A genre-straddling goliath of the dance scene, Xilent (aka Eryk Kowalczyk) has a formidable list of remix credits, ranging from electronic music legends such as Sub Focus and Excision to pop megastars like Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran and Ellie Goulding. Now he's preparing to drop his debut album, We Are Virtual, which switches up styles effortlessly between electro house, DnB, dubstep and glitch-hop - all imbued with the glitchy, futuristic sheen that's become his trademark.
We caught up with Eryk in his Warsaw studio to find out more about his meteoric rise to stardom, and talk gear, remixing and the ideas behind the making of We Are Virtual.
How did you start making music?
"The first time I touched any kind of music creation tool was when I was eight and I got my first PC. I had Propellerhead's ReBirth RB-338, which was two 303s, an 808 and a 909. I didn't even know such a thing existed in software! I was trying to remake what Paul van Dyk and other trance artists were doing at the time. But when school started getting harder, I had to stop doing anything on the computer, and I had lots of English to learn as well."
That's a very young age to be really aware of electronic music, let alone synths…
"When I was a kid my parents fed me a lot of stuff like Michael Jackson, George Benson, Kenny G, then compilations of techno and hard trance. At the time, my mom was teaching conducting in a school, and my dad was in a band for, like, 30 years. The electronic side of things was more of a discovery of mine and my brother's.
"The knowledge of synths followed right after, when hard trance came into the picture. I remember the first time I got in touch with drum 'n' bass was when I found a compilation in my house with stuff like Future Cut and Aphrodite on it. I was like, 'What is that? That's like fast techno music!'"
Tell us how you got into making music more seriously…
"When I was 14 or 15 I was in a band. I drummed for five or six years in this Polish hardcore/melodic punk band. We were mostly influenced by this really fast, like 220bpm, twin pedal stuff, with switching guitars and crazy riffs. Those people were really good friends, so I kind of forgot about electronic music at the time.
"Eventually we decided to stop writing tracks on paper, and started thinking about programming the drums in some sort of DAW. There was this thing called Guitar Pro, which was like a DAW for programming guitars and drums, and it was only general MIDI sounds. That's how we were recording our first music as a band. Then I got into Cubase SX2 that way. With Cubase, you could have EZdrummer, which was the first way we could make decent-sounding drums. I was around 19 when I heard about more VST instruments like Massive and FM8, and the first track I actually made after the punk rock phase was this jazzstep jungle song - a liquid funk piece that was so badly done; the drums were just a loop I found online and so on.
"Before I put anything up as Xilent, I moved from Poland to the UK to study, and I began trying to perpetuate the sound I started with this jungle kind of thing. There was an internet radio station that started promoting my tracks, DnBTV.com. This guy on there, DJ L Brown, promoted all the jungle stuff, and at the time I was sending him all my darkstep bits: I was a big fan of Donny and Current Value, and trying to make that kind of sound. I was basically learning by attempting to copy and mimic. Spor was a major influence.
"In 2008 or 2009, I joined the Lifted Music forum, and that's when I started doing some neurofunk, which was kind of the middleground between darkstep and jungle for me. That's also when I started showcasing my tracks on various Polish DnB forums, which helped me a bit, for sure."
So 2009 was when your first releases were put out?
"Yeah, those releases were pretty minor. John B was one of the first guys that took me under his wing. I saw him in Warsaw once - I came here from the UK to visit for a holiday, and he knew my stuff from an Ammunition Recordings compilation. He wanted to feature my tracks on his podcast, so we started messaging each other on AIM. That was a huge moment for me; I was star-struck and everything. I couldn't even believe that I would be released on vinyl, let alone by John B! But it happened, I released two singles on his label and was pretty satisfied.
"That gave me a lot of confidence at the time. I did a few more releases on other DnB labels, then a few months later I get hit up by Shimon from Ram Trilogy and he says, 'Hey, Xilent, we love your stuff, and we want you to be an AudioPorn star!'"
How come your first release on AudioPorn was a dubstep track?
"I was making a track a week while still studying in Edinburgh, and people online said I should try doing something slower, like dubstep or breakbeat. So I had this track in mind that would incorporate a female vocal sample I had on my hard drive, which basically said two words: 'choose me'. I made it on my bed with a laptop - I had a very shitty laptop at the time, along with some cheap Sennheiser headphones. The song was done and mastered on that very laptop on that bed in one day.
"Originally, I'd planned to release on this other label that had been stalling me for weeks, but I sent it to Shimon and he was like, 'Dude, we're releasing it in three weeks on vinyl; it's happening!' The other label had been completely ignoring me, so it wasn't a hard decision! Everything went berserk, the track was featured in commercials, and it was a Beatport dubstep number 1 for months. It was a complete shock, and it helped me to get on [DJ agency] Circle eventually, which was a huge thing for me as well.
"Shimon said that, 'most of your fanbase knows you as a DnB artist, so you should probably do some DnB to keep it going', so Choose Me was done as an EP. I added my most recent DnB productions to it, which I'm actually ashamed of now. Every year you think about the previous year, thinking, 'What the hell was I thinking?'. It doesn't matter if it's music or photography or whatever… It's all online, and it doesn't go away! I bet lots of people can relate to that."
So this was all happening while you were still at university?
"Yes, and I didn't even think about leaving university at the time. When I started in 2008, I began with a software engineering course, and I was supposed to finish in 2012. But in 2011, I was like, 'Screw this… I don't know enough in C+ [programming language] to continue; it's got way too difficult for me'. So I switched to computing, which included modules like sound design.
"However, the same year I was supposed to go on an Australia, New Zealand and Japan tour - just, like, maybe seven or eight gigs. Before I got on that tour, I talked to my professor, I told him, 'I've got this thing called Xilent and I'm trying to establish myself as an artist'. So he Googled me then and there. He asked me what I was doing there if I was already building my career as a music producer! I quote: 'I missed my chance on going freelance and now I'm stuck here, but you have your five minutes in life now'. So I called my parents real quick and I was surprised that they also agreed, and told me to follow Xilent. I was supposed to come back to uni in 2013 and finish my fourth year of computing, but I didn't, and to this day I still haven't got my degree! Then again, I'm 25, so there's still time."
You've remixed some very high-profile artists - how did that come about?
"Shimon was and is always arranging everything that's happening to me. Now it seems like a bit of a haze, because we had enquiries incoming every week about doing a remix for someone; we just had to pick and choose. While the dubstep boom was big at the time, around 2011-12, you still had to be selective, you know? Whether the track is something you actually want to remix; what's the artist's profile like? I was being guided by Shimon from the start. That's the other advantage of having a manager: you obviously are still an artist and show your input every way you can, but he becomes sort of an uncle. You get to just sit and wait for orders sometimes and you both win!"
Do you worry that working with such poppy artists will alienate your fanbase?
"I used to worry about that, but I kind of treat it as a challenge, whether I'll be able to make a pop track viable for the underground.
"When I was a kid and my favourite underground rock band suddenly found themselves on a radio station being played for millions of people, I was extremely happy for them - it showed that they'd succeeded! Unfortunately, that mentality doesn't always prevail for most people, and whatever is being played on the radio or on TV - especially if the artist/band was initially niche - often receives a negative response from the ones who were supporting them from the beginning. I've made a decision to just be who I am and proceed with a mash-up of all kinds of genres into which I input my sounds that I hope people enjoy."
How do you keep yourself credible while also remixing these massive pop stars?
"I've actually been really grateful to the huge artists who hit us up. I never thought of it in a way that I have to keep myself credible after doing a remix. What I'm hoping for when people hear one is that they don't just perceive the business side of things. I want them to take it as my interpretation of the original track, an attempt to re-shape the initial idea in my own way with my own tools. You know, maybe they actually like the track and they'll want to hear what I've done with it."
What challenges do you encounter when remixing for majors?
"At least a couple of times you'll have to send it over and they'll send it back with notes, 'Change this, change that', but it's a necessity - essentially, they are the client. Even though it's supposed to be your interpretation, sometimes you have to adapt and compromise. The other thing is the deadline: 'You've got a week, speak soon'. It comes down to trying to incorporate as much as possible of your own sound - you have to do that or it simply won't work. If you don't do it in a style your fanbase will recognise, you become a machine that just ghost-produces tracks for other people."
One would hope the stems you get from the majors are good and polished…
"I can admit that the vast majority of the stems I was given, especially by people like Ed Sheeran or Ellie Goulding, were just perfect. You could really hear the quality of the recordings along with the compression already in place. You'd just put them right into your DAW and it sounds like a perfectly mastered track. Amazing stuff, really.
"Rarely, you'll just get the main hook of the track and you'll have to build the music around it, but not many professionals ask you to do that. Whenever I get a remix stem pack, it's always the full track - like, every channel is four minutes long and you just put it back together, 20 channels, for instance. Then you can simply cut around it and modify it as much as you want, while adding your own style to it."
It must be fun to get all that and be able to tear it apart.
"I have to give exceptional big-ups to Ellie Goulding and the sound team: her voice in Figure 8, I didn't even have to touch it - no compression, no EQing, nothing. I just put it in my own project and it sounded perfect; all I did was add some chorus to it maybe."
Let's talk about your album. Did you have an overall plan when you started it?
"The idea was to make an album from connection to disconnection. Both first and last tracks have exactly the same chord progression and ideology, but played with different instruments. Connect starts things off pretty aggressively with a glitchy dubstep beat, which is then slowed down gradually by the next two songs to somewhat seamlessly alter the tempo as tracks go by. Disconnect is the same idea, but strummed with a pluck at 110bpm, while reminiscing on the first chord progression of the album.
"All the songs in between form an uplifting, encouraging story with a hidden message, while incorporating every genre I've ever worked with, starting from ambient through symphonic/orchestral to glitch-hop, dubstep and DnB. So it's like a journey that makes a full circle - which is something I've always wanted to do: an actual coherent idea, rather than just one track after another."
How did you make the tracks fit together on the album?
"For example, I would take the last appearing instrument of a particular track, export it and try to implement it somehow on the next track, so that it begins with the same instrument, whether it's playing the same melody pattern or using the same timbre. Sometimes I would loop the last milliseconds of one track so they continue in the background of the next, subtly.
"On top of that, there was obviously a lot of tedious mastering adjusting so that they actually sound equal and as parts of the same album. That probably took the most time."
You're doing the mastering yourself, so how are you going to ensure that your mixes transfer well across a variety of media?
"Radio compresses a lot of stuff. They alter the stereo-to-mono signals and harmonics of what you made even if it's been mastered. This changes the sound dramatically. You also have to take into account how your music will sound on some crappy $10 headphones or earphones and an iPod, for instance.
"I'm basically trying to keep it up to a standard. For example, I do what I did when I started producing, which is compare my mixes to mastered tracks that are already out there. I analyse every level: high-end, low-end, how the low-end is sitting in the mix, etc. I'm doing a major part of it on headphones, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to tell much, since the studio isn't bass-trapped yet! The environment I'm working in is not perfect - it's untreated. However, after a lot of comparisons between various sound systems and headphones, I think I've gained some experience in making my mixes sound quite consistent.
"When I'm making a track, 90% of it will be on my DT770 headphones to start with; only then I'll compare it on speakers, go back to headphones, then back to speakers. I also try to alternate between the volume level at which I'm mixing a track on headphones. I noticed that low volume won't ever tell you how much low-end there really is, and listening to the mix very loud will give you the right dynamic response on the high-end. That's why I usually mix on a balanced, average volume and what the speakers usually tell me is how much middle- and high-end really is there, and if I've overdone something.
"After I do a track, I play it on the TV, actually! That's one of the things my sound design lecturer told me: 'Dude, this has to sound accurate on the shittiest sound system'. Everything has to be audible, the sub bass has to have that resonance level which even a TV will pick up, otherwise it would be like a half-empty track with just no sub on certain notes. Even though it's a TV that's not really meant to reveal the sub and my living room isn't obviously a sphere, there's supposed to be something there. That's how I perceive it. I would test it out on a phone, with some normal earbud speakers. If I'm lucky, I can send it to Shimon and he'll check it out in a proper studio in London."
Finally, what advice would you give to up-and-coming electronic producers?
"Depending on what your goal is - whether it's musical satisfaction and making music recreationally or for your friends to check out, whether you want to become a huge star and make millions, or if you're doing it just to meet Daft Punk in person on the backstage one day - don't be afraid. The more you limit yourself to a bandwagon of genres, the more you'll feel like this is becoming a job. Feel free to start something new, no matter how screechy or noisy or cryptic it will be. There will always be a group of people that will love it, and who knows, maybe that group of people will grow!"