Just/Talk: Justin Strauss with Danish DJ & Electronic Music Octopus Kasper Bjørke

Kasper Bjørke is something of an electronic music octopus — the Danish-born DJ has had his hand in everything from production, performance, curation, art filmmaking and composition. Influenced by the burgeoning New York club scene in the early aughts and the likes of Giorgio Moroder, The Cure and Run-D.M.C., Bjørke’s eclectic range spans techno, new wave, disco and what he calls “music for DJs.” 

For this edition of Just/Talk, resident DJ and longtime Ace friend Justin Strauss chats with Kasper aboutfinding his feet in the shapeshifting electronic music scene, playing shows in old bowling alleys, his love of New York hip-hop and needing a license to dance. 

Justin Strauss:
Here we are in Copenhagen. Are you originally from here?

Kasper Bjorke:
Actually I was not born in Copenhagen, I’m from a small city like an hour from here. I moved here when I was a teenager.

JS:
And had you already been into music as a teenager?

KB:
I was always listening to music, yeah. When I was around 22 in 1998–99, I started to produce music with a friend of mine on an old Atari computer and an Akai mono sampler. We were sampling loops from old disco records, and we were very inspired by Masters at Work and Daft Punk.

JS:
Were you able to get music released fairly quickly?

KB:
Yeah, I don’t know if we were lucky or if it was a curse, but we got signed to the same label that released Laid Back, well, the same A&R that signed Laid Back and Ace of Base. So he had a big vision for us, in terms of what we should do, and we were so young, that we just kind of followed his instructions. Somehow we ended up doing these vocal-based disco house tracks and got a radio hit that brought us to Japan three times in a year and around Europe, touring a lot. So quite quickly, the label started to put a lot of money into us.

JS:
What was the name of the band?

KB:
It was called Filur, named after a Danish ice cream, a popsicle. So silly. We made three or four albums together, and then in the mid 2000s, my friend started a band called WhoMadeWho, he was the drummer, and I started doing solo albums.

JS:
And was there a scene, like a dance music scene going on here in Copenhagen at that time?

KB:
Yeah. It was pretty small. I think that’s partly why we were quite successful, because there was not much competition at the time [laughing], there were not that many people producing electronic music here, so we had a head start somehow. And that also made us able to live from making music quite early. Because of the crossover commercial success, we both were able to do more “left field” stuff, after our project ended.

JS:
And what were you listening to growing up? What were you influenced by? 

KB:
As a teenager, from 87 to 92, 93, the only thing I was listening to was hip-hop and I was collecting vinyl at that time. When I was even younger, I was listening to and collecting soundtracks, I was really into John Carpenter, Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, and I ended up listening to electronic music in the mid-90s after a detour of being heavily into Britpop, Depeche Mode and The Cure. I started going to raves and parties in CPH, and that’s how I got inspired to produce electronic music.

JS:
And had you started to DJ at this time?

KB:
No, DJ’ing came after I started making music, actually. We had to tour with our band project to promote the releases, and we actually started playing live before we were DJ’ing. We quickly found out that logistically and financially it made much more sense to DJ, because then we were just two guys traveling instead of five or six people. So yeah, then DJ’ing became the thing — and I was very bad at it at first and very nervous as well.

JS:
You started DJ’ing with vinyl records?

KB:
Yeah, vinyl only… I did that up until my record bag got stolen one time after a gig at Iceland Airwaves Festival, I think maybe in 2005, 2006. And then I was forced to, quickly for my next gig, burn some CDs and try out those CD players that I had been hating on for so long [laughing]. And then I got caught up in that. I am still buying some vinyl, I still collect vinyl, but I don’t travel with it anymore. Then the whole digital USB thing started up, I tried that as well and I was like, “Okay, wow, let’s just do this.”

JS:
And then you started to travel internationally, DJ’ing and started releasing Kasper Bjørke records.

KB:
Yeah, my first solo album got signed to Plant Music which was based in New York, and I produced the biggest part of that album in New York, actually. I was collaborating with a few people from New York as well, like Kap10kurt, as he was called at the time, who is still a close friend of mine today. Allison Pierce from The Pierces, which is a band from New York as well, was singing on one of the singles. And Dennis Young, the percussionist from Liquid Liquid was playing percussion on some tracks… I was finding my feet on that album and New York was definitely a big influence.

JS:
What year was this?

KB:
2006.

JS:
So around the same time DFA records in New York was starting to release records, and this whole new wave of things in New York was taking shape.

KB:
Yes, I was majorly influenced by DFA, and I was friends with Dominique Keegan from Plant Music, and he took me to the Plantain building at the time where DFA had their office there, and where he had his office as well. So I got all the early DFA promos on vinyl. Still treasure them to this day.

JS:
Did you go to the Plant Bar?

KB:
I think Plant Bar had recently shut down at the time. But I heard a lot of stories about how things went down there, and how they lost their dance license, which to me sounded like the most insane thing ever, that you needed a license to dance.

JS:
It’s always been some sort of plague in New York that it was illegal to dance in certain situations. There was a huge campaign against it and recently it was repealed.

KB:
 What a relief. I do remember back then, there were some really fun unofficial illegal parties. I recall playing at one out in Brooklyn somewhere called Gunther — together with Max Pask, James Friedman, Andrew Potter — it was in an old bowling alley in a basement. So much fun.

JS:
So you spent a lot of time in New York then?

KB:
I did, yeah, and I came back for recordings on the next albums as well. I also just spent a lot of time in New York hanging out with friends, partying and DJ’ing, I played at some of the fun clubs around at that time like 205, Annex, Love — at Tribeca Grand, I played at a really great Modular Party. In the more recent years, I played quite a few times at Le Bain and after that I had a sort of residency at Output in The Panther Room for a couple of years, when they opened up.

JS:
New York, it seems like, had a big influence on you.

KB:
Yes for sure, as I said, even as a kid when I started listening to hip-hop music, New York was the center of it all.

JS:
You were listening to New York hip-hop?

KB:
Yes mainly. As soon as rap became too gangster, I lost interest. I mean I was a fan of NWA, but never really listened a lot to East Coast rap, Tupac and Wu-Tang and all that — I was more into Tribe, Jungle Brothers, Run-D.M.C., Black Sheep and so on. Anyway, later in my life, the whole house scene from New York was the most inspiring thing and, of course, also the whole post-punk and disco new wave scene with ESG, Liquid Liquid, Suicide, Talking Heads, etc. They were so inspiring — and then to be able to actually go there and make my own music and DJ there, it was really important for my development and self-esteem as a solo producer. Up until just a few years ago, I would go to New York at least two times a year. But after Trump became President, I just didn’t feel like going to the States. Around the same time, I became a father, and I still don’t want to travel too far away from him, not yet. I also try my best to keep my carbon footprint to a minimum, so it’s probably going to be a while before I will go back.

JS:
So how many Kasper Bjørke albums have you released now as a solo artist?

KB:
Five solo albums up until now, and now there’s the sixth album, which is actually credited as Kasper Bjørke Quartet, because I recorded it together with some friends of mine that really added a lot to the music. The album just came out on Kompakt.

JS:
And the previous albums, do they have a sound connecting them or each time you went for a different style or vibe?

KB:
I really tried to refine my own sound on each new album, a kind of post-disco, new wave sound with a more commercial approach, using feature vocalists on the singles. I guess that stayed with me from my first project, that I had with my friend — I wanted to try to build a bridge between radio and club music, and also do albums that you could listen to at home. I also liked ambient music at that time, like one track on an album would be ambient or downtempo… But yeah, I was refining my own sound up until a point where I was like, okay, now I’m just kind of sick and tired of listening to my own sound, [laughing]. So the fifth album was a little bit of a detour, which was called Fountain of Youth. It was more a “straight for the club” kind of album. Music for DJs. I’ve always had remixes done for the singles from my album. They were really important to my music, because I needed those remixed versions for the DJs to play out.

JS:
And you’ve done a lot of remixes yourself for other artists?

KB:
Yeah and many of these ended up becoming swaps, where you do remixes for each other, which I think is great, it’s a great way to collaborate.

JS:
What are some of the artists whose work you have remixed?

KB:
Hmm… There are so many… Sascha Funke, SONNS, Trentemøller, The Golden Filter, Rebolledo… I can’t remember [laughing]. I think I did around 40–50 remixes these past 10–12 years…

JS:
And do you enjoy it when people remix your stuff?

KB:
Yeah, especially because I have always been the curator, I’m the one that picks out the remixers, it’s not the labels. So I also got to know a lot of great people through that, like Axel Boman, Moscoman, Marvin & Guy, yourself and Bryan Mette aka Whatever/Whatever, Superpitcher, Michael Mayer, Nicolas Jaar, Mano Le Tough, Gerd Janson… I also think it’s a great way to expand your network in the scene in that way, and it’s so much fun to have people that you admire interpret your music. Nicolas Jaar for example, I was lucky enough to reach him via MySpace at that time, when he was still just getting started with Wolf + Lamb, and I wrote him and he said yes to remixing the cover version I did of “Heaven” by The Rolling Stones — and then he totally blew up right after.

JS:
That’s one of the great things about the internet. I mean there’s a lot of things that maybe aren’t so good, but the way you can connect with people. I’ve just met so many people that I never would have met, that I never knew, who liked what I did. And have become friends in real life with people that I respected, just by writing them a note.

KB:
Yeah, you can reach out to basically anybody and get a reply, even if it’s a “no,” it’s all good…

JS:
And in the age of the internet and DJ’ing and where it’s gotten us to this point, what are your thoughts on the current state of dance music in general?

KB:
Well it’s a little bit stale, isn’t it…? I mean there’s definitely still great stuff going on out there, but somehow it’s the same labels that I’ve always been following, that I still like the most. Of course there’s new things like Moscoman’s Disco Halal or Soulwax’s DEEWEE label, but it’s usually the people who really know what they’re doing and have been around for a long time. There’s so many new labels and generic sounding releases. I got to say, I only go to Beatport maybe twice a year to buy a few tracks, if I don’t get them some other way. It doesn’t really appeal to me, the whole tech house, deep house scene that is out there. And I think it also reflects a little bit in the way that some clubs book their lineups, it seems a little bit watered down somehow. But there are, of course, still great parties and great clubs around, but somehow most of them are the same that have been great for many years, you know.

JS:
Do you miss the days of like going to a record store and buying 10 records and like really knowing them instead of getting inundated with thousands of promos and online purchases?

KB:
Totally! I loved going every week to the two local record stores in Copenhagen called Street Dance Records and Loud. I think it was on Tuesdays that we got the new records here, and all the DJs in Copenhagen would stand in line and fight for those three to five copies of each release. I spent all my money on it every week — and it was amazing.

JS:
Did you have a DJ residency here in Copenhagen?

KB:
Yeah, I’ve had many through the years… These days I don’t want to have a residency as much, but I host two, maybe, three nights a year at a little club called Jolene. It is 150 people in a small space, and it’s free entry, and there’s a smoke machine, a laser and a great sound system, and it’s a really great party atmosphere. Then I invite friends, like yourself and Tim Sweeney, Axel Boman and Marvin & Guy to come and play with me. It’s seven hours back-to-back. A complete trip from open to close. I enjoy that a lot. Then I, of course, also play regularly in clubs around Europe that invite me back every year. Which kind of feels like a residency… But yeah when I’m home, I try not to play too much.. I’d rather spend that time with the family, to be honest.

JS:
And you’re involved in the business side of things for other artists as a manager. So you get to see things from both sides of the spectrum, as a manager for Trentemøller, who is a huge artist, and you have a few other acts you’re working with as well. How does that work with your own career?

KB:
Sometimes it’s hard to find time for going into the studio and work on my own projects. Because I’m always prioritizing the interests of the artists first that I work with, I’m never putting them aside to do something for myself. So when I produce an album or a track or an EP, I have to schedule it around what’s going on with them. So I wouldn’t sit down and produce an album at the same time that Trentemøller would be launching a new album, because I know there is going to be a lot of work with his campaign. So there is definitely some compromises in that way – which I am totally cool with. I really enjoy this other aspect of my career. It makes me happy to see other artists do well and succeed and advance in their career. Maybe more so than myself actually, or at least it makes me just as happy to see the artists that I work with have success.

JS:
Have you ever worked with other producers for your own material and have someone produce your work?

KB:
No, no, never, no. I would never let anyone else touch it [laughing].

JS:
Tell me about how your new album project on Kompakt came about and your interest in ambient music.

KB:
Ambient is something I listen to a lot actually. I’ve had trouble sleeping and it helps me relax — and also when I’m flying, which I am super scared of, it calms me down. So I’ve listened to ambient for many years… Then seven years ago, I got a cancer diagnosis which was, of course, a life-changing experience. I was very lucky though, in the sense that I didn’t need any chemo or radiation, I just needed an operation. After a five-year checkup period of regular CT scannings and blood work, the doctors let you go. During those five years, I decided that I needed to process the whole experience of having anxiety of a relapse, creatively through music. So, I decided that I wanted to make an ambient album to document my experience through instrumental ambient soundscapes. I didn’t want to start making the music until after I was done with the checkups at the hospital. So after I had my last test results, I put together the Quartet. First of all, my friend Claus Norreen, who has an amazing analog studio with all the old synthesizers you can dream of, everything’s set up amazingly. I went in with him and recorded these long synthesizer atmospheres, all recorded live, no MIDI or software. We didn’t use the computer as anything else, except a recording device. We just hit record and then multi-tracked the synthesizers and reverbs and delays, space echo… It was a trip and it all happened very naturally.

Afterwards I asked another friend of mine called Jakob Littauer, an amazing pianist and musician, and I recorded him playing piano in a concert hall on a Steinway Grand Piano, and also on an old upright piano in a studio space, where you can really hear the body of the instrument, the noise it makes, the hammers. Finally I asked an old friend of mine, the Italian string composer Davide Rossi — who has worked with everybody from Coldplay to John Hopkins and Ennio Morricone — and Davide then played the cello and violin on the compositions, and that’s how the whole album came about, really. Then I mixed and edited everything in my own studio, but tried to keep it as live and as free and spontaneous as possible. I named it The Fifty Eleven Project, after the department 5011 at the hospital where I was going for checkups those five years.