There are not many artists who manage to define a particular era in music, and there are even fewer who know how to evolve beyond such achievements and find other creative paths down which to travel. We caught up with one of industries finest, Akufen, to learn more about his new EP, sampling tips and much more…
Photo credit: Petronille Gontaud-Leclair
1) Thank you for joining us today. How are you?
The pleasure is all mine and I thank you for the invite to speak. I’d like to think that I’m doing alright overall, considering the rather challenging and uncertain times we live in since last March. Although I must admit that the complete standby of performing arts events feels like an unforgiving cleaver for many artists, including myself, who made a living from touring. It’s definitely a major game-changer, but we’re in this together and I’m hopeful that we will overcome this situation in the end. Meanwhile, I’m taking things a day at a time, focusing on my family which keeps me grounded and helps me in embracing resilience.
2) I think it’s safe to say you are very selective with your releases and labels that you work with – how do you decide what labels are right for you?
I wasn’t always selective, to be honest. I had my fair share of unfortunate experiences, which made me grow eventually more cautious and more selective over the years. When you’re a newcomer, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation of spreading fast by releasing on as many labels as possible. Which is understandable. But to be fair, I had more pleasant experiences as my career blossomed. Nowadays I don’t release much, but the labels I choose to release on are the ones that I feel understand where I’m coming from and where I wish to go. In the end, I just wish to collaborate with good and reliable people and feel like I’m part of something greater than just a commercial output, Perlon being the finest reference I could cite. When I met Thomas, Markus and Chris in Montreal in 2000, we became friends at first and then I had the wonderful privilege to become a part of this family of fantastic artists and very lovely human beings, which is Perlon.
3) Your new EP on Onysia Records is another fine example of your work In the studio, What did you use to produce it?
First off, collaborating with Joseph at Onysia was a true pleasure and I salute his generosity and kindness. Joseph gave me complete freedom, which is a rare thing these days when you deal with labels. What I found exciting was his sustained enthusiasm, which is very similar to mine when I started. Now, I rarely if never discuss gear, tools and tricks. I think every musician in their own right and for their own good has to figure out for themselves what works best for them. There isn’t one way to do things, and the most effective one will always be your own. We never ask kids to list the type of crayons, paint, paper and glue they used for tinkering in school. All I could suggest is, try out all sorts of stuff, never restrain your imagination, don’t think of the trends and just play around and have fun.
And I had fun recording this one.
4) Your use of samples in your work is some of the best in the game and so distinctive. Any tips for upcoming producers when working with samples and crafting their sound?
Just be attentive and listen very carefully. Wherever we are in our daily lives, sounds surround us. The most insignificant noise can become a part of something beautiful and unique. Listen to them and what they are telling you. The art of sampling is partly intuitive and partly reflexive. In the end, you’ll figure ways to connect them and hear them converse.
5) It’s not very often you do interviews and you are very much famed for letting your music do the talking – do you think the media has become too much of a focal point around electronic music and artists?
I’m always glad to open up when I feel it’s relevant. Other than that I don’t feel the obligation to unnecessarily fill the corner of a page of some DJ magazine, to sell my mug, share my tricks and brag about my lifestyle, which isn’t very glamorous. I am as selective with journalists as I am with labels, and friends. The journalists I respected over the years have become friends. There is nothing wrong with the media becoming the focal point around electronic music and its players. What’s concerning is the focal point on the glitter rather than the music itself. I just despise the star rating, following and liking culture, and journalism in general which is validating and discrediting often without discernment. You’re either in the game or out of the game. Art is too personal to give it a thumb up or down. This is straight out of the Roman Empire playbook.
6) Back in your early years you were active in the scene in Montreal under many other aliases. What made you move to your Akufen sound?
So much! An insatiable appetite for music, films and books. Years spent in art school, and most of all, a constant need for change. The idea primarily behind the Akufen sound was to work from my intuition and subconscious. It was also very much inspired by the “automatic writing” and “cut & paste” methods, which was developed by the surrealists, the beat poets and the automatists collective in Canada in the forties and fifties. These techniques have been at the centre of my creativity since as early as my childhood. I have fond memories of meticulously crafting large collages of pictures cut from magazines and working with double tape decks in my bedroom, rather than playing with other kids outside. It’s about creating an unpredictable, and unique sound environment, and a story which leaves more room for personal perception and interpretation as it unfolds. I believe that my generation was lucky as we came at a time when everything was possible, and people were ready and all ears. You could throw a Tito Puente piece in a set and the crowd would go nuts. Today, there are too many politics and laws to embrace in order to fit in. There are still some oddballs out there who amaze me, but the music sales business has made their music less accessible to the general public, sadly.
7) You’ve graced your presence at some of the world’s best clubbing institutions and have seen many changes in our industry and clubbing landscape over the years – where do you see it going from here, particularly with the current situation having such a significant impact on venues and promoters?
I could not say honestly. We are all still in shock, trying to adjust to this new reality. Options and ideas will unfold as we start healing and getting our lives back to some kind of normalcy. The pandemic has put on the back burner all public music activities and I believe it will affect not only the scene but the music itself. I have a feeling that the music will evolve in unexpected and surprising forms, and it will be interesting to see how artists will adapt and overcome this situation. I for myself, don’t want to speculate much, I am not even sure that I will pursue my career on the road. I will, however, remain active as a musician, there is no doubt about that, but I’m contemplating other avenues such as film scoring, art installations in collaboration with artists from other fields. I might as well return to visual art and graphic design which I studied in school. It’s clearly a time for radical changes, and I’m hopeful we’ll figure something out. Having said that, we must not look back in nostalgia, because things will never be as they were. Clubbing or not, music will prevail, one way or another, and that’s what’s reassuring in a way.
8) Your live show is something which has brought a lot of attention. What is your set up for this and what made you want to move into a live setup?
I’ll be bluntly honest, playing live is what puts bread on the table for most of us. I was able to feed and provide shelter for my family and send my kid to school with touring. I am overly conscient of the luck I had to be able to travel doing the greatest job. It had its flaws at times, but overall I can only be immensely grateful. I’ve always made it a priority to be as generous and available as possible for those who support me and who will sometimes travel miles to hear me. So performing is not only a way of making ends meet but also a responsibility and an act of loyalty. Night after night you have to leave the rest behind and give your best, no matter how tired or sick you may feel. We must never forget that without the record labels and club owners, the promoters, bookers, agents and the public we wouldn’t have the privilege of doing what we love most. As for my set up, there’s not much to brag about, I use a laptop, a soundcard and a couple of controllers.
9) To stay so relevant for so long takes a lot of drive and passion. How do you push yourself to achieve your goals and keep creatively motivated?
I believe honesty and integrity were the main keys in remaining relevant, in my case. Being stubborn and uncompromising creatively comes at a high cost, but I agreed to pay that price at an early stage in my career, and I don’t regret it. I couldn’t live with myself otherwise. I rather enjoy a more modest success based on loyalty and which will last after I’m gone. What’s left of us, is what makes us immortal. Not in a glorious historical sense, but rather in a humble inspirational way, primarily for my daughter, and the generations to come. Not only as an artist but as a man of my times. No matter what you do, you got to have faith, you also got to have doubts, never take anything for granted, and be grateful for everything you got. I have to remain continuously.
Photo credit: Petronille Gontaud-Leclair
10) Where does 2021 take you? Do you have any new projects on the horizon you can tell us about?
In January, I launched “Ourway”, my new record label, introducing a first Akufen release which you can currently listen to and purchase online at Juno. The name of the label speaks for itself. I’m aware that starting a new label is a bit of a gamble right now, but I thought it was worth giving it a shot.
I finished recording the new Horror Inc. album last year, and I am in the process of discussing its release in 2021, on “Anoma”, a Montreal based label run by my buddy Ohm Hourani.
There is also a possible 20th Anniversary re-issue of “My Way” on the new label, but it has to be confirmed. As for the new Akufen album, it’s done, but I don’t see it happening until next year.
2021 isn’t gonna take us anywhere. We will have to take 2021 somewhere. Sadly, I had to let go of my studio when the pandemic started, and everything’s been sitting in boxes since July of last year. Relocalizing is complicated for now, but I have faith that I’ll find a new place when the social restrictions soften. As for now, all music work is on hold. Stay tuned, we will return after this pandemic.
Words by Jordan Diston