient music. He lives in Vienna. And there’s the work of film director Michael Haneke: dark and macabre, close to reality and then not at all at the same time. I think it comes down to the fact that the city isn’t exactly overwhelming.

There’s very little struggle for the Viennese. You don’t feel the energy from outside as much and because people need friction, you begin to struggle within yourself a lot more. Vienna is the birthplace of psychology, after all. That’s why the album is built on more introverted energy. Working with struggles within, rather than without.

How did that work itself into how you feel about hip-hop?

I think I was so drawn to hip-hop production because as much as I love jazz, it’s a much “busier” sound. Hip-hop found that loop. When you listen to jazz there’s often that one segment of the song that you think, “That’s it.” Hip-hop notices that energy. It’s interesting that the hip-hop loop happened through technical limitation.

The reason the album is called Joined Ends is because of the craftsmanship it takes to find that right loop. Its something I feel that I’m reconnecting with—finding the energy in repetition, in the beauty and the simplicity of having the right segment forever, you know?  I’ve always felt there was certain bravery in doing something not overly spectacular and bright. You don’t even need to work within certain tempos or clear rhythms to make it hip-hop. It’s more about the hip-hop mindset of discovery.  I wanted to try and tame that on Joined Ends by positioning myself as the sole reference point.

If you’re knowingly creating a body of work to be sampled for your own album, that’s something of an inversion of the standard hip-hop approach.

Well, yes. Because I knew I was going to sample only myself, I went into it with a different state of mind than, say, what Mala did on his Mala In Cuba LP. When those musicians were being recorded, they were divorced from the final product. For me, once I had the loops down, I tried not to cause any outward tension. I have a weird internal chaining system that’s hard to explain. I wanted to have you look at the credits, only see my name, and be surprised.