Sounds Come Before Light: A Conversation with Ivan Shopov

Ivan Shashev Shopov works under many guises. In the drum and bass scene he is known as Cooh. Techno lovers know him as Drum Kid. In his project Balkansky he blends traditional Bulgarian folklore music with contemporary electronic genres -  collaborating with folk musicians, such as Bulgarian kaval player, Theodosii Spassov.

This October Ivan will perform at Kinisi Festival of Sound on Santorini in Greece. He will be collaborating with the Kaynak Pipers Band, a kaba gaida (Bulgarian bagpipes) ensemble, to present a site specific, experimental performance mixing traditional Bulgarian folklore from the Rhodope Mountains, with electronic music and sound design.

I wanted to learn something about the processes and inspirations within such diverse sounds. Ivan very kindly re-installed Skype to connect me, from Amsterdam, to him, in Sofia.

HH: Being well versed in cross-genre collaborations through projects such as Balkansky, I wondered about the level of preparation you imagine for Kinisi?

IS: We will try to set up a few plans for how to work with the sound. But we will leave the final decision and the final composition for the festival and let the place inspire us for the piece. I think this is important, because it is also a specific place, I don’t want to ruin it with too much expectation. We will see when we arrive, how it goes.

HH: Is this the method that you usually work in?

IS: Yes, I’ve worked a lot in this field. People invite me to set up sound designs for a certain place or venue where I’ve never been before. That’s a challenge I always like to take on. I usually dj around the world, and that’s my main income, and I’m most well know for my dj sets. I’ve released about 100 vinyl records with my music on it and over 200 tracks with different styles. From drum & bass to dubstep to techno. I’ve done this for so long that I’m now looking more into these challenges, to provoke myself with different venues and sound concepts. I’ve been working with contemporary artists in Bulgaria, doing digital art, creating interactive installations, using sensors and programming, cameras, motion sensors, and so on.

HH: You are also a visual artist?

IS: I never studied music or sound. I studied ceramic sculpture, and I finished the National Academy of Arts with fine arts and printmaking. So for me, sound is more or less like drawing a picture, just with different brushes. I always take this approach to sound, and I think this is what keeps me going. I don’t know the notes and to me they are a nice language, but I like to listen to it. But while I speak it comes from my soul not from my brain somehow.

HH: When did you start working with sound?

IS: I had a metal band when I was 16 in my hometown. Around that time a friend showed me his computer, with software installed on it, which you could create electronic sounds with. That was also the first time I used a computer. I had never touched one before because back in ’96, ‘95, there were about 6 computers in the whole town. My friend showed me how to change the sound on the screen with a mouse, and I thought “Wow – you can do that!? This is the future!” So I wanted to explore it. He gave me a floppy disk with the software and I installed it on another friend’s computer and started experimenting with it, recording tapes, taking them home and listening to them, learning from trial and error. But I really loved music since I was a kid. My grandmother used to sing Bulgarian traditional songs and she was part of a traditional choir in our village. I used to sing with her at home, and try the melodies that she taught me, everyone used to say the musical feeling was inside me. So I never actually felt like studying music, it was just a part of my development.

HH: How do you align your relation with traditional Bulgarian music styles and more experimental, electronic styles?

IS: I have several different projects with Bulgarian folklore, and it’s always a challenge and an interesting new path to mix it with different instruments, it’s never boring. It never gets to the point where I think: “Ah, I’m sick of this Bulgarian stuff, ok lets go to my synthesizers again.” You know, it’s so rich! It’s like a huge ocean with sounds, melodies and stories. It’s a never-ending inspiration to me. And just at the moment when you think: “Ok, I’ve heard this song so many times.” You hear it from another singer or another great musician, and then you realise - every talent offers something different, even with the same words.

HH: Do you usually work with recordings or do you work with people live?

IS: I mostly work with people live. I take them to my studio and we work together on an arrangement. When I work with Theodosii Spassov - he’s played all around the world on so many different projects from flamenco, to jazz, and rock. We’ve worked on albums together for 10 years where we mix Bulgarian folklore with electronic sounds. The sound goes from ambient, to dubstep, to downtempo, idm. All these contemporary styles fit really well with Bulgarian sounds. We record some sessions in studio, then we chop them up and move them around. It comes as improvisation. I play one of the ideas that I have on my computer and he starts improvising on top for about ten minutes, then we listen to the takes and decide on which part to be where. And from this arrangement we build it as a song. During live performance we play it as close as possible to the original. But sometimes we just start jamming with my electronic gear. He’ll play some harmonies, then I sample it, I put it on the back and then start building beats on top, he improvises off that. So we developed this combination of building blocks where we can provoke each other and get some interesting stuff on stage. We just played a festival last weekend in the mountains in Bulgaria with 1500 people in the audience and we completely improvised for 500 tracks, just jamming. People ask: “Wow, how long have you been playing this programme, it was so well done!?” This was really our rehearsal. Because I have so much experience in electronic sounds, and he has so much experience in jazz and folklore and is an amazing musician, it is always easy to scope something on the go. For me mistakes are where the music is, because if you have everything pre-recorded and super stable the only mistakes can come from the live musicians. But when you make a mistake and then make it good again the audience realises you are not playing the CD from your studio. I really like this improvisation part. And I think we will work on this kind of material at the festival in Greece.

HH: Where do your ideas come from, what sparks and drives them?

IS: 

I grew up in the mountains and to me seeing nature around me is the most natural source of inspiration. Looking at machines sometimes helps as well. When I do brutal drum & bass I imagine robots fighting and the end of the world. That is another part of me – the dark side. But the main inspiration is the beauty of our planet.

Especially when I travel, that is such a nice thing to do. Just exploring different places. The gig sometimes is… how to say this without being arrogant… not the most important part. The most important part is the whole picture, the journey, the people, the stories you hear, the stories you tell them, they way the people approach you, the way people see the world through their eyes. I like to explore these little details because I come from a really small place, so for me the beauty is in the detail.

HH: The way that you describe this seems to me very similar to how Ramona and Alyssa seem to approach Kinisi Festival. The whole experience…

IS: It was really nice to be on the same page as them, because sometimes people only book you to perform certain styles - but only this style because other styles suck. I’ve been told so many times when I play my drum & bass shows: “Hey, Ivan, you’re going to play drum & bass, no Balkansky please, no no no.” And I think: “You don’t have to tell me that.” It’s so offensive you know, half of you sucks, but this better half – you should have left the other side at home, we don’t need it, just bring the other one, we’ll have fun with that. Artists should express themselves in every possible manner, not just follow the rules of what a rave is. Especially coming from this other background, making experimental music, it’s such a boring time for me to just be the boring dj drum & bass expects me to be.

HH: Do you prefer one part of your practice more than another?

IS: I like it equally, but creating beautiful music is taking the better place in me. The hard music is still in my roots. I grew up listening to metal and I had long hair and all the aggression I had to release from my family situation, you know how teenagers are. So stiff about everything shit in their life, they think this is why they were born, to be shitty people. So this still fights inside me. Whenever I have these harsh feelings or I’m disappointed from something I get ideas for hard hitting drum & bass. But I can’t forbid this part of me. It helps me sort out my dark stuff. I always say that my music is my therapist, that I am my own therapist in making different music for different psychotic situations like that. And I’m really happy that lately most of it is beautiful music and just inspiring, organic, acoustic sounds that touch your soul. Probably because I’ve grown up and I’m not a teenager anymore. At least that’s what I think.”

HH: Is there a region or a country that’s been particularly influential on you, other than Bulgaria?

IS: Once I’d been to Australia and New Zealand I really opened my mind to the fact that our planet is a really small place. I mean it’s huge, but at the same time, it’s not impossible to go around. And when you go there and you see beautiful people and beautiful nature you kind of create this hope for the world that not only your national geography can give you the images. When you travel and you see these different countries and the beauty of them, you begin to believe this further, and this part of the world has had a huge impact on my career and inspiration. I also did two albums over there whilst I was touring, so I feel really connected to this part of the world.

HH: Is that because of its nature and scenery?

IS: Not only. The people, the culture, the way they see the world. The laziness, it’s a complex feeling. I like to explore a lot of their little details, how they approach food for example, how they go to work, when they chill, how they do it, how they drink, how they smoke. It’s so different - it’s like a better version of our western world. I mean, I’m not from the Western world anyway… I guess I feel myself as a citizen of the world, rather than a Balkan country guy… But to me New Zealand is another Bulgaria. Also nature wise, they are close. The mountains, the trees, everything reminded me of it. It felt so close, yet so far at the same time. But the feeling is amazing - to find that the earth is just mirrored somehow.

HH: You also give workshops?

IS: I give workshops everywhere I play. You name it - every country I’ve played in I’ve also given workshops. Sometimes big ones that are organised with hundreds of people, sometimes really improvised ones, sometimes I go before a gig and people start asking me geeky questions about music production. And I thought, instead of explaining this to you now and then your friends ask me again, why don’t you get all your friends together and I’ll talk for two hours, make a track in front of you, explain how I do it, and then you can just take it, I don’t want to get paid for it. Just spread the word. I’ve helped so many young producers become DJs, and they now travel around the world like me. It’s really inspiring to see them actually listen to you and not just take it for granted, but to really get inspired and work hard to achieve some great stuff. It’s very inspiring to see your work continue by someone else.

HH: It’s also fantastic to see this give and take relationship between the audience and the artist.

IS: Absolutely! Most of my colleagues are so closed. They think “I learned how to make this bassline and its my secret. And I think “Ok – what you’re going to take it with you to the grave?” What a “brave” man!” He’s got his secrets hidden up his ass – perfect… I have no secrets. I look at other people’s secrets and I adapt it to my workflow and then I put them everywhere, spread them. If everyone kept their secrets to themselves we wouldn’t have electricity, we wouldn’t have internet, I wouldn’t be talking to you on Skype. Music especially. It’s the easiest art form to understand. Sounds comes before the light — in my books at least. You can explain so much more with sound, voice and speech, than with gestures and pictures.

There was a nice comment on one of my youtube videos from an album that I did with Theodossii Spassov where he sings in Bulgarian, it’s a very deep — an emotional song. It’s sung in the Bulgarian language so only Bulgarian people can understand it, maybe a few people from FYROM, and a few Russians. But there was a comment saying: “I don’t understand a word, but I can’t stop crying.” So that’s how music works: breaking boundaries and breaking language barriers.

HH: Final words?

IS: I love music, I love travelling and I love art in every shape. I’m very open to all this — it’s all I do from morning until night, 365 days a year. I’m just this creative centre that spreads its creativity to all its corners. People come to me all the time. I produce a lot of artists and help them, giving workshops for art and for music and try to inspire people. That’s my main food – to inspire people and to get their eyes opened and wowed – that’s my food – my favourite dish.