Cassettes for Kids maps his swift trajectory to the forefront of local dance music

Zak Degenhardt is a name soon to be well known in house music. Professionally known as Cassettes for Kids, his trademark blend of high energy house breaks has seen a swift trajectory to the forefront of local dance music. Having had a relentless presence on the clubbing circuit over the past couple of years, the Melbourne native has a refined sound ready to be taken to new heights. Most recently, he describes his latest EP Dreams fundamental Cassettes for Kids listening. The EP opens with its title track, a soul-inspired, percussive-based, expansive yet extremely easy groover. Long piano runs and eerie synths are all held together by a driving house drum line. It’s an excellent staple of an extremely well-refined dance music connoisseur.

His relationship with dance music started inside the home. His house was filled with music lovers and players, but dance music -like for so many of us- manifested in the form of an older sibling.

“My sister got me into dance music well before that.” He said. “She got me into Justice, and around that time as well Daft Punk released their live album and [I was] thinking, ‘This is sick.’”

His love for dance music only grew when slammed into the environment of a Melbourne club. The city is known for having one of the most relentless house and techno scenes globally, and it’s that environment that sparked the main inspiration for the Cassettes for Kids project.

“It almost was always in the background of my listening until I started going out a lot more. Once I turned 18, I saw how all my friends liked dance music and seeing how they reacted to it. It really impacted how I wanted to make music and how I wanted to impact my friends.”

It was this social impact on dance music that was a massive influence on Degenhardt and his journey as a musician, and the environments which he found himself in led to the creation of his musical endeavours.

“Going to early Revolver and going to Sunday Sessions, seeing Huxley and Detroit Swindle with my friends going mental made me think, ‘I just want to do that for my friends.’”

As he began delving into music, Cassettes for Kids was not the main focus. Zak reflects lightly on a period in which he was in a rock band.

Elephant Ego!” he laughs. “I played lead guitar in a band. The first music we recorded was not great and we had an EP coming that I thought was genuinely really good that we actually never recorded. Towards the end of that era and as the band disintegrated, I started doing the Cassettes for Kids stuff.”

As for many finding their feet in an extremely saturated dance market, Degenhardt would post tracks once they were done on Soundcloud. Describing it as a “machine gun” approach, it ended up working out, landing him his first live show at Strawberry Fields.

“I put a track up in 2014 and actually ended up winning getting to the top 10 of a Strawberry Fields contest, which allowed me to play. I ended up playing my first set as Cassettes for Kids. It was my first show so I was super new to the game. I failed miserably in front of my friends and in front of all my friend’s friends that they dragged over from the campsite. I ended up having to spend the next three days totally embarrassed in front of them. It was such a low point, I knew I could never get lower than that. An excellent place to start.”

I was surprised to find out such a prolific DJ started off with a live show. When queried upon it, he criticises his bold approach.

“I can’t believe I started with a live show. I was really arrogant. I started my live music journey in a band then came to dance music thinking it was so easy, assuming I’d be able to nail it. I went in with a terrible attitude and no understanding of dance music or how to perform it. There were just large amounts of build-ups and drops rather than the thought out dance music I’d be making now.”

As the Cassettes for Kids project delved deeper into the art of DJing, the project came leaps and bounds.

“I started making dance music completely differently once I start DJing. Understanding the structure of dance tracks, using the right percussion. Not having massive drops or build-ups but consistent groove and rhythm.”

“I used to play so much disco and all the tracks I liked and did everything I could to mix them together. Now there’s a bit more organised chaos that I like mixing different genres, and technically light years ahead of what I used to do.”

With this attitude, and sublime focus, the Cassettes for Kids project has arrived at the level it deserves. He’s just released his Dreams EP, a two tracker that focuses on the refined sound of the project. Blending sublime house music with soulful elements is a testament to his taste and listening. He quotes the inspiration behind the EP as one coming off the back of a long dry spell.

“I had a bad phase where I was so uninspired by music and everything sounded like bleeps and bloops. I had no emotional connection to it at all. I was fortunate enough to go overseas, take a step back and simply listen to a lot of nice music. Then I came back to music recently off the back of that.”

“I listen to a lot of mixes to find new tunes. I’ve been listening to this genre called Tezeta. Just trying to find stuff a step away from dance music like funk and soul.”

It’s in this golden spot of music where Cassettes for Kids flourishes. It’s his ability to blend genres that dance music constantly is inspired by with the perspective of what makes him or his friends groove in a club that brings the tracks to a heightened level. This is exemplified on his latest, ‘Black Mesa’, which features a combination of jazzy piano chords combine beautifully with large breakbeat drums and welcoming strings. Before you know it, you’re enveloped in a world of acid and breaks transported away from the comfort of these genre fundamentals.

“My composition skills are improving dramatically and it’s allowing me to give an emotional edge to my tracks. I’m an emotional kind of guy and I really want to bring that out in my music.”

With a bit more excitement in Degenhardt’s voice we begin to chat about his upcoming bookings on his Pitch booking.

Pitch is one of the most exciting festivals in the country. I was so happy about it. I could have done it last year but thought it was important to build myself up to make sure Pitch was special. My set time’s great, I really want to maximise every opportunity I’m able to get — especially in my home town.”

For a character of such potential, its easy to forget his career has already reached significant heights. He’s already dominated festival stages at Beyond The Valley, Lost Paradise and Duke Street Block Party as well as headlining Australia’s best clubs – XE54 & Civic Underground. An extremely trusted selector, he has warmed dancefloors for the likes of Denis Sulta, DJ Koze, KiNK, ANNA, John Talabot and many more.

Upon reflecting on these highlights, his time at the recently closed XE54 reigns strongest. The venue, originally opened in 2017, was one of the most iconic spaces for Melbourne’s dance music scene. It featured some international and local legends such as Flight Facilities, Kevin Saunderson, Green Velvet, CC:DISCO! and Pleasurekraft.

“XE was an excellent platform for internationals to come here that normally wouldn’t be coming to Australia. It gave them a good club venue to funnel them into.”

“I went there a lot as a punter, I was the first and second last to play there. It was really good to bring in a higher quality of internationals and empower a lot of the locals too. I was really lucky to get that platform.”

“It gave me a place to play music I don’t think I could play anywhere else. I don’t think I’ve ever played sets I’ve played there anywhere else because they just didn’t make sense anywhere else in the country.”

 

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“The headline slots are some of my favourite shows ever. Just the energy in the room was special. Usually it’s such a techno club, but seeing the shift in energy when I came in and played house inspired me. Knowing that market was out there and knowing there was a thrust for house music was awesome.”

Coming into 2020, there’s a real feeling Cassettes for Kids is on the verge of something. After many years behind him now, and a well-defined sense of self, Degenhardt is at once aware of where he’s been, and where he’s still yet to go. Its this sense of direction, mixed with the lessons learned along the way, that separate him from the rest as a serious force in the greater dance scene, and set him up as a real contender both locally and abroad. As he gears up to take to the Pitch stage and show his home what he’s really made of, you get the feeling its doubling as a chance to show the world as well. Cassettes for Kids is about to arrive, and he’s finally ready for it.

Words by PARRY TRITSINIOTIS

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Parry Talks, and also writes.