The story of Rinzen begins with a peculiar art installation.
Rinzen, whose real name is Michael Sundius, was visiting Barcelona’s Modern Art Museum when he stumbled upon Antoni Tàpies’ Rinzen, a striking piece that combines humble objects with pictorial and sculptural elements.
“Rinzen means ‘a moment of sudden awakening’ in Japanese,” Sundius tells EDM.com. “I’m half Japanese so the name and meaning really spoke to me.” Manifesting the artwork’s intention to spark meditation and inner vision, Sundius adopted Rinzen as the moniker for his musical alias, aiming to create “cinematic, cerebral, melodic house and techno.”
Music production wasn’t Sundius’ first foray into the world of electronic music though. He spent over five years at Dancing Astronaut as a senior editor and six years at Billboard as a freelance contributor, crafting features, coordinating premieres, interviewing artists, and reviewing events.
“I was a student in college falling in love with electronic music and music journalism was a way to be a part of the scene,” he shared. “I loved it so much, I wanted to write about these artists, go to shows, and just talk to artists. For me, music journalism was the avenue to do all that.”
Commenting on the trajectory of his musical career, Sundius said, “For a while, I was a full-time journalist making music on the side. Eventually, those two things flipped, and I became a full-time music producer who was writing on the side. I still have so much love and respect for the whole craft of music journalism.”
The flip didn’t happen overnight. To take his music to the next level, Sundius enrolled in a music production program at Icon Collective, the Los Angeles electronic music school famed for its industry-leading alumni like Jauz, NGHTMRE, and Slander.
“I was enjoying what I was doing but just had the sense that it wasn’t my highest calling. I knew I wanted to be on the other side, the one being interviewed, the one having release campaigns,“ Sundius explained. “I just decided to take a leap, go to Icon, give it my all, and see what happens.”
The leap paid off. It was Icon Collective alumni and mau5trap mainstay BlackGummy who helped Sundius sign his first single—and notably the first demo he ever shared—“Renegade” to mau5trap, deadmau5’ influential label revered for giving a start to now-famous artists like Skrillex and REZZ.
“I grew up as a big fan of deadmau5 and mau5trap has a history of breaking new artists,” Sundius said of his desire to sign with mau5trap. “Fortunately, I was friends with Blackgummy and his team. They were able to pass along a song of mine, mau5trap ended up signing it, and in the years that followed, I got to release a ton of music with them and embed myself in the label.”
Over the following years with mau5trap, Sundius signed three EPs plus a handful of singles and remixes, received BBC Radio 1 airplay, and performed opening sets on numerous occasions for deadmau5. “I’m still just super grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to release music with them,” he said.
Outside of mau5trap, Sundius has released tracks on several leading house and techno labels with strong communities and trailblazing sounds, like Lane 8’s This Never Happened, Sasha’s Last Night On Earth, and John Digweed’s Bedrock.
Dissecting the sound of Rinzen
Sundius’ very first single “Renegade” set the stage for the Rinzen sound: ominous, mysterious, driving techno. Think orchestral sound design fused with industrial analog flair, or as deadmau5 put it, “Hans Zimmer meets techno.”
But his first EP, Forbidden City—released in late 2017 on mau5trap—established the central element of Rinzen: conceptual, world-building music.
Forbidden City was based on the idea of stumbling upon a sacred city shrouded in awe, reverence and fear. The record is a reflection of Sundius’ visit to Kyoto, Japan, where he stumbled upon an eerie temple that felt sacred and forbidden, yet enticing. You can see the concept in the EP’s artwork, which features hazy floating temples with narrow drawbridges. And you can feel the concept through the carefully chosen track titles: “Forbidden City,” “Belly of the Beast,” and “Triumph of the Human Spirit,” which encapsulate the journey of uncovering a mythical land. And, of course, you can hear it through the music with Sundius employing moody melodies, menacing synths, and dramatic basslines to create the musical world of a forbidden city.
Exoplanet, Rinzen’s second concept EP, was “a journey through the cosmos: an exploration into worlds beyond our own.” Drawing inspiration from NASA’s discovery of seven Earth-like planets orbiting a nearby star, Sundius became obsessed with the idea of what it would be like to visit one of these planets for the first time, designing his own solar system and writing out the physical properties of its planets to fully immerse himself in the concept for the EP. Powered largely by experimentation with Sundius’ newly acquired Moog synthesizer, Exoplanet deviated from the overarching orchestral sound design present in Forbidden City.
Sundius’ ambition to build concepts and worlds around his music comes from “a deep interest outside of music in two other mediums, film and literature.”
“I love when you see a movie and it has this expansive, immersive universe, like Blade Runner or Star Wars, and you get lost in that concept,” he gushed. “The director has created this whole universe for you to live in for a while and I love that idea for music as well. You can live in a song, EP or album for an extended amount of time. That’s my favorite type of art.”
Having majored in English at the University of California, Berkeley, it’s no surprise Sundius has a passion for literature, with American writer Joseph Campbell’s concept of “The Hero’s Journey” serving as his main literary inspiration.
“The Hero’s Journey” is an overarching narrative structure running through heroic stories, spanning time and cultures. From modern, Western movies like The Lion King to ancient, Eastern myths like “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” all heroic tales follow “The Hero’s Journey” of three stages: Departure (the hero embarks on a dangerous quest), Trial (the hero faces intense trials and tribulations), and Return (the hero returns home upon achieving victory in their quest).
Though Sundius’ EPs embody “The Hero’s Journey”—through discovering forbidden cities and exploring strange planets—his career is a natural reflection of it as well.
“’The Hero’s Journey’ starts with the ‘call to adventure.’ You’re living your life and you get this call to pursue a greater calling and you take that leap,” Sundius explained. “The whole beginning of my career was taking the leap: deciding I want to be an artist and pursuing it.”
The trials of a rising artist
Now, Sundius has progressed from the call to adventure and finds himself “in the belly of the beast, the trial phase, where you have to prove yourself and work really hard for many years just to make it out of the belly of the beast,” he said. “At times, that comes with overwhelm and stress. But, also, a new sense of self-worth, proving to yourself and those around you that you can do this and be more than what you previously thought. So I feel like I’m very much in that phase and loving it.”
Writing music, like any other creative pursuit, is marred by imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and bouts of demotivation. Sundius experienced the downside when he almost failed to deliver an official remix for Lane 8. Thankfully, fortuitous melodic inspiration saved the day.
When you’re in the belly of the beast as a musician, putting out unique music is only one side of the coin. Playing live shows and stirring crowds is the flip-side. Live performances as a rising artist pose a specific set of challenges—one Sundius wholeheartedly embraces.
While playing Electric Forest is a milestone for Rinzen, having to perform your first festival at the very start of the day—during heat so intense that the few people present on the dancefloor are seeking shade—can be daunting. But Sundius persevered.
At Creamfields, Sundius played at the same time as three of the festival’s biggest headliners: Calvin Harris, The Chemical Brothers, and Bicep. Naturally, the turnout for his set was dismal and discouraging, but Sundius made an active effort to focus on the good.
A common theme you’ll see in Rinzen’s social media posts is candid, unfiltered gratitude. It can be finding the light in disappointing crowd turnouts, or it can be cherishing the first weekend he played three consecutive shows in three nights, which many popular DJs may consider an average weekend.
But apart from the captions, you’ll see Sundius consistently replying to the majority of comments he receives from his 10,000-plus followers on Instagram.
“I feel grateful as hell for anyone that follows or is aware of my project,” he affirmed. “If they’re going to put some energy into sending me a nice message or leaving me a nice comment, I feel obligated to send energy back of gratitude and show them I’m thankful for them. I think it’s important to constantly be acting from a place of gratitude and thank people because ultimately they’re giving you their time and energy, and that’s an incredible thing.”
Makings of a Rinzen live show
Four-and-a-half years into launching the Rinzen project, Sundius has under his belt performances at famed venues like London’s Printworks, Madrid’s Fabrik and New York’s Avant Gardner, plus renowned festivals like Ultra Music Festival and Electric Daisy Carnival.
Each Rinzen set is unique and catered to fit the venue, crowd, and show at large. Listen to his set at Printworks and you’ll be treated to a careful selection of moody, atmospheric techno from the likes of Tale Of Us and Recondite, fit for the printing press-turned striking live performance venue. On the other hand, his set at Cityfox Regenerate earlier this summer at Avant Gardner fires on all cylinders with dark, pulsating cuts from Matt Lange, Maksim Dark, and Cirez D, perfect for a late-night celebration of techno in a Brooklyn warehouse.
Recently, Sundius performed at his first festival in over a year at New York’s Electric Zoo. His approach to the performance at Electric Zoo epitomizes how his live shows range from orchestral and atmospheric to swift and relentless.
“To be honest, it was my first time playing at Electric Zoo and I wasn’t quite sure how to prepare,” Sundius described of his mindset going into the set. “I didn’t know what the audience would be like or what people were expecting. So I came in with no plan at all, basically just wanted to play spontaneously and figure it out on the fly. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t.”
However, before taking the decks, Sundius did some groundwork. “I spent the hour before my set on the dancefloor, feeling it out and seeing what the vibe was. Once I got up there, I knew I needed to play a little bit heavier than I initially thought,” he continued. “The person I was playing after, Sita Abellán, was playing really heavy. I always take into consideration what people were just listening to and what they’ll listen to after me. Sita was playing 137 BPM! So, I knew I couldn’t start too slow or too light because the contrast would be too much.”
Playing outdoors on a bright Saturday afternoon, however, Sundius knew there was more to consider. “Since it’s still daytime, I still want my set to be melodic,” he explained. “I still want there to be moments where you’re just dancing with your friends in the sun, enjoying being outside. So it was striking that balance.”
Weaving in melodic anthems like Patrice Bäumel’s unreleased remix of Lana Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time” with club-cut monsters like Maceo Plex’s “Conjure Sex,” Sundius made his mark at Electric Zoo.
The road ahead
With live music making a sweeping return after the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sundius finds himself heading down a specific musical direction.
“I’m playing for live audiences again inside nightclubs and festivals, experiencing the energy of the world reopening,” he said. “All of that makes me want to write heavier music. During quarantine, it felt very natural to write deeper, more melodic, slower music, just because I was sitting alone in a room and so was everyone else. But now I’m feeding off the energy of performance again.”
His latest release, Photon—a collaborative two-track EP with melodic house maven Enamour on Sasha’s Last Night On Earth record label—is a perfect example of this shift. The titular track features spread-out staccato melodies centered around a striking bassline while “Miracle of the Sun” focuses on tribal grooves.
Although Sundius has a string of stateside shows to see out 2021, plus an arsenal of unreleased music, he’s still in the belly of the beast. “This is what I’m meant to be doing, it’s right where I’m supposed to be,” he declared. The story of Rinzen holds untold chapters, and we’ll be watching it unfold.