juststeve interview

“I’m happy as a pig in mud”

Q. So, why “juststeve”? What is wrong with Steven Kokkas, your real name?

steve

Nothing, I love my real name, I am proud of my family & given name. Basically, I am just fooling around, having a blast. YOLO! [ you only live once ] Life is too short but even if it were long, I am allowed to fool around. If politicians can fool around so can an artist.”

Q.  Yes but there are also other very big changes mainly in your music. In two years you went from Pop rock where your songs were available on iTunes with a Greek record label and now you are producing swing music that 90% of the people don’t really care about and you have started your own label.

I see your point. My songs are still on iTunes and as a matter of fact several more on-line record shops and I am in complete control over everything I produce. I am tired of asking people for their opinion for everything. I am also very exhausted of people giving me a date or time and I sit around just waiting as if there are no other roads to take in this life. I don’t want to sell my face and frankly I don’t care what the rest of the industry does. Whatever they have been doing has been putting money in their pockets but they have really destroyed the industry. It’s safe keeping away from their system. Right now I am doing something which has never made me happier. I have just released an album and 4 singles and I am in complete control over what I do, whom I work with and how I produce my material. I have  a cover design made by my younger cousin, lyrics by another cousin, another song has lyrics written from my best buddy, vocals by a dear friend of mine, [ the singer MaRina ] and nobody can tell me anything about my new project and how to run it, record it or promote it. I don’t even want it to succeed so there is no possibility of failure. Some of the songs were written years ago but not in swing. Just regular  Pop Rock stuff. I turned them around because it was fun.

Q. You’ve matured.

Yes, I think so. I like it. I like having the odd wrinkle on my face and get a real kick out of 20 year old’s calling me “Sir.”

Q. Tell me about the industry, you mentioned that you are keeping a distance.

Yes and No, I don’t want to get involved with the industry to the point where people are telling me what to do. Franky I think that the wrong people have been chosen to make decisions in the record business. It’s all beat, no content and lots of anatomy shaking.

Q.  Can you give me an example?

Yes, Rihanna. I don’t like her songs and her music videos are giving the younger generation the wrong idea of what a lady should be. She promotes sex and drugs and that is a complete “no no” according to little Stevie.

Q. You’re angry.

No not at all, I am happy as a pig in mud. I am just being honest, I can’t sit here and lie to you. I am honoured that you are asking me questions and I don’t want to play that “reporter – musician” game with you. I don’t want to speak using the industry lingo I want honesty.

Q. Tell us a little about your past

My parents are Greek, I was born and raised in Toronto and I have been living in Greece since the fall of 1989. Music is the only thing I know so that’s what I do. There was a period of 10 years where I just did karaoke and consumed lots of whiskey but that was boring. Now I prefer waking up at 6:30 in the morning, observing the climate, breathing in the fresh air and writing music.

Q. What’s it like living in Greece?

It’s tough. Great sea and sun but it’s tough. It seems like the government is always working against you and they aren’t really helping much. They assume you are going to  break the law and they treat you that way before you have even been convicted of anything.

Q. Tell me a bit about the economic and political situation in Greece.

I can’t, I don’t know enough to be able to draw a conclusion. I avoid watching television too. There is something wrong though. Perhaps, bad management. I am really the wrong person to ask because I know nothing about politics, most of the people I know won’t admit to “not really knowing enough” but I do.

Q. I’ve spent a few years in Greece, that is where we had our first conversations, how has it changed. Tell me a little about Athens.

Most of the city is the same. The transportation has really improved. The past two or three years the number of shops which have closed give Athens a different feel. It’s not as active or as happy as it used to be. The old city, the downtown core hasn’t lost it’s magic, especially if you are around the Acropolis area.

Q. Do your prefer Greece or Canada.

Well many people have asked me the same question and I used to say, “ oh both are nice, Greece has great climate and Canada has a great system . Now I’ll tell you that Greece is a pretty country but it’s draining me. I don’t think Greece will treat me well as a elder, and that is pretty much how I feel. It’s the truth.

Q. Ok back to the music. What next?

I have no idea. I have Ikarian roots which means I may live to record another 20 albums or maybe just quit yesterday and milk goats for a living. Both are quite exceptional.

Q. Do you visit Ikaria Island?

Yes, my family has a home in Ikaria and I am not spending enough time there. I would like to go to Ikaria tomorrow and spend 6 months there.

Q. Would you write music?

I don’t know, I have never tried to write music there. I would love to try.

Q. You mentioned your cousins helping you in the “just4fun” project.

Sure, well there is the youngest who is Nikos, he has Ikarian roots and is very talented and he is studying art in Greece. He designed the cover. He sent me 3 or 4 ideas and I picked the one I liked and then he just polished it. I don’t know if I took him 2 minutes or 2 weeks to do it but I am proud of him either way. Then my cousin Maria, also Ikarian had written a poem years ago and I had written the music for that so I included it in the project. It’s the “Antidrasi” song. Then 2 friends of mine added lyrics to English lyric songs I had written. I really enjoyed that. I really like that people who are actually a part of my life have contributed to my album. I actually know the people who did the art work and wrote the lyrics. It’s not as if I went looking for a famous lyricist who will write something for me. It’s just that simple and I like simple. I wish I could be more simple.

Q. What is medium swing?

Hmm, I am not  a jazz musician, this sort of style just surfaced from within and I love it to bits. One day I just  started playing Fly Me To The Moon and I used a series of chords I found while searching through google. One musician referred to it as  ” medium swing” so I had to investigate. Some people use the swing terms depending on how much groove the song contains. Others just use the term “medium swing” as a tempo reference. That is how I use it. I am just saying that these songs are medium in tempo on a swing beat.

Q. Do you enjoy recording?

No, I don’t like recording studios. Most of them are quite cold and industrial looking and they make me feel as though I have to perform my best. I think that we are performing our best as each minute goes by, as long as we a true to ourselves. From now on, I record at home or even on a mountain. I don’t care so much about the sound quality anymore. As long as I can take the listener on a small journey then my mission has been accomplished. Actually it’s not even a mission. A song is a song. Hamburgers are more important because we actually have to digest them.

Q. Describe the life of a musician. Actually I am interested in Steve the musician. Are you happy? If you had a choice would you have  done something else?

My sister asked me the same question. That is a tough one. I wake up and sleep thinking music and sometimes I learn music even when I sleep. When I am out with friends, I make up excuses for leaving early so I can work on a bass line or write a musical phrase for the 2nd Clarinet. I guess music is a drug. My drug. Then there is also another side to me, sometimes I think that if I had another choice in life I would choose psychology, have a family and a home with a white picket fence. Two extremes eh? I don’t reaaly like the lifestyle of the traditional musician. I like sleeping and waking up very early and I am not fond of the bar scene. I like the company of very few people and I prefer to have conversations that will educate me and not hang out in a sports bar talking about a hockey game.

Q. Ever do drugs?

Of coarse, I ‘ve tried it all. Tripping is quite funny once in a while but after a while I realized  that drugs are for those who need them. I don’t need them. I can trip on my own the minute I walk out this door and I can keep my high for as long as I choose and it’s free.

Q. Have you written any music under the influence of any drug or alcohol?

No, far from it. I am always with a clear mind and stress free. When I am in that frame of mind I can write a song each day, actually upon the hour. I don’t want that though, I want to enjoy other things in life too. I want to have a complete sense of time with my music. I want to feel every minutes that goes by and I can’t do that when I am drinking or on drugs. I want to know and feel that this song was just written in 5 minutes and know what it needs one day before I start polishing it.

Q. Name some musicians you admire.

I admire Elton John for his craft in song writing but I am not too fond of his productions. I should be careful, I am talking about a Sir. I can listen to some Rolling Stones but not too much, actually, I get a real kick out of watching them. I think I can appreciate all kinds of music and I can appreciate all musicians whether they are famous or not. I don’t like noise, distortion, heavy metal or any kind of aggression in music. I admire those who really study hard and long and it shows in their work. I can appreciate a fine production even if the song is shallow but as long as it makes me happy. The final product is what matters to me. I don’t care about fancy guitar solos or high end productions, I just like a good song.

Q. Do you enjoy Rap music?

No.

Q. Why not?

hmm… it doesn’t make me feel good. If you want me to get more specific or technical, it usually doesn’t contain a melody line so automatically I find it lacks in composition. Then the lyrics are not in a style I can appreciate. Most of it is pure aggression. One can argue that but I don’t care, it doesn’t make me feel good. There have been Rap songs I’ve enjoyed. Years ago I enjoyed Rappers Delight and I have enjoyed some Eminem. I am a little old fashioned I suppose. I love Abba, I think they have written absolute perfect music and I know their music will be around for many many decades to come. I don’t like the elements of Rap music or the lack of.

Q. Can you tell me about the elements of music?

Well, there is rhythm, that is the first element and I think it’s the first element because everything about us is rhythmical. Our heart beat, the way we walk, talk, dance. Then Melody. I always die for a good melody line. Third is harmony, it’s how you colour your melody. I think they are all beautiful and necessary.

Q. Looking over your C.V., I notice that your music studies are quite extensive.

No they aren’t really. Not enough. I studied piano for well over a decade in a fine institution, The Royal Conservatory of Music and had private lessons with Stefanos Karabekos, the Conductor of the New Canadian Symphonic Orchestra. I am fond of my instructors, especially Karabekos.

Q. What made Karabekos so special?

Well, all of my music teachers were special but Karabekos showed me that I can bend the rules anytime I choose. I don’t know if he intended to do that but that is what `I realized years later. When you are playing a song and at one point you have to slow down, it’s up to me how much I prolong that “ritardando”. It’s nice when you are studying a piece of music and your instructor stops the lesson and sais, “oh look what they did there. It sounds like this other song I know” and they just start playing it for you. It puts you in fun mode, almost like we are jamming.  Maybe it’s non of the above, maybe it’s just because that is where I learned the most. I don’t believe that rules were meant to be broken but expression is what makes one person different from the other. I really picked that up from Karabekos.

Q. Are you in love?

I sure am Sir, I have been for over 25 years and I don’t mean in love with myself. I am married, that just actually happened recently. Funny social status isn’t it?

Q. How do you mean?

Well people perceive your relationship or your love for another person with greater value if you tell them you are married. It’s almost as if you are in love without emotion or depth prior to that but society itself can be quite funny at times.

Q. Going back to something much earlier in our conversation you mentioned you are now in complete control over what you deliver. How so? I mean is that really true?

I have my own record label so yes, it’s true. I write the music, I arrange it, I select who I want to mix and master my music. If I record in a studio I can select the studio myself. If I release a project which contains ten songs I can choose which song I would like people to hear first. I can add bagpipes to African instruments and use them in the most unorthodox way without anyone accepting or rejecting the choices I make. I can put them up for sale, I can take them down and rearrange them using splashing water instead of drums. I can have one track with birds chirping and call it Lasagna because I just felt like it.

Q. If you had a choice to record a song with a Mega Star who would it be?

Nobody. They don’t want to record a song with me. Unless of coarse the artist called me personally then I would prefer Kenny Rogers or Paul McCartney. As long as the artist actually called me. I wouldn’t want to feel as though I recorded a song with a mega star and they made me famous. I would be just as happy having a cup of tea with Paul and talking about life. not even the music industry.

Q. Do you like Pop Music? I know the answer but it’s something I would just love to hear you say in public.

I love Pop music. You know me better than I thought. I was born in 1966 which means that my most impressionable years were 70’s and 80’s top ten in North America. I love anything that is Pop. Of coarse there is bad pop but who cares , there is good and bad in everything from music to world leaders.

Q. Are you currently writing new songs?

Yes, I have just written one and I have a bathroom recording of it. I will polish it when I get back home and I am half way through another.

Q. So where is home?

Toronto!

Q. When will we hear these new songs?

I will release them in October. Both songs will belong to a set of songs in swing style but I don’t have an album title yet. I might call it “Sweet Toronto”. I’ll see.