Exclusive Interview With Lee Van Dowski
“Sometimes I feel the care DJs receive is disproportionate, we just mix records together and produce music in the end..”
Lee Van Dowski, the very name exudes style and intrigue. A country lord, perhaps, who at night throws open the manor gates to host all-night bacchanals legendary for their wine and song. And though the French-born, Geneva-based artist may not have a manor to his name, the rest isn’t far off the mark.
Born Renaud Lewandowski, Lee has earned himself a reputation as a kind of dark prince of uplifting electronic music who spreads his mischief via long, undulating DJ sets and bewilderingly funky releases that pack some punch to it as well.
In 2004, he and Philippe Quenum released the well-received ‘Extension/Oregon’ EP for Luciano’s Cadenza label and since then Van Dowski has gone on to unleash a deluge of material on labels like Bpitch Control, Mobilee, Leena and Soma. Besides that, he’s a regular fixture at some of the world’s most celebrated nightclubs like Panorama Bar, Rex Club and The Arches, to name but a few.
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Recently Lee moved from Cadenza to Mobilee records and released his ‘Branding You Damned’ EP on Leena Music. With new work and gigs at Mobilee’s pool session and rooftop party at Sonar Barcelona coming up, we have plenty of reasons for an interview.
Hi Lee! Let’s start with some recent news: you moved from Cadenza to Mobilee Records. Can you explain why, and what your expectations are?
Well, I’ve been with Cadenza since the very beginning, starting from nothing and reaching where it is now, but after 10 years I was in need for a new adventure. Working with the same persons that long is of course priceless, I’ve learned so much and I will always be thankful for this, but it’s also easy to get into a routine, hanging around in your comfort zone…
Leaving was something I had in mind since a few years, but the friendship with all the crew is so strong that the decision was always postponed. I’ve always released on numerous different labels, but the one I was feeling closer to after all those years was Mobilee. It’s the label I’ve been releasing on the most after Cadenza. I love the whole gang over there, they’re all passionate people with a great sense of humor. Another thing is that I also feel that the music they are releasing is more in line with my personal taste and style, in between Mobilee and Leena , the freedom they are providing is endless, from the deepest House to the strongest Techno. That ‘s perfect for me to have such a wide, open base to work from…And to be honest, I like the idea to start again something from scratch. It’s a very exciting moment for me with and you can expect a lot of new music coming up.
Can you tell us a bit about your work routine when in the studio?
Routine kills you slowly… I try hard to not have one in my production process. For sure, with the experience, I know what I need to make a track. But I have no rules with what I will start with or not! Sounds are driving me, choosing the next step empirically, in the moment itself.
You have a degree in sound engineering. This looks like an advantage over random producers, but some people state that science kills creativity. How do you see this?
Arf, most people stating this have totally no clue about what they are saying. Creativity is for sure all about composing a track, and theoretically anybody with cracked software can make a hit in his living room, but the process isn’t finished, after that , this amazing track needs to sound good on any diffusion system, from the biggest club PA to the smallest home speaker, and to be able to provide this, u need some basic knowledge about frequencies responses, compression, balances, etc. I’ve listened to so many great tracks totally ruined with a bad mixdown. So to me, my knowledge about the sound in general is totally useful day after day and has nothing to do with my creativity. It’s just serving it.
In the nineties you were involved in the infamous Dragon Ball raves in southern France. What was the magic behind these parties?
I knew I wanted to be a DJ the very first moment I entered a rave party. It was around 1995, I had a real aesthetic shock, the music, the energy, the people, I said to myself: “Ok that’s the shit you were looking for!!!”. And ever since, I have dedicated my life completely to be a part of this.
As a quick reminder, those “Rave” parties were totally illegal back in the day, and to reach the location was like a treasure hunt, going first to a rendez-vous point to get another one elsewhere to get the final location of the party in order to stay ahead of the police. One time we drove around 400km to finally arrive at the party, and it was around 20km from my home town! All this was making each party very special, and we felt special to be a part of this.
You’ve got a new collaboration coming out with Dean Demanuele. Can you tell us more about it?
Sometimes, things happen on purpose. I was playing in Malta last December and a good friend of mine was living there at this moment, he told me I wanna introduce you to a good friend who is doing music etc. That’s how I met Dean. We had a very pleasant chat while killing some drinks during the party and we agreed on trying to do some music together when we would have a chance. I’ve been doing a lot of collaborations along my career and I know the alchemy isn’t that easy to find.
On the 1st of January a few weeks after, while fighting hard against a massive hangover on my sofa, I gave him my Skype contact and we started to work. To be honest, I had no expectations, but that day we made one track plus another one 80% finished. We kept working like this everyday for 2 months to finally end with 20 tracks with no efforts! Some weeks we even agreed after finishing 3 tracks that we should stop and start again the next week.
At one point we had so much new music every week, that Ralf (Mobilee’s Label Manager) asked me kindly to stop sending new material haha.
We’re now taking a little break as we have already a pretty busy release schedule, but I can guaranty you that the last months have only been the very beginning of our collaboration.
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When and where was your best/most memorable set?
I had so many, and each one of them was memorable for a different reason, but I think for me, my set at Fusion festival in 2007 was most special. I didn’t hear about this infamous festival before being booked there, and I really thought I would play 1h30 maximum without a clue about how big the festival is.
So I arrived in Berlin before going to the festival, my agent then called me and told me that I would be playing three hours on the “Turmbühne” stage which is the main stage of the festival, from 5h to 8h…Big panic, I only had a small vinyl bag with maybe 35 vinyls, for sure not enough to play a 3h quality set, so I ran to the Mobilee office and to the Bpitch Control office to steal all the promos possible, and then finishing to Hardwax Record Store to get some more records. I’ve never been that stressed for a set, I’m normally very calm, but that day I had to play a 3h set in front of 10,000 people, with mostly records I had only briefly listened to at the most…
When my time came, my hands were shaking so much that I had to use both to drop the needle on the record. But then I got into it and pretty soon I had one of those rare moments as a DJ where it’s just like you’re in sync with the universe. Each record I was playing was the right one! As I didn’t know most of them, I was living the party as all the dancers on the floor, discovering the music at the same time asking myself: Is it really me playing now? I have goose bumps remembering this now…I see flashes, the smiles, the sunrise, the little rain that did not succeed to stop people dancing, the hands up, the fireworks in the back, the people on the hills around….This is just the best experience I ever had as a DJ, I can’t explain it, we can’t create it, it’s just the magic of our job.
That day, whatever could have happened, even the end of our world, I know I was just at the right place doing the right thing with the right people.
I’m getting goosebumps from the story myself! Do things in the life of a renowned DJ quickly become normal?
You know, my luck is to have a girlfriend who doesn’t give a shit about the music I’m doing, and two amazing kids for whom I’m only “Daddy”. This is the normal thing for me. The DJ life is more than fun and very pleasant, but sometimes I feel the care we receive is disproportionate, we just mix records together and produce music in the end. I’d rather receive this treatment for being a good father and boyfriend.
What do you still dream of achieving in your career?
I am now further than I had ever expected to be, so I just wanna live this life a little longer and keep the dream alive I guess.
You live in Geneva, Switzerland. How is the club scene over there? Or do you live there for the serenity?
There’s some cool little clubs here like the legendary Weetamix which has been open for 18 years now, Le Silencio, Le Motel Campo, La Gravière, Le Zoo, and they all have great line ups every weekend, but to be honest, I’m not going out that much. Most of the weekends I’m away, and when I’m here, going in a club is the last thing I wanna do. Geneva is the perfect city for me, it’s really like a small village, plus we have the lake, the mountains around, the airport is 15 mins from my place…I feel good here.
What is your favourite city in the world and why?
I’ve been travelling a lot and enjoying every single destination but I’m always happy to be back in Geneva.
It has been quiet around your two imprints, Num and 60sec Records, for a while. Can we expect something on them any time soon?
Yeah, actually they still exist but in a sleeping mode since a few years now. They were really eating away too much of my time at one point, so I decided to focus on my music for a while, but lately I’m thinking to re-launch Num with some music from Dean and me..
Final question: who will win the World Cup?
Hehe, I really would love to see the Brazil winning, that would be something!
Lee Van Dowski & Dean Demanuele’s ‘The Impossible’ EP is out in June on Mobilee Records