IT’S late-January 2019 and producer Konstantin Kersting has flown down to Melbourne for a Hottest 100 party with his friends in Edinburgh Gardens.
The beers are flowing and everyone’s having a good time, but as the count winds down to the pointy end, Konstantin is starting to wonder whether ‘Groceries’ – the hotly tipped track he co-wrote with precocious Brisbane talent Mallrat – is going to make it at all.
“It wasn’t actually that enjoyable to be honest,” he says down the phone from his Brisbane a few months later. “It got to number 20 and I was like, ‘The fuck’s going on? Are we actually going to go in? And my manager was like, ‘No, it’s fine, it’ll get in.’ And then it just kept on going, and it got past 10, and I was just like, ‘What is happening?’.”
“It’s always the artist’s song, and you should treat it as such.”
Konstantin grew up in Berlin, but the significance of a Hottest 100 placing song had been drilled into him from the day he arrived in Australia as a teenage exchange student in 2007. He picked Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast because he wanted to have a quintessentially Australian experience. That’s when Konstantin became Kon.
“Growing up in Berlin I didn’t really think there was much of a point going to Melbourne or Sydney,” he says. “I wanted to go somewhere where there was a beach, and where I could surf and do Australian things – or what I thought Australian things were.”
Kon soon fell in to a musical crowd, later forming psych-rock outfit The Belligerents with schoolmates Jimmy Griffin and Lewis Stephenson. He discovered an aptitude for audio production as a student at QUT and soon became an in-house engineer at Airlock, a studio in the Brisbane hinterlands owned by Powderfinger’s Ian Haug.
At Airlock he worked under mentor Yanto Browning, and at one stage shared a studio space with legendary Regurgitator producer Magoo (aka Lachlan Goold).
“I think of Magoo as the Dave Fridmann of Australia,” Kon says. “He just has a way with sounds that I can’t quite grasp.”
WHEN I reach Kon he’s hanging out with his rescue dog Merlin – a half Mini Fox Terrier, half Cockier Spaniel – at his Fortitude Valley home.
Soon they’ll take a quick 10-minute walk to his bunker-like studio space in a “posh” part of the Valley; time he’ll undoubtedly spend listening to the new Slum Sociable single he’s been working on.
“I’m a workaholic – I don’t really stop,” he says. “If I finish a mix, I’ll listen to that mix on my walk home, and when I get home I’ll probably listen to it again.”
It’s this almost obsessive commitment to the song that’s made Kon a go-to producer/engineer in Brisbane – and beyond. He worked on The Jungle Giants’ 2017 album Quiet Ferocity, which yielded four Hottest 100 tracks itself; Body Type’s debut self-titled EP; tracks by Emerson Snowe, WAAX, Ivey and XIRA; and Tia Gostelow’s Thick Skin, which won Album Of The Year at the 2019 Queensland Music Awards.
That body of work traverses a number of syles and genres, but if there’s one thing that defines a Kon Kersting production it’s the absence of a Kon Kersting sound.
“It’s always the artist’s song, and you should treat it as such,” he explains.
Is it important for you to have two separate spaces? I know a lot of producers work out of home.
Yeah, it is kind of important actually. I used to work from home … and if you have a studio at home it’s really hard to stop yourself from just going and tweaking the mix. It was really hard for me to separate that. So now it’s kind of nice when I get home and I’m actually just home. I’m a little bit more present in my personal life, which I think I wasn’t really when I was working from home. It’s been really good having a space to just work out of.
When you’re so immersed in a song, is it hard sometimes to have perspective on what you’re hearing?
Sometimes it’s hard, but I think that just comes with doing it for a while. If you lose perspective at some point in the day, it’s hard to get it back. Most of the time it’s just not listening to the song for a couple minutes and then listening back again. It’s really easy to get down on the mix or the production and go, “What the fuck am I doing?” And then you just kind of walk away from it for 10 minutes and you come back and you’re like, “Oh, this is actually pretty good.”
What’s the longest stint you’ve spent working on a song?
Oh, man. On the Belligerents record [Science Fiction] … I think with one song we went up to 16 revisions, and I think we got the song mastered like four times. It was like, “Is the bass right?” You know, “I don’t know man. Is the bass too loud in verse two?” Just shit that nobody cares about. Not one person would’ve listened to the song and gone, “That bass is too loud.” I guess it’s just trying to get the feeling of the song right. If something like that bugs me when I’m listening to it, then I have to change it, otherwise it’s gonna haunt me for the rest of my life.
Do you bring that into the projects you do with other people? That philosophy that you have to be completely happy with it before it goes out?
Yeah, I try to. But generally if I’m working on someone else’s project, I want to make sure that they’re happy first and foremost. It’s not my music, it’s not my project, it’s not my creative output. I’m just helping people realise it. So a lot of the time in that scenario it’s much easier to compromise, especially if the person has a really strong vision for the project…
I think it’s a particularly modern problem with production these days. You just have really limitless options when it comes to plug-ins and ways of shaping sound, sometimes it’s really hard to get out of your head.
Totally. Back in the day it would take hours to do a revision on an analog board, so you’d only do a revision if there was something seriously wrong with the mix. Whereas now, you can just open up a song and have a revision in five minutes. That’s why I always like getting people to come into a mixing session, or just being as involved as possible. Because if you feel like you’re part of the mixing process, and if you’re in the room and the vibe is good, then chances are there won’t be a tonne of revisions. Whereas if you do it remotely and you’re sending things off, you just never know.
Describe your studio space.
The studio space is like a bunker almost; it’s underground, like the lowest level of this shared building. There’s a law firm and a bunch of other businesses. It’s two rooms. One room with my speakers and a bunch of toys and synths and that sort of stuff. And then I’ve got a [vocal] booth. It’s a really nice vibe. I feel like the best possible thing is for places not to feel clinical and not feel like a hospital when you walk in. You feel like you can relax and just lie down on the couch and chill out. I dunno. I have an Xbox in there for people that get bored. I just want it to feel almost like home, in a way, for people when they come in.
I guess having a dog in the studio helps as well.
Yeah, it’s awesome. People love him. And he loves the attention, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
Is it easy to lose track of time in that bunker-y sort of space?
Yeah, definitely. Sometimes you walk out and you’re like, “Oh, fuck it’s dark.” You’ve forgotten that it’s nighttime. Sometimes I wish I had some sunlight, but it’s actually kind of good to not have the sunlight because if you’re working on a real dance track, you can just turn off the lights and it feels like you’re in a club. So, yeah, I think it’s good to not have the lights sometimes, to be isolated. And all the doors are fully sealed, so you can’t hear a thing from outside. It feels like a pretty safe space to create and do whatever you want…
Few people have really shaped the sound of Brisbane in the ’90s like Magoo. What did you learn from him in the year you shared a space with him?
Well, it’s funny because I didn’t grow up in Australia. I grew up in Berlin. I came here in 2007 as an exchange student, and then ended up staying because I really loved it. I didn’t really know much about Australian music or Brisbane music as such. Then over time I started listening to stuff and then fell in love with ! (‘The Song Formerly Known As’) and that sort of stuff. I do have a lot of respect for Magoo, but I guess it’s a different thing, because it’s not ingrained at birth.
The same thing happened when I first started working at Airlock Studios, which is the studio that I did most of my tracking out of for bands. It’s owned by Ian [Haug] from Powderfinger, and when I first started working for him, I just didn’t know who Powderfinger were, I never heard of them, so, he was just a regular super nice dude. And then I was like, “Maybe I should look up this Powderfinger band.” I watched a live video of them and was like, “What the fuck? These guys are huge.” [Laughs]
Yeah, I thought it would be part of the Brisbane welcome pack when you came over.
Yeah, you just get handed a little brochure with a Powderfinger song. [Laughs] So I guess I’ve had a slightly different relationship with their music, but I do now have a huge appreciation for it … I love Powderfinger songs and I love all the stuff that Magoo used to do … He sometimes does stuff and I’m like, “How the fuck did you get that sound?”
I mean, when you listen to [Regurgitator’s] Unit again now, it seems inconceivable that they made that record on the primitive early digital equipment that was around back then.
I know, it’s fucking crazy. And I’m pretty sure they made it in some converted warehouse space in the Valley [The Dirty Room], just around the corner from my studio. But listening to ‘[The] Song Formerly Known As’, it’s such an awesome sounding recording that for me it’s not necessarily a “Brisbane” sound. It sounds very international to me.
Growing up in Berlin, how did you get into music, and then at what point did you get into production?
I always played music. When I was four there was a kid in my class, Eric, who had been playing violin … So I sort of conned my parents into getting me a violin, and started playing it when I was like five. I did that until whenever it became violently uncool to play the violin, I think maybe 13 or 14 or something … Then I started getting into more band music, stuff like Franz Ferdinand and The Hives, which was really big in Europe at the time. So I started getting into that and playing bass. Just being in Berlin I also got into techno pretty early on.
When I was 16, I came over here [Brisbane] as an exchange student and just kinda lost music for a couple years, because I was mostly going to the beach and doing those kind of things. But when I finished school, I figured out that music was really the only thing that I was kind of good at. So I auditioned to go to uni [Bachelor Of Fine Arts at QUT Brisbane] and got in. One of the subjects was audio production, and so I kind of fell into it.
It was one of those things where it was the first class and it was eye-opening. I was like, “Holy shit. This is what I want to do, for the rest of my life.” And then, became obsessed with it. Through my uni course, Yanto was one of the lecturers there, and he was like, “Look, I’m getting really busy, so I need an assistant. Would you do it?” And I was like, “Absolutely.”
And so I worked for him for a year or something like that, and then got taken on as a second in-house engineer at Airlock Studios. I started doing that and just freelancing heaps; hustling, trying to record as many bands as possible. And that’s how I got my start, recording bands and being an engineer-producer, rather than a bedroom-producer kind of thing.
Was your production and engineering work at Airlock happening in parallel to starting The Belligerents?
Yeah, pretty much. When we formed in 2009 I wasn’t doing any production stuff. Then I started uni in 2010, and I got the job at Airlock at the end of 2010. So yeah it all happened around the same time. I just sort of fell into it and started recording really shitty demos in Belligerents and kept on doing that until I was able to convince them I was able to actually do good recordings myself, which took a couple years.
What are some of the advantages of working out of Brisbane? In some ways you’ve become a go-to producer there for a lot of young bands that are just starting out, and some more established artists as well.
I really like the community aspect here … I feel like most people know each other and it’s never really felt to me like there’s a huge sense of competition between everyone else. It just feels like everybody’s doing their thing and everybody helps each other out. Everybody plays on each other’s records and tours with each other. It just feels like a big sense of community, whereas in Sydney and Melbourne does a lot of the time feel more competitive or more isolated…
There seems to be a lot more cross pollination happening between various scenes in Brisbane.
Yeah, definitely. You’re exactly right. It’s just because there’s only like four venues, so you’re bound to bump into people that are from a different scene, just based on the fact that there are only those limited amount of spaces. You don’t just have a venue for, I dunno, thrash metal somewhere. [Laughs]
I wanna talk about your work with Mallrat. Having a song [‘Groceries’] in the Top 10 Hottest 100 is probably a life-long dream for a lot of young Australians. Obviously you didn’t grow up with the Hottest 100, but it still must’ve been pretty amazing for that to happen.
I listened to it from the first year that I came here, So it’s definitely always been a dream. And then actually being in the Hottest 100 was just – you know, it almost seems like an unachievable dream, really.
The year before we had a song [‘Better’] that came in at 46, and that was incredible. And then a few songs I helped produce for the Jungle Giants came in so that was just mind-blowing … The day [‘Groceries’ came in at #7 in the Hottest 100] wasn’t actually that enjoyable to be honest. Afterwards was great, but for a while there I didn’t think it was gonna make it in … But it was super super exciting, and it’s just amazing to see Grace do so well. She’s by far one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with and I’m so stoked to be along for the ride. It’s just amazing that she didn’t have any music out two years ago. So for her to be doing such big things is incredible to see.
What’s the story behind ‘Groceries’?
I had this little guitar lick that I thought Grace might like … and then we started building the song. I reckon we had the song written, produced, and recorded in five hours, maybe. It was super quick, super natural. And then I remember getting a text from Grace saying, “Hey, this is getting mixed in two weeks. Can you send over the stems?” And I was like, “What? This is still just a demo.” … She just has this thing were she knows exactly what she wants in the best way possible. Some artists think they know what they want, and then sometimes it isn’t quite right, but Grace just has this thing where she just knows. She was like, “Nope, it’s perfect.”
I think ‘Groceries’ and ‘Better’ strike that balance between sounding organic and home-recorded, but also being very clearly a studio recording as well. You’ve worked across so many different artists, but if anything defines your aesthetic, I feel like it’s bridging those two worlds, maybe?
Yeah, I love stuff that sounds slightly shitty. [Laughs] I watched this interview the other day with Philippe Zdar, who did Wolfgang Amadeus, Phoenix, and did some stuff for The Rapture, and he was like, “You gotta mix up shitty stuff with the good-sounding stuff, otherwise you just end up with a wall of nice-sounding stuff and it doesn’t sound human anymore.” So I think that’s where I come from as well. Just whatever feels good. If that’s a shitty $50 acoustic guitar and it feels good, over a $2000 acoustic guitar, then that’s right … I think sometimes striving for perfection, or striving to just make things sound pretty or nice, is not always the right thing to do.
What producers did you look up to growing up and I guess now as well?
A huge one has definitely always been
I wanted to get your thoughts on Tia Gostelow’s Thick Skin. It’s maybe a record that’s not so well-known outside of Brisbane, but it’s a great one and I wanted to hear about your involvement with that.
We made the album over two years. She was still in [high] school the majority of it, so she couldn’t come down for extended periods. We ended up doing it in four- or five-day blocks. She switched bands after the first two songs and got the guys from Ivey to play with her. It was just a real learning process for both of us. She’s such a talented artist, and I’m really grateful to be involved with that.
It’s amazing to me, and maybe this did happen in the past, but it feels like there are so many teenage artists coming out at the moment that are just completely fully formed – Lorde, Billie Eilish, Mallrat, Tia, Kian and Ruel.
Yeah, it makes me feel like a real piece of shit. [Laughs] It’s like, where did they come from, you know? I was talking about Billie Eilish the other day … Even just her aesthetic and the way she presents herself, her self assurance, at 16 that’s just incredible. And the same thing goes for Grace [Mallrat]. When I first met Grace she was just 18. She had only started writing songs a year-and-a-half before that. I was like, “How? Where did she get this from?” I think the future is definitely in safe hands.
I just wanted to find out how you perceive the role of a producer in 2019. It’s a really misunderstood area of the music industry, if you’re not in it. And it’s evolved, obviously, since the ’70s and ’60s, so I just wanted to get your take.
I think it’s misunderstood by not just other people, but also by a lot of producers. I think as a producer you’re there to help an artist shape their artistic vision. It’s never your song. I think what lots of producers do wrong is take ownership over stuff. They go, “Alright, this is my song.” It’s not your song, it never has been, it never will be. It’s always the artist’s song, and you should treat it as such, and you should get the best result out of the song for the artist.
And as a producer, that means that you should do whatever that means in that sense. So if you’re in a session and artist comes to you with a demo that sounds amazing – and there are amazing sounds in the demo – you use the sounds from the demo. You don’t dismiss them just to put your stamp on it, and re-record everything. It might mean that it comes out worse…
I think the best thing in production now is that it has become so much easier for people to make demos and to make good-sounding demos. [It allows artists] to get a grasp of what it is they want to sound like before they go into a recording studio, which I think helps so much. Because if I’m getting a demo now and it sounds pretty good, then I already know, “Okay, this is the sound they’re going for.” Whereas back in the day, you’d come in with an acoustic guitar playing a song – you can take that song anywhere.
The other day I saw an acoustic version of ‘Take On Me’. It’s the most heart-breaking song ever. You listen to it and you’re like, “Holy shit, I’ve never listened to those lyrics.” And you listen to the recorded version and you’re like, “What happened?” I think back in the day, there was probably more chance of that happening, whereas now artists have a better idea of where they want to go with their sounds.
I think if you look across the songs you’ve worked on – for Jungle Giants, Emerson Snowe, Body Type, Slum Sociable, Tia, Mallrat – it’s not a Kon sound, it’s the artist’s own voice. I think you can really hear that shine through more than, as you said, putting your stamp on something that’s not entirely yours.
I think that’s amazing … If I’m working with and for an artist, then I want them to sound like themselves, rather than sound like me.
Is there a sound or a defining production trend that you can see taking over this year at all?
I think the thing about art is that it’s almost not coming in waves anymore. There’s not a certain sound for certain eras – it’s just like everything is happening at the same time. So like grunge and pop-punk and trap and everything are heavily co-existing now, so I don’t know if there’s a defining production trend that’s going to dominate this year.
Is that reflective of the way that you listen to music?
Yeah, actually, to be honest. I do have my favourite records that I always go back to and I do find I listen to probably more stuff on the poppier, alternative side of things. But then every once in a while, if there’s a really crazy trap song that comes out, I’ll love that as well. I think it’s kind of the same for everyone.