To a lot of people, electronic music is simply just the driving force of the dancefloor and the often-overlooked structure to a wild night out. But to some, it’s also a narrative device; a storyline tightly knitted together by ones own imagination. There is a point where electronic music becomes more than strictly intended dance music, and evolves into a universal form of listening that is just quality music at the end of the day. Many producers strive to reach such a depth to their records, yet not many achieve their goal of creating something musically and lyrically timeless, yet catchy enough to put on repeat after the first listen. But that’s why it’s such a special thing when all the right pieces fall into place, just like in Keenhouse’s new LP Four Dreams.
Keenhouse is the alias of my good friend Ken Rangkuty, a talented LA-based musician that broke through a handful of years ago with his “Civic Transit” EP that became a blog hit during that whole “dreamwave” synth-disco resurgence alongside names like Anoraak, College, The Twelves, etc. But Ken has managed to avoid meaningless labeling and attachment to music trends over the years as he’s been working hard on doing his own thing, finally resulting in Four Dreams, which will be released on one of my favorite local labels, Binary Entertainment.
I’m really pleased to premier the first single off of the new album, and it’s called “Where I Belong.” You can download it here, or stream. But anyway, enough from me! Read on to take in the most recent conversation I had with Keenhouse about the new music.
What’s up Ken, how’s your summer been going?
Thanks man, very good. Beautiful summer so far. Enjoying every bit of it!
So the full length is finally done and is coming out in September. When did you originally begin writing the songs for this record, and what sort of concepts did you have in mind for “Four Dreams?”
I started working on the album not too long ago after ‘Civic Transit’ came out. One thing that was different with this one was that I didn’t actively work on it. I didn’t want to just squeeze songs out and then refine them. Because I knew that I wanted to take a very personal approach, I just let some ideas grow on me and jotted down a lot of notes in a diary over time. Anything that would deal with events in my own life, music-culture to technical things and ideas about music itself. Over the years since I started producing, two very different ways of doing music took on shape in me. With one you have a bucket of ideas and vocabulary. That’s when you ask yourself: “Can you make it sound like… so and so.” Then you start making music and whether you want it or not you start making references. You make music from memory or a reference book. Even though I didn’t have a clear concept for the album I knew that I wanted to make this one about listening. To me music became more of an autonomous thing. It exists as part of the world. Whatever an artist makes of it are slices taken from it. So you have to listen to it in its somehow non-existent form first to see what the big picture is. While the first approach is more about controlling the one I wanted to try and take is about trusting. That’s to say that I let go of anything music related at first and tried to approach expressing, or translating if you will, in a more basic form. I mean of course this is not a black and white scenario but I think I realized that writing music with a goal in mind is useless and tiring because music is far too powerful to control. Another reason is that I think we’re all suffering from information overload. With all that stuff being thrown at you daily there’s no time to listen to yourself and truly find your voice. So I wanted to listen less to culture and more to what life offers you in the moment. Naturally things fall together and that’s what I mean by trust.
It seems that over time, your music has become progressively more universal and less directly intended for the dancefloor, even though it typically maintains that element. Would this be a result of further personal exploration, or simply growing tired of the club world?
I love dance music. It’s repetitive and it should be. I think a great track for a club setting really starts to shine in a great set. But that’s the nature of dance music. I do like songs as well but somehow I gravitate towards less traditional forms or at least try to build on them. Things that unfold over time. I look at these forms and a song is a very traditional medium. Dance music is body music. There is a very similar structure to most tracks. Ambient music and certain types of instrumental music evoke images. So to me those are were some starting points to expand on. Another thing I was always intrigued by where structures used in movies or books. What it came down to was to follow an underlying pattern that is true for most art I admire. There is a simplicity and naturalness to it that can’t be emulated but has to fall together. For music to be more universal it has to be based on universal matters. Next to the writing process sound design automatically becomes part of it but that might only be the smallest building block to a piece of music.
So what I was looking at eventually is how to part from conventions I was used to in a natural way and instead use what I really love to do—building things that progress. Not that I like doing things for the sake of doing them different but just to be honest to yourself. There is no agenda to it. I figured when I trust an agenda will emerge. Electronic music gives you the freedom to be very personal in your vocabulary. Instead of doing what I would do for remixes, I started working in a way where I kept moving forward with a musical thought. Like in a dream it doesn’t matter when one scene moves into the next without the usual arrangement trickery. So I started looking at it as a story where I had different settings or backdrops and a plot- either the melody or vocals. Doing it that way allowed me to work both with ambient influences, beat-driven electronic music and song. I could work with either a ‘static’ setting or scenery and allow content to move within it.
I read that the process of “Four Dreams” consisted of you travelling the world to write, work, learn, and push yourself in new directions. What are some of the most influential locations you visited, and who are some of the other musicians you encountered on the journey?
Yes, I spent a good amount of time in Germany, Jakarta and Bali. But I didn’t go with the mindset that I would visit these places to do music. To me the record wasn’t as much a study of different music I would encounter but a study of the surroundings. There were the personal things that would occupy my mind and then there was the environment and different places I went to. So I tried to just look and listen. And strangely or naturally those little stories would form and make it into the music. I didn’t intentionally sit down and write. That doesn’t work well for me. At times I would just sit at a café, the beach or even a mall and watch. It’s easier for me to get a picture of something in my mind first and then use that as a backdrop in the music. Whatever would go on emotionally with me or if something would really move me, that would usually, become some content in the final music. I couldn’t really do that with words. I mean I was writing things down pieces from a conversation or thoughts, but I would try to translate that into music. Some of the best times for me were when I would play with other musicians, especially in Bali. There are some really amazing musicians out there. I mean you would encounter great musicians here in LA, but what I loved the most about them was their naturalness and absolute raw talent. Less of the session player type. The great thing is that there’s live music on every corner. We would just walk into a bar or club and play together. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen too much here in LA. To me that was also a reminder that music is a universal language and all the cultural baggage aside, which tends to dilute the music itself, when you make music you make conversation. You tell your story, you listen to the other person and you see that you’re both in the same boat. And at the same time you realize that each story is special. To me that was one of the bigger things I could take away from traveling. To me, a story is not a format, but just incredibly good at transporting information about life, existence and all the other everyday or not-so everyday things that come with it. It’s not much different with music and sound.
Do you think that travelling for personal growth is equally essential to evolving as a musical artist? Would you say that this is a major theme in the record?
Not essential but it provides a good way for gathering and assessing new impressions. I think it’s good that if we place ourselves in different environments, the outcome of what goes through our minds can be affected in a positive way. It really helped me to distance myself from whatever I would think about and helped to get to new insights later on. Like with the album, because it’s called ‘Four Dreams,’ most of the themes are based on something that came from impressions and thoughts that already existed. The element of being in different environments in that context was important to me because it made it easier to gain a clear perspective of what’s inside. There where thoughts and pictures floating around that made sense in retrospective and because of traveling. In other words it helped me to translate impressions or pictures into something else.
Even though “Four Dreams” is a result of your own story, the music’s messages still remain universal. What do you hope that listeners get out of the full experience of the record? Is there an ideal setting or mood in which you recommend to fans for their first listen through?
This what I like about story because it is a universal tool. Like I said each and every story is special since each person is special. But in order to come up with a story you need content. Every single person probably has a great story to tell. We like stories because they resemble life in a way we can understand and process. Music is a great medium to tell a story. But the direction I was drawn to is that I couldn’t tell a story with words only. I tried to use sound and arrangement instead. Music is subjective but I do believe that there are sounds and colors that can speak universally. Some might be more obvious than others. One theme that goes throughout the record is that of searching for home which is also a major theme in every story. If we are disconnected from the world or if we don’t feel that we belong to anywhere or anyone we wither away. That’s a basic condition of existence. When I found myself being in that state of mind I wrote “Do You Know Where I Belong”. It deals with our ongoing drive to connect with the world and to feel that we’re alive and well.
I remember when your first solo release as Keenhouse (“Civic Transit”) came out in 2008 and it was said to be heavily influenced by your surroundings in Los Angeles, which was new to you at the time. Would you mind refreshing me on where you lived prior to settling in LA?
I think it was more influenced by my childhood than anything else. That album was about youth, being young and looking forward to what is to come. It wasn’t influenced by new surrounding but happened to fit in well. At that time I was living in LA for already six years or so. I remember that it felt uncompromising to me in that it was something I really needed to express and I knew at that point that I had a very strong feeling of putting that into music. When I first got to LA and prior to that I was doing a lot of electronic music. I lived in Hamburg and Berlin before. At that time downtempo and Deep House were still very prominent but also heavily influenced by jazz and Latin. Well, the terms seem to be prominent again but who knows. So I wrote with a lot of DJs, playing the parts and programming the tracks. But the urge to put my own feelings into music came through and that’s when I recorded “Civic Transit.”
Now that you’ve been living and working out of LA for a handful of years, what can you say are some of the best things about being in this city? Who are some of your favorite local collaborators or party-throwers?
Well, LA is very fast paced and you really get to see who’s running what and for how long. Right now some of my favorite parties are being thrown by LaNuit. It’s not too upscale and not too underground, but all their parties are very high-energy. Same with the A Club Called Rhonda parties, I really like to go there. Another collective out of LA I really like is Droid Behavior. They come from a minimal techno background and they have been doing it forever. They seem very dedicated and sticking to their vision. What I like about the city is its different parts and neighborhoods. Some of them are totally reminiscent of other cities. Like say some parts in Silverlake remind me of certain strips in Berlin. A similar atmosphere. Venice, totally different again. Sometimes it feels that the city is a bit of a hub of what’s going on culturally in the world. A lot of the places here remind me of one place or the other in different countries. Well maybe that’s a generalization but it feels like it.
Going back to your earlier releases…how did you join the Binary Entertainment family? I think Josh [Legg, currently known as Goldroom] was going steady with Nightwaves when you guys probably met, which had a similar sound to your first EP…
We meet during the later part of 2008 during a record release party. At the time they were still building up their roster and I think a friend told them about me. We hit it off right away and knew that we had a lot of things in common - the music and our idea of how to present it to a wider audience. Not long before that I also connected with Valerie so it was because of these two collectives that we started playing shows here. There were a lot of other acts like The Twelves, College and Anoraak being booked to come play. A lot of promoters in the area would adapt to that sound and the whole thing gained more momentum during that time.
You, alongside the rest of the label, really helped define a unique sound at the time of its rise. Would you say that this was a natural result of production, rather than an intentional attempt at pushing a nostalgic synth-driven sound?
I can say that for the music part of it I hoped that it was a natural result. A lot of it was due to similar tastes and just other things that were up in the air. I mean music is a very individual thing and I’m really not a big believer that you should exploit all of that for the sake of marketing. I could definitely tell when something was the result of a natural production process versus being intentionally produced. Using certain sounds in your productions doesn’t just pose the question whether it’s something people are used to and might just respond to by way of hyping it up but most importantly whether it fits your own voice and personality. Things change and when it’s time to move on it is time. A lot of the so-called musical styles are only short-lived because people refuse to let go and repeat something that worked once over and over. That’s not natural it’s forced and just takes too much effort and energy to hold in place. If you take a style and slow it down, you don't have a new style, you have the same thing slower. Same with music that’s modeled after retro-influenced styles. Things repeat and it’s just a byproduct of pop-culture. With club music things repeat relentlessly. You know club land has a short attention span and it should be that way. Probably better because you don’t want to remember everything anyway. But that’s just a choice, that’s okay. That’s also why dance music is plagued with so many genre names. Realizing that, it becomes even more important to make electronic music a personal matter. Really though, I can say that I’m thankful when things fall into place and it seems Binary’s music encapsulated that. It’s unique because it sounds like you, and I think at that time some of us realized that.
Regardless of styles or labeling, who are some of your biggest musical influences and inspirations at the moment? Do you have any preferences regarding kinds of songs as far as remixing goes? Or will you take on anything? Do you spend more time on original music than remixes?
I like digging into a lot of early house at the moment just for the rawness of sounds. Back when house wasn’t house yet the arrangements were really interesting at times. I always liked listening to fusion and I can still get into that. I just love the freedom of how some of the musicians play. The past couple of month I’ve been listening to more and more Gamelan music and ambient music. I went to a traditional concert once. They played four to five hours, some sort of the main Hindu operas. Quiet the feat. Really puts your head somewhere else. I’m a big fan of impressionist music and some of the experimental adaptations they did back in the 60’s and 70’s like the records Isao Tomita did. Unbelievable technical achievement. Then there’s the piano music from Ryuichi Sakamoto and his collaborations with Alva Noto, which I also really like. As for remixing, I would take on anything really, it doesn’t matter. Remixes are usually done fairly quickly because to me it’s more of a technical thing. Most of the content is already there so what I usually do is reinterpret parts of the melody in my own way, exchange harmonies and so on. With original music it’s a different approach. There’s no content there yet. So I’d do smaller things in between, work on sounds, sequences and try to build up my vocabulary. A lot of times I would just wait until things emerge. To me that always proved to be the best starting point.
So, looking toward the future and the release of the record, what does Keenhouse have in store for us? Live dates? DJ sets? Some bonus material of sorts?
Well, there are going to be a lot of things to back up the album. Working on a video right now for one of the singles. There will be some other things to give a background to the album and how it came together as well as some bonus material. We will be putting those things out there over time. The release itself will also come as a double vinyl gatefold and there’s some stuff that comes with it. I’ll probably be playing more DJ gigs first and then back to live-shows. I’m working on some pretty exciting things and new gadgets at the moment that will make their way into the new live-setup.
Is there are particular song on the record that holds more meaning or pride than the others? If so, what’s the reason for feeling that way about it?
Probably ‘Where I Belong.’ It has vocals on it and summarizes the direction of the album well. There is a good balance between the musical part of the album and lyrics that describe what the emotional core of these recordings are. All tracks on the album are grouped into what you could maybe call movements or chapters of a story. Most of the tracks stand on their own but taken by themselves they make for a snapshot of one point in a dream before your sleeping mind unexpectedly decides to switch gears. So to me ‘Where I Belong’ in particular marks a point of resolution in the bigger story.
How about some words of wisdom for young folks getting into the game? Has anyone ever given you any advice that’s stuck in your mind forever?
Absolutely, I worked with a well-known composer once for a film track. I must have had a bad day or something and was a bit grumpy. So he walks up to me and asks:
"Are you having fun?" And I said: "Yeah I guess…" He says: "Good because you should have!" That was simple and right in the face. I told myself—what greater thing is there then being creative? You got to have fun. Because fun is always the better choice. And it’s a choice that you have at any given point, as hard as it might seem sometimes.
That’s what I would also tell anyone else. There’s the emo way out and there’s the Fun way out. I mean not like violently happy kind of fun but just the simple insight that there’s either fear or fun. Fear is a one-way street. But looking up takes you further and further. And that’s something that comes up in my mind all the time when working on music. Sometimes I have to stop and ask myself: ‘Why do you make certain musical decisions, what are your intentions?’ When it feels right you know you’re doing it right.
All right, that’s about all I have to ask for now. But hey, when are you gonna have another BBQ!
Thanks man, yeah there should be another one soon. Have you come in and spin this time!
Thanks so much man, any last things you’d like to add or plug before we wrap this up?
Thanks for having me and I’m looking forward to putting the new music out there and sharing it.
Four Dreams will be out on September 4 via Binary Entertainment. You can view the tracklist and learn more here. Be sure to stay posted with Keenhouse on Facebook, Twitter, and Soundcloud. Special thanks goes out to Julian from Friends Of Friends Music for the extra help.