Dorian Concept to try new live set at RBMA

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Each year, thousands of budding musicians and producers vie for a place in the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA), a globe-trotting workshop sponsored by a company better known for peddling buzz-inducing energy drinks. Over the years, the event has helped nudge a variety of artists toward wider success — the more famous alumni include Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Aloe Blacc and Katy B. But for Oliver Johnson, the Austrian producer better known as Dorian Concept, it would offer a vital break before he’d even taken part.

Johnson’s friend and collaborator, Paul “The Clonious” Movahedi, was enrolled in the 2007 edition of RBMA in Montreal, and took the opportunity to slip a CD of unreleased Dorian Concept tracks to the British radio presenter Benji B. Clearly the DJ liked what he heard: By the time Johnson took part in the Academy in Barcelona the following year, he’d already had significant airplay, not just from Benji B but also veteran tastemaker Gilles Peterson.

Still, he describes the fortnight that he spent in Catalonia as a formative experience.

“I don’t think I would be where I am now without the academy, especially on a personal level,” he says in an email interview. “I think my whole approach to making music, and understanding where I’d like to position myself, changed after I got back from the two weeks in Barcelona. It was such a humbling experience, but at the same time such a confidence boost.”

With his sophomore album, “Joined Ends,” due for release this month on venerable British label Ninja Tune, Johnson may seem like the highest achiever from the Class of ’08. As he points out, though, his fellow alumni have been getting along just fine recently.

“From Fatima to Teebs, Lukid or Onra, everyone’s in their own lane doing what they think is right,” he says, reeling off names that should be familiar to regular readers of the dance music press. “We even had Ta-ku in our term, and he blew up last year.”

Like many former participants, Johnson has maintained a close connection with the RBMA. This month, he’ll be helping supervise studio sessions at the Academy’s 2014 edition in Tokyo. It’ll be the third time he’s done this, following stints in Madrid in 2011 (“I remember it being a really high-energy group, with people staying up and working in the studios until 5 a.m.”) and New York in 2013 (“the calmest, most gentle group of people I’ve ever been around”).

Along the way, he’s made a host of international chums, including some Japanese artists. He recalls giving classmate Nobu Suzuki (aka Sauce 81) his first taste of Wiener schnitzel in Vienna after the Barcelona academy wrapped up in 2008, while in 2011 he collaborated on a spur-of-the-moment track with Yosi Horikawa, the lone Japanese participant that year.

Today, he says, it’s memories like these that have stuck with him most: the offbeat conversations during bus journeys and at the breakfast table, the unlikely friendships and moments of musical serendipity.

“There’s something magical about seeing a young kid from Chile who’s never left his country play in front of a hip New York crowd, for example,” he says.

In addition to clocking up some serious studio time with this year’s RBMA participants, Johnson will use his Tokyo trip as an opportunity to debut his new live show, based around the material on “Joined Ends.” Taking a break from the exuberant, synthesizer-driven solo sets that helped cement his reputation, he’ll be playing in an instrumental trio featuring Movahedi on bass and fellow Austrian beatmaker Clemens “Cid Rim” Bacher on drums, accompanied by a quartet of local string musicians.

The sophisticated approach is fitting for an album that steps confidently away from the dancefloor. Although lead single “Draft Culture” echoes the insistent rhythms of earlier Dorian Concept tracks, it’s an outlier among the record’s psychedelic patchwork of hazy, chiming keyboard figures and androgynous vocals.

“I really wanted to get away from the entertainer side of things, you know?” Johnson says. “I guess that was the restriction I’ve started to feel with more beat-heavy music: That you need to mix or arrange and finish tracks in a (particular) way for them to work in a certain context. For the first time, I wanted to free myself from that.”

He credits Ninja Tune label mates The Cinematic Orchestra, the jazz-inflected ensemble led by Jason Swinscoe, with providing vital musical inspiration: “I think Jason Swinscoe is a genius when it comes to understanding the strength of simplicity in music,” he says. “Not just in the sense of knowing how little a track needs to work as a whole, but the actual power a piece of music can get with restraint.”

And does he have any similar words of wisdom to share with this year’s RBMA class?

“I guess my father, when he said: ‘You need a manager, because you have no clue how the industry works.’ He was right.”

Dorian Concept plays WWW in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Oct. 16 (8 p.m. start; ¥2,000 in advance; 03-5458-7685). For more information about Red Bull Music Academy Tokyo 2014, visit www.redbullmusicacademy.com.