In the last three years, Cosmin TRG has shaken off his dubstep roots to craft some of the most innovative techno in a scene awash with staid facsimiles. On the eve of his second album release, he talks to Tom Banham about Dadaism, ancient myths and real ale.
“You don’t get this in Berlin,” says Cosmin Nicolae, sipping his pint of Everards Tiger. It turns out that this Romanian ex-pat is quite the ale connoisseur; he recently tweeted his love of Thornbridge’s IPA Jaipur, and is looking forward to investigating the Sheffield brewer’s wares in more detail when he plays in the city next week. It’s a pleasure he embraces whenever he visits the UK, and he laments the close-mindedness of a Teutonic brewing scene yet to embrace the pleasures of warm, flat booze. “Before I left Romania, the beer scene was a lot like in Germany,” he continues. “It was all pilsners, lagers – loads of beers but all kind of the same. Then six months after I left someone started an ale revolution.” He smiles, and drinks deeply. “Now it’s everywhere.”
It’s a peculiarly British quirk for this son of Bucharest, but then Nicolae’s had his eyes trained on these shores for some years. In 2007 after a decade dancing to the sounds of UK jungle, 2-step and drum & bass he released his debut record, the sizzling garage cut “Put You Down”, which was embossed with that historic stamp – HES001. Hessle Audio has since served as the paradigm of the indefinable and ever-mutating sound of UK bass music, and home to some of our most exciting homegrown artists.
Nicolae’s story is indicative of how global dance music has become. Not merely as the commercial force illustrated by a glance across the Atlantic, but in the way that geography has waned as a sonic influence. Detroit techno, Jersey house, Bristol bass – what do these terms really mean when a young man from Bucharest can make sounds almost indistinguishable from their local proponents?
He’s in town to play the second room at Fabric, a club he’s been a regular guest at almost since that first record dropped. Noticeably, he’s been one of the few artists who’ve managed to successfully cross the divide between the low-end pressure of Friday, and Saturday’s more considered excursions through four-four. In fact, listening to the throb of his more recent output on Rush Hour and
Modeselektor’s 50 Weapons, it’s strange to think that in the nascent stages of his career he was a regular alongside the likes of Skream and Benga. But even when he was making dubstep, his sound was always more measured than their speaker-shredding aggression.
“I was actually making 4/4 stuff around the time I put out the Hessle record,” Nicolae reveals when I probe this stylistic shift. “I’m happy I didn’t put it out, because it wasn’t any good, but I was making a lot of different things at the same time and all the tunes were kind of feeding off each other. At some point, I felt some of the stuff I was making wasn’t as good as the other stuff, and I was actually more excited about the things that I couldn’t play in my DJ sets.”
He pinpoints the move away from garage-inflected sounds to a Dub Police party in Fabric in 2010. Uninspired by the heavily swung sounds he felt obliged to play, he called Caspa up ahead of the gig and floated the idea that maybe he wasn’t going to spin any dubstep that night. “And he said, ‘Like what then? UK funky?’,” Nicolae recalls, in a surprisingly accurate cockney accent. “And I said, ‘No, notUKfunky. It’s different.’ I was really sure it wasn’t gonna work, because I was supposed to play one ’til two in the main room, right after Skream and Benga. And then when I turned up for the gig a couple of months later, my set had magically been moved to the end of the night.”
It turned out to be a blessing. Stepping up in the wake of former Flux Pavillion collaborator Trolley Snatcha, Nicolae gave no quarter to the wobbles and dug straight into his collection of classic house, and “a fair few techno curveballs.” The floor, buoyed by an influx of hardy punters from room two, went with it. “So after that I took a long break, and just decided to play the stuff I wanted to play.” he smiles, “And not take those bookings anymore.”
It was a risk that paid dividends, allowing Nicolae the space to develop a sound informed by the rhythmic experimentation of his earlier work but bolted to a techno chassis. Releases like Liebe Suende on Rush Hour and Separat on 50 Weapons demonstrate Nicolae at his most bruising, the latter especially a cantering slab of warehouse techno in the mould of Sandwell District, whose kicks drove straight and crushed everything before them.
I put it to Nicolae that dubstep’s most exciting elements, the absence of boundaries and the freedom from classic techno’s inelastic four-to-the-floor, became formalised structures of their own over time, choking creativity. The migration of dubsteppers into classic sounds has given them the opportunity to explore more expansive ideas, to flex against structure rather than sticking rigidly to it. “Definitely,” he agrees enthusiastically. “I felt there was much more open space, just because you weren’t restrained. If you want to touch on the classic house and techno sounds – if you wanted to do that three or four years ago, you couldn’t because they wouldn’t have that idea of what house and techno is, or was, or what it should be.”
Though from the outside it may seem as though Nicolae’s working within greater constraints these days – his music is often austere, greyscale and laser-focused, as opposed to the freewheeling shifts of records like 2010’s “Bréton Brut” on Hemlock – he says that he finds a freedom in self-imposed boundaries; knowing that he could do anything, but forcing himself not to.
It’s a methodology that’s informed his latest album, Gordian, which is released on 50 Weapons late next month. Although he admits that, despite his best efforts, it’s a record that broke free of its moorings. “To be honest, I’d intended the whole album to be really minimalistic and kind of hypnotic,” he explains, “and it’s not minimalistic at all. I didn’t want it to be musical, and it is fairly musical. There just seems to be a lot of stuff going on, when in fact I was trying to subtract.”
When I push him for an explanation as to why Gordian ended up sounding quite as lush as it does, he seems perplexed. “I wish I had an explanation for it. I’m still mad with myself for it, because it’s too musical,” he says, laughing. “Melodies are not my forte. I’ve got no musical training, I’ve no idea about harmonies and keys and stuff. And it’s come out so musical, which was an accident.”
“I was actually making 4/4 stuff around the time I put out the Hessle record, I’m happy I didn’t put it out, because it wasn’t any good.”
He shrugs, but this tongue-in-cheek critique would be wholly unfair in anyone else’s mouth. Yes, Gordian is brighter, perhaps more open than his debut album, 2011’s Simulat, or the whip-crack techno of tracks like “Fizic” and “Separat”. But it’s no Faithless-aping stride into stadium techno. What hooks there are remain obtuse, buried under layers of crackling static and even, on “Desire Is Sovereign”, utterly subsumed by a kick drum that threatens to shatter every surrounding element. Gordian may be more melodically evolved than his previous work but it still requires a deft ear to unpick.
It’s appropriate considering the album’s title, named for the impossible knot that would grant success in conquering the East to whoever could untie it. Faced with this challenge, Alexander the Great chose to simply slash through it with his sword. Though there’s no such simple solution to the complexities of Nicolae’s work, parsing it is a pleasure, elements emerging and clarifying as you uncover each new sonic layer. And while it might not bestow any military might, it’s pregnant with dancefloor-conquering potential.
This legendary reference stemmed from Nicolae’s research into his home country’s artistic heritage, especially the exodus of painters like Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco, who left Romania for Paris and Zurich in the 20s and 30s, and whose radicalism led to the boundary-crushing surrealism of the Dada movement. “They were making something new. They were stretching things out and they weren’t prisoners of a single art movement,” Nicolae explains. “They were just making things on the go, and they were really radical at that time.
“The other (inspiration) would be (Constantin) Brânçusi, who was really important to me because – and it’s a trivial thing – but I had this poster of him sitting in his studio when I was five or six,” he continues. “I was really fascinated by all these shapes, and reading up on it and looking over his career, I started thinking how it came from a really traditional, paternalistic background, but his art was just really radical. It wasn’t really anything that you might see as traditional – traditional Romanian or eastern European – but at the same time the titles he had for his works were really traditional and Romanian, going back to myths. Something really ancient and ancestral. And this is how I went to the final title, Gordian, which is this ancient myth. So I guess I was trying to find some roots, and find some really basic structures.”
It would be tempting as a critic to draw the parallels between Dadaist’s rejection of artistic standards, and the musical conditions that led to Nicolae’s own, boundary-morphing sounds. Dubstep is, without delving too far into a rabbit hole of cultural analysis, a most post-modern genre, adopting and repurposing myriad individual movements into something new. And as Nicolae explains, though being distanced from the UK scene while everything was fermenting was frustrating at the time, it gave him an outsider’s perspective on the music, unsullied by its wider cultural significance.
“I’d always been into the mutant 2-step thing,” he reveals, “and to me, 2-step wasn’t the same thing as it meant – as it represented for people over here. I had no idea about the posh 2-step clubs, the ‘no hats, no hoods’. I had no idea. To me, even grime was this proper underground movement, it didn’t mean – I had an idea about the knife crime, life on the estates and stuff, but it was very surreal because it was like a film; my own projection. As a DJ, the music to me wasn’t anything to do with the lifestyle. Because I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t experienced in this stuff.”
Nicolae admits that he hadn’t even been to a proper dubstep night until 2008, after the release of his first handful of records. Indeed his forays into production were inspired not by wanting to ape dubstep, but by a frustration at the dearth of records that fitted into his DJ sets, records that married the 2-step swing to dubstep’s crushing subs. “I wasn’t listening to any genre of music and thinking: ‘I’ll make this’,” he recalls. “I was just trying to do my own thing, within that framework. And I was lucky with the Hessle guys. I was just sending them tunes, to Dave (Pearson Sound), because he was one of the more adventurous guys.”
These days Nicolae’s at the vanguard of techno’s new-school, FWD>> transplanted to Berghain in a cross-generational, highly fertile exploration of rhythm and texture. Most telling perhaps was his appearance on Bleep’s Green Series in February, a pseudo-collaborative project starring techno’s most innovative names – those recent converts, and those who’ve been working in the medium for years. “I was really thrilled by the idea,” he says. “But at the same time, everyone was really competitive. I saw the list and thought, ‘Amazing’. And then “Ah, right – banger.”
He laughs, but the no-holds-barred releases from Nicolae, Objekt, Karenn and The Analogue Cops certainly aren’t subtle. But then, in contrast to the constraints of writing for an album, he admits that having that dancefloor freedom was a relief. “I knew it would be one of my few chances to write a club track that I’d love playing out,” he says. “But I wasn’t trying to prove anything. I just wanted to make a good track because I knew everyone would do their best.” And how does he think he compares? Has he won? A smile, a sip of beer. “It’s OK.”
Interview by Tom Banham
Gordian by Cosmin TRG is released on April 26 via 50 Weapons
He also plays Oscillate Wildly in Sheffield this weekend
Header image by Björn Jonas
Image of Urban Rambler Cosmin courtesy of Shaun Bloodworth