Lee Van Dowski: The very name exudes style and intrigue—a country lord, perhaps, who at night throws open the manor gates to host all-night bacchanals legendary for their wine and song. And though the French-born, Geneva-based artist may not have a manor to his name, the rest isn’t far off the mark. Born Renaud Lewandowski, Lee has earned a reputation as a kind of dark prince of uplifting electronic music—a trickster who spreads his mischief via long, undulating DJ sets and bewilderingly funky releases.
While it’s been a comparatively rapid ascent, Lee’s roots go deep. His musical prehistory may be similar to many of his generation: raised on rock and hip-hop, complete with the obligatory attempt to learn to play guitar followed by short-lived bands with school mates. Lee was the beneficiary of his stepfather’s eclectic musical tastes, which spanned classical, jazz, funk, rock and even musique concrete and academic electronic music. “I was fascinated by the metallic sleeves and their geometrical designs” he remembers, suggesting a possible source for the shimmering timbres and clever vectors of his own music…. A&R Simon Huxtable sat down with the enigmatic DJ/producer to discuss his career, his music and the future.
HI Renaud, Thanks for finding the time to chat with us at Decoded Magazine. From your bio there the story of Lee Van Dowski the artist is steeped in history, and if I may, thats where I’d like to start. Tell us about that first rave experience in 1993. Its the South of France and you discover something you didn’t realise you were searching for… And from there you got involved with the Dragon Bal raves (which is where Miss Kittin started out). What were these raves like to attend, and of course, did you ever meet Miss Kittin?
I was 17 when I crashed into my first Rave and I remember telling myself “That’s what I’m looking for!!” My life totally changed from that day, I wanted to know everything about everything, how to DJ, how to create music, the party organisation etc, so I ended up going out every weekend. At that time I was really close to the people from ‘Sub Teuf ‘ who were doing decorations for a lot of parties including the ‘Dragon Bal‘ and I was with them every weekend on the road. I’ve been kind of lucky to directly been involved from the inside.
Making a summary of those golden years would take way too long here, but this was like an alternative school for me…A really fun one where every week i was discovering something new. The fact that those parties were all illegals at that time was making all more exciting I must admit, but defying the police was very tricky.
Partying wasn’t really like going to your hometown favorite club. It was real adventure where you needed a car with full gas tank, good friends and determined minds! First driving to the first meeting point where a map was given to you, then driving to a next meeting point in order to loose the police. Sometimes the police found out the party location so the promoter had to change last minute the place, so it was again confusing for the crowd. Often the trick was to follow the long queues of cars, or stopping trying to hear where the music is coming from. I remember one time driving 400kms like that to finally ending up 20km form my place hehe. All this mayhem was making each party really special and we were feeling also special to be a part of it.
Miss Kittin, at that time, was playing very often in the south of France and I always loved the way she mixed, and I still do. Honestly she’s one of the best in the circuit. Over the years we became good friends, we also worked on some music together, I did a remix for her on Mobilee, and we did a lovely track together for her last album. I love her, she’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.
Could you mix in those days, or did that come later?
Well, at the beginning not at all, but I had been doing a lot of little shitty jobs to be able to buy my first Technics then buy records and learn how to beat-match…That was my main goal in life back in the days, I was mixing in my garage 15 hours a day!
Looking back on your early days, what sticks out as your favourite memory?
It’s not really about a special event or party, there’s too much… The main thing popping up when I think about these days is how free i was feeling. I was doing what I really wanted, it’s the best feeling ever for a young kid I guess.
You started out in production buying a MPC2000 – a great bit of kit. Do you still own it, and do you think learning to make music with hardware was easier or harder than today?
I’ve been working on this MPC so much that at the end there was only 5 pads still working, so I sold it long time ago for almost nothing!! I’m not a gear nerd to be honest. I used to be, and I had a lot of cool stuff like Minimoog, Kobol, Korg Monopoly, Juno106, Fender Rhodes, RE 201 Roland, TR808, KorgMS10, MS20, Roland Jupiter8, Roland JP8000, Nordlead etc, but since I had my kids I sold most of my stuff.
I couldn’t find the time to go to the studio anymore, so I started to work more with computers and I don’t regret it at all. Of course all these analog toys are fun and sounding good even if to me the noise they’re generating is way too high for the actual standards. The fact is I couldn’t see myself now working on 2×4 cm LCD display while I could use a 15 inch Retina screen with total recall automations.
I understand all the people digging analog stuff, I did it also in the past, but nowadays, the software and plugins available are truly outstanding. No matter what people are working with, it’s not because a track has been made with a Prophet 5 that you will appreciate it more.
You describe your production methods as an ‘empirical process’. Care to explain what you mean?
Usually, I never start a track with a special idea. Sounds are driving me. Sometimes I find a nice bassline and then I look for the elements fitting around, sometimes it’s a beat which will give me the direction, that’s a bit why I talk about empirical process. I know a lot of producers who will stick to their main ideas, but I don’t, I don’t give a shit about trashing my main idea if I find something better on the way even if the track is going to a total different direction.
Of course after so many years of production, I know exactly what I need to do in a track, so the all process is much easier. Actually, for the last 2/3 years I’m really having fun, there’s no more of this shit feeling telling me “I must finish this track“, now it’s more “I need to finish it” .
You still have a very full DJ schedule, in fact aren’t you coming to the end of a european tour with Mobilee? Hows that been? Where did you enjoy playing the most?
I feel in a neverending tour for the last 10 years!! hehe, but yes we just ended the tour for the last Back To Back Compilation this week and it was a great one. I think my personal highlight was Watergate last Saturday, I humbly think I did one of my best set this year, the crowd there is always pushing you to your limits and I like it. I don’t have so much favorite place to play actually, a good sound system and a cool excited crowd will always make the difference, no matter where.
Being signed to one of the world premiere house labels couldn’t have been easy to achieve. What the secret to your success?
Dedication and hard work, that’s all you need.
And you also run two labels of your own – Num and 60Sec. How do find the time to juggle so many projects?
That’s exactly because of a lack of time that these 2 labels are in a sleeping mode for the last few years now. Running labels is really a lot of work so at one point I’ve preferred to concentrate on my own productions. Also working with friends isn’t so easy as our musical tastes evolved a lot over the years, but lately I’m thinking to restart a label just for my own productions.
You’ve got a pretty full release schedule for your own tracks, whats forthcoming this year?
A lot of things are coming: I have a track on the 5 years compilation of Snatch! in April, A remix with Dean Demanuele for Riva Starr on Snatch! again for May, I’m very excited about a track I will release on the next Cocoon Compilation in May too. A Remix for Edu Imbernon & Los Suruba on Suara again in May, a Remix for Basti Grub on David Squillace’s label This And That in July, a new Mobilee EP for the end of summer and I have a down tempo album planned on Mobilee too but no release date yet…
Over christmas I was fortunate enough to hear Dixon drop 050504 in London. Its a personal favourite of mine and takes me back to a more innocent time in dance music. For that particular track, had you an idea in your mind of what you wanted it to sound like or did it transform from something else?
Ho I wish I could have listened him too!!
I started this track 4 years ago actually, I found already the incredible Pink Floyd vocal but couldn’t find my way somehow, I think I was a bit blocked by using a such stunning sample…I knew this could be quite a big one and I kept in mind to make a very sober and classy song without any useless stylistic effects, I’m such a big fan of Pink Floyd that I couldn’t trash this just as another techno bootleg.
I wanted to respect the sample as much as possible, and I worked on it more like a remix actually. I finished it last summer and sent it to few friends… I had a lot of very nice offers to release it like on Guy Gerber’s Rumors or Philomena’s from Dixon and Ame but in the end it was making more sense to keep it in my Mobilee homebase…
You’ve teamed up with Dean Demanuele recently and my inbox has been full of your tracks! You obviously have a great working relationship and are able to turn out a lot of music. How do you work in the studio together?
It’s one of these rare collaboration that work perfectly. Dean is a young talented curious guy always open for new things that’s what I like when working with him. I think I push him a bit out of his comfort zone somehow.
Surprisingly we’re mostly working through Skype. But it’s more easy than you may think when the internet connection is working good, but it’s not really the case for him in Malta, we get so crazy about that, it can take 30 mins to upload 20 megs!…it’s very frustrating. But all is soon getting better as he’s moving to Berlin in the next weeks. That’s the reason we don’t have so many releases together in the future, he was busy organizing his move, but we have this remix for Riva Starr coming in May. As soon he’s settled in Berlin we will be back to work.
Outside of dance music, how do you relax?
Uff, always the most difficult to me… I have so many goals I wanna reach before 40, so relaxing isn’t my priority for now…
Its been great to meet and chat Renaud, so other than releases, what else will be keeping you busy this year?
Thank You! It was my pleasure. Except the music life, I have two 11 year old, very energic boys at home, and they are totally filling the time left from my work….hehe