Interview - François Kevorkian on beginnings, inspirations and love of music
We talk to the influential New York DJ as before he plays Melting Pot's twelfth birthday
This article is from 2013.
To celebrate their twelfth Birthday, Melting Pot have invited François Kevorkian to play their 350-capacity home, The Admiral. More familiar with playing much larger venues, this will be a rare occasion to experience the legendary New York DJ in such intimate surroundings. Counting nearly four decades of involvement in music, Kevorkian has played at some of the world’s most famous clubs, including Paradise Garage, Studio 54, Ministry of Sound, Tresor and Fabric. He’s also remixed and produced a host of bands and artists including Yazoo, Jah Wobble, U2, Depeche Mode and Yello, and recorded a number of tracks for Wave Music, the eclectic label he established in the mid-90s.
François is also famed for his residency at Body & Soul, alongside Danny Krivit and Joe Claussell and for his own weekly club night, Deep Space at New York’s Cielo. The List asked him a few questions before his upcoming Glasgow appearance.
You started your career in music as a drummer. How and why did you make the change to become a DJ and how useful was your experience playing drums in helping you gain an understanding of how to mix records?
Back in the mid-70s, I soon found out there was a glut of over-qualified professional musicians vying for every little job in New York City. On the other hand, and from watching other DJs at that time, I figured that given my musical training it would be a very easy thing to do, so, I tried my hand at it, went for a few auditions and quickly got hired by a few clubs to do this. I actually played my first gig without having ever practiced on a real mixer with headphone cueing before, but it felt pretty easy, as I had been around a number of amazing DJs who were technically at the top of their game.
You later began to make tape edits as a DJ. Who or what inspired you to do this and how easy did you find teaching yourself? What did you want to achieve with the edits and how do you feel it helped you begin remixing for Prelude Records?
I just wanted to have things to play that no one else had, which would give me a competitive edge when doing DJ battles. Having watched Walter Gibbons perform amazing feats cutting up the breaks of certain records live, and being able to remember what he did, I started by doing a few things that more or less reproduced what he was doing. From there it developed into doing medleys and more elaborate things of my own. This came in handy later when I was asked to go into the studio to do proper remixes, as I already had a good grasp of how to plot a song structure, or make pieces while mixing in the studio and editing them together later at my leisure.
I read that you founded Axis Studios in New York the mid-80s - as music production facilities weren’t suitably equipped studios for recording electronic music - and ended up attracting a number of pop artists. How influential do you think Axis was when it was first established? What kind of impact did your involvement have on your DJing?
This past year saw MIDI officially become 30 years old. It’s now taken for granted, ubiquitous and present everywhere as a standard add-on to every operating system and multimedia device. Back in those days it was specialized to electronic music, and very few people knew how to leverage its ability to synchronize, layer and sequence music in very powerful ways. This sort of technology was what our studio started offering from the beginning, and it attracted many people who appreciated all of this being integrated into the nerve centre of a production facility rather than as a mere peripheral add-on.
We count among our clients many world-class producers and remixers like Teddy Riley, Shep Pettibone, Clivilles & Cole, Danny Tenaglia and countless others who all took full advantage of having a place where all of this stuff was built-in, instead of having to set-up a mountain of rental gear to set up for every session they would come to.
I actually stopped DJing in 1983 due to too many commitments for production work but got tired of running the business and management side of Axis, so this probably helped prod me to return to being behind the decks again.
You have a weekly, dub-influenced Monday night club in New York. How important is it to you to have a weekly residency, not only in your home city but also to you as a DJ? Do you feel residencies still have a role to play for established DJs at a time when so many travel internationally?
For me, Deep Space NYC has been an anchor, I am incredibly thankful for the privilege of having been given a weekly musical home at Cielo every Monday night. The club’s acoustics are truly wonderful, which is something most other clubs only pay lip service to. Consequently, I never feel the need to play very loud there, and it makes for a really different sort of experience to what most other venues are like. This enables me to play music in a way that keeps the sound crystal-clear, and to take far more chances than when playing at a normal club, where most of the time things are about a lowest-common-denominator approach of what’s the most banging which tends to keep the atmosphere a bit one-dimensional.
What I have every Monday is therefore a real blessing, and for me a way to keep my musical sanity as I can truly play anything I want, across the board. I don’t know what I’d do without it, and it’s been a way to train a home crowd to develop our own flavour and identity through music. That being said, I think that – with a few exceptions - residencies are a quaint thing of the past for most punters these days; the public is far more used to seeing a different name on a club banner every week, so in a sense it feels a bit anachronistic as well.
You also have another New York residency alongside Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit at Body & Soul, with the broad range of styles played at it, both in your home town and internationally. How much does it truly reflect your approach as a DJ?
Body & Soul is something that we started out of love for music and dancing, and even though it’s grown to be a big international phenomenon - we stopped weekly parties in 2002, but carry on special events all over the world as well as in NYC - we’ve never forgotten the basics of what made it so special to us 17years ago; a party where every style of music is welcome, along with no dress code policy or attitude at the door, so pretty much anyone can and does come in. One of the most significant things for me there is that, as DJs, we play together as a team, rather than doing separate sets. It’s a very special and fun chemistry and something quite unique where the focus isn’t so much about what we manage to do individually, rather what we can accomplish together. This of course includes the audience who participate quite a lot, whether singing many songs’ lyrics or dancing up a storm and giving us massive amounts of energy.
You’ve been a DJ across four decades. For you, what have been the most significant changes over this time? Also, what keeps driving you forward after so many years involvement?
Some changes I am not so keen on, not so much related to the music, more regarding those who to go parties nowadays. Many people don't seem to always respect the musical vibe itself. At times it really feels like it’s merely an accessory and at certain parties, people seem far too distracted texting and taking pictures to really lose themselves in the groove. Historically, this is the very thing that DJs have thrived on helping their audiences do. At other times we do still manage to connect and celebrate our joyful love of music but it’s not a given, especially in the light of evermore commercial trends for people to latch onto.
As far as what keeps driving me on; exciting new innovations such as dubstep and in ‘bass music’ do provide a fresh thrill but generally, it’s the endless quest for killer tunes amongst jazz, reggae, cosmic rock, Afrobeat or other releases that keeps me interested. The discovery of some truly awesome music I didn’t know about is one of the greatest joys I keep experiencing.
François Kevorkian guests at the Melting Pot Twelfth Birthday at The Admiral, Glasgow, Sat 2 Mar