[Q&A] Lenzman: The North Remembers
[Q&A] Lenzman: The North Remembers Photo by Frank Warmenhoven

A record label from Lenzman has been a long time coming. The well-regarded producer and DJ has an identifiable, almost retrospective approach to the liquid side of drum & bass, which makes it all the more appealing. On the scene for a good decade as a consistent musician, Lenzman is probably best known through his association with Metalheadz, particularly marked by his 2014 full-length artist album, Looking At The Stars.

A week or so ago, Lenzman—who is often mistaken for being English, and living in the UK, but who is, in fact, Dutch, and a resident of Amsterdam in the Netherlands—announced the launch of his label, The North Quarter. Named after the area where he grew up in his hometown of Leiden, The North Quarter’s first release is the All For You EP from Lenzman himself. Reliably soulful, emotional, and diverse, the EP has six new songs as well as Lenzman’s remix of Children of the Zeus featuring DRS’s “Still Standing,” plus instrumental bonus tracks and interludes that add up to 10 tracks total—a major way to come out of the gate for the newborn label.

Excited by the vision and promise that the label inspires, we decided to track down Lenzman between stops on a recent North American tour to discuss his focus on the future through the lens, so to speak, of the past.

The All For You EP is quite hefty for your first release.
The main reason I like the concept of an EP is I’ve been collecting a lot of records in album form. I went through a long period where I was just listening to MP3s, and I noticed I was skipping a lot through tracks. Listening to albums on vinyl, I won’t get up to change a track every 30 seconds, I will let the album play. That got me into long players more and made me want to write in that way as well. It gives you so much more freedom to write whatever you want. When you’ve got six tracks, if you wanted to, you could write three with no beats in them at all. I’m approaching it more in a conceptual way rather than what I think will sell better, although the product does have to be dope.

You’re featuring different strains of music on the EP.
I love drum & bass but I also love other genres of music. Having a bigger release rather than a single puts less pressure on me to write a dancefloor banger. I want to make music that I feel, music with some soul in it. With a bigger release, it allows you to tell a story and not necessarily be all about that big tune. My main fan base is a drum & bass audience—although I’d like to think that they’re open-minded about other styles of music—but in that respect, it makes sense that I start with drum & bass. But as long as it’s got a sound, I can get away with some soul and some hip-hop tracks, too. The Children of the Zeus “Still Standing” remix, for instance, musically it’s 100% what I’d like to do. It’s a full vocal track. It’s got real emotion. It’s got a real topic. It’s got real substance. It’s a real song without being pop-y but it could perhaps get played on the radio, even though it’s not made for a pop audience.

Why do you feel now is the right time for you to launch The North Quarter?
Anyone who becomes a DJ wants to share the music they love with people. I’ve always wanted to do a label. The reason I started it now, more than anything, is because I’ve just become a father and it has made me think about the future more. The label seems like a good step in that respect. In terms of profile, you need to be at a certain level as an artist for your label to have an impact. You can start a label at any time, but if you haven’t got enough of a reputation, there’s hardly any point in doing it.

Will you be releasing music from other artists?
Definitely. Since it’s my label, I thought I should launch it and take care of the first few releases. I want to get the label established by using the profile I’ve built over time and the sound I represent to grow the base of the label using my own fans. The label and I are synonymous for now. But there are a lot of artists I really rate who are struggling to put their music out there. I kept trying to convince labels to put their music out and I just thought, “If I had my own label, there wouldn’t even be any effort involved. I would just put it out if I liked it and believed in it.”

I got the confidence for that from the mixes I do a few times a year. They get a really good response. In a club environment, I can’t always play the way I want to because the energy sometimes gets lost. I’ve had to find a way to keep the energy there while still staying true to myself. Before I was a bit more insecure about doing what I do. I got worried about playing too soft and the crowd going to the bar. Then I thought to myself, “These people are booking me because of what I do, so I need to do that.” I like certain tracks and I want to represent them, but they are just too chilled out for a party. The first release on the label has one or two tracks that I would never play at a club but I still made them. I play tunes other people play but my track selection as a whole is unique to me and unique in drum & bass. That selection represents what I’ll be putting out on the label, which makes it unique as well.

You need to be at a certain level as an artist for your label to have an impact. You can start a label at any time, but if you haven’t got enough of a reputation, there’s hardly any point in doing it.

How will The North Quarter affect your relationship with Metalheadz?
Metalheadz are my family. They raised me in this business and Goldie is somewhat of a father figure. I will always show love to them and will continue releasing music with them. But at the same time, I’m spreading my wings and building my own thing.

You have a lot of physical product; not only vinyl but merchandise. That’s a lot to take on at the start of a label.
I’m a nostalgic person. Vinyl is part of it. If you’re going to do a label but the vinyl’s too expensive to do it, maybe the music’s not good enough. If the music’s good enough, it’s worth it.

The North Quarter logo and artwork don’t have a stereotypical drum & bass feel to them.
I have found that drum & bass designs have almost become a bit of a cliché. It’s always “future.” The future thing is played out. When I started listening to-drum & bass in ‘96, it was future. When Optical appeared, that was future. We’re 20 years down the line and people are still trying to sound like Optical back then. That’s not future. That’s retro. Drum & bass has been around for 25 years. It’s an established genre of music, and like all established genres of music—hip hop, house—it’s going around in circles, but we should be happy it stayed. I’m going for a vibe rather than trying to pretend I’m something really cutting edge.

I like the fact that you can tell a certain label by its design. Metalheadz in the ‘90s when they had Jon Black designing, those designs are so iconic, it’s a real style for the label. If I was going to use a designer or agency that a lot of other labels are already using, then how can I achieve the same thing standing out? I wanted to use someone that didn’t have any connection with drum & bass at all. I went for a design studio in Poland called Super Super.

Nostalgia is a big part of your aesthetic as an artist. How has that impacted your vision for The North Quarter?
The North Quarter is about music that was borne through some kind of struggle, pain, or heartache. That is the most beautiful music to me. Emotions run strong in it. It’s vulnerable and it’s real to people. It can touch and it can resonate. It’s like humans in that humans aren’t perfect. For example, the first Wu-Tang Clan album, it’s a classic. If you listen to the production values of it, it sounds terrible. It was made in RZA’s mum’s basement, but musically, it was brilliant. That’s where I’m coming from.

Nineties hip-hop was the first time I really was touched by music. It was a real passion for me. The first time you really get caught up at the start of music, that’s when it’s the most special. If you listen to a certain album now that was special to you then, it can instantly teleport you back to that time, those places, those situations. For me, ‘90s hip-hop does that. I’m trying to use vibes from that time and turn it into a modern thing fused with drum & bass.