In August of 1998 Francois Kevorkian came to San Francisco to DJ at the influential and infamous San Francisco club night, Wicked, which regularly put on parties at 177 Townsend featuring some fantastic talent, including the Wicked lads themselves. When I heard Francois was going to be in town I thought it would be a good idea to try to arrange a time to conduct an interview. I was also working at Amoeba at the time and Francois was coming into town on the day before his gig, which was on Friday. So we arranged for him to come to the store on Thursday evening after I had clocked out, so he could do a bit of shopping and then we would head downtown and do the interview.
He arrived, dropping off a DJ bag and a box of tunes he had snagged — in one of Record Rack’s (a long-lost and sadly missed record store in the Castro) storage garages — at Amoeba’s security/bag check. We then barreled through several sections of the store. I remember that Francois was looking for a copy of “Sonic Seasonings” by Walter/Wendy Carlos for Joe Claussell, and he found one for $2.99. He told me to buy “Stay Free” by Ashford and Simpson, and we ended up in the hip-hop section looking for Big Pun records. It was a super fun record shopping session.
Then we went downtown to his hotel. There he opened up the box from Record Rack and started pulling out records and asking me if I’d heard of them. And when I said yes, he asked where and how I’d heard of them. Among these were “Love Has Come Around” by Donald Byrd, “Don’t Go Lose It Baby” by Hugh Masakela and “Shake Your Body” by Jeannette Thomas. Some might regard this as minutiae, but it’s hard to forget a trainspotting test from Francois Kevorkian. I also remember him talking about how much he loved 16B, just out of the blue. I loved Omid’s music at the time too and we had a chat about how awesome it was. We then went to a restaurant downtown and I conducted the interview while we ate. Overall it was a phenomenal experience. Francois was gracious and kind, and seemed as enthused and excited by music as he was when he was 21. Below is the interview. Please enjoy reading it.
KEEP KEEPIN’ ON
He’s been around for more than two decades, consistently pushing dance music forward. XLR8R’S Chris Orr walks around the block with the legendary Francois Kevorkian.
The dance music community is at the stage where we take for granted all the wild and wonderful sounds that proliferate our music. Some of us forget that certain individuals devised those sounds, discovered them on ancient keyboards or had the innate sense of funk to compose the rocking grooves that we expect from the records we listen and dance to. One such individual is Francois Kevorkian, a man who had taken dance music into new, electronic realms years before house or garage had truly solidified. Francois arrived in New York in 1976 at the age of 21, and he found himself in New York clubland at the dawn of DJ culture.
He was asked by a music contact that he made to drum over the mix of a little-known DJ named Walter Gibbons. Gibbons would, shortly afterwards, go on to work on the first dance remix ever and to inspire an upcoming wave of DJs who would change the direction that dance music, or disco as it was known back then, would take. Among these were Larry Levan, David DePino, David Lozada, and Francois Kevorkian.
Francois saw what DJs were doing, mixing beats together, playing two copies to accentuate the groove aspects of lush, soul records. As a drummer, a sense of rhythm was second nature. Soon he was an influential DJ in the Big Apple. He truly loved to DJ, but his real passion and goal was to produce. Skip twenty years from the ’70s, we’re in the middle of an equally, if not more, intense wave of dance music that Francois Kevorkian’s name is synonymous with. He has played at the Paradise Garage as a stand-in for Larry Levan, spun all over the NY scene and was the in-house producer for Prelude Records, who gave us all those seminal and wonderful D-Train and Sharon Redd records with Francois’ name name clearly printed on each one.
He mixed Kraftwerk in their Electric Cafe period, worked with Holger Czukay from Can, The Edge from U2, and Jah Wobble before Invaders of the Heart and after P.I.L. He has worked with Midnight Oil, housed up Depeche Mode, mixed records by long-forgotten English pop act Wide Boy Awake into garage classics and now, in the `90s, re-invented the deep sound of NYC for a new generation of house music lovers. He is worshipped by dance music aficionados and courted by record labels who need the touch of excellence on a release.
People talk of him as being obstinate and difficult, a perfectionist in the studio, but I found him to be gracious, eloquent and passionate when I had the pleasure of interviewing him on a recent DJing visit to San Francisco. He didn’t really wish to talk much about the past, he was more interested in relating the experiences of the club, Body and Soul, he runs with Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit, and his label Wave Music. However, this insistence on being current didn’t stop me from employing my insufferable journalist mode by asking him what thread has linked his early productions in the late ’70s through his work with D-Train to his current work with the likes of Abstract Truth on his Wave label.
He had this to say. “In some ways it’s hard for me to qualify because I’m the person doing it, I think that might be for others to describe what that thread is. Really it’s just a matter of the passion for the music and being involved with things that have a distinctive, New York personality, I think both of those things that you have mentioned, D-Train and Abstract Truth, are things that are very New York. There is a certain dynamic to the music that comes out of New York.
In the same way you could say that all those beautiful Salsoul and Philadelphia International records were recorded in that Sigma studio in Philadelphia and there was a very specific energy and sound that came out of those musicians and that group of people, Gamble and Huff etc. New York has a sound of its own and I’ve always been lucky enough to be involved with some of the people that add something special. I’m not saying that only the ones I get involved with are special, there are lots and lots and lots of them in New York who are really phenomenal.”
Today’s dance music enthusiasts pick up records with Francois K’s name on the label or on a sticker. They pick up an old Prelude record and they can see the connection between the past and Francois’ current projects. However, there is a whole other dimension to what he has done and will do in the future. I asked him how he felt about this. ‘There’s more to it than the quote, unquote ‘only dance music aspect’ of every narrow band of interest. There’s a whole part of what I do that is dedicated to dub and I hope in the next couple of years that I get to do more really dubby records. When someone asks you to do a remix, for example, remixing a song doesn’t mean reproducing it, you can take what they did and mix it again, which means you don’t have to change the tempo to be that monolithic house tempo.
“I see people dancing to all kinds of tempos, not just 126 bpm. I think there’s more to what I do than just house records. Currently I am trying to finish a track for Cafe Del Mar, Volume 5, which will be 98 bpm, then just when people think I’m going to be all groovy and downtempo I might turn out a real techno track. Sometimes you have to musically take chances and not only fit a preselected format. I am very happy to disorient them.
Something that is not disorienting is the weekly Body and Soul sessions, about which Francois speaks with great enthusiasm. In fact, his passion for this party seems to outweigh that which he has for his label, Wave. However, he throws more light on this seeming imbalance. “It’s the source; the party makes all the other things possible. I mean, I would sort of disagree with you because there’s only one day a week when the party happen, there are six other days when the label is a priority. However, there is a really important link. Although I started Wave before Body and Soul existed I think that they’re very intimately tied. Of course there are some things on Wave that don’t get played at Body and Soul, but having your own little party is a nice way to stay in touch with what’s current, with what’s going on. It’s a good way to test new things that you’re developing, so that to me is a very strong link.
The reason why I seem so excited about Body and Soul is because I feel that it’s something that seldom happens in your career, to have something that is not just a residency, we created our own party, we make it become what we like it to be, we can take it in any direction we want. The correlation with the label is that instead of just being a label that has some good music or just being a party that plays good music, there’s a synergy between them and I think that’s very rare. Rather than the label being somewhat of an abstract entity, having the party makes it so much more concrete and real because when I do something new and I bring it to the party and play it there’s an immediate feedback. The party is inspiring, not just for me, or the label, but for all the people who come to the party. I’ve waited for this kind of thing my entire career.”
As someone who has seen DJ culture mushroom from a distinctly New York experience to being a global phenomenon and seeing dance music constantly mutate from an orchestral, soulful genre into an endless labyrinth of electronic abstraction it would be only natural to ask Francois what current music inspires him. “Without appearing to be too biased I believe that the stuff Joe Claussell does is mind boggling. The track he did for ‘Trip Do Brasil’ just does things to my head in very subliminal ways. I dream about those melodies. Sometimes I judge the effect certain musics have on me by how I dream about them. When Masters At Work did that remix of Janet Jackson’s “Go Deep,” they used Bobby Valentin to do a flute solo on the dub and it is so devastating. It’s so unbelievably melodic, and strong and thematically inspiring, it has to be one of the strongest pieces of music I’ve heard this year, not just this year, in my whole life. It’s absolutely stunning, it really makes me wonder why..or how many more years will it take artists like Janet Jackson to realize that they should be working with MAW in the first place.
But, you know, that’s for no one to say but the artists themselves. Those two pieces of music have affected my dreaming state. Joe Claussell does some things by himself on his Spiritual Life label, which I think are incredible. l am also very much fascinated by 4 Hero’s productions and very into their sound, “Loveless,” their mix of “Black Gold Of The Sun.” They’re not just drum ‘n’ bass remixes, they’re actually very coherent pieces of new jazz. I find that very exciting, much props to Gilles Peterson because that’s stuff that I live for. There are all kinds of things that I am fascinated by; Maurizio from Basic Channel is a major listening pleasure, the M series, M4.5, M5, M7, and now his Rhythm & Sound series. It has a whole atmospheric to it, which is so awesome.
I’m still into some amazing hip-hop and r’n’b records that come out of New York. It’s really an amazing time to live in, there’s such a diversity of music out there. It makes you wonder why some people choose to concentrate on one type of music. All these distinctions are made, which I think are not only artificial, but they are perpetuating weird myths. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to belong to your little tribe, it’s been like that through the ages. If you go to the record store, the things you can buy, it’s unbelievable; what’s even more unbelievable is that many people choose to ignore most of it.”
When we listen or dance to the electronic music that we have become so attached to, it gives us pleasure to realize and appreciate the development of an artist whom we like, especially new artists who improve with each record. If some of our classic artists have been around the block a few times well, metaphorically, Francois Kevorkian is one the guys who built the block in the first place. What surprised me and many others is that people whined about his recent DJ performance in San Francisco. It wasn’t coherent enough, or he didn’t mix certain records together.
His set here, like his sets at Body and Soul and Paradise Garage, had a dynamic, an evocation of feelings of joy, love, passion, even abstraction, conveyed with electronic media. If that’s too much to process, appreciate or understand, then perhaps some people need to listen to the radio or be told what to like, what’s cool, who’s the bomb and all the other meaningless, pointless social constructs that obstruct the passage of our music (and it is our music) to its rightful place. Francois has always tried to push the music and what can you say in relation to that? What about “Keep On?”