“I’ve just been a nomad. I’ve been everywhere, geographically and sonically.” If ever there was a quote worthy of summing up Cosmin TRG, it might be those 11 words of his. Since his first record in 2007, the man born Cosmin Nicolae has ranged far and wide, blowing through labels like Hessle Audio, Hotflush, Rush Hour, and [NakedLunch] on the way to his current home at Modeselektor’s 50Weapons. During these six years or so, he’s confounded and delighted in equal measures, skipping between the boundaries of dubstep, UK bass, house, techno and the truly uncategorizable. It’s a testament to his personal signature that people have stuck by him, all the way up to his newly-released second album, Gordian.
But as I discovered, the journey this far hasn’t been effortless; Nicolae is still learning how to balance the demands of the traveling DJ, versus the demands of the productive studio artist. Most contemporary artists battle this tension, of course. It’s just that on the day we met, it seemed to have exceptional relevance. Fresh off a 24-hour flight from Berlin and desperate for sleep, a severely jetlagged Nicolae napped past our allotted meeting time. In the three days after our meeting, he would visit two more cities before jetting home again. When we did finally get together, Nicolae’s monologues often trailed off tiredly, or he’d stop and say, “I’m just rambling now,” before breaking into a cheerful chuckle. In truth, he was mostly being self-conscious. Apart from being quick to laugh — at himself and at others — the Romanian is one of the more articulate and thoughtful second-language English speakers I’ve yet met.
One of the big themes in music at the moment is authenticity. Everyone seems obsessed by it. What are your thoughts on this?
Cosmin Nicolae: Yeah, I guess this is why a lot of people use analog synths, for example. Or you hear people going like, “Yeah, we’re going back to vinyl; playing more vinyl.” I think this is just one of the many aspects of dance music culture that some people feel indebted to, and they just try to support that to appear authentic, I guess. But I think for me, authenticity is actually something different. I think it should relate more to sort of — if you bring a personal touch to something, I think that’s where the authenticity thing kicks in. If you’re just trying to make music that mimics something else, then there could be an issue. Because it could be good, but at the same time, if you look past that then it’s not much of an art. It’s more like replicating something that’s already there, and I don’t know if there’s any artistic merit in that. But at the same time, it could just be functional club music, which is OK as well, in a given context.
So for you, actually coming up with the original idea is very important. It doesn’t matter if someone comes up with an amazing idea and then five years later someone takes that idea, and polishes it to make a “better” track?
Yeah, I think so. Everything’s been done before anyway. It’s not like anyone’s going to come up with something that’s completely different. At the same time, you hear all this bizarre new music coming out that’s very fresh and kind of sounds familiar but at the same time it’s very new. This is kind of what I respect, the original idea.
I think some of the best tracks of all time are minimal, or really simple. Just a repeating loop, for example. Why do you think some people continue to put musicality on a pedestal?
I guess we still pretty much respect performers and “real” musicians. I think many people still think music has to be very musical to trigger emotions. But it’s not very true, is it? Minimal music actually can trigger much more, because it’s so much more open to interpretation. Over-melodic stuff can actually be too straightforward, it contains this sort of code that kind of tells you what to do, what to feel, or what to say. I think some people just respect harmonies and stuff like that more than just simple repetitive stuff because it sounds like there’s much more work behind it. I don’t know if that’s true.
Are you confident with your melodies?
I’m really trying not to be melodic, at all. It just so happens that once in a while I just come up with these things that sound melodic, just because they make sense at a certain time. I’m not a trained musician, so I wouldn’t say I’m happy about melodies or whatever I make.
Do you think that perhaps that lack of training works in your favor? That you don’t have rigid rules guiding you?
Yeah, for sure. The thing is, I can still be enthusiastic about the stuff I make; I’m still learning after all these years. Whenever I get a result, I’m super happy, which probably wouldn’t happen if I were musically trained. Everything would just be there. You know, there are so many piano and violin performers out there who don’t really make music, but they’re amazing performers, they’re amazing players. I think for me, there’s still a certain amount of magic in it, whereas if I were classically trained, this wouldn’t be there.
In terms of discovery, your second album, Gordian, didn’t turn out the way you intended, did it?
Yeah. Originally, I think it was supposed to be this really kind of, droney, repetitive thing. Like really quite hypnotic. I’m actually happy that it didn’t turn out that way, because there’s so much stuff out there that’s kind of the same. The thing is, I didn’t really want it to be a home-listening album or dance floor album. I just went to the studio religiously, like every day for six months, and this is what came out. There was maybe an unhealthy amount of conceptual thinking behind it, and that’s probably why I wanted it to sound different. But in the end I’m quite happy with the way it sounds now, because it’s just much more evocative of the time and place where it was made. If it were just this really stripped-down, conceptual album, I think it wouldn’t have put the same message across.
Does that happen often? You start with an idea in mind, and it turns out completely different?
It’s pretty much the story of my life. [laughs]
Do you think it’s an important process though?
I think it is important. It’s maybe a cliché, that whole, “The journey is more important than the destination.” I mean, for me, I was so happy to be working on a new album because I was happy about the places where it took me when I was making it. And when it was finished, it was — that’s why I actually don’t like to think of it as a finished product, I like to think that it’s just part of something bigger, maybe. When it was finished and going into mastering and stuff, I was like, “I kind of miss it. I kind of miss the whole work process behind it.”
It was kind of like raising a kid, then having them leave home?
Yeah, yeah. I didn’t want to let go.
How do you know when to stop work?
Well, I had a deadline, so it had to stop at some point. [laughs] It had to be finished by a certain time. I kind of knew a few weeks before the deadline that this was going to be it. I kind of just felt like it. I didn’t really change the order of the tracks. It kind of started at some point, with the first track, “New Structures For Loving” and it kind of ended with the last track. There aren’t so many other tracks that I worked on or many more versions.
Talking about that “unhealthy amount of conceptual thinking” behind the album, I have one of your press quotes here: “Coping with facts, objects and bodies, the necessity of ‘making it,’ fear of failure, fear of ‘not being happy’ are today’s topics, and Gordian is my attempt at an exploration of those issues.” How do you explore those things with abstract music, without lyrics?
I think it’s just certain sounds that kind of trigger it for me. I use, let’s say — this is very over-intellectual bullshit — certain sounds, I just use them as pieces of metaphors and pieces of code, and when they come together I just sort of visualize this whole thing, and this is pretty much how it works, for the album. Let’s say, “Noise Code,” for example, which is one of the more stripped-down tracks. You just have the beeps going on and then there’s the tape hiss sound. The track actually comes from New York’s legislation, it’s the New York Noise Code. They have some very funny definitions of what loud means, for clubs and bars and stuff. At some point they actually talk about the bass, the sub-bass, and they stop talking about the loudness and start talking about frequencies. And this kind of triggered this whole train of thought for me, about how people can actually legislate frequency and talk about stuff that’s not there, actually. Like, it’s not very tangible. The actual melody is very simple, but then gives way to those sort of Olympian pads, which come out of nowhere and then they just disappear. And yeah… I’m not actually sure what I’m trying to say.
You probably were when you made the track six months ago. [laughs]
I just had this whole vision. It’s all very stream of consciousness, anyway. This is kind of the way I work with albums. The dance floor tracks are a bit more straightforward though.
You moved to Berlin two years ago. What sort of impact do you think the city has had on your creativity in general?
I think I feel much more free about the way I make music. Not that I wasn’t before that, but now it’s kind of settled, it’s a thing, it’s what you do in Berlin. You’re free to do whatever you want. And it’s probably just a seal of approval on my lifestyle, like, “Yeah dude, just go ahead and be free, make whatever.”
Is there also a temptation to get caught up in that bohemian lifestyle and not concentrate on your art?
Yeah, for sure. It can happen anywhere in this world. If you’re not focused it can happen anywhere — Berlin, London, Paris, New York, LA, Melbourne — I’m sure you can kind of lose track anywhere. Berlin’s actually one of the more dangerous places, because it’s fairly easy-going and you don’t have to hustle so much. This can kind of go both ways. Like if you look at London or New York, for example, creative people also need to be like really focused and disciplined to make it, and if you don’t make it that means you actually can’t pay rent and just can’t live there any more. Berlin is kind of different, you can still go around without actually making or doing anything.
So it’s a trap of sorts. You’re 32 now though. How would it be if you were coming there as a breakthrough 18-year-old artist?
I would go berserk. Yeah, I would go ballistic. If I were like, 18 now. I kind of do it anyway, at 32, so I can imagine what I would do at 18. [laughs]
You grew up in Romania, actually, and briefly lived behind the Iron Curtain. What were the main modes of getting new music back then?
I think in the late 80s, early 90s, everyone was relying on the bootlegging operations going on, Bulgarian, Serbian; stuff that was bootlegged from France and Germany, like bootlegged CDs and tapes and stuff. Maybe there were like one or two radio stations who were a bit more adventurous in the early 90s, but then the whole situation changed, obviously.
I’ve read that Romania has staggering rates of software piracy, even now.
Yeah. It was such a bizarre context and situation back in like, 89, 90, when nobody actually had anything. And paying for stuff like music or software was really bizarre, it just sounded like, “But… it’s there… for free.” So the ethics were a bit skewed. It’s a bit weird to talk about it 20 years later in “Western” society ethical terms. It didn’t really apply to that moment.
For example, there was this dude in the little town where I grew up. He had a recording studio and he also had a record store — as in tapes and CDs and stuff — and he had the original versions of CDs and tapes. You’d go over and go like, “Oh, can I have the latest Blur album?” or something, or Portishead. He’d go, “Yeah, you can have it. Ten euros.” You’d go [makes sighing sound] “Ten euros?” Then he’d go, “You can have the bootleg for two euros. I can burn it for you.” So you were like, “Cool, yeah, sure.” You wouldn’t even think twice about it, because we’d be 16-years-old.
And he’d burn it right there in the shop?
Yeah, because he wanted to support music, that’s the weird thing. He wanted to support the fan base and listeners. He wasn’t thinking about supporting Portishead, you know? He was thinking about giving some music to these kids coming into the store. It was a very different time.
I visited Krakow, Belgrade and Budapest a few years back. I was impressed with their nightlife. The music wasn’t cutting-edge, but they have lots of abandoned spaces and enthusiastic residents. How do you feel about the idea that Eastern Europe could be the next big location for electronic music?
I think there’s definitely some potential, as long as the right people are in charge. It’s just that this scene can easily be hijacked by people with more money, or corporations and stuff. And it’s already happening in Eastern Europe; most of the shows you can play in Eastern Europe are sponsored by this-or-that brand, and all these warehouse parties, they’re not really warehouse parties, they’re just parties organised by different brands. So in a sense it hasn’t always been this spontaneous movement and people are just starting to wake up to this reality. I think there’s definitely some potential for growth there, I mean, people are really, really enthusiastic about music. I think the most important thing is, they’re really passionate about music first and foremost, and then the nightlife is just the secondary thing. Whereas in other parts of the world, it’s maybe the other way around.
Yesterday you flew for 24 hours to get here to Melbourne, where you’ll play three gigs in four days before flying back. How sustainable do you think this sort of lifestyle is?
I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. [laughs] Some people have been doing this successfully for years now. I’m just trying to learn from the best. Sometimes I think, “What would Marcel Dettmann do? Or what would Chris Liebing do? Would they whine about a two-hour lay-over here-and-there, or whatever?” Well, no they wouldn’t, because they’ve been doing it for years now. So I’m just trying to get to that level of zen.
Perhaps someone needs to establish a DJ academy, where they teach you how to pack a suitcase well and take advantages of all the free services at airports? [laughs]
That would be so lame. [laughs] No, you kind of have to learn from your mistakes. You have to learn the craft the hard way.
What are some of your worst mistakes?
I don’t know. Maybe thinking about the gigs too much? Stressing about it beforehand. Then you get there, you just play your stuff and it’s amazing. You asked before if this is sustainable. Yeah, I don’t know. I really admire a few people for their ability to focus on stuff. They can focus on their DJing as well as they can focus on their production, which is kind of hard if you travel and play out every weekend. I find it pretty difficult to go back into the studio after three nights of pounding dance floor music, be it be house or techno, or whatever, and just to go the studio and just make the same thing, like 12 hours a day. Yeah, it’s weird.
When you’re touring, do you notice this lifestyle taking its toll on other artists?
Sort of. I think the commonplace thing that happens is just exhaustion. You can burn out pretty easily, just because of the traveling. There’s this cliché of the DJ who’s hung-over for four days in a row, but it doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s just lack of sleep and so much traveling can actually be very exhausting and then it kind of takes a toll on your psyche. There are too many DJs complaining about how depressing this lifestyle is, and I don’t want to be one of them. [laughs]
But every time you come to a new city, you inevitably have clubbers and promoters who are like, “Yeah, let’s party!” and want to hand you drinks all the time, when perhaps you’ve just done that three days in a row. Do you think self-control is an important quality in making it through this lifestyle?
Oh yeah, definitely. I don’t necessarily have that, but yeah. It’s really important to stay focused. Sometimes it’s just really hard to be very personal with everyone, because as you just said, people want to have fun with you and you want to have fun with the other people as well, but if that takes a toll on you personally, then you’re gonna have to draw back a little. It’s hard because some people think you’re just no fun, or you just don’t like people, which is not true.
Are there times when the exhaustion and traveling affect how you play?
Personally, no. It doesn’t affect me. I can be as tired or hung-over or whatever, but when I start playing I just go into this sort of zone, and I just do. Actually, when I’m really tired, maybe hung-over, maybe just exhausted, the one thing that I look forward to is not sleep, but is actually my set, because that’s when I get this adrenaline rush which saves me physically. And then I can go crash and it’s OK.
Do you ever wonder if this is the right thing to be doing with your life?
Every day. [laughs] I think everybody does that, no matter what profession they’re in.