One of the most difficult shows to get anywhere close to the stage of at the recent Lowlands festival in the Netherlands was Utrecht-based artist Colin Benders'. He packed out the Bravo stage which was host to New Order the next day.
The artist's late Saturday night slot was very much in demand because of his burgeoning reputation as a modular synth maestro. A maestro with a sound that makes him a great fit in the techno scene.
Modular synths may pre-date the keyboard, but Benders' particular system is the Eurorack, based on the Doepfer A-100, which was developed in 1995. Its boom in recent years is partly thanks to the increasing acknowledgement of its seemingly limitless control over sound. And Benders' inquisitive mind has found deep satisfaction with this system. Public interest in modular synths is rising and a contributing to the swarm of bodies packed into the Bravo tent that night.
His show was also the talk of the town thanks to the success he's had with live streams, and because it was the debut of his new A/V show. It's an immersive A/V light installation controlled by the signals of Colin Benders' modular in real time. Additionally, he became a national hero in the Netherlands ten years ago with the esteemed hip-hop, drum and bass influenced Kyteman Orchestra.
He, to this day, has no physcial releases out, but tens of thousands of fans come to his shows.
Recognising he's very much top of his game, it was a great honour to meet Colin Benders backstage at Lowlands in Biddinghuizen near Amsterdam. We are able to share insights from one of the greatest musicians in Europe right now in this below Q and A:
Gigwise: Hi Colin. Great to see your show last night in Lowlands festival. Is it this modular synth show that’s taking you everywhere around the world?
Colin Benders: Yeah, it’s been going really well basically. I started off just doing these jams a couple of years ago through my live streams and ever since that it’s been picking up attention and now this year I’m just having the time of my life. It’s been so much fun to switch into doing this night scene, because before that I was doing something completely different. This modular show has been my first introduction into the nightlife scene and all the techno.
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GW: You’ve been adopted by the best, too, you’re playing on some great bills and in some great clubs.
CB: I’m so happy with all that.
GW: It’s a good community?
CB: That’s what inspires me so much about this community is how dedicated everyone seems to be. Like the DJs I speak to and the producers and the promoters and the organisers, everyone. Everyone seems to be there for the passion for music. I’ve had some of the deepest and most interesting interactions with people in this scene than I’ve had for a long time.
GW: How would you describe the scene, the people you share bills with?
CB: I’ve been put in line-ups with many different people by now, so I’ve done shows with Chris Liebing and Ben Klock. There’s quite a variety of people. It’s really inspiring to hear their sets, how they approach things. It’s a way of schooling myself because I’m really new to techno. What I’m feeling from this entire scene is that it feels, it’s hard to describe, but it’s really DIY. It really feels like these people really built their own community. Everything that’s happening is a like a spinoff from a group of people who are very passionate about what they’re making. And the people hearing it are just as into it as the people making it, so it really feels like a homecoming every time you play somewhere.
GW: So when I saw you at Eurosonic Noorderslag in 2018, that was pretty close to the beginning?
CB: That was pretty much one of the first, yeah.
GW: You were recommended to us by someone in a record shop in Amsterdam when we asked who we should see at Lowlands. He made you sound like a household name in the Netherlands scene already…
CB: The funny thing is I used to be the conductor of an orchestra and I had this group called the Kyteman Orchestra and it became huge in Holland actually.
GW: Is that something to do with the track ‘Sorry’?
CB: That was the track, yes, ten years ago. That was ten years ago, but it was way more of a jazz and hip-hop and classical and drum and bass thing but very much a live energy thing too. A couple of years ago I decided to make the switch because I’d been experimenting with modular synthesisers for a long time. I felt that I’d done everything I could with my orchestra then, I needed a change. Then this electronic thing happened and it propelled me into a completely different scene that was a whole new world for me.
GW: Was it the gear that appealed first, or the techno sound and energy you heard in other DJs first?
CB: It was intuitive really – I had the gear and the more I started playing with it the more sounds starting developing for me that I was really into. Then I started doing these live streams and from there Awakenings was the first booking I had with this instrument. And that was a moment for me to realise apparently I was making techno! Because I had no idea what I was making. That’s around the first time I went as a visitor to the Berghain where I really heard and I was like holy shit I actually like this. So for me it really started with the gear and the fact I liked this sound. Then later I discovered that I fit in perfectly with this whole scene.
GW: The gear you built is massive, it’s almost like a pilot’s desk! Is that something you’ve been building up over the years?
CB: Yeah. The generally advised way to do is to start slow, go one module at a time and really get to know each one before you expand on it. I did the kind of rookie mistake of buying as much as I could at once and discovering that none of it worked together so the first three years was just utter frustration with ‘why does thing not do what I want it to do?’ It was only after a while I learnt that if I really want this to work I really need to understand what these individual modules do.
GW: How did you document your ideas? Did you have sketches that you listen back to?
CB: Basically I kind of designed my studio to record everything I do so I just fire everything up and press record and I start jamming. The downside is I have maybe over a thousand hours of jam material right now that I have no clue how to edit at all.
GW: I read one interview where you said you don’t really play the same thing twice.
CB: Every set is improvised, basically. So last night for example all I basically know is where to find my kick (drum) and everything else is all up in the moment. Basslines, rhythm structures, everything is basically just on the fly. That’s also the main reason I haven’t released anything so far because, I don’t have tracks!
GW: But do you not have anything sketched out that you might go back to?
CB: Yeah, over time I do find things like this is an interesting motif or structure – but in the end, with the sequencers I have, everything changes anyway. I started approaching it a little bit more… The best analogy is, I used to skateboard and you just pick up techniques and tricks and get this flow going, and in the end you just sort of learn. In the end it’s more about flowing over this tension span and how to connect things together more than this or that motif working. Because out of context motifs don’t mean shit.
GW: Do you see music? Is music something visual to you when you write?
CB: It feels most like an energy curve. There’s always one main question which is ‘am I bored right now?’ Because if I am then I have to change something.
GW: I spoke to this band J-E-T-S – Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum – and they were saying certain frequencies can cause chemical changes in the body. Do you think using these older systems in the way you do, does it have a greater impact on the listener?
CB: I think the biggest difference with these systems is the human error aspect. Like if I were to prepare a set with all the filter sweeps and everything automated to precision, that‘s what you would get - a very precise set. But in this case every movement, every interaction and every flow comes from an actual physical knob which sometimes you adjust too late but sometimes you’re right on time with it. Sometimes you’re dragging something out just a little bit longer because you think that’s what feels right. It‘s the immediacy of an actual tactile instrument that makes the difference. If there’s an analog/digital thing, I don’t know, there are different opinions on that.
GW: Do you think there’s been a desire for a live, human aspect in electronic music?
CB: There’s always this desire for the next level of complexity, complexity in the sense of you want to be able to dig into a deeper fractal and control it. With records, you have a track – you can lay a couple of tracks over each other and play that out but they’re still going to be those tracks. With an instrument there’s going to be full control over every layer, every second, and I think that’s probably the biggest difference. It definitely enables me to go into a lot more depth with the kind of energy I’m looking for. It feels very much like an instrument to me – I started out playing the trumpet and learnt some piano and drums, and the thing I always hated working with computers is that it’s back to keyboard and mouse and programming things. So I was really looking for an actual instrument to play, and this is what I found.
GW: They’ve been used in music for a while now, but is there a resurgence in this kind of equipment in recent years?
CB: Definitely. This change has been coming for quite some time - it was already five years ago that the first real Eurorack boom happened a lot of manufacturers came into this space and musicians bought them, but then you have this learning curve where people can actually integrate it into their show. So what you are seeing now has been on the way for at least five years now. The way people are using them in their shows is only just taking off.
GW: Is there an online community where you can discuss these things?
CB: It’s a very fun community because you have a lot of different people in different scenes who are working with these instruments so you can find yourself talking to producers of big hip-hop names or ambient film score people, or people like Richard Devine - all of these people are very much connected on these modular forums. They’re all discovering new tricks and new ways to pay these things, because there’s not really a book on how to do it.
GW: So it’s quite co-operative?
CB: This instrument is new to all of us, so we kind of need each other to figure out how to do certain things. The more we share the more we know.
GW: Tell us about Kytopia, your studio and rehearsal space?
CB: It’s a big complex that me and my dad started about nine years ago, we just started renting out studio spaces and attic spaces, creative spaces for musicians and artists – because there was a big shortage of working environments. Because everyone loves music but no-one wants to live next door to a drummer! Right now we just entered our third building. It’s like we’re sort of caretakers for the building between owners, so the good thing is you can take a big space for below the commercial rate and convert them to what you need but the downside is that you can never really stay there for more than two or three years. So slowly right now we are working towards doing something permanent there, in Utrecht.
GW: It’s a stunning place…
CB: It’s fun. It’s less hectic than the usual big ticket places like Amsterdam or Rotterdam.
GW: Do you get a lot of people coming through to work?
CB: I have my own studio space there but there are 30 studios there and people working on everything from classical to pop.
GW: It must give you energy…
CB: It’s in my interest to have as many creative people around me as possible because they all have their own energy and approach to doing things. Not necessarily working on projects together, but you are involved in everyone’s creative processes all the time. It feels like sowing a field. It’s a very fruitful environment.
GW: I couldn’t get anywhere near the stage but the light show was incredible. With whom did you develop it?
CB: The guys I developed it with, Nick Verstand and Boris Acket, Nick is really a lighting artist, an AV artist – he does nothing with video, he’s always looking at raw source material – he’s done a lot of work with lasers and sonic interaction between sound and lighting. I basically asked him, ‘hey if you had full reign what would you do’. So he just went all out. He developed these poles that are five meters high, they just soldered and built them themselves, because they weren’t happy with the standard they could get. It’s zero compromise.
GW: Was that just for Lowlands?
CB: It was but we’re hoping to do it in other places. This was our beta test – the first time we used it.
GW: Were you happy with it?
CB: From where I was standing I couldn’t see shit because all I have is these massive psychotic blinking lights all over the place and I just have this small boxed off space that I’m focused on. But then I started finding the footage after the show and I’m so happy.
GW: How did you find him?
CB: He was a good friend of another guy I worked with who is a cello player. We worked together on his show Skyline for the Digital Festival and then I was like how would you like to work on this show? It was, only if you can go the full way!
GW: Thinking back to The Kyteman Orchestra members, is it true that Sietse Van Gorkom worked with you? I interviewed Mark Lanegan who he’d worked with and he’s on tour with Pearl Jam now, doing the strings for them.
CB: Yeah, they used to be our strings
GW: The group, even though it’s dormant now, a lot of people from it have done amazing things…
CB: Yeah, the way we approached The Kyteman Orchestra is as a laboratory – we are here to discover new ways of playing together and interacting on a musical level. If you look at what came off that, you have Sietse Van Gorkom and the Red Lemo String Quartet who played with Mark and now Pearl Jam. You have Binkbeats, the guy who did all this big percussive videos and the whole Boiler Room series that he did, he was the percussion player for the orchestra. You have Niels Broos, the keyboard player who played with Thundercat and Flying Lotus and everyone. We all just went our separate ways but are all still very much in each other’s sphere of influence when it comes to working on things together. I’m very, very proud looking back at that.
GW: Was there ever a time when you weren’t confident of your future, because things are always stacked against you when you start?
CB: The orchestra was pretty seamless, I didn’t see it coming and then we were a smash hit but from there on there was kind of dark side to that. Because what you’re going to do next, what most people want you to do is basically more of the same. Why don’t you just play ‘Sorry’ again and make another hip-hop orchestra again? That was a time when I realised I’m not going to be able to please everyone with this either way. If I do more of the same I’m going to disappoint people because I won’t be innovative enough. If I do something completely different, I’m going to disappoint everyone who supported the project. In the end the only one I can be consistent with is myself. So now there’s only one rule of thumb for any project I’m doing and that is ‘do I actually support what I’m doing?’ If I don’t support it, then I shouldn’t be doing it.
GW: So what’s coming next?
CB: Delving deeper into this. After last night, seeing what it does.
GW: A headline tour?
CB: Well, we’ll see what happens. Mostly what I’m excited about is locking ourselves up in a warehouse somewhere and starting to experiment with this stuff. Because, holy shit, the implications of what we can do with this, I think we barely scratched the surface of what we can do with this whole AV interaction. So I’m very excited to put more time into that. Maybe if I can find a way to do it I might finally start working on a release of sorts.
GW: The amount of people who turned up without you having a release was impressive. Labels say you have to have a release, but you’ve ignored all that and still got incredible results. What does that say about the industry?
CB: The word industry says it all. When you have a good working product you want to roll it out. If you know something is going to be a smash hit then the industry side is going to do everything it can to milk it and get more of that. You have two worlds which are balancing. The whole R&D side of we want to do new things, balanced with the very conservative idea that if something works you want to do more of it. There‘s an entire ring of people saying ‘look, there’s proof that this is what you should be doing, in exactly the same way as they’re doing it.’ But in the end, no-one knows shit – it’s speculation. Once success is no longer your main objective you can be unpredictable and do what you want. There’s always a risk. I’m always one failed project away from never being booked again.
GW: Do you look after yourself in a way that keeps you inspired and avoids slumps?
CB: Not really – slumps happen all the time. It doesn’t help that I’m super chaotic. I have periods of time when for months on end I am doing nothing, but on the other hand I never try to put pressure on that creative process. It has to come from within, because when the moment comes to construct something, then it doesn’t feel comfortable any more.
GW: When do you know you’ve hit on something?
CB: Usually in the moment of making it itself. It’s a very intuitive thing, especially with the process of this machine, I’m hearing everything for the first time when I’m doing it. So when something is working I am the first one to get super excited. If it doesn’t work then I’m the first one to have a panic attack about the fact I’m doing something shitty and I have to change it. I’m not very analytical about that - if it feels right then it probably is right.
GW: OK, last question – are you having conversations about a release at the moment?
CB: Yeah. There are quite a few labels who have interest in single releases or EPs, stuff like that. But first of all I want to have a recording which I feel is representative of what I do. Once I feel I have that then I think I’ll find the right place to do that.
GW: Is it close?
CB: I think so, yeah. I just have to make it. Right now, these past two years I’ve been mostly on tour, I just have to sit down and patch it together.
Up for seeing his new A/V live show? Colin Benders plays Amsterdam Dance Event on Friday 18 October at Melkweg.