Maura Magazine | The Road To “Amygdala”

The Road To “Amygdala”

Stefan Kozalla is a Frankfurt-bred DJ and producer who has worked under several aliases (Adolf Noise, Monaco Schranze) and as part of the group International Pony, but he is known best as DJ Koze. Until recently, he was known primarily to a minority within a minority—not just fans of underground electronic-dance music, but the type of fan that follows music-makers across multiple monikers, one-off singles and compilation tracks on a variety of labels, and who watches out for remixes.

Koze’s status is changing—at least, his cult is enlarging—because of his recent album, Amygdala, issued on his own label, Pampa. Amygdala is Koze’s second collection of new material (the first was 2005’s Kosi Comes Around, on Kompakt), and its dauntingly high quality has forced many people to notice him for the first time. There are other factors at play as well—an increasing fluency with dance music among non-insiders, NPR streaming Amygdala a week before its release, Pitchfork awarding it Best New Music. But to understand where this album came from, it’s helpful to know Koze’s earlier music—which, in typical dance-music fashion, is scattered across platforms that have fed his base for years but remain, in sum, esoteric even in the YouTube age.

Some of that is down to the idea of the “album” as archetypal Romantic artistic unit, an attitude still as prevalent in DJ culture as in musty old dad-rock circles. Hence, Koze’s other two CDs—2001’s Music Is Okay and 2009’s Reincarnations, which compile Koze’s remixes of other acts—aren’t quite counted as albums. But Reincarnations is critical to understanding both Koze’s work and underground dance generally over the past decade. Similarly, scattered tracks that might seem peripheral in Koze’s catalog occupy a central space within it. That’s part of Koze’s character—you never know what or where he’s going to come from next. What might look like a throwaway—a compilation track, or a 12-inch on a label he’s otherwise unaffiliated with—is frequently, in Koze’s hands, worth getting to know intimately.

DJ Koze takes Berlin minimal-techno radical Ricardo Villalobos’s disorienting sonics to the playground, and he makes the radical disjunction of L.A. bass king Flying Lotus seem integral to the craft of making a beat not just move but intensify. Koze doesn’t have a “sound,” per se, but his music is instantly recognizable—he’s got a pronounced sensibility, one so playful it can sound like a joke, until you get pulled into the music, at which point the laughs become inextricable from the thrills and the beauty—not to mention the utter bafflement he can inspire.

Kozalla was a hip-hop producer first, but rather than adopting DJ Premier-manqué dusty minimalism, his early remixes—like Koze’s reworks of Visit Venus’s “The Big Tilt” (Yo Mama’s, 1999) and Egoexpress’s “Telefunken” (Ladomat, 2000), among others collected on 2001’s Music Is OK—have a lack of fidelity to ideas about genre placement that stood out then and now. “Telefunken” is cute neo-electro, “The Big Tilt” like something on mid-’90s Mo’ Wax, full of wispy string samples, found voices as eerily well-placed as those on DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, and drop-in noises that suggest a kinship with the bare-minimal, found-sound-festooned catalog of Perlon Records, also bred in Frankfurt (now in Berlin).

Kozalla also teamed up in this period with fellow German producers Daniel Sommer (a.k.a. Cosmic DJ) and Carsten Mayer (Erobique) as International Pony, a disco-house act signed briefly to Columbia for 2002’s We Love Music. The major label probably wanted some of that Modjo money, but the suspiciously familiar overlays of found noise and random voices (a guy calls a radio station to give the song “A New Bassline for José” its title) ensured this wouldn’t likely be the case.

The path to Amgydala began for real in 2003, when Koze first signed with Kompakt, the techno shop-distributor-label powerhouse co-founded in Cologne by Wolfgang Voigt, Jurgen Paape, and Michael Mayer—all accomplished artists (as was Reinhard Voigt, Wolfgang’s brother and a frequent label contributor), all sharp-eared DJs and A&R men. Koze would flourish under their watch.

I’ve seen some folks express reservations about Amygdala‘s soft, pastel surfaces; it ambles rather than attacks. By contrast, Koze’s Kompakt premiere appeared on its rougher techno “Speicher” series, on the sub-label Kompakt Extra: “Der Säger Von St. Georg” a 2003 split 12-inch (with Naum, a.k.a. [...]