I first connected with 2020k (RJ Kozain) several years ago via a mutual love of Imogen Heap. Always willing to talk music shop with fellow fans, I was immediately drawn to his understanding of the more technical aspects of music. As someone who appreciates music deeply but can’t identify the nitty gritty “producer-speak” to save her life, a discussion with RJ Kozain is a journey through the reasons for visceral reactions. He is also a witty man who can make me laugh in the wee hours via Twitter banter.
I was thrilled to learn of RJ’s own musical output and have been a huge supporter for years. There was once chatter of a collaboration even, but that’s a story between us, long buried in email exchanges of music (his) and lyrics (mine). Maybe someday, we’ll pull a Sarah McLachlan circa The Freedom Sessions and knock out a track over bottles of wine, but for now, you’re best to remain in the moody, electro-ethereal dreamscape of his work.
(No, really; I’m that mediocre yet enthusiastic gal at karaoke.)
Hot on the heels of his first live show, I managed to snag a little time with this talented artist and pick his brain about his journey through music, the pros of being a sound engineer and composer, and the shiny new EP he’s released.
OTM: You played your first show last week! Congratulations. How did that go for you?
2020k: It went really well, thank you! I planned out the entire show within the time span of about one month and had loads of different aspects that I had to figure out with how to incorporate all of them into a live setting. Three new tracks were originally composed specifically for the concert, as well as three videos I edited together, which were accompanied by some of the songs.
It was a bit difficult and stressful at times with the time constriction. But, the show went great and the crowd response was warm and welcoming. It was an insanely liberating and rewarding experience, to say the least.
Take us back: when and how did you first become interested in creating your own music?
A lot of my involvement with discovering my sound has to do with isolation and exploring what’s going on in my mind, then how to incorporate that through song and technology in a creative format.
At a young age, before I even entered any sort of schooling, I would wildly experiment with cassettes my parents bought me and manipulate them in a live way by playing something on Deck A of a cassette boombox and recording it onto Deck B, then vice versa.
Eventually, once I started listening to music around the age of eight or nine and doing little projects for a bit, I wanted to know what actually went into making an album. Things like how sounds were recorded and the overall mechanics to making instruments work and making an album. I was so young, so nothing was really thoroughly thought out, but I began writing little pop songs around the age of eleven and things spiraled from these ages until about fourteen years old when I began getting into production and putting things together using programs like Adobe Audition (which was then called Cool Edit Pro) and FL Studio (which was then called Fruity Loops). When I’m writing, I still dig out those old lyric journals as a means of pulling the intense feelings I originally had when I wrote them.
Looking back at your first creations, how has your work evolved? What are the core elements that have carried forward?
My first creations definitely weren’t as intricate as far as any sort of compositional value that’s incorporated into the songs now. In the beginning, I was a complete novice in music theory in regards to melodies, so I would compose music that was based purely on the feelings I felt as I heard the notes I was pressing on the keyboard. “Emotional Drainage” (which was played on some indie radio stations back in 2006) was my first venture into making music that connected in this form.
The thing that has stayed pretty stagnant in my musical production is definitely having a strong, diverse rhythmic section driving the majority of the songs. I always find myself programming way too many percussive elements and hating myself during the mixing process, because I’ll bring them into Pro Tools and wonder why the hell I made so much work for myself! [Laughs]. New elements include more programming. The more I learn about different recording techniques and different devices, the more I get excited. I recently bought an MPD18 to make composing percussion sections a bit more lively for myself instead of chopping them up in Pro Tools or Logic. Incorporating the old with the new, but always gaining new knowledge along the way!
In addition to creating your own music, you’ve studied sound engineering and worked in that field. Does that inform your creative endeavors or add to them? Are there any downsides or difficulties switching hats from artist to engineer?
Yes! I studied at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona and it was the time of my life. I’d already been working through the basics of engineering and mixing through my early compositions, so it felt like a natural progression to learn the art behind the art. Originally, before I decided to take up direction toward audio, I’d wanted to be involved in computer programming, so technology has always had some kind of grasp on me. Computers, the type of music I do, audio engineering and recording, they all go hand in hand.
Over and over again, you’ll read from engineers that artists should not mix their own music and in certain instances, I think that it’s quite possible to get so attached to the art that it’s difficult to approach mixing your own record with an objective hat. With that being said, I find that a lot of the creativity comes forward from manipulating the sounds I’ve initially recorded. There’s a lot of programming that goes on within my tracks, so being able to manipulate synthesizers, drum patterns, voice, and loops, then being able to sort through the jigsaw puzzle I’ve created to find a sonic center within a mix of a track (whether it be mine or someone else’s), is something I’ve immensely enjoyed doing since the start of my interest in the audio industry.
Let’s chat about your demo EP (love it, by the way). Can you tell us a little about each track (what it’s about, any inspiration or experiments that led to the final song)?
Thank you! The first two tracks, “Contagion” and “Pantomime” were made as a way to present new songs to the listeners both in the studio and to debut at the show. So those two songs transpired rather quickly within the last month.
The lyrics of “Contagion” are actually inspired by the frustrations of pulling the show together in such a small amount of time and taking on every single job to set it up. It’s essentially about the ups and downs, the anxiety of it all, and bringing it all back to a small pep talk to myself toward the chorus. I had eight bars of the song that I placed on loop for a few hours and I basically freestyled different lyrics over top of the composition, much like a rapper does, until I had the finalized lyrical structure to go from. I opened with that track purposefully on the EP and in the show to give myself and the listeners a bit of optimism.
“Closed Cases” was created using number stations from The Conet Project, which is something I find particularly intriguing the more I read about it. The Remix of Roy Hessel’s “Slightest Touch” contains a sample of my best friend’s voice. I was going through old videos on my iPhone, heard that little bit, and chopped it up so that it fit into the composition. The meanings behind those songs change slightly, but inspiration ran wild for both of them. All four tracks are from completely different mindsets, but I thought they shared a part of a greater sonic whole.
The music industry – specifically, its business model – has been in a state of flux for some time, and continues to be. As an artist, how do you feel about the business end of things? What’s working? What isn’t working?
As a fellow music blogger, you examine the work of other artists with a critical eye. How do you reconcile critiquing the work of others when you yourself are subject to criticism? Is it hard to, for example, point out a track or album that you feel is lacking in some way?
The thing with blogging is that it’s quite easy for me to remain objective when I’m writing an article. I started 2020k originally as a way to keep my engineering skills sharp, not to critique too harshly. I live in Pittsburgh, which doesn’t have the best audio scene, so I began analyzing albums and different aspects of the audio industry as a sort of brainteaser for myself. I don’t find it difficult to critique because there’s absolutely no disrespect in it whatsoever. The good, the bad, the obscure of music; I like to cover it all so that readers and myself are able to listen to records and view aspects of the recording industries with eyes a bit more open.
Who inspires or fascinates you right now, as an artist?
For the last two years I’ve been completely captivated by Iamamiwhoami.
Trent Reznor has in recent years ventured off into film scores and found a more mainstream appreciation for his work. Would you be interested in composing for film or television at some point?
If a project I’m interested in with television or film arises, I’ll take it. There’s not one aspect of the music/film industry I would deprive myself of. I literally live for all of it. I’ve always been interested in recording the audio aspects for films and creating all of the sound FXs, foley, and things like that. I interned at a recording studio in Pittsburgh that was quite busy in the world of commercial and film audio and loved every second of it.
You’ve done some incredible remixes, in addition to your own compositions. If you could select anyone to take a shot at remixing one of your own creations, who would it be and what song would you like to see remixed?
Anyone who is interested in taking a stab at any of my tracks is more than welcome to. I’m open to hear how others interpret the feelings and moods I portray through my songs. I would be honored if someone I admired in the industry like Moby or Tricky took a stab at one of my songs.
Dream artist to share a stage with for a tour?
Massive Attack if we’re talking big. Smaller? I’d really like to do a few shows with Boreal Network and Kinesthetiac. They’re two underground musicians who I don’t think have done many shows, if any, so we’d be on the same playing field. I really enjoy their work as well and it’d be neat to form some sort of collaboration tour, seeing as though I already find them to be great artists in their own right. I’m not limited by these three though. My doors are wide open for any opportunity.
Dream collaborator for a track?
Imogen Heap. No question. Everything she’s ever touched, music or otherwise has been completely awe-inspiring to me. To put our heads together with our combined knowledge and openness to explore different creative plateaus without fear would be something that I think would be challenging and great in terms of a obtaining some great learning experiences.
The world is ending in ten minutes. You can choose one song to play during that time. What song do you choose?
“Smack My Bitch Up” by Prodigy or “My Neck, My Back” by Khia. Why not go out with a bang, right?!?! [Laughs] I’m really just kidding. I’m unsure. There are far too many favorites to choose from.
What’s next for 2020k? Any plans for another show?
Hopefully some more shows! I’ll play anywhere, that’s how much I enjoyed the stage. I shared the stage on July 12th with quite a group of talented musicians and there was one band in particular that I spoke to briefly about possible tour endeavors, but definite plans for right now just include continued work on the blog.
In addition to writing, a tour exclusive version of the 2020k EP has just been unleashed for stream and limited physical release, so I’ll work on polishing up an even better version of that for a broader release. Beyond that,future possibilities seems limitless at this point in time. It’s a great feeling not to pigeonhole yourself and work in all aspects of a field you respect and appreciate. I’ll continue working on other projects, whether as an artist or engineer, as they come to me or as I see creatively or professionally fit.
Thanks so much, RJ! I look forward to a front row spot at your first big tour.
2020k is all over the internet!