For our final podcast of 2013 – vinyl devotee, Hard Wax curator, part-time journalist, Macro co-boss, family man and a damn near impeccable selector, Finn Johannsen steps up.
Having been one of a select few at the helm of the Hard Wax institution since 2010, it comes as little surprise that they would turn to somebody such as the likes of Finn for the coveted position. Casting his net wide, Finn’s general philosophy when it comes to music echoes the sentiments – if you are no longer being stimulated by what you are hearing, then “look elsewhere, or look harder”. Though in his eyes a decidedly necessary standpoint for somebody that has been frequenting clubs since the 80s, Finn’s ability to keep his finger ahead of the pulse demonstrates a breadth of knowledge that shines through heavily both in his selections and writings.
A unique and highly refreshing figure, Finn turns in over two hours of fresh wax for us – with an extreme wealth of wisdom to back it up, take time with both facets of this episode, as there is much to take in.
So we come to you as 2013 draws to a close – as somebody that is so involved with new releases from far and wide through your position at Hard Wax, do you feel 2013 has been a good year for electronic music? Has your wide-ranging palette been mostly satisfied?
There was only one period where I was really bored with House and Techno, that was the mid 90’s. The wild creativity made way for bigger clubs and the according income boost possibilities, and innovations seemed to trickle in comparison to the years before. But then there were other styles emerging, especially in the UK, and as I dug deeper, I also found enough interesting music to keep me hooked. Which since then I had established as a rule for myself. If there is not enough happening in what you are used to, look elsewhere, or look harder. Since then I did not find any year in electronic music disappointing. I took home a lot of good new releases week in week out, year in year out. Discovering a lot of new names, new labels and lost or overlooked obscurities in the process. For me personally, there is still too much music released that tries to recreate something that has already been done, especially when you consider the fact that both the landmark originals and the according copycat records from the same period of time are easily accessible via second hand. But if I were 20 and just becoming aware of certain sounds, it would probably thrill me in the same way. And of course the overall interest in vintage blueprints brought a lot of interesting reissues as well, some of which I did not know before. But generally the amount of previously unreleased or longtime deleted material is not a particularly healthy sign for such a fast evolving culture like club music. And I could not help noticing that the producers and DJs moaning the most about retroesque phenomena were often a bit more seasoned, and also often the ones seemingly failing to deliver the same spark they felt was now lacking. If you have the feeling that things are developing for the worse, take a close look first at what you can do or actually do about it. In any case, what interests me most is what happens next.
In the Critic’s Round Table edition of RA’s Exchange in August, you state that personally, “surprises” when going out or listening to music are fewer and further between. Though you also state that this is to be the natural state of things when you have been engaged in both activities for as long as you have and those pioneering years have well and truly past.
We’re interested to know what some of these more recent surprises have been and what it takes to grab your attention when you have been steeped in this history and culture for such a significant period of time. And do these increasing lapses between ever cause you to lose some of your vigour for the scene?
I started collecting records in the mid 70’s, 6 years old, and sneaked my way into clubs in the early 80’s. And I still buy records and go out. So a certain degree of recurrences is just natural. Hype tends to move in circles. There are shoes I still like to wear that have been in and out of fashion so many times that I simply do not care anymore if they are fashionable or not, and the same applies to music or club nights. Music production is so standardized by software today that it is unlikely that someone comes up with a sound unheard of before, and using analogue gear does not guarantee an individual signature sound either. For some time now, a lot of interesting innovations in electronic music happen in the realm of recontextualization, deconstruction and interpretation of certain traditions. And if it is done with enough fresh ideas to add a new perspective, I do not mind that at all. I look out for artists who have their own sound. And I must add that in that aspect it does not matter if a producer able to do that is just surfacing or has been around for a longer time. I do not make a big difference between artists refining their own sound, or artists just establishing it. The main difficulty is trying to remain relevant, and I salute everybody trying and succeeding. Thus for example, I had the same pleasure with artists like Mark Pritchard, Soundstream, Pépé Bradock, Terrence Dixon, Kode9 or Terre Thaemlitz still doing their thing as it should be done, as with newer artists like Tapes, Call Super, DJ Richard, Gorgon Sound, Moon B, Aquarian Foundation or MGUN, who are just in the process of developing their own creative persona. There are many more fine examples for both camps, of course. For inconsiderate omissions, please consult what I charted and mixed in 2013.
You seem to have ties with the Sex Tags / Acido crews, having put in a few quality Trush mixes and always extolling their virtues either through posts on the internet or including their tracks in your sets. For us their “tripping” or even at times “psychedelic”, off-kilter, freewheeling style been a breath of fresh air over the last few years. What exactly are the dynamics of your relationship with Dynamo and the two Fett brothers – is it mainly through the Hard Wax association or does it run deeper?
I got to know Dreesen when we were both booked to play a very off key DiY beach party over on the coast of my hometown Kiel a decade ago. I guess we must have impressed each other with the records we played, as we were soon talking for a good deal of the rest of the night. Since then we kept in touch and I was one of the first journalists to review Acido releases. Maybe even the first. I liked every record Acido release a whole lot, so support on my behalf seemed obligatory. When I moved to Berlin twelve years ago I discovered on my regular visits to Hard Wax as a customer that its distribution did the same, as also with related labels like Atelier, General Elektro and Sued. For quite a while the output of this whole camp inexplicably flew under the radar, but it is gaining momentum now, and I am quite glad that I could help the cause.
When I started working at Hard Wax, their profile was still kind of low, but it was mutually agreed upon that it was only a matter of time, regardless of how long it would take. If you are convinced that something is good, you should not change your opinion just because not enough people share it. With the Mitterer brothers it was a bit different. They already had some cult status when I got to know them personally, and it was already building up rapidly. I thought their music was getting better and better, and as I was purchasing their stuff constantly, it of course kept popping up in what I do, be it as writer, DJ or as a part of Hard Wax. Of course there are ties to the store. All of the involved artists come by regularly, and you might also see me sharing the bill with them or just catch me attending when they play in town. They are all excellent DJs, too. Basically, I like what they do, and especially how they do it. They do not care much for what is happening around them, they just carry on regardless. I do not know many people so uninterested in social networking or media PR, or competition. And I do not say that from a Hard Wax perspective, which is not exactly known for much publicity either. I respect that they are their own network, exchange ideas and collaborations, remain fiercely independent, and all of it based on friendship and respect instead of strategical thinking in terms of marketing ploys. If you do your own thing, and it sounds this fresh and original, it will be noted. And Dreesen is also a genius physiotherapist. If he would ever be fed up with his career, he could easily establish a practice for the aching backs of vinyl DJs. I can confirm he helped mine impressively, and it was a severe case.As for the Trushmixes, Peter Mitterer asked me to contribute, and I wanted to justify all the 7“s I took home from the store. So we made a deal that I would only record mixes consisting entirely of Dub and Reggae. I would never try to challenge Mark Ernestus, CGB-1 or Hops in terms of knowledge or skills, but I’m happy that my ear for tunes seems to extend to that area, and people like what they hear.
You have touched upon strictly functional house music losing its spark, which must also be felt in DJ sets as well – the proper ‘club set’, consisting of straight house or techno can be seen as simply a function for the club environment, where no real boundary pushing or innovation is found. Similarly in this context, music built around the practicalities of club use are often the products of marketability. Is this a sentiment that you can relate to?
Certainly your sweeping DJ sets do well to push things in the opposite direction, though say in the case of a DJ Sprinkles set, which you have said to be a great admirer of, where she is playing almost exclusively his own records and nearly in their full entirety, the linearity found here isn’t so much a problem as each track is a non-linear trip in itself and is what is just so damn fascinating and alluring about her sets.
As for DJ Sprinkles, you already described it very accurately. The last time I heard her she played only her own productions, each at full length, with little mixing in between, only some effects and a quick segue, for three hours. Still it was the best House set I heard in ages, and I was locked on the floor the whole way through. Each track contained so many layers and events that I never missed all the records any other DJ would have thrown in the process, including myself. I consider that quite an achievement.
I do not strictly oppose the basic structures of club tracks, they of course exist for a reason. But I prefer music that just takes criteria like floor impact in a club context as foundation, and on top of it you create something else. Functionality on its own is not a fertile ground for ideas, which applies to both producing and DJing. It’s playing it safe. I like people who accept the possibility of failing spectacularly more than the ones who are content with getting away with repeating their little tried and tested selections and formulas again and again.I have a pretty busy schedule with work and family, thus I rarely tour or play several nights in a row. I also have a huge collection to choose from. So whenever I’m booked for a gig I try not to play the records that worked so well last time, I try to choose different records that might do as well. The main reason for that is that I get bored quite easily, but I also do not see much sense in sounding like some other time I played somewhere, or like a certain radio show or a podcast I published sometime. That should only serve as a reminder that you can be worth attending or listening to, but next time it might be different, but hopefully still worth it. I spent my formative years in clubs at a time when DJ sets were very varied both in terms of style and structure. Thus I find it deeply puzzling when I play the same night with DJs who are half my age and who stick to just one sound without any breaks or ups and downs, pure flow dictatorship, and all in all much more conservative musically than I ever was. That happens quite often with Deep House, which nowadays often lulls along cozily in moderate tempo, without any threat to an overall comfort, whereas I vividly remember it being played in a comparably more dynamic manner when I first heard it in a club. I understand that you might try to develop a certain signature sound for yourself, in order to be recognizable. But you leave out so many other sounds potentially worth your attention, you are forced to grab the next hype as soon as your other one fades, and how recognizable you really are if you try not to stand out too much is at least debatable. But thankfully I mostly play at nights that display a healthy attitude. The people asking me to play mostly know what I do, or can do, and I can play whatever I want. Which does not mean that I can get away with everything, but I can get away with more. I know that this is not the usual situation, but over the years I worked myself through my share of badly paid or poorly attended gigs to achieve that status, and now I rather not play than compromise. Thinking of it, building up my reputation was probably the most patient thing I ever did. And I’m very grateful that I could do it on my own terms. In many aspects, I am probably not a good role model for other DJs. But then I’m still doing it, which I certainly would not have predicted years ago. If it stops, I won’t be bitter either.
You have occupied a fairly important role at Hard Wax since 2010, managing and deciding in some cases what music the shop moves on and what it doesn’t – how does it feel to be a tastemaker of sorts for such a wide audience with the ability to influence indirectly what many DJs in Berlin and also around the world will play?
Nearly everything I do is involved with shedding some light on music I find interesting, and as a buyer for Hard Wax I can do that on a considerably high level. It is less direct than my work as a writer, DJ, radio show host or with the label, but it probably has the most impact. Which of course also means a lot of responsibility. Hard Wax is quite an institution, and its activities are watched and followed by many people, and you have to keep that in mind with every record you highlight for the store, or even every comment you write about it. I know that we can pave the way for artists and labels by our support, but you also have to decide how long that support is justified by quality. Often what you purchase for the store is as important as what you do not purchase, and there must be good reasons for both. Sure you can influence customers and DJs with your choices, but first you have to secure that their high expectations are met. I was a regular customer before, and I kind of got used to the reliable quality control. Now I know how much effort that takes. Then again, today it is quite easy to be informed about a new release. Often we get mails about a certain new record before we even took notice of it. So a lot of people coming into the store already know what they want, and proceed from there. I take no particular pride in people discovering and liking and subsequently buying records at the store they were previously unaware of. Every record store staff should make sure that happens all the time. Of course I’m happy when a record I decided to buy in large quantities sells out quickly, or when items I recommended pop up in playlists. I am the same as any customer when it comes to certain new releases, I still love the feeling of holding a record I was waiting for in my hands, the sooner the better. When I joined Hard Wax, I really underestimated how much work is necessary to keep it all going, but if you work with such splendid colleagues like I do, it does not really matter.
Believing that music should be shared and not kept secret is obviously essential for such a role though it seems you believe in this regardless, true? Do you have a few special tracks that you like to keep to yourself? Or are you in the fortunate enough position to always be discovering new and interesting music? I would like to hear your opinion on those who like to keep a tight-lid on their track selections, believing that this concealment can often add more (emotional) weight to a record as opposed to one that is easily and readily identifiable by the masses.
I had lots of discussions with fellow DJs over the years who could not understand why I was revealing certain records to the public. But I simply do not want my ego to be bigger than the records I like. I started out DJing on the Rare Soul circuit in the 80’s, where covering up the labels of your special items was commonplace. But that does only serve your status as a DJ, not the artists whose records you play. But if people do not know what you are playing, there is no benefit for the artist. I do not think a DJ should be more important than the music he or she plays. So you will not see me placing a record stabilizer to hide what’s on or refusing to tell anyone asking what I’m playing. I have a lot of special tracks, but I will not keep them to myself. I do not want to create hype for a certain record by not showing what it is. I think that is rather pretentious, and posing. I collect records long enough to have some very rare ones and I have this privileged position that I can get a hold of yet unreleased records, but I do play them because I think they are good. I do not like these stamp collector DJs. Get your self-esteem elsewhere.
As mentioned previously, you are also a very active writer in the electronic music community with quite a lot to say. Is maintaining the balance between DJ and journalist at times difficult? As in one sense you are very much a part of the community and contribute to the musical landscape directly via your DJ sets, whereas in the other you are still contributing though in a more reflective and in some instances, critical way. To our knowledge you no longer write reviews – could this in some way be viewed as the result of a conflict or overlap of these two differing roles?
Though one instance where they seem particularly complimentary is with RA’s Playing Favourites pieces which you contributed to regularly from about 2008-2010 and still do so on an intermittent basis. I imagine for somebody such as yourself these must be fairly enjoyable tasks to undertake.
Well, honestly I am not as prolific as a writer as I used to be, which I regret. But I have a small daughter, and she is not that compatible with all the deadlines involved with regular work as a journalist. And you really have to write a lot nowadays to make a decent living, which does not help. Before I started working at Hard Wax, the balance between running a label and journalistic work on the scale I was doing it was already delicate to maintain, to say the least. Now it is nearly impossible, especially with reviews. The music business is filled with people who cannot handle criticism, and if your work might even affect them on more levels than just writing, things tend to get ugly. For example, I wrote features in the recent past that discussed Disco edits, the Deep House revival and the limited edition business of vinyl labels. I am quite familiar with all three topics, and I did not fire away without consideration. I cannot complain about a lack of support for my points, but there was no lack of insults either. In fact, the subsequent heated debates in message boards, social networks, blogs and peer mail made me realize that discourse within media is really on an all-time low. It seems that it is either drowned in networking obligations or viral lynch mobs. And both need to be as hysterical, ill-informed and unobjective as possible.
Can you explain the underlying function of Macro, the label that you and Stefan Goldmann co-manage? To see two people whom admit to having very differing tastes in music, DJing styles and backgrounds, come together to create something such as a label, which is ultimately a democratic and unified process, is uncommon. It’s interesting to hear that the demos that you both cannot agree on for Macro, get pushed aside. Is there a reason that you are willing to give up on some of these “Finn-approved” records for the greater good of the label? Have you ever given thought to creating a separate label as perhaps an outlet for those records that mightn’t make the cut on Macro?
Macro actually is a perfectly unified and democratic process, exactly because we only release music that we both agree on. We had some demos we could not agree on that were released elsewhere and had quite some success. But we both decided that it is more important for us to put all our effort in music that we are both completely happy with, no second thoughts, and no regrets. This way we could build up a back catalogue that is both diverse and coherent at the same time. As different as the music on Macro may sound, it all connects and forms an overall picture. I really doubt we could have achieved that by putting out releases that were more in Stefan’s favour or mine. I may not understand why Stefan is not as enthusiastic about a certain track as I am, and vice versa. We are both strong individuals with strong opinions and we are indeed very different in a lot of aspects. But we do not feel obliged to release records per se. When we set up the label we decided to only release music if it fits perfectly, and we would rather not release anything if it did not, even if that would mean an indefinite period of inactivity. That this never happened so far may prove our point. There are a lot of labels in existence whose schedule is determined by doing someone a favour, or by trying to take to part in some development that is already happening, or about to happen. But hype is a very unreliable basis for running a label and club music history is littered with labels that thought otherwise.
Lastly, how is 2014 shaping up for yourself, Macro, Hard Wax and anything else that may fall within your purview?
2013 has been a really good year for everything I am in involved with, and for now I have no reason to worry that it may change too soon. Macro has some new recruits lined up, and you can hear two tracks of the first one to be released in the mix I recorded for you, by a very promising talent from New York by the name of L’estasi Dell’oro. Peter Kruder, Elektro Guzzi and Stefan Goldmann are in the studio working on new releases and as we never plan too much way ahead with the label, there will be other things happening that we do not even have in mind yet. If I take a look on the distributor mail-outs, I am already looking forward to quite a few releases in early 2014, and Hard Wax distribution will be part of it, if you take the Kassem Mosse track I included in the mix as a fine example.