David August has a reputation for pushing boundaries. A classically trained musician and pianist from the age of five, August is one of few artists who at twenty five, can lay claim to premiering his own composition with Berlin’s German Symphonic Orchestra, at the same time as filling sets for the city’s cooler-than-thou pop up party series, Boiler Room. He is an artist that effortlessly straddles and reformulates genre and his set at KOKO London this month – part of his live summer tour – was no exception.
KOKO is a sumptuous venue. A former theatre based in Camden Town, it was one of largest theatres outside London’s West End until it was converted into a music venue in 2004. All moulin rougue-esque red velvet seating and warren-like tiered architecture, it has an air of faded glamour that made for a perfect, if slightly incongruous venue for the Hamburg born virtuoso’s return to the U.K.
This year’s tour is consistent with August’s goal to move away from DJ-ing altogether in favour of an entirely live set. Style, sound and BPM all seem somehow unfixed, off the cuff and open for negotiation between August on vocals, Ableton push and synth and his band: Max Trieder on guitar and Marcel Braun on tireless percussion and drums.
Photo by Filipe Sousa
August has become synonymous with a particular brand of intelligent, ephemeral, sensual house. His DJ sets, loaded with wistful melodies, emotive vocals and soul infused grooves. Yet this live tour sees him move through a dizzying array of genres into another foray: his set a curious mix of house fused with Latin percussion, rock influences and teases of reggae, pop, dub step and occasional screaming breaks. It was surprising. Esoteric. Some might say brave. Whatever it was – and it truly was that un-categorisable – it left the crowd, me included, brimming, enamoured and shouting for more.
Opening with his haunting remix of Kollektiv Turmstrasse’s ‘Last Day’, a nod towards his former work with Solomon’s mighty and hugely influential Hamburg based label, Diynamic with whom August released his first EP ‘Instant Harmony’, August is all big smiles and energetic vigour as he starts to build the crowd. No two tracks sound the same, as you think one is ending, you realise it’s just beginning, every sound, cleaner, deeper than the last. He pulls out a lovely reggae infused version of his 2015 release, ‘Patria’ before momentarily dissolving into spring reverb and hard grinding, frantic dub. His rendition of ‘Epikur’ brings the crowd to a frenzied whirr. What follows is a special moment for my friends and I: we could just as well be in Manchester in the early 90’s and all of us swear we can hear the Stone Roses ‘I Wanna Be Adored’.
This puzzles me and after the show I meet up with the guitarist, Max Trieder who laughs at my suggestion that the set has somehow been tailored for its London crowd. Perhaps that’s the inextricable beauty of August’s music: it’s so densely layered with apparent references from everything from the polyphonic, infinite loops of Bach to Mogwai to Oliver Kolestzki to the tribal sounds of &ME and Keinemusik: you take from it what you will. Or can.
The original version of ‘Patria’, incidentally features vocals from Sissi Rada, the Greek harpist from his ensemble in his 2015 eponymous Prolog tour. Her lyrics, according to August, ‘are about the devastating political and financial situation in Greece and I tried – as much as I could do – to reflect that with my music. ‘Patria’ is my contribution for all the lost souls of this earth‘. London, then in light of Brexit and its current self-inflicted state of crisis seems the perfect backdrop for this tune, intentional or not.
August is undeniably a serious musician and hearing his gig, I’m reminded of a Hans Bethe quote:
‘There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things but they leave you room to believe you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians and you can have no idea how they do it’.
David August is a magician and I, like many people watching, have no idea what trick to expect next.
Photo by Ania Shrimpton’