In Conversation with Kasra

After selling out shows at E1 and Printworks last year, Critical are back March 18 with an entirely new concept- Critical Sound presents Systematic. Imprint boss Kasra along with  members of the Critical family will be taking over London’s Village Underground for a night of continuous music. Systematic’s design will see the squad embark on a sonic journey through both solo and back to back sets which seamlessly blend throughout the night.

The event promises a full blown sensory experience with ‘high-grade underground sound and fresh visuals’ as the label take over a new space for the first time. And with Village Underground’s lower capacity than clubs that Critical Sound has recently frequented, the party is sure to feel uniquely intimate.

For fans of underground drum and bass this is a show not to be missed. In anticipation of the event we have a chat with Kasra about cultivating the concept for the Village Underground Show and also celebrating the successes and recovering from the hard work he and his team put in during last year’s 20th anniversary celebrations. 

How are you?

I’m trying to get loads of stuff done and organised as I’m about to go on a New Zealand tour. I’m really looking forward to going. It should be exciting. It’s my first ever solo headline run, so it should be cool. It will feel very different because, although it’ll be my fifth, all the others I’ve done have been with other people. Particularly label crew and because of that it’s like going with mates, basically. The last tour we did was just before Covid hit in January 2020. And it was just amazing. Going over with your friends for three weeks and travelling around. So this one will be different. But I’m still really looking forward to it.

Being alone means you’ll have some time for relaxing as well in between the nights. I’m slightly more tired this morning than usual. It feels really difficult to get up at this time of year when it’s grey outside…

Yeah. It’s very hard. My energy levels can feel quite low. I think it’s hard for a lot of us at the moment. And it’s got colder, so that makes it even tougher. It’s just that time of year, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I think you’re always kind of under this, maybe not pressure, but this feeling you’ve got to start the year strong. And it’s quite hard to do that, because it feels sometimes like everything is just exhausting,…

Yeah, I hope you’ve relaxed a bit. You and Critical had a big year last year as well celebrating the label’s 20 years.You guys were everywhere. Critical Printworks. New Critical remix album. Was it hard?

Yeah, it was actually. If I’m truly honest it was quite tough. Towards the end of the year it became a struggle to keep on top of everything. We’d spent a lot of the previous year working on stuff for the 20 years period and obviously, we were just coming out of the pandemic. And then we had the big focus of the Printworks show. And then albums and a lot of other projects going on. We’re a very small team for the amount of work we do. I’m not ashamed to say that towards the end of the year was really like, I need to stop – we all need some time off. 

Is that a picture of the Printworks show behind you?

Yeah, it was really, really special. It was a real career highlight. It was really important to me. To all of us. That show is such a pin in the ground of where we’re at as a label. But more importantly, we managed to sell out a venue of that size and that profile with a truly underground lineup. We didn’t have to book anyone, under the premise of them being a pure ticket seller –  and we stuck to our core values. It was that that made me more proud. 

So we had that and all the festival stuff and then we had other club shows around. For me personally, having a young child and coming to terms with the balance of life.  My wife has her own career and we have to support each other in our journeys . It’s not easy. That’s a lot of change plus trying to adjust while running at 100 miles an hour can feel quite overwhelming. I think we learned a lot from last year as well, and I started to listen a bit more to how I feel about stuff. Not necessarily taking it easier but just how I prioritise things and how I work.  I was always one of those people who would be like, right Monday morning, gotta be at my desk. Got to be doing stuff answering emails, phone calls…Now, I just found that that’s such an ineffective way of working. It was making me not very good at what I do. And also not a very good dad, or a partner or friend. I’m being a bit more fluid with how it is, ultimately if something’s really important, it has to be done, that’s fine, but a lot of the things we bog ourselves down with could wait or you can unlock an hour of your time and just get everything done at once. 

Is that what you do now? You’re more flexible about when you do things?

Yeah, I’d be a bit easier with myself maybe and on the people I work with. If something’s really important then you focus on that and you get it done but if something isn’t that pressing then it’s alright to remove that pressure. If we have to work to deadlines or we have to turn up to a show or if we have to get something into production or we have a record coming out on a certain day then yeah, you have a stricter timeline to work towards. But, I found that the whole grinding all the time thing actually isn’t necessarily the best way to work.

It was a lot last year in a really good way, but also I think you can’t maintain that level of activity. It’s quite interesting, as a label we had a real sort of a crescendo if you like, of stuff going on. It builds and builds but you can’t maintain that, even if you wanted to because there’s only so many things you can do. And I think people will probably get bored of you if you’re constantly trying to do things and you’re always in people’s faces. You also have to have time to regroup and do different things. 

This Village Underground show is a good example of that. We came off the back of doing printworks last year, and then we did E1, which is not as big as Printworks, but still a good size London venue. So then we started thinking about what we’re going to do this year. A lot of people who do shows like Printworks, myself included initially would be like “right we’ve sold 6,000 tickets. What are we gonna do next, let’s do a festival, let’s do something huge.” But it’s not really necessarily where we want to go with it. 

I really love being quite nomadic, moving around doing different venues. We’ve done a lot of venues in London already. Fabric was originally our home, then Studio 338, Corsica Studios. And as a venue I really love Village Underground, it’s a really cool place because it’s not huge, but it has a really high ceiling. It gives a feeling of being really big and spacious but it’s really quite intimate. You can do interesting things visually in there with the space too. 

It was really important to us to say “right we’ve got a really cool space that’s just a thousand people which is going to feel quite intimate. But how can we do something a bit different to everything we did before?” This kind of standard issue DJ show is great, but I wanted to try and make everyone playing feel involved and not to feel like this Criticals show. Printworks was very much a team effort. Mefjus was the headliner, but I’d like to think even he would agree the collective lineup sold the tickets. Everyone on the bill for the Village Underground show is coming from their own different places musically, but we wanted to show that. That’s what Critical is about. It’s coming from different angles, but essentially it works because we all have a similar vision- playing underground music we believe in. 

I’m also really into the idea that if you’re going to book new talent, particularly female new talent, why not give those artists as much of a platform as anyone else. Elijah from Butterz said something along the lines of “If you’re gonna book a new person, go back to back with them to give them the leg up, give them the platform.”  That really resonated with me. You  book someone and say “Yeah, this person is a great DJ” but they’ll be playing the opening slot a lot of the time. Sometimes that is unfortunately the way it has to be because there’s a lot of other complications when booking a lineup- agents and artist demands, the people who sell the tickets, all that kind of thing. But how can we get around that and make a really interesting special show and also make sure that everyone has their chance to shine? So that’s why we thought, let’s just make it a continuous night with everyone playing back to back together and solo sets. 

I’m very, very conscious we’re kind of on the more serious side of drum and bass but we wanted it to be fun and feel somewhat refreshed. I don’t know about you but I believe going out should be fun. I don’t ever think anyone should come to us for an education lesson. It’s not about that on a Friday night. I hope you’re gonna hear interesting new things that are going to excite you. But ultimately it’s like this should be a good time. 

You said you have b2bs and solo sets, how will this play out on the night is it a continual b2b?

The set times are actually planned out. We’ve got them on an animated flyer on social media and it shows how the lineup is going to roll out. So for example YAANO opens then plays b2b with EN:VY then EN:VY plays on his own then he plays b2b with Spectral and it goes on like that. It’s going to kick up some really interesting stuff because we’re going to have people like Calyx whose part of, shall we say the “older guard” next to people like Gyrofeild and Waeys and then myself and Enei kind of doing our take on the theme. So yeah, to me it feels like a really well balanced and exciting line up

It sounds great. Was the main reason then because you wanted to showcase everyone or more wanting to try something new?

It kind of evolved from us having this really interesting space that we’ve wanted to do a show at for a while, but the timing has never been right. We wanted to regroup for this year. It kind of feels a little bit for me like we’ve entered into this ’Critical 2.0’, like the next phase of the label. It’s like the past 20 years is done. I’m very conscious of the past. very proud of everything we’ve achieved and super proud of every record, every event, every artist, everything like that. But I’m not really one for looking back, I’m always thinking about what’s next. How do we evolve and keep moving forward as a label, that’s how I like to run things. 

We feel confident it’s going to be a bit special. The reaction has shown us that people are excited by the concept.  But yeah it was a combination of just having something a bit fresh and a bit different but also giving the artists a platform. We’ve always been a label that very much believes in that kind of squad mentality. We like to work with nice people, that’s something that’s really important for us. I take a lot of pride in the crowds we have at our shows and then also the energy that’s backstage. We always have a really nice time. Behind the decks and in the green room, our shows feel so good because everyone’s just really nice – any egos are always checked at the door.  And I think that brings a different energy to the show that hopefully will come across to the crowd. That old school thing of doubles, drawing tunes on people. It’s just a really fun thing to do. 

Interestingly it was quite a complicated concept in terms of proposing it to artists and agents. Originally, when we came up with it I thought nobody would agree to it. It’s a London show, you really play maybe three or four a year. I thought people would want to play on their own. The reaction straight away from everyone involved was yes 100%. Which was amazing and makes me look forward to the show even more.

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