Lee Van Dowski: The very name exudes style and intrigue—a country lord, perhaps, who at night throws open the manor gates to host all-night bacchanals legendary for their wine and song.
And though the French-born, Geneva-based artist may not have a manor to his name, the rest isn't far off the mark. Born Renaud Lewandowski, Lee has earned a reputation as a kind of dark prince of uplifting electronic music—a trickster who spreads his mischief via long, undulating DJ sets and bewilderingly funky releases.
No surprise to learn that Lee's roots go deep. His musical prehistory may be similar to many of his generation: raised on rock and hip-hop, complete with the obligatory attempt to learn to play guitar followed by short-lived bands with schoolmates. But Lee was the beneficiary of his stepfather's eclectic musical tastes, which spanned classical, jazz, funk, rock and even musique concrete and academic electronic music. "I was fascinated by the metallic sleeves and their geometrical designs," he remembers, suggesting a possible source for the shimmering timbres and clever vectors of his own music.
The pieces first fell together in 1993, when a friend invited Lee to attend a rave in southern France, near where he lived. "That was the shock of my life," says Lee, echoing a sentiment that will be familiar to many. "That was what I was looking for, without really knowing it—thousands of people dancing and sweating in the open air. An amazing soundsystem. And this never-ending kick that drives you to madness… Since that day, I've devoted my life entirely to being a part of this."
Lee got involved with the infamous Dragon Bal raves, where Miss Kittin got her start; he worked mundane jobs, saved money, bought decks and a mixer and taught himself to spin. He came to production the same way, beginning with an MPC2000, but translating the sounds in his head into its fat, blocky pads wasn't as easy as it seemed. His ambitions took Lee to Geneva, where he earned a degree in music engineering, but it may have been his next job, working in a Lausanne music shop, that really signalled his entry into the world of electronic music. "Even if the boss was a crazy guy, the shop was like a goldmine, full of gear and old analog synths, drum machines, all the recording and mixing tools you could dream of," he recalls with awe. He took advantage of his employee discount to build out his studio, and just as importantly, the shop served as a focal point for all the area's musicians. It was here that Lee would meet both Quenum and Luciano—and from there, as they say, the rest is history…
Between 2004 and 2013 he was a mainstay at Luciano’s highly regarded Cadenza troupe. Over nine years the highly prized Gallic import played Vagabundos parties the world over, while dropping a series of tantalising dancefloor groovers on the respected imprint led by 2004’s ‘Extension/Oregon’ EP with Quenum, ‘La Cucina Del Cabrón’ with Glimpse in 2009 and ‘Bimbam’ in 2011.
Outside of Cadenza, Lee was also industrious, releasing a full-length album with Quenum on Soma in 2006 titled ‘As Told On The Eve Of…’ while further bolstering his production credentials with a steady stream of weapons on Bpitch Control, Wagon Repair, Bedrock, Suara, Rekids, Noir and Rebellion (sub-label of Crosstown Rebels).
But it was with Mobilee, the label presided over by Anja Schneider and Ralf Kollmann that rang strongest for Lee when he was a looking to creatively challenge himself with a new home. Having already dropped a handful of cuts on Mobilee and its sister imprint Leena, he told Deep House Amsterdam in an interview that he was attracted to the crew because of their passionate approach and sense of humour and said the freedom they gave their artists was “endless”.
Since joining the Berlin-based crew, Lee has thrived, enjoying a career best purple patch that saw him release no less than 17 tracks in 2015. The jewel in the crown? The surreptitiously named ‘050504’, a deep tribal gem canned by Sven Väth that became one of the year’s biggest techno tracks after it was first debuted in Anja Schneider’s Essential Mix in October 2014 to a buzzed response – a full three months before its release.
This almost-kinetic relationship Lee shares with Mobilee is one that continues to fuel his creativity and expansive approach to music production. In February 2016, he’ll release his first album in a decade and thanks to the label’s open-minded music policy, he’s expanded the sound palette even further. The 14-track longplayer ‘Cerca Trova’ sees the artist hark back to his nascent rave years when Autechre, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada ruled the stereo. From ambient techno to breaks, electro and acid, the work is ambitious, inspired and like all the best musical experiences – ultimately surprising.
Count Lee has returned to his Swiss manor, the gates are wide open, and the beat is beckoning.