Even in a city as restless as London, getting everyone to dance — especially at the early 9pm slot — is no easy feat. But Zamilska is only one track into her set and the crowd is already uncontrollable. I’m not at Printworks or Oval Space or any venue where you might expect the reverberations of bass-heavy electronic music on a Friday night. I’m in the back room of a pub in East London where the crowd is moshing and grinding in equal measure.
“I was afraid to use words, to say something, to talk about something emotional”
Zamilska has a darkly enticing sound, absorbing elements of heavy metal, dubstep, industrial, world bass, indigenous rituals, and field recordings. All these influences crescendo with fury, but the moment of satisfaction comes when the Polish producer herself gestures to the audience.
“I think the best concerts are those in small clubs, when I can have a more emotional connection with the public,” she tells me the following day from her hotel in Dalston, a few hours before she’s due to play Visions Festival. “When I hear the public, I know I’ve pulled it off.”
In 2014 Natalia Zamilska’s track, Quarrel, found overnight success on YouTube. “I made a video for the track, uploaded it online and went to sleep. The next day I woke up to frantic messages from my friends.” The day after that, music festivals from across Poland were trying to reach out to her. Until then, she’d made her tracks using rudimentary software on her computer. For her first live performance in 2012, she brought her entire desktop on stage because she had no laptop at the time. This wasn’t even the strangest part of the experience, she tells me. “I didn’t know I’d be playing at a Christian festival until I arrived,” she says. “Nobody had told me.”
The Polish producer has relentlessly batted away any associations with techno. Sitting across from her, Zamilska is “punk” down to the very bone, even if her version of punk comprises of black tracksuit bottoms and ASMR-inducing electronic sounds. Gone are the days of lugging her PC from one festival to another, but you will still catch her crowd surfing at festivals all over Europe or telling club goers to get off their phones — something I witnessed first-hand.
It comes as no surprise then that Natalia Zamilska once dreamed of being a rockstar. Growing up in Zawiercie, a town in Poland’s coal mining region, she listened to black metal: a genre, she makes a point to tell me, remains one of Poland’s biggest-selling genres to this day. “It goes without saying that my parents didn’t like me listening to heavy metal,” she says. “They were afraid I would turn Satanic.” When I ask about the history of bass music in Poland, she laughs: “We haven’t got a history dubstep or bass music in general. That came from the UK. It sounds unbelievable, but if you wanted to hear drum & bass in Poland, you had to turn on BBC radio.”
At 15, she started making electronic music and, this year, fifteen years on, is celebrating her third LP release. Despite her impressive stage presence, she winces at the thought of bringing a microphone on stage in the future. “I did this once and never again. I’ve never been a vocalist.”
This is where her new album, Uncovered, is a divergence: for the first time ever Zamilska has decided to include her own voice. What had initially excited her about electronic music had been the freedom from words. But by the third record, something had shifted. She wanted to speak up. “I was working with a lot of Polish artists and famous vocalists in Poland between the second and third album. I was feeling envious. I had the feeling that instrumental music was not enough to say the things I wanted to say. So I thought, fuck it, let’s do this.”
Words surface momentarily then melt into the roaring distortion
Uncovered is a document of radical honesty, following an emotional year and bad relationships. The cover features a figure levitating. In her own words: “It’s not about rising and it’s not about falling.” Techno is not the genre you’d associate with cathartic “breakup albums” but Zamilska is not one to hold her cards close to her chest, making music that is both vulnerable and brutal. The brevity of the lyrics makes the vocals stand out against the thumping beat. Words surface momentarily then melt into the roaring distortion. “Love”, “Hate” are the first words we hear on the record. It’s also no coincidence, she wraps up the final track on the album with the line “You and I/ Look at what we’ve done”. The effect is penetrating because you know it speaks to something bigger happening in the world.
“We have a right-wing, populist party ruling our country. In many ways, it’s a really bad time in Poland. Earlier this year, Białystok held its first-ever LGBTQ march for equality, and people were attacked. We are not talking about intolerance. We are talking about brutal assaults. There are a lot of people who feel endangered in Poland.” With parliamentary elections coming up in October, the ruling Law and Justice party are now intensifying anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. As a musician, Zamilska feels a certain responsibility to make a stand. “When you have a voice, you need to say something.”
How did she feel when she first heard her voice on the album? “My first thought was: what have I done? I was afraid. I was afraid to use words, to say something, to talk about something emotional,” she says.
After all, what drew her to punk and metal musicians all those years ago was their fearlessness of speaking their truth. “I think techno music is comparable to punk rock,” she says. It’s true that electronic music has always flirted with punk’s corrosive clags and carefree attitude but what Zamilska is talking about is community. “There’s something about it socially, politically. It lets people express their feelings.”
“This is something I miss,” she muses, staring into the quiet hustle and bustle of the street. I cannot quite make out what she sees but soon realise it’s the ease of Dalston on a Saturday morning: the openness and diversity. She mentions her excitement at seeing rainbow flags decorate neighbouring cafes and shops. Before the conversation sours with talk of Britain’s looming exit from the EU and other border tensions, she shares her dreams of seeing the world: “When I was a kid I knew I’d be travelling some day and learning about different cultures.”
Zamilska has never felt at home in a nightclub, but travelling has been an undeniable perk of the job. At home in Silesia, music was her bridge to other cultures; now she wants to travel only for music. Earlier this year she visited Gambia and Senegal to experiment and make field recordings. What left the biggest impression were the hours spent sitting and talking: “I’d like to play with local artists not only cities but smaller towns and villages.”
She’s woven samples of African, Indian and Arabic chants and song into all her hard-hitting electronic tracks. When she was given a two hour slot on Polish radio, her interests naturally pushed her towards playing music from Zambia, Nepal, and beyond. “I had a lot of CDs and records at home. I was playing tracks with only 15 views on YouTube. I discovered and met a lot of artists that I wouldn’t have heard of had I not worked in radio. It was very inspiring,” she says. At a time when public radio and TV is under the control of a right-wing government that views immigrants and other cultures with suspicion, she is grateful she was given the freedom “to do and play anything”.
Should producers challenge their audiences? “That’s the whole point,’’ says Zamilska: whether its her expansive radio shows or her fiery sets, music is an act of rebellion. “It’s my job to make you confused, to ignite a flame, to silence,” she says. “I never want anyone to know where I’m going next.”