With his darkly seductive abstractions of house and techno, Vester Koza has managed to establish himself as a producer of note in just three records. Oli Warwick caught up with him to find out more about his emergence.
Vester Koza is an artist who likes to ponder. Every aspect of his path in music so far has been a carefully considered, slow-release exercise in delivering the right goods at the right time in the right way. There is not a shred of flippancy about the way the London-based producer approaches his craft, and in every aspect of our lengthy interview he is at pains to explore each angle of his possible responses to questions to be sure he is arriving at the right conclusion.
“With hindsight, stopping working full time was where Vester Koza was born,” he states as we talk remotely on a darkening Friday afternoon. “Exploring more, and having the time to sit down with a pen and paper and think, ‘what do I want to do?’”
Vester makes a lot of notes around his work, drafting ideas and intentions in order to bring focus to his studio practices. It’s a luxury he has afforded himself since committing to an artist’s life, after years spent frustrated at not being able to pursue creative ideas in the scant moments available around his job teaching music technology at a college. Throughout this time and reaching back to his school days Vester has been producing music, but he never took it beyond his immediate world.
“When people ask what I was doing for ten years while making music, I had to really ask myself that question,” Vester ponders, “and it’s because I didn’t know anyone. I wasn’t part of anything, I was at college and uni, and alumni of those places are masters of not doing anything. I never knew anyone that ran a label.”
Where context counts for a lot in the appreciation of music, when Vester appeared for the first time prior to the debut single on his own Maslo imprint, it was quickly apparent that he had no affiliations with which to place him in the house and techno scramble. This unknown entity had popped up on the radar for tastemakers in a similar field of electronic music, and before playing the record it wasn’t instantly apparent what had caused him to stand out. In truth, it was dogged determination and an analytical approach to self-promotion that propelled Vester’s emergence, but what didn’t come across as white labels of that first record reached the hands of certain DJs and journalists (this one included) was the year spent doggedly pushing demos to an almost non-existent response.
“I was looking at what people were reviewing,” Vester explains of how he chose where to send the 12” to, “and then on a personal level, I was happy that if certain journalists covering stuff in a similar ball park like it… “ He meekly trails off at this point, but he is happy to acknowledge that there was plenty of self-doubt to be overcome when first going public with his music. After the demo knockbacks the promo 12” campaign was serving two functions, to build a base of interest and promotion for the debut release on his new label, and to reassure himself that yes, this was music worth releasing and yes, people were into it.
Aside from such concerns, the whole exercise was an opportunity to forge relationships with like-minded operators in the music world. As a lone wolf, the conversations struck up around promoting the single also brought a sense of community he hadn’t experienced up to that point. It’s a reward that comes from the graft put into making personal contacts, shirking the convenience of ‘private tracks shared to 999+ people’ and targeting those who may genuinely care.
“On the second record I tried a press company and I kind of regretted it,” Vester admits. “That’s not to say I won’t do it again. I am a bit torn because [promotion] sucks a lot of time out and my headspace for music might be better without it, but it’s very rewarding, whereas using a press company, I’m sure the record did better, but it didn’t feel as good.”
It’s an insight into the ethics that inform Vester’s interaction with the music industry, and it’s hard not to place more meaning and relevance on such conduct compared to blanket mailing lists and big-budget marketing campaigns. It doesn’t stop at promoting his music either. Up to this point, everything Vester has been released has been on Maslo, but as tends to be the case with any emerging talent that shows promise, there has been interest in his music from other parties.
“I’ve had offers from labels, but I don’t know if my music fits anywhere else,” Vester muses. “I’m not against the idea of it, but now I’ve come this far with it, I’m very much into the idea that if you want a job doing properly then you do it yourself. If another label had the same ability as me, to press a record and get it into the shops, and not much else around that, then I don’t really see any advantage to that.”
There’s also the issue of creative control, which has been a curve of discovery for Vester across the three records that have come out on Maslo. The first and second records had been around for some time before they were released, and as such had received enough validation for him to feel comfortable releasing them, but the most recent installment had no such guidance, whilst also presenting some of the wilder tendencies in his music.
“I never ran the third record by anybody saying, ‘do you think this is OK?’” Vester admits. “That was just me releasing music straight to the people, and I was really nervous about the B-side in particular. I thought it was far more leftfield than any of the tracks on the other records. I just said, ‘sod it’. These are my riskiest tracks, and I’m in love with that idea. I don’t have to compromise at all.”
That attitude represents one side of Vester’s approach to sharing his music with the wider world, but then on the flipside of that lies the concern that engulfs an artist when they move from creating for their own amusement to offering up their creations for public consumption. “I feel like there’s a pressure now which I never had before,” he explains. “It was never real. When I wrote those first two EPs there was no-one, and the third record I wrote off the back of a load of good feedback I’d got off the first one so I was really confident at that time. Since then I’ve lost a bit of confidence and I think that’s a case of being public now.”
For all these concerns, it isn’t getting in the way of Vester’s imagination. From the first EP his style has been one that nudges deeper strains of house and techno towards darker, dubbier ends. There’s a thread of garage detectable in the swing of some of the tracks, and the heads-down pressure of elemental dubstep looms somewhere in the distance. It’s very much music that is a product of its time, but he certainly doesn’t play it safe within those rough reference points. While he may view the aforementioned B-side to Maslo 03 as a marked step into leftfield territory, from an external perspective it sounds no more outré than what had come before it, even with less floor-friendly tropes in it. Either way Vester realises the worth of taking himself out of his comfort zone.
“If anything I’ve learnt with that B-side I got really good feedback from artists I really love that I didn’t have before,” he reveals, “so maybe where the most fear is, that’s where the most reward is. If I can maintain interest and everyone likes it I’ve hopefully got enough intelligence to not go too far down the rabbit hole.”
There’s a sense that Vester naturally leans against the grain, knowing that there is artistic satisfaction in experimentation and not wanting to pander to the less heartfelt aspects of the music industry machine, but he’s also the first to acknowledge that his inspiration is derived from what is happening around him. It’s an honest admission that many artists try to swerve in their quest to be thought of as ‘original’.
“There are more blogs, there are more podcasts, it’s all completely cross-pollinated in a way,” he says, “and I feel like my music has come out of that. Even if the finished product I’m putting out is cohesive and a finished thing, I’ve taken inspiration from a lot of different places.”
What Vester speaks of is a common feeling amongst the electronic music community in the age of mass communication. His candour regarding how he bounces off of this culture is offset by the fatigue so many feel when trying to comprehend the sheer volume of music at our disposal in these times, and the myriad ways of discovering it.
“I like to keep up to a certain extent but where it’s so varied and it’s so vast, it’s gonna throw me off in directions,” he says. “Every day there are ten new artists you’ve got to learn about, and it’s hard to feel you’ve got to compete with that, which starts spilling out into ‘I better release something,’ or, ‘I better say something on Twitter ‘cos I haven’t said anything for a few weeks’. I don’t feel pressure to keep up. I couldn’t. There’s no point.”
It’s these kinds of external pressures that bring out a kind of stubborn punk in Vester, encouraging him to kick back against the predominant trend towards mass production and hyperactive social media activity. Such concerns naturally find their way into his approach in the studio as well, and have done for many years. Having overcome that widespread neurosis about being innovative, he feels at home now with the amalgamation of influences that feed into his sound, but at one point it worked the other way.
“I always had a problem with feeling like I need to decide what [style] to make,” Vester recalls, looking back to his formative forays into production. “The tracks I was submitting at college were quite an unclassifiable hybrid, but that became part of the problem, so I didn’t have much confidence because I wasn’t making stuff that you could release on Metalheadz.”
This self-criticism came in stark opposition to the (quietly admitted) top grades and awards his work was gaining at college, but where Vester’s mind was focused on the standards and styles of the producers he looked up to he wasn’t as interested in exploring his own creative path. Still to this day there are plenty of wild or simply different results coming from sessions tinkering in the studio, although these will be likely kept under lock and key until an apt project should arise.
“I have a lot of sound experiments that I consider releasing under a different alias but everything’s all so fresh I don’t really want to confuse people,” he explains. “I’m trying to do something cohesive as well. I have an alias for a reason, and this body of work and the DJing around that has to have an element of togetherness. Even if I released a completely ambient album that was a deconstruction of what I’ve done, I would still have to have elements of what I’ve done before in there.”
It’s natural that Vester’s DJing would be brought in line with his recorded output, having emerged first and foremost as a producer rather than a performer. As he states himself, “I’m DJing music that I like, but it’s not all the music that I like.” Given that his own music takes precedence, it would seem logical to pursue the path of live performance to present his artistic guise, but again it’s an area where Vester exercises caution.
“I feel like with live, especially in the early stages, it’s really hard to get established and I don’t want to be in the corner of a club with my laptop being asked for requests,” he points out. “I think it’s fine when you get to the point where you can bring some equipment on stage. That’s definitely where I want to go with it.”
For the time being though Vester is more than happy focusing on his DJing. As his first “instrument” at the age of 13, a pair of turntables and a carefully curated selection of records have naturally served to help shape and further the whole project. Through digging for relevant sounds and steering away from any perceived notion of ‘big’ tracks, his DJ sets are as vital a performance as any live set may be in the future. As such he’s being careful about the gig offers he accepts at this early stage.
“I don’t take all the offers,” he states. “It’s quite hard to be a DJ if you start doing small gigs for money and people don’t show up. I’m not under any illusions that I’m the sort of headliner that can draw hundreds of people so I made the decision that I would only play on line-ups that were somewhat eclectic, and not feel like I have to compromise on what I want to DJ. I think that’s where most people end up compromising.”
As a DJ and as an artist on the whole, if there’s one thing Vester Koza is in no danger of doing, it’s compromising.
Interview by Oli Warwick