Checkmate! 909originals chats to Karpov Not Kasparov about their unique blend of chess-influenced electronica

Following the success of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, chess is back in fashion – eBay recently reported a more than 200% increase in the sale of chess sets and accessories since the show was broadcast last October.

But for electronic duo Karpov Not Kasparov, the world of pawns, kings and queens has been part of their musical development since they were formed in Bucharest in 2009. The group’s 2015 album, Soundtrack For A Game Of Chess, earned an ‘album of the month’ honour from Vice Magazine, and blended oriental psychedelia, classical melodies and pumping electro beats, with track titles such as Mysterious Rook Moves, Bad Bishop and Mechanical Turk, named after a legendary chess-playing robot of the 18th century (later revealed to be an elaborate hoax).

Karpov Not Kasparov, aka Valeriu Borcos and Eduard Gabia, have just released a new single on Moscoman’s Disco Halal label, Memory, which is backed by a remix by Damian Lazarus. You can purchase/stream it here.

909originals caught up with them.

Hi guys, thanks for chatting to us. Marcel Duchamp once remarked that “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” In your case, which came first – the music or the chess?

Actually, they came at the same time. When we started doing music, we used to bring sounds, one by one, into the mix, similar to the way chess pieces are moved on the board. One player advanced a kick-drum, the other responded with a bass line. A hi-hat would be followed by an arpeggio, the snare by a melodic solo and so on. This exercise made us practice both chess and music.
Later we learned someone did this before us, and much more stylish than we did it. Art and chess lovers should have seen Duchamp playing chess with John Cage. They were making weird sounds as pieces were moved around the board. Underneath each square there were these photoelectric cells connected to a central sound unit.
Anyway, Duchamp is a huge inspiration for everything artistic and chess related. We are working on a track called Rectified Readymade named after one of his works.
As well as chess, there are plenty of other influences there, synth-pop, Oriental rhythms, film soundtracks, classical music. How do you define the Karpov Not Kasparov sound’?
The sound of ‘black and white’ magic.
Your music combines lots of styles, but underpinning it is an analogue, almost 1980s-esque sensibility – what is your approach when making music? What is your go-to studio equipment?
An inexpensive old Korg. Once, before starting a long tour, we took it to the official repair shop and they said ‘sorry but this belongs in the museum – they stopped making replacement parts for it 15 years ago’. Apart from that, the acoustic drums give our sound the special energy. 
Your latest release is on the Disco Halal label. Do you think that’s a good fit for your type of sound?
Definitely. Moscoman was involved in the first remix done for our track Mechanical Turk, back in 2014, so it’s an old relationship that now becomes even more productive.
Is a new album on the way? When can we expect that, and will you be continuing the same theme as on Soundtrack for a Game of Chess?
Yes, we’re preparing a Soundtrack for Another Game of Chess. The EP is coming out June 18th. Probably a full LP early 2021.

I guess we will always produce this type of ‘programme music’ in which the extra-narrative springs from the chess related universe. All our tracks are about chess personalities, legends, strategies etc.

We enjoyed the livestream performance you did for Waves Festival Vienna last year – you must be looking forward to getting back on the road? How would you describe the Karpov not Kasparov live ‘experience’?
We can’t wait to get back on the road. Fully vaccinated and ready to party!

We have several kinds of live shows, it depends on the type of venue and event, but usually we like to think about it as a musical game of chess between drums and synths. In case you wonder who wins, it’s the audience, of course.

[Thanks to Karpov Not Kasparov for chatting to us. You can purchase/stream Memories by clicking here]

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