An in-depth chat with NYC’s superlative sculptor of sound
Entering his third decade as a Producer, Dj and fiercely independent Artist, at this point in his career Levon Vincent has seen and experienced a lot in his time. Not to mention having performed on countless brilliant sound systems along the way, he played an integral role in the renaissance and new wave of House music that emerged from across New York City as we rolled into the 00s and beyond. Emerging as a key player with fellow compatriots Jus Ed, Fred P, DJ Qu and Anthony Parasole that propelled the city’s legacy into a new era.
First and foremost, he is a superlative sculptor of sound and space that energises the very fabric of collective experience in the dance. Possessing an uncanny ability to channel a deep learning into all that he touches, his take on dub-fused aesthetics magically melds to the sometimes stark and raw industrial feel of his techno psyche, all while summoning the undulating pulse of post punk energy.
Born in 1975, his life changed dramatically when his parents relocated the family to the city from Houston in 1981. Never living more than a few miles from the dominant outline of the Twin Towers thereafter, they moved in and around the city which certainly left an indelible mark and is often referenced in his output. A denizen of the Lower East Side during his teenage years and into his early 20s, the melting pot in and of itself became a huge influence. Something he continues to strive to convey in his work all these years later, born out of the reverberations of the culture-industry which shaped him during such highly formative years.
Levon first cut his teeth working in record shops in and around lower Manhattan. However, it was whilst inhabiting the counter at the now legendary Halcyon Record shop from 2001-2006 shop in Brooklyn that he became one of the key players who helped create what came to be known as the “NYC Deep Renaissance”. You see, Halcyon was more than just a record store: it was a community hub and space where aficionados came together to exchange ideas, whilst listening to the music they love. With a meaty soundsystem and friendly, open policy – the shop was a pivotal hub for NYC’s most passionate dance enthusiasts that morphed into a gateway to the expanding global scene during the years it was open.
In 2008, he began his now widely acclaimed Novel Sound imprint after an initial foray into pressing and distributing his material via the short lived More Music. Starting his new label with a bang and gifting us with the certified hit in the form of the “These Games.” A few releases later, he had attracted attention far and wide, catapulting him into wider consciousness across the globe as his music became a buy on sight imprint for House and Techno enthusiasts alike. Cutting through the drab sea of identikit ‘Minimal’ records that flooded the market at the time, there’s no denying the power of those records which emanates from his compositional touch.
Having kept a close eye and ear on his recent output, which of late has been quite prolific. We were delighted when he took the time to answer a whole raft of questions we put to him. Wanting to get a sense of the journey he has been on through the years, here’s what he had to say…
Let’s start at the beginning – what took your family to NYC at the start of the 80s?
My mom worked in Newark for an insurance company by Frelinghuysen Avenue, and my Dad worked at the Newark airport loading baggage on “peoples express” planes.. a short-lived airline from the 80s. I was just a little kid when we moved there, so it’s pretty much all I remember.
Before that, we lived in Houston. I think Houston is about the same population, but the whole culture is very different, because it’s not a melting pot. So, when we got to NY, so many things blew my mind, from breakdancing on the streets to even little things only a kid would notice. For example, the kids on my block played “Al Capone…” and in Houston, the kids played “cowboys.” That says a lot. Those kind of little experiences really amounted to a type of personal culture-shock for me, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, that’s a tough change to make. But, it gave me experience to pull from for my art, even 40 years later!
How different was the city you were raised in back then?
It was absolutely lawless. And so much fun too. From the Ed Koch years and on to Mayor Dinkens… during those years there was nothing holding anyone back from doing something fantastic. There were also problems with criminality, but that hasn’t changed at all, those criminal elements still exist in 2023. I spent the 80s heavily into skateboarding, and that kind of gives you carte-blanche to go into all kinds of areas and neighbourhoods in NY many people wouldn’t have ventured into.
You cite your mum’s record collection as a formative influence, what sort of music got played on the hifi at home?
Both my parents had their own collections, and some badass headphones too. I can’t remember which kind, but they were silver open-back headphones, they were heavy and huge. I used to wear them while playing their records. Each record had a little sticker with their name on the upper corner of the back, and you were not allowed to mix up their collections – they took that seriously. We listened to all kinds of stuff. My mom had these “environments” series ambient records that I liked, and some notable stuff like Discreet Music by Brian Eno… my father had Boz Scaggs “Lowdown” and Blondie “parallel lines.” Also, things like Timmy Thomas “Why can’t we live together” or Stevie Wonder records….Both my parents were and are music lovers.
Once, many years ago,we got all dressed up – to the nines – me, my mother and my sister, and we rented a limousine, to take us to see James Brown perform. It is a very fond memory. A couple months ago, my mother emailed me to notify me that ‘The The’ had a new 7” being released, and she told me how, through time, ‘The The’ is probably her favourite band. She really enjoys the written word of Matt Johnson. It was a charming email because I thought to myself “wow I am really my mother’s kid, aren’t I?”
You first discovered electronic music through the radio, cassette mixes and your local roller disco – how much did these experiences gravitate towards the science of sound?
Well back then it was called “Freestyle” but it was really early house, or proto-house – it was just morphing into House music from Electro, and Electro was a morph from the breakdance tape era. Freestyle was essentially the evolution between electro records like ‘Jam On It’ or ‘Body Mechanic’, who were in fact the musical Segway from records like ‘The Mexican’ or ‘Good Time’. What developed into the early house stuff, like Louie Vega was involved in making freestyle records and he is someone who was instrumental in the direction house music took throughout the 80s.
Who really influenced you at the time?
At that time? I loved Def Jam, Mantronix and also Arthur Baker records, like the Streetwise records, ‘A E I O U’ or ‘Let the Music Play’ etc etc…
How did you get the opportunity to work in your first record store?
The first record store I ever worked in was Tower records on Broadway and Lafayette in lower Manhattan. I worked the VHS video returns counter. As a 16 year old, this was very exciting because a lot of musicians I admired would chat with me when returning their videos. I got friendly with people like Debbie Harry and Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Russel Simmons used to be in there often… some of the Ramones rented their VHS tapes there, basically like whoever was living in lower Manhattan at the turn of the 90s was going to either Kims’ or Tower. I worked at both at one time or another, in the Bleeker St. Kim’s. I worked the record shop though, not tapes.
When did you first get to play in a club then?
My first experience on the decks was at a party called “Sugar Babies” that used to happen on 2nd Ave and 6th street, at a venue which is now called “Lit.” Sugar Babies also happened at CBGB gallery sometimes, and it was a really fun house party. That was probably 1991. I don’t even know the name of the DJ who let me play, I think it was Young Richard but I don’t remember. But one night towards the end he let me jump on the decks before we ended the night, there weren’t too many people left that evening but my co-workers were there and cheering me on (I also worked there first as a dishwasher and then later I got promoted to Bar-back so I knew all the peeps at the party.) That was my first taste of DJing for a crowd. And really, I have never stopped since.
You cited Razormaid as a big influence in the past, what made them stand out?
I still play tons of Razormaid edits today. That’s what all those edits are which nobody (or very few people) have on the scene has but me. Razormaid was so cool at the time because they made all these crazy die cut jackets, with neon vinyl, and well, neon everywhere really! But yeah, they did some great edits. Examples from the 80s would be like: a Telex Edit, or a Man Parrish edit etc….but also maybe like, Smalltown Boy on the other side of a release… stuff like that.
And are your memories of the scene in New York that was happening around you?
What initially comes to mind is the memory of hearing “The whistle song” for the first time. And later on, hearing “Stella” was great too. One party that was a big influence on me during those more “golden” house years would be disco 2000 at the Limelight. That was a Wednesday party. I don’t know what genre you would call the main room on Wednesdays, like, pre-trance maybe would be fitting… that was a fun room, really crazy and like, the hottest possible thing in the NYC club scene at that time. It was wild, decadent, and big fun. My favourite room in Limelight was upstairs though – you had to go all the way up into the little church steeple. There was a DOPE house party up there, again with Young Richard on many nights, I believe… That party made a big impact on me.
Was there any other parties or club that became your “go to” spot when you weren’t playing?
Save the Robots was around the corner from me, I suppose that might be one I went to often.
You’ve also talked about the changes after Giuliani became Mayor, how did it affect you personally?
When he became mayor he more or less waged war on nightlife, it ended my budding local DJ career. So, I went to college instead, and that’s where I spent the latter half of the 90s – at a music conservatory. I made the best of it – and to be honest, it wasn’t only City Hall – the scene at that time was exhausted. I still managed to gig though, at restaurants and also the Diesel Jeans store. They paid me in clothing and I would trade it with my friends a lot. I still managed to find DJ gigs through that period, as far as the clubs It was pretty much bridge and tunnel only for the rest of the 90s, it wasn’t like people downtown were looking for house parties, you know- the scene has its’ peaks and valleys… the early 90s peaked, then… a 5 year valley for the latter half of the decade….
How did studying change your perspective?
I loved studying music, I absolutely loved it. I studied music and also ballet growing up, both of which had a big influence on me as a young person. But, I never learned any theory – I played trumpet in school orchestra, stuff like that… But for me, studying at a conservatory was all theory for me. I dove in headfirst, and 6 years later came out and immediately started making records. My first label was called More Records NYC.
And what did you discover about yourself in the process?
It wasn’t too successfully to be honest, I released five records but had a hard time getting distribution. It was when Neutone had closed down and there was a bit of a shake up in the industry. I had like, boxes and boxes and boxes – thousands of unsold records in my house. My roommate and I used to build walls out of the record boxes… we were living in an open cellar on the BQE and we stacked all my unsold boxes of records into walls which separated our respective sleeping areas. Man, that house was absolutely so fucked up. Like, way below any permissible standard of living. The house would have been condemned for sure. But, the rent was under 300 bucks a month, about $270. The trade-off was though, that the BQE was so loud, we could make music at monstrous levels, with never a single complaint.
Did you or do you have a favourite instrument?
I play piano, that was my first love, my first instrument and still what I am strongest at playing although I’m terrible – it’s more something I love doing. The piano, my relationship to piano is as old as I am, and it’s something that’s just been there throughout my life. Something I love.
What was the first set up you got together and started making bedroom music on?
My first foray into producing house music was with a belt-driven turntable a VCR and two dual cassette decks. The mixer I had at that time was by a company called “pyramid” I believe.. I would record everything to VHS tapes, which actually served as a very nice sounding audio recorder.
What’s the biggest positive you took away from running More Music NY?
The feeling of running my own label, of choosing the music, the artwork, of knowing I own the publishing rights. All the joys of running an independent record label! It was a good project, and a great way to cut my teeth in the business.
When did you decide to relocate to Berlin how did the change shake things up?
I moved to Berlin sometime around 2011. I rented a flat for 3 months, a sublet. But then after I had been there for a month, the previous owner contacted me to say he could not return, and he offered me the flat. It was amazing! A great bit of luck.
You entered into a phase where Novel sound became “buy on sight” is there a particular record you’re most proud of?
I’m proud of every release.
What’s the hardest thing about being an independent artist and running a label off you own back?
I don’t have too many issues with running a label, not anything I can even specify.
I’ve worked with great people. I think that is paramount – to work with good people.
What sort of advice would you give to people starting in the business now?
Honestly, the way it works is, once you get that break, everything happens over night. So, you just have to work and keep at it until you get that one big record, or when something notable happens for you, the trick is to never, ever stop- always be available when success comes knocking…the trick is to never give up.
It took you until 2015 to decide to release an album, was this deliberate or just the way things rolled?
It just worked out that way, that’s when it happened because that’s when it happened. A lot goes into LPs for me, it’s a tough process and I could compare it to climbing a mountain or something…
With the pandemic hitting us all in 2020, was this another woodshed moment for you?
Yes! I did head right into the woodshed. I created an alias called Silent Cities, and I did a lot of experiments with rhythm and tonality during that period, whilst performing in clubs was not an option.
I am not putting all that I learned (yet) in to new material. And I am sitting on some good stuff for the coming years. One track which I feel is my first “techno classic” but I won’t release that for a couple years, so I can develop enough material around it.
How does it feel to be entering your 3rd decade as a recording artist now?
I love what I do and I do what I love.
Where do you stand on the use of AI in music and where it’s going?
I love the machine learning tech for hardware emulation. Sounds fantastic.
Tell us more about new album “Work “in Progress”, what was your initial idea for it and where did it end up?
The only real criteria for this LP was that any given track had to be made specifically for the dancefloor – I wanted every single track to be one a DJ could play.
Was there a Tone or Colour you tried to focus on?
I do care about tone colour… if I had to say I focused on tone colour, it would probably be most related to presenting upper areas the harmonic series with clarity. Like, warm but brightened after the fact.
What’s the deal with that “Seccession” cover you’ve talked about in the past?
For 20 years I have been playing a succession cover I am responsible for making, but I’ve not released it. ‘The Magician’ is one of my favourite pop songs.
What does the rest of 2023 look like?
Well, Just gigging a lot, and working on my new stuff. I have lots of records coming in the next few years, which is usually what I’m focused on if I’m not on the road. And, going through growth and changes on a personal tip too, like moving house etc…life stuff 🙂