Interview: Red Bull Music Academy's Davide Bortot
Red Bull Music Academy kicks off its month-long NYC takeover.
Time Out New York: Everybody knows Red Bull, of course—but I think a lot of people are unclear as to what Red Bull Music Academy is all about. How do you describe it?
Davide Bortot: In a practical way, it’s a series of music workshops, studio sessions and festivals. It’s been going on for 15 years; it was founded in 1998 in Berlin, and it’s been traveling around the world ever since. It’s been in places like São Paulo, Cape Town, London, Madrid.… All sorts of cities.
Time Out New York: Who takes part in Red Bull Music Academy?
Davide Bortot: Every year, we invite 60 music makers—producers, instrumentalists, vocalists, DJs—from around the world to participate. And then they’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime, 24/7, two-week-long crazy music experience. This year we’ll be in New York, of course. There’ll be two sessions, and it’s happening from April 28 through May 31.
Time Out New York: What are the workshops all about?
Davide Bortot: We call them lectures, and essentially what we do is bring in legendary, pioneering music makers—people who we believe have made important contributions to music history—to sit on a couch and have a very intimate, formal and often long conversation about their approach.
Time Out New York: And what wisdom are you hoping that those artists impart?
Davide Bortot: The one perspective we’re always interested in is what inspires them to be creative. The Academy is definitely not interested in the industry element; it’s not about how to make it in the music business. It’s also not about how to make music, really, since the participants we get tend to already know that. It’s about giving people who we believe are amazing the kind of platform where they can get inspired and inspire each other. We want them to exchange ideas and exchange visions, in an environment where they don’t really have to think about anything else, one that fosters creativity.
Time Out New York: I was lucky enough to attend the 2011 Academy in Madrid, and for me, one of the most exciting things was seeing the interaction between these producers who are from all over the world, who are making all different kinds of music in very different ways.
Davide Bortot: Exactly. I think we are always looking for people who are not only doing interesting things in their field, but who are also very open-minded. You can be an amazing producer, but you might not care much about what’s going on around you, beyond your genre. So we try to get people who have a hunger for collaboration and new influences. We’re providing the platform for those people, who typically wouldn’t meet, to have a chance to get together. It could be a singer-songwriter from Brazil hooking up with a techno producer from Iran, or a rapper from Nigeria working with a dubstep producer from Canada.
Time Out New York: You kind of do the same thing with your lectures, right? In Madrid, you had everybody from the avant-garde electroacoustic artist Francisco López to Chic’s Nile Rodgers talking to the participants.
Davide Bortot: Definitely. It’s all about variety. We try to have people from all different backgrounds, to create this atmosphere where participants can learn from people they’ve never heard of or even know that they’d be at all interested in.
Time Out New York: Where are you doing it?
Davide Bortot: We took over this great space in Chelsea, on 18th Street. We’re pretty excited about it because it’s a huge space. Which is pretty surprising, because you’d expect real estate to be more expensive and the buildings to be smaller in New York City. But we got it, and we’re very happy.
Time Out New York: You’ve been busy transforming the space, right?
Davide Bortot: We’ve built ten studios there, with one big recording studio; it’s a full-on professional recording facility with a nice SSL board. And then there’s a bunch of what we call bedroom studios, which are essentially smaller production facilities with somewhat more basic setups. There’s an equipment room, where people can just grab what they need. What happens is that you have a lot more participants than studios, so what naturally happens is that people share studios, which leads to all of these collaborations which might not have ever happened in real life.
Time Out New York: What’s a typical day like at the Academy?
Davide Bortot: We have two lectures a day, and in between the lectures, people hit the studios and work on tracks. Then at night, there’s the festival element, which for New Yorkers is probably the most relevant aspect, since that’s the part they actually can go to.
Time Out New York: You’ve got an amazing array of artists taking part in the festival: Masters at Work, the DFA label, Brian Eno, Andy Stott and tons of other cool people. How do you go about shaping the lineup?
Davide Bortot: The ethos behind the programming is very closely related to the actual Academy. Not that everybody who performs comes to the Academy to lecture or vice versa, but the spirit behind it is the same: to create interesting combinations of people and genres. Of course, New York is a special city with such a great history, so it’s not like New Yorkers are waiting for a bunch of dudes to roll up and say, “Hey, this is what club culture is,” or anything like that. What we tried to do was to take a close look at what was already going on in New York, and then do two things: pay tribute to the city, and try and find things that haven’t been done here before.
Time Out New York: It seems like a lot of people are really excited about disco god Giorgio Moroder’s deejaying gig, which is part of the RBMA programming.
Davide Bortot: Yes—we’ll see how that one goes! [Laughs] He’s one of the people who has always been on our wish list, for both the festival and as a lecturer. We love his music, he’s done so much for club culture, and he’s a lovely guy. What’s inspiring about him is that he’s not the youngest guy anymore, but he’s found this newfound interest in DJ culture, and he’s really inspired by what’s going on nowadays. He wanted to perform at one of the shows, and we thought it would be really good to have him at the Academy to give everything a bit of context. This is a guy who’s done the opening ceremony at the Olympics, and now we have him playing at Cielo with a bunch of other DJs.
Time Out New York: Who else are you excited about?
Davide Bortot: Everyone, really—but you mentioned Brian Eno. He has this audio-visual installation, which is essentially a generative piece that kind of creates itself as you watch it. He’s also giving a talk at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, when he’ll be speaking about his creative vision. There’s a whole lecture series from people who we think are amazing, and a lot of them will be talking about different facets of New York’s music culture, even though they are not all from New York. We have one with Erykah Badu; one with James Murphy, who’s obviously an icon of a certain era in New York music culture; and we have an event at the New Museum where we have the producers of three classic David Bowie albums talking about those records.
Time Out New York: Which three producers?
Davide Bortot: We have Nile Rodgers from Chic, who produced Let’s Dance. We have Tony Visconti, who did Heroes and did Bowie’s latest album. And there’s Ken Scott, who produced Ziggy Stardust.
Time Out New York: Switching gears a bit, who are some of the notable alumni of the Academy?
Davide Bortot: There are a lot of them! Flying Lotus, Hudson Mohawke, Aloe Blacc, Katy B.… On the house and techno tip, there’s been Axel Boman, Cosmin TRG, Jamie Woon.… There’s been so many that it’s hard to remember! There are a lot of New Yorkers who have taken part as well—people like Brenmar, the ubiquitous Nick Hook, Jesse Boykins III, Vivian Host from Trouble and Bass, Sammy Bananas from Fool’s Gold and so on.
Time Out New York: How about this year?
Davide Bortot: We have a few participants who people may have heard of, and people will get to hear them because all the participants get to play a gig as part of the festival. There’s Benjamin Damage, who’s Welsh but now from Berlin; T.Williams from London, the former grime producer who now does a kind of funky house; also from Berlin, we have Objekt; there’s Octo Octa from L.A., who we are really excited about; Suzanne Kraft from the Young Adult label; another London artist, Throwing Snow; there’s Sinjin Hawke, who comes from this sort of bass, trap-but-not-trap, hip-hop-influenced thing; and Jameszoo from the Netherlands, who’s this interesting up-and-coming artist we really like. Well, we like all of them, obviously!
Time Out New York: What happens after May 31, when the Academy’s New York stint officially ends?
Davide Bortot: For me personally, I try to get a bit of rest. Then we get to work on next year.
Red Bull Music Academy runs April 28–May 31.