Courtesy – Adding nuance to the Copenhagen techno sound (interview)
Interview and reportage by Cameron Pagett. Additional photos by Kasia Zacharko.
A liberal array of red and blue light columns course across a very crowded floor. The beginning hours of morning have fallen over the city and again I am perched at the lighting desk in Volume KBH. Another year, another chapter in diy-organiser Fast Forward’s history unfolds in a smokey warehouse. The speakers are loud, it is nearing halloween and many of the patrons arrive and move with the music in outlandish costumes bringing an extra flair to the scenery and special ambiance this Copenhagen-based collective is known for.
Standing in the dj booth, tenderly and carefully managing the controls stands almost certainly Copenhagen’s most recognized techno-dj, Courtesy (Najaaraq Vestbirk), founder of the now closed renown local label Ectotherm and current creative director of new project based label Kulør. Music swirling like a ravishing tailwind after a hurricane, bodies swaying in the heat, she is taking the audience through a joyous and energetic set full of feeling, emotions and dancing bliss. The lights begin to beam as fire strobes reaching down and the familiar nostalgic and present melody from Kulør’s first release and Schake track “Automated Lover” fills the room.
From the lighting desk situated near the ceiling I feel as if the room is standing still. The mood is strong in this track, it’s the type of song that makes one feel as if you can see time unfold in slow motion while your feet move a kilometer per second. The strobes turn to glorious pillars of lightest blue and drape over the walls romantically, Courtesy sways her head rhythmically from side to side residing in her element, hands on the controls and heart seeping into the speakers. She is in a special place.
It’s the day before the online release of what looks to be a marker in the Copenhagen techno community. We are in Nørrebro Parken. New creative label Kulør, headed by Najaaraq Vestbirk, will be releasing its first project in the form of a compilation record featuring many of the most interesting local names in the 140 bpm scene. The sun is shining, and Najaaraq, my friend and I are all seated in the sun’s rays making the most of the mid-fall solar energy. We have gathered to talk about the first Kulør compilation, the new label, life stuff and the larger creative platform she now enjoys. Coffee on my lap, the sun as our guide she’s been busy this morning. Running a label, curating sets and travelling the world can certainly be hectic, yet she reflects a concentrated and focused demeanor on what she is doing and the projects she is working on.
“This label is a lot more work then Ectotherm,” she admits. “I am very dedicated to this project, it’s a big priority to me. It won’t only be about releasing music, there are a number of projects I will be revealing soon.” The sun glares into her eyes, and all but a squint crowning the halo of her temples distracts from a persistent gaze with her charismatic jawline bent on continuing a pioneering and prominent role in the local techno Community. “The point with this release was kinda to make a statement with the sound and particular scene in Copenhagen that is very different, but this is orientated to here. Everything we do in Kulør is going to be different projects.” She has big visions for the label which according to her will grow in diversity over time and cater to many artistic pursuits other then music as well. “This will not be another 140 bpm techno label. Every project will have a world on its own and that can mean a lot of different things.”
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Earlier in the year Ectotherm, one of the first major techno labels in Copenhagen run by both Najaaraq (Courtesy) and Sara (Mama Snake) closed abruptly with nearly no warning. The announcement was a small shock to many in the community and an event that many did not see coming.
“When Sara decided she didn’t want to do Ectotherm anymore and we discontinued the company I was pretty devastated honestly, it wasn’t my decision.” Pausing for words, she peers down the street into a patch of new buildings. There is a gentle wind and a light ambiance from children playing and people passing. After a moment she regroups, “when I thought about it I realized that for a long time I had ideas about projects I wanted to do … things I couldn’t do in the context of Ectotherm and this was a perfect opportunity for me to act out things that weren’t possible there. Sometimes things that feel tragic or difficult end up being good creatively. It’s the start of something new. A lot of the ideas I didn’t have the right platform for, and I do now.” It’s apparent in her demeanor that the end of Ectotherm was difficult to take and hard for her to understand. So much effort and sentiment was tied up in it, and as difficult as it was for fans of Ectotherm it’s plain to see that it affected her as well. Labels come and go, and in the current climate the conception of what it means to be a label in the creative world is quickly morphing and changing.
Kulør? It’s a nice word to be sure with a positive and ambiguous meaning. It’s also a fairly bold move to use a Danish word as the title for a label directly associated with Copenhagen’s most Internationally visible techno faces. In the past, many other labels and artists have opted for English titles out of necessity and to boost accessibility. Danish is a small language spoken by a handful of people globally, featuring its own unique set of alphabet characters and no shortage of pronunciation quirks. While it may feel natural domestically, internationally it’s a small anomaly and something others may start getting used to as Danish artists continue to move and impress on the global stage. When asked about the move she remains coy, and encourages me not to look into it much, “It is a way of saying colorful in Danish and a lot of the projects we are working on are not necessarily colorful in a literal way, it’s more a statement in personality. I think it’s a word that fits well in the context.”
There is a glint of spontaneity growing in her hazel eyes, reticent still about the dismantling of Ectotherm with also a hint of precise yet wild excitement for the future. “I like to work with people, and I like to work in many different ways. I love to play music, I love the interaction on the dance floor and the creativity in that, but I also need to work closely with people.” She reflects, “I love Ectotherm, but there was a recipe in the way that releases looked, the way we did the artwork … Kulør is not like that, it’s like a living organism that can grow and morph into things that I can’t even imagine now.”
If Ectotherm is no more, it certainly helped provide a pathway for a large amount of exposure in the electronic landscape. While many of Copenhagen’s prominent techno dj’s and producers continue to grow their names and influence in many of the traditional powerhouse techno cities spread across Europe, the road for Courtesy has begun to reach beyond the more established scenes and into lesser explored corners of the techno world. From forays into North America and even Oceania and Brazil, the exploration of the global scene would seem to be magnified. For Najaaraq, it can seem difficult to gauge the more conventional sounds far abroad, but with the near constant travel she remains charmingly optimistic about reception to her musical style.
“I like to play techno that makes people smile, stuff that has a little humor in it or is emotional, possibly heartbreaking. People have said it’s nice to get a change up from dark dystopic sounds. I feel like my sets are incredibly well received, peoples reactions are positive so I don’t even know if what I play is so different.” On the same token and as a pioneer in her own city she is equally keen to point out the growing desire for more homegrown scenes across the Atlantic bringing their own take on an existing and progressing world of electronic sound. With a sparkle in her demeanor she remarks, “I love meeting these young die hard people who are just trying to start something in their own city and also there are some quite good dj’s over there (Western Hemisphere). I feel like the music I’m playing works, I haven’t experienced any place in the world where it didn’t work. I can vary in tempo, I am a fairly eclectic techno dj.”
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Eclectic and successful, time may have forgotten, yet it still remains fresh in her memory the challenges she has faced and the things she feared could hold her back in the beginning. One of a growing number of advancing dj’s who do not produce original compositions, it wasnt so long ago that she felt like an outsider in a producer dominated techno landscape. “I used to feel really pressured about it.” She says with a hint of residual stress, “I felt like a massive imposter because I wasn’t producing music. When I got into Red Bull Music Academy they knew I hadn’t produced music on my own. I was open about that in my application, but I felt that somehow they would “find out” or something. It was still in that time where people close to me would tell me I wasn’t going to make it if I didn’t make music.” Her mood shifts, and begins to drift into something far more personal as passion seems to emote from her core about a subject that has provided much growth and no small share of personal discomfort. “I love doing musical projects, I think it is the most fun thing in the world … I’m contributing and creating attention and I don’t feel like an imposter anymore, but I certainly used to. That was coming from myself and also from people close to me. They were telling me I had to do this thing, which actually wasn’t my thing.”
With a breath she admits that hours in front of a computer and a fetish for drum machines aren’t exactly her, and is quick to point out that she is not only a dj, but a creative with her own label, history and name that continues to bring exposure to her locality. Times are changing and with machinery and software advancing in an increasingly fluid music environment the producer and the pure dj continually inhabit the same sphere in the performance sector. “I think finally we are past the point where people will tell young dj’s that they have to make music.” She emits, “I feel there are enough dj’s who are doing just fine and doing things very well.” Indeed, more than ever, perfomers are finding new ways to relate and entertain a musical audience, and her sentiment feels weighted in past insecurities, yet enlivened by an exciting changing of the tide in perception of what it takes to make it in the electronic music world. “One path is not the only path for everyone else, my special thing is not producing music, its other things and I’m never gonna say never … in a couple years I might fall in love with drum machines, but its not in the cards now.” (laughs)
Along with the recognition of becoming known in the music world for something new and unique comes a different attention attached to her projects and future goals. While at the beginning of her career certain things may have felt out of reach, Najaaraq feels that she has obtained a feeling of increased equilibrium and an exciting avenue of further possibilities for creativity that comes with more resources. “I’ve had many projects in the past and now I have some money to do stuff on another level. I have the opportunity to work with people like Spine Studio that are wanting to be involved with us because we are on a different (larger) level. My creative partners in this project are very strong, and it’s fun to this time be a creative director in a company I am passionate about with what I feel is a dream team.” Proclaiming confidently and full of purpose she relays, “I like to work with people that don’t say no. I feel like anything is possible and most of the time when nothing is being done its because no-one is taking initiative. I think most people are scared of doing stuff, and I feel like I only live once, why shouldn’t I do whatever project I’ve been doing.”
Pausing for a minute to reset my recorder, our thoughts converge on a new group of buildings dotting the border of Nordvest just north of Nørrebro station. We remark on the changes in the area and it brings us to the exciting and constantly moving path of music in the Copenhagen scene. With 140 bpm becoming a characterising norm in the locality, a fresh new crop along with an established selection of artists continue to push things into new and remarkable territories. With her busy schedule and constantly evolving path at the controls I wonder with a feeling of related synchronicity while gazing upon the enclave of recent architecture how she relates to her own home scene now that she spends an increasing amount of time away from it.
Squinting defiantly into rays of direct sunlight she offers a varied and interesting explanation, “When I come home I go straight to Percy Records and I sit in the back there and I work, everyone comes in and I kinda get the catch up on everything that’s happening. That is my main access to the scene.” Pausing slightly, with a calmness descending upon her she heads into more cozy territory, “Nikolaj Jacobsen (Sugar, Fast Forward) is one of my best friends, I am very close with everyone we released on Kulør. I’m always in touch with Troels Hass (Percy Records) who is a friend of mine and Smokey, I feel like I get updates about a lot of things through them.” Apart from friends and a penchant like many locals to dwell in Percy Records she remains optimistic and also proud of the growth domestically, “I get to hear a lot of music in the early stages I have this music and I get to present it to people through my sets. I feel very blessed to be able to do that. I am sitting on a pot of gold. It looks like Copenhagen’s thriving. There are so many talented producers here, so many dj’s, so many new crews, looks like things are going well.”
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A few weeks later at Volume, the red and blue lights climb and orb across a concrete garden of ravers under LED lights, there is a bit of a lull echoing across the melodic portion of “Automated Lover.” The time in the track (around 6 minutes) has come when you seem to feel time connect your present situation with all your future possibilities and past experiences. With a sultry beat, and a light, yet laser sharp dimensional ambiance its small wonder it was one of the tracks first sampled to the public in the maiden musical release of Kulør. Dancing, bursting and beaming like a newly formed ball of fire conjured by a festive Najaaraq Vestbirk with one hand on the controls, the other rested at her side she surveys what the fast Copenhagen techno scene has grown into. A glint of disco lights flickering in her eyes, it’s been awhile from her early days with Mama Snake releasing then little known first timers like Rune Bagge and Martin Schake. It’s a different atmosphere now, and one filled with unprecedented growth and a greater musical and artistic mobility between local artists and crews then what could have been projected only a few years ago. Presenting still new material as she has from the start, it feels as if she could jump from the dj booth and into the sprawl of raving dancing limbs.
During our talk in the sun at Nørrebro Parken a few weeks before the Fast Forward Halloween Party she offered a thought that now feels so much more poignant and compelling then when first spoke. “You have to find your special thing as an artist,” she states “Whatever makes you special. If it’s making music that is unbelievable, if it’s your ideas, your ability to finish projects, being really good at Instagram, the way you dance when you dj, or your activism … whatever is your special thing you work on that. If you are constantly looking at what everyone else is doing and try to mimic that you won’t be happy, your going to be insecure because your competing not with your own strengths but with what everyone else is good at.”
Back on the floor beaming in the booth, diminutive yet firm in presence, you begin to feel what she means. A new label and a progressing era swirl around her at a rapid pace. What remains constant is Courtesy’s capacity to present and interpret creative material while making new roads of possibility for herself and those around her. “I feel I owe her everything,” a former Ectotherm producer admits, “in a way she started all of this.” The track wanes and she transitions from “Automated Lover” into a drop and the start of a new track that hits the floor with a delicate fury and I can’t help but feel that something magnificent has just happened. A full floor, a new project, a new track and an artist loving every moment of it. Headphones on and heart bursting through the speakers, she is home, operating still in her own place.
Info: Kulør 001 came out in October 2018. The 2LP-compilation features Schacke, Sugar, IBON, Repro, Rune Bagge and Funeral Future. Future announcements will take place on the label’s Facebook-page.