In Conversation With: Andes-Step Producer Joaquín Cornejo
Words fail Joaquín when he mentions that Nicola Cruz sent the producer a message. His vocabulary is reduced to a single word: “mad”. Having become the staple word of recent happenings, it works both as synonym and all-encompassing password to other terms such as “surreal”, “out-of-this-world”, “unfathomable”, “crazy”… and ‘mad’ is how the humble Joaquín Cornejo describes the latest in a series of happenings on his rapidly rising upward trajectory. That single word makes another appearance as Joaquín tells us of a nightclub in Istanbul that has just asked for his services for a night this summer. “Mad” he breathes with a shake of the head as he averts his eyes and looks away into nothingness, still unsure of how to process the rollercoaster he finds himself on.
These are just a few of the successive events and highlights on Joaquín’s rapidly moving career. Should you be reading this and unfamiliar with the artists and names I have mentioned though, you might not be able to adequately judge the scale and scope of these happenings. You may have never heard of Nicola Cruz before, but the producer is extremely respected, and one of Joaquín’s favourite musicians, influences and one of the biggest artists in the scene that both find themselves in. I try to place his feeling in context by imagining one of my favourite artists just casually sending me a thumbs-up message à la: “Hey Henry, some good sounds you’ve got going on there, Dave Grohl” (other musical heroes/idols/legends are available). Confusion. Disbelief. Bewilderment. System shutdown.
Cruz is not only part of the Andes-Step scene, but he is Andes-Step royalty – if not the king of it himself. But what is it? Andes-Step comes straight from the eponymous chain of mountains to be found in South America, across countries such as Ecuador, Chile and Colombia. Generally, the Andes-Step genre uses rhythms, samples and sounds straight from the mountainside and the Andean nature with an outcome giving electronic music a folkloric feel, filled with traditional sounds deeply rooted in the countries’ cultural heritage. Although the musical genre and scene Joaquín is now a part of is currently smaller in scale and more niche, the feeling, the elation and the utter incredulity must be the same: beyond words. A peak and so-far crowning moment in an ever-growing list of achievements for Cornejo.
Meeting Joaquín Cornejo
From growing up in Ecuador to moving to Manchester. discovering electronic music and its endless textures, to raves & rituals and mixing antiquity with modernity, Joaquín delves into my mishmash of questions with growing enthusiasm. Throughout, the new guy in the Andes-Step scene comes across as the humblest of budding artists and is still clearly unsure of how to process the “mad” events that keep cropping up along his musical path.
*the tone of the following interview has somewhat been toned down from familiar, i.e. two buddies chatting shit about music, to slightly more “proper” and “serious”
Having grown up in distant lands to these, far away in Ecuador, what can you tell us about your past?
I have always been really influenced by the people around me. In the school I went to there were quite a lot of musicians and bands that played during our break so there used to be gigs in the courtyard where people would hang out. I remember when I was a kid I always looked up to them, I always wanted to be like them – to be in a band – and I wanted to play rock music like Radiohead and stuff like that. A lot of musicians that played there are really big now and I really admire them – like Da Pawn (a band from Ecuador), or Nicola Cruz who is one of my biggest influences and actually quite important in the scene today. The reggae scene in Ecuador is also pretty good, but I focused on and was always influenced by what surrounded me, so the main scene with people like Nicola Cruz.
What made you move to Manchester? Did you start playing electronic music as a result of the city?
I just wanted to go somewhere different; I was always quite curious about Europe, and for some reason ended up in England. Then, I reached 18 and didn’t know what I was doing. I just finished school and had the chance to get out and just went for it. I lived in Sheffield for 6 months before coming here but I love Manchester – the weather might not be the friendliest but more than the place itself, I love the people. I got introduced to the electronica scene by friends here – I was taught how to do production by a friend of mine I used to live with. Before then,I was quite ignorant in terms of sound production and stuff like that. I learnt a lot from coming to Manchester – I saw the world from many different perspectives: I had to rebuild my social circle, had to rebuild my way of interpreting things, and myself.
“it’s more about sound design rather than musical performance”
Why did you make the switch to electronic music? Did anything in particular spur you into experimenting with it?
I used to be quite prejudiced against electronic music – just looking at it, thinking it’s not “actual” music because it’s not played by an instrument, but now I’ve come to learn that it’s just a different approach. I realised the potential electronica has, the amount of control you can have over designing sounds – it’s more about sound design rather than musical performance. The performance comes afterwards. I eventually realised that music is not necessarily about the musicians playing, but more about the sound itself – in electronic music, I think that’s the case a lot of the time. In my view now, the focus should be on the sound itself.
So – do you think it’s more about the effect that music has on you, rather than how it is made?
I think the important thing is to detach the person that makes the sounds from the sound itself, not adore the music just because a certain person made it but to adore the music itself. Detaching ownership from the sound. With electronic music, it’s less about the artist as (a lot of the time) it can be accidental. I don’t feel like I’m doing everything when I’m making music – I think there’s a lot of feedback process with the sound itself, so it is working with the sound, not just controlling it. Seeing where I can take the sound and where it can take me. I see production almost as a game between the sound and me, we’re bouncing off each other. I like to think of music as a sensorial experience rather than going to a gig and looking at the singer dancing.
“it’s detaching the ego from the creative process”
Do you think the artists that influence you feel the same way?
I haven’t thought of it that much – I know some of them do, take Daft Punk hiding their faces for example. They were underground musicians – and some of the first in the scene to become so big – and to keep respect to their music, they hid their faces. It doesn’t matter who they are – they don’t do it for self-promotion, they only do it for the music and that is really inspiring.
When electronic music was born, it was an underground scene during the rave era and it wasn’t about the artist. That’s why DJs can play other people’s music and it’s fine – it’s not about whether they’re playing their own music or not, it’s not about the DJ. In raves before now, there wouldn’t be any stages; the DJ would be hidden in a corner somewhere and it didn’t matter. That’s why DJs can be DJs. A lot of people complain about DJs not being artists or whatever because they don’t play their own music, but it’s not about who is playing, it’s just about the sound. I guess that’s why I love electronic music, it’s detaching the ego from the creative process and just making it about the music itself rather than the artist. Also the beauty of the technology – sound is such an abstract thing and you play with it in so many different ways! With the technology we have today, any texture or vision you have in your head you can make it happen, you can turn something invisible into something that feels solid, liquid, gassy, spiritual or whatever.
“The rave is the modern ritual”
How would you define your music?
I can explain it to some extent – it’s always changing. I have influences from ambient music, to ritualistic percussive music like African rhythms. I love techno music, the repetitiveness and the solid rhythms it has and how hypnotic it can be to the point where it reaches the same end as music from thousands of years ago. Both genres have different approaches to making music itself – one is completely technological, hardware and software based whilst the other is so organic; literally percussion and drums. Both look for this state of trance, and for me the rave is the modern ritual. In tribes, when people play percussion and chant, it’s to be able to enter this state of trance-like letting go, being hypnotized, lost in the sensorial experience. Not thinking anymore, just feeling.
It’s beautiful to combine these two things into some sort of fusion of that past and this modern version of it and try to play with both. that’s what I’m trying to look for, I’m inspired by that. Almost a contradiction between the primal organic sound and the modern futuristic sound: that interplay of the ethereal and the primitive.
I’ve heard your style described as “electronic folkloric music” – mixing the ancient and the modern.
Yeah, the ancestral! Traditional Latin-American folklore, like Mercedes Sosa or Inti-Illimani or Atahualpa Yupanqui – all the artists from my childhood played by my parents or grandparents, people around me – I grew up around it, so it is quite hard for me to dislike it. Coming to Manchester and being introduced to electronic music and all the textures it can have, and then re-discovering sounds from my childhood and creating these amazing new textures that are really stimulating and make you want to dance. Having those two aspects at the same time working in an unforced, beautiful way. I want to take advantage of my past and now being able to understand the music from my childhood, whilst exploring this vanguard aspect of electronic music which is developing so quickly.
Do you feel that you can take more from your influences, or do you think your sound has already developed?
As I said, I feel like I’m still a beginner in this. I don’t know what my sound is, I feel like other people can tell me what my sound is before I can do that. Only recently have I had hints of what it may be like, but I feel like I’m just starting and that one day probably I’ll be able to tell you my “signature style”, or whatever you call it. You can listen to a track and be able to say “oh that’s that guy”. for instance, Nicolas Jaar has a really distinctive sound – you can really tell right away. Or producers like Natureboy Flaco, one of my favourite producers – just listen to one of his melodies or synths, and that’s him.
Would you ever like people to be able to say “oh, that sounds like Joaquín Cornejo”?
Yeah, that would be cool, why not. But at the same time, I don’t want to repeat myself too much either. That’s another aspect – I accept what comes out, but always try to move out of my comfort zone to keep it interesting. If I feel like I’m doing the same thing again, I might make myself a bit uncomfortable by setting up a tiny challenge in some way. I think my sound will come on its own – I don’t want to force it, I don’t want to be like “my sound will be this type of synthesiser and I will put this sound in all of my songs”, I don’t want to do that. I want to find what feels right in the moment and do it. Then, maybe, a general sound texture or signature will come out of it. I just follow intuition – I guess that’s my creative process.
“Music does heal, and creativity in general”
You’ve just been signed by a Colombian label, right? How has that been?
Yeah I released an EP with Konn Recordings in December – my first EP ever. The response I have had from ‘El Viaje’ really exceeded all of my expectations. Making that EP was a big part of my life – not because of the outcome itself, but because of the process. It was a healing process that came at a weird stage of my life, and that project “saved” me in so many ways. Music does heal, and creativity in general – it is a crucial thing that I need in my life. It’s not just fun, or recognition, it’s something I genuinely think I need. I’ve been played a few times on radio now which is crazy – I never in my life thought that was going to happen, I just did this as a thing for me and for other friends and shit.
Do you think your music can have the same impact on other people – help them?
I can only hope so. I believe that music is entirely subjective. Personally, I put a lot of emotion into it and a lot of love – I hope that that love comes out the other way. I can’t be sure it’ll work that way, but the intention is all that matters and the intention is there. Being in the limelight has never been a primary aim, but I’m really happy that such a recognised radio show found my music. I’ve no idea how – that’s the beauty of the internet, isn’t it. I really hope that someone, like you said, felt that niceness from it and felt something good out of it. Making music is like languages or expression – when you talk to someone and you feel understood and connected to them, it’s the best feeling, and we’re always looking for that feeling. I don’t know if people are touched by my music, but it got put out there so they might and just that is incredible. That’s why I make music and I just can’t wait to keep making more.
“it’s like languages or expression when you talk to someone and you feel understood and connected to them, it’s the best feeling, and we’re always looking for that feeling”
Following on from your most recent single, do you have another EP coming out soon?
I’ve got a new EP that’s nearly ready – it is going to be a different texture to the last one: another side of me, which is connected to my previous release, but just has different colours I suppose but with the same intention as always. I always trust what I feel in the moment – being true to yourself when making art is my focus.
Joaquín Cornejo is currently working on 2 more EPs that should see the light of day sometime this year, so keep your eyes and ears peeled on his SoundCloud and Spotify pages.
Where can you catch him? Joaquín just played Crib, Birdy Pera in Istanbul, before a headline-ish slot at Tropical Pressure Festival in Cornwall, U.K., where you will find yours truly madly dancing to in effervescent euphoria. I encourage any and all of you who can to do exactly the same.