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Spending an evening with… Francois Kevorkian

Before any big interview, writers and journalists often ask around to find out if anyone has any tips about what to expect from the interviewee.

This is usually done not in the hope of learning what they are likely to say ahead of the interview, but mostly to discover what they are like as a person.

Perhaps they are a bit prickly on certain subjects. Or they take some time to warm up. Maybe they are rather erratic with their answers and need keeping on track.

Such a tactic is as important as the research you may spend weeks doing beforehand.

I did this for most of the people featured in HALO – but with Francois Kevorkian, the legendary DJ/producer who mixed all but one of the tracks on Violator and created many of the famed remixes of the singles from that period, I was arguably more curious than any other interviewee.

In the official 30-minute Violator documentary from the mid-2000s, Kevorkian is praised (in particular, by Dave Gahan) for his creativity with the mixing yet labelled “pedantic” and “a stickler” by Martin Gore and Alan Wilder respectively.

When he does eventually appear in the same documentary, Kevorkian comes across as gentle, thoughtful and, of course, extremely focused.

After exchanging a few emails, Kevorkian and I spoke for nearly three hours about his time with Depeche, mixing Violator and the incredible work he did with his extended versions of Personal Jesus, Enjoy The Silence, Policy Of Truth and World In My Eyes.

The interview came in at a mammoth 25,000 words (thank you, my trusty transcriber, Nabaa!) and will eventually be included in HALO.

Kevorkian is articulate, measured, expansive and, interestingly, I found perhaps less interested in the technical aspects of what he did (and still does) and, instead, more comfortable to discuss the aesthetics of it all and what it all meant to him, the band and the fans.

The only disappointing aspect of the time I spent talking to Kevorkian was that the interview was carried out over the chat platform Skype – him at home in New York City, me in Bishops Stortford (an infinitely less exciting town than the Big Apple, located just north of London).

Yet we agreed that if he ever came over to London – or me to New York City – that we would say hi…

Fast forward to September this year and the wonderful Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, the DJ behind the Classic Album Sundays project that I took part in last year, was conducting a Q&A with Kevorkian at an arty venue in the trendy Whitechapel area of London’s East End.

This was an ideal opportunity to fulfil our promise but, for me, to learn a lot more about Kevorkian’s career outside of the Depeche bubble of 1989 and 1990.

(Kevorkian’s work with Depeche Mode came up briefly towards the end of the discussion when he recalled how he was mixing Personal Jesus in Milan at the same time as the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, China, in June 1989.)

Here are my rough notes from Kevorkian’s chat with Murphy:

  • He was a big fan of Jimi Hendrix and was amazed at what the legendary guitarist could do with sound.
  • If he had not carved out his own role in music as a DJ in the mid-1970s, Kevorkian was destined to be a bio-chemist or engineer.
  • The club scene in New York City, where he moved to from France in his early-20s, “felt like science fiction”, such was its “revolutionary” impact on the alternative and dance music scene at the time.
  • It wasn’t particularly glamorous at times, with him struggling to make enough money to pay his NYC rent.
  • The craft of the modern-day DJ was born in the clubs of NYC in the mid to late-1970s, with turntable “battles” often a highlight of a club night.
  • Up-and-coming producers would often deliver acetate records to the DJs so that they could hear how their work sounds in a club.
  • Working at the legendary Loft nightclub, opened in 1970 by David Mancuso, was an important moment in Kevorkian’s career as it exposed him to other well-known DJs and made him appreciate the mechanics behind sound and atmosphere (from an acoustics perspective, “there was really nowhere else like it”).

  • Kevorkian is a firm believer in the concept of the studio “console desk being an instrument”, where a track can be taken in a different direction purely from how it is manipulated and massaged during the mixing phase in the control room.
  • He is NOT a fan of one of Daniel Miller’s favourite bands, the pioneering “krautrock” ensemble, Can (“crap rock!”).
  • The best nightclubs are those that consider the audio as an “acoustics system, not a sound system”. Designers should consider every aspect of a room, even where walls and pillars are placed as these are disruptive to the “laws of nature” around the movement of sound.
  • One of his favourite nightclubs in the UK is the Ministry of Sound in London – the closest he has known from a sonic perspective to the famous Loft club (and, later, Paradise) in NYC.
  • CDs sounds “awful” in clubs as the sound is often heavily compressed, meaning the frequency ranges are not as wide as on vinyl.
  • On the controversial and vast subject of modern music distribution on streaming sites (an area that admittedly requires an entire discussion in its own right), Kevorkian says at the most basic level, services such as Spotify et al are great for consumers of music but not so for those making it.
  • One of the “exciting” new forms of dance/electronic music for Kevorkian has been the emergence of the dubstep genre.

Thanks to Murphy for organising and moderating the event – a fascinating dive into the world of one of the key figures in the creation of the Violator sound.

There’s a lot more from Kevorkian to come…

francois kevorkian halo

Top tip – Listen to Violator in the dark, VERY loud, on a kick-ass system

Imagine you have no distractions for 47 minutes.

And, then, can listen to a piece of music intensely, giving it your full attention.

Yeah, quite a rare opportunity for many people.

And this isn’t about plugging in an MP3 player on the train ride to work – you can still find yourself looking out of the window or checking a mobile phone for messages.

Let’s face it – total immersion in music is a unique experience nowadays.

Add to the equation the chance to listen to that body of work on a high quality soundsystem, and the chances narrow even further (using decent headphones on a home music system does not count).

Last weekend, the Classic Album Sundays event was a good opportunity to get out on the road and start evangelising about Violator and the Halo book.

Organised by the wonderfully energetic and knowledgeable Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, CAS showcases a landmark album with a mixture of a presentation, audience Q&A, with a play-back on a soundsystem brought in specially for the event.

And so, with 25 years from the release date coming up soon, it was Depeche Mode and Violator’s turn.

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The discussion part of the event was interesting and fun to do (but will leave others to comment, as Murphy and I are obviously biased!), covering the history of Violator from the production to its impact on the band and fans.

But it was the play-back section which, I suspect, most people will remember fondly for a long time to come.

For the pros or the curious, the “audio menu”, as Murphy calls it, was as follows:

Audio Menu: Dynavector D17D3 MC Cartridge, Rega P9 Turntable, Rega IOS Reference MC Phono Stage, Audio Note Jinro Integrated Amp, Chord Signature Speaker Cable, Chord Signature Tuned Aray interconnects, ISOL-8 Substation Integra Power Conditioner, Klipsch SW-115 Subwoofers and Klipschorn Loudspeakers.

On other words: extremely powerful.

So the audience of about 70 people sat in silence (phones switched off!), in the semi-dark (just a few ribbons of lights on the floor for company), listening to all 47 minutes of Violator… on vinyl.

Zero interruptions – apart from flipping over the record between Waiting For The Night and Enjoy The Silence (remember having to do that?).

The beauty and enjoyment of listening to Violator in such a unique setting was extraordinary.

Quite often, when a piece of music is played extremely loudly in an open environment, a lot of the original intricate parts are lost to the acoustic reverb in the room, natural elements when outside, or the system simply being unable to cope very well with the volume.

As someone later told me:

“It’s quite a privilege to hear an album that you know so well on a soundsystem like that – incomparable to MP3s!”

It is difficult to identify all the stand-out moments of the playback – the overall experience was fabulous and fascinating.

But in particular, Policy Of Truth (for the rhythm section), World In My Eyes (is there a better opener to any Depeche album?), Halo (for the strings) and Clean (for the grinding bass).

Even the hardcore Depeche fans in the audience appeared quite moved by the experience 🙂 .

It was, in short, a wonderful event to participate in.

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Murphy deserves a lot of credit for the CAS concept. So huge thanks to her for organising the event and the opportunity to chew the fat with people about Violator (and the Halo book).

Check out the website for forthcoming sessions, when another long-player will be reviewed and get the fantastic CAS audio treatment.

The events take place regularly in London, New York and Oslo.

There are more pictures from the event on our Facebook page (thanks to @kaybar007 for the above shot).

Thanks to all those who came and said hello, especially those who I I’ve met “virtually” on the numerous Depeche forums and groups.

Funnily enough, at the exact moment whilst we were celebrating a landmark album, Andy Fletcher and his son Joe were celebrating a Chelsea win at Wembley Stadium.

Oh well, nobody’s perfect… Sorry, Fletch 😉

A photo posted by Joe Fletcher (@joethefletch) on

Speaking about Violator at Classic Album Sundays

It is perhaps, sadly, rather rare these days for music fans to get the opportunity to listen to an album in its entirety.

Especially without any distractions.

We are more used to the recommendation-led world of Spotify, or short bursts of just one track from a band via YouTube.

We often listen whilst doing something else (working, exercise, cooking, helping with the kids’ homework 🙂 ), but the opportunities to absorb a body of music when the only task is to, well, listen are increasingly uncommon.

And thus Classic Album Sundays was born – a regular event in London where a well known LP (yes, a long-player) is debated and then played on a kick-ass sound system.

Thrilled to announce I will be taking part in the next event when, you guessed it, Violator takes its bow.

The three-hour session takes place on Sunday 1st March at Brilliant Corners in London’s East End.

You can find out more and buy tickets here.

classic album sundays

 

Some background as to how the Classic Album Sundays concept came about and an video interview with its founder, Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy.