Dear psychill lovers,
this time we present you interview with DJ Zen, a man behind one of the biggest label in electronic psychill genre – Altar Records. Gabriel was born in France, and now lives in Canada. As artist he released 7 albums (5 as DJ Zen: Crysallyx I, II & III, In Dub, Early Works and 2 albums as Astral Waves). He also compiled 14 compilations, played in many events and music festivals. In this interview we speak about life, Gabriel’s projects, spirituality, ecology, Canada and music!
We are happy to present you this very interesting occasion to discover the world of Gabriel and Altar.
It is the end on 2013 and it is a good moment to talk about further development of his project and Label. so for us it is a perfect opportunity to ask him some questions. This interview was taken via internet by Gagarin in November 2013.
Bonjour Gabriel, thank you for finding time to speak with us!
Hello Iurii & Psybient.org!
—ABOUT PSYCHILL and ALTAR—
So let’s start with the first question. How long have you been involved with music? Did you start with downtempo music? If no, please tell us briefly about your path from the beginning to where you are now.
From an early age and thanks to my parents, I was introduced to many kinds of music. My father brought me into contact with electronic music from Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis when I was 10 years old. Through the ages of 15 to 25, being a rebel at heart, I listened to heavy metal, death metal and was part of a band, playing the bass and electric guitar.
Since the mid 90’s, I started to listen to chill out music and always loved that soft sound aside from listening to metal!
Once I had a dream that left a profound mark on me when I was 25. A Japanese guy, this sort of very evolved being, put on me a pair of headphones and I started listening to the sound of the Universe! As you may have guessed, I found this to be totally awesome and the start of a great change in my life.
Back then knew the inventor of the TB-303 was the Japanese man named, Ikutaro Kakehashi. The fluffy sounds of this electronic instrument always made me happy and high, for some reason.
Nice! And what do you listen at home, while driving? What is your favourite music?
Altar Records plays in the car all the way and meditative music for sure when I’m stuck in the traffic. When I have a new release coming out, it plays in a loop for 3 months at least. We have long drives to travel here, you know. I also like to discover new projects, bands and new kinds of music on internet from all platforms for my own listening pleasure. I really love Bandcamp for that.
Perfect, so let’s talk about your label in more details. When did you start Altar and what is it for you?
I started Altar after leaving the unsuccessful partnership I had with Kagdila and shortly after with Sunline Records.
Managing Altar is what I enjoy the most in my life, it is my passion. But the other side of the coin is never pretty, and I have a health issue from being in front of a computer for countless hours. The last 12 years gave me painful tendinitis in the right shoulder.
Yeap, I can understand you. Keep holding on!
Are you the only person to decide if an artist, or a track, will be released at Altar?
Tell us about origin of the label name, is there a connection between your label, Spirituality, and it’s music?
The origination of Altar’s name comes from the fact that it’s sacrificial. In the sense that it is about countless hours of work 7 days a week. It is also an offering to the world as a ‘gift of mine to chill out lovers’ who share the same passion for music as I do. Altar is also committed to help artists grow with their passions in mind. An altar is intended to share and make offerings to something greater, as do I.
About the connection between music and spirituality, I think it’s a matter of openness. Every one of us is different and I do respect all points of view. But to me music can be interconnected with something higher. The music is connected with a smart and outwardly bright inspiration that transcends on the artist’s intent through his/her creation, continuously.
Watch the documentary featuring Goa Gil “Last Hippie Standing” and you may catch some sort of that connection I am speaking about. I believe in some sort of higher intelligence, much greater than humans. I think that we are all different beings with different thoughts and paths. We are also all made from star dust. Therefore I tend to bow myself in with respect to the Creator for the Universe and Mother Earth’s gift.
“One’s gazing to the sky without contemplating it, does not see the stars; and anyone who hears a symphony without opening his soul, cannot acknowledge the Divine notes”.
Beautiful words! What is your favorite part about being a label owner / manager?
Mastering. I like the parts before making an album or compilation ready for release to the world. It suits my craving for perfectionism. ;)
I also love to listen to the latest creations from my beloved Altar artists; it is always a huge pleasure to discover their new sounds and follow their evolution year after year. The best souvenir is when I had heard for the first time the songs of Akshan’s “Tree of life” album. I was so amazed and excited that I played them in a loop three days in a row!
I wonder do you have other day job’s apart from mastering and label management?
Yes, I design flyers, CD covers and business cards for clients. I also manage a website for my brother. I am most satisfied when being self-employed. Sometimes I do external part-time jobs when it is a good opportunity to increase my cash flow.
Let’s apply to some numbers. What is the proportion of time that you devote to each of your activities?
– mastering work 10%
– working on your compilation 14%
– listening to demos from altar artist 15 %
– listening to demos from new artist 1 %
– promotion 55 %
– djing 2%
– legalities / copyright related issues 5%
– graphic art 8%
Interesting. So many releases happen at Altar, how many people do you work with?
All of my artists, and I take the opportunity to thank them from the bottom of my heart!
We are non-stop collaborating together polishing the sound, finalizing the artwork and publishing our music.
As a label owner, what inspires you to develop an Altar project?
Illustrating the CD covers with visions seen while listening to tracks from upcoming albums.
Developing with Altar the first “psychill” eco sustainable label using vegetable inks, recycled FSC papers, and as little paper and plastic as possible.
Devotion to down tempo music. Sometimes I really identify with the sounds that are slow and steady. Or get excited from a gem that is all so danceable. Sharing through the label what I find good.
Finally, sending a ‘paycheck’ to the artists I work with. They deserve the best.
I believe in the impulses from the heart. It was a dream and now I’m including many other lucid dreamers into this waking dream project.
We must admit, there are not that many labels active in downtempo music. It seems that some big ones are slowing down or becoming inactive, at the same time it feels like the number of electronic producers out there, is getting bigger. More artists are starting to sell music “self-released” on bandcamp, ektoplazm and netlabels.
What do you think about the evolution of psychill / psybient music over the last years? Have things gotten better/worse in your opinion? What is your vision of the current climate within the down tempo “market”?
You’re right there’s an evolution in the scene and it’s very nice to see that many artists are getting self-released.
I’m really glad about that. I’m redirecting many artists to get self-released through Bandcamp nowadays. I also can’t release everyone that wishes to partner with Altar.
The scene is getting better because the sounds are getting better and more polished too. There are always really talented artists that need to be discovered out there. It’s exciting and promising from all points of view.
In general, how would you define the role of a label like yours in the universe of music?
The role of a label is to publish a certain type of music to suit a specific type of audience. To connect our minds together with emotions, dance, and smiles. It’s about altruism too.
Would be very interesting to know some sales insights. Can you tell us, as for 2012-2013 where your biggest market for CD sales were and where the biggest Digital downloads originated? How big are the digital sales compared to CD? Are compilations more popular compared to albums?
Well just check the number of physical prints I’m releasing and you’ll have an idea of the CD market! The digital market is getting a bit better than it was in the past thanks to apps like iTunes and Rhapsody, I guess. I want to see digital sales get better to avoid the printing process and for the environment’s sake!
A very interesting and detailed article with lots of graphics and reflecting a bit on Altar insights can be found here.
To give you an example, Zymosis’s latest album was printed on CD at 300 copies more than a year ago and 280 copies have been sold already. I’ve scheduled a reprint of it (again at 300 copies) to be exclusively sold through Arabesque my distributor, in 2014. It’s a premiere to reprint an album and a test too because there’s an interest for that CD in particular.
Meanwhile our digital releases sold less than physical ones in general. I haven’t sold 280 digital copies of the Zymosis album yet.
As for albums and compilation releases, the ratio is more or less equal, our compilations are as popular as albums.
Glad to hear it! By the way, Altar is positioned as an eco-friendly label. Nowadays, almost everyone has a digital audio player. Do you think it is still important to produce CD’s?
We are still in the middle-age in terms of music’s evolution. There’s still much more to do to enhance our music listening experience. Something is coming in the future that will revolutionize the way we are listening to our music!
So for now I’m still printing only 300-500 copies of each release with the maximum amount of eco-friendly & recycled products. It takes a LOT of energy to produce packaging in a plant + shipping costs, custom fees, envelopes, etc. On top of that our computers are sucking much electricity and it’s also something to use wisely. Removing the packaging process and getting digital-only, is to me, going in the right direction. It is leaving a good future to the next generations. With over-consumerism, we are digging a huge hole around us. As you know, nowadays it is a matter of fact that there are lots of serious scientific research about these ecological issues.
Indeed, the western world lives in a modern age of over-consumerism ! Me personally i started buying the digital releases few years ago, with an intention to limit the environemntal impact and with a hope to put more money into pocket of artist / label.
And what do you think about vinyl ? Would you like to be able to distribute Altar music on vinyl?
No vinyl at all for Altar as it’s not eco-friendly in all ways. Thought it sounds awesome….
I mean the tiny piece of diamond vibrating into the groove has always had something unique and gives me shivers when it is playing, I have to admit. But that’s so outdated. Let us go forward, not backwards![mixcloud]http://www.mixcloud.com/DJ_Zen/dj-zen-mix-water-snake-02-2013/[/mixcloud]
—ABOUT PERSONAL LIFE and DJing—
If you don’t mind, let’s switch to more personal questions. What do you like to do apart from working in the music field?
Walking outside, which is very good for staying healthy, reading books, going to spiritual seminars to keep my mind evolving, decoding dreams, cooking organic vegetarian food, watching documentaries and staying in silence/surrounded by sounds of nature and meditating, or not. I like getting away in the forest, being as far away as possible from human activity. Going out to see friends and family from time to time keeps me joyful and connected as well; I’m not a monk.
Vegetarian cooking! Can I ask you, since when are you a vegetarian and do you notice any positive impact on your physical and mental health?
I have been 80-90% vegetarian since 2007 and I go organic as much as possible.
So I like cooking from time to time organic and natural white meat & fish. I don’t eat any pork, weird meat like ostrich, or baby animals. Nothing that comes from industrial farming if it can be helped.
I like raw food diets too, but I personally can’t eat too much raw food.
There are so many positive impacts on health but the first and most important is cruelty-free respect for animals.
Do you do some spiritual/ health-oriented practices?
I used to do Yoga, the Sivananda practice. Now I do home exercises and stretches. For the spiritual aspect, I find it interesting to decode symbols in everyday life and my dreams too. I go to seminars to learn about symbolic universal patterns with dream-masters from UCM. I also believe in and love to read about afterlife, so I have the entire book collection of Francisco Candido Xavier (Chico Xavier), the famous Brazilian medium.
What about your music project Astral Waves. Any plans to produce new tracks?
I do produce music but it’s an extremely long task. I’m working on 3 new tracks for the next album that “willbereleasedsometime”!
The label comes first! I also need to reinstall all programs from scratch into my PC that is acting really weird these days!
Tell us a bit about DJ Zen, how important is mixing for you? How often do you mix at home and how often do you mix at events?
It depends. Mixing at home or at a party is not so important. I prefer listening to new music nowadays and concentrating my days to the label.
I’m usually mixing at 2-3 festivals and 2-3 indoor events a year.
Since 2012, DJ Elios is representing the label or replacing me at some events upon which I could not attend myself. He’s a young and talented DJ from Montreal devoted to Altar.
I’m not rich and don’t like to travel abroad much, so it is my European artists I’m trying to get to represent me or the label. I did an exception last year though, playing at Hadra festival in France and at the amazing InSpiral lounge in the U.K. This was my first trip abroad in the last 10 years.
10 years is not much, but you have definetely choosed a good events to play. Hadra Festival had a wonderful Alternative stage lineup this year. As for InSpiral lounge, is a great venue, a small meca of electronic music with a delicious vegetarian food, is the only venue that i know that have been there since a while, supporting psychill artist and organizing regular events in London. Tell me Gabriel, what time do you prefer to play and what size of events you prefer?
I prefer to play before 3am and love to do sunrise sets. Night time sets take a lot out of me. I live far from festivals or party locations, and I don’t use drugs. But seeing a dance floor in trance is the best reward I can get.
Sunny afternoons are cool too, as I like to make people grooving on dub music.
I love to play at any kind of event. The more people who are seriously getting into trance in front of me, the better. I’m sharing positive energies; therefore a Dj set can be extremely extended! I never forget that the other side of the scene is to dance ones ass off like I did almost 20 years ago. So to me a good Dj is someone who can cook you a great set, a wire conductor that catches your mind to empty it all and fill it in again with better thoughts and feelings, to make you feel good and resilient.
Depending on the event, I also like to give out Altar CDs in the crowd!
What is your “gear” of choice (CDJ, Controllers) and why?
I like to play with Traktor controllers and a laptop, with its nearly endless music folders. And it’s very versatile too. The only problem is the size of space it takes on a Dj table. Organizers always choose the smallest table for some reason so it is never easy to setup the material.
We have seen few events connected to well being, do you organize them? What kind of music do you play there? Is it mostly tribal or also psychedelic ? What is the reaction of people to the psychedelic sound?
I have not organized for a long time. Others do it better than me. You can find many of the sets I have played at events on my mixcloud.
I’m playing all kind of chill out and down tempo, but also progressive trance at the peak of the set.
I like to introduce very spiritual kinds of music at the start of a set. Indian chants or mantras and evolving gently into some psychill tunes with a more or less dubby touch. At the end of the set I am trying to increase the tempo to put people into trance when I see the crowd is ready for it. Then I finish with some more gentle beats to ground them down again.
I’m also very open to the organizer’s tastes or wishes from the crowd.
People here are used to psychedelic ambient music and are always bringing new friends in, so the scene is evolving up. They like to dance at events on more up-tempo psychedelic music. Not everyone goes back home playing psychedelic chill out music.
It’s a life celebration in the now! A very diverse kind of open-minded people.
Now more so, the big festivals are increasing their “spiritual vibe” and well beings with them. It is not reserved only with dance jams, yoga sessions or small psychedelic events.
Tell us a little bit about the Canadian downtempo scene? Are there any regular events or a dedicated festival? Is the chillout/downtempo scene developed inside of the trance movement or maybe is it independent?
There are no regular chillout events but there was a long time ago GoaChill events hosted by Interchill dudes. Many events and festivals are hosting 2 scenes, the psy and chill out scenes together. You will almost never see me in the other scene except when I play a progressive set. Or when a Dj or live act is playing a techno-deep-proggish/progressive set. I never go to a “psy only” event.
I don’t know about all the Canadian scenes.
In the Quebec Province area I can name the Eclipse festival that is the most professional of all, and this one is constantly evolving in the right direction with their NYE winter event, “Orion”. OpenMind festival is cool and so is Space Gathering. All festivals are independent with different organizers and vibes, but every one of them is trying to work together. This is to avoid events held at the same date. Also they get inspiration from each other to evolve side-by-side, as well as being creatively diverse.
We have a nice vibe in Quebec and Ontario in general. But a lack of seriousness here and a bit everywhere makes me avoid many of them. Parties are about my daytime job, passion, and what I do enjoy about them!
Do you think the location of your label makes any difference in your work? Correct me if I am wrong, but it feels like most of the Altar artists are based in Europe and the ex USSR (Russia, Ukraine).
I don’t mind working here or there. Thanks to the internet, I could work from anywhere. Artists also can have any location in the world. It doesn’t matter. I’m looking for quality and I believe that quality could be established anywhere in the world.
True! Have you considered moving back to Europe / France?
No, thanks!! My bio talks about how I know Europe and its vibe. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just crap filled with uninteresting beings!! I am just saying that I do not want the manner of living a super-expensive commercial life, politics, and over-population that I find in Europe. It is suffocating for me. I need fresh air everyday. Even though I miss many of my friends from out there! When you read this, my friends, big hugs to you, I miss you, but I’m fine here!
Wow, it has been quite long but extremely interesting interview! It was a pleasure to have this connection with you and to get to know you and Altar! We thank you for your time! Before we finish the interview, maybe you would like to wish or share something important to/with our readers?
Thanks to you, it was also very interesting for me.
I’d take this opportunity to say to everyone that has supported Altar since 2010 that I love you too, thank you! All of your awesome messages of encouragement that I get almost weekly into my mailbox is great! I speak from the voice of the artists to all of our listeners and sincerely thank you for your support, you are all in our minds and in our hearts.
Also to answer a redundant question about why I didn’t stop my label in 2012 (as I said so in my website back in 2010) to put it simply, it was a too short of an experience! And my love for the music made me put aside the belief that 2012 was the end of a world and the start of a new one. Everyone has the opportunity to evolve. A date will not make the difference, it’s our own decision to change anything in our lives, or not.
Lastly, happy travels around the sun on our lovely blue planet and if you prefer listening to us via Youtube, please do!
Artists, if you want to try and hear for free the mastering of one of your tracks, read this.
Always a pleasure,
Gabriel / Dj Zen, Canada.
SOME USEFULL LINKS
WEB PAGE: http://www.altar-records.com
DIGITAL SHOP: altar.bandcamp.com
DJ ZEN BIO: http://www.altar-records.com/bio.html
YOUTUBE CHANNEL: http://www.youtube.com/user/AstralWaves1
DJ ZEN MIXES : http://www.mixcloud.com/DJ_Zen
also have a look at some selected altar releases referenced at www.psybient.org: