“…if someone else solves that problem for you, you not only lose the chance to develop your own style of doing that, but you lose the addicting sensation of earned accomplishment which is invaluable fuel for reinventing a part of yourself again and again.”
Georgia Murphy chats with Serbian artist, Lag, as she finds out about his inspiring take on music
Fresh from his Berghain debut, we were lucky enough to touch base with world-class DJ and producer: Lag; to discuss the impeccable balance of his flourishing music career, intertwined with the maintenance of his mental and physical health – a venture many of us struggle to perfect. Lag’s methods of maintaining positivity in a world that frequents the opposite, are practices we can all learn from. Said methods are blatant in his productions, and we were lucky enough to sit down with the Serbian artist, and find out more.
First off, where did your music career start for you and how do you feel it has changed in the past few years?
My career truly started with my first releases on MORD (thank you Bas) and it never stopped. That said, I’ve been organizing parties and making music for some 7-8 years before that so it was never something out of the blue for me. As for the career changing with time – unfortunately these days I have to worry about social media and entering a certain population’s Dunbar Number zone way more than I have to worry about how good the music I make is.
You have a very recognizable & unique sound with tracks that have a lot of personality. How did you find your sound and how does your music initially manifest itself?
Furthermore, for the producers, where do you get your playful vocal samples & how doyou manipulate them into a rhythmical instrument?
Thank you, that’s very generous! It’s sort of a decision I made during those 7 years of pre-releasing. I used to do all kinds of music and realized that people find it easier to actually “pick you up and put you in their drawer” (i.e. remember you) if you boil your sound down to “a thing”. I decided I’ll just take the stuff I love the most in electronic music – groovy and unpredictable beats and vocal snippets devoid of semantic weight. It’s actually the way I hear songs more often than not, because my brain processes the vocals as just another instrument. I don’t really understand the words most of the time and if the vocal sings it wonderfully (Tom Waits, MF Doom, Lhasa De Sela, Madradeus, Alias etc.) it’s something special. I just figured I’d afford the beauty of it to other people as well. I take those vocal snippets wherever I find them, whether it’s sample packs, my own recordings, YouTube videos etc. Recently I’ve started moving away from the formula a bit as I figured that my sense of groove is recognizable enough without the vocals. Recently I either go for something completely different, or at least try and mutate what I do into something I haven’t explored yet.
For someone leading the way of new wave techno how do you keep focused to keep driving your sound and keeping things fresh?
Every time someone asks me for advice on how to make the arrangement work I tell them the same thing I tell myself: if someone else solves that problem for you, you not only lose the chance to develop your own style of doing that, but you lose the addicting sensation of earned accomplishment which is invaluable fuel for reinventing a part of yourself again and again. Also, I keep listening to a ton of music outside of techno. You wanna learn about amazing musicality? Check out the new Balthazar album. You wanna explore the possibilities of wall-of-sound music? Check out the new Brian Jonestown Massacre album. Groove? Anything by The Alchemist or Samiyam. Vulfpeck too. The other day I started working on a loop which is basically classical music strings along with Taiwanese chanting laid over an African-sounding rhythm that uses none of the African percussive samples. I mean, why not? I honestly, truly don’t get people who join the ranks of music makers, and you are making techno, a genre where you can literally do ANYTHING, and then choose to draw inspiration or, even worse, outright copy a piece of business techno because “it works”. I mean if you’re gonna copy someone, at least try avoiding shelf music and strive for something that’s forever: Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin, T. Raumschmiere, Surgeon, Steve Stoll, Luke Slater, Paula Temple, Heiko Laux etc.
Can you tell us more about your project 29542. We think it’s great that you’re trying to raise awareness for those smaller artists who have just as much talent, or more, than well known artists. What is pushing you to do this?
When I was growing up this scene wasn’t a rat race. It was about the scene. It’s the logic of “if I help those around me, the scene will be better and we will all have more to enjoy”. The thing I’m really passionate about is teaching people about the groove, cause I think it’s gone from electronic dance music in the past few years, and it’s “dancability” factor is one of the things that got me interested in it in the first place. In the same spirit, I’m somewhat angry at the state of things right now, where idol worship trumps good music so people who don’t invest time and effort into dishonestly presenting a picture-perfect image of themselves on social media don’t really get exposure no matter how good their music is. Just playing anything by Happa, JoeFarr or Kastil tells you how criminally underrated these people are (and yes, they are all MUCH more talented than I am). Deapmash is also great and so is Sedvs, Jen Series, Andrew Soul, Julixo, Lathe just had an amazing EP out… It’s a sin not to have these people as “poster-faces” for this thing of ours while the people who actually kinda represent us are mostly paint-by-number product-pushing business-people. Also very important to mention here: when I was growing up the scene also didn’t shy away from critique. I find it appalling that in this day and age whenever someone says something that’s not 1000% positive about something or someone, that person is labeled a hater, a sexist (if critique is directed at someone of a different sex), that they are not more successful, not to mention being guilty of the greatest sin of them all: being both white and male at the same time, and thus obviously not understanding anything. I wish people would differentiate actual hate and bitterness from critique that comes from love for the scene and those who make it. I spend a lot of time starting touchy conversations (an activity which awarded me with a lot of interesting adjectives) because I honestly think those are the things we need to talk about and that new kids need to take note of. If we all just spend our energy signalling virtue and projecting an image of perfect, unclouded success and constant gratefulness – then what makes the pillars that hold our scene up? Smiles are fleeting and platitudes are hollow, yet fakeness gets you to the top and working hard on making good music keeps you in the basement. What are we teaching these kids?
Can you give us some insight to your home country Serbia. What is the techno scene like there? Are there restrictions on club culture or implementation of conservative social policy? Since Serbia does not belong to the EU, how has the need for a VISA to perform in other countries affected your career?
It’s actually pretty good here when it comes to festival culture and mentality. Big parties with safe names are doing amazing which is surprising for a country of this low a standard. The welcome benefit of this is that a lot of people to get into the scene and get to experience something new whenever there’s a chance for that. On Exit Festival the No Sleep stage is the one offering really high quality acts, on Love Fest it’s the Energy Stage etc. That said, there’s a true lack of support for some of the local talent. For example both Scalameriya and Boris Brenecki (1/2 of Ontal) ended up moving to different countries without too much of local support while they lived here despite their great success in the global scene. The mentality here is most such that things which are not ours are valued more, no matter the quality, and I’d honestly like to see that change. This is why I keep writing mostly in Serbian when talking about issues. This is also why I’m sticking to mostly Serbian track titles and still occasionally running parties, workshops and interesting events. If we keep looking over the fence for what’s good, we’ll never have a truly healthy underground scene. Just look at Russia which, until relatively recently, didn’t really have a strong scene. I just played for the Propaganda Moscow people. You can literally feel all the hard work they put in building both the parties and their local talent such as Unbalance (great DJ, unique style – and I don’t often say this), Stef Mendesidis (just listen to his music and you’ll see what I mean). This suddenly strong scene didn’t happen by copying their neighbors homework, but by rolling up their sleeves and finding gold in their own backyard. As for visas – it’s not too terrible. Performing in the UK or Ireland is a pain because the VISA process obviously lets you know you are not welcome. Getting to some other countries might be tricky as well but usually goes smooth and since we are on the Schengen white-list we can easily travel to and perform in most European countries – which makes our life easy.
Does your home influence your music in any way and how do you think it differs from anywhere else?
A lot of our music is kinda dark and angry in a way. Broken too, both rhythmically and emotionally. Just look at the bigger local names: Scalameriya, Ontal, Forest People aka Oleka etc. I guess growing up through two wars, two different dictators and a consistent drop in morality and rule of law does that to you. That said, I’m a big fan of all the emotions in techno and I try and implement as much as possible both in my set and in my music. Recently I also started digging up ethnic music – from the Balkans first and foremost, trying to incorporate the stuff that’s in my blood into my music as well. More of that in the future.
Would you consider ever leaving Serbia for ease of being able to play in more countries or is that where your heart is despite the restrictions?
Of course. One of the most beautiful things about this job is that you get to meet so many different people and cultures, see so many interesting cities and experience something outside of your bubble. It builds a certain wanderlust inside you and a constant wish to try new things, and breathe in everything life has to offer. It also makes you feel at home wherever you go. If I moved I’d do it for the sake of experiencing actual life in a new culture – every place has something to teach you.
You seem an integral part of the underground scene in Serbia. What would your answer be to the lack of safe nightlife outreach programs and no education on drug use. As the party subculture is an intangible cultural part of Serbia do you think it is the responsibility of leaders in the scene to speak up about this or to be left in the hands of the government?
I’m not a big “parties” guy, meaning I’m there for the music. Drugs, after parties and such – I’m usually not a part of (someone even told me recently that people see me as more of a gamer than a clubber). That said, I remember that when I just started going out which was in 2000. There was indeed way more information being pushed that was about drug intake, how to nourish yourself during their effects, what the precautions are etc. I feel like there’s sort of a stigma around it right now, especially as the only scene which is truly vibrant here is the festival/big room part of it and talking about drugs would associate big sponsors with supporting something that involves illegal and dangerous substances. It’s just bad for business I guess. Seeing kids being carried out on stretchers on big events… I do wish there was more education about it here, or at least an open discussion.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I’m in full blown music making mode, so a bunch of releases and some very interesting gigs. Also, spamming people with more write-ups, and sharing more good music that I am lucky enough to find. Thanks for having me!!
Interview by Georgia Murphy