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Feature: GROJ [Interview]

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GROJ is an electronic musician, singer-songwriter and live act. Being one of few electronic musicians who perform live singing with a clubbing mood, his live show sets an impression on you. Expect warm melodic music, a direct style filled with personality and cutting edge beats. Early in his career EXCLAIM! and Noisey magazines showed great interest in his albums. Over the course of his releases GROJ opened up to more diverse creative possibilities. His rumbling rhythms and far-reaching dance floor anthems are perfect to build up tension on the dance floor. Sounds are subtly played out, yet crystal-clear and easy to recognize, especially as soon as you hear his signature voice! Coming from a family line of artists and craftsmen, he is an instinctive creator and his music has a true long-lasting impact on listeners. GROJ currently resides in Montreal and has interests also in music and cognitive science.

The Canadian artist made his microCastle debut in November of last year with ‘Bunk Up’. Well received, the three track artist EP showcased the widescreen appeal of Kevin’s studio repertoire. It’s blend of youthful energy and melodic minimalism found favour with a wide array of the world’s top tastemakers including Ame, Andhim, Dixon, HOSH, Guy J and Sasha. Now following his chart topping fryhide single ‘SITH’, GROJ returns to microCastle for the much anticipated ‘Transmission’. On the cusp of this unique release we had a chance to sit down with the Canadian for an extensive interview. Enjoy!

Hi Kevin, thanks for sitting with us today, what are you up to this week?

Hello, thank you for inviting me, I have just came back from some touring in Hamburg and the Red Coast (Selena Bay), so settling back in and looking forward to working on some new music. My single Transmission also just came out on microCastle while I was touring so I’m gathering some cool videos from the shows and will focus on sharing some material around the release.

What is your favorite way to start off the day? What is your favorite breakfast? Any particular type of music you like to put on to jumpstart your daily activities?

Nothing works better for me than a home-made latte, I like to grind my third wave coffee beans with a manual grinder, it’s a good dreamy arm workout and gets my thoughts going. I usually find that electric grinders leave a little taste that don’t like that much. Eggs and smoothie variations for breakfast, though I usually like to wait 4-5 hours before eating to trigger a bit of intermittent fasting, I find it helps my creativity. I usually don’t tend to listen to music much in morning, a 20-minute vocal warm-up gets things rolling.

Would you consider Montreal to be the music capital of Canada?

It’s a hot spot, there is a lot going on here with all the festivals and outdoor events in the summer. The underground scene has always been well developed here since rent is lower and there is a strong connection with both Europe and the east coast culturally. The music scene is very rich and lively here, a varied mix of indie rock and electronic music, so it’s great to get music projects started, meet other artists and a strategic base to operate from since flights are well routed to North/South American and Europe.

If you were to ever to move what would you miss from home the most and why?

The people here are very interesting, many have mixed cultural background, or they get in the vibe fast. Montreal is one of the more open-minded places in the world that feels very safe and it’s just the right size so that you keep meeting new people but also run into friends spontaneously all the time. I love the summers here people go crazy. The winters on the other hand are long and painful. I love travelling and seeing new cultures, I have always moved around a lot.

Besides music, what are your other interests and hobbies. Did you always want to be an artist?

I have other interests as well; I am studying how learning music affects the brain and how it can help children develop other skills as well as be a potential tool to help teach social-emotional skills to children with autism. I never felt like I had to choose or want to become an artist, it just sort of happened. There is a long line of artists in my family, so that was the atmosphere growing up and I have always made music since I was 6 years old. I never gave it much thought and just loved to focus on making music more than on “feeling like an artist”.

There are up and downs in every artists career, you’ve had a lot of success in the last two years but what have been some major let downs or disappointments from the past?

My career until two years ago has been on a sort of slow linear growth, so I always had the impression of moving forward and felt confident that by practicing every day something will happen and I will get somewhere. That enabled me to stay productive and not lose confidence, even if the beginning felt a little long. There were hard times emotionally and financially for me in the past, but I always had music, it is my oldest friend.

You have a new single out now on microCastle, it’s a cover of Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’. An iconic track by an iconic band, how did you even begin to think about tackling this one?

I actually had made a track several years ago, where I started singing “Dance! Dance!” in this way, but it was totally unrelated. The team I’m working with told me one day: “We think your voice is similar to Joy Division, check if there are tracks you think you can do a cover for, it would be a cool project”. I was very excited about the idea; Joy Division was a band I listened to a lot and identified with. Then I played out all the discography that night and the decision was quick, as soon as I fell on Transmission it resonated, and I had already sort of tackled this Dance vocal hook before, so it didn’t intimidate me.

Walk us through the production process on it please.

The first test was to see if the track was compatible with a 120BPM tempo. I drew out the harmonic progression first, then mapped it out to a 9-bar 3 by 4 rhythm structure. I have been working a lot with polyrhythms these days and give a lot of importance to 3 by 4 ratios, so I checked to see if I could make the arpeggio this way. It connected very well right away because most of the “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio” chorus is actually a 3 by 4 polyrhythm. The 9-bar cycles were sounding too long dreamy and I wanted something driving still, closer to the original. I kept the arpeggios rolling as a 3 by 4 polyrhythm but changed the chord every 8 bars by hand so it feels like the track is in 8 bars instead of 9. Then I added the guitar strums using a Les Paul and ran it through a bunch guitar effects, a custom distortion pedal I got in Berlin and through an old Tascam mixer with EQing. This helped to give the 80’s punk sound. I populated the mix with some digital synth sounds, kick, bassline, toms and the foundations were then set to try out the vocals. I sampled many microphones and pre-amps that I rented out until I got the right fit, which was in the end a Warm Audio WA47 mike with a Focusrite ISA one pre-amp. I’ve been using that since, it just fits nicely with my voice. The arrangement was pretty fluid at this point, I didn’t want to the vocals to take too much space, just enough to give impact and stretched out the instrumentation so that it builds suspense for when the vocal-hooks come in.

How difficult was it to get into the Ian Curtis vocal vibe and were there attempts to redo the full vocal or was the initial idea always the main hook?

I had to go back and forth a lot between the original vocalization and my recordings to fine-tune the right sound. I still wanted it to sound like me, but also to be immediately recognizable as a potential Ian Curtis recording. Finding the right delay and reverb atmosphere was done digitally and didn’t take very long, it worked with several options. I never attempted recording any other parts of the song lyrics, I knew from the get-go that I would only use those six words: “Dance, To, The, Radio, Live, Transmission”. I didn’t want to focus too much on the impact of the Radio itself as a technology but bring out its meaning in a more universal way and highlight how the themes and questions of the song can apply to how we use newer technologies today.

Covering Joy Division is a brave and daunting task to embark on. Was there ever a thought of “maybe i should leave this one alone” or anything like that?

I think the message of the original is still there and this cover may give it a new life cycle. Originally the lyrics question how listening to the radio at the time was a form of disconnection and propaganda outlet. If people could stand the lonely silence of solitary living they would be freer thinkers.

I think the chorus is open to interpretation, as all good art should be. To me the message was to use the radio as a dancing tool, to use it to have fun, connect with people, transform the loneliness of silence into real connection. By omitting the rest of the lyrics, my version highlights this specific interpretation and gives it practical implications: people who don’t know punk can dance to it together on a more global scale – It carries (I Hope!) the original message of the song to a new generation while staying true to its original intention.

I had doubts obviously, then I would remember, well we’re both called Kevin (Ian Kevin Curtis), so some stars in the skies must be aligned!

Let’s talk a bit about production, what was the first program/software that got you started?

I started on Reason, then moved to Logic. It was great and intuitive to get into the world of audio and get a feel for how to route connections and design synth sounds.

What is your favorite gear at the moment?

I’m big on guitar pedals at the moment and use a huge range of those, I just love the reverb sounds and the subtle analog crunch the distortion pedals can offer.

You have a very distinctive synth-sound. Which synths are you using for this sound and what are the typical effects you are putting on them?

I always have hardware around, Matrix 6R for pads, Yamaha CS5 for haunting melodies, Vermona Perfourmer for synth FX and rounder sounds. Really like the Roland 606 drum-machine and run it through some reverb pedals, Big Sky, EHX-cathedral, Disaster Transport SR, some custom stuff a lot, distortion pedals from small shop in Berlin. Best plugins for me are Eventide, Fabfilter, cool stuff by Denise too.

Your work always sounds incredibly clean, which monitors do you use and what would you say makes your production sound so pristine?

I use Genelec monitors, have been for 8 years now. But none of that is useful if you don’t know your room and how you speakers sound compared to the rest. Having good monitors from the get-go is a must, but ear training, profound knowledge and cross-referencing with other trusted artists is crucial to make the best out of the monitors.

Which software do you use now and what does your workflow look like? What are the key elements that you start working with?

Now I am working with Ableton. I don’t really care about what I’m using as I’m actually mixing in a lot of audio recordings externally, so the less platform jumping the better. As much as yes, I can notice subtle differences between softwares, in the end what counts is your ideas and your energy. I’m not too hung up on gear. I have explored a lot and have my selected favorite synths, drum-machines and plug-ins. I would say 10 years of daily practice is the best software and workflow you can use. Each song has its own journey, it’s like meeting a girl or a guy, get to know the song, push its buttons a bit, then decide which angle you want to take on it, dive in, dive out.

Would you consider yourself a nerd when it comes to producing and if so, why?

I am nerdy but also very free spirited, so they balance out in the end. I can spend 8h straight on a song without food or drink sometimes and finish it in one stroke, so I have the concentration level of a nerd, but the spontaneity and instinctiveness of a live performer.

What piece of gear would you most like to buy next?

Probably a more powerful computer. At this point my moto is any new gear item should replace old ones. I have a tendency for hoarding and clutter, so I try to prevent that from happening by acting upstream. My dream though would probably be to upgrade my Yamaha CS5 to a CS50!


Describe one or some of the best sets you’ve played in your career. Where was the venue and how was the vibe? Do you often feel inspired to make music after being on the road?

My favorite set was actually one of the latest I played in Hamburg with the fryhide team who was there this time: HOSH, Tone Depth, and Simao. The weather was a little cloudy in a grungy smoky atmosphere and people were there for the music mainly, you could feel that. The venue was at the rear of a train station and the crowd was on a long staircase giving to the entrance, so it felt like playing in an amphitheater. Old brick train station, murky skies, it was the first time I performed Transmission to a big crowd, so it had an appropriate punk edge to it. On the road I like to see new things, meet people, get experiences, open my eyes, then why I get back I need to piece everything together for a bit, then new ideas start coming and I can get into a creative high.

Is there a side of GROJ which you wish to explore more in your upcoming projects?

I’m working on an electronic-indie vocal album now which will be less DJ oriented (but still compatible), so the songs will take on more of a 3-4 minute format. I want to explore new horizons and lay the foundations for playing in more showroom settings, maybe even with a band. I want the music to be more campfire compatible, in the sense that anyone can pick up a guitar and start singing it.

With the barriers to production at an all-time low for many people, and the availability of studio software so easy, do you feel it has had a negative impact on the electronic music market?

I think it’s great. Music has huge therapeutic power so this is probably helping many people’s lives that the studio is very accessible now. I’d say what I don’t like is people releasing a lot of 2 track EPs here and there, I encourage new artists to work on bodies of work and be very selective about their releases and how they profile themselves. It will have more impact to wait for a great opportunity with a strong body of work, than to jump around because of impatience and wanting to get things going.

If you weren’t making music, what can you imagine yourself doing for a living? Any hidden skills that might surprise us?

I can’t really imagine myself doing anything else. I study music academically so could work in research but still in music. I dabbled around with a bit of sound design for film a few years back but found it not creative enough for me. Designing sound atmospheres and sonic landscapes for work environments or airports could be cool too.

What else can we expect from GROJ over the coming months in terms of releases?

There should be a new EP on fryhide this year and hope to have my album ready sometime early next year, but that’s never easy to predict!

Thanks for sitting with us Kevin!

Thanks for the invite, really enjoyed the questions!

‘Transmission’ is out now on microCastle, you can purchase the release here: https://bit.ly/2Zq66wC/a>

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