In the last year we have seen an unprecedented shift in the way we humans have been forced to approach pretty much everything. Throughout, it has often felt hard to even face the day ahead, with friends and families being separated for months at a time by multiple lockdowns, incompetence reigning supreme amongst the appointed “higher ups” and a news cycle revolving rapidly in a downward spiral. All this with no pubs or dancehalls open, no after hour parties or 4am gaffs, no tangible communities to let off some steam with after we punch out from our home offices. And yet, though it may not seem so on the surface, we are overcoming it. Each day we make it through draws us closer to the normality we once took for granted, and now crave. And there has been brightness throughout, too. Human ingenuity, creativity, innovation shining through the cracks. Zoom quizzes, charity livestreams, cocktail delivery services, home raves. In these last few months I have seen some brilliant and unique content churned out – people are still fighting to entertain and be entertained. With this interview series, “Staying Upbeat”, I plan on showcasing, through their own words, some of the ways in which content creators have adapted their past development processes and styles to our new normal against the odds; stitching together the fabric they have to hand, tearing at those cracks to allow more light and inspiration through.
Without further ado, we kick things off with our first interview of the series: Hungarian artist and producer, Khésis, fresh off the release of his new single, “Shimmer”:
So, let’s start with a bit of background – I looked up the word “khesis” and apparently it means “sun”, or sometimes “light”, in Navajo. How did you end up settling on it as a name?
[laughter] I actually did not know that! The name came about at university, in physics class – it’s just ‘thesis’ but I didn’t like the T at the start, so I swapped it out. It couldn’t be a more boring origin story – I’ll tell that to people now, if they ask how I came up with it in future!
That’s one thing out of this interview at least! Your Spotify profile goes back to 2016 with your Lost / Found EP, but before that there is an EP After Dark produced under the name Insomnea – was this a side project or is it a Spotify error?
There is one track on that EP is actually me – I used to produce drum and bass before Khésis, and I have this Belgian friend from way back; I was still in high school when he asked me to go to Belgium to play which was pretty crazy! And he started producing techno, this really short-lived project, but we basically just collab’d, and I ended up producing one on After Dark. It’s a bit weird, the track I produced for that is like this gnarly techno thing and then right after [on Lost / Found] there are these nice, friendly house tracks but I was sort of searching for what to do, what sound to make after drum and bass.
That kind of leads on to my next question: what made you start producing music? And how did you then go about it after deciding “this is what I want to do”, what spurred you on and how does that reflect in your current process?
Originally, I started producing music to have beats to rap over in high school. We had this rap group – we were basically waiting for our voices to crack so we could rap and not sound like children [laughter]. I had the most to do with computers so that kind of fell to me to make stuff. I made stuff in Virtual DJ by recording myself and layering two tracks – you only have two tracks available to you at any one time – and then I’d record it, set that as one track and add another on top of that and so on, so it was super arduous, but I didn’t know any better. My English wasn’t good enough to search for what I should be doing, so that’s how I did it for a year or two [more laughter]. And then yeah basically stopped rapping, and my music taste changed quite a bit and yeah, now it’s [producing music] a part of my identity that I don’t even think about it. It’s just good fun.
I would never have guessed that [I’m still laughing about the rap group at this point]. Do you have a way of starting a single track, like a jumping off point or specific method you rely on when you start a new project, or do you approach them all differently?
Well I sometimes have ideas and then I try to do them, and they never really work out. I guess the catalyst for a really good track is either I find a great sample that inspires the rest of the process by falling into place in a certain way or, a lot of my tracks came about when I could combine two previously half-finished, work-in-progress tracks that have shared something, maybe been in the same key. And then when fusing them together there’s this push, it goes from like sort of shitty to “oh wait, this could be something” – and that feeling, that breakthrough where you see the potential of a track, that’s the best part of producing and creating music.
I’ve been told before never to bin creative work because you can always go back to it – it’s quite encouraging to find out that the creative process is rarely a straight line, and that success can also come in these roundabout ways. I obviously couldn’t do an interview with you without mentioning that Place For Me was featured on BBC Introducing last year – how did that come about, and how did it feel to hear your music on national radio?
Again, that came about from a lot of different things coming together in a certain way. I actually submitted the track to BBC Scotland while I was living in Glasgow and it bubbled up through the regional chains until I got an email saying it’s going to be played on Radio One. And Jaguar, who premiered it, said she had a sweet spot for steel pan and it [Place For Me] happens to have that tropical vibe, and so there was a bit of luck in that respect too. It was pretty crazy getting the news, let alone hearing it played out!
Did the success of Place For Me help or hinder you at all when moving on with the production of Shimmer?
I don’t think so – both tracks were long in the pipeline: Place For Me was the product of moving to a new place [Glasgow] and contained that optimism of “right, what can I do here?”, this hopeful attitude. And Shimmer was part of the process of moving back to Hungary almost a year ago now. I produced most of it in a little summer house, during my two weeks of quarantine. I’m super slow with these things, which is something I need to work on – procrastination makes it so hard to stay excited about a track.
Tying in with this, how plausible do you think it is at the moment for bedroom producers – if that’s how you would describe yourself – to create electronic music that is capable of reaching a level where it can gain mainstream attention and airplay?
I would very much describe myself as that, I don’t think that’s an offensive or amateur sounding term at all. I think at this point at least half of producers are bedroom producers – it’s such a good thing to be able to go to your desk and be able to make something. Even the big names will have setups at home to make stuff in a different room. In regard to your question I think it depends on the genre. With pop music, or drum and bass, which are both hard to engineer you might need a push from someone who is better at mastering or mixing than you for instance. Making the music yourself is absolutely possible, but a lot of it comes down to how comfortable you are with certain parts of the process, being able to recognise when you need help and being comfortable asking for it. Icarus mixed Place For Me and it definitely shows. When I made that track I thought “this sounds like it could be professional”, but when they had a go at it the quality was just miles above. Not to be misunderstood, but overall it’s super easy to release stuff for yourself; the hard part is to get that to stand out and be heard by others. The quality of the music and production could be amazing, but if it’s getting drowned out and doesn’t reach the right ears then it gets lost, so finding ways to get your track to stand up and be heard is really important. These things shift constantly, but social media is such a great tool to do this. Back in the drum and bass days YouTube used to be able to give you a push like nothing else; now it’s about trying to get featured on Spotify playlists, or by reaching out for the attention of similar artists through sending out and uploading your stuff in the right places.
Last question then – so we’ve talked about your creative process, but do you have any other tips for staying motivated, staying creative and producing content during the multiple lockdowns and curfews we are currently living through?
I’ve felt like my productivity has actually increased – in Hungary at the moment there is an 8pm curfew, so since I can’t go out and party the nights away I’ve been sitting down and trying to make music instead. I have another programming side project as well as work and music, that I’ve been focusing on in place of being able to meet people. The same is true with music – you stay in the same place, so if you can designate that place as a place you work, or create, then your mind can switch between “right now I’m in work mode, now I’m in music mode”. If you can’t compartmentalise your day in this way you end up stuck in this whole mess of intertwining activities that becomes a blur. Just having stages to your day really helps too – especially when I was creating Shimmer while isolating. I had very little equipment with me – it somehow made the whole thing more exciting. Even if you have all the gear, sometimes limiting your creative choices can actually help change it up massively. If you always have the same stuff available to you, the same plugins, the same hardware, you are probably going to go down the same route every time you sit down, and never leave your creative comfort zone. That’s something that’s worked for me at least.
Nice one – cheers for chatting to me! Hopefully we’ll see you back in Glasgow sooner rather than later!
Thanks, fingers crossed!
Shimmer – Khésis is now available on all good streaming platforms, check it out now at the link and show some love over on Bandcamp and the socials if you like the track!