You may not know it, but you’ve almost certainly heard Rune Reilly Kölsch’s music. In 2003, he released a track called “Calabria,” an instrumental tune successful enough to generate a series of vocal spin-offs, one of which reached No. 1 on the Dance Airplay chart in 2008. The peppy horn riff from “Calabria” appeared in a Target commercial, and Pitbull, who is always on the lookout for a good club record to recycle, incorporated the brass in a top 40 hit simply titled, “The Anthem.”
“I could’ve easily retired on that record,” Kölsch tells Billboard Dance. “But that’s not the point. The point is not being lazy — it’s exactly the opposite. You grab that opportunity, you move forward, and you try to push the boundaries of what is available for you. ‘Calabria’ was more of an eye-opener then a savior.”
Kölsch is sitting in a bar in Manhattan’s financial district around midnight. He’s tired, but happy to discuss his love of Detroit techno while eating a burger and drinking Lion Stout. (“Dark beer is bitter like life,” he jokes.) From 7 to 11, he played back to back with Pete Tong on the waterfront downtown.
“I played a couple fucking weird records,” he says. “If you have a setting like that — the bridge, the moon, Brooklyn over there, the sound system is good — the only thing to give it what it deserves is play something special. That’s exactly the moment to exploit people’s vulnerability. Not in a bad way: giving something to people that they didn’t know they loved.”
He often speaks about production and DJing in these sort of visceral, pulse-quickening terms. “A big inspiration for me was Robert Hood in early years,” Kölsch notes. “The idea behind the M-Plant label was that he wanted to implant emotions into other people. I took a lot of inspiration from that still to this day — the fact that you can, via electronic music, give emotions away.”
He worries that in much of modern pop and electronic music, the presence of multiple authors on a single track can interfere with that give-away process. “You have 15 writers writing lyrics for one particular song. It’s emotionally diluted. There is no clear message.”
So it’s not surprising that his post-“Calabria” encounter with the pop world wasn’t entirely satisfying. “I had a period of time where I really enjoyed that challenge of making a perfect three minute record for the radio,” he remembers. “It’s difficult to make a good pop record. But in all honesty, radio music — a friend of mine said this really well, it’s like taking a piece of art and cutting half of it off because it has to fit in the corner somewhere.” Instead of working under that constraint, he tried out a new alias, Ink & Needle — which explored spare, prolonged throb — revived his old project Artificial Funk, and eventually released a pair of albums under his own last name.
The idea for his latest moniker came from Michael Mayer, who heads the label Kompakt. Enamored with the Ink & Needle records, Mayer reached out to see if Kölsch was interested in releasing something via Kompakl. His response: “Take my money! Yes! Of course!” Mayer suggested that he work under the name Kölsch, which is also the term for the dialect in Cologne, where Kompakt is based.
Kölsch’s work for the label is methodical and architecturally pristine. You hear reverent organs, stern kick drums, and sumptuous strings; the gummy melodies could easily attract pop lovers, as long as they are willing to listen for a few extra minutes.
“I think the problem we had in electronic music for many, many years, was that no one was putting the effort into it,” Kölsch explains. “They’re like ‘that’ll do, I’m gonna put out three more records this year.’ My idea is that if I do put more energy into it, you’ll hear it. I’ll have a string section replay what I want, a pianist replay what I did. I want it to be more specific.”
He applied the same process when working on his latest single, due out September 30th. It features a victorious sounding brass section, and when he started testing it in sets earlier this year, he was impressed with the results. But then he had parts re-recorded. “It could’ve been a great record if I put it out six months ago,” he notes. “But I want it to be something that in ten years I can go back and say, ‘this is still a good record.'” Can people tell the difference between the spruced-up version and the one that initially inflamed a dance floor? “I believe in humanity. I believe that people will feel it.”
Listeners have been compelled enough by Kölsch’s last two albums, 1977 and 1983, that they get upset if he doesn’t include his own material in his DJ sets. “I get hate mail if I don’t play at least a couple of my records,” he says. “Today I got a couple complaints because I didn’t play ’em.”
“But we’re in New York,” he continues. “You’ve gotta also teach the kids where they’re from, if they don’t know. It’s my job to give people just a little bit of education.” As a result, he picked records by Kenny Dope, Kings of Tomorrow, and the Arthur Russell-led group Loose Joints.
“If I can get 20 or 30 people to be like, ‘What was that record?’, then I’ve won,” he adds. “I’ve given a little bit more away.”