"Respect to Avicii! He's like the Omar-S of EDM," says Kornél Kovács over Skype from Stockholm. He explains that he once spent months trying to make a balls-to-the-walls, big-room track as a personal challenge—but gave up after several failed attempts. "[Avicii and Omar S] both use these really simple melodies, almost banal—try to recreate that, and you can't," Kovács continues. "Respect to those guys."
The 30-year-old DJ, producer, and Studio Barnhus boss may not be churning out full-throttle festival fodder, but he does have a track record of producing some of the quirkiest and most unforgettable dancefloor stompers in recent years—including the wonky house track "Szikra" (released on Studio Barnhus in 2014), and gloriously campy "Pantalon" (off his Radio Koko EP for Numbers in 2015). Kovács' ear for catchy hooks, along with his innate playfulness and desire to go beyond his comfort zone, culminates with his debut album, The Bells, out August 26 on Studio Barnhus—the Stockholm-based label he founded with his friends Axel Boman and Petter Nordkvist.
The Bells is a dizzying, kaleidoscopic, and rhythmically adventurous release—one that will likely cement Kovács' reputation as one of dance music's premier-league producers. Like much of Kovács' output, the album skews towards the unorthodox end of the house spectrum, but defies easy categorization. Its tracks are playful, multilayered and even a bit disorienting, with warm synth pads nestling up against spectral vocal samples, and delicate melodies swaddling rugged rhythms.
The title track's buoyant, stuttering melody and syncopated handclaps mask an eerie undertone, while the carnivalesque "Gex" has the feel of a carousel spinning off its sprocket. Even the relatively straightforward glitterball strut of "BB" comes with a gritty edge, like a light-up dancefloor cracked into shards by the stomping of countless platform shoes. It's a confident and idiosyncratic debut—the work of an artist who's not afraid to twist the tried-and-true templates of dance music to his own mischievous ends.
Among its many attributes, The Bells is imbued with a certain richness; these are left-field party bangers imbued with a wealth of feeling. Kovács cites an unlikely antecedent: the UK's ravetastic, 90s happy hardcore. "A lot of those tracks would have a really euphoric vibe," he explains. "But then, after a while, the dark part of the track comes in, with hard synth stabs and a minor key or whatever. I've always liked music like that—music that takes you from one place to another." While he acknowledges that happy hardcore's emotional impact is often hamfisted, they showed him how "more than one emotion, more than one idea, can be in a single track." The Bells is also draped in a warm distortion, a sound that Kovács says he likes quite a bit—even though it's become an overused crutch for many of today's dance music producers. "Sometimes when I listen to new dance music, you can tell that if you took away the distortion, it would be crap," he says. "It's like they're using to distortion to hide the fact that there's no real ideas and no real emotion there."
Born in 1985 in Stockholm to a musically-inclined family—his grandfather was a classical music composer in Hungary—Kovács was brought up with a formal musical education. He started singing in choirs when he was six ("the common way of adolescent music training in Sweden," he says), went to a music-oriented elementary school, and took piano and drum lessons as a kid. But, like approximately 75 percent of the electronic-music world, it was a certain quartet from Düsseldorf that sent him on his march towards clubland. "My parents liked Kraftwerk," he recalls, "and I was hearing that when I was still crawling around on the floor. That had a real impact on me."
At the insanely young age of ten, Kovács decided to become a drum and bass DJ. He got the idea from reading British dance music magazines at the public library, and quickly became a local novelty as "this funny, chubby little mascot" for Stockholm's small drum and bass scene—even managing to get a few bookings at cafés, youth centers, and the odd opening slot at a bar or club. "My mom would pick me up when they were done," Kovács says with a hint of nostalgia. "I even got paid once!"
After a few years, Kovács realized his dreams to become the next Goldie weren't leading anywhere, and his obsession with rapid-fire breakbeats faded. At the same time, the mp3 revolution was gathering force ("Napster was huge for me," he admits) and he began an intense period of downloading and listening to music, trying to educate himself in all kinds of genres. Kovács says hunting down pre-Internet track IDs from a mixtape he got from his dad—who had split from his mom and was living in Hungary at the time—was particularly influential in introducing him to a wider variety of sounds. "It had lots of weird stuff—hip-hop, dancehall, early electronic music, dub reggae and stuff like that," he relates. "It was important to me because I got it from my dad, and we lived in separate countries at the time—but also because it was just banging, and tied together stuff like Art Of Noise, Boogie Down Productions and Lee Perry in an interesting way."
Kovács attended high school at Stockholm's Musikgymnasium. "It was a nerdy school-orchestra vibe," he admits. "But really, I can barely play a chord; I quit piano classes when I was nine because I wanted to play handball with the cool kids in class instead." When he hit 18 and was old enough to start going out to clubs, his yen for DJing returned, this time accompanied by larger ambitions—namely, production. He dreamed about "being able to create those weird, alien sounds that I was hearing people play at the clubs," so he downloaded software and nabbed a few pieces of outboard gear in order to do so. "But it took quite a few years before I thought that I had anything of quality," he says. "Good ideas... but shitty execution."
Kovács's dissatisfaction with his work almost led him to give up his dream in the years after he graduated from high school. "I was still straining with learning production, and it was really frustrating," he admits. "[My friends] were all starting to get proper careers, while I was still just DJing all the time in Stockholm. I felt like I was stuck in a rut. What if music wasn't going to be my career? I actually was fantasizing about becoming a doctor."
In 2008, just as his anxiety was reaching a zenith, Kovács applied to the Barcelona edition of Red Bull Music Academy, and was accepted. "That was super-inspiring," he says, "not so much in what I actually learned, but in terms of meeting young, like-minded people who felt the same aspirations and frustrations as I was." When he returned to Stockholm from Barcelona, Kovács decided to look for a studio and found a space that was big enough for three people. He decided to get in touch with a pair of Stockholm acquaintances, Axel Boman and Petter Nordkvis, whose music he admired. "I had been a big fan of the stuff that Petter had done with James Holden's label Border Community a few years before, and I was also digging Axel's new tracks that he was just starting to put out," Kovács says. "I asked them if they wanted to do it—and we ended up becoming best friends really quickly."
In 2009, Studio Barnhus—named after its location on Barnhusgatan, or "Orphanage Street"—sprang into being. Clubs began to book the trio under the same name, and in 2010, the crew took the next logical step: putting out a record of their own music, "just to see if it could be done," Kovács says. The fledgling Studio Barnhus label's first release was Good Children Make Bad Grown Ups, a mini-compilation featuring one track each by Kovács, Boman, and Nordkvist, as well as a fourth by a mysterious producer named Gino Bomino, who Kovács claims is "a friend who hails from the old, traditional Italian edit-maker family, the Bominos." Kovács's contribution "Baby Step," with its syncopated rhythms and sampled pop-song vocal, is a relatively straightforward deep-houser in comparison to The Bells—but it was quirky enough to hint at the ebullience of his later productions.
In the ensuing six years, Studio Barnhus' steady output has cemented the imprint's rep as a home for the kind of dance music that's both fun and functional, with slightly wonky, fully wonderful releases in the past year from the likes of Your Planet Is Next, HHNY and Baba Stiltz. Label co-founder Boman says The Bells represents the reason he dreamed of starting a label in the first place, calling it "one of our best, most innovative, and creative releases to date." "The fact that one of my best friends has managed to do this on the label we share together makes me so proud that I want to cry," Boman says in the album's press release. Apparently, crying is a thing among the Studio Barnhus crew—Kovács makes light of his labelmate's high praise, saying, "Whenever I play something for Axel and Petter and they say, 'Yeah, this is super cool, man,' I'm still kind of convinced that they're just being nice and don't want to see me cry."
As for the near short-term future, Kovács has a packed schedule, with gigs in Australia, Brazil and throughout Europe filling his calendar for the next few months; if all goes well, he'll be hitting the States this autumn. Kovács also says to expect "brilliant stuff" coming soon from a mix of newcomers and usual suspects on Studio Barnhus, speaking of Baba Stiltz in particular with an admiration that approaches awe: "He's just getting started; he is going to blow people's minds pretty soon." But when asked if he feels like a mentor to Stiltz—or any of the label's artists—Kovács demurs. "I feel like I'm still starting out myself," he admits. "I've always been 'the young kid' doing this, and I still kind of feel that way."