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VNTM [Interview]

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VNTM is an Amsterdam based live act and musician that has been playing his take on techno at numerous big festivals around the globe, appearing with his machines and only playing out his own material. The sound of VNTM is a blend between modern day techno and contemporary progressive melodies. By the use of haunting chords, mysterious strings and dark basses VNTM tries to take the listeners on a journey through his mind and aims to visualize a unique storyline during every performance. Dark, yet uplifting, mysterious and elusive are all terms that come to mind when exploring the sound of the young Dutchman. VNTM has performed internationally at Afterlife Events, Awakenings, Mystic Garden, Straf_werk and more alongside Tale of Us, Adriatique, Mind Against, Hunter/Game, Woo York, Stephan Bodzin, while releasing his music via Afterlife, DAYS like NIGHTS, Impressum and Infinite Depth. This week sees VNTM returning to Infinite Depth with 'Occulent' alongside remixes from Hunter/Game and Paul Roux.

Progressive Astronaut caught up with VNTM to learn more about the release of 'Occulent', his studio process, future plans, and more. Enjoy.

Hi VNTM, thanks for joining us. What is your current mood and what was the last piece of music you listened to?

At the moment of typing this I’m listening to “Woo York - Chasing The Dream”, I’m quite happy at the moment with everything that’s going on so a nice and dreamy piece of music soothes the day!

How has the start to the year been for you and what are your plans for the coming week?

I’ve been finalizing a lot of material for the festival season that's ahead of us and I have have just released my own event concept called Mindscape. So it’s been quite a few hectic weeks but all in a positive way!

Tell us about living in Amsterdam, how has it influenced your music taste and direction? Or has it at all?

I grew up in a smaller town right next to Amsterdam, and I’ve been living in the city for quite some time now. Amsterdam’s nightlife is very vibrant and the underground currents are very strong, it’s always inspiring to see genres develop in smaller clubs that allow new niche markets to open up. It’s incredible how much talented producers and performers Amsterdam is producing at the moment! So yeah this is definitely a motivation for me to keep pushing my sound, and it’s inspiring to see others do it too.

If you were a tour-guide for nightlife in Amsterdam (and or the Netherlands), what would be the clubs you’d take the people to see and what local DJs do they need to hear?

Obviously I’d take them to my residency club Shelter, but other places I like to visit are De School and LoFi for example. Another place that’s dear to me is the Gashouder, I’ve had the joy to play there for Awakenings 3 times already and it’s such an iconic place in Amsterdam. Some of the local DJ’s that I really believe in and enjoy listening to are Sama, Anouschka and Serti. All 3 of them have different approaches to their sets, but the main ingredient is hypnotic techno and they do it well!

And to add to that, what have been your favourite venues to perform at in the Netherlands and why?

I kind of gave it away already but Shelter is my home-club right now, besides that I really enjoy playing at Complex in Maastricht, and Basis in Utrecht has been the club that believed in me from the very beginning so that one is special too. Another venue that I’ve only played once but can’t wait to go back to is Paradigm in Groningen, it’s such an industrial and vibey place with a very cool and dedicated crew.

If you are not DJing or socializing at clubs, where do we find you? And doing what?

The obvious answer would be: my studio haha! I’m literally spending half of my week there, if not more. But besides that I also recently started to play Padel with my friends, it’s a great way to exercise and I enjoy it a lot. And since covid I’m also really into cooking, so either going out for dinner or cooking for friends is high on the activity list as well.

When you were first getting started in production did you have someone help you or are you completely self-taught? And what would you recommend new producers do to help with the learning curve of production?

I started 12 years ago with FL studio, never really found my way in that DAW and quickly moved onto Ableton. Back then YouTube wasn’t as good for music production videos as it is now, so I really had to dig and ask other producers a lot. Then I followed a music production study at Herman Brood Academy, it’s quite a famous school for music production in the Netherlands.

And ever since I have been reaching out to specific producers for private classes, like Berlin based master engineer Conor Dalton for example. Every time I’m speaking to this guy I’m learning something new about audio. It goes to show at even after 12 years there is so much to learn and geek about. It’s an ever expanding journey for me and I really enjoy the ride so far!

I think my main advice would be to dare to ask people for help, look for communities online or places were producers gather to share knowledge. And It’s important to divide your skills into smaller portions, so if you struggle with kickdrums for example.. ask someone who is using killer kickdrums. Try to study a bit of music theory too, and refine your skill by practicing a lot.

You have a new EP ‘Occulent’, out this week via Infinite Depth, tell us about the release, and how do these tracks showcase your current sound?

Most people know me for quite a melodic sound, but I’ve been altering and reimagining my sound over the past 2 years. This change was initiated when the covid measures were lifted and I realized that what I missed most were true techno nights in it’s purest form. When I had the chance to go to my first night out after almost 2 years of not partying, a heavy techno night at Radion was the first one I picked. This choice led to an internal process of realigning my music with my personal needs, thus introducing more techno in my sound palette. Trying to aim for a more minimalistic approach in the studio too. I’m trying to stay true to my melodic approach to music but It was time for me to challenge myself and look for new territories to go with my sound.

Now fast forward to this EP: I think the track selection showcases exactly that balance, the title track is melancholic and melodic, but the other 2 are far more minimalistic techno tools. Jonan from Infinite Depth is a long time friend, and he immediately believed in this selection of music so it was a great fit for me!

What does your set-up look like? Do you favor physical gear over digital? And what studio tools featured heavily in the writing of these tracks?

I have quite a bit of studio gear as you can see, but to be quite fair most of the work on these tracks happened in the box with Ableton. My most frequently used piece of equipment is the Elektron Rytm Mk2, its amazing to sequence drums and really opens the door for happy accidents and creative approaches to laying down grooves. I don’t really see the point of the real battle between analog and digital, as in most productions you won’t be able to tell the difference if it’s produced well. The only thing really in favor of hardware is that I like to twist knobs and get away from the screen, and this is easiest with synths. (Of course a midi controller can do it too, but I don’t like midi-mapping as it’s time consuming and inspiration draining)

What does writing a track look like for you? Could you walk us through the production process on one of the tracks from your Infinite Depth release?

Rage Quit, as the name suggests, came from a moment of frustration.. I wanted to create something melodic for a week but constantly struggled to get something out there that I enjoyed. When I almost wanted to quit my session that day I thought alright if the universe doesn’t want me to write melodic then I will put this frustration in a techno track. And I think I created this one in less than 2 hours haha. Sometimes frustration can lead to amazing results when being resolved into something positive.

“Occulent” on the other hand was a more thoughtful process in which I wanted to create something for the end of my sets, something with melancholy and melody yet enough energy to keep the spirits up on the dancefloor.

I’m very often contemplating after gigs “what do I need next time” or “did I miss a certain energy or track in this set” and then I take those thoughts to the studio and try to transform them into ideas. This is a very nice approach to create a different palette of sounds fitting different time-slots or moments during sets.

You’ve now released three remixes and an EP with Infinite Depth, what makes the label such a comfortable home for your music?

I’ve known Jonan for years now and we see each other often during my gigs in the Netherlands so we get along very well. Every now and then I exchange some music with him and we talk about both our projects. At the same time Jonan really understands my musical message and believed in these tracks when others wouldn’t so it’s a perfect fit.

Let’s talk about production a bit more for a moment, where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play? And was there anything that inspired the tracks which make up your ‘Occulent’ EP?

My studio really is my happy place, I also sit there working on other things than just music. The urge to create is always there, even just before going to bed or some other moments when it’s not the most convenient. Inspiration can literally come from everything but mostly flows straight from my mood into the music. It’s sometimes hard to describe my exact feelings in words, but my music is very often a reflection of it. I also produce a lot of music that is not really for the clubs or even for other people to listen to. It can be just for me and that moment only, sometimes I don’t even listen back to those drafts or ideas. So there might be an album sitting inside my Ableton folder that will never see the light of day.

Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice? And who is someone you share your new music with first for feedback?

I kind of have the rule to let tracks breathe for at least 2-3 months. Everyone producer that is now reading this must be familiar with the feeling of just finishing the first version of a track that feels as if it’s “The best thing you’ve ever created”. I often realized afterwards that it wasn’t like that, which is totally fine, but that is why I’m not sending music to labels or artists just after creating it. And since I only play my own music live, the crowd response is my biggest mirror.
Over the years I came to realize that it is important to try tracks in different settings before assuming a final verdict, timing and flow in a set can deliver music in such a different way. I keep editing the arrangement and mix-down until I’m happy, but most of the creative energy I put into it is done within one day. I’m a firm believer you are capturing a mood or feeling and it can be quite difficult to reinstate that same flow the next day or weeks after.

What is the task you enjoy the most when producing and what would you prefer someone else to do?

It’s the puzzle to perfection for me, trying to align all elements into one collective piece. I literally enjoy every part of it, I’m also doing quite a bit of mixing and mastering for other people. For me mixing is just as much a creative task as writing the notes, that’s why I’d never assign that task to someone else.

You are both a live act and DJ, I would say being a live act really sets you apart in a way, which do you enjoy more and why?

I used to DJ in the past but now I play live 99% of the times haha! Playing live is a different way of communicating, it’s easier for me to give people an insight into my mind and take them on my journey. Something I always found hard with other peoples tracks. It’s a lot of hard work setting up a live-set but once you have it up and running it’s all about finetuning on a microscopic level that others probably won’t notice at first. It’s been a 5 year journey already and I’m still improving my setup and mappings almost every month.

What’s your current live setup and how has it evolved since your first live gig?

I started with an Ableton Push and a Moog Minitaur, and one xone controller. At first I kept expanding it with new gear, but last year I wanted to size it down again. Creating something efficient but still versatile enough to handle multiple situations. My current gear list:
Two X:one-k2’s, X:one96 mixer, Analog Rytm mk2, Novation Peak, Arturia keystep and an iPad with Touchable pro app. (And a laptop with Ableton)

What would be a musical extravagance for your studio you would pay for, if you were very wealthy?

In my old studio I used to have a Juno-60 from my studio partner and even though these classics are a nice look and add a feeling of nostalgia, I much rather have an insane futuristic rack of modular synths or extreme expensive speakers with perfect acoustics.

Now let’s talk about performing for a moment, it’s a unique discipline at the border between presenting great music and creating something new with it, between composition and improvisation to an extent. How would you describe your approach to it?

It is such a unique ride and I really feel that I’m still learning a lot of fine details I would have never picked up on a few years ago. Also playing bigger venues or festivals brings up a whole new level of skill and balance. My main focus is maintaining a high energy level throughout my sets and not taking too much time for breaks. Building energy track by track and hopefully taking the listener on a journey through my mind. I’m quite a control freak, so letting go of that control and improvise can be quite challenging. But if I’m in the right flow I really enjoy those moments the most.

Can you tell me a bit about how your work as a performer has influenced your view of music, your way of listening to tracks and perhaps also, your work as a producer?

It’s impossible for me not to listen like a DJ haha, also if music is not produced well or if a mix doesn’t translate well on my speakers I move onto something else. But when it comes to my own studio work, I always try new techniques and ways to improve my sounds. When focussing on the technical aspect it can be hard to not lose sight of the actual music sometimes. I once heard the quote “Sound design should not be a substitute for good music”, meaning that it’s more important to communicate a feeling or story instead of focussing on producer geek elements that no one else hears.

If you could set up an event with a line-up of five artists of your choice, who would you book and what set times would you ascribe to the artists?

I just launched my own event-series called Mindscape, for the past 12 months I have been building my residency with Shelter Amsterdam. Together with their amazing creative director Onomé we created some very interesting lineups, and we are now expanding on that residency with my own curated events. Some of the acts that I find truly inspiring and would love to book (again) some day are Nthng, Luigi Tozzi, Jakojako, Recondite, Adiel and Len Faki. As you can see it’s quite a broad spectrum ranging from contemporary techno to more hypnotic approaches, all of which will hopefully be part of a Mindscape event in the future.

Current top five tracks?

Shdw & Obscure Shape - Das Gefallene Konigreich

Rodhad & Jakojako - Passeri (Floor Mix)

Sama & Thimo Konings - Esp of

Places Biri - Relief

Holden Federico - As Infinite

What’s a book you’ve read or film you watched that has left an impact on you, and why?

Currently watching DARK, the soundtrack is incredible! And I really like those kind of time traveler multi-layered stories through different dimensions, just like Tennet and Inception

Apart from music, what makes you happiest?

Food. Both cooking and eating it haha!

What does the remainder of 2023 hold for you? Anything you can share with us?

After this Infinite Depth release I’ll do 2 remixes and I got a major EP coming up that is now at the pressing plant for Vinyl. It’s my first work that’s being pressed on vinyl, and It’s also the first work where I feel this was a right match for it. It’s going to be my biggest EP so far in my career with 6 tracks so can’t wait to share that with the world! And I’m working very hard on the Mindscape project so keep an eye out on that for future events and more!

'Occulent' is available now via Infinite Depth: https://bit.ly/3lNOSd9

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