Interview with Ivan Shopov (Cooh & Balkansky)

The Bulgarian musician, producer and fine artist Ivan Shopov has showcased his music and art in Europe, South America, USA, Asia, and Australia. His interest in electronic music led to different projects in the styles of techno, drum and bass, idm, jazz, and classical music. What distinguishes him is his ability to mix traditional Bulgarian folklore with electronic music and jazz, creating a bridge between the past and present. Behind him are three albums in collaboration with Theodosii Spassov and one with Avigeya. He is also a composer for contemporary dance and theatre productions, as well as a sound designer for short films and interactive installations. Shopov created the music for Derrida Dance, one of them winning the IKAR award in 2017. He holds a BA in Graphics and Print Making at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia and has 8 solo exhibitions in Bulgaria and abroad. He has over 120 vinyl records and 350 releases with his music…

Q: Hi Ivan, could you please introduce yourself?

A: My name is Ivan Shopov, I am from a small town in Bulgaria called Troyan, but currently I live in Sofia, and I’ve been making music for the last 20 years in different styles with different names. I started with music when I was 16 years old. I wanted to play an instrument in a metal band. My friends from my class already knew how to play guitar and drums, and we found a vocalist, but there was no bass guitar, so I took classes to learn bass guitar and that’s how I got involved in music. I was a big fan of metal, industrial and all sorts of hard music.

After that a friend of mine from another band showed me a computer and said, “You know, I can programme music on it and I was really interested to see how this happened, so we went to his house and he showed me ReBirth. That was also the first time I touched a computer mouse and a keyboard. I wanted to learn more, so I started visiting computer game clubs and paying to use a computer. I was creating music there until I learned how to programme patterns. So that was in my hometown of Troyan.

Q: So you started out in a band rather than as a deejay?

A: Yes, and that gave me a vision that I needed to create my own music for my sets. Ever since I started making music, my deejay sets are 99% my own production.

Q: When did you actually start getting into D’n’B?

A: When I moved to Sofia where I met Valery Sholevski under his name Ogonek. He showed me Fruity Loops and that’s how I got involved with Drum and Bass production using samples from Bulgarian folks songs and some weird stuff. That scene was really underground back in 2001 with about 50 or maybe 100 people coming to the parties. That’s something I really enjoyed doing and I still do, but at the same time I wanted to create different music, so that I wouldn’t get stuck to just one tempo and style. I have been creating Idm, Trip Hop, downtempo stuff, ambient, or just random beats with melodies. Sometimes, I didn’t know what style I was doing, I was just using the computer to create something. Even though I am mostly known for my D‘n’B, I more focused on the other stuff right now.

Q: Going back a bit, when you were growing up, music was still restricted under the Communist regime, how did that pan out for you?

A: My first experience with listening to music and enjoying it was when I was 7 or 8 and my father had records from the Beatles and some compilations from the Bulgarian National Radio with different pop and jazz songs. Then, at the beginning of the 90s, hard rock arrived in Bulgaria. My father had previously been listening to Deep Purple and stuff like that and it was through him that I discovered guitars and how music was created. But it was when my brother brought home tapes from Sepultura, Metallica, and Slayer all these bands that I completely got into metal which had until then been forbidden. When the first metal concert happened, I still remember my brother coming back from it, it was Sodom, the band, they played in Varna for the first time after the communist regime fell and there were so many people, like thousands and thousands. It was probably the biggest Sodom concert ever gave in their whole career. And that was really interesting for me to see how from a locked and forbidden music experience you could go to complete freedom and create whatever you wanted.

Q: You are also of a generation that came of age with computers. You’ve touched upon that already, but I was wondering whether you could go into detail about this?

A: Coming from guitar based music, computers, for me, were something completely new. It looked like a vast universe and I had zero knowledge on how to operate them, but, as I said, a friend told me how to use the mouse and twist a virtual knob on the monitor and that’s how I got into creating music. Later on, when the Internet started to appear, that was another very interesting territory for me. I met a friend the States and we started chatting online with ICQ and sending emails to each other and then we managed to do a few tracks together, and one of them got released by a UK label called Signal Recording in 2005. That was a big start for me because up until then I’d just been a nobody in the underground scene in Bulgaria. I then created my profile on mySpace and started getting booked to play in Australia, Belgium, and Germany, all through mySpace. Later on I started talking to the producers, and exchanging tracks and dubplates so that they could listen to my unsigned tracks and get them released on their labels. I think it is amazing that nowadays people are born with this entire option available to them whereas back in the 90s it just wasn’t there. In the early 2000s it was just shitty, very, very slow internet and I was uploading or downloading a 300kb file for ten minutes. Also, because the Internet was so slow I could only download five samples a day and in the space of a week I would have like 15 samples and then I have to make music from these 15 samples. This boosted my creativity to its extremes and I still like to limit myself that way. I tend to stay away from my huge library of sounds because it is important to know how to make a complete track from something very simple as opposed to having the most complex sound library and not being able to do anything with it.

For me, putting restrictions on my music instruments and the tools I am using is still very important, because I like to get more from less rather than do less from more. Also, when I travel I only take my laptop. I never buy these super laptops that can handle thousands of VSTs. I only get the most basic ones so that I can create music with a maximum of six or seven instruments and this is very important for me, to stay with this concept and don’t overdo my project. The less stuff you use the more you can actually control it, and actually say something with it. In the studio, it’s the same, I have tons of analogue gear and endless possibilities, but I would usually use just a few of them in a combination that I like and I would record them. And then, from the recorded audio I would chop it into a few audio tracks and create the music from there.

Q: You have been very prolific over the years, and it’s difficult to track all your different monikers. Could you guide me through your output?

A: Depending on the different music I create I have a different direction and name for it. The most well known is COOH and this is for my Drum‘n’Bass. Then I have Balkansky, this is where I mix Bulgarian folk with electronic music, but I am using it also to create idm, downtempo or dubstep tracks. I have two albums as Balkansky, which I did in collaboration with Ivo Christov and Theodosii Spassov, a very famous Bulgarian kaval flute player. Now we have a new project together with Theodosii Spassov, which first album is called InFusion and we mix more jazz and free electronica, inviting different guest musicians to play with us on stage and in the album. Then I have another project with Avigeya, three singers from Bulgaria who sing traditional folk, and I make electronic beats and arrangements with them. We released an album in March of 2017. In addition, I have a techno project under the name Ghost303 and before that I had another techno project under the name Drum Kid. And both are now getting signed on some labels. In future, though, I am now going to focus more and more on projects under my own name, Ivan Shopov, staying away from monikers and creating the music I really want to under my real name.

Q: What’s your studio setup like?

A: My studio setup has evolved through the years from being 100% digital, with just a sound card, a midi keyboard and a computer, to a more analogue sound. This didn’t happen until 2010 when I met Maxin Anokhin, also known as Limewax, who showed me some Moogerfooger pedals from Moog. Listening to the analogue sound made me invest more money into analogue gear. That’s now everybody’s obsession I guess, but I got to the point of dreaming of having a modular synthesiser at home so, when I went on tour to the States, I got one from Make Noise, after meeting Richard Devine in Atlanta. That was actually a turning point because I discovered that I could create musical pieces entirely from a modular system in a suitcase. For the first time I felt I was doing electronic music live and not just playing clips from Ableton or prerecorded material.
In the studio, apart from the synthesisers and the effects, Ableton Live is actually the main software I use. I also work as a tester for them, so I am trying some very exciting new features.

Q: What’s your favorite piece of gear?

A: My current favorite piece of gear are my monitor speakers and the amplifier that goes with them created by Etheraudio, the Bulgarian company that makes custom made speakers amplifiers, cables, and digital to audio converters. Everything created by them sounds incredibly clean and real compared to previous expensive soundcards and monitors I owned. The speakers are the most inspiring equipment in my studio as well because, anything I create on any other piece of gear and I hear it in its full potential, I fully understand its sonic value and I can create more sophisticated music and sounds.

Q: What’s the least appealing aspect of making music for you?

A: Something that I don’t like about making music, and that makes me frustrated is that I have to stay for hours and hours in front of my computer, and the heat generated by the gear can get too much and then my body says no. I try to stay healthy, but making electronic music isn’t always a healthy thing to do. So yes, that is what makes me frustrated and also having to carry extremely heavy gear to gigs. Over the years, this gets a bit annoying.

Q: How long does it take you to complete projects?

A: When I work on my own at my music, I tend to create everything really quick. I usually finish a track in two three hours, that’s how much I would like to spend on average. But of course there are projects that take months and years so… depending on how complicated is the work, or if it’s with a band or with more people involved, then things take longer, but the ideas, I squeeze them out super quick. I prefer to create 10-20 sketches in a short time, than start one track and take three months to finish it.

Q: How do you approach a live set?

A: In two ways. Sometimes, I just use my laptop and play backing tracks and then use hardware controllers to manipulate the sound, or use external effects to add reverb, delays or whatever effects are on there. At other times, I use my modular system and completely improvise on a patch that I would sometime start at home and develop to a certain point, or I would start from scratch and see what happens. Then it depends on the audience and the venue, and the vibe I get from there. When I am deejaying, I would just use two CDjays and a Pioneer mixer and go crazy with the faders and the build effects in the mixer. But for me, the most important on a live show is to have fun and to actually respond to the crowd.

Q: How important are visuals for you?

A: In the beginning, visuals were not that important for me, but over the years I experienced how much better they can make a live set. I am more and more focused on developing a live set, where the visuals are implemented inside the music and they correspond to the emotion that the music brings you in order to get more of an immersive experience.

One of the latest project I have presented at the Digital Arts Festival here in Sofia is Branches, together with the visual artist Lora Zhelyazkova. We’ve created a live show together that is built around my modular system and video that she feeds into Resolume and Touch Designer. The sounds I create are divided into sections and each of these sections is fed into her system, creating and moving different parts of the videos. So this is where I see my music going for the future, with every beat, every element of it corresponding to a visual element, then you get a more immersive experience.

Q: Art is also a large part of your practice.

A: Music came second for me, because when I was a kid I grew up in my mother’s artist studio. I was surrounded with paints and her artworks from an early age. I picked up on art when I was seven or eight and then I decided to study art and that’s what I did. My entire education is art based. I first studied ceramics and sculpture in my hometown, where I had my metal band. Then, when I moved to Sofia, I enrolled at the National Academy of Arts in the fine art department, where I studied printmaking. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s where I developed my graphic arts skills so, yes, art, drawing and creating artworks for my music has really been a part of my musical journey from the very beginning. I did tons of artwork for my vinyl records and CDs and I also do artwork for other people and I get commissions from labels and friends that want art from me. I really see music and art connected as one thing in my head.

Q: Alongside everything else, you also run a label. Could you tell me something about that?

A. I started my label ABCD as a place where I could release all of my projects under one roof, to showcase my art (A), my Balkansky project (B), my Cooh project (C) and Drum Kid (D). I am in charge of all different aspects, from the concept, to the design, via the mixing, and mastering of the music. Over time I started receiving really great demos from people around me and sometimes I also asked people to release for my label, so now I got a few other artists ABCD that I really like to support, or they like to support me with their music and everything on there is on a pay as much as you want basis, I really like this option on bandcamp, and that is how the label was born to deliver the music to the people and they can support if they like to, but lately I’ve started another label which is in collaboration with the creators of the music equipment I am using in my studio Etheraudio and with them we made Etheraudio Records, which is where I released my album with Avigeya. ABCD is going to stay for more experimental and music that is just there to listen.

Q: How do you find Sofia?

A: For me, Sofia has everything it needs to deliver a great music scene. Being part of it for the past 15 years has been a really amazing experience. I really like the people. It’s a small community and everyone that creates good music knows each other. It’s very easy to catch up with people and exchange ideas. The scene is just nice and chilled, very friendly and super easy to access. It also has the potential to welcome more and more interesting music and I am really happy to be here and support it in anyway possible and I am looking forward for more creative people to join it and to create a bigger Sofia for the arts and music.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.