Gramatik’s Universal Vision

Ever since Denis Jasarevic, who performs as Gramatik, was a young boy, he had a clear vision that music would shape his future.

As he grew up in a small coastal town in Slovenia music was a part of life that has led him to create and produce a sound that takes his love of hip hop to a different level with no end to the possibilities in sight.   

The New-York based producer has released numerous recordings since 2008 mixing his own recipe of hip hop with soul, jazz, blues, rock and whatever sound grabs his attention.

Gramatik is also a passionate proponent of digital rights – even naming one his albums #digitalfreedom – and free music, which he started early on by putting his own releases on Beatport and similar services up to releasing his most current album, The Age of Reason, as a BitTorrent Bundle Package.   

And amid it all he’s also started his own label, LowTemp, and launched two side projects, Grizmatik and Exmag.

Gramatik was on the road when he talked to Pollstar about the journey that has brought him from young budding musician to tour slots with Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, Glitch Mob and others as well as headlining around the world.

Photo: Courtesy Magnum PR

How did you originally get involved in creating and producing music?

I was first involved with the Hip Hop culture. I started out as an MC and began producing because I wanted to make beats for myself. That was when I was in like seventh grade. But I’ve been involved in music since the second grade when my parents had me taking piano classes. I played in a band in fourth grade with my friends who were all taking instrument classes. We played Beatles’ songs in a shitty, fourth-grade way. (laughs) Ever since I can remember I’ve been working one way or another in music.

When I got to eighth grade and my first year of high school, I started rapping and making beats. I wanted to make beats for myself and my friends so we could make a rap album. As I grew up I realized that Slovenia only has 2 million people and there was only about 300,000 that actively listened to music. And how many of them listened to hip hop? The math was adding up pretty quickly

Was Hip Hop pretty common in your area at the time?
When I started out there were already a bunch of hip hop artists in Slovenia who were getting recognition. On the coast where I’m from, two of my friends and I were the first rappers in that region of Slovenia and the first to release a rap record. I think our album that came out in 2006 is still one of the critically acclaimed Slovenian hip-hop albums.

Later on, as I realized I couldn’t really make a living from hip hop and I got more and more attracted to the production side of music instead of writing lyrics, I realized I had a knack for it. I just dove into it and as I grew up my appetite for music really grew and extended to all sorts of genres. I started experimenting and Gramatik came to be. The first Gramatik record came out late 2008. I was making beats non-stop and pretty much dropped out of high school.

That couldn’t have gone over too well with your parents.

Definitely not! There were like huge fights but I didn’t want to argue with them too much so I kept quiet. I knew this is what I was born for and it’s hard to explain something like that to your parents when you’re 16. I was lucky they didn’t go to any drastic measures to discipline me. They kind of let me be at one point and allowed me to prove to them I can actually make a living with this if I could only get a chance.

I saw the pattern in the Universe that there was going to be a day when I could actually defend it to them with facts and that’s exactly what happened. It was really awesome to predict my own future. I was really lucky to know what I wanted to do in life since I was 14. I’m definitely lucky to have a following for my weird cocktail of music.

Photo: Courtesy Magnum PR

How did electronic music come to your attention?

My hometown has one of the biggest rave clubs in Europe. At an early age I started to go to rave parties at that club and was seeing all the techno legends like Richie Hawtin, so that was my exposure to electronic music.

Luckily we had that club and the scene was really big because of it. It was a really great experience for me as a 16-year-old. The good thing about those times was they actually allowed us to go in the clubs — they didn’t check IDs. We were able to go there and party, experience the music and be inspired.

Where did your career go from there?

I released my first album, which was pretty much 20 raw hip-hop beats. At the time that I was making them I was thinking I could put this online and maybe some famous rapper will want to buy a beat from me. This wave of EDM that we actually created wasn’t there at the time.

When I put my beats on Beatport they were labeled as Chill Out because there was no hip-hop genre at the time on Beatport. So a lot of people started buying them and they climbed up the Chill Out chart.

I never thought that anyone would buy those beats to listen to them as songs. They seemed kind of boring to me. I discovered there’s a whole sea of people out there that actually want to listen to instrumental hip hop! They don’t want to listen to rap. They want to listen to the music behind rap and create their own ideas. Those people formed the scene – the new wave of EDM – that we are a part of right now. It was a weird situation that happened that I never could have predicted.

How long was Gramatik in existence before your first gig?

Well, Street Bangerz Vol. 1 came out in December of 2008 and it did really well on Beatport. My agent, Hunter Williams with CAA, spotted me on Beatport. Then he found me on MySpace and contacted me. He asked me if I had any representation for North America. I told him I didn’t have any representation anywhere. I’m just a kid from Slovenia making beats in my room and putting them up on Beatport. I’ve never played a show and wouldn’t even know how to.

Then he says, “I’ve got this dude Pretty Lights [aka Derek Vincent Smith] that’s about to go on his first tour in America and he’s doing the same thing that you are.” He showed me some videos of his shows and I’m like, “Oh, so he’s just going out there and playing beats. That’s pretty fucking cool.” I didn’t know that people would pay for a ticket to see that. That concept, in my mind, was brand new. So I asked Hunter, “You want to put me on tour with this guy?” and he said yes. Before I knew it, three months later I was on tour with Pretty Lights in the fall of 2009 and playing my first shows as Gramatik. I’d never been to the States and I flew in directly to Austin, Texas, and opened up for Pretty Lights that same night. It was pretty intimidating, to say the least.

How big an audience were you performing for?

It was at La Zona Rosa and it was 1,200 capacity. It was sold out. I was scared shitless. I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know how the crowd would react. I’m on the other side of the planet in America that I’ve never been to. There were all these things going through my head and it went really well. People were cheering. It was like an epiphany.

Was that when you first knew that your music was grabbing people’s attention?

That night was definitely when I realized everything that needs to happen if I wanted to be a part of this. Seeing the way the people were absorbing the music and being stoked about it was completely mesmerizing to me.   

How did your collaboration with Pretty Lights’ record label come about?

When we were on the second tour with Derek, I expressed I was unhappy with the way the digital label was handling my stuff.  They were just releasing my stuff on Beatport and not doing anything for it, really. I told him I wanted to release two projects on Pretty Lights Music and then try to do my own thing like he did. He was very understanding of my wishes and said he was totally down with [the plan]. I gave him Beatz & Pieces Vol. 1 and #digitalfreedom.

After that I started my own record label, LowTemp. I wanted to completely be my own boss and have control over my own artistry. Nobody tells me what to do whatsoever. I could also help out my friends that are producers by releasing them on my label and giving them access to my social networks to promote themselves. And the music is primarily free.

What experiences led you to become a champion for free music?

The reason I have a career today is because at one point I decided to stop selling my music and put it out primarily for free. I knew how I felt when I was a kid. If I wanted to buy every single album of all my favorite artists in a year I would go broke ten times over. I come from a working-class family and could only afford about two or three CDs a year. I pledged to myself at that time that if I ever make it big, I’m not going to make my fans become cyber-criminals because they can’t afford to buy music.

When it comes to my music, if they have the money to support it they will donate or buy it. That ideology has actually worked to my benefit. People started coming to my shows in great numbers, buying my merch and donating when they can afford it. They really appreciate the fact that I’m not extorting them for money. I believe music should be primarily free so fans can get inspired and do something in their lives.

And I’m not saying this motto can work for just anybody. Like when you have bands with eight people who have to pay thousands and thousands of dollars to record a record in a studio. That’s different. I’m a hip hop producer. I produce with a laptop on the road and I have my portable studio in my backpack so I can do it anywhere. It’s easier for me to give out my music for free.

Your latest album, Age of Reason, is being described as your “most ambitious album to date.” How does it differ from your previous work?

It’s the most extensive and complex combination of all the genres that I’ve been blending and fusing up until now. This is the most extreme version of that in terms of being musically mature and at the same time creating a cohesive and sometimes outrageous picture of everything I’ve produced to this day. I was able to work with a lot of great musicians and sample them and get the sound that I’ve been looking for since I started.

My music is all about collage sampling, whether I’m sampling a record from the ’30s or ’40s or sampling my friend who’s a great instrumentalist.

Photo: Facebook/Lights All Night

You’re also involved with Grizmatik and Exmag. What are those projects about?

Grizmatik was started when Grant [Kwiecinski aka Griz] started touring together. He was a young, up-and-coming artist releasing stuff on SoundCloud. Somebody brought him to my attention and I thought he was cool. I asked him to come on tour with me when I did the “Digital Freedom Tour” and that’s when we became friends and realized we shared the same ideas. It blew up into something bigger than we thought it would. We didn’t realize that people really liked supergroups. People go nuts! And since we share the same agent we started getting all these offers for shows. It was really cool to see something like that happen without a lot of effort. We’re hoping to work on our first EP in the next couple of months when we get some time from our respective careers.

As for Exmag, before I moved to New York I played with a guitarist who was a friend of mine back home. He decided to stay in Slovenia, so I needed a new guitarist. That’s when I met Eric [Mendelson] who’s played guitar with me in the past year and a half.

He and I and another friend started Exmag but it was [Mendelson’s] project. I was there pretty much as a mentor to teach the guys how to make music, how to produce and how to master, stuff like that. I don’t tour with them so I’m kind of like a fourth studio member of Exmag. But they’re getting to a point where they pretty much don’t need me anymore as they’ve become artists on their own. It’s really beautiful to see.

With everything you’ve accomplished so far, what’s the next step you’d like to take in Gramatik’s evolution?

I’m a huge cinematography and film-making buff and my best friend is also my art director and video producer, so we’ve been talking about making movies since we were kids. Where I envision Gramatik in the future is getting involved in making short movies, then eventually full-feature movies and tie it in [with the music]. It’s all about telling stories at the end of the day, so whatever album I’m making that year will be the soundtrack for whatever movie we’re making then. If I’m ever able to achieve that, then my life is done.

Photo: Paul A. Hebert / Invision / AP
The Wiltern, Los Angeles, Calif.

Upcoming dates for Gramatik:

April 16 – Columbus, Ohio, The Bluestone  
April 17 – Nashville, Tenn., Anthem
April 18 – St. Louis, Mo., The Pageant        
April 19 – Gunnison, Colo., Western State College Of Colorado   
April 20 – San Francisco, Calif., The Regency Ballroom (appearing with Lotus)   
April 25 – Frankfurt, Germany, Zoom         
April 26 – Bourges, France, Various Venues (Le Printemps de Bourges)   
April 28 – Brussels, Belgium, Ancienne Belgique    
April 30 – Ramonville, France, Le Bikini     
May 2 – Lyon, France, Transbordeur           
May 3 – Paris, France, Olympia        
May 5 – Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Rockhal          
May 6 – Amsterdam, Netherlands, Melkweg           
May 8 – London, United Kingdom, Koko   
May 15 – Kansas City, Mo., Arvest Bank Theatre At The Midland (Global Dub Festival­)
May 17 – Morrison, Colo., Red Rocks Amphitheatre                  
June 22 – Cluj Napoca, Romania, Banffy Castle (Electric Castle Festival) 
June 29 – Marmande, France, Parc Des Expositions (Garorock Festival)
Aug. 2 – Chicago, Ill., Grant Park (Lollapalooza­)    
Aug. 9 – Squamish, British Columbia, Logger Sports Grounds (Squamish Music Festival)

For more information please click here for Gramatik’s Facebook page.