Photo: Courtesy Of The Artist
BLOND:ISH On Finding Real Community On Twitch, Staying Present & Remixing Foreigner & Fela Kuti
Vive-Ann Bakos, a.k.a. BLOND:ISH, is a vibrant being who creates joyful soundscapes and spaces for all to dance and play in. The Canada-born, Los Angeles-based DJ/producer has been a global force in the underground house music scene for the past decade-plus, which is fitting for someone whose sets take you on a journey with rhythms from Colombia, Nigeria, Berlin and beyond. While she's played major clubs and festivals around the world, including all over Tulum, Mexico, Miami, Ibiza, Spain and at Coachella 2019, it's perhaps her Burning Man sunrise sets for which she's most beloved.
Now, with the global shutdown of 2020, Bakos has brought her sunshine personality, love of collaboration and joyful music to the world via Twitch with AbracadabraTV. Every week, fellow artists and dance music lovers gather virtually for the lively music from resident and rotating artists on "Magic Saturdaze," as well as yoga, meditation and music during "Self Love Sundays."
Collaboration and connection are at the core of her ethos. Her label, Abracadabra Records, launched in 2018, is another expansion of the BLOND:ISH universe. 2020 releases on Abracadabra have included the Troublemakers Vol. 1 compilation EP and two-track EPs from Canada's Gab Rhome, Paris duo and AbraTV regulars Chambord, Greece's DSF and others. Look out for a new single from the label maestro herself on Dec. 11: a mystical house collab with Rowee called "Garden Of 3Den."
And with Bye Bye Plastic, also created in 2018, Bakos is paving the path for a more sustainable global community with plastic-free, environmentally friendly guidelines for dance music events and festivals.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Bakos to chat about her latest and upcoming music, finding community online, sustainability, collaboration and more.
I'm a Libra, too. I'm sure you know, Libras are known for being social, diplomatic, creative and other fabulous things. Do you identify with these qualities? And how do you feel being a Libra influences your creativity in your art and your music?
I didn't know that Libras are creative. My girlfriend's looking at me like, "You knew that." [Laughs.] But no, I just do my thing, you know what I mean? I didn't realize that it was potentially a Libra thing. Today, I was walking on the streets, I'm just really inspired by my surroundings. I was walking around New York and [there are] so many inspirational quotes and stuff everywhere. And I'm just so inspired by all that. I could be in Egypt, walking into a hotel and the door's creaking, and I get inspired by that sound and I'll record it. So it's really random for me. I didn't know it had to do with Libras.
So, you're sort of constantly amused, entertained and inspired by the world around you?
Yeah. I was hanging out with a lot of kids during quarantine. And I was making songs about plastic and poop and stuff. It really depends who I'm around.
Earlier this year, you officially released your fun remix of Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is," the only remix they've ever approved. Can you talk about the journey behind the remix?
It was a long journey. Every year at Burning Man, I try to make a special edit for those sunrise moments. And I like it to encapsulate that feeling of being completely free—and the sunrise—in the middle of the desert with your best friends. It's just the best moment ever that exists, so I like to make an edit for that moment. Somehow, Foreigner came on and it's a super cheesy track. For some reason, I thought it would be good for Burning Man because it would encapsulate that moment. I thought it was risky because it was so cheesy, but then I realized, "It's OK, let's take that risk." And I made the edit because it was really fun to play with it and to replay the basslines and stuff.
When I played it, it was one of the last tracks at the Robot Heart set and, literally, hundreds of people took videos. And I realized after I played it that, "Wow, this is actually a track that people really connect with. And it brings back people to so many different memories." So I was like, "I want to release this. How can we do it?"
We tried so many different routes. I got a lot of nos: "No, they're not going to release it." It's not even [from] Foreigner—I was even asking my friends, "Who knows Foreigner?" And I had a bunch of friends who knew that was someone's dad or someone. So we got connected with them and they said, "Yeah, we would love to release it."
But at the end of the day, they don't own it, so we had to get the publisher to release it. And sometimes these are just people sitting behind a desk. They don't really understand. It was an edit, right, it wasn't a complete super remix. And I think some of those A&Rs, they need some EDM remix or something to make it valid. I don't take no for an answer; I just try to find another way. I think that's great advice for people, is if you hear no, just find a different way, potentially. And yeah, finally we got to the right person and we got a yes, and we got it released officially. It took a year and a half.
What's one of your other favorite edits that you've done for Burning Man over the years?
What did I do? I don't even remember. I'd have to check my computer and check my tracks. My girlfriend's like, "Do you need help?" My brain doesn't work like that. I'm so focused on the present or the future; whatever happened in the past is passé.
What are some of the ways that help you stay present or grounded? How has being present in the moment become so natural for you?
Morning rituals, for sure. Morning meditation to start off the day. It's best, when you wake up, to stay away from those distractions as much as possible. So stay away from your phone and laptop. I mean, it's really obvious advice, but it grounds you for the day. It sets up your day in the right direction.
I try to do my morning rituals as much as possible. I try to do some yoga, stretching or Pilates in the morning. I would love to get more into Qigong; right now, that's calling me. I've practiced it, but I don't have it in my daily practice. You know when you just get those downloads? I got that download, I just haven't pressed play yet. And literally, honestly, I try to stay present. I turn off all my notifications and all that stuff. I don't even use Facebook. Have you seen The Social Dilemma?
I still need to watch it, but I've heard good things.
Yeah. Watch Social Dilemma and My Octopus Teacher. I mean, those are two totally different documentaries, but very important for understanding the idea of presence. So even just walking around New York—when I'm walking on the street, I am just listening to the sounds and observing people. And that's also presence, but in a different way. So simple things like that, just being aware.
That's so true. And you're right, it is technically simple, but I think we're so used to being on our phones.
Yeah, for sure. So the whole goal is to get more in your heart, into where your second brain lives, your intuition, which is near your solar plexus. And right now, as humans, we're so in our heads, which is just really top layer, where we're constantly distracted. And that's the furthest away from our true essence. So it's about turning those things off so we can get deeper into ourselves.
You've remixed a lot of great tracks and a lot of really different stuff—Fela Kuti, Black Coffee and Kaskade with Sabrina Claudio, to name a few. How do you typically approach a remix? And what do you feel is the BLOND:ISH touch?
[Laughs.] Honestly, if I like the track, [I'll remix it]. Fela Kuti is such an inspirational character in so many ways. The BPM was so hard to work with on that track, but I was like, "F*** it," because it has such a positive message and he's such an incredible human being that I was inspired by that. And also the whole idea of Africa and the drums; that inspired me.
And then for the Sabrina Claudio remix, they were like, "Oh, they want to release it in two weeks. Can you do a remix in a few days?" And this was at the beginning of quarantine, when there were no clubs, nothing. I was just at home quarantining. And I thought, "The only place you can really listen to music is at home and in your car." I was inspired by the fact that people like to escape from their house and go take a joyride in their cars, so I wanted to make a remix that sounded good in a car. Also, it's that kind of thinking, what's relevant to me in that moment.
I'm working on a remix right now for Christmas. Universal's doing some sort of Christmas album, so I'm remixing an old Temptations track. I remember the Temptations because my parents used to listen to them, and I'm inspired by those really nice basslines they had. I was listening to music all over the house, so I'll make it sound like something you'd like to listen to in your home.
I love that. BLOND:ISH beyond Burning Man, beyond the club.
That's great. Actually, that's a good tagline. I like it.
What's your favorite part about collaborating with other artists?
My favorite part of collaborating is the unknown, where it's going to go. It's like at Burning Man. The reason why Burning Man is so special is because everyone is coming there, sharing their passion or their arts. You'll have the Orgasmatron and then you'll have someone that's really inspired by, I don't know, bourbons or tantra. And they're all living, camping beside each other, and they're interacting. From there comes all the spontaneous moments. That's what art is. It's mixing two creative people.
If you draw two circles, each circle is a collaborator. And there's a part of them that overlaps, and that overlap is unknown. That, to me, is where the magic happens. That's why I love collaborating with other people because you don't know what's going to come out of it. You trust the process because you love what they do, you collaborate with people that you respect and that you're inspired by. So out of the collaboration, new things are born. And you had no idea, you just trusted that process.
Obviously, Burning Man didn't happen this year due to the pandemic. It was just in our hearts. In its absence, what element of magic from the Playa do you feel society could use most right now?
You don't feel lonely at Burning Man. No matter where you are on the Playa, you just feel together; it's one unit. And [there are] 80,000 people there. You feel you all have similar goals and it's all positive. I'm generalizing, but it's really that togetherness, the unity feeling, I guess. And right now, in this world, I'm very optimistic, but things feel so f***ed up and like there's no way out. I hate to say that, but at Burning Man, you don't feel that. You feel everything is going to be OK and that we're all in this together. I feel that's definitely what we can use in this world right now.
I feel like I live in a bubble and I want to make this bubble the size of the world so every human can really feel that freedom and happiness. It's one of our rights. That's what we're trying to do with AbracadabraTV on Twitch and stuff. We're really building the community that way so that they get all those positive reinforcements and those tools. And happiness, ways to feel happy, and music. We go live on Saturdays and Sundays on Twitch, and when we're not live, there's a community gathering on our Discord. There are all sorts of different channels on our Discord: There's a general channel, one on music, on weed, all our different interests. And we talk there when we're not live, so we're still hanging out.
That's where we share a lot of mindful practices, just to hit the messages [from the Twitch programming] home. I've noticed that a lot of people introduce themselves and share they are having mental health issues. And they really find Abracadabra to be a safe space where it actually brings them a little bit of breathing space, out of their mental health issues. I'm all for helping with that.
Wow. That's really powerful. With AbracadabraTV and everything you're doing on Twitch, what has it felt like to have that space to share your music and your message while not being able to do live events and to connect with people in person?
It's such a breath of fresh air. Because if this never happened, I would have never discovered this. I'm so grateful to have discovered it and to actually witness it. Being so connected to the community when I'm playing live—listen, it's amazing, that feeling. And I know DJs miss it very, very much. But honestly, when you're playing a gig, you don't interact with the crowd. You can't get instant feedback. Twitch has chat, which is instant feedback. You can basically have a conversation with your community while you're playing. The conversations they are having online can dictate how your live set progresses and evolves. So it's super cool. The community has never been able to speak with the artists while they're DJing or be connected so closely. That's been an amazing discovery during—whatever this is called—2020.
The thing that is 2020. In addition to the weekly Twitch content, you also hosted the two virtual Abracadabra Festivals. What was the most fun part of the fests for you?
The most fun part, honestly, was being live in the studio in L.A. with the production team, and Channel Tres, Paris Hilton, Diplo, everyone coming through. And everyone just being happy to be a part of it and to be a part of that bigger message. The second festival, we decided to do 80 hours—I don't know why—in a row. It was very exhausting.
But when we were in the studio and everything was just running and we were live and there [were] millions of people watching, I was like, "Wow, it was all worth it." And then getting the feedback from people from all around the world, friends and people that just discovered us. And again, I got that sense of unity for a second. And unity, if you want to backtrack, is one, right? And so this presence, everyone being completely present, also equates to unity as well—they're all in the same space.
I've experienced those moments on Twitch where the chat is really fun, the music is really good and I'm dancing with my cat. I never expected a livestream or the internet to be a place where I could really feel present.
The one vibe.
Yeah, it's cool.
It is, right? I'm trying to show the other DJs. Because there's a bunch of DJs that are really not into streaming at all and everyone's different, of course. But I have a feeling that a lot of DJs just haven't gotten that experience, of the chat on fire and all the goodness, of that one vibe on Twitch.
I wonder what the future looks like when we're able to gather again at festivals and in clubs. It would be really interesting to see if artists do more livestreams, where people that can't physically come to the festival can still feel like they're a part of it, too. Do you have any idea of what you'd want to do?
Want me to tell you the future? I'll tell you how it is going to work. So physical events are going to come back. And you have the people that buy tickets and will be there. But you also have another layer, the livestream component. So you have another revenue stream now, where you're going to be selling tickets to the people around the world. For instance, Tulum is open in January, as of now, so we're planning a physical event, obviously reduced capacity, and we're also planning a livestream. So we're going to sell tickets to that as well, for the people that can't be there because many people are not going to travel to Tulum this year, especially from Europe and stuff.
And then, VR is actually getting a huge push because of COVID, and it's all these different worlds. You can come as an avatar to the event; we can build an Abracadabra world in VR. And with a drone, you can control cameras at the event. There are all sorts of different experiences you can have around this one event. And [there are] also ways that—we haven't figured this part out yet, but we're working on it—the audience at home will be able to interact in the physical event somehow.
To the point of raving in person again, I want to talk about Bye Bye Plastic, because if we want to keep partying, we need to do it in a way that's sustainable. Can you talk about how you are approaching sustainability at events? I'd also love to hear about the initial experience of getting a bunch of DJs on board with the Eco-Rider?
Yeah. I mean, we're trying to just produce the least amount of waste as possible and also being conscious about any fuel we're using to minimize the footprint. We think about the whole circularity of the sustainability process—any waste we produce, what are we doing with each and every thing. Like cigarette butts, where are they going after we collect them? And the compostable cups, where are they going? There isn't any plastic at our events, but even if [there are] bottle caps ...
At our last Tulum event, there was something little that was plastic, and we made sure to repurpose everything. We always make sure it goes to the right place. Even when we do a beach clean, we don't just put the plastic in a recycling bin. We figure out where it's going and make sure it's processed properly because the waste management systems are not trustworthy right now, so we handle it all ourselves.
So [there are] a lot of things that happen in the background with the beach clean. It's not just you show up at the beach, pick up some garbage and that's it. We take inventory and we distribute it properly, so it's upcycled. There's a really cool machine that they've developed in Tulum called Petgas that we're working with. Basically, you can throw any grade of plastic in it and it creates some sort of clean fuel. It's a great collaboration because that will create wealth for the locals.
And your question about the DJs—I mean, listen, I had an assistant last year when I had extra cash. And we had this strategy where it was like, "OK, well we know all the agents, managers, DJs and business. Let's reach out to every single one of them. Let's start a movement." We spent six months getting everyone situated and organized, and then we did a viral push with the video. And that was that. Now we're expanding with more DJs. And working with more agencies and artist houses that have a lot of DJs, so you get 50 artists at a time, not one by one.
I don't know how many times I've wanted to cry leaving an event and walking over crumbled plastic water bottles. The plastic-free Eco-Rider is so smart and seems so common sense. But it is different than the status quo. Were people excited about it?
Yeah, totally, people are excited about it. But then there's a lot of work that's babysitting, basically. When you go to a gig, the DJ doesn't really have time to make sure about all that stuff. So the logistics team, or whoever's helping with the gig, needs to make sure a week before—there's a whole bunch of steps to take care of in the babysitting process.
Right now, there are people doing parties at home, safely or however they're doing it. We want to create a culture of people not buying the red plastic cups, so we're creating a guide for the U.S. of what the alternatives are and how to do a plastic-free event for small private parties and stuff. I noticed people just don't know what to get.
Can we talk a little bit about your label, the other side of Abracadabra? What do you look for in an artist or a release for it?
Well, this is changing right now. Typically, we had a certain vibe, but now there are a lot of artists that come through ABRA TV that are super, super talented and have different styles. It's not just about a genre anymore, it's about the message. So we're expanding that horizon to a positive message with the music.
What BLOND:ISH releases can we expect in the next couple of months, beyond the amazing Christmas track you mentioned?
I did a remix for Sony of [Ethiopian singer] Aster Aweke. It's a really emotional track. You don't understand the words [unless you speak Amharic], but when you feel it, you get the emotion out of it. It's another super cool car track to listen to in your car or dance to in your backyard. That's coming out next. And then I have a release, an original track, with a female vocalist coming out on Spinnin'. It's called "Waves." I don't know when it's coming out though, but probably in a month or two.
And what vibe is "Waves"?
It's very vocal and [features] a lot of piano chords. When you hear the piano chords, it just instantly makes you smile. That kind of vibe.