Sky High: The Dance World According to Kölsch

In an interview with Billboard Dance on the Eiffel Tower, Kölsch talks about his recently completed record trilogy for Kompakt, his inaugural residency at Hi Ibiza, and being on the top of his game at 40.

On an October day in Paris, it should be at best chilly, and at worst teeming with rain. But the evening Danish producer Rune Reilly Kölsch -- better known as Kölsch -- is due to play his most remarkable open-air gig yet, the sun is shining and the skies are clear. It feels more like summer than fall.

The absurdly fine weather is another stroke of luck for the producer, who lately can’t seem to put a foot wrong. At the suggestion, though, that 2017 has been the biggest year of his career, he looks faintly uncomfortable. "I guess so… I don’t know… it’s hard to do the math when you’re in the middle of it," he says with a nervous laugh.

Stood up here on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, where he is about to play a coveted sunset DJ set for French production crew Cercle, the math seems pretty straightforward.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime gig that comes after a huge few months for the great (he’s 6’4”) Dane. He reprised his popular residency on BBC Radio 1, where he has interviewed the likes of Sasha and Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys; he was one of the inaugural residents at Ibiza’s new Hï nightclub, former home to the beloved Space; and he’s just released 1989, the final installment of his deeply personal trilogy of albums chronicling his childhood.

So, yeah, it’s fair to say that 2017, the year Kölsch turned 40, has been particularly good to him. But despite plenty of reason (today, quite literally) to have his head in the clouds, the producer’s feet have always stayed on the ground. And it’s this humility, combined with his obvious talents, that has served his slow and steady rise to the top.

"It’s completely surreal, it’s completely bizarre. I think I need to digest it a bit before I realize," he says before his set, 377 feet above the sprawl of the world’s most beautiful city. “My Mum’s very proud!"

She's watching the live stream of his set nearby in Paris, along with his 94-year-old French grandmother and the 15,000 other people tuning in. The video has racked up nearly 2 million views on Facebook and counting.

It’s a typically emotive set with moments of grandeur to match the monument it’s played on, from Thomas Newman’s “Ghosts” to Laurent Garnier’s "Acid Eiffel" to Kölsch's own tribute remix of Bjork’s "Hyperballad".

Kölsch says he didn’t prepare much for the gig, but his partner of 14 years, tour manager and booker, Julia, mentions that in the car on the way over, they were discussing what song he should close with.

The smouldering horn rub of St Germain’s "Rose Rouge" reveals itself as the perfect ending choice. More classy than clubby and quintessentially French, it’s to be expected from a man who likes to educate his audiences about where they come from.  

"I think it’s important if you have the crowd's confidence and trust, to fuck with them a little bit, and I think it’s important to give people something different to what they expect," he says. "I think that’s the difference between a McDonald’s menu and a fine dining experience. It’s important as a DJ, simply because otherwise it becomes redundant, you keep doing the same thing again and again."

Over the thirty-odd years he's been making music, Kölsch has managed to avoid repetition for the most part. Growing up in Copenhagen’s hippie commune, Christiania, he was exposed to music from an early age. His late father was a guitarist and a very young Kölsch would "go to gigs and sleep behind the speakers."


Today’s view #kolscheiffeltower - Follow the stream on my Kölsch Facebook page

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He dabbled with guitar and drums and aged about eleven, was lead singer in a band called Rune and the Motherfuckers. "It was a weird concoction of rap and Prince covers," he laughs. "It was very silly."

Around the same time he was doing radio and DJing in a youth club, playing Technotronic, Kaoma’s "Lambada" and "whatever was popular at the time". At 14, he got an Amiga 500 and discovered he could recreate the samples he'd unsuccessfully tried to imitate as a drummer. Kölsch the producer was born, but it would be years before he’d assume his current guise.

With his half-brother Johannes Torpe, he formed the house duo Artificial Funk in 2000. "We had the worst performing Top 40 hit in the UK ever. It was in the top 40 for one week." Kölsch laughs. "But it was fun, we had a good time."

Then there was their ENUR project, including 2008’s Raggatronic album. “We wanted to make like a Groove Armada-type thing with wider appeal than just dance music,” says Kölsch. It was a short while after their father passed away, and the record “totally flunked”, but it didn’t matter. “We still made the music.”

Kölsch would have his biggest success to date with a track called “Calabria” as Rune RK in 2003. You know the one. Pitbull sampled it, and it became a Ministry of Sound anthem and worldwide smash when mashed up with Alex Gaudino and Crystal Waters’ “Destination Unknown”, with Waters' vocals and an ubiquitous film clip of scantily clad band girls blowing trumpets.


Acid Eiffel

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It was never intended as a hit record, says Kölsch. “I was trying to make a Balearic version of Jeff Mills, I was trying to do that minimal sound but with organic sounds. It was like, ‘How long can I keep this loop going without it getting really annoying?’ That’s down to interpretation, I guess,” he laughs, “but that’s what I wanted to do.”

He played around with radio-friendly music for a while after that, but felt boxed in by pop’s conventions. Better, then, to continue exploring with his glossy, dance-skewed productions as Rune RK and the pulsing, minimal techno he made as Ink and Needle.

It was the latter that caught the ear of Michael Mayer, who emailed Kölsch asking if he’d like to put out something on Kompakt. Upon discovering Rune’s last name - the German word for the Cologne dialect and for the local beer - Mayer “completely freaked out," says Kölsch. “It was like a match made in heaven.”

It’s under the Kölsch alias that Rune has met with the most acclaim, and it’s the only moniker he performs under today. (Until 2014, he was still putting out commercial club tracks as Rune RK with the likes of Steve Aoki and NERVO but "that’s over now," he says firmly.)

The string-laden, melodic deep house he plays as Kölsch has produced some of Kompakt’s biggest tracks over the past seven years. "The last three albums I've sent them, they’re like, 'It’s only hits! Could you please experiment a little more?!'" Kölsch laughs. His trilogy of records, titled 1979, 1983 and 1989 and released in 2013, 2015 and 2017 respectively, is inspired by Kölsch's youth before he started making music.

"It’s not really a period-correct demonstration about what music was about at the time, it’s about looking back at emotions. A lot of it’s been self-therapeutic, what it was that drove me back then to become who I am," he says.

The first album was very basic, about "his mom, his dad, these early things”, while the second connects music to traveling, and road trips taken from Copenhagen to the south of France with a soundtrack provided by the Eurythmics, Steely Dan and Dire Straits. “I love that you’re driving from the cold north to the south, it’s kind of like the transition from childhood to adulthood if you want to go all philosophical on it.”

The last record, 1989, evokes more painful memories. It was the year his parents got divorced, and many of the song titles on the record -- "Grå", "Grau", "Gris" -- are variations on the color ‘grey’. "It was a sad time. I was skateboarding; skateboarding and music was all I cared about," he says. "And it was a grey time, the difference between staying with my Mum was she was working the evenings and I was completely free to do whatever I wanted, and with my Dad and my stepmom, she was really strict and made me do my homework, it was a really strange conflict." It’s a far cry to where he is now, a year that if pressed, he would describe as "pink!"

His summer-long residency at the controversial heir to the Space throne, Hï, (owned by Yann Pissenem of neighbouring club and outdoor behemoth Ushuaia) was a highlight. "It was absolutely incredible having opportunity to shape the sound in a club,” says Kölsch. “I'm very much of the opinion that you need to be pro-future, it’s always been a progressive genre. I think in this case it was perfect for me to see in a new club, a new vibe."

Adrien Combes / Cercle
Kolsch performs on top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Kölsch is well aware of Space's legacy, having been entranced by the club as a youngster himself and in 2013 fulfilling a long-time dream of dropping The Beach Boys’ "Good Vibrations" in his first set there, closing the terrace. He hopes that over time, Hï will become “the church for a new generation."

"The thing about Ushuaïa is it’s the Space for the new generation. Space, it was still really good, the music was really amazing, but when they covered the terrace it kind of lost it a little bit. And for the kids dancing outside at Ushuaïa, it’s their moment. We had our moment. You don’t get many of those in life."

At 40 though, Kölsch has had more special moments than most, present one included -- and rightfully, he’s happy with how things are panning out, he says, sipping on a glass of red wine near the Eiffel Tower post-set.

"This is what I always wanted, the wiggle room to experiment and be myself. It’s funny because a good friend of mine wrote to me the other day, he runs a small club in Copenhagen and he was like, ‘I really want you to come and play in my club and you can play whatever you want,' and I was like, ‘I play whatever I want all the time!"

"I'm in such a fortunate situation, I’m able to express myself in any which given way," he continues. "It doesn’t get much better than that. That’s all I need, really."

Kölsch’s 1989 tour kicks off in Miami tonight. Check out the tour dates and watch his performance atop the Eiffel Tower, below.