We’re back with another Information Exchange, this time we go across the globe to chat with a veteran Psychedelic and Progressive Techno Producer/DJ.
Ben Rama is an electronic music producer from the east coast of Canada. Since his debut in 2010, Ben has been steadily garnering a reputation as a world-class producer, remixer and live act. His unique style of hypnotic progressive techno is a product of Ben’s interest in many genres including techno, progressive trance, and breakbeat – always delivered with the dance floor experience in mind, and with a focus on creating captivating sonic structures. He has released with notable labels such as Digital Structures, Zenon Records, Digital Diamonds, and Bassic Records to name a few, and has been invited to perform numerous times at Canada’s top festivals including Eclipse, Future Forest and Evolve. Ben is also the owner and music director of Techgnosis Records, a world-class purveyor of progressive and psychedelic techno since 2015.
In a world without music, those who can hear music in their heads will remain sane
What were the musical influences that eventually led you to this style of music?
I got into the underground psychedelic dance music scene in early 2002. I was actively playing a five-string bass guitar in a metal band. Like I said, it was 2002. So, you know, shitty Nu Metal. It was through a friend of a friend kind of thing. Somebody told me about a “party”. Fed me my first dose of psilocybin mushrooms and one Goa Trance party later, the rest is history. I was pretty hooked from that point on. I mean, it was me going to parties for a number of years until I knew production probably was in my future. I had such a connection with the scene and since I’ve been involved in music for most of my life, whether it was bass guitar in my early, and late teens. Even before that, I was classically trained as a concert pianist, reading sheet music, and things like that. So I made the transition. I basically sold all my metal gear, my amp and my guitar, and all that stuff, and I bought a computer and a little MIDI controller and got on Ableton Live. This was around 2006. I’ve moved too much. I first went to school for audio engineering in 2008.
Have you been based in Canada throughout?
Yeah, I have. I’m based out of the East Coast here and just outside of St. John, New Brunswick. I graduated from school up here on the East Coast and moved to Montreal for 3 years, and that’s really where I got started. You know, as a producer, I got my first gigs there. I moved back here 3 years later and before I knew it, I had a kid and a record label. It’s five years on from that. So here we are in 2020. The conception of the record label was pretty early on in 2015, and that’s exactly when little Xander was conceived. So, yeah I had two babies that that year.
Tell us about your journey to this style of music that you currently make?
Yeah, I had started with Goa Trance, like Melodic Goa Trance, and then Psytrance, but more minimal and modern styles like Psytrance and Progressive Trance. I was a big fan of early Antix, Ticon, Vibrasphere, early Digital Structures, Iboga records, and things like that. It was around the same time I started going to festivals again in 2005, 2006, 2007 that I started moving from Psytrance into more Progressive and Techno styles.
I can almost pinpoint the moments when it switched over for me. I’d say by 2008, I was a full time convert to this techno crossover style. Yeah, there was some really cool stuff happening back in the mid-2000s. There were a lot of trance producers who were doing kind of like a Progressive House / Techno crossover. That’s kind of the early birth of Progressive Crossover Techno. I think as you get older, things start to change. My music gets slower as I get older. But yeah, I like your slow groove music dude.
So tell us a little more about your workspace?
Sure. It’s a pretty modest setup. I basically have a small desk and a little desktop and MIDI controller and studio monitors. Perhaps I’ll demystify some of the aura surrounding what kind of a setup you need to release music. Because I’m telling you right now, you don’t need much. We sometimes get gear envy, it’s only natural. The only rented gear I have right now is my studio monitors, just because mine kind of just died from being too old and the rental was just a transitional thing from not having something to having a new pair that are mine to own. Now this pandemic stuff went down and I didn’t get a chance to buy them from the store. So I actually don’t even know if they’re charging my credit card for the rental right now, so at least I have something. I should have rented higher-end, haha. Yeah, it’s actually working out ok. I think five or six-inch cones and then I have a subwoofer, that’s still quite functional. So that helps out quite a bit.
What does a typical day look like now due to the current situation?
I work part-time, so I wasn’t out of the house that much. My job was a commissioned position so I could make okay money without having to be at work a whole lot. So, I mean, I was home mostly anyway. This isn’t a huge change for me. It’s just that now every second or third day that I’d have to go away for a few hours, I don’t.
So yeah, wake up coffee, smoke, toke rather. Then I catch up on any demo submissions, label emails, things like that. I usually try to just get a little bit of administrative stuff done in the morning. What’s difficult with working with so many Australian artists is the time difference. I have a very small window of opportunity to talk with my Australian label manager, Luke ‘Kinimal’ in the morning, where it’s before he goes to bed, and also at night when he’s waking up before I go to bed. So the morning is kind of my Australia catch-up time. I usually do label work until noon, then lunch with the family. I do try to get a bit of family time in, that’s important to me. I try to spend an hour or two just doing dedicated family stuff. I generally feel more creative in the evenings so I will have my music writing sessions closer to supper and after supper before the boys in bed. Yeah, I mean, having a four-year-old basically just fills the gaps between that. Some days that’s all I get. It’s just being a dad. But it varies.
Give us a little bit of background about Techgnosis, why and how did you start the label?
Well, the label started as one of those things that just happened. I was working as a label manager for the now-defunct Drumlore, which is the Ektoplasm techno sub-label. The guy who runs Ektoplasm, Alexander Synaptic is a good friend of mine and he’s the one who convinced me to first release music back in 2010. I released a four-track EP on Drumlore and he was pretty instrumental in helping myself and some others to step up in the scene. Before I knew it, I was helping him curate releases and wrangle artists. I found myself in kind of a de facto manager position. I started curating VA compilations and I was having a hard time coming up with a name, something that was fitting. It was Alexander Synaptic that suggested ‘Techgnosis’ and it just clicked just instantaneously. I loved it from the first second. So that that V.A. actually was released on Drumlore, the very tail end of 2014 and it features some names that you might recognize from our regular roster. I’m on there. Zentrix, Aerodromme, Dr. Strangefunk. But that basically became a very popular release for Drumlore. I was really excited to just start signing more releases and doubling down on this, helping Alexander run this sub-label.
However, there was another let’s say there was another cook in the kitchen at the time, somebody that had taken on a manager position previously but wasn’t really doing a lot. I guess I unofficially took over as a manager position. So it became a kind of like shared position. It just became a matter of artistic direction, of being different for the two parties. I had a vision for more crossover Progressive and Psychedelic Techno, and the other individual had more of a traditional approach to curating Techno music. We tried to iron everything out over the course of several weeks and it just didn’t happen. I felt obligated to the artists that I had made agreements with to fill those agreements. At a point I found myself asking “Should I start my own label for this?”, and God bless my wife, she said, “Without hesitation, you absolutely should.” I took that leap not knowing what kind of mess I was getting myself into or how much work it was going to be. I couldn’t possibly imagine how much work it is going to be, but I also could not imagine how rewarding it would be either. So I basically transitioned the releases that I had signed. So if you’ll look back in our catalog and see that the early releases were from artists like Flembaz and Trillingo.
How does it feel to know ‘Techgnosis’ has converted many, myself included, to this Psychedelic Techno crossover style?
I’m so happy to hear that man. We’re always trying to make converts, as they say. Alexander Synaptic was really helpful. He helped me with the artwork and distribution. I eventually figured out how to get everything out on all digital platforms and moved away from just free releases and into the commercial realm. I mean, I had no idea what I was doing back then. We had basically written or relaunched everything out of Techgnosis in the beginning of summer 2015. So for that first year and a bit, I mean, I barely knew what I was doing. But most days I still feel like that’s still the case. Haha.
If you could have produced any record in the world. Which one would it?
So, yeah, it’s a tough question for me to answer. Some of my favorite records or favorite albums are produced by such well-respected producers like Rick Rubin, Sylvia Massy and Rhys Fulber. Rhys Fulber is a Canadian producer, he’s part of a group called Front Line Assembly. That’s kind of like an industrial group from Western Canada. They had a thing going on in the 90s and he produced some really, really great albums such as Fear Factory Obsolete, which is this incredible thematic concept album about a cybernetic dystopian sci-fi future. Listening to it feels like you’re almost watching a movie. It’s heavy metal with incredible sampling and atmospheric production on it. But yeah maybe, to have my name associated with that and also have it sound as good as it would be great, but I wouldn’t want to alter history, or create an alternate timeline. So I guess I’m happy that I produced the first four-track album that I did. It took quite a bit of coaxing from my friends to get me to release that. I’m not sure how things would have turned out had they not done that. So I think we’ll stick with the current timeline on that and say ‘The Invisible Kingdom’.
Have you ever done anything other than music?
Music has been my passion. That’s just my driving force. Since I can remember, I’ve always had headphones on. I’ve always had a Walkman or a CD player or an MP3 player or a phone or something, and I’ve always been making music. My hobbies have cycled through many different things. I’m a gigantic comic book fan. I have an enormous comic book collection. I love cartoons. I love getting back into Lego with my four-year-old. I used to be a huge Lego fan back 30 years ago. Nothing made me happier than building Lego. I’m a fan of pro-wrestling, which is probably something not a lot of people know. I’m a fan of gardening. Yeah, I’m a fan of nature. I like going for walks out. I’m pretty surrounded by nature, and there’s a beautiful walking trail just 40 yards that way. I lead a pretty normal life outside of everything. My day job was selling cellphones at the mall. I mean, you don’t get much more normal than that. It’s just something to do to be a little bit social and have some money to pay bills and stuff. Let’s say Jack of all trades and King of none. But yeah, music’s my main thing, I don’t really have a second set of super skills or anything like that, I just hack my way through life just like everyone else.
What are your plans for the future of Techgnosis?
Actually, we’re undergoing a bit of restructuring right now, and we’re preparing for another big thing coming up with our five year anniversary right around now, this is the time five years ago this time was when I was hashing out plans to go live with the record label. I was talking with Amir about the logo and everything. So the next five years. Who knows? But we’re shooting big. There’s no reason why we couldn’t be around in another five years and celebrating a 10 year anniversary. Crossover Techno, Psychedelic, and Progressive Techno is getting more popular than ever. I hope to see that style be more prevalent and maybe make the switch from the Alternative Stage to the Main Stage at some of these very top tier festivals. I mean this is obviously a biased thing here. I think what it does is it allows us to bring the ‘psychedelic culture’ vibe, and ethos into, a musical structure that is not ‘Trance’. So that’s why a lot of our releases border on like almost Progressive House and Minimal Techno. It’s almost a non-genre, but it definitely borrows. A lot of us come from the Psytrance scene.
I personally was brought up on Psytrance in the scene. So when I made that switch to more Tech-Trance and Techno crossover stuff, it was naturally still very psychedelic music. It was at Psychedelic Trance festivals and parties where I was hearing this music anyway. The Psychedelic Trance scene was very key in creating that kind of environment where you had people that enjoyed the ‘techno structure’ of music but also wanted to bring in that vibe of psychedelic culture into that. So I think that’s where we’re striking that nice balance. I just wish Beatport had a genre label that would be a little bit more fitting than me having to choose between just ‘Techno’ and ‘Psy-Trance’ or ‘Progressive House’ because it often is none of those things. There are like 18 million varieties of house music, give me a ‘Psy-Tech’ or a ‘Prog-Tech’ label, I’ll be happy.
Tell us about your DJ set up?
Well technically, I only do “Live Sets”. I’ve DJ’d a couple of times, but basically my live set up is a laptop and a small audio interface and an AKAI 25, a two-octave keyboard with some knobs and some buttons. Super minimal. I’ve had larger setups and just, you know, airport travel and stuff. I am a huge proponent of the one bag solution, so if it can’t fit my gig bag, it doesn’t happen.
Does your approach to making music change because you play a live set?
Yeah, sometimes. I write things in a certain key or a certain vibe with the intent of fitting it in a set, you know, as moving from one piece to another. I don’t think my music is super ‘quick-listen’ friendly. I think some producers have a style that’s great for quick listens and some music is a little bit more conducive to deep listening and even more so in the context of set. I think my music makes more sense when it’s in the context of a set. So I’m always thinking about it in the context of a set. I mean, maybe that’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that’s just how I write. I think it’s best not to overthink it. Your ideas are smarter than you are. It’s something that I am famous for saying not adhering to. But I do try to remember that. You can overthink good ideas into oblivion.
Your favorite track from your own discography.
I have a hard time with this one. You know. I think it’s hard to say. Maybe musically, my favorite piece would be this kind of like Progressive House number that I did called ‘Intuition’ a number of years ago. It spawned a remix album as well. The melody I think is good. It’s almost like something that I didn’t write. It is actually one of those tracks that just happened almost in a couple of days. I wrote the main structure in a day. I was feeling very inspired and it just happened. I think the track I enjoy playing out the most would be my remix of Dr. Strangefunk & Zepha‘s ‘Broken Magic’. There’s a certain heaviness about that track that I think a lot of people may be overlooked. You know, it didn’t sell very well. But I tell you, whenever I play that track in a set dance floor goes crazy and I love it.
This is also a bit of a tricky one, what’s your favorite track from Techgnosis?
I don’t think I’m allowed to have a favorite track from Techgnosis. This is a tough one. I think I’m going to put my friend Amir over here. ‘Amesha Spenta’ is the track by Amir Daana and Brendan Lawless that was released on a VA couple years ago. It’s a beautiful, really long-form piece of melodic, progressive psychedelic music. It bears repeated listening. I suggest everybody go back and give that track a listen, I don’t know if it’s my favorite track, but right now it’s a bright sunny day. So I feel like that music would be appropriate right now. Maybe it was closer to the nighttime. I would say something a little bit darker. But right now, that’s my answer.
In a world without music…
“They who can hear the music in their heads will remain sane”. I sometimes look over at my four-year-old and I catch him bobbing his head and I ask him, you have music in your head? And he says, “Yep, just as good as the real thing”. I guess if we didn’t have music, as long as we could remember perhaps what that would be like, it would still be all right.
Have you ever been to India? What is your perception of the electronic music scene here?
No, I’ve never been across the Atlantic or Pacific or whatever. I’ve traveled as far as Costa Rica in 2015 when I went down there for a show. Yeah, I have had some kind of soft inquiries, people asking about my availability for India. I’m there when somebody pays for my flight to come out and play a show.
My perception is that it’s exciting and the like the new hot thing. Our style of music is exploding in India right now. There’s a lot of great talent coming out of India, definitely, yourself included. So I’m really excited to see what happens with India and Psychedelic Techno music. I would absolutely just love to come there on a small tour. EEEMUS actually did a couple of gigs there, it was cut short, unfortunately, because of this whole pandemic thing. He had a three gig mini-tour booked there and he said it was, obviously aside from the last show date being canceled, it was fantastic and he’d love to go back. So everything I’ve heard is great and I’d love to visit, yeah, someday, it’s on the grand list.
Who are some of the artists from India you’re familiar with?
I really like some of the stuff Jitter has been doing. We’ve worked with him on a remix in the past and his work for other labels has been exceptional, too. I really like his crossover Psychedelic Techno style. Breger is a fantastic producer as well. Some of the more techno leaning labels have some really great artists coming out of it. I believe Soupherb is based out of India, and Occultech. The Occultech sound is something I really enjoy. There’s a lot of stuff happening in India and I feel like I got to have my finger a little bit more on the pulse there. That’s something that we’re actually cognizant of moving forward. Excited to talk to you about that in the future.
3 of your favorite plugins or pieces of gear.
I’m tremendously boring with this one. I’m a very pragmatic guy. If I had to pick any plug-in and that includes your just basic utility stuff, I would pick a Multiband EQ, Auto Filter on Ableton, and Sylenth. I mean, just basic boring stuff that allows me to sculpt my sound the way that I want. So that’s what I use more than anything by a 100:1 ratio. Let’s just go with that. A good old boring EQ and Filters. It doesn’t have to be boring. It’s how you use it. My favorite software synthesizer by far would be Sylenth from Lennar Digital. It’s a fantastic plug-in. I’ve had many people ask me what kind of hardware I’m using to get a particular sound. The analog modeling is great. In fact, I use less stuff now than I used to, I used to use a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Now I just try to get the best sound I can out of fewer things. So for pads, bass, and stabs and things like that I just use Sylenth.
What will electronic music be like in the year 2050, according to you?
I very much think things are gonna be moving into the virtual realm, unquestioningly. I think virtual reality is going to be just a crucial, crucial aspect of our scene. I could elaborate on that quite a bit. I think that actually is a conversation for its own podcast, to be perfectly honest. But yeah, interconnectivity. You know, we’re moving into 5G, moving into unprecedented connectivity speeds. I’ve tried VR in the 90s when it was just dismal. I even have a low-end VR headset here at my house. I am just a full-tilt proponent and convert of the possibilities of the technology to bridge the gaps of what ultimately are location-based problems. Having a global scene whereby one must physically relocate in order to participate is an old model. The model of having to be in a physical space to enjoy a certain thing is no longer going to be the reality. I think we’ll be able to virtually enjoy events at festivals. Not to go into this too far, but even using the existing technology with camera arrays, if you’ve ever seen a high-end VR setup, you know, that’s possible. The problem would be bandwidth, and with technology moving the way it is, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue too much longer. So, I mean, I could see that being a reality by 2025, let alone 2050. So by 2050, I can’t even tell you. If anybody wants to get a glimpse of what I am suggesting by some of the stuff. I mean, even live performers are going to be in some sort of augmented reality / virtual reality setup. This is more of an experience, It’s called Electronauts. You’re just this guy that stands there with these virtual instruments in front of you and you wave your arms and you hit these things that make sounds. And it’s super cool and apparently is already a thing for virtual reality integration into Ableton using a P.C. and like an Oculus or a Vive or something like that. There’s already something out there for integration with VR and Digital Audio Workstations. So, I mean if you’ve seen an Imogen Heap‘ bodysuit, that’s all using, motion capture and gestures, you can do that sort of thing without having to be wired up. You can just use full-body tracking and hand tracking. You can do some really crazy stuff in VR so you can effectively have a virtual stack of custom sample launchers and instruments that look out of this world and exist in a virtual space but are now being played by a performer on stage. Like I said, I’m going down a rabbit hole here. But yeah, I know it’ll be exciting.