Get Familiar: DJ Seinfeld

One of lo-fi house's leading names discusses inspirations, his debut album, and the position of the genre.
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In less than a year DJ Seinfeld has become an extraordinarily influential figure in house music. What’s remarkable is that he’s done so with a series of subtle, slow burn productions that have come to characterize the lo-fi house sound: a blend of raw beats, nostalgic influences and a coating of analog dust, tape hiss, and dirt. His ascension has been low-key, but it’s been inexorable: Seinfeld’s debut EP, Season 1, laced with ghostly house stabs, acid lines, and hazy electro funk, caused a shockwave that’s rippling still now.

The moniker of Malmo, Sweden’s 25-year-old Armand Jakobsson, DJ Seinfeld has become an emblem of the ‘lo-fi house’ underground movement that encompasses artists such as Ross From Friends, Grant, and Mall Grab; and labels including Lobster Theremin and Shall Not Fade. Lo-fi house has invigorated dance music with its anti-image stance and DIY energy, though it’s also drawn derision from some who consider the artist names to be silly, the approach insincere, and who wonder whether the whole thing might be an elaborate prank.

DJ Seinfeld’s exceptional skill and style as a producer, though, are beyond question. His first EPs for Lobster Fury, Natural Sciences, and E-Beamz—and releases under the pseudonym Rimbaudian—had a strong emotional resonance redolent of classic house, contrasted with overdriven, distorted beats, suggesting an appreciation for the more abstract end of dance music too. It’s not just 4/4 that Jakobsson makes, either. As Birds of Sweden, he created an EP of gorgeous art-core drum & bass and tearing peak-time jungle that would have been hailed as classic in the sound’s mid-'90s salad days.

His debut album Time Spent Away From U is a more complete picture of DJ Seinfeld’s inner world: a set of jacking club cuts laced with flying hats, classic Korg M1 basslines, rolling breakbeats, and sweet R&B vocal samples, coated in his customary fuzz and a lush dreaminess. “I Hope I Sleep Tonight” combines a swung out beat with an emotive vocal, intricate strings and bell melodies; while another highlight, “How U Make Me Feel,” is a relentless stomp of distorted kicks, acidic funk, and looped vox. The tracks were apparently created after a painful relationship breakup, and this bittersweet flavor permeates the record, showing a deeper side of Seinfeld than we’ve seen thus far. We caught the elusive DJ and producer between gigs to find out more about his background.

You’re based in Barcelona, what made you move there?

Yes. I had a gap year after I finished my studies in Edinburgh, and I moved back to Sweden to work. Then I realized I needed to do a Masters. Barcelona had a really good reputation for an Economics degree. I also wanted a change of scenery. I’d been living up north and thought it would be nice to have a contrast.

Making house and jungle music is quite a contrast to studying Economics. How did your induction into dance music come about?

As with most people who get into electronic music, it was probably from friends and family. My family had been classical musicians and opera singers. I played the piano for a long time, but I didn’t get into electronic music until I was 13 or 14. At that age, you don’t analyze things too much; you learn completely by impulse. I started listening to underground house and techno more seriously around 16. I had one friend in particular who introduced me to a couple of artists, and then I started to explore a bit more myself.

Which artists did you get into then?

Legowelt. He’s probably my biggest inspiration when it comes to music. Otherwise, people like Omar-S and Theo Parrish, and a bunch of guys from Chicago and Detroit. At the same time, I listened to a lot of romantic electronic music such as Pantha du Prince. Of course, Burial as well.

There are classic influences in your music but filtered through your distinctive production techniques. How did you come to delve back into the history of dance music?

It’s a weird nostalgia for that late 1980s, 1990s time. You remember the time when MTV would play good videos every now and then, back in the day? I don’t remember watching that very consciously, but it would be in the background. There’s a certain charm about it. I liked how people in Chicago and Detroit and the UK used dance music as just as much of a political statement as it was a party. It was kind of a different thing [to now]. I like to imagine what it could have been like then. And it sounds good. I love the sound of those synths. I don’t know what part plays a bigger role.

Is the emotion in that music part of its appeal to you?

Yeah. I do like easy-to-listen-to harmonics and beautiful melodies. As much as that’s my strong suit, I love listening to atonal music too, such as Iannis Xenakis. I guess that’s not for the masses. It’s not to do with building romanticism through music or anything like that, it’s just a deconstructed form of listening. I didn’t get that at first, at all. It took some time, but I’ve been trying to expand, to challenge myself. If a group of people like something, it must have some kind of value attached to it. I like to put myself in that position to explore.

Does the dance scene in Sweden inspire you?

I’m quite detached from the scene in Sweden. It’s more my friends in Malmo who inspire me. They’re not doing house and techno, it’s really just a group of friends doing different kinds of music. I live quite an insular lifestyle so I’m not sure how anyone or anything influences me in a specific way, but I’ve had a lot of parties, fun nights and creative sessions with them, so I guess those guys contributed more than anyone else.

Why did you choose the alias DJ Seinfeld? I understand you’re a fan of the show…

It was just a way for me to keep things light and funny for myself. I went through a breakup and Seinfeld was the comfort show that I ended up binging on. I didn’t really make much music in the immediate time after that, but when I started back up I felt things a bit differently and thought it would be nice to do things anonymously for a while and just see what happened.

When you started producing, what kind of stuff did you make? Did you have aspirations to make lo-fi house specifically?

Since the start, I think I've been a bit all over the spectrum, though I tend to circulate back to dance music quite a lot. And no, not really. I've always liked music that has a rougher edge rather than polished and perfect sounds, so I guess the tracks I've made are some attempts to scope out my own take on that.

How did you come to sign Season 1 to Lobster Fury?

It was kind of a funny thing. At first, I wanted DJ Seinfeld to be completely anonymous, I didn’t really want to reveal who it was. But one day Nick Williams — he has this label Meda Fury who I’ve released on as Rimbaudian — wrote to me to ask if I knew who DJ Seinfeld was. I was hesitant to tell him, and then he said he had a friend, Jimmy Asquith from Lobster Theremin, and that they’d been planning on doing a collab label for a long time. They asked if I wanted to put something out. It coalesced into something special; it felt really right. Now we’re all really good mates. It was a funny thing and I’m really glad it came together in the way that it did. It was very impulsive and we’re just trying to have fun with it all. I hope that came across when it was released.

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How does it feel to get an album out?

It’s such a relief, to be honest. It’s been a long time since I first put those tracks up on SoundCloud. Over time — every producer knows what I’m talking about — you develop a detachment from those tracks. I didn’t listen to any of those tracks for a long time. I had many doubts, as it wasn’t a conceptual album, it was just sad tracks from a sad time. But looking back on it with a different headspace, it’s really nice to see them all come out in the form that they did. It didn’t really make sense to put those tracks out as EPs.

Did the mood of the album come from that relationship breakup you mentioned?

Yeah, it did. I didn't really intend the tracks to be released anywhere, they were just excerpts from a time that felt as though I was undergoing some significant changes and needed to exorcise the past. There are some happier tracks on there too, which I was very keen on including. Not a whole lot, but I didn’t want to drag everyone down completely. I wanted a few on there to be like the little flickers of optimism one suddenly and unexpectedly feels when they’re going through that rough patch.

Did you make all the tracks around the same time or over a longer period?

Yeah, all of those tracks came from a roughly three-month-long period after that whole thing. There were a bunch more I thought about including, but no, I think the album is quite extensive as it is.

The last track on the album, “U” has a spoken word sample about losing somebody, and the music is bittersweet. Where is that from?

It’s from a radio interview with Bob Geldof. I came across it on YouTube quite randomly. There’s this one segment where I picked up the words. I don’t know what I was thinking when I ripped those vocals, but I put it into Ableton. It seems to have worked somehow.

Are you into that sadness and emotion that can sometimes be a major feature of house music?

I’ve been trying to keep my music subtle, but I realized that the things that feel most natural to me are not subtle at all. Sometimes I overcomplicate things by not keeping them clear sounding, or trying to make them a bit more complex than they need to be. For these songs, I didn’t really compromise anything, I went purely by emotion.

"There’s always going to be people trying to make a club fist pump. Then you have the periphery of the scene, trying to explore and challenge the functionality or what makes those songs functional."

What do you make of the functional material that constitutes so much club music now?

There’s always going to be people trying to make a club fist pump. Then you have the periphery of the scene, trying to explore and challenge the functionality or what makes those songs functional. A big inspiration of mine is Actress. His music has always been so incredible to me. The way he challenges the 4/4 conception of what works in a club is unique. I really admire that and I don’t think it really occurs that often.

There’s a natural tendency in dance music to conform to what is popular, what sells. What people think will make a crowd go crazy on Friday or Saturday. Everyone makes a choice and I’m completely fine with whatever people choose to do. I want to make both, in a way. I still want to challenge myself. There’s room for both things to occur in the dance industry.

"Sometimes lo-fi has become this replacement for, "You make a very generic disco track, and put a very standard 909 beat on it, put a filter on that, and then you have a lo-fi house track.""

You’ve been held up as a bastion of the lo-fi house scene. What do you think of the term?

I’m not going to sit here and say lo-fi didn’t get me to where I am today, because it’s hype that happened, and it did put the spotlight on a few producers who gained a lot from that kind of exposure, myself included. For that, I’m very thankful, but I’m also conscious of how reductive it can be to be put in one of those boxes. It doesn’t take a lot of time to go on the internet to see people talking about what lo-fi is. It’s not correct in a lot of cases. Sometimes lo-fi has become this replacement for, "You make a very generic disco track, and put a very standard 909 beat on it, put a filter on that, and then you have a lo-fi house track." I’m not gonna judge people if that’s what they want to do, that’s ok, but my idea of lo-fi was always referring to the sound quality of what came from early Chicago and Detroit. People didn’t have the best equipment and the sound was the result from that. It has nothing to do with using a silly name like mine, there’s not a formula to lo-fi. If you happen to like raw music, that’s fine, that’s what I do, that’s why I didn’t mind the lo-fi tag at first. I don’t mind it, but I don’t pursue it either.

What do you feel about the criticisms that have been leveled at lo-fi house? Are they fair?

I guess I know what it’s about. Some of it is fair, for sure, some of it isn’t. It's even strange to me how it ever became such a hyped thing. Not to say that there aren’t some great producers that have gained momentum from it, it's just that it’s been around for so long that I guess people who are well acquainted with the history of dance music saw it as kind of strange when there were these producers with ironic DJ names rising up all of a sudden. From there, a lot of people could see a formula to lo-fi I guess, and as soon as anything becomes fairly formulaic it risks becoming predictable and boring. That’s fair enough, but I don't really bother too much about it and I’ll always encourage people making honest and independent music in whatever manner they choose.

Is stepping away from the spotlight an aspect of what lo-fi house is about? Is it anti-image?

For sure. I’ve always made lots of different kinds of music and I don’t want that freedom to be reduced. I haven’t made a ‘lo-fi’ track in ages, I don’t know when I will next do that. I’m just trying to create some space for me to be free without worrying about what people will think about it. That’s never been a problem until this lo-fi controversy. Even then it was this momentary thing of, "Now I’m known, I’m exposed to all this criticism," but I don’t worry too much about it.

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How do you produce? What equipment do you use?

I just use Ableton. I use a couple of plug-ins, software. I like to leave a certain tag on a song.”

When it comes to the mixdown, what techniques do you use to get your sound?

I make music quite fast and spontaneously, though I’m trying to spend more time to perfect things now. But what I really like to do is put all the components of a song in, play around with it, and when I have an idea of what I want the track to be like, I’ll press record in Ableton, get some kind of rough arrangement and mess around until I’m happy with it. I don’t have any fancy way of making tracks sound better.

There are a lot of R&B samples in your music. Are you a fan?

I’m a fan of that music as well. There’s just a nostalgia and melancholy about some of those vocals that I find really beautiful. There’s a special kind of vibe you get from samples like that. They seem to work and I think people can relate to them.

You’ve put out a lot of music in quite a short period of time. Are you compelled to create?

I used to make a lot of music all the time, but because I’ve been flying around a lot doing shows, I haven’t really had the time to produce as much as I wanted to. But I’ve got a few months ahead of me where I hope to make a few tracks a day or something close to that.

As far as your DJing, which labels or artists are inspiring you at the moment?

I’ve been really digging this French label, Clek Clek Boom, I’m also into Luca Lozano, he’s great. I’ve been rediscovering this guy from LA, Santiago Salazar. He’s got some songs that are incredibly beautiful and melodic, functional as well. Some of the tracks remind me of what Omar-S has done. And also Special Request.

Speaking of Special Request, Birds of Sweden is your jungle pseudonym. Is that an outlet for another side of your musical personality?

Yeah, as with most things I do things I do, it’s spontaneous. I’ve loved jungle and drum & bass for a long time, but I didn’t want to convolute what I did with other projects. Birds of Sweden is another outlet for a different kind of music I wanted to make. I’m sure I’m going to do something else under the name in the future.

What’s coming up?

I have a release coming on Or:la’s label, Deep Sea Frequency, I’m still trying to finish up the last track, and I’m working on another album. I’m not sure where that will go or how it will sound, I just know I’m going to push myself harder with this one. I’m really excited, and I’m going to take more time with this music than what I did before. That will be the first time I’ve really structured an album or an EP. Normally it’s working retroactively where I’ll send things to a label and ask them to choose the songs. That’s on my horizon right now.