Introducing Alex Kassian; the Kyoto born, now Berlin-based DJ and producer whose music has been picked up by such labels as Utopia and Love On The Rocks in recent years. Besides his solo work, Alex can also be found performing live alongside his good friend Hiroaki Oba under their Opal Sunn moniker.
Having sparked his initial love for electronic music in Japan, Alex went on to live in London for several years where he hosted a series of underground parties, before eventually relocating to Berlin in 2013. Alex’s DJ style is eclectic, and those who have attended his word of mouth parties in Berlin will have heard him delve through a rich balance of musical genres during his sets – much like the exclusive mix he has recorded for us here.
You can check Alex’s mix and interview below. Be sure to check out his latest EP Hidden Tropics on Utopia Records as well. Enjoy!
Hey Alex, How are you doing?
I’m doing great, thanks for having me on here.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background, perhaps where you grew up and what first got you interested in electronic music?
I was born in Kyoto and spent the first 6 years of my life there. We then moved to Sheffield in 1993 when my parents got offered to work at the University there. It was around then that I started paying attention to some of the music my stepfather was playing. He was playing music from Talk Talk and Sade at the time. I think those were my first days when I started opening CD cases and trying to find out what I was listening to. We eventually moved back to Kyoto in 1997 and I slowly started to discover the world of Hip Hop. US Hip Hop was huge in Japan. Everyone was wearing XXXL clothes and there were imported low riders roaming around downtown Kyoto! My oldest cousin lived on top of my Auntie’s Izakaya (Japanese Tapas Bar) and had a pair of Technics set in battle style. I discovered his set up when I was around 13 and immediately got involved and recorded a mixtape while he was out. It wasn’t until around when I was 17 that I started getting into electronic music. My friends at the time were listening to stuff from Ninja Tune, Warp, Tru Thoughts, Domino, etc and we were into that then. When I finished school, I moved over to London to study at University. My time in London was an important foundation for me, going to warehouse parties, being exposed to so many different types of music, having my first gigs, and producing music.
What’s the music scene like back in Kyoto and how does it differ to that in Berlin?
I can’t think of anything more opposite than Kyoto and Berlin. Kyoto is calm and quiet, preserved in its history, carrying culture through traditions that have gone on for a long time. It remains timeless in some sense. There’s not much that change there in the grand scheme of things. Berlin is quite the opposite. With its recent history, it has gone through so much change – more so in culture than anything else. It stands for completely different values in life and both cities have great qualities to life. I was never really involved in the music scene in Kyoto. It’s more of a special place for me to retreat from my life in Berlin and find a quiet space to reflect and write music.
Let’s talk about your latest release on Utopia. Can you tell us a little bit about the tracks and how the title Hidden Tropics came about?
A couple of years ago, I started leaning away from dance music, and I began exploring calmer sounds which eventually became the antidote to my tired ears. Somehow I felt the urge to let go of what all the aimless dance music I was trying to produce and touch base to get grounded. Ditching dance music for a period and discovering so many great ambient and spiritual records really got me excited about music again. I began to wonder how certain artists make quality music, and I think it’s because they remain true to where they come from. I think that was always lacking when I made music before. So I looked into my own history and immersed myself in what I could find in Kyoto to write music that was personal to me.
I think the title Hidden Topics best represents freedom in our own imagination. Everyone has ways to alter realities, and that was the idea of it. I wrote the piece in the middle of winter, surrounded by concrete walls and that was my calling to write a piece that felt completely opposite to my own situation – dreaming away into a tropical landscape. The track ‘Hidden Tropics’ was the first track I wrote on this record. I hope the whole record can transport listeners to an unvisited place.
Do your DJ sets reflect your production style or do you like to play a mixture of many genres?
I think Hidden Tropics or my recent productions reflect what I play in a DJ set pretty well. Not so much in the context of ambient, but in the sounds that I like to use in my productions.
And what about your live performances as Opal Sunn – how do these differ from your DJ sets and performances as Alex Kassian?
As Opal Sunn, I play live with Hiroaki OBA. We usually play with a couple of drum machines, a midi clock, some FX, a couple of mono synths and a polysynth. Since we play without a laptop, the sound is limited to the gear we have. Working with limitations gives us a lot of freedom to explore a certain sound, which I really like. With DJ sets, I’m often nervous throughout the night before I get on because the possibilities are endless, and that can make me feel uneasy at times. I’ve done some live performances in theatre and dance before and that’s a completely different mindset too. In theatre and dance, I found that precision and timing were extremely important. As sound guys, we were always the one supporting the performers on stage. Playing live, playing DJ sets, and doing the sound for theatre and dance all have their great qualities, but I think I enjoy playing live as Opal Sunn the most.
What are your favourite record labels out there at the moment?
I’m really enjoying the stuff coming out on Safe Trip at the moment. Young Marco is doing a great job pushing that dreamy sound. I really love some of the stuff that’s coming out of Australia, especially Butter Sessions and the sound of Sleep D. I love some of the stuff that’s coming out on Music From Memory’s sister label Second Circle. The new Benedek is beautiful. Leaving Records from Los Angeles is always a great online holiday for a short escape. I’m always waiting for a new Miguel Atwood Ferguson & Carlos Niño release. The Jules Venturini release on Whities was an exceptional one for me.
Are you able to tell us about some of your other forthcoming releases?
We have an Opal Sunn release coming out on Nick Höppner’s new label, Touch From A Distance on 12 October. We’re really excited about this record as our sound developed from the double EP we released on Planet Sundae between 2016-2017. The way the opportunity came about was really bizarre too. We were playing live in a private house party in Berlin completely unaware that Nick’s former booking agent was there. The seeds were sown that day, and when Nick approached his former agent a year later regarding talent for TFAD, we were immediately recommended.
What’s the one piece of studio gear you couldn’t live without?
I think our beloved Roland SH101. She’s got so much unique character and can’t imagine writing anything without her.