20 Questions With KiNK: The Enigmatic Producer on ‘Educated’ U.S. Audiences & How ‘This Life Sounded Like a Hallucination Back in Bulgaria’
While KiNK may not yet be a massive name in the States, the Bulgarian producer is revered by those in the know. Both Diplo and Claude VonStroke have called him one of their personal favorites, while many in the scene cite him one of the best live acts in techno at large.
Born Strahil Velchev, the producer is based in his native Sofia, Bulgaria, where he grew up behind the Iron Curtain, the only music he had access to being that which was government-approved. That era is a long way from Velchev’s current reality, which involves traveling freely across international boundaries to play music that likely wouldn’t have been approved behind the Iron Curtain.
Having released music under Ovum, KMS and his own Sofia label, KiNK’s latest release is a swirling, brightly ravey edit of the 1999 Midfield General track “Coatnoise,” with Midfield General’s Damian Harris himself requesting that Velchev take on the song. Out today (October 28) via Harris’ Skint records, the release comes ahead of KiNK’s upcoming whirlwind run of U.S. shows, which includes a November 10 date at Elsewhere in New York, a November 11 show at Public Works in San Francisco and a November 12 set at San Diego’s Love Machine festival, the lineup for which also includes Dixon, Denis Sulta and Pan-Pot.
Here, Velchev reflects on the “two extremes” of U.S. fans, his love of Silk Sonic and the best advice his grandmother ever gave him.
1. Where are you in the world right now, and what’s the setting like?
I’m just back in my apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria after an exhausting weekend, which started on Friday and finished yesterday. My two-year-old daughter is getting her afternoon sleep; I’m in the living room, enjoying the silence after a few days of loud sound blasting in my ears. It’s a bit of chaotic here, my daughter’s toys — blocks of Lego, cars, some animal figures. And other toys we share together — two little synthesizers and some cables. You have to watch your step!
2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
It was vinyl, probably around 1986, an album by the German Euro Disco band called Modern Talking. It’s one of the very few projects I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I liked, but back in the day in Communist Bulgaria this was some of the most exciting dance music the government would approve to appear in the record stores — alongside another act produced in Germany and I really loved back then, Boney M.
Back in the ’80s, all the music on the Bulgarian market was manufactured by Balkanton — the only record label, also owned by the state. The vinyl was cheap, probably costing the equivalent of one Euro or a dollar in the modern terms. But there was not that much of a choice, you wouldn’t see Chicago House or Detroit techno on the shelves in the store.
3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do or did they think of what you do for a living now?
Both of my parents studied law and worked for the state, which meant not getting a big paycheck, but having some sort of stability. They never understood my passion and didn’t support it, but also they didn’t try to stop me. They hated their jobs. They were happy I was spending my time in a creative way. My mom would often say, “I don’t mind what you do, but the sooner you realize it’s not going to work, the better for you.”
Luckily they were wrong, so far. After about 10 years completely committing myself to producing and DJing, around 2009 I was able to support myself financially and my parents started helping me with some office work related to my trips; they still do it til today. They still don’t like the music, but they are happy for me.
4. What’s the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?
To be honest, nothing significant for myself. The most notable treat was a second hand Opel Astra, I think it was model 2008, for my girlfriend, now wife. It was for her, because I still don’t know how to drive. Still, beside some of my extravagant purchases of music gear, we don’t spend that much money on material things. We like to travel and to try good food. I guess this will change as our child is growing.
5. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into dance music, what would you give them?
LFO’s Advance is a very important album for me, and I used to recommend it to friends who were getting into electronic music, because I believe it’s easy to digest, but also its very musically rich and intelligent. There are tracks with different energy levels, fast and slow. Dreamy melodies and punishing kick drums. A bit of everything, but it all sits together extremely well on this album. It still grows on me after 24 years of existence. I’m sure these days there are better records to introduce somebody new to electronic music, but I guess you are most impressed with music when you are a teenager or in your 20s. I was a teenager in the ’90s, and I’m very connected to that era.
6. What’s the last song you listened to?
We were in the car with my wife earlier today and our good friend Krista, a Bulgarian singer, was presenting her new album on the radio station we usually listen on the road — Jazz FM. So we listened to Krista’s U Doma. The song she describes as Bulgarian Folklore singing tradition meets gospel. The lyrics are about home. Today I can relate to that, after such an extreme weekend spent at hotels and airports.
7. You’re the favorite producer of many producers. What are you doing that no one else is doing that’s elevated you to this status?
I don’t think my approach in the studio is unique, I’m just very dedicated, because I really love the process of making sound and music. I’m trying to do what I would like to hear from other artists. I love simplicity in any kind of art form. I’m looking for a strong element in my tracks — it could be a drum pattern, a catchy melody or a really unusual sound. If I feel like the demo is boring and I have to improve it with studio tricks in the arrangement, I would rather delete the sketch and start again.
I also like the music to be a bit irritating. When I got into Techno in the early ’90s, I loved it, because it was like nothing I’d heard before, and it was that irritating, atonal element of this music, which fascinated me the most. I try to keep that in my music too. And last but not least — I love to have a certain character in my sound. Regardless if I record my track through a pair of guitar pedals or I use software plugins to achieve a non-existing sound color, that last touch is important to me. And it can take a lot of time, sometimes longer than arranging the track.
8. You’ve also got a sort of enigmatic mystique. Do you consider yourself mysterious? What’s a normal day like for you?
I believe I’m the opposite of mysterious, but indeed I don’t share much about my private life on the internet, because I haven’t got that much of a private life for a long time. I was learning how to become an international artist for a decade, and now I’m an international artist for over another decade with crazy touring and recording schedule, and that sums up the past 20 years of my existence as an artist.
Luckily for me, my wife Rachel Row is a singer/songwriter and she has been very patient with me over the years, because she has the same passion for music. Normally our day would be doing office work in the morning, going together for lunch — and the rest of the day it would be studio, together or separately. We love to jump in the car spontaneously and escape from Sofia for a few days every now and then. Since we are parents, everything is more compressed — no private time, less studio — but also a lot of fun right now. We are even more offline beside announcing work, because we want to give our daughter the privilege to be anonymous, until she can decide for herself.
9. Tell us a bit about the dance scene in your native Bulgaria. What are the parties like? What do audiences respond to?
The scene over here is similar to the rest of the world. There is a massive commercial EDM scene, which gets the biggest crowds, but I can’t say much about it, because I don’t follow it. From the promoters I follow, on the bigger scale, my friends Metropolis stand out. They have been active since the mid-’90s and still deliver high-quality techno and house events with up to 10,000 visitors — giving the crowd what they want, but also educating with fresh international talent.
Faza (Фаза) is another party organization, which is doing very well, specializing in a more cutting-edge, niche sound of techno, and I really appreciate their work for the scene in the past few years. There are also a lot of warehouses and underground clubs around the city, which I am excited to discover. I can say I am missing out a lot being on the road every weekend.
10. You don’t play in the States all that often. Why? Where do you spend most of your time?
I generally don’t play as much as the DJs do. I mostly play live sets, which means harder traveling, getting very little sleep — because I need to soundcheck before the venue opens. Also flying out from Sofia often means more connecting flights. I play mostly in Europe. Then I go to North America and some parts of Asia twice a year, and once a year touring Australia and New Zealand. I completely ignored big parts of Asia and Latin America, but I’m excited to discover new territories when my setup becomes simple enough.
My trips to the U.S. are short, in and out in the more recent years, but it’s always a pleasure. My favorite music comes from the States. The crowd that comes to my shows is very educated, and every visit is quite inspirational. Saying that, I’m just in a process of renewing my U.S. work visa in order to come to play in November — really looking forward to it!
11. What do you make of American audiences and the U.S. scene in general?
The American audience is great. I see two extremes: people who have tremendous knowledge about this music, which is born in the U.S., and other people who have no idea and just want to have a good time. I love both. I can’t decide what’s a bigger compliment. If someone with great knowledge tells me I played great, or a new clubber to tell me he or she heard of me for the first time and it was amazing.
12. What cities are the most exciting for you to play in, currently?
After the pandemic I’m excited to reconnect with a lot of the usual suspects like London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Chicago, Tokyo. I’ve been to all these places since we are back to normal, but I can’t get enough!
13. Midfield General’s “Coatnoise” was released in 1999. How did you come to remix a song that’s 23 years old?
I have massive respect for Skint records, for the amazing music they released through the years. Some of it was made by the founder of the label, Midfield General. When the General himself asked for a remix, I had to do it! It was a pleasure. I am quite happy with the result and flattered to rework a solid classic!
14. Do you have any guilty pleasure music? Would we ever catch KiNK listening to pop? Country? Is it all techno all the time?
I don’t feel embarrassed by any of the music I listen to right now. I was not into bands or pop music through most of my life, but since we started to travel often with my wife in our car around Bulgaria in the past few years, I started enjoying the music Rachel is listening to. I started liking Beyoncé, also Solange, I’ve been a big fan of Sabrina Claudio for few years now. I love Anderson .Paak also, and his project with Bruno Mars, Silk Sonic. We are enjoying Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino. I love everything Pharrell Williams is involved with.
15. What artists are you most excited about right now?
From the dance music scene right now, I can’t get enough of Fadi Mohem and Stef Mendesidis — both amazing DJs, producers and live acts. I’ve seen Fadi once and I couldn’t stop dancing. Cant wait to experience Stef, I think he is coming to Sofia soon. Outside the techno circle I am very exited about Kamaal Williams — absolutely amazing keyboardist, mixing jazz music with new influences. I had a chance to see him live and he delivers! Also Kaelin Ellis, a multi instrumentalist and studio wizard, doing modern instrumental music, based on funk.
16. The most annoying thing currently happening in electronic music is _____ ?
17. If you could go back to any era of dance music history, when would you go and why?
I would go back to experience the early to mid ’90s. This is my favorite period, because thats when I discovered this music and I was most passionate about it as a music fan. I would like to experience it again, but not as a kid listening to the records at home. I would love to experience the actual raves happening back then, which I missed.
18. What’s the best business decision you’ve ever made?
Having my focus on my art and skills instead of the business side of my work. All artistic decisions I took had fantastic effect on my business. Of course, that wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t gotten a strong team who believed in me and helped me with decisions, which are out of my competence. Starting with my first agent Kai Fischer, who helped me to kickstart my career, my current agent Alma Ernst, who helped me to grow as an artist in the past nine years, and Ryan Smith, working with him for North America from day one.
19. Who was your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice they gave you?
My grandmother was my greatest mentor, unfortunately she passed many years ago. She couldn’t see me touring the world, but I still remember her strength and her words. She was constantly pushing me to dedicate myself to arts and to be a citizen of the world and that everything is possible. All this sounded like an hallucination back then in bankrupt, post-communist Bulgaria, but somehow she saw the future for me. Sometimes when I feel weak I think of her, one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.
20. One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
To be much braver in everything: music, business and personal life.