Joel Dwek & Danny Wiser
Interview: Bring Back My Soul - JK Soul
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
JK Soul, Slovenian electronic music producers that contain an authentic soul edge, we sat down to discuss their career so far, and their affinity for the soul genre
“It was a clear statement that JK Soul is getting back to the soul - in the soul of his soul, and the soul of soul music.”
The above quote, from Zoran Savin, the self-titled consultant on JK Soul’s 2018 electro-soul album, Bring Back My Soul, reflects upon the motivation behind the Motown inflected sound of the piece. We sat down to speak with him and Jernej Križman, JK Soul himself, to discuss their beginnings in music and their subsequent journey.
Both hail from the Balkan state of Slovenia, and spoke to us about how their fruitful and long-standing professional relationship and friendship started. At age 14, a young Križman had already been intrigued by the world of electronic music, as his older sister would take him to what he describes as a ‘matineja’, a kind of early evening disco for young people, where he recalls being transfixed by the DJ on the decks. “I was not partying then, I was just standing behind the guy and looking at what the fuck he is doing with the records and stuff… it was nice.” It was around this time that Križman decided to take a punt on applying for weekend work at the local radio station, despite his youth. There he had the opportunity to drop some music that he liked live on air, thanks to permission from the more experienced head in music production, Savin.
Križman recounted those days fondly, saying that: “I saw those guys making some crazy sounds in the room, and every Sunday that came I was more interested about what the guys are doing over there. After a few weeks I asked them if I can see what they are doing, and they invited me to the studio… the story began like that.” It was also when Križman met another professional club and radio DJ, who offered to teach him to mix, and some of the other tricks of the trade. Križman enthusiastically commented that his response to the offer was “fuck yes!” and that “the journey began like this… but I had no clue at that time that I will make music my whole life after that. It’s really a crazy journey I have to say.” When we asked Savin about why he let a fresh-faced and eager teen into the studio, for his part, he put it rather laconically: “We saw something in him, basically, and probably we were right.”
Soon after, Križman was making music full-time and was eventually spotted by a record label in Colorado, where he made his first house tracks for studio release. Since then, he has released several albums and EPs. Križman was not the only one of his cohort to achieve success, he was also a school-mate of Denis Jašarevic, better known as Gramatik, one of the world’s biggest trip-hop superstars. When we asked about any possible cross-pollination between their two styles, Križman was sceptical, but did not totally rule it out. “I’m not sure I can say I was under the influence of Gramatik because we both got totally different styles, but maybe a little bit, because we were hanging together, and all the experiences that we did back in the day… so maybe a little, yeah.”
It might seem rather unusual that an electro-soul album of such high calibre has come from the former Yugoslavia, however, the pair were influenced by a variety of genres that at their core all came back to soul music. Savin mentioned to us that the former Yugoslavia allowed Western music as a form of cultural expression, and as such, there were many funk and pop bands from the region, even if they were not necessarily in the mainstream culture. He also pointed out that for them it was just a five kilometre journey to go over the border to Italy, which was not the case for most Yugoslavians. “We watched Italian television… listened to Italian radio stations, and so on, and this was our kind of window [into] what music was.” For Križman, on the other hand, his gateway into Western and more specifically soul music was through hip-hop, most notably through producers such as DJ Shadow and DJ Premier, who would both use many soul samples in their music. He also lists Aretha Franklin as an important and formative influence on him, whom he cites as one of the greatest singers of all time.
When it comes to Bring Back My Soul in particular, the album has a specific tale attached to its genesis. A year before the album’s release in 2017, Križman had a tour planned in Colorado, where he used to live, and when he landed in Denver, after an 18 hour flight, the Transport Security Administration denied him entry to the country as he did not have the right papers, and sent him back to Slovenia. In a passionate tirade, he stated the following:
“I was really annoyed and I can say also depressed because I was really excited about having those five dates to see my old friends from Colorado, and instead of that I just came back home and I was like “fuck, what the fuck happened?”. I was so depressed for three days I was really sad, and after that I said ‘fuck off, fuck that, fuck everything, fuck the USA, fuck the TSA,’ and I just started making beats… and in like two weeks I made like 30, 40 track ideas, and I was like man, I have to do this, I have to finish, I will make a new album out of this experience… it’s bullshit what is going in there, you know? We are like living in a free world, but we’re not.”
When we asked him why he decided to make such an American sounding album after such a negative experience in the USA, he swiftly clarified his position. He stated his frustration was with the political situation in America since Trump’s inauguration, but stressed that he did not want to get caught up in a political statement, and as such the album itself is apolitical in its content. His love of US culture, born of his time living there, remained fervent after this negative experience, and only pushed him towards wanting to showcase the beauty of the country and its music.
Whilst Križman was principal in the inception and production of the album, he could not have done it alone. Fortunately for him, he was able to rely on his frank relationship with Savin, a partnership that spans several decades. Due to their many years of collaboration, they are now able to be totally constructive in their criticism without fear of upsetting the other person too much. Savin was able to elucidate further on how they work together, describing a quasi-cryptic code in which one would send a musical idea to the other to gauge their response. He went on to say that “if one says ‘do I need to comment?’ this is saying ‘this thing is really good.’ The other possibility is ‘this is something funny’, meaning ‘I don’t like it’. It took a while to try to decode what is what, but now it is really fast. If he says ‘this is a funny idea’, I delete and go forward.” He added “having this extra pair of ears is really good for the filtering process.”
His favourite track, Dreaming About You, was done entirely by Križman, however Savin’s major involvement on the record came in the opening track, Fly With Me, as well as You Fool, which features a sample from Kenny Dope and the Bucketheads, one of our highlights of the album. That said, samples do not play a huge part in the album. Križman told us that 80-90% of the album was recorded live, with only about 15 basic loops being samples. Part of the reason for Savin’s limited involvement in the production was due to him being based in Ljubljana and Križman in Portorož, and therefore they could only collaborate over email. This meant that Savin honed in on the marketing side of the project, and used his experience working for the Expanded Records label in Italy.
“One of the problems, I think, with Bring Back My Soul is that today everybody is concerned about singles. There is something about the album as a whole. The album as an artistic piece of work it is not something that is nowadays received as it should be. It is not just a problem for us, it is for everybody”, says Savin, who seems slightly more mindful than his counterpart of the pressures of appealing to a wider market. Križman, on the other hand, admitted that previously he had been obsessed with trying to follow the trends of music, and in doing so lost his authenticity. The pair are trying to find the right balance between making music that they love, whilst also getting their music heard by the masses. “I lost some of my real fans that started the journey with me,” Križman pondered thoughtfully, before continuing by saying “it is not their cup of tea if I make house music or a dubstep track, so when I made Bring Back My Soul, I got a lot of comments, a lot of messages on my Facebook and Instagram accounts from my oldest fans being like ‘Hell yeah! This is what we’ve waited years for.’” Križman is content that he is making music that he wants to, while still striking the balance between art and commercialism under Savin’s gentle guiding hand.
Both are fans of soul music, with Savin remarking that soul something they both consider to be important to their work. It is the backbone of the album, and much of their other work, he says, whether it be house or electro-swing, takes a basis from soul music. He also pointed out the influence of the Balkan region on his and Križman’s work, describing Balkan roots music as “what [they] have in [their] blood”. He then elaborated that “when you hear some of these Balkan kind of rhythms with trumpets and so on and so forth, you don’t necessarily think of soul, but when you combine these two, it becomes what it is.”
The album is most definitely authentically soul in terms of its rhythms without taking shortcuts by stealing famous hooks from soul and disco icons like James Brown that would of course get any dance-floor going. Instead of resting on their laurels and using obvious floor-fillers, like many DJs today seem to do, the pair have picked out some niche samples that still pack a punch. They rather impressively have fun with some of vocals by making them particularly high pitch, rendering them unidentifiable to the original artists, instead leaving their listeners focusing on the soulful electro beat that they accompany the samples with. This is most notable in When I Was Feelin’ Bad, with its chipmunk vocals that initially might seem laughable, but function perfectly as a way of guiding the audience to place their attention on the excellent beat.
Unfortunately, in the modern world liking soul and disco music can seem for many an easy retro affectation to use to look 'cool', rather than genuinely appreciating the sound. However, what struck us both about the record is that it balances a sincerely soulful sound with an energy and a beat that makes it accessible to a 21st century audience who might not ordinarily chose to listen to the genre. JK Soul does this by slowing down the bpm of the high energy samples that are used, thus enhancing the soulful element of certain hip hop rhythms that they include, and fill them with rich, juicy beats that help the tracks maintain an oomph that house and techno loving fans can get on board with. Examples of this are So Far Away, which kicks off with an intense hip hop intro that one might expect from the likes of Pharaohe Monch, Public Enemy, or Roots Manuva, before styling it out with a groove that Anderson .Paak would be proud of. The same could be said of the zestful That Boom Bap and Space Traveller, that use an epic horn and strings section respectively.
In terms of future plans they are both open to collaborations. Savin stated that they are “always looking for something that is out of the ordinary”, even though he recognised the difficulties of finding the right fit. This is especially challenging as they have not found many English-language singers in Slovenia that they would like to work with. However, according to Savin, the quality of the vocals are not such a big issue as there is now the technology to edit this. Having now reconnected to their roots by releasing a truly soulful album the duo are not afraid to visit other territories of the electro scene in the near future. The pair revealed that they are planning to work on an electro-swing album and even a piece that uses Indian instruments.
Whilst JK Soul may dabble in other genres, one thing is for certain - Križman’s soul is well and truly back. After this experience the DJ claimed “we are not trying to limit ourselves to anything. The main thing is that I will always start to make music with the idea to make what I really feel deep in myself”. Savin then chimed in, “soul is always the starting point” and in just those few words, he rather poetically summed up what JK Soul are all about.