Gramatik talks back stage at Red Rocks: "I think the praise that we get should go to scientists"
Gramatik (aka Denis Jasarevic) had played master of ceremonies for a long night of music. It started at 6 p.m. and included some of his friends and heroes: BRANX and Gibbz and Exmag were there, and legendary funk band Lettuce dropped a bravura performance in the middle of the show. Gramatik himself closed out the night with a two hour tour-de-force of diverse musical styles within and without the canon of current EDM.
And after seven hours of that, at close to 1 a.m., we met him in the bowels of Red Rocks. If he was fatigued, we couldn't tell. Gramatik's manager made introductions and, following an impromptu Polaroid session, we sat down to speak privately in the room that often serves as the meet-and-greet area.
On this night, it looked like it held a buffet earlier, and Japanese paper lanterns lined one side of the room. The food was gone, and the crew moved purposefully in and out while tearing down the night's elaborate set. Jasarevic looked relaxed in his hoodie, sunglasses and baseball cap. He has an easy humor about him and tapped his lighter on the table in cadence to accent certain words. On occasion, he conferred with his manager. Jasarevic is bright and observant and not so in love with his own work that he takes himself too seriously.
Fans at Gramatik's Red Rocks show. All photos taken on Saturday by Brandon Marshall
Westword: Was this a bigger production show for you?
Denis Jasarevic: Yes, because we actually premiered Coil 2.0 today. We call it "The Tower." My previous stage design was Tesla coil-inspired. This one was inspired by the Tesla tower that he built in Long Island, New York. Tesla had planned to use that tower to electrify the ionosphere.
Another way of transferring electricity than what we're used to today.
Yes. So he claimed that our entire planet could be amplified into becoming a big AC motor with electromagnetic energy. That tower was supposed to make that happen. J.P. Morgan found out and destroyed the tower and Tesla's life.
Right, because Tesla's method was essentially free or very inexpensive.
Exactly. Tesla had to get in bed with them in order for his AC current to win over Edison's DC. But then he paid a price for making a deal with the Devil. So my current Coil 2.0, The Tower, is based upon that tower. You noticed that tower on stage? That is supposed to be an artistic representation of the original tower.
The two "Gs" on stage with the base upon which were resting instruments there was a base with twelve lit squares, it looked like a face with eyes and a grin. Was that intentional?
Yes, probably. Devon [Brown] and Ian [Davis] -- my light designers -- designed the whole thing. What they do is just as difficult as making a good song. It's really amazing what they're able to do with lights, especially if they have a good sense of rhythm. You can't really be a good light guy if you don't have a good sense of rhythm.
Tell us about your new label, Lowtemp.
Lowtemp came from the idea that, if the temperature is low you know it's got to be cool. I started my own label, I run it, I control everything and I release my friends on it. Six or seven different artists, musicians, producers and DJs. We're distributed through INgrooves.
All of our music is primarily free, but you can obviously donate or buy it on Beatport, iTunes or everywhere. We stick to the philosophy that music should be primarily free, because it's to the benefit of mankind's evolution. We need to pass this along to anyone without any restrictions or forcing anyone to buy a record or calling them cybercriminals if they pirate it. That is not why we started making music. We started making music to inspire people to do good things in the world.
Way more noble than what I'm doing is being a physicist or other scientist. I think those guys are heroes: Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking. Neil deGrasse Tyson with the new Cosmos is amazing. I'm addicted. I look up to those people more than musicians, actors or artists, you know? Even though art is a vital part of our culture and society. It keeps us sane and somehow tame, still.
Did you ever want to be a scientist when you were a kid?
Definitely. I wanted to be an architect for a while. Then I wanted to be a physicist. An astronomer. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Did you pursue that path at any point in your life?
No. I went to audio engineering college and I learned a lot about the physics of sound, which is very awesome to know. I already knew how to produce before I went to college, but I wanted to know the actual physics. I wanted a professor to explain to me what happens with sound. What is sound. My brain perceives things in a very abstract way. That's why my music is what it is.
Did you grow up in Slovenia?
Of course. I moved to the U.S. three years ago. I was born on October 19, 1984.
What kind of access did you have to music growing up?
Slovenia is in central Europe, so we're like a hub to everything. We're in between Austria, Italy, Hungary and Croatia. My hometown is one hour away from Venice. We were exposed to everything: American music, European pop, whatever. It was coming straight for us from all sides. Slovenia is so small, with only two million people, and people feel more comfortable adopting foreign culture rather than with perpetuating their own. Because we're so small, we feel a need to belong to something bigger. That reflects in the nation.
But I think this will change with time. So we just adopted every kind of scene and there's a small space for it in that tiny little country. With two million people, let's say four hundred thousand are twenty-five to thirty [years old]. That's one semi-big city in America. We haven't been really re-producing that well. The consensus has been showing that Slovenians need to do more fucking. We're barely able to keep at two million.
Were you able to become a part of a musical community of some kind there?
Yeah, definitely. I started as an MC and I was part of the Slovenian rap scene. We released an album in 2006. [The project was called] Peti Element. It's still one of the most critically acclaimed Slovenian hip-hop albums. Which means absolutely nothing because, like I said, there's four hundred thousand young people in Slovenia. How many of those do you think actually listen to Slovenian hip-hop? That's when I figured out I wasn't going to be able to be financially stable if I'm going to be a Slovenian rapper.
It was me seeing the patterns and realizing that being a rapper who only raps in Slovenian -- because it would obviously stupid to rap in any other language because it wouldn't be real and I take rap as a serious thing -- and I realized I could get into making beats, because beats can go for anybody. I could maybe sell them to Nas. That's what I was thinking when I was younger. Now the tables have turned. I always thought my ticket up was going to be making beats for some famous rapper. I never thought it would turn the other way around and it would be like, "No, we don't want to hear a rap on your songs, we just want to hear your beats." And I'm like, "That's really fucking awesome because I think they're boring."
Why do you think your beats are boring?
That's just the nature of creating art. By the time you're done making it, you're already bored with it, and you want to go on to the next thing that's going to sound better than that song. I've been doing that pattern since day one and I'll probably be doing that until I die. Trying to top that last song. My music is so subjective to me that it's hard for me not to feel annoyed by it sometimes. Especially as you hear imperfections. As you evolve as a producer and as a musician and as an artist, you hate hearing those things. It's kind of vain and lame but at the same time, that's just how I am. I can't fight it.
When did you start getting into production?
In seventh grade, one of my friends had an older brother who was a programmer. That was in 1998. And he had satellite Internet in Slovenia in 1998. Just think about that for a second. There was no satellite Internet even in America in 1998. So he had an early version of Cubase installed. His little brother, my classmate, we were already rapping together, told me, "Dude, we should sneak up in my brother's room and check out his computer. There's this program on his computer which you can make music with. On the computer." I was like, "Wow, really? That's interesting."
His mom told us when his big brother was going to go out so we could sneak into his room and try to make beats. He was a really strict guy, and if had caught us in his room playing with his computer he would have murdered us. That was my start: Cubase.
Where did you go from there?
I discovered Ableton Live around 2005, and I've never left since. It's been my partner for life. Unless somebody makes something better, which is really hard because the Germans pretty much fucking nailed it. It's the best sequencer on the market for my needs. It's intuitive and it can do anything and more than any other sequencer. The only thing they need to fix is the processing of sounds, which they're getting at. I think with Ableton 10 the sound is going to be on the level of Logic with the dynamics of the mix being really tight and warm. Logic has the best algorithm for exporting music and not losing any of the integrity.
Why did you choose to base yourself in New York when you moved to America instead of another large city?
Because I was always in love with New York when I was a kid. When my parents went in 1986 when I was two, they brought me this 4X4 Jeep that I still have. It's so awesome. It was big enough to open the doors, and the seats were exactly the right size to fit a Lego guy.
What did you love about New York?
Everything. As soon as I got the chance to move there I thought, "Let's fucking do this! I've been talking about this my entire life."
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I had hoped I would get rich one day and move to New York City. All the best music genres were invented in New York City. It's crazy. It's one of the most unique cities on this planet. After three years of living in New York...I can't believe I'm here still. And I'm able to live here and humbled and stoked about that.
Also, I can find my food in New York. I can find any cuisine I want. My grandmother --she's from Bosnia -- raised me while my parents were slaving their lives away. She's from Herzegovina, actually. My granddad was Albanian. Then my mom's parents are Turkish and Arabic. My grandfather was adopted and never really knew what kind of Arabic he was. He suspected Egyptian or Saudi, but never lived long enough to do the DNA testing.
You've played Red Rocks before, right?
I've been playing it regularly as an opener for somebody since 2011.
For whom did you first open here?
Pretty Lights. We shared the same agent and my American agent, Hunter Williams, is pretty much the reason I'm here today. He found me on Beatport when I was still just a broke kid making beats and living in Slovenia in my parents' house, for which we still pay rent. Which sucks. I'm trying to fix that, though.
But he found me on fucking Beatport and he hit me up on Myspace at the time and was like, "Yo, dude, your beats are fucking sick. Who does your North American bookings?" Wait, what? I had to Google what he meant with this situation. Then I realized he was asking me if I was touring North America. I told him, "Dude, I'm just a kid from Slovenia. I've never played a show and no one's representing me for anything anywhere." He said, "Well, I want to fucking fly you over here and put you on tour with this dude Pretty Lights. He does the same thing you do." Then he shows me videos of a sold our Fox Theater in Boulder. So I saw this guy making beats and just going out there and playing with a live drummer at the time. And people were coming and selling shows out and going nuts? That's when this whole new wave of the EDM scene became apparent to me.
What does it mean for you to be playing Red Rocks as a headliner and to be able to bring in someone like Lettuce?
You have no idea how fucking stoked I am with that. First of all, they are the reason we sold because without them we couldn't have done it. They sold out the Fillmore in Denver in December. I'm willing to bet that half of this crowd were Lettuce fans. Every time they played one of their legendary songs, people roared because they knew it. So this wasn't just an all Gramatik crowd waiting for this funk band to stop playing so Gramatik could come on. This was a perfect night for me.
Mike Iannatto from Exmag said it best when we finished the Exmag set. He said, "Yo, give it up for fucking Lettuce. These guys are legends. And now they're going to play music for you guys." And everybody started roaring. It's like the simplest, truest compliment you can give to somebody like that. They're like the junior J.B.'s.
Maceo Parker plays with Lettuce at Brooklyn Bowl and stops them mid-song and tells them that it's too funky and that he can't handle it. When members of James Brown's band come and sit in with you at Brooklyn Bowl and tell you that you're funky, you've pretty much made it. In my eyes, as a funk band, there's nothing else you can do. You can retire and come back again like Jay-Z. And then retire again and come back again.
Why do you think they're the best funk band around right now?
Because they're so diverse. Each and every one of them is an amazing musician and producer. It's an eight member band, nine with Alecia Chakour, and they can play anything you can fucking imagine to a T. They can do jazz, they can do anything. Their pocket is super Afro-centric funk. It's my favorite type of shit.
You call yourself a "Part-time musician, full-time comedian."
It's a joke within a joke.
What kind of other comedic acts do you enjoy committing or have enjoyed doing?
All kinds of stuff. Especially writing stuff and experimenting with method acting with Gibbz [aka Michael Gibney]. He's an amazing actor. He was a child actor. He was in the first season of The Sopranos. He did this huge cult movie called Return of Sleepaway Camp. He was the lead in it when he was sixteen years old. He is one of the most talented people I've ever met in my entire life. Diversely talented. He's really good at ten things and he's twenty-five. How the fuck that happens is beyond me. But there's ten completely unrelated things that he has mad skills at by twenty-five. It's intimidating to watch him do his thing. He has two degrees from Berkeley -- Audio Engineering and Synthesis. He sings, he produces, plays instruments and is a front-of-house engineer. The dude fixes stuff, acts, does stand-up comedy.
How did you become friends with him?
Through Morgan [Young, my manager]. He was working with Lettuce. I stole Gibney from Lettuce. And they were kind of pissed about it in the beginning. But then they were fine with it.
Morgan Young: Then you let him sing, and they forgave you.
I had to make it up to them for stealing Gibbz from them, so I put them on at Red Rocks.
You're a bit of a connoisseur of weed. Did you sample any of the local wares since you've been in town?
Yes, as soon as we got off the plane in Denver we got in a car and went straight to Natural Remedies. Ian, my light guy, suggested that. We went there with our I.D.s and waited in the waiting room like we were at the doctor's office and they called us up and then we went and picked some weed up.
Is there anything you prefer in particular?
Oh yeah. I told the guys that I need a strong sativa today. I don't want to be sleepy. Then one of the guys recognized me and said, "Oh my god, are you Gramatik?"
"Fuck, am I going to be the first one that's going to be selling you legal weed in Colorado?"
"Fuck yeah! You just made my day."
The guy gave me thirty-percent off, which was really nice. So he suggested the hybrid between G13 -- which is one of the most legendary strains; the government has been growing G13 for forty-five years now as the first government-grown weed and it's premium. It's fucking amazing Sativa they've been growing at Oxford for forty-five years --- and White Widow, which is classic Amsterdam.
It was perfect for the day because it's an upper, and it works really well. It keeps me calm but at the same time focused and ready to engage in conversation or take care of whatever I need to do during the day, especially while touring. Sativas are perfect for that. It's working weed. I never like smoking Indicas or dabs or oil. Those are things that just put me to bed in zombie mode. I want to be able to smoke a joint and then get a rush and make some music and write down some ideas and talk to somebody about life and the universe or whatever. That's the kind of weed I like.
You have a video coming out this week for "Brave Men." It's more cinematic? It has some serious subject matter.
We were streaming it today for everybody. I don't know the last time I've been so excited by an artistic project I was involved with. It's just an amazing story written by Anže Koron and Joe Zohar. Anže is Slovenian and we've known each other for ten years. He and Joe, who is from New York, both directed, DOP'd and filmed everything themselves. It fits the track so perfectly. We shot in New Orleans and on locations in Louisiana. We were inspired by True Detective. We shot in the swamps of Louisiana and it's a really good story. I don't want to give it away.
MTV's going to premiere it. It's awesome. It's going to be the first music video they've played in the past ten years. When's the last time you've seen a music video on MTV? The last time I saw a music video on MTV was when Xzibit was doing Pimp My Ride. I'm old.
Morgan Young: I heard he spent all that money.
Come back with Pimp My Ride. Reboot it. I'll tweet about that, too, MTV: "I'm super stoked that MTV's going to premiere my video. In other news, MTV plays their first music video in over ten years." That's going to be how I'm going to say it. And if they decide to pull the video, I don't give a shit. Who the fuck is going to watch that shit? It's hilarious. None of my fans are going to go, "Oh, shit, I'm going to watch Gramatik's video in between all these shitty reality shows." They're going to go on YouTube and watch it like a normal, decent human being of the twenty-first century.
You mentioned being inspired by True Detective for that video. What other shows have you been enjoying of late?
Everything from HBO, AMC and Showtime. Everything is amazing. There's so much good stuff out there right now. And Netflix too. Have you seen House of Cards with Kevin Spacey and David Fincher? You're going to love it as a journalist, a more political kind of guy. It gives you an insight into the White House and Congress that no show or movie has ever done before. This is like West Wing on steroids. It's Kevin Spacey at his fucking finest.
Funny story about House of Cards: I was watching a Kevin Spacey interview about it and he spoke openly about how the show came to be. Fincher and Spacey went to all the networks, everybody, and all of them were like, "We love the idea, we would love to do it, but we would need to see the pilot." Are you guys fucking kidding me? It's Fincher and Spacey, there's no way this could be bad. Why would you need to see a pilot?
So they went to Netflix and Netflix was like, "Dudes, we totally want to do this and we don't need to see the pilot. You guys are fucking Fincher and Spacey, you guys are a huge inspiration to us. How much you need? A hundred million? Here." That's what happened, all the major networks didn't trust that Fincher and Spacey could deliver? Major mistake. So Netflix understood the way of digital freedom, how Internet works today and how society is interconnected and quantum-ly entangled with the Internet. Like BitTorrent said, "People don't want rules, they want options."
We're at the point in our evolution where we can decide for ourselves those options. We don't need governments and agencies that control and tell us what we should think about or feel what we're feeling. There's always going to be that small part of the population that's insane. We can't just base everything on that little minority group. We're talking about the evolution of mankind. There's a bigger picture here than our individual ego.
In what ways would you say your music is like one of your elaborate jokes?
Because I don't take what I do seriously. I don't think musicians, actors and artists should be praised as much as they are. I think the praise that we get should go to scientists. They're actually inventing things that change the world for the better. Those guys deserve the kind of fame that I have. Or that Kanye West has. Why isn't some physicist that changed the world with an invention that's still alive more popular than Kanye West. I don't take my shit seriously because it's just music, man.
I've served my purpose in society and this evolution in life that we call humanity to make some music to provide people some relief in their lives and hopefully inspire them to do something really awesome for mankind. This is as much as I can do, you know. That's why I don't take seriously what I do. If I did, I would be a douche bag. Kanye West can happen to anybody really fast. It happened to him and he couldn't believe it. He was like, "Whoa, that's me? I'm such a douche. I didn't even know." Then he cries on Jay Leno. If you don't stop putting everything you process through your own personal ego, it will devour you. That's not how it's supposed to be.
Hubris undiminished by perspective is not the path to wisdom.
Exactly. Because we're all one. The entirety of mankind is here for the evolution of life itself. Individually we don't matter. Why do you think we barely live seventy-five years? Because we don't matter in the long run. We're just a piece of the puzzle. The only thing that stays eternal is the evolution of life. That's how it appears to be, because life started on this planet billions of years ago and it's been going on ever since. That's why we shouldn't be processing everything through our ego. That thing alone tells you it's not the right thing to do. It's undeniable.
Gramatik back stage at Red Rocks
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
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