Vinyl Creators — an Interview with Smokey
Keeping up with Simone Øster aka. Smokey is no joke. We spent a day with the DJ, radio host, mentor, teacher and student to get a feel for what it’s like to live life at 140.
Interview, text and photo: Markus Kilsgaard
During my conversation, over several hours and in multiple locations, with Simone Øster aka. Smokey, two sweeping narratives started to emerge in the back of my head.
The primary went like this: In 2006, Simone experienced a creative and spiritual awakening at a rave in an abandoned office building. This first close encounter with the mind altering potential of electronic music would crystallise an insight that had been growing in her since age 10 when she found herself being the odd one out for bringing her cd-collection to football practice - she wanted to live a life dedicated to and consumed by music. Fast forward a few years Simone, now under the artistic moniker Smokey, has joined the illustrious top tier ranks of DJing with a touring schedule as fast paced as the music she plays. But the relentless pressure of late nights and early flights wears her out and culls her obsession. Adamant on pursuing a life in music, Smokey reinvents her career to become a multifaceted mainstay of the electronic music scene of modern day Copenhagen.
The secondary, less considered one, was; That Simone works tirelessly to be the role model she longed for when starting out in music. That she’s dedicated to creating spaces and communities that foster the type of creative kinship that propelled her own passion and career forward. All the while mediating the intoxicating and healing power of music to the widest audience possible.
It’s a fool's errand to sum up a person's almost 20 year long artistic path in a neat narratorial arc. Especially for a person like Simone who’s dedicated to avoiding being pigeonholed as anything other than her true self. But as I sat down to write this piece I felt that the two narratives started to intertwine and form the top layer of a deeper, more complex script; one of energy and idealism running repeatedly up against the structural reality of the ‘nightlife industry’; one of growth and determination integrated with inwards enquiry and reflection; but foremost an unwavering and accelerating commitment to her creative calling.
As I waited outside Simone’s flat on the outskirts of Copenhagen on a crisp February morning with camera gear in tow I could hear the rolling congas of Pinch’s ‘Croydon House’. Simone had overheard the doorbell as she was preparing for a gig later that night at Copenhagen Contemporary, a fairly new museum in an old industrial estate. When the door opened she greeted me with a warm hello.
Croydon House is in many ways emblematic of both where she comes from musically but also where she’s going.
"I’ve always gravitated towards grimey, hard hitting, stank face music. But these days, I'm moving towards things that deliver more subtly. Things with a laid back aesthetic but powerful progression that sounds great on a big system. The stuff that carries weight if it’s mixed right and played right."
Filing a dank techno track full of sub-bass and spooky pads under ‘subtle’ makes sense for someone who cut her teeth playing raves at a time when the ripples of dubstep were still hitting the shores of Denmark. Equally formative and influential in her coming of age as a DJ were the years touring with Apeiron Crew, whose modus operandi was “chaotic and banging hard from start to finish.” Through their preferred b3b presence Simone, Emma and Sara (each of them with impressive solo careers in their own right as Smokey, Solid Blake and Mama Snake respectively) quickly rose to stardom and conquered most of western europe’s electronic music shrines with an unholy mix of music that sit firmly in the top right quadrant of the pleasure/pain matrix.
"Emma and I had most in common genre wise. But Sara and I would often meet on tempo, mixing fast breaky stuff with trance creating a sort of techno-ragga vibe."
Early on they had a thing for records and the embrace of digital aids such as Rekordbox only came later on. “Playing records definitely added a chaos factor to our sets. Quite often we would just slap a record on, pass over the headphones and say: good luck mixing out of this one.”
Even if the chaos trio don’t occur on lineups anymore they still shoot group-chat breeze every day. “Emma and Sara are huge sources of inspiration to me. Both on a human and artistic level but also intellectually and politically.”
The disregard for genres and tempos is something that stuck with Simone and to this day describing a Smokey set is like trying to lasso a whirlwind. Sure - there’s blacked out rumble, raw percussions and pull ups but the heft is always contrasted with gossamer thin melodies, sensitive pads and looney loops. A few weekends earlier she played next to Mala at the newly opened club Den Anden Side. “They hired in a few extra subs for that night”, she laughs.
Her musical sensibilities carry through, not only in her stage presence but also in person. There’s a relentless and determined side to her; emphasised body movements, direct eye contact, sentences rolling fluidly into one another, that flows next to a stream of restless, welcoming and inquisitive energy. Perhaps revealing of a person who’s had to claim the space she now occupies, while working tirelessly to open doors and opportunities for the young artists that follow in her wake.
"When I first started out going to raves, there were a lot of 10-15 years older gatekeepers who constantly asked me to name things, questioning my worth and why I was there. I clearly remember saying to myself; when I grow 30 I don’t wanna be like them. And I would like to think that I’ve held onto that, never being condescending towards any person who wants to learn."
When Simone is not DJing or hosting her weekly show on Danish National Radio, she mentors and teaches at the femme and gender minority DJ academy Future Female Sounds. Part ngo, part community and part booking agency, Future Female sounds was founded in 2017 to make DJ culture accessible to girls, women, and gender minorities globally. And while the ubiquity of “techno bro” lineups is diminishing there’s still a lot of work to be done. In their 2022 report on Representation & Discrimination In The Danish Music Industry, the award winning ngo Another Life reports how the already complex working conditions and insecure terms and conditions of employment in the music industry are still strongly biassed against gender and racial minorities. Amongst the key findings are that: a network is important for a career but not available to all and that the fear of discrimination leads minoritised people to opt-out of activities.
Simone’s work at Future Female Sounds is all about cultivating a community and place for young femme artists to learn and grow in a space that feels safe. “My foremost motivation is to give them the confidence to go out and take the stage as an individual or as part of a group.” Apart from technical workshops on beatmatching, EQing and mixing, the academy also teaches the students about the commercial realities of being a DJ. What once was counter culture is now a veritable industry and during the course the students also get exposure to the guts of the beast that some would call business techno.
Simone is someone who's found herself in the belly of that beast and subsequently spat out, lost for meaning. These days she doesn’t rely on DJing as her main source of income which allows her to be selective with what she shows up to and how she spends her energy. I wanted to ask her how she feels about propelling young talents into a career that she in some ways chose to walk away from.
"I try to give them awareness of the downsides and help them to get to know their boundaries, so they can make an educated decision about their own path. I also try to instil a sense of humbleness into them - it should always be about the music and not the attention. Cause if your motivation is fame and quick gratification you’re gonna wear out. Any twat can learn to play a CDJ, but the music, the constant search and broadening of horizons - that’s where the work lies."
When asked what she wishes for her students Simone answers: “Just that they go out and smash it”.
The relentless/warm energy comes through in full force as Simone quickly moves on to shout out past and present sources of inspiration: Frederik Birket Smith - “the best boss I ever had”, the music of Hessle Audio, Daniel Savi - “his tireless dedication and care for upcoming talents”. If i hadn’t changed the topic she could probably have gone on for a fair bit longer.
Restlessness and pursuit of personal discovery runs deep through Simone's life. She grew up on a small island off the coast of Aarhus. Her parents were, she says, “loving, supportive and accepting.” But despite her safe upbringing, Simone felt out of place. “At age 10 I clearly remember thinking that I was placed there by aliens”. From as early as she remembers she was attracted to art, especially the visual kind and spent whatever time was left after school and football practice on painting and sewing. However, it wasn’t until she moved away from the island, to attend high school in Aarhus, that the aforementioned rave experience mediated her creative calling.
"That night something changed inside my brain and from that point on I wasn’t interested in school anymore. I remember being completely obsessed, but not knowing where to get my hands on the music that was played at the raves, I would spend hours and hours at the library, scrolling myspace and the electronic music section, getting into breakcore and the depths of Aphex Twin, Autechre and Four Tet. This was also a time when everyone loved The Knife. electro house and new rave. But I felt that this was only a candy coloured surface of something much deeper that I wanted to get into."
From here on the pace picked up, and as soon as she could, Simone was on the move once again, this time to Copenhagen, where the potential for creative kinship was more profound. “Moving to Copenhagen was like coming home.” In this respect Simone’s arc fits solidly into the mould of the ‘country kid moves to the city and makes it big’ trope. But it’s been far from plain sailing and linear fairy tales for Simone. As the world ground to a halt during the pandemic and most people similar to her could retract to the comfort of sourdough and Netflix, Simone had a serious skirmish with cervical cancer.
During our conversation Simone makes only a few explicit points about this battle. All reference to the disease is in passing remarks and pragmatic views like; how she was lucky that she could “fix” the problem at a time when there wasn’t anything else going on, or through an almost proud showcase of her surgical scars. Being a person who’s too busy for cancer definitely fits the relentless onwards and upwards attitude that she possesses. However, on our drive to The National Radio Archive she gives clues that under the top layer of pragmatism there is a deeper undercurrent of processing going on. As a tangent to an exchange on gender roles in music, Simone shared; how after her treatment she’s been questioning her own womanhood and what’s left when biological determinants are “ripped up” and “stitched back together”. The following moments of silence underlined the profoundness of her words but probing deeper, while I was trying to navigate the morning traffic, felt insincere and inconsiderate at best. Our jam-packed schedule came in the way of returning to the topic but I walked away with a feeling that closure on that chapter in Simone’s life is still work in progress.
Our excursion to the deep troves of the National Radio Archive is no coincidence. A few months prior Simone had shared a story about how she used the digitisation facilities connected to the archive to dig out music for an afterparty special on her weekly show ‘Kollektivet’. Writing on behalf of an above-averagely record obsessed brand seemed like the perfect excuse to combine a profile of Simone with learning more about one of Europe’s largest and best kept vinyl collections.
Within minutes of checking in we find ourselves deep in the +700.000 item archive with one of its prized keepers as our personal tour guide. The mobile shelving made the facility a lot smaller than I thought it would be, but walking through the tall aisles, it was hard not to be awestruck over this collective cornerstone of Denmark’s musical history. Simone and her colleague have natural rapport and equal enthusiasm about the sonic treasures hidden here. Anecdotes about the archive, most of which I had to promise not to divulge, fly left, right and centre as Simone feverishly pulls out records from the shelves in search of golden-age dubstep and jungle records.
Today, broadcasting is computerised, but the archive still serves as a back catalogue that radio hosts can pull requests from. But perhaps more importantly the archive stands as a monument - a counterforce to accelerating digital entropy if you will. With so much music available digitally, even the more obscure kind, one might wonder why a climate controlled fire proofed vault is necessary. Simone and her colleague discuss the topic while I try to locate a ladder for a bird's eye camera angle. Unfortunately, I was too busy messing with camera settings to match the dimly lit archive to take thorough note, but “metadata”, “historic mediation” and “preservation” were highly occurring key words. Maybe this calls for an archive special in the near future?
Simone is well aware of the institutionalised gravitas of her public radio duties and her commitment to the task at hand shines through. She’ll spend whole days in the lead-in to a show preparing, omnivorously filling up digital shopping carts with tracks of all sorts. “I’m accelerating into greed.” she says.
Our time at the archive is up and after a quick lunchtime snack we head back to her flat to wrap things up. And while it feels like she’s enjoying chatting about herself, the restlessness is back. “I can’t wait to get back and dig music for tonight” she says, subconsciously and inadvertently underlining her core priority and obsession; that regardless of what she throws herself at next, music will always be at the centre of her tornadoing life.