Special K: Francois Kevorkian interview

When we’re discussing the early pioneers of disco and proto-house music it’s usually an origin story passed down over 40-odd years. We’ve made mythical characters out of Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, Ron Hardy and others, through retrospectives, talking head docs and two generations of house and techno producers paying their dues.

Francois Kevorkian, aka Francois K, is another one of these forefathers, but he bypasses the past tense discourse because he’s still on it every week, always on point, in the present. “I just think in general you have to be in touch with the moment,” he says over the phone from his New York home.

“I never think back so much on 10 years, 20 years, 30 years… or even the future. Maybe other people have big plans, but if you have big plans you’re constantly disappointed. If you don’t have no big plans it’s all positive.”

The French-born DJ and producer has been an integral part of dance music’s circuitry since he moved to New York in 1975 as a jazz drummer. His first club shows were playing along with DJ Gibbons, who would go on to inspire Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles and other late-70s DJs doing the heavy lifting for others to come.

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In a 40-year career, Kevorkian has been at every fork in the road – he was a guest DJ at Studio 54, Paradise Garage and The Loft, and remixed over 1,000 records including definitive versions of classics like Yazoo’s Situation, Pet Shop Boys’ Rent and Dinosaur L’s Go Bang!.

Kevorkian was the first outsider allowed into Ralf & Florian’s inner circle when he remixed Kraftwerk’s Tour de France in 1984, and mixed their 1986 LP Electric Cafe. He also mixed Depeche Mode’s greatest masterpiece Violator. His triple-CD compilation Masterpiece from 2008 is also an essential collection from the not-so-distant past when people still bought such things.

Back to the present though – Kevorkian is chatting to me the day after his latest Deep Space night in NYC – a weekly “adventure into future dub, spacey vibes and abstract grooves”. Deep Space is celebrating its 13th birthday next week, and even though Francois K’s name initially evokes house, techno, disco and synth-pop, he’s been inspired by the space within dub since the 70s. Kevorkian is a generous remixer rather than a rebuilder – he stretches tracks into shape-shifting hypnotic grooves without losing their essence. He doesn’t dominate. Just as he only took 10 minutes to re-edit the now classic Keep On by D-Train for the dancefloor, he works off his jazz intuition, cutting on the fly at Deep Space.

He says that “some things don’t change that much, like dub as an idea… it’s very clear that even back in the late 70s and early 80s there were these foundations… dub isn’t a strict Jamaican-only thing, just more of the state of mind or an attitude and sensibility that all guests at Deep Space have”.

This loose definition means Francois can spread his net wide – his latest guest at Deep Space was soul and house artist Manchildblack, but over the last 13 years he’s had Theo Parrish, Kode9, Hieroglyphic Being, Thomas Dolby and Jamie xx for starters – and acid house legend DJ Pierre is helping out at the 13th birthday. “We just try to invite people who we feel we have a special affinity with,” he says.

Kevorkian was almost laughed out of town when he brought over Digital Mystikz in 2006, way before dubstep warped into the so-called bro-step that’s been muscling into US EDM festivals the last few years. He says of the deeper initial dubstep sound of Mala and co: “Whenever you hear something exciting, I don’t know about you, but at least in my case I always act on instinct. When I hear something really exciting, ‘Is there any way to be part of that?’ To share some of that excitement, why not? That’s all it was.

“Even if it might take years for people to get it, people really pick upon that, they really understand that you were sincere, it’s not some business project. It’s like connecting because we love the same things. Even if we come from slightly different paths it still flows naturally. I’m always very content with that.

“Over the course of doing this, it slowly came to me that I preferred when there was a degree of improvisation or being very instinctive rather than doing things that are so planned out and written in advance. There’s nothing wrong with that — if I was doing a fashion show or a special event, I would have very specific sequences, but for the most part that’s not what I’m about.

“It’s better to try to offer people something that feels fresh and never will be repeated again. That’s the thing with a live event… you have the ability to do things on the spur of the moment. I try to go as instinctively and smoothly as possible.”

This lack of a master-plan or “just seeing what happens” is a recurring theme. He bats away high praise — modestly reducing his most high-profile 80s period between Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode as “one thing led to another”.

“Stuff happens because it happens,” he says. “After it’s happened it’s easy for people to sit back and say, ‘Well i knew everything was gonna be great’.

“I always see it as an opportunity to help out and contribute… the reason they’re calling is that they think I can help them out, that’s it. It’s a great opportunity  to learn stuff and be a part of some really cool things, like what are people capable of doing? I’ve always tried to gravitate around that instead of being gobsmacked by what certain people think is so cool to do. And the first time [with Kraftwerk] it was very natural and it just flowed… we just had 12 hours, there was really not much time for anything — just get the thing done, studio time was expensive at the time [laughs].”

“With Depeche Mode, it took quite a long time, it was very intricate and very detailed but I’m glad we took that time because later when we’re looking back it really is something I can be really proud of… it really stands up.”

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Even though Kevorkian’s path into dance music was through DJing, his A&R position with Prelude Records allowed him to use their studio for remixes. His re-edits of New York’s emerging dance tracks by Sharon Redd, Musique and Dinosaur L began a decade of full-on studio immersion, snowballing from cult disco edits to projects with The Smiths, early U2, Jean Michel Jarre, Depeche Mode and Scritti Politti.

“I didn’t have time to think about it because it was literally a decade that I spent more or less living in the studio. Literally,  I’m not kidding you,” he recalls.

“At that time there were no travelling DJs to speak of, everything was done locally with residencies. I had been travelling all over for work, a period in Sydney, then Germany, or weeks at a time in london and so on.There was no possibility to connect with the local scene, as it was necessary to be to be a DJ back then.

“I thought it was better for me to gracefully bow out rather than do stuff once in a while and not really be in touch with things that had developed. And things were developing very fast back then, 83-84. Then house music started, there was no standing still with music that was being produced so I decided it was more important to dedicate myself to being in the studio full time and focusing on that.”

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After years holed up in his Axis Studios, it started to become a real commercial enterprise, “not just for me, but for other people to book”.

He recalls: “It started anchoring me a little back in New York and I started going out again to other events and then listening to all these great records that were coming in the late 80s, it was very exciting.

“Some of them just drew me in, things like Deee-Lite or LFO or Sounds of Blackness, some early Nu Groove records, not even mentioning any of the big Transmat releases. All of it was very fresh, very new, and I liked that. So I started slowly doing like little parties for friends, for fun, no strings. And then as soon as I did that people had discovered travelling DJs so as soon as people heard I was playing I got quite a lot of offers from all over the place. That’s really how it started again.”

He laughs that he hasn’t really been balancing DJing and producing — with his legendary Body & Soul parties and Deep Space keeping him out of the studio, but he assures us he’s getting back on board with releases.

“As part of that cycle, I did it the other way round the last decade, I really haven’t been very busy in the studio because the travelling took me. I’m DJing so much, I mean it’s unbelievable. I didn’t have much inclination to dedicate myself to the studio, but that’s going to change in the next few months or a year or so, I’ve got a lot of stuff that i’m actively working on.

“There’s absolutely no question that I’m going to try to make time to doing a proper solo release that’s more than just  a single or two, but more of a musical statement. I’m sure the next few years are going to be really crazy busy because I can see the writing on the wall, the more you do that kind of stuff the more it has its synergy, I guess that’s what drives me.”

Kevorkian is all for the democratisation of music production, saying “new technology makes it very easy to get the basics happening”, before artists can move on to the business of getting properly inspired. When pushed for artists in his current sets, he drops Derrick May’s protege Karim on Transmat, who’s “in the techno realm”, and British house innovator Jamie Jones gets a shout out after Kevorkian caught him at a recent festival, saying “he had a really good groove going on… I was very impressed. One thing I like about some of the UK DJs I see, a lot of them seem to pick up on what I just call good groove kinda music, stuff that has soul and boogie elements rather than just the techno part.

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“There’s quite a lot of UK bass music I support, it sounds so sparkling. It can be very brutal and aggressive, but very deep and mesmerising. Like say, one artist I really like is Kryptic minds, dubstep-wise, and also Killawat, and of course a lot of stuff that’s coming out on Deep Medi, they’re curating their releases very well.”

In the meantime, Francois is playing the Sugar Club next week, and as we’ve gathered by now, his tunes are subject to change at any moment. He assures:  “I try to come to these gatherings with a pretty open mind, unless it’s going to be a house thing or a techno thing. Usually I don’t have a definite idea till I get there and get a sense of what the crowd is about. That usually works out pretty well for me, and I’ve been very lucky every time I’ve played in Ireland, it’s always been really really great.”