Cosmic Force, the alias of Ben Spaander, is, in his own words, fed by two important influences: vodka and the electro gods. Because of that combination, he no longer thinks about what he is doing, he just does it. After releasing his first record in 1998 on Rotterdam techno label Clone, he has become an integral part of the world of electro. Until in 2006 that world took a hit and Ben disappeared from the stage. However, he never stopped making music and he is now benefiting from it.
Written by: Loulou Kuster & Marianne Schutte
Photos & videos: Koen Bouman
“I grew up in Alkmaar, where at one point I was in the basement of a squat. That's where I started experimenting. I was captivated by the music of Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft (D.A.F.) and other experimental music that produced machine sounds. Then I would look at the cover of a record and see if there was a gear list, or I saw a photo of an obscure black device with all plugs and holes. At first I started collecting stuff through Via Via magazine, a magazine that had a lot of advertisements with stuff. I bought everything that wasn't too expensive and linked it all together. I blew up a lot of adapters and literally had fire from my speakers because I had no idea what I was doing. There was no manual and there was no internet at the time, so I couldn't google how something worked."
“There were four other people in Alkmaar who were involved in this and every Tuesday we had a drink in our regular pub where we taught each other everything we had learned or found ourselves. The only thing that wasn't about synthesizers was the beginning; you said 'hey man' when you came in and after that everything was about your equipment. It was actually a very elitist club, because if you had nothing new to say, you would not hear anything. You also really had to do your best every week to receive something, to be able to learn something from others. It was a really beautiful time in my life.”
“Actually, we were working on electro without realizing it. We grew up with old-school hip-hop and of course that hip-hop also used a lot of drum computers and synthesizers. One of us went digging once and came up with Neue Deutsche Welle. We were not happy with that at all in the beginning. I mean, what were we hip-hoppers supposed to do with that dark, difficult music? But that guy just kept pushing it and then your taste adjusted a bit. Suddenly you see the light and you think: fuck, this is really cool!”
It took a while for Ben to start playing live, at first that wasn't necessarily his plan either: he was working on music because he just wanted to hear something he couldn't find himself. “Then you go make it yourself. Making music was just an outlet for me. In that time I bought so many records and the more records I bought, the less I was surprised and the more I got an idea of what I wanted to hear. I had a certain emotion and I wanted to feel that, but I couldn't find it on all those records, so I started making it myself. That's the whole reason I started this.”
“At one point a guest from The Hague came to see me because he wanted to buy a synthesizer from me. He saw all my stuff and he was curious what the hell I was doing with it, so he asked if I wanted to play some. When I played something, he said there was a label that put out exactly the kind of music I just played. I didn't know what he was saying, because I was just making all kinds of "beep-oink" sounds to repetitive beats and funk, because I thought it was really cool myself. I called the label and then I got a call from Serge van Clone, who said I should stop by in Rotterdam. At the time, Serge still had a desk in a clothing store somewhere in Rotterdam, so I walked in with a buddy and let him hear some of my music. Serge thought we should make a record of that. We kept very quiet at the time, but as soon as we were out of the store we went completely crazy.”
“When I released that record, I was asked more and more if I could do a show. I had never done that before, but I did come to Atlantis since '87, a pop stage in Alkmaar where they pretty much gave the stage to us because nobody had any idea what to do with it. That's why I've been throwing hip-hop and electro parties with my friends there for a long time. We were the only ones there to fill the tent with something that really mattered. From the age of fifteen I was already a bit of mc'ing on stage with all my friends. So when that record came out in 1998, I could easily do a test case for a live show there.” From then, he grows as an artist and quickly became one of the greats in the electro world.
In 2006, Ben realized that electro had lost its appeal in nightlife. “From the moment I was no longer booked, I really got it. I was able to stretch it for a while, but I also knew that this was due to my stage presence. They booked me because they knew: 'Cosmic Force always makes his set a party'. Then I took the microphone and thanked the organization – that was good for their ego – and I brought just a little more. But I also saw that my boyfriends were no longer booked, so it didn't take long for me to do it too. Only Legowelt has been able to continue steadily. He managed to attract several styles and that's great. My sound was too one-sided. It was done and no one was talking about it anymore.”
Especially as a live act it is more difficult for Ben to change if the club scene demands a different kind of music. It's a sign of the times: sometimes the public just wants something different. “My music really comes from within myself. As a DJ, for example, you are much more of a prophet of other people's sounds and then you also move more easily with changes in the musical landscape. I don't want to change my style and just make what comes from my core. Afterwards I only think about whether I can do something with it in a show or a release, but never when I make it, then I don't think about anything at all." Still, he would never say he was done with the music industry. “If I was done with music, I would be done with myself. There's no reason to hate because a period is over, because it's just the way it is. I understand that there can be no need for my thing and I also understand that there can be.”
Such a sign of the times also means that a certain sound can become popular again. For example, Helena Hauff's BBC Essential Mix in February 2017 gave electro an extra boost. “She caught the attention of the right people at the right times. That sound, which I found incomprehensible that it was nowhere to be heard, suddenly came into the spotlight again.” Because people started playing electro again, it became attractive again to book Cosmic Force. “I had my booth open and wasn't late because I've always kept making music. I had enough ready to play again.” Although Ben is really slammed at the moment. “There are literally four or five labels asking for music, so now it's just closing in on the back. The upcoming five releases that I'm going to make music for now are out. That's really crazy and weird because I've never worked that way. Previously I made music, I sent it and if someone liked it it was pressed. Now it is actually the other way around and I am asked to press without having the music ready.”
That consistency in quality and the fact that he has been accepted again as an 'old hand' who can come back shows for Ben that things are getting better. “I can show how we used to do it, but I also try to keep improving myself so that it remains a bit accurate. If I were to make now what I was making in the 1990s, it wouldn't quite happen. So you keep reinventing yourself and you keep looking for new sounds. Not the sounds that I think they belong to now, but sounds that I try to make them belong. I don't want to follow, I want to bring.” In 2016, at a house party in Tivoli, Ben found out that electro was slowly taking over the nightlife again. “Suddenly a DJ put on a record where the electro sound could be heard completely. I didn't know what happened! In the months after that I saw that people started to book a bit trendy again, Legowelt was seen playing more often and Rude 66 was also dusted off again. I think it is fantastic. In fact, we were all mothballed again, dusted off, put on lipstick and sent back on stage. That's very beautiful. The Boiler Room session this spring has done a lot for me. I cannot assume that people know who I am and what I do. Generations change – people have children. Perhaps there are already children dancing to my music whose parents were once dancing to my music as well. I can't assume that everyone knows me, so now I have to present myself again to the world. I used to play a gig for 300 people, of which hopefully about twenty say it was cool and because of that hopefully someone gets to hear it and then thinks: 'oh, I should book that one too'. But on that Boiler Room set, I just had four cameras and I could show, 'Hello, here I am and this is what I do'. That did help.”
Spaander is not always alone in his studio, which has been in the old Tivoli Oudegracht for about five years now. In those 21 years after he released his first record with Clone, he has entered his studio with Dexter, Detroit in Effect and Sadar Bahar, among others. “These collaborations often come about by chance. For example, the one with Sadar Bahar was because a buddy took him. Sadar was often in the Netherlands, so that friend said to him: 'I know someone with a great studio, come by sometime.' So suddenly we were in the studio together. That is very much a coincidence. From that coincidence you sit down and see what you can do for each other. Electro is also quite limited, so I can't suddenly turn on a saxophone. That wouldn't be understood and it wouldn't even occur to me to put it under a record. Those are really two different worlds. But I'm not electric. I am Ben and part of Ben is Cosmic Force. I keep triggering myself through those collaborations. Then suddenly someone walks into the studio with a sax or trumpet, while I've never recorded that before. Yes, then I go and watch a 'how to record a sax' video on YouTube and then I think: okay, I can do that. And that's how I'm going to deal with it. By entering into such a collaboration with Sadar Bahar, by combining that more organic sound of such a sax with synths and then releasing it again, you end up in completely different labels and places. With Nuno Dos Santos, for example, I'm doing Ultrastationn again, which is again very distant cold German music, so I'm suddenly at Thuishaven. With Cosmic Force I could never stand there, that just doesn't fit right. I can't do those different collaborations in one week either, when I'm working on Sadar I can't make an electro record at the same time, I really have to channel it."
"Recently I also made a number of tracks with Dexter. In 2008 we released a record together, which was reissued last year on SOHASO and that triggered us to go back into the studio together. The tracks from that new record still have to be mixed and mastered, so that is still a while before the record is actually released, but more soon.”
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.
Cosmic Force plays at Down the Rabbit Hole on Sunday 7 July