On The Rise: Kai van Dongen

“So long as I can make, play, listen, buy, dance, learn, talk about and just be involved in this community, I feel content and fulfilled. My joy and involvement in music comes purely just from being able to do it and share my emotions with people through music.

Kai van Dongen has slowly but surely been making a name for himself within the techno scene over the last few years. Originally hailing from South Africa, specifically Johannesburg, Kai spent the majority of his younger years dancing to music at the local club night TOYTOY, an event which highlighted the country’s rich house music scene and ultimately shaped Kai’s textures he works with today. Now based in London, Kai has found his sound and constantly develops through meeting new people on a daily basis including a multitude of established artists.

When exploring the youngstar’s back-catalogue, it is clear to see that he possesses an abundance of talent in production having already worked and signed with heavyweights such as Truncate, Asquith, Rose Bonica, Sophia Same, Pan-Pot and Bristol’s very own Eats Everything. Renowned as an advocate for exploring different styles, the South African never pins himself to one genre of music – instead his sound is a direct representation of how he is feeling that given month. When deciding what to release and what not to release, Kai asks himself, “Is this an honest and true reflection of myself as an artist, was it made with effort and love, do I believe in this piece of music.” A simple but effective thought process.

Following his contribution to Second State’s recent compilation, Kai returns to the Berlin-based imprint for his first solo outing. Serving up an energising four-tracker entitled Expression, the young prodigy once again demonstrates his raw talent for producing club-orientated music. Drawing the listener in using fast paced rhythms, an array of percussion and impactful breakdowns, this brand new EP is a must listen for any techno lover out there. Dropping September 24th, Expression is available to pre-order here.

Can you tell us a bit about your musical background and how you first got into music?

I’d just started my first year in boarding school and one of our hostel masters had his turntables set up at the poolside while we were having our introductory welcoming BBQ to the school. A few of us that were interested in what he was doing and managed to get a copy of Virtual DJ from him. Over the years I’d started to figure out “DJing” through this software and became more interested in electronic music. At the time, Electro House was massive and could be heard everywhere. Next came the minimal wave which washed over us all around 2009/2010 and with that came stepping culture in Johannesburg. A couple years had passed and we were old enough to start going to clubs. There was one night in particular around June 2012 while we were writing our kid year exams that changed things for me. The event was called Deep Town. I remember hearing the groovy Deep House basslines around that time and thinking to myself: “this is insane, how do they do this, I want to make electronic music too”. That night lit a spark for me.

One of my hostel mates in boarding school gave me a copy of FL studio after I had seen his setup, and was wondering what it is that he was doing to make music. I remember making a couple tracks here and there throughout my final year of high school, but mostly felt confused by the software and would occasionally open it up after a party and hope that I’d somehow suddenly be able to compose a track hahaha. Slowly over the years, we had started to transition from Deep House being the main genre within the Electronic music scene I was involved in, to Techno. I was in my final year of varsity and was in the middle of June 2015, I remember I was at a party and something clicked in my head, I knew at that moment that I wanted to pursue electronic music production. I found myself spending all my free time outside of rowing, work and Uni just trying to figure out what a cymbal, clap, open hat, closed hat and how to sequence and string together enough elements in a track to make a song. I remember getting home from coaching late in the evening, working on an assignment for varsity and then spending hours on Fl studio.

The next couple of years I found myself digging deeper into what I was interested in musically and would work various jobs that allowed me to have spare time to make music. However it wasn’t until I moved to London where I’d say the foundation had begun to form for my “sound” and where I could say I was confident enough in what I was making to stand by it and not question if it was good enough. I had landed a job working in a music shop and slowly built up a studio for myself while living in Crystal Palace which consisted of Laptop, Beatstep pro, Ableton Live, Arturia V collection, Digitone, Digitakt, OP-1 and Native Instruments Midi keyboard. This setup allowed me to spend a year making music in a free form sense without worrying about mixing, arrangement etc. Finally a really good friend of mine Kevin lent me his MacBook Pro when my laptop died and I found myself making music with a just a pair of headphones plugged into the headphone jack on the MacBook, Ableton Live and Arturia V collection. I was literally writing a song a day for months. When that creative spark strikes, I’m ready to climb into Ableton instantly and get that idea down. I love gear and the process of messing around and having fun with it, it’s a source of inspiration for me. However nothing beats the control and unlimited possibilities I have when making a track like when sitting in an empty field with my laptop on my legs and headphones on my head.

While living in London I’ve worked a bunch of different jobs, but each has provided me with the ability to cover all my monthly expenses so that I can have the opportunity to be a part of the electronic music community. So long as I can make, play, listen, buy, dance, learn, talk about and just be involved in this community, I feel content and fulfilled. My joy and involvement in music comes purely just from being able to do it and share my emotions with people through music.

To someone whoʼs just discovered you, how would you describe your sound and direction?

When asked about my music style, I’m a huge fan of exploring different styles within electronic music and would say my sound is a direct representation of how I’m feeling that month emotionally, the kind of music I’ve been listening to in my personal time, the kinds of parties that I would have attended and the people that I surround myself with. My first exposure to techno, like many others, was through the dance floor and therefore I firmly believe in the connection between what you experience on the dancefloor and what you create when writing new music in the studio and have found this to be a key element behind my production style. A dancefloor orientated approach to music production. Sweat it out for 8-12 hours, go home, sleep, wake up and then spend the next couple days writing an EP. Finally when deciding what to release and what not to release, I ask myself the following: Is this an honest and true reflection of myself as an artist, was it made with effort and love, do I believe in this piece of music? 

Hailing from South Africa, what’s the electronic music scene like and how does it compare to where you are based now (London)?

To be honest, when I first moved to London in March 2018, I had this idea that the ‘scene’ and clubs here were going to be massively different to what we have back home in South Africa, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s pretty much the same. A little bit different but essentially the same. Festivals, clubs, rooftop parties, international touring DJ’s, various electronic genre style parties and the communities that form around those genres and more. A massive shoutout to my home club in Johannesburg – &Club and the night that we frequently attend there ‘TOYTOY’ – to this day one of the best sound systems I’ve ever experienced electronic music on… the bass. The only sound system and vibe that has come close for me personally here in London is the one in Fold. I’d also like to give a massive shoutout to Fabio, Rose Bonica, FRNGE, Black Lake and Deano. If you’re ever in South Africa, I highly recommend you see the following people perform. 

You’re about to release your first EP with Second State. What’s the inspiration behind the record and what was the creative process?

This record is all about expression and the freedom that comes with it. When signing tracks for this EP, Tas and Thomas really wanted to see everything I had available. I initially sent them a batch of tracks which I thought would “fit” the label but was pleasantly surprised when they asked for more, so I sent through a folder of tracks and they ended up going with a broad selection of tracks which fully represent my sound and direction as an artist. “Hypno 6” which is a more clinically made track within my computer and built piece by piece in arrangement view, “Vortex” and “Flash” which were initially very rough live jams, where I had created the basic loop for each track, midi mapped my controller and then just hit record and let it ride, later on once the tracks were selected I revisited the mixdowns and with a really amazing master on the tracks, they ended up sounding so killer and the kick drums on these tracks absolutely smash now!! Finally there’s “Acid Wave”, early this year I was struggling to write tracks and realized it was because I needed to channel some soul into a song. I went for a walk through Beckenham Park and came home and had this melody in my head for this song. It was written in a combination process of the clinical style that I used for “Hypno 6” and the free form style that I used for “Vortex” and “Flash”.

If you had to pick a favourite track from the EP, which would it be and why?

Vortex!! When that breakdown kicks in and the vocal chop starts to appear and all you hear is “go go go” and then the track slams back in….Ufff!! Just makes me want to rave, I love it!

Having worked with the likes of Truncate, Asquith, Sophia Saze, Andres Campo and Eats Everything, what’s some advice you could give aspiring producers first starting out?

These lessons took me a really long time to learn, but once I did, it honestly made all the difference. Once you’re confident enough in your own sound and can say that you genuinely believe in the music that you’re sharing with the world, the following statement will click in your mind – ‘Not all music is for everyone’. If you send some unreleased music to an artist whom you really look up to and they don’t like the song, it does not mean the song is bad, it just means the song might not be for them. Don’t change your style to suit people’s tastes. Make what you think is good and what you enjoy instead of trying to make what you think people will like. Stick to your guns and don’t compromise your sound. It’s all about commitment and expression, not rules and formulas. Most importantly it’s about expression and not competition. Focus on developing your own music and have fun with the process instead of concentrating on what everyone else is doing, that’s where comparison starts to creep in which plants the seed of competition and ultimately leads to unhappiness – “Comparison is a thief of happiness”. Take the time to genuinely develop your own sound to a point where when you finish a song and can answer these three questions with an affirmative: Is this an honest and true reflection of myself as an artist? Was this made with effort and love? And most importantly… Do I believe in this piece of music?

All that is left to do at this point is believe in yourself and keep putting yourself out there. Go party, go meet people, have fun with it all, send your music around to people, support the music scene, GET INVOLVED. Now that you’ve read this entire answer, above everything – form a close circle of friends that you can share your music with, they will be crucial in your journey and ensure that you never start to believe your own hype. There is a big difference between making a good song and believing in that song and making a bad song and thinking that whatever you make is good because you’re blindly believing in yourself. This close group of friends will help you keep that standard high and can easily tell when a song is not at your normal standard. Yes music is an expressionist form but at the end of the day, if the song doesn’t have soul, your friends will spot that from a mile away and if you’re drinking your own lemonade, it’s easy to get swept up in the hype and lose track of this. A song can sound right but if it doesn’t “feel” right then it might as well just be a collection of loops glued together that are mixed and mastered well and sound good, but serve no greater musical purpose and don’t contribute anything to the electronic music community as a whole. 

Where do you see yourself this time next year?

Hopefully how I feel right now – happy, healthy, and content with life. I have everything I need and am so grateful that I am able to maintain enough of a balance in my life between my partner, friends, family and work so that I can make music and be involved within the electronic music community as a whole.

Quickfire Question: Last…

Last record you bought?

Saoirse – Trust.

Last club night / festival you attended?

Lobsterfest at The Cause.

Last record shop you visited?

Phonica Records.

Last meal you ate?

Bowl of Muesli for breakfast.

Last song you listened to?

We have a built in radio system at work and ‘Dire Straits – Money For Nothing’ was the last song played before we turned off the radio. 

Last time you laughed and why?

I was joking with my partner last night around her pronunciation of the word Moon. 

Last magazine you read?

Attack Magazine.

Last mix you listened to?

Luke Slater’s latest mix for Awakenings.

Last song that gave you goosebumps?

Tyler The Creator – RUNITUP.

Last film you watched?

Last time I was at the Cinema I watched this film called ‘Old’. However the last movie I watched was on Netflix last night and is called ‘How to lose a Guy in 10 days’.

“Expression EP ” is available to listen and pre-order here.

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